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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Chop Wood, Carry Sponsors: MAD MEN Finale

This weekend's TV was momentous with AMC's crown jewel ending at the beginning of the glorious Free to Be You and Me 1970s. Don Draper finally hit bottom and was, as always happens, in the right place at the right time to surrender, and find the heart of the American dream....again. After sneering through the consciousness-raising retreat center, ambling after the niece of his fake wife, the only other person who knows his real name, and like the girl he originally moped after out there, a mother like his own, i.e. fleeing their child like its a needy style-cramping vampire. He's along for the ride but it turns out he's the one who's finally able to rise up and hug a shlemiel in a group therapy session as decade began, a good omen that led immediately to what he had been looking for (unbeknownst to him or us), the perfect Coca-Cola commercial, one that would define the decade itself--it's seamless interweaving of the mainstream popular plastic packaging and post-Aquarius encounter group openness commercialization and open collar freedom, but a freedom beyond the boy's club sexo-alcoholic escapism of the sixties, a freedom that understood no one escapes oneself, and the minute you stop trying, joy comes dropping down like a cartoon anvil. Hugging the shlemiel (Evan Wood) is the first truly free thing he's ever done, to release seven seasons worth of accumulated stress, of the Don Draper mask, the alpha male swagger, collapsing like a globally warmed iceberg and just hugging it out with a guy his total polar opposite, a weak-chinned balding charisma void, the kind I used to be always mean to, fearing if I was nice they'd hang around and try to poach foxes, embarrassing themselves, chasing off foxes and cramp my style by association. Learning to recognize myself in them, to love even them unconditionally, was the biggest surrender I ever had to make, and it's a case of genius casting that he's so forgettable even when talking about how forgettable he is. As an actor though, it's truly extraordinary; there's no maudlin sentiment or whining for attention -- it's not a breakdown but a breakthrough, crying and laughing at the same time.

And just when you thought things were getting kind of wholesome, pure, believing the Aquarius line, it comes in fully with "I'd like to teach the world to sing" extended length commercial, played in full. Watching, transfixed, still moved, I could remember hearing that song everywhere in the 70s as a kid and when I was getting sober in 1998, hanging out in AA just to meet girls and drink free coffee (I told myself). Only gradually feeling the cracks along my walls and barriers. When I could literally hear and feel the iceberg in my soul finally melting enough that it just split and cracked open and dissolved, right in the midst of an AA meeting on a late Friday afternoon, triggered by my self-imposed humiliation over walking in late with squeaky shoes, toxins and sweat, laughter and tears and rose-tinted waves of gratitude all pouring forth like the incoming warm ocean.

The Nordic Aliens bring their universal message

And to the show's credit there were no little montage vignettes woven in during the Coca-Cola commercial, no carousel pics of Betts and Don at the dance, or forward to Roger's third wedding, or Don getting the Clio for the ad. It's not even clear for sure if he came back to McCann and pitched his revelation, or ever went back at all. And that's the genius, for in committing to meditation all that stuff ceases to matter - it's a new day. And to me, of course he did, he pitched the ad, it's his career capstone. Because if he did, then the entire show from beginning to end makes a post-modern socio-historical Guy Debord meets Alcoholics Anonymous kind of sick sense. And it's so glorious to see how the show really understands these kinds of breakthroughs, as of course no actor is worth a damn unless they've already worked through a lot of the same issues - for in the end method acting and this kind deeply emotional 'true' stuff hinges on such unrelenting self-honesty. And that's how fiction ends up being truer than truth.

And most unique to the 70s too, we were all--the entire nation--into that song. We all knew and know all the words, not that there's many. Because irony didn't exist in the popular media; we were too open-hearted and there were too few channels to separate us, no other devices on which to watch things. In the 70s we all had to endure each other's programming and the kids never got first draft choice if my dad was around, but we were always in the same room, seeing the same things. It left us all with a cross-generational water cooler currency woefully missing from today's everybody on their own screen post-nuclear familial structure. That's how that Coke commercial crossed the generations, it bonded the entirety of the nation in its moment.

TV was a shared language in the 70s but it was the EST and therapy groups and encounter sessions that brought us closest. Even if your parents didn't go, some couple they knew did, and the message of openness and being 'perfect in the now' crossed from that couple to your parents and outwards in a loving pink energy ripple effect. Parents knew how to treat us, to not hold on tight or try to align us to their thinking, not to live through us or rathe their worth as humans on what daycare we tested into. They were them and we were us and all were okay. This kind of encounter group wildfire helped prep me for later yoga classes, acid, and eventually AA. Don's encounter group scene's tremendous cathartic power comes from that same wildfire, the time when yoga and meditation were brand new to the west. There was no arguing with the resulting slow burn awakening as the news of inner peace's availability spread (like that 70s Faberge Organics shampoo spot: "tell two friends / and they'll tell two friends / and so on / and so on").

It's the same with Don's mountain retreat moment, as we say in AA, "your own best thinking got you here" - which has about two dozen dual meanings. To be able to commit to a meditation class without smirking, or judging, being able to take instruction from a young hippie kid in the lotus position, to get the message rather than let your ego--like a jealous rival--convince you to hang back and judge the messenger, to sneer at such naked emotional simplicity rather than leave that jealous ego in the dust, to shiver in the naked heat of the sun rather than run back to the iceberg re-freezing warmth of the bar. But looking at the entirety of his seemingly haphazard journey west, we see how every little incident led to this moment, from the invite to the Veteran's fundraiser to giving some snotty thief his car, all step by step, like a careful opponent making sure all his enemy's (i.e. ego's) avenues of escape are blocked before springing the iceberg break coup de grace. If he had his car he would have quit before the miracle (as we say in AA), if the guy speaking had been attractive, or young, or old, or somehow different enough to be either desirable or a threat it wouldn't have worked, if that mopey bitch in that first encounter group hadn't cross-talked about being abandoned by her mom, then his ride wouldn't have bailed, and so forth.

Don was hugging the shlemiel not because he heard, as we say in the rooms, his own story, or recognized the dawning of the commercialization of the Age of Aquarius. But because he saw beyond himself, and knew this person was him, and was Jesus, and the dying Betts, and his children, and whore mother, and brother he drove to suicide, all wrapped into one flag-draped coffin of a rainbow child. But Do is an ad man to his core, and even there in the crucible of surrender, lurks the next gold ring. For him they are inseparable but that's the thing you go into the wilderness of Self but if you don't bring back a present, a souvenir we can use here in the communal house, you just wasted our time telling us about it. We're conditioned to accept that from popular culture, so maybe it doesn't even get our French theory noses in a twist when right after the credits comes a car commercial with Jon Hamm voiceover. The average critic writing about the show doesn't mention that, doesn't see it in the context of the show itself. But any acidhead huckster would note, that's SYNERGY too!

It's because I'm a Pisces and a child of the 70s that I can both scoff at astrology and yet know it's true, and it's because I have seen the land beyond duality that I know duality is beautiful as long as you know it's fiction. And I know that fiction is far truer than reality in depicting reality, and I've hallucinated enough to know never to believe my own eyes or ears so when skeptics say they need such evidence to be convinced of flying saucers I snort derisively. I feel waves of selfless gratitude and secretly mock those I deem less humble and I get that irony and yet prefer to laugh at myself rather than try and change it. And I know I can cry and feel bad about pollution all I want, but that never helps things. I can donate $ or volunteer without losing the joy or sense everything's okay. I know I should meditate and feel joy and love and put it out there to those who need it, not who's hot or deserves it, to effect change. Not for nothing Jesus washed the feet of the lepers, not the supermodels. Don's phone call to Peggy clearly indicates he's planning a suicide, and the ego is so entrenched it needs a bomb threat to leave the building. But that's how it is. You gotta get low to get high. But fuck that, bro. I knew even in my awakening of spirit that I'd have to be nice to ugly idiots to keep the buzz alive, and instead I ran and ran. By the time I stopped it was ready it was the 90s, and too damn late. Now there was the internet, and SSRIs. My hair was not on fire so I was no longer willing to dive into the well.

I'd like at this juncture to thank those who got me here. God, my sponsor, my therapist, the makers of Effexor, Wellbutrin, Neurontin, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, and Helen Slater (left), this wizened broad (aptly, her first role was in 1984 as Supergirl!) eyes tired but serene with the gaze of one who's come through the inferno to the light of forgiveness and unconditional love and who brings Don to the point of his. She reminded me of the cool people who kept me coming back to AA in the very very beginning, the ones who barely said a word other than 't'sup?' after the more overt and smiling welcome committees scared me off time and time again. Slater's wizened woman says and does the same things these t'sup people did to keep me coming back and give me the final gentle push through the breakthrough door (see: CinemArchetype 11 - The Wild Wise Woman) rather than trying to drag me through like a stubborn mule.  She comes to him not as a future conquest, or yet another mother on the run from her child (his favorite brand) but as merely a gentle guide who knows, as so many did for me, that anything more than almost nothing was too much. There's a moment before the shlemiel takes the talking chair where she looks and smiles over at Don as if inviting him up but doesn't coax, sensing his inner ice already beginning to break and not wanting to push him. And when he stands up walks over to him she just gives the faintest of smiles, not the 'I made this happen' thing, but the joy of the truly enlightened upon seeing the course of dharma in action and gratitude that they've been blessed with being awake enough to pick up on dharma's plans like it's some kind of subatomic benevolent Dr. Mabuse. That's her gift and as the lighting cues ever so perceptively shift, we realize with her help the episode's stealthily gone from inviting us to sneer along with Don at all the new age claptrap to weeping at being once lost and now found, in the same moving way Clark Gable did in Strange Cargo! Or Billy Bob Thornton in The Apostle!

Helen Slater, showing she always had a way with reticent buds (Supergirl, 1984)
And that's how it happens, to we who have had the terror of death's visit and the post-ghost Scrooge satori, who've walked in late to an AA meeting with super squeaky shoes, and went--in a final cracked dam buckling we can actually hear in our soul. I felt like my older brother ego finally passed the joystick after banging around the same game level for 30 years, and my inner little brother picked it up and effortlessly opened six new levels, including the exit. Freedom. Ugly or old, fat or anorexic who cares you're a child of God. I love all things scrooge satori merry xmas you old building and loan. I love you all as I used to think I loved myself, but only a sick sadist would treat someone he professed to love so harshly as I treated me. "Self-seeking will slip away" is one of the AA Promises that does come true, it's the 'slipping away' part that intrigued me when I'd read them up on the wall, as if it wasn't something done consciously, it just happened on its own, like baby teeth falling out. When the egoic whipping boy construct of self is gone, the collapse of the persona illusion of difference falls soon after. What remains? Only Love. It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru.

So we mustn't think of these events we've seen in Mad Men as fake, or either cynical (the 'Coke Meditations') or sincere.  Having lost both my parents recently and neither one of them much for protracted death scenes (my mom lied to everyone until right up to the last minute, so we wouldn't worry or try to come visit). I also was moved by January Jones' own melting frostiness. She showed in her one telephone scene that her frosty stiffness over the previous seasons was not just because she was a bad actor (and --especially with her wooden acting in X-Men--we wondered). But it all pays off for this one beautiful scene on the phone, the one final moment of these two emblems of the 60s, each accustomed to the social order elevating them by virtue of charismatic superiority, each clinging to the tenets and terms of their social personae until they finally in this moment break and they can surrender to their real feelings (a mirror to the telephone making intimacy possible too in the conclusion of the Peggy arc). But it doesn't matter at all- it still counts, the phone; these moments of redemption are what makes all the bullshit not just necessary but worth enduring. The longer the climb the better the sledding, and what other reason for reaching the top is there? Behold a snowy pale white horse. And the man that snorted it was Death. But first, Coke added life, and was the real thing. And he rode it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

She Even Breaks: Edie Sedgwick in CIAO! MANHATTAN

It's probably a sign of your mental health whether you find Warhol superstar /debauched debutante extraordinaire Edie Sedgwick's continued toplessness in Ciao! Manhattan (1972) sexy or just tragic. If sexy then you're either a swine or just so enamored of the Edie mythos that you'd follow her off a cliff. And I who have followed three different gorgeous drug-damaged [anorexic] rich New England free spirits off cliffs know what I'm talking about. But if like me, you see her in this film and wonder if her destruction is somehow your fault, a side-effect of your rubbernecking hot mess icon-worship, it's hard to feel anything but the need to pray for the still sick and suffering outside the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. But she, long dead, cannot hear those prayers. We can only save ourselves... the trouble... of enduring Ciao! Manhattan.

But we can't, can we? So come back with me then... a ways. Know that I too, like Edie, am a descendant of a daughter of the American Revolution, the Puritan stock, though not quite as pure or land-rich as some, we are perhaps just as insane and prone to addiction and depression. I came to the Edie myth via the Velvet Underground, which I came to via Lou Reed, who alone on MTV seemed cool, so I fell under his sway. In college (I only later learned Reed and I had the same birthday and I was going to his same college), I quickly found psychedelics, crazy shiksas with Ritalin prescriptions, alcohol, and anorexic lost girls whose hot mess sadness I swayed before like a hypnotized cobra. I was in with the in-crowd because my Velvet Underground and Nico expertise (and Lou Reed T-shirt) made me 'factory-ready', though in truth I knew nothing about Edie. That picture on the cover of the Plimpton book (below left) intrigued me as a kid, but I thought she was an androgynous kid in military school watching a fireworks display.

And these sad girls I followed off cliffs dropped me cold for any boy with cocaine no matter the brutalizing they received in the tail end, when the powder ran out. And every last one of them had a thing for Edie Sedgwick. They had Edie books, that black and white striped shirt (below), the posters. There was yet no internet so any scrap of information had to come through print. And there just wasn't anything except OOP copies of Plimpton's book, which was less a glorification of druggie artsy excess and more a Grey Gardens monument to fallen pilgrim aristocracy. As someone from her old pre-fall circle, Plimpton's book had the same kind of higher ground shock many of us have when watching someone we knew as relatively normal disappear down the druggie rabbit hole... in other words, not the roundhouse kick of advocative justification behind the front door damning found in Burroughs, Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

Alas, only one semi-mainstream movie, a botched mess to run alongside the book with the same name, really holds Edie in motion (as opposed to Warhol's film portraits and glorified home movies). It's a dreary, ennui-soaked mix of old weird footage from some 1967 unfinished black and white film without any synced sound, coupled to a foggy color framing of a dumb long-haired cut hick named Butch (Wesley Hayes) hitch-hiking his way into the frame like he was booted off Haight Street for refusing the come-ons of Bob Weir, all while his voiceover drones on with the most musically-challenged of hick accents and he winds up taking a job as Edie's keeper (at this point she's living in an Arabian tent in the bottom of an empty swimming pool). 

You might wish you could do something genuine to help her, but she doesn't even seem to notice whether or not you're in the room. She only notices the camera, and in the past footage--the black and white stuff--only notices drugs, stealing a cocaine stash before getting lost in a speed freak robot-mechanized version of NYC, palling around with one-time Hendrix flame Pat Hartley while trying to find Dr. Robert for one of his patented B-12 shots all while some mysterious David Lynch-ish millionaire named Mr. Verdecchio tries to find her through the long arm of post-modern 'later filmed' foggy drab color stutter stock. It's like we in the audience aren't there at all. Maybe she gets a Strickfadden sparkle-circumscribed glimmer of us, gawking at her from a future vantage point window opening in the space-time continuum during electroshock, but then we're just static.

It would all still be art by virtue of its Warholian association, and all the songs written about her (Dylan's "Just like a Woman," "Like a Rolling Stone," VU's "Femme Fatale" and more later by artists who didn't know her personally) if not for the dumb cut hick narrator "Butch" (Wesley Hayes) whose bad cornfed voiceover and big curly shock of hair, pale skin and slack jaw makes one think he snuck across the broken down Isle of White festival fences, one too many times. Know what I mean, Mr. Verdecchio? And he's got no respect for leather interiors. A fine sophisticated pilgrim stock royalty speed freak burnout ex-model is too good for him. He's clearly a signifier that this film, for all its toplessness, is meant for an older gay male audience, So we amble back to a question: why Butch? The cut rentboy rube from the sticks, as naive and dopey as traffic will allow is a favorite subject for aging gay filmmakers. They like to watch these guys traipse around in their towels or less post-shower after a long day indulging in Fire Island volleyball and windsurfing, or doing odd jobs around the condo. Said filmmaker (or designer) shoots sly glances while hunched over their brunch table Times (see also Gods and Monsters). I hope that's why we're subjected to Wesley Hayes' super pale naked chest and dopey voice as he walks around in tight shorts and a dazed hick expression so charismatically challenged from a straight perspective he makes you wonder why Joe Dellesandro wasn't playing the part. Was he so unreliable by then? Or could he just not, by then, play a rube, having shot too much, in both senses of the word?

As an Edieophile (Edie-ott?) by association, and--no matter how trunkenshtoned I got--relentless in my gallantry when it came to protecting incapacitated hotties from leering gropers, watching Butch take charge of Little Miss Can't Be Right in these color pool scenes makes me feel like I was leaving my brand new Bentley with Jethro Bodine for the summer. No offense against Wesley Hayes, the actor who played Butch - I'm sure he's smarter than his character and that's part of the problem - if he was a lot smarter he could have brought out a crafty Jeeter Lester savvy, a kind of Elmore Leonard-esque criminal aspect, like Butch starts robbing Edie on the side, just as she robbed Paul America in the earlier footage (aiding justice, partner). And if Butch was dumber, then his scenes would feel more natural, like a good actor would play the hick as trying to come off more sophisticated than he is, instead of vice versa. Instead he's right in between... The only long hair with any smarts is the previous Edie-wrangler, who steers him to the job on his way out of town. He's smart enough, perhaps, to get out before a certain someone gives him hep-C, unless she already has.

Butch occasionally manages some sharp shirtless jean short observations as he tries to appease Edie's mom Isabel Jewell (who sharp eyed viewers may remember from Lewton's Seventh Victim); but he does nothing to help his charge who natters on and on down the druggie tangent trail while lurching around topless in her emptied swimming pool terrarium; the only time she gets out is when Butch drives her to the doctor, played by Roger Vadim, like a hottie-in-distress vulture looking to add to his trophy case before giving her some much needed electroshock...

In short she's like the sad ghost of her former self, who by today's standards, knowing what we know about eating disorders (and knowing she was kicked out of two boarding schools for being anorexic) makes it hard to revel in her alien beauty in the Alphaville-esque city wandering scenes, and/or the Warhol factory and YMCA pool party footage. She passed mere weeks after her color footage was shot, and you can feel it. Hers is not the knowing sadness, the glimmer of a gorgeous new type of maturer beauty that we find in Marilyn's footage in the unfinished Something's Got to Give. Edie doesn't even to fathom where she is, and watching her is like watching a psychic interacting with ghosts, half in this world and half in the past, but was there ever even another half? Andy Warhol supplied some of that other half, but he supplied it with a vacuum. And who knows how many times the Andy she interacted with was only Andy's double, and Andy's relationship with Edie itself a double, a bizarro mirror to the gay artist-female muse/proxy/twins bond between Waldo Lydecker and Laura... or Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond.

In the end, maybe, we all get our Joe Gillis, some half-in-the-pool-face-down floater of a narrator who only in death finds his poetic voice, and then only to describe us, our grandeur, our lost pilgrim decadent flower, like a hack Baudrillard drowning in a nepenthes stamen.

Is that the real Andy though?

With the post-synced sound, especially of the mysterious millionaire in the limo, seemingly recorded on a cheap basement microphone propped up next to the telephone receiver while he reads his lines, and later shows up and gabs with the rentboy about how great the leather interior of his Rolls Royce is. I can never watch the whole thing without wanting to commit suicide, and feeling like somehow watching the movie and Edie's Grey Gardens crackpot repose but isn't that the point? My friend Monika had to watch it every time she came over. I remember her lifting the drink to my lips when my nerves were too jangled, or was that Amy? Either way, both were thrilled to know I'd gotten sober, and left my Edie annihilation fantasia far behind. Nowadays Ciao! Manhattan only shows up to haunt me once in awhile, like a ghost swimming in an empty pool and talking to people who aren't there yet are more interesting, alas, than most of those who are. Perhaps it's no wonder that the only coherent and 'sane' person in the film is Brigitte Polk sharing secrets for skin popping amphetamine. Best to listen. Or of course, to run back to your Hawks and Ford like one of those errant lovers who gets a close look at the empty speed-addled despair awaiting him once he's bedded down with the facile cold blonde Connecticut WASP hottie and goes racing back to the comfortable warm familiarity of his old Putnam County Italian-American girlfriend like bedraggled storm tossed sailor into a dry towel. Comfortable, warm, familiar: three words no one could e'er apply to Ciao! Manhattan. Alas, no matter what the rich NYC pop art history, watching someone else's burnt-out shell stagger around their one room memory lane only reminds me that my own 'lost in the past, in dreams, in cinema' self doesn't radiate well from outside looking in. My isolation, like Dietrich's is warranted, to preserve my self image as perennially young, but the farther we aging hipsters withdraw from life, the smaller it looks as it chugs along without us and the more we need superstars to feign aliveness, to be our onscreen proxy, to fill the gap left by life's absence. We don't need to see them lurch vacantly around the room burnt out Phenobarbital Barbies dreaming of some broken Ken. Only Andy's camera was ever satisfied with less. For the rest of us, there's Liquid Sky.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Harpo Out of Hell: MIAMI BLUES (1990)

Fans of Miami Blues (recently released on spiffy Blu-ray) tend to be lovable maniacs, and those of us who love them, especially when they're safely contained across the screen or distance or time or the screen. We seek the semi-benevolent destructive playfulness that can only be found in certain rare 'awakened' megalomaniacs, and such a one is Junior (Alec Baldwin) in Blues. He is the expression of our id-unleashing dreams, or as we are sometimes are, when super bored, in video games where instead of trying to earn points or win the game, we just drive over pedestrians and shoot innocent bystanders. There's a time to play Monopoly and a time to kick over the board and throw the play money in the air like we're motherfuckin' Scarface. Miami Blues is for that time. It stands proud as a herald for the maniac renaissance of the early 90s: Mr. Blonde, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Wendy Kroy, Hannibal Lecter, Tommy in Goodfellas, Harvey in Bad Lieutenant, Lisa in Girl, Interrupted... that manic early 90s phase is long gone now, but for awhile cinema was a bonfire full of toothsome chestnuts.

Directed by that shaggy dog beachcomber director George Armitage, Miami Blues offers one such maniac. It is a violent Marx Bros writ large in the deadpan Elmore Leonard Miami... allegedly about hangdog cop Hank Moseley (Fred Willard) loping after Junior for a bullshit manslaughter charge after he broke a mooney's finger on the airport escalator, it's really more about... well, maybe less than the sum of its parts. But what parts! Jennifer Jason Leigh as a dimwitted prostitute Junior plays house with, lots and lots of freeform random crimes of utmost ballsiness. Junior may be insane but he has ethics: robbing crack dealers with a plastic Uzi, mugging pickpockets for the wallets they stole, knocking over bookies, and--in the best sequences--playing cop with Mosely's stolen badge. There's no rhyme or reason to Junior's actions, but everything is logical because he acts on our expectations. If we see a robbery in progress we naturally assume he'll try to stop it, so he does even if just with a jar of spaghetti sauce. If Pedro seems a little too cocky with his shotgun at the pawn shop, it's natural Junior will shoot him, etc.  Why? Like the scorpion drowning atop his frog raft, it his nature.

There's no other way to really contextualize the anarchy at work, unless we can glean the Marx Brothers connection within Junior's initial alias, Herman Gottlieb. A way more obscure reference than, say, Zombie's Firefly family, Gottlieb is the name Sig Ruman's ever-fuming, Mrs. Claypool-flattering Baroni-signer in MGM's Night at the Opera (1935), a film I saw so many times as a kid that its textures and rhythms cloak me still in a kind of cinephile temple garment. And it's that connection holds the secret to the madness of Baldwin's maniacal character. His genius lies in that same crazy Marx-Lugosi "life is but a dream" row-row yer way straight out the Truman Show bubble direction. Forever caught in an old world (pre-WW2) bourgeois slow burn harrumph as Groucho dances verbal circles around him and Harpo sets his shoes on fire, it's only natural that he'd eventually get his wallet lifted and identity stolen by a light-fingered Harpo out of hell, for how can we measure the high crusting curves of madness without a straight edge with no sense of self awareness of humor?

The real Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) center, and top right

And sometimes it doesn't work anyway. As we all know, if the unleashed id is too self-serving or sadistic, the unleashed 'it's all a dream anyway so unleash your primal desires and/or try to fly' aspect leads merely to lurid horror movies (Killer's Moon, Devil's Rejects) and if it's too post-modern leads to a headache-based longing for narrative immersion (Daisies, Weekend); but if it's juuuust right? You got the Marx Brothers, Bela Lugosi, Timothy Carey Jr., and... then.... it gets foggy. Who else is left? Then the answer come back: Alec Baldwin. He's left and let-a me tell you, boss, now you got something. Left handed moths ate the painting but he's gonna eat you you Southie son of a bitch. And now that Blues is on Blu-ray it's not just a chance to remember how goddamned charismatic and hirsute old Alec was then but that true anarchic Harpo Marx madness shall not perish from the screen, even into the 1990s. It will merely get a short haircut, presume a deadpan smile of solemn toughness, and acquire a gun. And sans its streaky pastel blurriness, there shall be breathtaking pink skies and dockside 'arrests.'


Most guys as good looking as Alec are, let's face it, dull as chalk - and many still are just as dull even after age does a Jake LaMotta on their kisser. Occupied with making sure their hair is werewolf perfect and their best angle cameraward for so long they forget to accrue depth. No emotion on their face lest wrinkles appear, they come across often as drugged narcissist automatons drained of all wit and regular guy who-gives-a-fuckitude like they're empty aquariums and filled instead with the kind of self-righteous petulance they're convinced is the height of butch charisma. With his Irish-American twinkle alight in his eyes, though, and whatever the age, Baldwin comes off as real, even when he's acting the part of a charming actor who knows he's fake. We know guys like him, and he's a cipher without being a bore. He's charming without being cocky, crazy without being aggravating. Better actors can't say that, nor worse ones.

A lot of us kids who grew up with the Marx Brothers and the Lugosi collection (and then completed our teenage years as snotty poseur with Repo Man) were left in the cold at the end of the 80s. It's hard to believe now, because so that gonzo energy paved the way for the Tarantino revolution and film long used to blurry dupes they made off cable or wherever in the early 90s, fans who've long grown used to the blurry pastel streaks of the decor and sky, the fuzzy short hair cuts of both Junior and Susie reduced to a blurry halo. With the new Shout Blu-ray its all sharp and clear, with a nice lovely sparkle to the sea and sky and deep 3-D blacks to every sun-dappled shadow. The 80s pastels are no longer as wearisome and the transfer is so sharp you can smell the salt and suntan oil. Extras include interviews with Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who both admit really enjoying themselves with the project and characters and each other, and it shows.

The film had its detractors at the time, one of my only memories of reading 'The Daily Orange' - Syracuse University's student-run newspaper, was a scathing review of Miami Blues, which declared it emblematic of a rise in nonsensical nihilism. The writer was clearly an pretentious twit and there were many in Syracuse, who seemed to have hardened their mind with dogmatic readings of western dialectical philosophy solely to appease their stern conservative father. There were a lot of such idiots in Syracuse and they all got BMWs as graduation presents, and today they're probably going to see the remake of Far From the Maddening Crowd at some UWS theater with their minky wives.

In other words, a bourgeois white elephant filmgoer will not approve of Miami Blues, which seems like an open invitation to the underclasses to rise up and boot them from their homes like Bane does literally in Dark Knight Rises. But Bane was a drag. We loved The Joker and cats like him and Junior have a grip on the termite megalomania of early childhood but have no urge to burn out the white elephant hoi poloi except via silver screen termite effigy. All that rage we used to excise via the now outgrown release mechanism of temper tantrums building up and up through early adolescence, until a miracle like Bela Lugosi in The Raven or Harpo Marx in Night at the Opera comes along, and out it comes in gushing waves of joy, an air pocket of tyrannical childhood, the good with the bad all buried now rising like an oil gusher, lifting us up off the surface of our becalmed flat consciousness is a most pleasing way. One wild man performance is worth three movies worth of 'importance' or 'meaning.'

We see Junior's kind of kinetic free-form insanity so seldom, especially in today's nanny state clime, that when it comes it's like a precious little match in the Hans Christian Anderson blizzard of safe sanctified sanity: But we saw it all through the early 90s  the glint of madness that takes that fluttery match and lights up the sky for just long enough we see the vastness of heaven. And then the match is out, the sky is dark, the house lights come back up, the veil of paralyzing self-consciousness descends once more like a clingy Psycho shower curtain, and not even Fred Willard can be held accountable for what we do to try and get the fire back. We wind up in rehab, or as deranged loners, buried deep in our bomb shelters, watching our Night of the Opera -The Thing  - My Man Godfrey -  tape over and over til the tracking button could do no more...


And if you know you're in a dream, and beyond all fear, why wouldn't you go a little nuts - the way Baldwin's crazy cop goes around he's a dead ringer for an old friend from the Princeton Blues Traveler days, Percheur - a crazy Bill Brasky type of larger than life maniac who was a living legend amongst the local mix of debauched upper dregs 80s hippie-music-Princeton Record Exchange / Hoagie Haven / stealing badges to crash the Princeton reunions / pre-fame Blues Traveler / I told (you already) Althea gave me her last double purple barrel - contingent.

That Percheur he a some boy all right.
I thought they were just making Percheur up until I finally met him at a big outdoor keg party somewhere in the wilds of the Jersey Devil country, he spied some other dude he kind of didn't like from the other end of the throng, and then with a crazy drunk falling motion flung his half full Bud tall boy high into the air. If you've ever thrown a half-full tall boy straight up in the air like a mortar you know it's not easy to get either distance or accuracy and this was an pinwheel over handed wind up swing, upon releasing it he fall backwards and hid behind a car, as the bottle soared up and landed with pinpoint accuracy on the guy's head - he must have been 50 yards away at least.

Percheur (not his real name) didn't do this to impress anyone. He didn't even know anyone was watching (and I was the only one). I pretended not to notice and refrained from looking at him as the guy, huge, started running right toward the car behind which Percheur hid and so he took off into the scrub brush. Percheur spent the rest of the party on the run, coming back to the keg (and Max and I) periodically like a renewable kick the can. To this day it's the single most amazing throw I've ever seen -- he never even aimed or even looked at the guy directly before throwing it. Even when fighting or being chased he never seemed like it was anything but a friendly scrap with a old buddy even though the old buddy clearly felt different.

But that story is nothing, Max shrugged it off as lesser Percheur. Last Max heard of him was 20 years ago when--inspired by Miami Blues--he stole a fireman's badge and was pulling over cars on the road to fuck with them and/or steal their drugs. And they called him from then on Princeton Blues. (Ours was "As the Spliff Burns...")

Soon after of course the neighborhood was smotten by crack - which they could afford. They'd sit around doing rocks and watching pre-code WB gangster movies on TCM, which I respected. I still have the tape they made me of Two Seconds, Picture Snatcher and Beast of the City. And like pre-code WB, Miami Blues man flies free while we.... oops it fell. As we all did. But that's the arc of a gangster. The film ends and its time for teeth to be returned from whence they came. Walter Brennan in Red River asking for them back 'come grub' with after losing them in a poker game to Chief Yowlachie, now called Two Jaw Quo.  Detective Gummo, your teeth had never ground so free as they did in this man's hand; he carried them above the clouds, atop the spirit frog he could not refrain from biting.

"come chow, you get

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


As I've written in the past, 1933 was a magical year for movies, and America: it saw the election of FDR, the repeal of prohibition, and 'ahem' the rise of Hitler into power (that last part, not so magical but the war effort did lift us out of the Great Depression). At any rate -- change was afoot, probably akin to our modern years of Obama, legalization of marijuana, and gay marriage. Or worse, or better. And I myself turn to old dark house movies every May or so, because they understand hay fever, the way allergies imitate the first signs of a cold and make the bright sunny day with the calla lillies in bloom again seem a jeweled scorpion, glistening shiny chitinous flowers on the outside and stinging venom within; and by contrast murky AC darkness an opium den refuge of creaking doors, whistling wind and hands coming out from secret panels behind oblivious heiresses. Maybe it's that May is on the opposite end of the year from Halloween, and as such I can see it clear across the circle. Here's five from '33, with my ratings for both film itself and, since it varies so crazily in quality, transfers.

1933 - Dir Albert Ray
** (Retromedia DVD- *1/2)

This weird Allied Pictures cheapie is one of those largely forgotten shipwreck flicks so big in the silent and early sound era, providing as they did an excuse for nude bathing, reversion to savagery, (inexpensive) beach location films and ye olde gorilla suit. The castaways always include one rich lady unaccustomed to 'roughing it,' a sea dog who does the roughing, a virgin and a party girl who become buddies (ala Mary Anne and Ginger) and a comic relief drunk. Here there's also stolen diamonds, and a murder aboard ship shortly before she goes down. The killer is.... right in this boat. Mischa Auer saves the day as a Ben Gunn type who's been stranded there so long he's started talking to the skeletons in his hut, but he's not a monster... His gorilla buddy keeps an eye on things, but from a distance, so his howls keep the girls on edge. Just because he's a crazed castaway with a thick beard is no reason to portray him as a monster on the poster! He doesn't even do his gorilla impression like in My Man Godfrey. Just beats up a skeleton when the communication gap proves too much.

Of the cast, Auer is the only familiar face (to me) but that can be a good thing: The good girl, Lila Lee, seemed like the taller, gawkier older sister to Gloria Swanson; Gwen Lee is a Mae West/Pat Kelton-ish gold digger who gets all the best double entendre lines. Monte Blue (who got his start with D.W. Griffith) is the nominal hero; William P. Davidson the numb nuts copper; perennial lush Arthur Housman can barely feign interest in how his girl (or is it his sister?) is being wooed by the square-jawed hero --I think! It's hard to tell who's who when all the heads are cut off either by inept camera work or frame cropping.

Director Ray does deliver one masterful scene: the morning after the shipwreck, when the lifeboat survivors all wake up and--silently without others noticing--begin to take stock of where they are, remembering what happened, (or coming out of a boozy black-out) and either forging silent eye-alliances, passing notes about some cache of diamonds, or getting scared, quietly. I learned more of the plot in that one silent stretch than in all the malarkey fore and aft.

I like that the girls sleep in the cave on the beach during the night (the men around the fire) and they wake up to find skeletons of past castaways sitting right near them. And there's a lurid, sexual almost HBO-level roughie vibe when the killer forces the two girls deeper into the woods at gunpoint, and it's wild man Mischa's gorilla and his skeleton crew to the rescue. Or at least... Mischa stands off to the side, waiting for Ray to give him some direction, while the good and bad guys slug it, and on his tiny island with his old age and his wisdom, cries "Mary!" (that's his skeleton's name). And I like how Housman--who's been slowly and on the sly morphing from tipsy to hungover to competent and alert--like three different people, but all without being grandstanding about it-- is so thrilled to be back in the presence of booze after they're rescued by a French steamer; he brings the whole tray, whiskey, seltzer bottle, ice, and all, to the inquest.  Prohibition, thou art repealed. Hell, it was probably why they were all on that boat to begin with. The old international waters thing (three miles out?) led to lots and lots of party boats... and bootleggers hiding behind old ghost legends to keep snooping kids away from their stills...

Mischa and Mary (left)
Retromedia's Forgotten Terrors DVD is shit but hey! Hey! It's a genuine effort to pack in some films you'd never find in a million years on your own, including Tangled Destinies and The 1931 Phantom! They don't look so good but then again, they're at least made available on disc. (P.S. It's also on on youtube)

1933 - Dir. Victor Halperin
*** (DVDR- ???)

"Life does continue after death," notes Dr. Carl Houston, the psychologist friend (H.B. Warner) of bereaved heiress Carole Lombard. He wants to experiment on the corpse of soon-to-be-executed murderess/free spirit artist Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a kind of prototype for Catherine Trammell or Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander.  Her dead brother is used as bait by bogus medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), an expert at delivering the old glowing death mask /blackmail/lost loved one's voice giving banking instructions via a long horn floating in the air flimflam. His drunken landlady (Beryl Mercer) knows all his tricks but forgot the age old adage for any would-be blackmailer: never threaten to expose a creep right to his face without an exit strategy! But while the seance at Paul's pad seems to go as planned, Lombard stops at Houston's office for a second opinion, right as he's doing life after death electrical experiments on the body of executed murderess and Carole winds up possessed--in one of those 'small world' turns of coincidence--by the very same murderess who swore revenge on Bavian for turning her in.

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Boris Karloff played versions of the same scenario about a million times all through the late 30s and 40s, indicating America was obsessed with the electric chair and radio, and soul transference (in that order). Sharp eyed fans will note some of the walls from White Zombie reformatted for Paul's seance parlor, with a great touch: the above ground subway runs right past his apartment window, adding just the right amount of tawdriness. The final third of the movie takes place over one long night as the possessed Lombard seduces Paul, ever fighting to refrain from strangling him (for the nonce) while bringing him out on her yacht (easy body disposal) as boyfriend Randolph Scott put-puts to the rescue. Pre-code points for when Paul cups Lombard's breast while they get down to business on the divan, and the general air of sleazy heat between them when they sneak into Ruth Rogen's studio apartment like Marcello and Anouk in the beginning of La Dolce Vita, to fool around in front of her creepy life-size self portrait. I froze the projector and did two paintings off the moment they embrace (acrylic on canvas -2003), to capture a kind of post-modern ghost refraction -ion-ionn.... And Lombard shows her true chops by morphing from killer Rogen and grieving heiress with sensuous conviction.

Minus points for sight of a big dog perennially chained in the psychic's house; I'd have liked to see him getting a nice walk or some affection. Instead the dog conveniently disappears, never to be seen again. I don't have the Universal Vault DVR yet, because I have a pretty solid burn from an old airing, but it's only a matter of time before it too dissolves, warps... wanes.

1933 - Dir Kurt Neumann
** / (DVR - ****)

With its use of Swan Lake over the opening credits (as in Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue) you'd think this was going to be a real pre-code Universal horror treat: Lionel Atwill stars as the father of Gloria Stuart, celebrating her birthday in a big cozy castle while the whistling wind howls outside in the night, and three of her suitors are the only other guests (kind of like Lucy Westenra's). The creepiest part is that dad Atwill doesn't mind having these three fools fight over her, sleep over, for who knows how long, etc. as his only houseguests. Instead of ordering them out, Atwill tells her "Give us all a nice birthday kiss." Yeeesh, incest she wrote!

The one with the best chance at Stuart's hand, the clear winner alas, an older foreigner played with by Paul Lukas (in one of his flattest performances); the one with no chance at all is the abashed adenoidal pup who grew up with her (Onslow Stevens); the middle guy: William Janney, considers himself a mystery writer. He bunks with Lukas, even though there's like 80 rooms in the castle and no one else stays there but servants. What the hell? These strange details are way more fascinating than the titular mystery, which involves each suitor sleeping in the cursed blue room, one by one, to prove their courage. Stevens goes first, and in the morning... he's gone!

If Stuart and Atwill weren't so imbued with classic horror moxy this would be the smallest, saddest mystery film ever. the cast is utterly void of character details or anything else to talk about beyond the titular secret. There's no other guests, and no other women characters aside from a maid. Thank heaven Edward Arnold shows up halfway through as the local detective; he alone seems to have a life beyond this half-baked mystery story. The ubiquitous Robert Barrat (Babs' pimp dad in Baby Face the same year, extending the pimp dad motif) is the butler who keeps signaling at the window in a red herring bit borrowed wholesale from Hound of the Baskervilles.

Despite these quibbles, it will still be catnip to Universal pre-code horror fans like me after they've already re-run the gamut (Frankenstein, Old Dark House, Black Cat, Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dracula, Invisible Man, etc.) and crave more, like a junky. Seems a bit like Laemmle was scraping the old dark script barrel though, and Neumann's direction is slow and pointless - always quick to cut away from any legitimate horror moment. At one point we literally have like a full minute of just Arnold and his cops in a bedroom looking at their watches. It's a remake of Geheimnis des blauen Zimmers from the year before, so blame the Germans! Soon enough, they'd deserve it. The Universal vault DVR looks great though. So soak it up, junky...

1933 - Dir Irving Pichel
**3/4 (TCM airings - ***)

Seances were all the upper crust rage in the early 30s (the way Ouija was in the 70s) and while most of the mediums turned out to be phonies, there was a general consensus that ESP was scientifically proven and real mediums did exist, as in Charlie Chan on Treasure Island. Here the true psychic is mellow gamin Dorothy Wilson, who makes up in a naturalistic low key sincerity what she lacks in dramatic range. Her trances tell her nearly everything but even when evidence comes fast and furious the cops don't believe her and consider it a favor not busting her as a phony just because her ruthless swindler of a father (Dudley Digges) refuses to refund three bucks to bunco man Stu Erwin. Old Stu takes a shine to Wilson, though, and call me crazy (I dislike Erwin on principle) but the two have a cutely abashed chemistry. He might not have been able to stand the strain of Peggy Hopkins Joyce or Sari Maritza in International House, and he might make Jackie Oakie seem like Arthur Kennedy as far as assertive manliness, but here he's at least adequate for the task of breaking down a wall and slugging it out on steep stairs.

The plot is the old Bat Whispers bit with hidden loot in an old spooky mansion and assorted loot seekers posing as dead ones another and all that. Here an old dying gangster tells the Viennese Dr. Cornelius where he hid his stolen million in the old lady house. Soon the old lady is menaced by a floating death mask and draggy second floor footsteps. Her old maid (the pair have even more of an old lesbian vibe than either set of maid and mistress in Cries and [or BatWhispers) winds up tighter than a clam about what she may or may not know.

I love Irving Pichel as an actor--that otherworldly deep voice really sends me--but his direction here (and in the 1935 She) lacks momentum and mood. The bland lighting is a long way from the stark expressionist intensity of the Bat Whispers, for example, but Warner Oland is magnificent as Dr. Cornelius. With owl spectacles, and eyes alight with thoughts of "walking off the loot," he's like a bouncy wew-owl imp. Under the guise of being a shrink he tries a wild array of approaches to getting the money out of the old lady to the point we can't tell if he's evil or just playing a guy able to confess he's evil in order to get the money from the old lady and give it up to the authorities. His advanced level head games remind me in of my own strategies in my daily job, i.e. if you want to make your patients (or students) open up to you, act crazier than they are; I saw it all the time at Bellevue! We know Oland's a great, fun actor, but this is a whole new side of him. And who would imagine old Daddy Digges could suddenly turns grave and evil, even bullying, to his daughter when he realizes where the loot is. It's a spooky sudden transformation from a flim-flammer with a cute daughter in tow (ala Fields in Poppy) to an obsessed monster (ala Mason in Bigger than Life), letting us know Digges had a range larger than his usual unclean colonialist. With better lighting and/or a stronger comic hero it coulda been a classic but at at least there's a great dark secret passage climactic stretch down super cool secret stairs to a giant round well. Finally, the abyss of darkness! 

1933 - Dir Ray Enright
***(Alpha DVR - *)

Just when you thought blurry old Alpha couldn't get worse, they switch to the kind of DVR graymarket style with blurry color Xerox labels and tracking streaks on the bottom of the blurry image. On the other hand, at least they put out, making them the old whore of the hoary old dark house houses.

Luckily, for all its blur, TAS is worth the trouble: Director Enright surprises with some very modern camera moves, especially in the killer POV opening murder, and the banter between two bumbling Chicago detectives (Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins) starts out great, with a long slang-filled pre-code discourse ("he remembers the guy's a stew, see?") on how they got some tips on mysterious villain 'The Black Ace' by cutting out lines of "gold dust" (coke) for the nostrils of some initially clammed up twist. When the threatened rich old duffer Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson) can't understand a word of it. McHugh tells Jenkins "These guys don't understand these technical terms." Drake's the one threatened with death 'tomorrow at seven.' So they all take Drake's private plane down to his Louisiana mansion to escape the Black Ace. But of course they're playing right into his hands!

There's also some surreal rear projection: on the train where Vivienne Osborne (the maniac killer in Supernatural - above) meets Chester Morris, the rear-projected track seems way too large resulting in fine Brechtian abstraction); and the plane crash has bizarre touches (as I recall); but Jenkins and McHugh must have been hitting the gold dust en route because their comedic sense gets broader and dumber with each passing page of the script. When they're reading the identity of the Ace all slow out of the dead man's pocket; of course the lights go out before they can finish and when they come back on, of course there's no letter but they're so dumb they start reading anyway... yikes. Oh well, we didn't come down this way expecting originality, but to savor the mood. And that ya got from the stalwart poverty row side cast: Charles "Ming" Middleton is a mysterious coroner; Virginia Howell a creepy mute housekeeper (she keeps giving the gold dust twins the sign language finger) and a hulking, menacing black butler-henchman, Gus Robinson, in his only credited role (he was one of the dancers in King Kong right before doing this). So give up waiting for a better version, and just make sure to watch it on the crappiest, smallest TV you can find - so you can pretend it's four AM and 1975 and you're pulling it down out of the ether on your UHF rabbit ears... it's all in the context, right "Goldie?"

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If I were a guest TCM Programmer / and you were TWO ladies:THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, GET CRAZY, FACE BEHIND THE MASK

My last virtual TCM schedule was such an excess they said add another - and I never say no to a menage-a-trois, I just run home to call my sponsor. Or hide in the movies, and no movie hides you better than the three-plus hour opening film chosen here. Which Criterion should release on DVD, but they don't. They haven't. And it's not nor are the other two on DVD at least in North America, not even DVR, and yet essential! Let us not forget these brothers in the shadows of the shadows. Alongside my 2012 entry, advocating John Huston's FREUD (1962), Howard Hawks' CEILING ZERO (1936), and two films that have since come out on DVR, COBRA WOMAN and DISHONORED.  here she is, my Friday Night Guest Programmer fantasy. May they all come soon, so i can turn over and find a new delusion.

1973 - dir. Jean Eustache
8 PM
I haven't seen it since it screened at Lincoln Center back in 1999, but even at 31/2 hours and in grainy black and white it stuck in the hearts, minds, and nostrils of a theater full of foul bourgeoisie; it was pretty great, hilarious, touching, and helped break me up with my then-wife by convincing her I wanted a menage a trois with my hot blonde friend from AA, even though I didn't (just wanted to sip the JVS well of masochistic sexual tension) And so denied it, and made her think she was crazy and didn't even hook up with said AA girl after my wife left (the first time). You think I should have gone for it? It's pointless to regret it now! But I will praise this film to high heaven for its effect on my marriage- it delivered me from still waters. And not just because it made me feel all artsy (since I was covering it on my first-ever critic job) before I even knew who the bourgeois were, but because my first long-term post-marital affair was with a beautiful married Frenchwoman who'd come by my place after work for cinq a sept and bring me bonbons and coffees. As for the film itself, it was 13 years ago I saw it but I know I laughed at least once and only had to move three times to different sections of the theater to get away from bourgeois eaters with their clickety dentures, cheeses, and whispering nannies (this was right before the dawn of cell phones, thank god). Luckily the packed Walter Reade was almost empty by the time the film was over. Even cheese-eating bouregoisie have to get up and read their New York Times on the way 3 train in the morning. But not me. I took the 6, to the C, to the G!

Maybe it's so relatively unknown here because Eustache (left) killed himself shortly after completing it, and his only other credits were some slaughterhouse documentaries, so we don't have a pop culture icon face to go with him like we do for Truffaut or Godard, nor a vast oeuvre like we have for Rohmer, but he belongs in their ranks, for this film encompasses in spots all three of their styles: Rohmer's real time naturalistic three-way, Godard's May 68 brick-throwing and 'pop-bang-wiz!' And Truffaut's Jean Pierre Leaud, impossibly young despite Gauloises. And like all three: obsessed with sex, impotence, class-consciousness, and the kind egocentric humanism only the French can make work.

Leaud stars as Alexandre, a Parisian slacker who's still trading on his high profile in the riots of May 68, and keeping an "open" relationship with live-in girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont). A sexy nurse comes along named Veronika (Francois Lebrun),  even more liberated than either of them. The three of them later try to make it as a menage a trois, but mostly they talk, drink, smoke, look good and play endless records on a cheap turntable on the floor, and 215 minutes of running time goes by faster than any five minutes of Last Year at Marienbad. Isabelle Weingarten is Alex's bemused ex, and Jacques Renard Alexandre's his male chum. The English subtitles were the dirtiest things I'd ever seen... up to that time.

1941 - Dir Robert Florey
11:30 PM
Here’s a classic rarity that used to be shown a lot on UHF TV in the 1970s. If you love weird classic film then you too probably remember the first time you saw and heard Peter Lorre as a kid, it's like he reached across time and the TV with that velvet Siamese purr and starts whispering in your ear with the immediacy of your own wild kid dreams. Rarely did this great actor have a chance to star totally in a film – even as Mr. Moto he had to share to bulk of the screen time with bumbling comic relief, cardboard smugglers, and straight-arrow couples meeting cute, so to speak. But for Robert (BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, MURDER IN THE RUE MORGUE) Florey and a budget of about eight bucks, Lorre gives it his all.

It’s the classic rise and fall crime story, but the twist is that Lorre starts out just an idealist immigrant excited to seek his fortune through hard work in his new home, New York City. Instead, his first night in a hotel he’s horribly burned in a fire and has to wear a thin mask over his face, otherwise he scares and horrifies everyone on the street. The make-up is ingenious, with Lorre’s face seeming just a little latex stretched over his skin, bunched up at the sides to indicate he’s wearing a mask. The deep philosophical and reflexive aspects of this situation seem unlost on either director or actor, who throw away almost everything extraneous, and delivering agonizingly humanistic pathos that, even with a blind girl’s love offering a doomed shot at redemption, is never corny. Instead, Florey takes the same low budget of a Sam Katzman or William Beaudine Monogram and turns it into raw poetry, a cross between Sam Fuller punch-and-pathos pulp and Edgar Ulmer fatalistic dimestore surrealism.

And it’s the best Lorre movie. Ever. Thanks to his velvety feline vocal delivery and his own weird real life looks keeping him from ever ‘getting the girl’ in films, no matter how many he’s in, Lorre’s scarred ugliness in MASK seems like the next logical extension, and so like with Fuller it's a cinema of polar extremes, the warm moments have value because we know they're doomed, which makes them that much sweeter and the doom parts that more shattering. As a kid I saw this movie a dozen times and loved it and yet feared it because it’s kind of a downer, emotionally devastating - but it was where I first saw him. Turning it on Philadelphia Channel 17 at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning in the mid-70s--before cartoons even started--to find Lorre and his weird mask strapped to a plane's landing gear in the middle of the desert: it's one of my most vivid and mysterious childhood memories. It's just not something kids would ever see today, anymore. Their loss, as MASK's digital unavailability is ours.

1983 - Dir Allan Arkush 
1 AM
One of the greatest crimes of the digital era is the total unavailability of this midnight cult show classic, set during one long crazy New Years Eve at a kind of Fillmore, in a kind of 'everyone shows up to pay their respects to this imperiled classic venue' kind of setting. Allen Garfield is a kind of Bill Graham named Max Wolf, who's ailing and needs a fix of success. Lou Reed is a mercurial recluse rock god who's apartment evokes Dylan's "Bringing it all Back Home" record cover. He sings his "Baby Sister" over the credits, to a transfixed few after driving in a cab all night jamming out and uttering cryptic nonsense.

There's a Muddy Waters-ish blues legend named King Blues (Bill Henderson) who delivers one of the best badass eulogies in the history of funerals and later sings "Mannish Boy" a theme that echoes through the set lists of subsequent performers, like Mick Jagger-Bowie-Jim Morrison lizard king-ish icon Reggie Wanker, played so brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell you want to follow him into the Caligula dawn of drug-fueled moments of transcendental pagan abandon, the wild fury of the mosh pit, and onwards. There's a great Piggy Op-ish animal (Lee Ving) who urges people (including Paul Bartel) to dive off the balcony; a scabby punk rock poetess ala Patti Smith amidst a Runaways style scab band (above); a flooded bathroom with a shark swimming around it; a giant hypodermic; Daniel Stern pausing to inhale some smoke from a $1 hookah hit-sellin' Rastafarian in one of the stalls; a Satanic pimp alien coke dealer shows up when anyone says the magic word; magical LSD winds up in the water cooler; there's a crowd-surfing refrigerator; acid rock hippy freaks and twitchy punks grooving side by side; an uptight fire inspector, and that's just the tip of Malcolm's talking penis. "It's the beginning / of a new age" he notes - and as acid flashback sensory signals turn our saliva electric tangy, we believe him.  Now for gods' sake, solve the dumb licensing issues or whatever's holding this back and let it loose. Ding Dong! The wicked keg is dead! Here come the bells.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ferociously Her Iron Age Irish Bog Mummy Telekinetic Druid Sorceress Alcoholic Hottie Self: THE ETERNAL

Ireland - birthplace, perhaps, of western horror and alcoholism. When they got there "it was raining, or was about to rain, or had just rained" intones the wandering lassie narrator.  And they got bogs, moors, and hellfire haired hotties predisposed to take a nip, and tannin in the peat to preserve the sunken shrouded shamanesses across the sodden centuries, and they got Bram. Some speculate Stoker contracted a horrifying venereal disease while in a Victorian brothel and it perhaps left him equating sex and death with personifications of archetypal malice. I'm one of the 'some.' His pain is Ireland's soggy birthright. Stoker's "Jewel of the Seven Stars," so good I've never even finished reading it, is Michael Almereyda's uncredited source material for The Eternal (1998), a similarly fascinating and rich in horror film reference follow-up his hip downtown NYC vampire movie Nadja (1994). This time Almereyda only starts in NYC, then he's off to Ireland and while there's none of Stoker's phrenological descriptiveness, there are unique and oblique references to horror movie classics stretching from silent Expressionism to Ulmer's Black Cat to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and even Luis Fulci's Manhattan Baby, all done up in a Days of Wine and Roses / Nights of Abel Ferrara patina, which is better.

Jared Harris and Alison Elliott star as two hard drinking, fun-loving, but not entirely bad parents in the NYC 90s named Jim and Nora: "They'd been thrown out of pubs all over the world" notes the wandering Irish girl narrator who looks on from aways off down the moor. "Good thing we're not alcoholics" Harris says. Nora's doctor notes her head problems aren't going to get better until she stops drinking altogether. He says they will when they're over at her ancestral homestead, which she fled, under a cloud, before meeting Jim. "You're going to Ireland to dry out?" The doctor replies, bewildered. But everyone there is either declining a drink with a nervous twitch, accepting one with a sidelong glance or lurching merrily from its effect, which may include super 8mm flashbacks of women old and young along the lines of their sorceress matriarchal line, a line that stretches down into the Iron Age peat moss, before there was even silver nitrate stock to burn it out. 

From top: Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, The Eternal, Tomb, Eternal
It was adapted once by Hammer in 1971 as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Super sexy in pale skin and black velvet choker, Valerie Leon is the main and maybe only reason to see it. Visiting all the exhuming archeologists one by one to kill them for...? I forget, Leon gets to play three types: archeologist's timid daughter, homicidal swinging mod with telekinetic skills, and ruthless Egyptian queen. But then by the time the ritual is complete, the movie's over: the bad guy's Egyptian relic collection comes unceremoniously tumbling down around them. But hey, not to flaunt a male gaze, but when I see a pale brunette in a black velvet choker offing duffers, well Amazon feels my 'Buy with One click' faster than a styrofoam ankh can bounce off the floor of a cheap Hammer set. But either way, The Eternal is the Irish mummy movie to beat and sadly last Almereyda's last horror feature--he's been making mostly arty documentaries since. 

1996 had already seen one trippy European bog mummy film, this with a male (but punked out) shaman with some still active 'flybane' mushrooms in his pocket and his reincarnation a rabid nymphomaniacal communist with one spoon in her lover's brain (See Szamanka AKA Shamaness: See The Ancient She-Shaman and Her Shrooming Exhumer). But the frothing in the mouth Panic Theater stylizations of Zulawski are hard to sink into as a genre horror film and the rote 'innocent girl possessed by an executed, entombed or defiled soul for its methodic revenge' thing of Hammer a hard rut to get out of. Almereyda mixes the two just right, enough druggie acumen to make it decent company next to Jarmusch and Ferrara, and enough wry nods to the classics to fit next to Freund and Lewton.  I don't have to read a Wiki to know Almereyda is a true blue classic horror film lover, for The Eternal pulses with the found value rhythms of Ulmer and the murk of the moody Browning. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows through in a steady bucket trickle. If you know these names, Almeyreda's Eternal is the film for you, Johnny-O. Ignore the bad RT and imdb scores. What do they know about the ancient gems, severed hands, or Iron Age moral compromises? 

Here's what happened: 1998 Michael Almeyreda, having had a minor critical hit in 1994 with Nadja (see my post earlier in the month), a black and white downtown NYC vampire film with lots of Portishead and cigarettes, took the winnings and bet it all on a color Irish mummy film with lots of Cat Power and whiskey. It  didn't find the art house crowd it might have if he kept the black and white. Instead it went for the easy money and wound up in the cut-out bin looking more or less like everything else therein--at least from the cover. I mean look at that thing (above)! It looks like some direct-to-video Japanese softcore ghost story or hack exorcist rip with a Waken walk-on ala The Prophecy IV instead of a druggie downtown-stylized old dark house ode to pre-code Universal and 70s Euro horrors. Well, I whipped up some real nice cover options:

i.e. "The Eternal Thirst" - the old booze comic Max and I did in the 80s

Here's the record collection, the wee lass, and Harris:

Story involves hard-drinking couple staggering around NYC, taking the Cyclone in flashy Christopher Doyle style color wash slow mo set gorgeously to Cat Power's "Rockets." They're going to Ireland to dry out and visit the ancestral homestead, which husband Jared Harris (the late Lane from Mad Men) hasn't seen; she hasn't been back since she left unexpectedly shortly after her mom died and she was... well, I shan't spoil it. Debits for the ginger, their son. But he keeps his ugly haircut to the rear most of the time, which is just another thing Almereyda gets right -- these parents are cool, in the old school tradition, in that they don't freak out and/or treat their kid like some precious egg in a relay race. They're partiers, and they love to horse around with the kid, but the kid doesn't stop them from getting sloshed at the pub. And Harris is no Dustin Hoffman "pacifist" pussy and he does a great Christopher Walken impression. First thing he does to prove his mettle when the Straw Doggie skulking townie ex-boyfriend shows up is punch him, picking a fight by the juke box more or less unprovoked. It's a great scene not least because they've stopped in there 'for a quick one' after swearing off drinking, and soon its hours later - they're tanked - and the son is falling asleep at the bar from stone boredom. Yikes! Call child services except, god bless it, this is Ireland. They just get ejected from the pub and our narrator girl notes "They'd been kicked out of bars all over the world" notes the narrator, with some veiled admiration.

HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. What counts in the meantime is the groovy scenery and how Walken's residing uncle patriarch has a great homicidal record collection (well not great, they make fun of the Irish Tom Jones, Joe Dolan but dance funkily to "She was a Good-Lookin' Woman") Meanwhile the girl with the disaffected expression who occasionally interjects some plot points "your mother was a witch as well," and has a kind of worldly calm. It's all right there - in the beginning she's a bit like the girl in Don't Look Now (1973) and for awhile she's like the girl in Who Saw Her Die? (1972).

One of the unique subtexts at work here is an undercurrent of pro-drunken anger - as still sick and suffering alcoholic Nora regularly has drinks taken out of her hands by Jim who says "none for us, we're quitting" and makes a big show of enjoying life without it. That kind of balderdash makes me want to retch. And I should know. The way the drinks pass her wide eyes by, or the way she works hard to seem deadpan when getting offered some Scotch down in the basement once Jim's upstairs with the kid, it's the kind of stuff only drunks like myself would feel keenly. How nice that there's whole films and wings of Irish literature just for us! No matter how adept his Walken impression, or grace around the dance floor, Jim's refusing drinks on Nora's behalf stings like a slap, especially when he turns out to be sneaking sips on the side from a flask. Only Eugene O'Neill really ever wrote scenes that captured the way the alcoholic mind hears every offered drink, every vulnerable liquor bottle, as a siren call, and every 'no thanks' on our hero or heroine's behalf like a gut punch they're not allowed to wince from. And only Hawks and Huston ever understood it well enough to capture it; only Hawks and Huston understood how cigarettes and drinks are the currency of cool loyalty, how they buy the world into focus, and out of it. Of course, Almereyda doesn't have time to stretch out and show Nora's detox, no mariachi band playing the Death Song to steady her nerves like in Rio Bravo; or to be denied a desperately needed drink just for 'singing lousy' in Key Largo. No time; the sub-plot just dries out. Plus, "Why be serious? that's for people in sad countries like Poland or Africa" notes the girl narrator. And anyway, the mummy catches on fire and bursts through the window and gets zapped by electric current just like James Arness in Hawks' original The Thing and add the cigarettes (Harris is constantly lighting them and sticking them in his wife's mouth; the young girl does the same for the old woman, keeping one for herself-- a wee lass smokin'! Save your sermons, o nanny statesmen --this is Ireland!) and drinks (and drink awareness) and that's Hawks enough. We don't need resolution. We need another round.

Other wry references: Jim offhandedly quotes Six Million Dollar Man while building a fire; crazy old bat Lois Smith's hair makes her resemble the crazy old Baroness Graps in Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill (1966), which Eternal resembles for its inter-generational war of the matriarchal sorceresses plot, and the transmigration of souls motif which also ties in with Nadja and its influences like Daughters of Darkness-ness with the dreamy beachside ending.

There's other evidence of Almereyda's artistry and laid back genius with subliminal nodding, as in the way he evokes the idea of a pharaoh's crypt by lighting the cavernous marble foyer with the kind of candle light that evokes a big archeological dig; or the subtle way the cold washrag around Nora's forehead after one of her spells mirrors the head-wrap worn by Niamh; or how Almereyda uses super 8mm movie footage to nod to home movies for the flashbacks to Niamh's romantic tragedy (she let her love for a no-good man weaken her magick power) and the death of Nora's mother, (Sinead Dolan). It could have been a corny touch but Almereyda has been exploring the use of different media within film structures for awhile, as in Hamlet's pretentious conscience-of-the-king-catching video art pieces and overwhelmed Blockbuster trips; the Fisher Price Pixelvision in Nadja, and the old lady (Lois Smith), the dead mom of Nora; the undead mummy shamaness; and the girl narrator provide a multi-generational matriarchal chain around which the little ginger, the local lads, and Jim are the only men and always seem a hare's breath away from being killed in a Barleycorn sacrifice. "It was the Iron Age, you had to a do lot of nasty things to get by," Walken says in reference to Nora's question about whether Niamh, her bog mummy ancestor, is good or evil. "She was ferociously herself." Jim meanwhile jokes around when it turns out the mattress is stuffed with dead snakes and potato-shaped stones: "The ancient druids used Mr. Potato Head as part of their rituals" he tells his owl-eyed ginger. But is the ginger really his? Straw Dogs skulking in the windows with their deux ex machina timely shots may have wild scenarios ala 'Her Majesty's Coachmen' in Lady Eve. Then again, do they? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. These shards of Jimmy Dolan albums aren't going to just telekinetically slice into townsfolk's necks themselves! And as for sobriety... Fuck sobriety, no one comes to Ireland to dry out and besides good Scotch functions as snake bite remedy. This is the dawning of the Iron Age of Aquarius, sweet ladies, goodnight. Saint Patrick can say as he likes, we always keep serpents handy!

Goodnight, ladies, goodnight sweet ladies...