Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1967

Monday, February 23, 2015

10 Reasons DREAMCATCHER (2003)


Whenever it gets super snowy and chilly as it has recently I think of DREAMCATCHER, the unreasonably maligned gonzo sci fi disaster-masterpiece from the minds of Stephen King, William 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' Goldman and Lawrence 'Big Chill' Kasdan. Sure it's not great, maybe it's not even very good, but it's got a gonzo self-determination that transcends so many traditional horror and science fiction annoyances I can forgive it near about anything. Right now for example I'm watching half-watching THE GIVER, a hungerer after the teen dystopia market that may as well have been written by a computer. I wanted to see it to continue my teen dystopia thread from a few months ago and see what kind of magic Jeff Bridges could whip up, but it was so glaringly simplistic I felt cheap just for having it on. And so I exhumed this piece from my drafts folder instead, for there's no doubt that DREAMCATCHER is written by humans.... who freely aim not for the teens, or the adults, not the elderly but... ex-stoners in the middle of their fourth midlife crises? Wherever and why ever, I salute its far out gonzo glory. It may miss the ball a few times, but at least its swinging for the parking lot instead of the LCD dugout.


1. ESP altruism as children - The boys get their talents by first rescuing the 'special needs' human Duddy, and then using his and their powers to locate a missing girl. The dreamcatcher is visualized as a web that connects them and each develops a psychic special power - and remain connected by the threads of their psychic energy, which gives them a collective courage. I felt my heart soar when the littlest kid picks up a rock and says hell yeah I want to fight, even if the the guys way bigger than all of them torturing poor Duddy behind the woodshed. He picks up two rocks and is ready to go down swinging because he's sickened by the sight of their sadism and how it reflects on these guys - they even say no doubt the fastest one in their group is going to run home and tell his gossipy mom. No hesitation about ratting them out, never considering making it a playground thing rather than a genuine offense. I subscribe to the adage in Over the Edge that a kid who tells on another a kid is a dead kid, but assault of big on small kids is a different matter entirely.

Most these sorts of film, the Stand by Me and so forth are totally about growing up "normal" oddball kids, the one fat dork, the thin little nerd who be good on computers, the older hunk with a drunk single dad, the token black kid with no real personality other than being black, etc. - but these four dudes who we see in flashbacks to their formative elementary collective ESP Dead Zone moments, are a believable group of friends, genuine badasses who give each other extra strength, and they stick up for the little guy, even if they're even littler. This one little kid just picks up a rock to even things out, and is totally ready to jump in and fight guys twice his size. It's how sticking up for someone else can give you lion courage unavailable for ordinary self-defense, and it's world's away from most of the rote bullying we see in childhood movies. These scenes of childhood aren't rushed or slowed, not given DP-craftsmanship autumnal glows, et al. they don't need that shit because they're legitimately well done. I don't mind if the film is exploring very familiar Stephen King territory (the ESP or psychokinesis of The Shining, Carrie, FirestarterThe Dead Zone etc.), Howard Hawks did the same thing! Keep riffing on what works, keep exploring but using what you know how to do as a base.


2. Donnie Wahlberg as The magical mentally challenged-psychically savant Duddy - Unlike so many magic mentally challenged kids, this one is never seen as somehow backwards so much as 'sidewards,' i.e. once you 'speak' his language you realize he's a genius. And I know how these kids can trigger psychic awakenings because one happened to me with this kid, Victor. Learning how he thought, what he was trying to say, while I was still way out on a psychedelic acid awakening. I got what he was trying to say and he got all excited because most strangers couldn't understand his garbled syntaxes, but I could in my state. I would delight him by acting all normal and straight when other people were around but when it was just us too I'd play music and dance on the couch like a five year-old maniac. He'd be in paroxysms of happiness, and in return he cast some weird mystic spell on me - where I knew as long as I avoided negative thoughts and my first thought each morning was positive I would exist in this state of transcendent gratitude. Plus, Donnie W. really disappears into the role giving Duddy a comprehensiveness as a character that's worlds away from "Gotta watch Wopner" or "Life's a box of chocolates."


3. Gonzo goofball Resolve - the whole thing with Lewis inside his inner filing room shouting out the window as the alien who possessed him sets about eating people - some people might call that a way too literalistic drawback but I say hey, this film is going for distance (1), and it doesn't care if you think it's dumb. A lot of horror movies work better in an audience, but I can imagine seeing Dreamcatcher with the wrong crowd being a pretty miserable experience as all the exasperated sighs and confusion take hold. But without critics in the room, and no cash or drive time outlay, it's weirdness can stretch its legs.

4. Starts in the middle of a covert alien war, sparing us all the doubt on the part of the military's willingness to accept what's going on. And I dig the alien invasion in the snow motif, which recalls Hitler's big Battle of the Bulge campaign, i.e. wait until it's super snowy to catch them all unawares.


5. It's like reading a real Stephen King novel:  With twists and turns and each character doing their thing, and encountering a military presence in the midst of another skirmish, lots of snow and New England charm, all very Kingly. And rather than constant crosscutting it plays little mini-chapters between characters. It takes it's time and spreads itself over two hours and fifteen minutes, which since it's on streaming is just fine as it can be watched like a Stephen King novel... in chunks where you occasionally put it down, but it keeps you reading because you have no idea where it's going except deep into the blood-strewn snow of King's New England. Like most of his fiction it might be a little overdone and not have a strong ending, but more than any of his other filmed works, DREAMCATCHER really captures the internal monologue conversations, pop culture situated references, prosaic four letter New England cut-the-crap-itude, and pressure cooker fear generators so intrinsic to his enduring popularity.


6. The aliens can do just about anything and look like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors on crystal meth when they're not in The Thing x Invasion of the Body Snatchers disguise. Plus they are not without a self-aware sense of humor: they can come right up your ass or down your throat like a combination tape worm / moray eel / ALIEN face hugger, and plant not just one little monster egg, but a writhing legion.

7. Lawrence Kasdan bringing wily, witty profane 'Big Chill'-ish dialogue and black humor to a zippy script. 

8. Duddy's mom: Rosemary Dunsmore creates a nice aura of loving gravity and courage around her son in her one big scene. Knowing her son is dying and that he might die by the end of the weekend, but she's aware that he's called upon in service of something higher even if she can't quite understand what that is."Okay, go save the world," she says as they mount their stolen military black Humvee. How rare is it that a mom can be so chill about sending her critically ill mentally challenged son off into the freezing cold to battle some abstract alien menace on what will certainly be a one way trip? Kasdan and King are fans of horror and know just when to have characters step up to the Hawksian heroics plate even if it flies in the face of Hollywood's treasured 'logic of the heart' and all its tedious inside-the-box moral inevitability. Mrs. Duddy knows this is a boy's movie, so don't bother trying for a BSAO, stand the fuck back and let the kids play through. It's the most heroic gesture in a movie full of them.

9. The great cast also includes: Jason MALLRATS Lee; Timothy THE CRAZIES Olyphant, Thomas "I just want my kids back" Jane; Donnie SIXTH SENSE Wahlberg; Damian HOMELAND Lewis; Tom THE RELIC Sizemore and frickin....

10. the Zu Warrior eyebrows of Morgan "Passin' Water" FreemanThere's usually a sense that either the military is good or bad depending on the political orientation of a film but here they are both good and bad and the natural likable gravitas of Morgan Freeman is cast against type as a man who's been dealing with these aliens for the last 25 years and is thinking globally to the detriment of the infected locals, all of whom he wants to kill off to be sure the disease doesn't spread. A less draconian superior is called in and so there's two military factions one good and one dubious, or too harsh for most. There's a great moment when the aliens are acting all childlike and innocent and Freeman's like doooon't trust them. He might be wrong but he's so very right, just like DREAMCATCHER itself!

Last but not least is the groovy snow blanket creating just the right mood of preternatural stillness and you have a flawed gonzo classic I enjoy a lot more than the critically acclaimed 'kids together experiencing weird small town events' King adaptations like STAND BY ME. It's got the loopy flashback-laden middle-of-the-action, slow built-to-nowhere structure of one of King's novels, weird and wondrous cast and a plot that, like other 'Ten Reason' entries THE THING (2011), GHOSTS OF MARS (2000), and DOOMSDAY (2008) ping-pong pinballs past so many classic genre film bumpers it becomes a whole new kind of beast/s


NOTES: 
1. "Going for Distance":  a common drunken Syracuse treehouse expression from 1987-91, i.e. to puke as far away from oneself as possible, while standing, head held high, rather than bent over a toilet like some common scrubwoman - but then also extending to mean not holding back in genral, burning up all your stashes and telling your old lady to go home and go to bed because you're staying up all night, all the next day, and forever, until -'poof' magically you wake up on some floor or couch somewhere. An example of going for distance might be Lennon and Nilsson's "Lost Weekend" 

Monday, February 16, 2015

William Powell's Retrograde Psychedelic Amnesia: CROSSROADS, I LOVE YOU AGAIN


Amnesia is always a great topic for the movies, furnishing a built-in self-reflexivity vis-à-vis the movie watching experience itself. We all start any movie an amnesiac (unless it's a sequel or based on a book we've read), instinctively sizing up clues as to what's what and who's where and why when. As far as narrative identity, we start the film lacking the whole backstory of each character, and we could wind up identifying with, rooting for, or against, nearly anyone until finally the good and bad pieces sort themselves out. In two very different and worthwhile amnesia movies, the comedy I LOVE YOU AGAIN (1940) and the noir mystery CROSSROADS (1942), William Powell plays an amnesiac bounder who suffered a radical personality change when was hit on the head, ten or so years before the film begins, and its left him a staid stalwart and sober citizen, the opposite of our beloved rogue Nick Charles. In LOVE, he receives a second bump on the head and returns to his past bounder self; in CROSSROADS, the bounder self awakens to find him. Either way, if split-self compartmentalization be the music of a sober AA paragon constantly re-telling tales of his wild and drunken past, split on.

I LOVE YOU AGAIN was the big break that launched the Powell amnesiac trend, a rollicking comedy that Powell aces in a complicated leading role opposite his perfect cinematic mate, Myrna Loy. The drab wartime fashions and broad gray palette the indicate that comedy, not art direction is the order of the day. CROSSROADS, on the other hand, is a Hitchcock by way of Sirk noir melodrama, all long Siodmak midnight blacks and murky Parisian novel plotting. In film, William Powell's conk on the head-amnesia brings an initial run of sobriety and loyal decency - and getting hit on the head again might mean a reversion to his criminal side. To give away more would spoil them, spoil the post-modern amnesiac cinema frisson, but just know that in LOVE he starts out as Larry Wilson, a small town tea-totaling bore on a cruise who gets conked on the head diving overboard to rescue a drunk Frank McHugh. When Larry wakes from his conk in his stateroom, it's not as old staid Larry but his original self, George Carey, a charming, quick-thinking grifter much more like the William Powell we love. Realizing his interim self, Larry, about whom he remembers nothing, might be rich, this George Carey--with eyes alight and body careening around the stateroom--makes plans to loot his bank account, assisted by Frank McHugh, who turns out to be a fellow con man and immediately has the good sense to latch on for the ride.

pre-conk - '85
Post-"conk" - '86

I love this early scene because Powell plays it like I used to feel during those early sophomore year psychedelic trips, wherein all my old worries and dull habits were wiped away (see my Larry self, at senior prom, left) with a single psychedelic 'blow' and I was alive to the joy that lay beyond all fear, pacing my dorm room like it was a new dawn, my old self a thing of the past, an old husk of a cocoon. It felt like the dawn of a new rising sun, regardless of the actual hour. Hendrix blaring, and a hitherto unknown part of myself emerging like a paisley butterfly from my cracked-open forehead, me terrifying the flaky joneser slowly drinking all my beer over in the corner on my groundscored couch; I even walked out of my dorm and left the building, with my door unlocked and wide open, music still playing on my turntable, all lights on in the dead of night, so free was I of all concern. Naturally, I wasn't robbed. I couldn't be harmed as long as I was so aligned with the Tao, though of course it lasted only a few weeks before the old Larry self came creeping back; I had forgotten all about those times, that total instant post-conk transformation, until I saw Powell exhibit that same aliveness in his turn from Larry the sober cheapskate to George, the fun drunk con artist.


Returning to Larry's home town, McHugh posing as Larry's doctor to explain why "Larry" must have lots of rest and be excused if he acts peculiarly, as in not recognizing Myrna Loy waving at him when he gets off the train. "He must have lots of alcohol!" Larry's ten years of sobriety he doesn't remember as Carey was surely good for his liver. Now he can get back to processing THIN MAN-level toxins. But will George's attraction to Loy get in the way of this noble plundering and deep elbow-bending? It's pretty funny when he meets her on the dock and can't tell who she is, the wife, girlfriend, random stranger, or does she just thinks he's hot, the way Kay Francis did in ONE WAY PASSAGE? It turns out she's in the process of divorcing him because his old self was so sexually inhibited and boring. She's unaware he's now this other character from before they were married. George is everything Larry wasn't, but he can't tell her he changed lest she wise up and deny him Larry's riches. Can he meld the two and become a less chicanerous but not boring whole self? Can he, in short, drink moderately?


In the end, if he's a much closer approximation to his savvy souse of the THIN MAN movies than a noble bore, he's the very man for her. But let's face it, having such a drunken rogue as a husband requires indulgence, tolerance, and her own level of booziness to not get mighty fed up. Once can only imagine what the nights are like when there's no murder to solve. If Nick's hollow leg is anything like mine, you can drink anyone under the table and still pass for sober when needed, but for just so many years and then - booom! You're done. Once that hollow leg is just filled it can never be emptied.

I Love You Again (1941)
It's interesting too because they're both getting older, so Loy's no-longer-patient wife is less able to embody those tolerance tropes. And you can tell their rapport is strained because they have such affection for each other as actors it hurts to see them hurt themselves hurting each other. It hurts her to be mean to him, to force him to re-examine his notion of himself as an adorable souse. Drinking men Loy's age slide into sobriety, moderation, or an alcoholic ward with Bim and his little turkeys in straw hats. They seldom get a second chance to detox their liver for ten years before they, as we say in AA, turn from cucumber to pickle, and there's no way to turn a pickle back into a cucumber. For an actress whose been granted-- or perhaps burdened--with excessive MGM-brand dignity to make her romance with either version of Powell believable, Loy's had to mellow, and so they seem like Nick and Nora Charles if Nick joined AA and got super boring and preachy for ten years and Nora was so sick of how unfun-Bobby he'd become she filed for divorce and started dating the local Bellamy, but when Nick relapses she loves him again and hence the title! His co-dependent stammering and soft-shoeing and trying to get her drunk make a weak wooing combo, but it all starts to work, as the magic of booze always does, until it finally doesn't, and takes off its loving mask to reveal the cold sadistic demon beneath. But who can't forgive a little torture when even if just for a moment the true bliss?

Love Crazy (same year; same dress? tries too hard)
This movie is awesome so it begs the question, why haven't I seen it sooner? I've drunk more bourbon watching THIN MAN than most people drink in their entire lifetime. But I got I LOVE YOU AGAIN confused with the far lamer LOVE CRAZY, another Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy of remarriage, which I watched back before I had read Stanley Cavell and knew what to look for and so disliked it, and still haven't been able to get into DOUBLE WEDDING, which I was so bummed out by LOVE CRAZY, I got confused and thought all non-THIN MAN Loy-Powells were as wartime watered-down as Garbo's TWO-FACED WOMAN (also 1941). I shouldn't have been so brittle, I could have been drinking to so much more! Shrooming, too. For LOVE YOU AGAIN's giddy stateroom awakening from stale Larry to foxy George is as about as succinct an encapsulation of dorm-at-dawn sophomore year peaking as I've seen in some time.

There's a bouncy script  and some great bits that just fly by: Frank McHugh staggering around the ship bar in the opening scene shortly before falling overboard, a patron at the bar notes McHugh appears intoxicated. "wha'd he say?" asks Frank McHugh -- "intoxicated," the bartender's drunk himself so it sounds like "he toxicated." "He did that?" McHugh asks appalled--- and you realize he heard 'he toxicated' which sounds brazenly gaseous. There's also some snazzy rousting of Herbert (Donald Douglas) Loy's dimwit new boyfriend  (i.e. 'the Bellamy') while she and Larry are in the midst of divorcing, and man, what good, dirty writers could do with the old trope about 'coming upstairs to look at my snapshots' or in this case, taxidermy ("I'll never stuff another squirrel as long as I live!") In some ways it's like the screwball version of BIGGER THAN LIFE!!

But the THIN MAN chemistry is like a faded rose on these two characters, and that adds a vibe of sadness --we've come to rely on Nick and Nora's sophisticated co-dependent chemistry to invigorate our ever-threatened conceptions of marriage. We loved how Nora would pretend to be sore at him for his constant drinking, how relieved we were in she smiled that wry pixie nose wrinkle half-smile to indicate she was just as pro-alcohol as he after prepping us for one of those drab buzzkill wife sermons so common to lesser romantic mysteries (such as in RKO's attempt at the THIN MAN formula, STAR OF MIDNIGHT --see "Without a Slur"). So it breaks our heart in this non-THIN coupling to see how that pixie glimmer has gone from her eyes. Alcohol is the spinach for this marriage's Popeye, and its absence has left their love near dead from iron deficiency, so it becomes intrinsic to George to inflate the old give-and-take back to life, to avoid being bumped on the head again, certainly, and most of all to strike it rich with a phony oil deal and to convince Myrna he's changed permanently before enough Larry creeps back he starts gets all small town noble.

But first many areas of small town life are milked for comedic goofiness, including a Boy Scouts award ceremony and a department store razzing (for his past Jack Benny-level cheapness). It's a firm reminder we did the right thing by moving out of the suburbs, how glad we are to be in a place where no one ever knows our name and an American is judged not on the color of his Elks Club tie or his ability to sublimate sexual desire into tiresome Norman Rockwell community-building, but on his wit, virility, and in-the-moment alacrity.


In LOVE, Powell the grifter wakes up from a nine year coma of being Powell the staid bore; in CROSSROADS (1942) that same (slightly cooler) bore's a diplomat in Paris who woke up with amnesia after a bad boat accident ten years earlier, and so can't account for much of his grifter gangster past -- but he's been his new self long enough he's married a gorgeous European gal (Hedy Lamar, never prettier), and become a trusted success. A letter arrives requesting money owed by his old shady self, a self he has no memory of, and the intrigue begins. Just as each personality didn't know anything about the life of the other in I LOVE YOU AGAIN, here we have the grifter emerge only in the court depositions of the old molls and jakes who come out of the woodwork to be cross-examined in what may be the coolest most intelligently written court scene ever (Parisian, naturellement). By jove, there's none of the excess legal jargon that clouds the pens of lesser hacks. Claire Trevor is the savvy showgirl grifter shadow to Lamar's playful Grace Kelly-esque younger wife; then there's Basil Rathbone leading nose-first into the proceedings, leaving us to wonder if blackmail's just another word for you owe me money but you don't remember. How convenient.


Right off the bat, CROSSROADS lets us know we're in strange country: a brazen student at his witty lecture seduces David (Powell) in a car it later turns out to be his wife, a fun jest that casts a weird glow over the rest of the film, like he could be playing the same game on the audience and his friends from the get-go, and a lawyer here is even smart enough to ask how long an actor might stay in character before he officially becomes that character, as in common law marriage or naturalization. At an hour or less (ala Lamar's ruse) it's just sparkling play amongst sophisticated people; at over an hour its theatrical acting; at over a month it's dissociative identity disorder (DID); at over five years it's retrograde amnesia. Longer than that, it's who the person really is; now the old, original self is the act.

Helping matters is the out-of-time feel of the figures from David's past (when he was Jean Pelletier). Lamar seems modern like a Velvet Underground version of Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW but the mysterious woman claiming to be Jean's old flame (Claire Trevor -left), wears her hair piled high like she just drifted in from the 19th century; and in her shadows lurks the aquiline silhouette of mighty Rathbone, stalwart heavy of Victorian mellers. The wet soundstage impression of a noir Paris muddies and blurs (maybe its TCM's print) like ink gouache across a....oh, man, but Heidi's pretty.

Also showing up is Sig Ruman as a bad doctor, Frank Bressart as a good one, and there's lots of great navigating the language and class barriers and Babel towers, like a blind man feeling for the bathroom in the dead of night. The script is maturely engaging and thought provoking without needing to rely on cheap thrills, soap or sentiment. David regularly makes smart decisions we normally don't see his brand of noir protagonist make.

The mature noir chain to LOVE YOU's bouncy Runyon pendant, CROSSROADS might not be as lively but it's got its own weird midnight beauty and might have my favorite Lamar performance. And to think I avoided both films for years because I got them mixed up with DOUBLE WEDDING and LOVE CRAZY, both of which I saw and was gravely underwhelmed by.

Hey, it's not my fault, it's the dumb titles and similar plots. Without the THIN MAN structure, the chemistry of Loy and Powell often overflowed and swamped lesser vehicles, especially if dragged under by frilly post-code censorship and daftly interchangeable, meaningless titles. LOVE CRAZY was made after I LOVE YOU AGAIN, with a similar comedic plot (acting insane to prevent a divorce). CROSSROADS followed, more serious, sans Loy, but with a similar amnesia formula, further adding to my split self confusion upon reading the blurb (i.e. mixing up LOVE YOU AGAIN with LOVE CRAZY, then CROSSROADS with I LOVE YOU AGAIN).

 So there you go the whole story of two films about assumed identities and fading marriages rekindled by lively alter-egos, and me, a viewer so confused by their bland titles that I waited to see them until this latter period in my film watching life. Don't make the same mistakes I did and let fuzzy blows to the head or drugs to the pineal fuzz your roll into the suicide split screen duplicate machine. Powell makes the jump with mere conks to the noggin. Can you do less? The screen shall split you whole if you don't mind first surrendering your individuality in the service of a grand war. Does that mean relapse, or just a feigned slur? Sometimes drunkenness isn't the same thing as not being sober. This is one of those times. It's called the movies.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: THE MAD GENIUS, UNION DEPOT, WATERLOO BRIDGE, THREE FACES EAST, DANGEROUS CORNER

THE MAD GENIUS

1931 - Dir Michael Curtiz
***1/2

TCM finally showed The Mad Genius (1931), a film I've wanted to see for so many years I all but gave up and figured it was a myth, but now... at long last, here it is, filling a gaping hole in my heart, providing the sordid pre-code Barrymore 'impresario-and-theatrical protege' cross strut between the same year's more cinematic and dreamy Svengali (here)and 1934's Twentieth Century. Indeed they all follow the same plot, one more than familiar to show biz types: a middle-aged but still dashing impresario (Barrymore in all three) seeing the potential in dopey young bumpkins and dragging it out of them while meddling in and/or dominating their love lives. In this case it's man-on-man action, with Barrymore as Tsarakov, the club footed son of a ballet dancer and a Russian duke (who doesn't claim him), tortured with genius and longing for dance. We first spy him doing puppet show ballets in the rain before the thighs of little Frankie Darro leaping away from his abusive Cossack father catch his eye. Tsarakov and his long-suffering assistant (Charles Butterworth) spirit young Darro off in their gigantic carriage to conclude Act One. It was originally a play and you can tell by the way the dialogue spells out the big ambitions, triumphs and chicanery rather than just illustrating them in little insert scenes, but who cares since Barrymore's doing the dialogue in his measured  yet over-the-top Russian accent, the expressionist sets are by Anton Grot (who also did Svengali's) and the dialogue is psychopoetically self-aware, in the best scathingly myopic Broadway tradition? 


The second act takes place ten years later and all pledged greatness has already come to pass, sparing us any boring training montages. Darro's grown into that perennially sulking leading man Donald Cook, now the greatest male ballet dancer of his time, and our once-bedraggled Tsarakov is drenched only in fur and ladies. Tsarakov keeps him supplied with women and champagne but is always on the look-out to stop him falling in love with some naive marriage-minded Debbie Reynolds-type, wisely so. And when Marian Marsh turns out to be just that type, craving the kind of wedlock and fealty which pleases the censors (invariably the type crept in, like a fungus harbinger of the code to come). Tsarakov must end it! For, as Lermontov well knew in The Red Shoes, putting romantic love ahead of art is death for a dancer. But as in that film the maestro gets his strings tangled trying to separate them and ends up tripping up, and then getting his boy back by reminding Marian Marsh of the third act of Camille and sending her off into the diamond circlet-proffering mitts of some louche lord.

Sure it's an age-old story but the censorship-as-nature's-tyranny parallels are nonetheless clear: these innocent lovers are the harbinger of the Nazis, of Joseph Breen's racist, sexist draconian code rubric, of goddamned Norman Rockwell-cheeked mailmen and freckled youngsters and blandly healthy age-appropriate lovers singing 'sweet' style-songs (you know, the half-pint Irving Berlin-on-Benadryl imitations for the Christians who thought Glen Miller was too black). Gone will be the debauched old givers of diamond bracelets and fame in the classical arts. in with husbands and fey pianist neighbors. Out with scimitar-brandishing demimondes and in with wives in bobbed hair making breakfast while the baby cries and the man heads off to menial labor, laundry on a line stretched across the window leading out onto a garret roof --all the crap that so appalls poor Humbert in the final act of Lolita.

Lolita sells out to biology's pedestrian fascist squalor
But though there's some of that in The Mad Genius, it's still too early in the pre-code era for it to swamp the decadent expressionistic corruption. Barrymore's outside the stuffy bourgeois costumed towers of MGM, so his Tsarakov doesn't mope when his star runs off, just gets royally blitzed on champagne and takes up with the newest chorus trollop (Carmel Myers, above). 

I'm a big fan of Marian Marsh due to her Sgt. Pepper era-predicting look in Svengali: the oversize gendarme coat, Dame Darcy bangs and long straight blonde hair, her sweet pixie face so perfect for hypnotizing... her Trilby is like the counterculture hippie bird 36 years early, with Svengali a Manson-level manipulating pied piper. Here that anachronistic hipness is gone. That great blonde straight hair cropped unflatteringly in the style of the time and she's got big gangly legs when she dances, like she's been studying the bowleg flapper wobble of Ruby Keeler instead of a swanky Ballets Russe pirouette. Carmel Myers reminds me of one of my own past Trilbies, though, so I'm a fan. Ah, the debauched libertine life has treated me well. The having kids and laundry lines thing pays dividends I'm sure, which we playas never care to imagine, and just as the shelf life of a dancer is very limited, and the life of a pre-revolutionary Russian dance impresario with a rolodex full of debauched libertine nobles, doomed to die on the altar of art; so too louche bachelors inevitably wind up lonesome old men shuffling to and fro from the Strand Bookstore, while family men bask in the alleged comfort of grandchildren.
 
But we're not talking real life here. These are the movies. 

And director Michael Curtiz knows we didn't come for sappy young love or Frankie Darro or regret, we came for Barrymore and blondes, and Curtiz is one of the best at zeroing in on what we want to see--in this case Anton Grot's trippy art direction (including a great pagan god stage show finale), pre-code luridity, and Barrymore's crazy eyes. For example we get Tsarakov's junkie stage manager/conductor Sergei (Luis Alberni) cracking up before the big show, trying to get Tsarakov to give him one of the hits of smack he keeps squirreled away, delivering a raving Dwight Frye-esque rant, expressionist Anton Grot mood pouring the pre-code horror all over him, on and on ranting about the incessant screaming of his frayed nerves playing the same music over and over, the thud of dancer's feet, etc. he's literally falling apart like Peter Lorre at the end of M. Tsarakov gives him a pretty strong lecture about the joys to be had once cold turkey is endured, but then we see Sergei shoot up in the shadows and suddenly he's striding out onstage ready to go on with rehearsal as calm as a cucumber! It got a huge laugh out of me, and probably out of the play's sophisticated audience. It's a very rare moment of joking about heroin addiction. Soon addicts like him would be as verboten as sleeping your way up the social ladder and getting away with murder.

Ach, these Philistines! They always get the girl in the end while the mad geniuses die crucified on the altar of their own grandiosity. So best make sure Anton Grot makes the altar for you, and that you let Barrymore loose upon his part like a hungry socialist wolf upon the neck of old world Europe. Let the moral majority suck up the banal happiness of the romantic age-race-gender 'appropriate' pair bond while they can. Ben Hecht cometh and Lily Garland is no Trilby, or my name isn't Oscar Jaffe

WATERLOO BRIDGE

1931 - Dir. James Whale
****

From a play by renowned Algonquin wit Robert E. Sherwood comes a startling, touching saga that has a great kinetic stream-of-rainy London nighttime momentum, atmosphere thick with James Whale's signature mix of midnight expressionism and cozy warmth. Roy (Douglass Montgomery) is an inexperienced Canadian soldier on his way to the front who runs into Myra (Mae Clarke) on her way down to the prostitution gutter, both while trying to help a dotty old Apple Annie-type down into the air raid shelter. Soaking wet, confused, cold, each noticing the other's kindness, they share some food in her cold water flat while the colorful landlady hovers outside waiting for Myra to convince Roy it's his own idea to pay her rent (though it's James Whale, the old lady isn't hovers around waiting for Myra to seduce this green recruit into paying her rent isn't Una O'Connor).  He's so excited to meet an American during an air raid and they get along so swimmingly that the whole first chunk of the movie flows almost in real time. and Mae Clarke especially has never been better, tackling Sherwood's complex creation without resorting to Vivian Leigh ostentation or Harlow harshness. Love blooms quickly, after all, in wartime: marriage and combat pay making sure he doesn't die a virgin and she doesn't end up a streetwalker.

It's hard to fathom, but there it is, an American struggling with the pressures of a class thing. "Some of us are lucky and some of us aren't," Roy says. "That's just the breaks?' He's Canadian, so why the hell would she want to get class-conscious with a man who will most likely die a virgin otherwise? It all makes her that much hard to bear when she starts acting noble, believing the bullshit patriarchal line about her own lack of worth on the open market. Clearly Whale doesn't believe it, nor Robert Sherwood --they love this girl and we do too, and we like the kid, too. The way Montgomery plays him is years away from the usual smirky adenoidal morons of the pre-code era so often embodied by, say, William Gargan or Charley Farrell. You can tell Whale really sussed out their attraction for them, and like most actors, they respond like plants finally getting properly watered. It's Mae Clarke's big show all the way, though, and we see how easily she might have become as iconic as Stanwyck or Harlow if the material stayed this good. Her voice crackling with alternating currents of tenderness and bitterness, body recoiling from the sordid ease with which she bilks the kid out of his bankroll, Clarke is totally stunning, and the Myra's shady past is alluded to without direct stating fits perfectly both Roy's genuine innocence and her jaded gifts with the female art of deception. It's interesting she played the 'good girl' for Whale in FRANKENSTEIN the same year. In a sense, she's the monster here, though she's the only who believes it. It was BABY FACE and RED-HEADED WOMAN a few years later that would declare the girl didn't have throw herself into the path of a dropped bomb to spare herself the shame of having to tell her lover she's no good, just no good that's all.The great fez-wearer Frederick Kerr (above left) is also carried over from FRANKENSTEIN (or was it the other way around?) for some welcome comic relief as a semi-deaf duffer in the country estate, Bette Davis is in the 'cool younger sister-in-law' mode, who likes Myra just fine. Director Whale and Sherwood were both veterans of the WWI trenches, so there's some savvy of the slow grinding death spiral of daily death-wading folded into the British fog.

---

UNION DEPOT

(1932) Dir Alfred E. Green
***1/2

The best thing about the early First National-Warner's stuff is, you just never know--up to a point--what's going to happen next, especially when the focus is on an array of things going on in a train station, a scene so crowded with extras so good at seeming like they're hustling for trains we can't tell if it's not real, not a documentary. We're treated to an array of comings and goings and bag checks, all centered around two genial vagrants on the make, one of whom (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) magically winds up with a drunken Frank McHugh's bag, which happens to have a suit in it that fits Fairbanks perfectly, and a wad of bills in the pocket, and the only reason he got that was because he had lifted a train conductor's coat, literally, via a stick through the men's room window. So a chain of events is underway and neither he nor we know where it's leading.

So now Fairbanks Jr. and his pal Guy Kibbee are doing pretty well, to the point Doug attracts a chippie, then shines her off while eating a nice steak dinner, which we really feel since he's been so hungry a few beats ago. Anyway, circumstance all coheres around a counterfeiting plot and a nice violin case MacGuffin, and there's a white knuckle finale train yard brawl, Fairbanks leaping down on his quarry from atop train cars, and men being continually judged on their clothes and wallet instead of what's in their heart and fist. There's also some pre-code slams, especially when Blondell goes with Fairbanks to a private room, ready to sleep with him for train fare even though it's her first such transaction. Her fluttering mix of fear, desperation, and feigned élan is like nothing you've ever seen before or since. She also has a pretend-blind stalker pawing his way along after her, and that plus the counterfeiter getting his wallet lifted make it nail-baiting enough I shouted curtly at my girl when she tried to talk about bacon preparation right at a key moment. And I love bacon.

DANGEROUS CORNER

(1934) Dir Phil Rosen
***

Melvyn Douglas stars as a bit of a rogue in a publishing concern that--and this would be considered uncool by the early code--is co-ed-owned and operated by a group of men and women, sharing duties equally, mixing business and pleasure and turning it all into a kind of cocktails and ritzy MAD MEN-style client seducing constant. The women don't have to choose between career and romance as it's all seamlessly interwoven, noted with some interest by their best-selling author client, an Agatha Christie-type who's visiting New York to sign a contract. A blown radio tube leads to conversation about a missing chunk of cash meant to be a retainer for a different author, but the cash disappeared awhile ago and they've been avoiding dealing with it. Eventually the truth comes out but maybe sleeping dogs should lie, and maybe they still can.

One wonders, though, in the end, what the point of it all is. Did playwright J.B. Priestley need to subtextually validate why he stayed in the closet or chose not to public with his mistress? Either way it's all very mature, the idea of women being totally men's equal in every facet of their shared business is marvelously progressive, and the romantic roundelay of everyone married to the wrong person all comes to the fore pretty fast. Luckily the cast is up for the challenge and then there are numerous twists and the ending is a gotcha of the sort I normally don't approve of, but which works here as a kind of suggestion that killing yourself might just involve 'skipping' into alternate dimensions, gradually becoming immortal by living several variants of your own life all at the same time, and death just shrinking the number of available dimensional planes down farther and farther, until one's next lives have already begun so you can let the last one of the old ones go, i.e. quantum suicide.

THREE FACES EAST

(1930) Dir. Roy Del Ruth
***

With her weird Betty Boop-shaped head, Joan's sister Constance Bennett has always had a rare who-gives-a-fuck ease with sex and cinematic luxury, suggesting a girl who actually lived in the manner and custom of tony Art Deco decadence before, during, and after her stint as a star, rather than just playing the parts. She's ideally cast here as a WWI German spy whose handler is Erich Von Stroheim, posing as a butler in a British lord's mansion in order to monitor the dispatches to the front. Bennett is sent in to pose as the wartime fiancee of the lord's killed-in-action soldier son, to open the safe and get news of how many American soldiers are coming into the war to lift France and England's sagging spirits. The result are some tense and sexy scenes of her snooping around the mansion in the dead of night, and it all looks pretty sparkling for a 1930 film. Both Bennett and von Stroheim have perfect prep school diction, so they're perfectly matched to the primitive sound equipment, and as the spy master who falls hard for Constance, we don't blame von Stroheim one bit, nor does he lose our high esteem as a result of his groveling. Who could resist her in all those fine glistening silks, bosom and hips heaving in the studio moonlight as Englanders in pajamas stir into action at the strange noises she's made opening the safe (like a female Raffles). And best of all, there's no mention made at the end or elsewhere about the daffy young officer who professes his love for her; he's forgotten as soon as the mission is complete. Damn right. Director Del Ruth wisely focuses instead on the tragic arias of Erich von Stroheim--in a role perhaps heralding his eventual iconic bit as Norma Desmond's butler in SUNSET BOULEVARD--and the Hurell-like shimmer of Bennet's magnificent legs as she peels off her silk stockings after a hard night spying.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Death to Realism!! eXistenZ + Oculus Rift Vs. Marcel Duchamp + Al Texas Jazeera Chainsaw America Massacre


With every passing year, Cronenberg's 1999 mindbender eXistenZ grows in its many-tentacled relevance. 1999, lest we forget, was a year when the internet was still only five or six years old and dot.com bubble hadn't burst - it was to us what 1928 was to capitalism. Virtual reality was just beginning to figure itself out and William Gibson cyberpunk adaptations or offshoot homages were popping off right and left--Donnie Download, Strange Days, New Rose Hotel--they all worried about 2000, when the internet was going to explode and cripple the worldWe stocked up on bottled water and duct tape, loved The Matrix, didn't really care about the other cyberpunk stuff because unless you could actually die while in the virtual reality, who cares? We bought Morphius' sketchy "the body can't live without the mind" adage but even that didn't hold true by the dull sequels. I remember seeing the first one, Reloaded, and walking out during the 'big' fight with a thousand cloning agents vs. Neo, as neither side was ever going to win or lose - so why were they bothering?


Now, 16 years later, eXistenZ seems to predict everything The Matrix was too busy slow mo bullet dodging to notice. The dot.com bubble burst long ago; nothing happened when the clocks ticked 1/1/00, or 12/21/12. Even the first The Matrix seems dated and naive now. Making the 'real' extra grungy and depressing (lots of grotty grey dreadlocks, cream of gruel ("everything the body needs" - good lord, who cares?), leaky pipes, cold grates, robot threats, ala the Terminator) so the grungy and depressing artificial reality (corporate skyscrapers, busted down telephone booths) seems believable as artificiality, i.e. the fake real as more real than the 'real' seems the most naive of tricks. But recently, in the past two months or so, the symbolic is trumping the real to the point reality is at best a third class passenger to the symbolic and imaginary realms, with no gruel or dusted dreadlocks needed. The storm of bad press over the all-white 2014 Oscar noms; the storm of pro-and-anti-American Sniper sentiment; the sheer weirdness of North Korea-vs.-A Stoner Comedy case lingering in the mind as The Interview pops up on Netflix; the bloody events of Paris earlier and the "Je suis Charlie" response, we're finally experiencing the collapse of the boundary between the real and imaginary. And it goes much deeper than what the First World sees as a free speech issue, just as it had nothing to do with O.J. Simpson being guilty or innocent at all that caused so many black people to celebrate spontaneously and chill white folks to the bone in the process when the Juice was at last set loose... in 1995, the same year Aol.com began setting the gears in motion for the 1999 Prince party moptop dot.com collapse pinnacle of bidding wars on nothingness.

Today, 16 "years" later, we in America have very little real left, just there is very little symbolic or imaginary dimension left when you live in a war zone, especially when contending with radical Islam, who are--to begin with--so anti-graven image that any kind of representational (non-decorative) art is a signpost straight to Hell. To most westerners, 'thou shalt not kill or steal' are the only commandments worth fussing over. Adultery, lying to your parents, bowing down to graven images, these are negligible sins at best, their potential for evil dispelled most often with a simple apology. Certainly you won't be stoned to death for them. But not everybody is as 'evolved' as we are, we who seem never more than a few votes away from reversing every last humanitarian stride we've made since the Dawn of our Democracy, bringing our country back into a kind oppressive fundamentalist Handmaid's Tale-style WASP dystopia, we know best. Democracy is that best. As long as the majority doesn't vote in the one party against voting. All it takes is one Pat Buchanan or Billy Graham in the right place at the right time...

Al Jazeera America welcomes you to the Desert of the Real
To unpause now on eXistenZ... Telling the chronicle of an immersive interactive virtual reality game that's interrupted by a terrorist threat on the life of the designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cronenberg's film is a fine illustration of how western culture's ever-widening hall of virtual mirrors keeps edging out the 'Real' to the point images provoke real life threats just as much as vice versa. The terrorists even call themselves 'Realists'--they seek to destroy the game and specifically game designer Geller, who's just taken it all to a next level mind-fuck, in order to save our collective sanity. In her game, the sense of 'alternate' reality is so vivid that the Realists worry our breadcrumb trail back to sanity will disappear altogether, resulting in a collective psychotic break. '

And they're right. It's all written in the winds of Jungian psychology. The artist-visionary needs to venture outside the pack, it's in their DNA, but they should never go so far out they snap the cord and can't find their way back. if they go outside in the service of the pack, as scouts and foragers, ambush-blockers, spies, counter-intelligence entrappers, stray rounder-uppers, then they are 'good' artists. If they just go out to escape the pack and that cord snaps, they'll wind up floating helplessly through space like Syd Barrett, or Brian Jones, or Don Birnim, or Dr. X, the Man with X-Ray Eyes --worthless and ignored by the social order. If they're in the studio, their channel is turned off in the mix (ala Brian Jones in Godard's Sympathy for the Devil). So if Allegra's game is too real, if it manages the Matrix trick of transcending the real through the performance of realness--"more human than human is our motto," as Tyrell tolds his Roy--the entire world becomes Brian Jones. "Is this still the game?" asks one bystander after all the presumed layers get peeled back. And of course, the worry is that no answer at this point can be correct.

Post-modernists could have saved the terrorists the worry from the get-go, however, noting with wry consternation that reality's been slipping away since 1917. If they wanted to smash something, they should have started with 'R. Mutt's' urinal, they'd say. Taking a pompously pronounced sip of their absinthe, they'd note Duchamp's original point was drowned out in the bidding war over that urinal, and that eventually Duchamp had to hide his readymades so well no collector could find them, which he did with "Trap (Trébuchet)" 1917. an unobtrusive coatrack that went unnoticed at one of his gallery shows. And then Andy Warhol turned lazy silkscreens (made by his assistants, signed by his double) into the height of overpriced post-Duchamp balderdash. And now it's not ask what post-modernism can do for reality, it's what can reality do for post-modernism. Reality bows before the "Fountain" and drinks deep from the milk of the prodigal golden calf, returned from the mountaintop with a dozen teraflops of commandments, each one composed of so many ones and zeros it writes its way right into your subconscious, and just a little tiny speck more of your once vibrant imagination is deleted to make room.

"Fountain" - Marcel Duchamp / eXistenZ gaming console
"(as we know from Lacan) the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle." - Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real
If there's any point to film theory at all (and there isn't), it should be that the Void/Real Thing, as Zizek extrapolates from Lacan above, is approachable only via the fake spectacle, the Perseus Medusa shield, i.e. TV. To confront the thing in itself means total annihilation. The mistake of the 'realist' terrorists is to think that, in killing the fake spectacle, they align themselves with the power of the Void, that its tragic raw horror dimension becomes their ally. But as we learn in Thomas Harris' book Red Dragon, it's a big mistake to identify with your inner demons. On the other hand, identifying purely with the spectacle isn't good either, and we first world zombies have been subsumed into the screen to the point our fake spectacle doesn't mirror the real at all, but vice versa, and the terrorists are seldom more than images to most of us, anyway. We only notice the eruption of the real when passing soldiers on our way to the train, or getting our fingers dusted for... explosives (? - who knows, you don't dare ask either) at the airport. Aside from that, terrorists are just images on CNN.

The formula mirrors the below chart illustrating the future and past of immersive video game tech, only with terrorists struggling to deliver the void of the real onto more than just CNN, to blow our walls and electricity clear away and force us to watch the slaughter of our kin in first person, up close, to essentially provide a feedback loop that erupts from news channel sound byte coherence and explodes our eyes and ear drums, paradoxically opening our senses to 'the Real.'

Source: WIKI

 The terrorists endeavor to widen the sliver by breakng the input-output loop, just as we narrow it still further by living totally within a comfortable cocoon of cable, letting our reality go all to seed from inattention and considering the terrorists as a direct threat to that cocoon, and with good reason. Perhaps it is because of their rejection of the imaginary realm that fundamentalists mistake satire / humor for genuine attack, and why I become so disinclined to hear about them. I'm worse than anyone as far as not caring to see the suffering. I turn the channel at the first wide-eyed orphan or emaciated dog commercial, no matter how riveting the show. CNN understands. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, shows images like the ones above, of life in Syrian refugee camps, the carnage of bombings of Palestine. Watch Al Jazeera and CNN in alternating segments and maybe you can get a proper idea of our whole fucked world, but who wants that? That's too much real! We need smaller doses of horror, otherwise we're like Scarlett at the makeshift hospital in Gone with the Wind, we just keep walking, the sheer magnitude of the 'real' overwhelming our empathy response past the point of ambivalence.



But the converse is true, not enough 'real' is just as corrosive, creating a 'real dysmorphia.' If you ban harsh images you give them power, just ask any Brit who was denied Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) for 25 years due to Britain's ban on 'video nasties.' Those nasties became any Brit horror fan's obsession. Nothing gives an image power like enforcing its absence. No actual 'nasty' measured up to the dread associated with not seeing it --the sight and sound of a film dispels a lot of it's power. Of all the nasties, though, Texas comes closest to capturing the pure horror of the void. This is partly because it understands pure horror. The extra 'real' smash to the head power it still holds today might have to do with the hell the cast and crew underwent to make it and that's a hard thing to intentionally duplicate. In a way, it rips the screen open to become a whole new thing, a once-in-a-million-tries 'true' horror. Even so, it can't measure up to the potentiality conjured by the image-starved imagination.



Still, want and curiosity are powerful things; images have obscene amounts of power for those denied them, and as the Brit kid squinting to see some bootleg seventh generation dupe of Texas Chainsaw can tell you, the imagination never yet met a blank it couldn't fill in.


By contrast to the mostly unseen Mohammed, Jesus and the Buddha are omnipresent in figurative representations, providing both a comfort at odd moments and an excuse to keep us out of the real (as in we don't have to imagine anymore --every last bank is filled). Mohammed isn't supposed to be depicted for reasons not unlike what motivates the 'Realist' terrorists in Cronenberg's eXistenZ. I forget which of the Ten Commandments says not to bow down to graven images but I know we've been bowing to that shizz for so long we can't stop without someone pulling the plug on the TV. I doubt Moses would be on the terrorist's side if he were here, but to his rheumy eyes every animated billboard on Times Square might be for Golden Calf margarine. You got to be quick and ruthless to maintain a holy order. Cut the advertisements down at the knee. Because if you don't then even the Commandment tablets themselves will inevitably be worshipped as graven images, or at the very least bid on as collector's items or removed from out in front of a Southern courthouse, not that it's the same thing as violating free speech (the atheists didn't try to kill the sculptor) but it shows the same confusion that motivates jihads on cartoonists and hacks on stoner comics also motivates alleged atheists.


'Now' at the time of 1999, newly sober and full of angst--uneducated in the tenets of Baudrillard and Lacan--I loved The Matrix and thought eXistenZ was meandering and too much like a rehash of ideas he worked over already in Videodrome and Naked Lunch. There's the same harvesting monsters for their organs (for making drugs in Naked Lunch, biomorphic gaming consoles in Existenz), the same guns made of organic material (Videodrome); the same bewildered protagonist shuffling along after a savvy, sexy woman who knows her way around (Judy Davis in Lunch, Deborah Harry in Videodrome, Jennifer O'Neill in Scanners, etc.), a maze of spies and counterspies where, as the talking fly's ass says in Lunch, the best agent is one who is unaware he is an agent at all (hence our hero is caught in the middle and never knows the score); the scene in the garage with Dafoe installing the portal in Jude Law's spine a mirror to the Naked Lunch scene where the Moroccan man sticks the broken Martinelli in the forge and pulls it out as a giant Mugwump head. And on and on. And at least neither 'drome nor Lunch involved actual gross eating of weird monster things (the sight of which makes Leigh gag in the film - and leaves a bad feeling in sensitive viewers like myself).


But it's all come true since then. Hasn't it? eXistenZ, I mean? Once we get over the 'using living organic matter for data transmission' stigma and learn how to tap the inner recesses of the pineal gland and bypass the clumsy ear and eye, we'll be exactly there --using the dream energy to craft something our brain can't distinguish from the reality its used to--and we'll be able to restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. It's got to be coming, it's just too controversial to be public. Either way, we've come a long way since The Matrix (1999) or Ralph Fiennes selling other people's bootleg sensory impressions in Strange Days (1995). Virtual reality isn't just for Michael Douglas breaking into a virtual safe in Disclosure (1994) or falling off a roof in The Game (1991), not no more it's not. Cuz this here's real. Unlike Matrix, though, you can't die in reality just because your avatar is killed by a WOW marauder. It's just a damned game after all and maybe that's part of the problem... there's very little at stake. But is it really so little? Really? Reealleeeee??

 The point that works is we can't really tell, we just keep waking up out of one reality into another - is that death, or just finishing a level on the game, and there are millions of levels?

Some have argued that showing bloodshed and trauma repeatedly and sensationally can dull emotional understanding. But never showing these images in the first place guarantees that such an understanding will never develop. “Try to imagine, if only for a moment, what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph,” author Susie Linfield asks in The Cruel Radiance, her book on photography and political violence. Photos like Jarecke’s (above) not only show that bombs drop on real people; they also make the public feel accountable. As David Carr wrote in The New York Times in 2003, war photography has “an ability not just to offend the viewer, but to implicate him or her as well.” (The Atlantic "The War Photo No One Would Publish")
I haven't ever been shot or been in a war, or shot someone or been shot, but I was way into cap gun artillery and pre-paintball war games as a kid in the 70s-early 80s. And I've had some profoundly spiritual Lovecraftian transdimensional horror/void plunges since I put guns away and picked up guitars and hookahs. And even after quitting booze I've had some roller coaster reptilian demon devouring soul cleanings that make my worst college acid experiences seem like mild disturbances in the force --mainly because I had them stone cold sober. And they have stripped my soul clean 'til all that was left was a glowing sunlit circle. And to dismiss these experiences as just manic episodes or a hallucinations is the same as presuming there's no subjective-imaginary component to the experience of death, to dismiss the most profound human experience (NDEs) as nothing more than 'mere hallucinations' of an oxygen-deprived malfunctioning brain - which is, to the 'experienced,' like saying getting shot in a war is nothing but a physical 3-D space-time event rather than a terrifying crisis of mind-soul-body, your life flashing before you, things going dark, all in the middle of a confusing smoke-and-shrapnel firefight, i.e. hell on earth.

I don't mean to compare a meditation or drug experience to being in combat but either experience can be pretty damned terrifying and traumatic, life-changing in profound ways, so to dismiss either as 'mere hallucination' or 'mere reality' is to convey, clearly, you've never had either experience yourself. If you did then you'd know that what's going on is a deep drinking in of the pure intersubjective real, soul, mind, and body suddenly fused in ways all three are normally spared. The horror of constant growth and decay that is our organic, physical world is suddenly grasped on a level usually unreachable thanks to our symbolic and imaginary filters. These filters are important. Without them we wind up either penniless spiritual wanderers, or institutionally-committed, as is so often the fate of PTSD veterans. But by the same token, if those filter aren't ever compromised, so overused that the real is all but obscured, we turn into pompous a-holes without, as they say, a clue.


For example: A real sunflower beheld by someone with their imaginary-symbolic blinders on is merely a sunflower - identified against one's inner rolodex of flower names as if to impress one's inner grade school horticulture teacher, its full elaborate mystery screened out since it's neither a source of fear (unless you're allergic) or desire (unless some sexy new lover gave it to you). But for someone without those blinders, like a yogi, Buddha, starving artist, tripper, child, or schizophrenic --that sunflower breathes and radiates light and is alive with the little yellow petals around the big stamen center like yellow flames.

Just as a digital cell phone picture of the sunflower is a mirror image of the sunflower, the sunflower itself is a mirror that lets us look directly into the radiant crown chakra sun. This radiant crown image is not a 'mere hallucination' though a less enlightened friend might dismiss your enthusiasm, saying "dude, it's just a sunflower, chill out." In fact it is that idea --that the real is completely contained within its symbolic component, that it is 'just' its label--that is the hallucination. The symbolic breaker for this less enlightened friend as overstayed its welcome, leaving the friend trapped in a morass of the purely symbolic-imaginary. The only time the friend can feel a glimmer of the 'real' beyond language is when they buy an expensive trinket they've had their eye on, or paint the bedroom a new color--thus forcing them to reset their symbolic GPS. And even then, the joy is fleeting. These folks dismiss near-death white light experiences as just dying brain hallucinations, but the reverse is true. These same people are perhaps also most likely to consider "it's like a painting" the highest compliment they can give an outdoor vista. Or, if they behold some surreal carnage or high strangeness in the real, they note that "it's like something out of a movie" i.e. the more 'real' things get, i.e. outside their language's dismissive pincers, the more things get "like a movie", i.e. imaginary).

And for those trapped on the outside of the purely symbolic-imaginary, the prisoners of the morass of that real, the symbolic-imaginary prison of labels is taken as a real threat, hence the Parisian cartoonist massacre. The average fundamentalist Islam terrorist perhaps considers the hallucination of the atheist consumer a physical threat, and the purity of the real then becomes its own hallucination and they, in effect, go to war 'in the real' over a purely symbolic representation (i.e. a cartoon of Mohammed). For us this would be, in a sense, like arresting Spielberg for depicting war crimes in Schindler's List or being so freaked out by some grotesque cannibal movie they arrest the director and demand to see the actors who were show being killed show up in court, to prove they're not dead. 

So NOW for my post-1999 eyes and ears, the idea that a newbie to the virtual reality game like Jude Law in eXistenZ would act all amateur hour "oh my god I'm tripping too hard" is not surprising or even that upsetting (it really annoyed me back in 1999). These are the types who have some serious resistance to the 'weird' - they hang out with us (the psychedelic surfers) latching onto some girl or guy they like, but fall prey to the first anxiety that comes along. We called them 'wallies' in the day (see: The Bleating of the Wallies) A voice in their head tells them they're drowning, so next thing you know they're clutching at your lapel, begging you to take them to the emergency room when a moment ago you were both fine and chilling out listening to Hendrix, man, and exploring the vast universe between your thumb and cigarette.

And who among us in that same situation hasn't heard that same voice in our head? We just know to ignore it, along with all the other panic triggers being pressed, to let them come and go along with the joy and rapture and spirits whispering in our ears. But if you're not prepared for the rush of contradictory signals--every new impression flooring the gas pedal and both fear and desire at once, to the point you want to make love to a candle flame or end table one second and then destroy them the next--then you're like the surfer hypnotized by the size of an approaching groundswell, who gets near-drowned when all he had to do was duck his head under the water for a few seconds.

As Ted (Jude Law) notes after spending a little time in the game:
"I'm feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I'm kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here."
It's silly to think that of course, even if it's true. No one forced him to play the game. He should stop being a little bitch, be more like Bill Burroughs.

There was a stretch of time in 2003 when every day after work I was leaving my physical body and hovering around on the ceiling over my bed, and what sometimes stopped me from merging fully into the next world was the dreaded feeling of suffocation: 'what if I stop breathing while I'm not in my body?' which is kind of dumb, since we don't worry much about that when we go to sleep at night - and in dreams we're just as outside ourselves as I was at the time, and that shit goes on for hours and hours. These excursions of mine only took a ten minutes or so of linear time, though they seemed to go on for hours. It's not like I couldn't snap out of it in a microsecond if my buzzer buzzed. I knew then that the body and mind are built for these excursions. Not all of us are meant to have them, the shamanic near-Brian Jones/Syd Barrett pack separations, but those of us who are, are.

Real (pre-symbolic)
So I came to realize Cronenberg's Naked Lunch's InterZone has always been true --anywhere the majority of people have taken or are currently on powerful hallucinogens a kind of group mind outside linear time and space takes over, and the usual layers of symbolic and imaginary are peeled away, denuding the lunch as it were. Even if you haven't taken any substances, you too start seeing things 'as they really are' which is the same as seeing things as 'they usually aren't' and the result is a profound existential nausea (Sartre was a big mescaline fan).

In this sense, trying to differentiate truth and illusion is like separating an orange from its peel and asking "which one is the true orange, the peel or the guts?" You might say the 'inside' is the orange and the skin and seeds are just compost, but the outer peel or skin is just as much 'the orange' and will exist far longer than the rest of it, which you will eat and then it will cease to exist. But it's then that it finally becomes real. When it's ground up and cycled through your system before being expelled, then the real is occurring. Wait... wait I know where I'm going with this, it's that Cronenberg has always known this real horror, that biotech is the wave of the future as much as virtual reality. It's already beginning to happen, designers are learning to 'write' DNA. And new steps in virtual reality are always imminent. Imagine vast teraflops of data in a simple eye drop. "Right now we're at the pong stage" notes Reasonblast39, "but within ten years we'll be full circle." What the hell do you mean, Reasonblast? I axed. But he didn't exist anymore - just a glitch in the matrix of our lives. (See also Post-Sensory Pong).


Similarly, David Cronenberg's allegory for the collapse of the symbolic is now revealed as savvy enough to understand that only by denuding the lunch, as it were, can the imaginary transcend the symbolic and become 'more real than reality'. It's also the realization that our human nervous system has long been an elaborate immersive experience for higher beings. These demons and angels use our delicate nervous system as video-audio immersive booths with which to experience all sorts of Hellraiser-esque masochistic pleasures. Jesus wept, but he wept our tears. We'll all soon be marching through the traumatic real of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bone rooms and wind up impaled on Leatherface's meathooks, all just so some fourth dimensional burnout can feel a Batailles-esque ecstasy via our ruptured nerve endings.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as close to Traumatic Real as horror can get.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (remake) - the Re-Staging of the Re-Staging of the real becomes
unreal through excessive realness i.e. the art direction is so so so 'real'
 from the high contrast photography, elaborately stressed wood, and other 
art direction it becomes commercial jeans ad banal
But since in eXistenZ we're dealing with agents and counter-agents, spies, saboteurs called 'realists' who are worried--understandably as it turns out--that once games get too 'real' we'll lose our grip on reality, and yet are working within the game itself, it's clear that re-staging of the staged real collapses any exit strategy back to our old symbolic-imaginary repressive mechanisms; in that sense the 'Realists' in Allegra's game aren't too far off from hardcore Islamists who see even an innocent portrait or landscape hanging on a wall as evil - so determined are they to be free of the Platonic cave of illusion confusion that they create their own even smaller cave through a performance of non-caveness. Where do you draw the line between killing someone for drawing a a guy in a big hat with word 'Mohammed' on his chest and firing an NBC comedian for letting an 'F-bomb' slip during a live broadcast, or crucifying a sports team owner because his mistress leaks a private phone conversation where he uses the word 'nappy' or am I thinking of Don Imus, who was also fired 'in real life' for word use deemed unsavory.


I'm not justifying any of it, you understand, just noting that everyone on both sides of the divide feels their strong emotions demand action, only those of us who've seen the limitations of our own judgement, been in therapy for years, or learned in AA that "feelings aren't facts" can step back and not send that angry e-mail. But I am just pointing out that if we free speech champions think we're beyond confusing our umbrage over symbolic representation --either in printed word, speech, or image--with legitimate real life retaliation, then we're blind to our own blindness. Destroying a man's standing in the real world because of what he said in a private conversation to his mistress is just a nonviolent first world cousin to the Charlie massacre, i.e. killing people because of marks on paper and remarks on the phone. Names hurt worse than sticks and stones, so the response is in proportion to the sense of hurt, rather than in proportion to the actual offense. In both cases, if we never heard the phone conversation, played obsessively on CNN, or if the terrorists never saw the offending Charlie cover, would they or we be any the worse for it? No. In these cases we can blame the messenger, to some degree, but it's a messenger we can't live without. We created it, a giant amorphous amoeba blob of all our hopes and fears jammed within the 24-hour news cycle, the journalists like a bunch of snappy piranha orbiting the latest popular kid on the playground and shunning aloud the unpopular, and instigating each's rise and fall.

The minute / you let it under your skin....  
Ted: We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.
Allegra: That sounds like my game, all right.
Ted: That sounds like a game that's not gonna be easy to market.
Allegra: But it's a game everybody's already playing.
It's a game everybody's already playing, it's just no one uses the same rules, because even in admitting it's a game they lose half their pieces. So shhhh, pretend you didn't read this. It's too long anyway. My mom died yesterday... very sudden, and far away.... and words are just fingers pointing to illusions and skittering away to the next schizoid dot connection... and this is a time for me when illusions don't work at all, and I'm forced, alas, to exit the Boar's Head Inn, Falstaff's woolen eye coverlets trailing behind me like the last few strands of my latest televisual cocoon.