Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

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; as the young woman lined up to be sacrificed and the one being sacrificed to, visiting all the exhuming archeologists one by one to kill them for...? I forget. Leon gets to play three types as she moves from archeologist daughter to homicidal swinging mod to ruthless Egyptian queen. But then by the time the ritual is complete the movie's over and a cheap ending involving the bad guy's Egyptian relic collection and walls unceremoniously tumbling down (and bouncing as they all seem made from prop dept. styrofoam). I'll see anything with a pale brunette in a black choker, of course. It is my only weankess. 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 classic horrors to make it in the rarefied company of genre updates with some grasp on the past.  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 deathly rhythms of Ulmer; it swims in the murk of the moody Browning; and glides amidst the spiderweb shadows of Freund. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows like an ocean of tea time. 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? 


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 fixed it up, a real nice cover:


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...

Thursday, April 09, 2015

BabaDOOK! Jennifer Kent's Psychotropic Fairy Tale comes to Blu-ray



Most soap operas are trite, cliche'd and overwrought but doesn't mean we should dismiss Douglas Sirk; costume dramas are often barrenly obsequious but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Jane Campion; fairy tale monster under the bed tropes are often overly whimsical and hackneyed but we can't dismiss The Babadook. A Sheila, a quick Sheila, can take the Gorey-Addams-Grimm signifiers overused by Tim Burton and go deep into nightmare parable, where men (and boys like tim Burton) dare not go. She can reach down for the unpopped black brass kernel of the genuine Jungian nightmare of 'the return of the repressed and make pop-books scary again. Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014) ia out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, a Shining-Repulsion (1) collapse of the consensual real, as a mom and son come to fear each other and collectively engage a poltergeist-ish manifestation and if--with its magician's hat and bony fingers--the title monster can come off a little This Way Kruger Comes Depp-ensian Dr. Caligari Cat in the Hat high on mercurochrome on-the-nose, it still has more than enough originality and genuine menace to make it closer to Kubrick than Disney. The pop-up book Amelia (Essie Davis) starts out as some whimsical blueprint for a future Disney attraction but a genuine, disturbing threat. What starts out whimsy ends up being creepy and then a direct personal threat with drawings of Amelia herself, possessed, stabbing her child to death like James Mason almost does in Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life. (1956). The Babadook said Abraham kill me a son, and/or turn the page and pull the tab to see the knife go sincker-snap. 


At the core of the archetypal mysterious ghost intruder archetype present in Kent's gutsily straightforward Jungian fairy tale horror lurks the unassimilated animus, who waits until you're almost asleep, or trying to spend a little me-time before thumping on doors or rattling chains, hammering away at your nerves as you try to repress your inner rage, until it breaks off and comes back in poltergeist form and your sense of reality shifts and the border between dreams and reality collapses. And Kent gets--probably better than any filmmaker yet--how nightmarishly gigantic adult caregivers loom when beheld by small apprehensive children. Even Kubrick never quite dared deal with that monstrously large element. The one time Jack Torrance seemed bigger than normal he was looming over a model of the maze, but in that case too large to resonate this way. Children don't just look small to us, they look from a small position. In Dook, Amelia gradually seems to grow, not like a giant but that our perspective changes and she's shot from low angles, and her anger at her seven year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who's ruined her life in a million different ways. When I was very young I used to have nightmares about my mom creeping into my room like a vampire to drink my blood. I woke her up a lot as I'd be super scared to go the bathroom by myself in the dead of night. Once my fear came true and when I worked up the nerve to wake her she sat up slowly and straight like a vampire rising from a coffin and moaned really low, she seemed like a different person. I buried my head in my hands and started crying and screaming "I'm your son! I'm your son!!" We joked about it later. She said she felt bad. I'd never felt such extreme despair or terror. Is there anything worse a very young child can imagine than his mom disappearing and/or attacking them? Turning on them all of a sudden? It's easy to forget about that fear once you get past the breakwaters of adolescence; the passage of mom from benevolent giantess to a sweet if nagging allowance-payer is a one-way street. We modulate our perceptions so that we presume we've always seen from the same height, but a Babadook can remind us, as good horror movies do, of all the terror we grew so hard to forget. 

As I wrote about The Shining, cabin fever is a very hard thing to study, as just being showing up to study it rapidly cures the subject is either killed or sucked up into the madness, as with the semi-sympathetic father whose poor brain oscillates between giggling sadism and paternal sympathy for Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Those kind of characters are so rare in horror that when they show up we take notice. Like Frederic March becoming Mr. Hyde halfway through the terrorized Miriam Hopkins' plea for help, Amelia in The Babadook or Ray's ogres in Bigger than Life and In A Lonely Place exhume that fear our source of comfort will turn on us. Having very little (adult) experience reading children's books I can't be too scared of the Babadook book in theory. But I have relied on The Thing (1951) for most of my life to save me in times of trouble, and if I put it on during one of my regular dark nights of the soul and saw Captain Hendry beating up Nikki and helping Dr. Carrington bleed his men to feed the baby pods, then I would be utterly lost, that yawning terror of my mom sitting up in bed and moaning like some beanstalk vampire giant in the dead of night would come roaring back. 

But the Babadook terror rolls in both directions: The vulnerability and trust involved with familial love hinges on acceptance of uncanny extremes, for a mother must love even the most loathsome of creatures, the beast, the frog, the rat, the touched and wayward Richard, all requiring, at the very least, a kiss, an embrace, a bottle and a place to sleep it off in, in order slowly grow into a prince, just until we can get a new geek. If the mother can't provide this, the child snaps and begins to darken into something worse, trying to create for others the terror he feels as a result of his mom's ambivalence. And the mom, via the uncuttable psycho-umbilical root that connects them even past death, that root no machete or pill can sever, comes tumbling down the well after him, barking at him not to put her in the root cellar. 


Coraline
But while, for example, the horrors of cloistered sexually dysmorphic animus shadow-projectors like Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (or Mrs. Bates in Psycho) ended their isolation with their murders and sins exposed, pinned to the patriarchy-enforced consensual reality cork board like still-twitching wasp wings, and old Jack Torrance never quite made it out of his maze, the mom in Baba passes through the Repulsion needle and out of the Overlook cabin fever, past even Ring 2's child services and suspicious neighbors, into the safe "hero" clippings of the Taxi Driver "hero" fantasia; all demons safely integrated rather than merely repressed or succumbed to, madness, fully harnessed, is inseparable from genius, from self realization. If you're not willing to let go of all self constructs, from surface persona right down to your twitching core, the traumatic separation from the giant glowing orb of undifferentiated consciousness where one isn't just oneself, nor just "Human" but all things from ancient monuments to the weedy parking lot of a long-closed dollar store. Amelia's strength as a mom lies not in Ford tough Magdalene invulnerable cloaking cloyness, just raw Aussie gumption and the power that comes when you finally get down so low, as the saying goes, you can touch off from the bottom and shoot up faster than you would by just flailing about to keep at the same approx. depth. John Ford had the Depression, war, the harshness of the era, and drink. Spielberg though, had only his childhood, traumatized by schoolyard bully anti-Semitism and saved by the power of fantasy and Ford's westerns. I've got a history with drugs, alcoholism, recovery, decadence, years of undiagnosed depression, spiritual enlightenments and disillusionments, W.C. Fields, Camille Paglia, and Howard Hawks. 


In the end, it's that more than the admittedly children's book / nursery rhythm gimmick (that while creepy is also overly familiar from Edward Gorey (left) and Charles Addams-ish drawings - at least at first, the nightmare threats of a children's book are usually tempered with some degree of levity - "Good fright, pleasant screams," as the creepy narrator of The Inner Sanctum radio show used to say. When the death threat implied is tempered with 'just kidding' bad puns and levity, one misses the macabre tone of unedited nursery rhymes or Grimm's Fairy Tales, which offer little sugar and lots of suffering. I was amused by Gorey as a child but now I look at his stuff and think he's way too disturbing. Maybe it's that as children 'remember' Death, remember how she cried as she dropped them off at the nunnery doorstep of existence if you will. They know where death is, and so death can't suddenly surprise them. For very young children the big fear is never death, but of being separated from one's mother (i.e. an unpleasant moment without her is far scarier than entombed eternity with her). But adults have been away from death long enough that they no longer recognize her reflection in the mirror, and so when she shows up out of the blue to pick us up from the nunnery now that she's clean and sober, we freak out. And so Babadook's children's book gimmick would be just cliche if not for its blunt unremitting threat --moving slowly and gingerly from playfully macabre to outright hostile, threatening, malicious, obscene even as it never strays from the psychosexual Lynchian ostrich nasal lampshade imperiled dog Joe Campbell crucible, to become like a 'next stage in a woman's life" sequel to Twilight, Maleficent, Frozen, and Snow White and the Huntsman. In returning to the dark heart of the feminine-centric fairy tale myth, the blueprint for maturity and unification of spirit which is, at its most simple, recognizable and familiar. It's a trilogy through which nightmare animuses become, Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and finally the prince in Sleeping Beauty, before devolving into the Fisher King, with good capon lined, before crumbling back to the freedom of the dust.




Shout's Blu-ray includes Kent's short, Monster, a 16mm black and white, lean little thing, with the Babadook itself more of a Goth kid who likes to run up on people through the old 'cutting out every other frame' trick so beloved of Nine Inch Nails. And of course trailers, interview full of nice tidbits that really stretch out. The Blu-ray brings excellent tactile depth to the powder blues and grays of the walls, a color scheme that I'll confess is not my favorite, but it works to suggest color is draining out of this bizarre family. "I'll make you a bet, the more you deny, the bigger I get!" It's pretty Freudian, especially when the pop-ups begin. And the score emphasizes and distorts Amelia's disintegrating mentality, in one great scene Amelia looks for her son and you hear his calling but muffled and echoed, hard to pinpoint. This Babadook is like their unholy 'third heat', borne perhaps of their collective psychic blocks, the horror of losing the father, Oscar, the build-up that comes from never allowing the gushing destruction of grief and tears to overtake you.  It's never suggested otherwise; while the kid is being terrorized, she's downstairs and the cuts back and forth exhibit a profound grasp of the way the repressed emotions and sexual frustrations of a widowed parent can spontaneously generate autonomous external threats, as in Dr. Morphius' monster "from the Id" in Forbidden Planet or (single mom) Jessica Tandy's Birds.


Extras hinge on long form interviews with principal cast and Kent. It's not edited, so the pauses and repetitions indicate a relaxed but intense mood on set, and Blu-ray allows lots of room so they just stretch out. Why not? They birthed a real sleeper. It's the The Descent of its time; Kent and Babadook is what Jane Campion and The Piano used to be, a female furie from down under come to wade through chthonic swamps of menstrual blood and societal taboo, dragging her son, daughter, piano, canoe, and civilization behind her, corralling even the power of demons back under the blankets and earth and long female hair. God bless them for not putting Amelia's hair up. I hate when some hot girl rounds out her Oscar dress by slicking her hair back and up like she's trying to pass as a 15 year-old Italian-American soccer star. Ole! Pele! But in these great feminine parables, this Pele isn't some phallic ball footer but the old volcano-dwelling goddess of fire come to purify her human sacrifice in the flames of purification. In Kent we maybe have a female Polanski-esque Nicholas Ray to shake the "Yellow Wallpaper" madness and horror back to its primal core, the childhood fear that one day you'll wake up and your parents will be gone, leaving only their demons, their madness, addictions and dysmorphia to babysit. You can't run. You can't hide, "it's under your skin." You can only watch TV like your life depends upon it, and drink your demon under the table. Make him fear you. Unconditional love: no monster can survive it. 

NOTES:

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Great Acid Easter Cinema: THE GREEN PASTURES (1936)


This 1936 all-black folk interpretation of the Old Testament draws 'Uncle Tom'-style flak from liberal academia, and maybe they're right (1), but on the other hand, God is portrayed as a black man (Rex Ingram), and He is a God of Wrath and Vengeance. So, while he may talk gentle and folksy, and heaven may be just clouds and an endless singing, fish-fries, five cent ceegars, and cups of firmament-deficient custard, it's still no place for buffoonery. And I personally love the shit out of this movie, and if part of that love comes from a kind or round-about racism, then stone me not lest ye be first stoned, as I was when I had it on a six-hour tape sandwiched between a host of 30s Betty Boop cartoons and Death Takes a Holiday (1934). The tape was labeled "In case of Emergency" - knowing this blog you might guess what kind of emergency I meant. For nary a month or so went by that my weird self-medication regimen wouldn't fail on me, to the point I'd drunkenly and ill-advisedly take too much acid in order to pull myself out of a spiritual tailspin and instead wind up spinning even faster, the yawning chasm of Hell opening up before me. In those dark moments, with Death so close I could see its reflection in the toilet bowl mirror, I'd reach for the Boop-Pastures-Holiday trifecta tape, and lo, I would be healed. "Nothing dies forever," (perhaps) a (mis)quote I heard while in the other room during Expendables 3.  Ain't it apt?

Because for all its folksy drinkin' mammy wine racist caricature stereotypin', Green Pastures won't stay dead. At its core it's not about the black experience, it certainly means no ill will. In its clear-headed mystical scissor complexity it is a very modernist film, fusing the mythos of the Old Testament to the mythos of the Carl Sandburg south. It's darker than blue, wrong as acid rain, but it goes down sweet as vanilla extract bottle downed as a last resort on a blue law Sunday when the shakes are so bad you can't even get off your knees, when just reaching up into the baking cabinet takes ten minutes of deep breathing and courage cuz you're so damn low from the all-day Saturday brain fry. At such times the gentle but properly aligned gravitas of Ingram's God is like a salve to a wound that's bled your soul, mind, and spirit raw, wide open, like a freshly de-legged origin story Ahab.  When situated twixt Boop's Max Fleishcer animated, Satchmo-scored surrealism and the Frederic March-starred "Hurrah for the next who dies" love story, all three personified great archetypal forces in play and provided a soulful comfort to a poor space cowboy fallen so far off his horse he'd already passed the ground three times. It was surely meant to heal this way, for 1930, the year it was written (as a play) was a rough year for this great country, a whole lot of once middle class white folks--many decorated war heroes--were suddenly very enlightened in how it felt to be poor as hell, spat on by the cops, and forced to sleep in Central Park and to take whatever demeaning job was offered. The market crashed, the Depression was on, and you couldn't even drown your sorrows, thanks to Prohibition. FDR was still three years away, but Hitler was coming right on into view.

I'm sure there's a weird undercurrent of unconscious white liberal wish fulfillment in my affection for the film, but like a lot of us who grew up in 70s Middle Class White America, I was used to black people only on TV, via Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and What's Happening! and of course the radio, where you couldn't tell. Our sense that the racist jokes and cartoons we saw and heard were wrong didn't really sink in until Roots came along, and we were all like, holy shit. That happened! 

At the same time, I regard with suspicion the uber-liberal academe for whom ever single word spoken in popular media is either vile and racist or else (in my mind) painfully didactic, flavorless, and dour. A black actor for these folks has to 'represent' color, one way or another, elevating or denigrating with every step and word. To quote one of the Angels near the end as he watches Jesus down on the cross, that's a terrible burden for one man. But a great actor uses every ounce of whatever he's got in his DNA, whatever his racial heritage, he plummets down in there. He recognizes the universal man as black via accentuation of the black man as Other rather than the kind of sanitized PC sermonizing that reinforces stereotypes even as it denies them, treats minorities like Katniss treats Peta in The Hunger Games. White fans of black culture like myself look at the vibrant soul of the black performer with vampiric envy. We recognize it as something we lack, and feel it in our bones, long to absorb it. Spike Lee will tell Tarantino's fans to be ashamed for loving his dialogue, but art flowers in the offal of wrongness; it withers and dies when subjected to 'peer-reviewed journal' correctness... in an artistic sense, strictly speaking, they let fear of PC Inquisition snuff their possible mass appeal in its infant cradle. That, and they're either part of or at the mercy of Communist dissent-promoters entrenched in a covert tenure pyramid stretched across this great nation's liberal arts departments since the 1950s. As Marlene Dietrich would say, "Joe... where are you, Joe?"

And so goes my rambling preface to my telling you that The Green Pastures was written in 1930 by the great white wit Marc Connelly, one of the Algonquin round table, from Roark Bradford's source text called Ol Adam and his Chillun. And critics are right, it's racist. But so is Mark Twain. Don't forget, in the same era the popular books were savage satires of white poverty and deviance by eugenics proponents like Erskine Caldwell. Relative to Caldwell, Pastures is socially progressive, wise, and humorous, if some of the black actors embody exaggerated grotesques, it should be remembered that the source text basically chronicles Eden, the Flood, ancient Egypt, Babylon, and so forth, and the idea of humanity ever-oscillating between humble reverence and depraved decadence, between higher human and bestial indulgence, is something humanity in general, and America especially, still struggles with today.

We should also remember that the most racist of all biblical films are those deadly dull ones that cast only white actors, sometimes in black, brown, or yellow face, to play the biblical figures. Based on the relatively small geographic area where most of the Old Testament transpires, characters should all actually be North African. Where else in popular culture, aside from that Isaac Hayes album Black Moses or on Kwanzaa tapestries, are biblical characters black? The black man is the original man, true? So no other race should portray Adam, or Noah for that matter, and that means everyone else in the damned burg should be some mix of Northern African and Middle Eastern heritage, Jews included as part of the Israel / Ishmael divide. (2)

Right
Wrong!
Now, I'm no fan of the bible and its obtuse user-unfriendly 'folk' language, but when its folked up even more and in a more homey direction by old man Connelly, it suddenly becomes clear as a powerful vehicle of myth that, alone amongst biblical films, works to cohere God's actions throughout the Old Testament--God's periodic visitations, judgements of wickedness, and raining destruction to start anew, over and over through the ages--to find a common thread. And in its folksy way, Connelly's work actually manages to make sense of the huge difference between the Old Testament God and the New. "Maybe we was tired of that old God," notes Azrel, who doesn't notice the guy he's talking to is actually God and played by the same actor as himself, and he's feeling wrathful. But Azrel lays a trip on God that cuts deep: He needs to be a god of mercy, and to understand the concept of mercy, even God must suffer. Suffering brings forgiveness. Azrel won't even acknowledge the wrath of the old God. The new God is merciful and kind, and God doesn't have a say in the matter.


So in a sense this movie does what my lame Christian Science Sunday school teachers never could, make sense of what is, in a literally biblical sense, a bizarre unheimliche mix of historical fact and mythic 'telephone game' translation and editing. Having it be a folksy narrative along the lines of something Mark Twain or Carl Sandburg might write is perhaps the 'truest' way to tell the story.

If all that doesn't mean anything to you, o judger of my love as racist, then just this: The Hal Johnson Choir does some great singing as the Heavenly angel congregation, the kind of music we don't hear nowadays when gospel is either Mahalia Jackson style or stodgy Catholic classical; the choir is more attuned to, say, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, another old trippy favorite of my clan. The film is not a musical and the songs mostly serve as transitions between scenes, as God meddles with or just visits the folks on his Earth, then comes back up and decides whether or not to wipe out this latest version and start again.

And if the language seems outdated, note of the original bible text (which I looked up wondering what the hell firmament was):
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day (GENESIS 1.6-8)
Jeezis that's bad speaking on old God's part. I far prefer de Lawd's version:
"Let there be some firmament, and I don't mean no little bit of firmament. I mean a whole mess of firmament, 'cuz I'm sick of running out of it when we need it.".

Like a lot of enduring mythic texts, the Old Testament defies easy interpretation as either truth or fiction, i.e. it is true myth, tall tales in a sense, ala John Henry if crossed with the historical fact of Joe Louis, Leadbelly, and Cassius Clay. You can argue its accuracy all you want, but the text is full of magical staffs and personifications of elemental forces that were probably never meant to be taken as concretized dogma (3) as there are huge gaps in logic that my Sunday school teacher never could answer for me. For example, who did the children of Adam and Eve go off and marry if there were yet no other people? And later the children of Noah. Did they mate with some prehuman life form, or in the case of Noah's progeny, mermaids? Or with each other, and if with each other, and this goes for the two of each kind of animal, how with such a small gene pool are we not all (and all the animals) deformed inbred monsters? I get no answer... but in the context of The Green Pastures I don't need one. We're not here to blindly obey some nonsensical text with a wildly inconsistent and petty God. We're not making literal interpretation ala Chuck Heston. We're here to understand what it all means. And what it all means is that even our extraterrestrial old school God of Wrath and Vengeance can learn new tricks, and be taught by his own creations, to recognize and value suffering as a tool for self-transformation. The no atheists in a foxhole or a hospice vibe includes God too. Once He winds us up and sets us off into the world, He has no control over our actions, just hopes you find Him again, even if He's hiding, like Irene Dunne with a broken leg at the end of Love Story.

 For first world white kids like myself, with no diseases or ailments or crippling accidents or arrests of any kind, we can really only know true suffering via mental illness, such as depression, or our own drug withdrawal or bad trip overdoses on psychedelics that turn out to be laced with strychnine or formaldehyde, or are just way stronger than we were prepared for. Failing that, it's my opinion suicide attempts are a last ditch effort to achieve the same grace, because if you survive, suddenly your once stifling woes are dialed back into focus. Here's a little mantra I wrote about it:

Suffering is the fire of God the blacksmith, melting down your frying pan soul to hammer it into a mighty sword. Best learn to love the sound of the hammer ringing, because He's never satisfied.

The dentist is not punched for his painful probe;
you pay him for the privilege. So it is that
the infant is forgiven his filthy diaper,
the old man his soiled bedsheets,
but not the vagrant, drunk, obscene, stumbling reminder
that no pursuit of pleasure escapes its counterbalance misery,
and so to vice versa.

If your crying is not from worry or the dread of dying
Allow it. Aummmmmm
If your crying is not from fear the manna's flow shall soon cease,
Aummmmmm
If your crying is not from thinking about tomorrow, worrying on
the punishment from father, the trouble you'll be in, the missed finals, the repetitions
already seen as tedious, before they're starting
um...

Where the twig meets the leaf is where the first frames of meshed mom morph.
Then it vibrates outward, the unspooling spiral of the seashell snail shape Aummmmmmm
shuffled downward onto plankton carpets, shamanic rattles caked in baby spittle,
white and shiny glistening like freshly hatched serpent.
Aummmm, shapes cut from glowing red lantern light revolved in orbit patterns as you lie down.
Aummmmmmmmm, the holy gleaming halo of your last first faint sunset Aummmm.
Each death, night, goodbye, adieu just an outward breath Aummmmmmm.
Mom, that titan, that tower, encircles us no more,
just the slow spinning stars of nontoxic plastic, above us,
out of reach, above the crib prison crypt.

The rattle dries into whiskey and drum sets, growing tall brings
girls of equal height, their breasts no longer big as beanbag chairs,
only the forgotten homework now
stirs a guilty shiver that giant crib mom absences's harrowing equal.

Inward..
Buzzing, the razor stops suddenly, the chair
either dentist of barber, you forgot which,
lurches downward.
The bib comes off.
We're unleashed,
to where, with such a naked neck?

And so we sense that the hangups that befoul our spiritual questing are all beaten and cleared away by the enormous suffering of the Jewish slaves and the black slaves, and the grotesque words, faces, jewelry and actions all speak to a great evolutionary quality, as the grotesque exaggerations of blackness, the dice game, the koochie dancers, the grim inhumanity and shallow interest in 'tricks' gives way to hard-won dignity as humanity collectively moves from a Pagan pantheon of animal gods and graven images (requiring human sacrifices) to the idea of a jealous God who demands fidelity, to a God of love and forgiveness. It's all there in Ingram's face as de Lawd, and also as Adam, and Hezrel, a name that appears nowhere else.


During my 'here comes the big 12/21/12!' big rapture moment (4)  I understood at last with diamond clarity that all the suffering in the world had only this one purpose, the shaking of the gold prospector's pan - to sift away the dross and mud so God might see what's left to shine, and all the baubles and wealth in the world won't buy you one step onto that golden stair, so don't be sure all that glitters in Plant's hair has two meanings. But in losing all that, in tossing possessions away, in enduring centuries of slavery with one's every pain-wracked step (5), one earns it. No expensive wine ever tasted half as sweet as plain water to a man dying of dehydration in the desert. And to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, God made men into desert wanderers, that they might know this awesome vintage. Because I'm too pampered to want to wander and die in the desert just for a taste of this golden water nectar, I became a psychedelic surgeon. But when I accidentally sew my ego into the soul via incorrect sutures and stay awake in the dark night of the soul despair, then I got Leadbelly, and Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Pastures, to raise me clear above it (by going below it) via transcendental alchemical process. It remindeth me the desert's always waiting, somewhere wrapped in foil in a forgotten college freezer, the 'good work' always ready to be picked up right where you left it. Aummm.


A final word: 
Ingram also played the devil's son-in-law in Cabin in the Sky, another all-black film that posits the negro culture as being more extreme in its polarity than whites (i.e. a black man is either a decent, God-fearing Christian or a debauched craps-shooting, razor-wielding pimp) gets far less critical dross, but I think is far more racist (7). Here Ingram is de Lawd and we never see the devil. And he played the genie in Thief of Baghdad, in short he's very good at playing larger than life mythic archetypes that far transcend the generic role of the 'bearer of the burden of blackness.' He genuinely seems to be asking, in that beautifully gentle but forceful purr of a voice, "Have you been baptized?" ("Yes, Lord" the choir responds) Have you been redeemed? ("Yes lord"), etc. He's a complex god because though he judges his creation his main request is that he honor him on Sunday, obey the commandments, and not go "fussin' and fightin' and bearin' false witness." He brings in the three Jewish angels in long white beards, and declares "It so happens I love your family, and I delights to honor them." The angels mention their people are in bondage down in Egypt. "I know they is. Who do you think put them there?" The Angels look dismayed "Oh, that's okay, I'm a take 'em out again." The Angels smile - but again there's the nagging suspicion that God is a bit of an insecure egotist. A good parent understands his children are bound to disobey on occasion, that it's essential to good growth of independent thought (as an academic advisor I see the damage done by over-protective parents who work double time to prevent this independent thought in their children).


During my last big awakening I became a ball of light unmoored from my body and 3D space time. I realized I was always either revolving closer to the godhead or farther away - but there was no such thing as true motionlessness, and to merge into the godhead obliterated all separateness, and can be dangerous - like moths aren't meant to survive hitting the bulb they orbit. In this case it was a ground zero of infancy - the sun being mother's breast, her love, her giant presence, for when a baby, your mother is a gigantic icon, more then five times your size. You worship her and need look no farther for true sustenance and comfort and if you hold a good orbit you're okay, but drift too far from her amniotic light and it's total darkness. She becomes just another star as you drift (as seen in Enter the Void). And if you're not working back towards that holy light, the devil's got you in his long reach gravity, convincing you to curse, get drunk, and get more stuff because God doesn't exist anyway. True or not makes no difference: I feel this comforting gravity of the lord when watching Green Pastures. And that is enough. If there is a God, the miseries He creates here on Earth are to aid us in finding a streak of true faith and true mercy, true humility, the nonjudgmental love that unites all dualities back into a healthy radiant whole. Do I bow mighty low? I do.

Until the drugs wear off.
------

NOTES:
For New Testament Action, see Acidemic's 2011 Great Acid Cinema JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
1. See G.S. Morris's great, even-handed analysis: Thank God for Uncle Tom. Race and Religion Collide in The Green Pastures (Bright Lights, Jan. 2008)
2. I don't know what I'm talking about here, shhhh!
3. Imagine if Aesop's Fables were taken as truth, with vintners making sure their vines are always low enough for foxes to reach, lest the grapes turn sour, etc.)
4. fall 2012 if you're keeping score, check the posts.
5. Giving away all your possessions and $$ gives you a rush of total freedom, if it didn't cults wouldn't exist. Add to that the idea that a vegan diet is both very holy and right and yet makes you highly suggestible and passive, and drudgery and ceaseless toil give you clarity (i.e. when standing for 24 hours straight, lying down is a sublime ecstasy) then cults have a great rationale for all their exploitive behavior.
6. STP - or DOM - is a Berkeley chemist masterpiece, it's a sports car that comes with no brakes, and no way to de-accelerate, the gas tank just has to run itself out. I didn't know til Erowid that what I'd taken (DOM) was the same as what my doppelganger avatar Dave in Psych-Out (Dean Stockwell) is drinking and passing out sips. See: Great Acid Cinema: PSYCH-OUT (1968)
7. see one of my very first posts on this site: CABIN IN THE SKY: Co-Dependence and the Lord. (7/07)

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Druggie Vampire Women of B&W City: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, THE ADDICTION, NADJA


If the old adage is true that no one ever thinks about you as much as you think, then and only then, Bad City, Unreal City, the City of Devils, where you can at least write about it, and like so many here before me in the swamps of the East Side and Brooklyn, I've submissively followed my vampire anima like a doting Renfield, scooping up any fly turns of phrase or spider ideas she cares to drop behind her, protected from harm only by some half-remembered Hegel quote kept around my neck, "for your mudder's sake."  Lonely in the throng of my fellow lonesome vampire secretaries, aging and dying as far back as the modernist vagabonds being ejected from the White Horse Tavern but all of us old, decayed, drug from one Annexia to the next, while the same vampire muses stay young and lush and flush in their coffin pages and occasionally celluloid.

Artistic communities are druggy communities or they're hack communities. The East Village now can only be afforded by only NYU students, old bastards with rent controlled apartments, and rich young German or Japanese ex-pats. The rest of us, the Allies, chased across to Brooklyn, scrounging in the cracks between the ghetto and the rich hipster zones for a cheap rent that doesn't involve getting jumped when coming home in the dead of night, drunk as a lord, and often. Guided through the dark only by our Metrocard and our weedy little journals, even as early back as the mid 90s there was a clot of female druggie vampire artists as metaphors for both AIDs and drug addiction; the thriving anonymity and the mad dash of youth through the gates of decadent pleasure that is downtown existence lent itself to both. Now we live in squalor in Park Slope and make double what we used to, and can barely afford a fin a day Coke Zero, cigarette, and coffee habit.

But there's always the 90s to revisit, and now, thanks to a genius female Iranian director, there's an indication some element of the black and white vampire urban druggy denizen dream lives on, in a sub-section of the Interzone, where LPs and cassette mix tapes are still the hard currency of connection. Iran's Bad City (aka Bakersfield, CA) the paradise of an eternal spring break in a town one step away from the clankety-clank of Eraserhead. In Persian with English subtitles! Tiny damn things but they're new!



THE ADDICTION
1995- Dir Abel Ferrara 
****

"Dependency is a marvelous thing," states Lili Taylor to her doctoral thesis advisor as a segue for shooting up with him. "It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctorate material." Of course she's going to give him more than a taste of the white horse; she's going to drink that opiated blood and bask in a double craving being satisfied. The point is, this girl's got interesting things to say, both out loud and in the coolest voiceover narration in all of cinema, a veritable doctoral thesis in action courtesy longtime Ferrara collaborator, screenwriter Nicholas St. John. And Taylor brings just the right mix of zonked conviction to his words; never pretentious, always cognizant of word's inadequacy, the ideal doctoral candidate who's following her thesis to its "the horror, the horror" nadir/pinnacle, embracing the madness and physical decomposition (i.e. the rotting teeth so common to heroin addicts). It all starts when she's accosted on the street by vampire Annabelle Sciorra who throws her into an alley and gives her the bite while telling her to say go away, which Taylor just can't do. Sciorra's hot, exotic, who could say no? Therefore, it's all the victim's fault, but is that rationalization on the vamp's part, or one of those things like they have to be invited in or can't cross your threshold?


Too zonked to care, and so I relate to Taylor's subsequent journey, her rapture over her newfound abilities and widened perceptions, even if they compel her to confront the horrors our usual sensory blinders obscure; her later decomposition similar to, say, Cronenberg's Fly remake, watching their own slow motion decomposition with a scientist's dispassionate eye.  They're in it for the knowledge, for the cracking it wide open, like true investigators. They don't cling to outmoded parameters of self. I remember scaring girlfriends and co-workers with my own rants about how I could see through time and space was an illusion, foam flecking from the sides of my mouth. Her fellow doctoral candidate and study buddy Edie Falco, for example, is pretty horrified by how far off the deep end diving board Taylor's going.  Taylor all but sneers: "Your obtuseness is disheartening as a doctoral candidate." She's right, and it's clear just who's gonna ace the thesis dissertation because she's seen beyond the veil and waltzed past all the old dead men still wrestling with phony differentiations between past and present, free will and destiny. Taylor's addiction, her disease, has organized her life, broadened her perspective, and made her as quintessentially New York as Wendy Kroy in The Last Seduction (1995).

With its artsy black and white photography, The Addiction would look great on Blu-ray, but like so many Abel Ferrara movies seems mired in royalty disputes with international consortiums, so all I have to remember it by is my letterbox DVD of dubious origin. Even under such primitive conditions  it's a stunner that manages on a flop house budget what Coppola's Dracula couldn't with all its smoke and Zoetrope mirrors, to create a piece of durable horror pop-art cinema with mythopoetic Murnau roots. The hydra polyp magnifying glass lectures and plague likenings of the first Nosferatu are here reflected in microfiche revisitings of the My Lai and a visit with Falco to an Auschwitz exhibit. No one just dies in this vamp universe, there's no time - and they were never living anyway, not in the sense you mean below 14th Street. Instead, their cool undoes them, as being artists and academics they're smart enough to know that unless they say yes to dangerous experiences (unprotected anonymous sex, heroin, biting) they'll have nothing interesting to say in their art or thesis, and wind up just another flyover hack. Victims are told all the time that receiving the disease was their decision, like a "welcome to the disease which there is no cure for" bathroom mirror urban myth.


Taylor is so good in the lead its almost supernatural. She's low-key, sexy and very convincing. She owns the role, the film, the city, and with nothing but a low purring whisper that seems born to say Nicolas St. John's clear-eyed lines. Abel must have lost his shit when he saw how good she was, how great this film was gonna be. Too bad more people can't get behind it, perhaps from lack of experience with either STDs, drugs or philosophy or New York and its druggy artsy undertow, the stolen shot seediness Abel captures better than anyone else, the NYC that's still wild and woolly, every storefront a decaying mass of failed punk band stickers. You could fold images of Taylor in her shades (below) right in with Warhol's black and white Edie Sedgwick, Velvet Underground, and 'moving portraits' factory footage and not miss a mink-lines "beat."


Re-watching it lately for purposes of this post, I started writing down relevant quotes and found myself wanting to write down the whole script. So many great lines that are like manna to any starving college graduate alcoholic or drug addict: "Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find." I lived by those words while drinking myself into oblivion along with this movie. Watching Taylor convulse on the street in withdrawal reminded me of when I would try to get to and from the liquor store, literally right next door, and one flight of stairs, a twenty taped to my shaking hand, trying to get my 1.75 of Ten High and make it back up to safety of The Thin Man without falling, vomiting or convulsing on the street and winding up at Bellevue in the care of old Bim.

"... little turkeys in straw hats."
So yeah, this is right up there with The Lost Weekend for the authentic NYC 90s addict-alcoholic experience. "Self realization is annihilation of self." Skooly D, a longtime Ferrara collaborator, appears and scores while Taylor wrestles with her habit's thousand dimensions and finding a way to excuse and forgive thd self-destructive tendencies clotting human history's arteries with crimes so vile they crash time's mainframe. Christopher Walken shows up for a few killer moments, luring Taylor to his apartment, draining her nearly dry, while boasting how well his habit is under control and urging her to read Naked Lunch. What a dick. Cypress Hill beatboxes the soundtrack with druggy raps pitch-shifted through a blunt and a half: "I want to get high / so high" while Ferrara's camera prowls the sticker-and-graffiti-caked turf, and if you were a big partier in NYC in the 90s, then damn, this be like a goddamn scrapbook. Meanwhile, your city is gone but the buzzy flashback of that first e and c stroll at dawn after an all-night sesh lingers decades in the blood, which is why Taylor wants to drink it. Like all good druggie downtown vamps, she wants the blood rich with opiates and pheromones, the double nice secretions once the drugs trigger massive release from the pituitary gland (just ask the drug-dealer alien in Dark Angel [1990] AKA I Come in Peace). That's the best there is. By comparison, sex is strictly for the tourists.

NADJA 
1994 - Dir Michael Almereyda 
***

As quiet as the Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is, Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) talks incessantly. "I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level," she blathers at a bar to some future victim dude who buys her another drink as if hearing nothing she's saying, and she's barely saying anything, except that compared to NYC, Europe is a village, and that the city actually gets more alive and exciting after midnight. "I was born near the Black Sea, in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains," she says. Dig. She may be rich East Village Eurotrash from old Transylvanian money but she's far less erudite than newbie vamp Lili Taylor in The Addiction. Here excuse, she's grieving her father, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, via ingeniously overlapped and incorporated images from [the public domain] White Zombie), even though she hated him, for making her eat butter. He was a monster. Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) has just staked him after finding him strung out on drugs, old "confused, surrounded by zombies. He was just going through the motions," Van H's nephew Marin Donovan plays the most fey boxer ever and just happens to be married to Nadja's new love interest, a cute little closeted even unto herself Galaxy Craze. Nadja is weary of her jet set life and longing to love again, even if she knows it will hurt in the long run: "Life is full of pain, but I am not afraid. The pain that I feel is the pain of fleeting joy." She's also dying, "for a cigarette."

We don't blame her, that pain is rough, man. I felt it all through age 16-20. They meet when Galaxy asks her for a cigarette at a nameless coffee house and we fall in love too, right off, with her strung out 'love child of Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy' look. We know right off that she would make a great vampire, her speech vaguely slurred but very open like she's talking to a therapist while trying to hide that she's sailing along the Oxycodone sea. Nadja and her pretty boy servant pick up Drac's body from a confused David Lynch as the morgue attendant. It starts to snow as she walks down the street at night, smoking and gliding, and then Portishead starts, "How can it feel / this moment?" 

Galaxy Craze
Nadja's writer-director Michael Almeyreda displays a clear love of cigarettes, Universal pre-code horror, and the the lesbian vampire movies of the 70s, with Gothic shots that wondrously fuse the downtown grit of NYC with the Universal pre-code Expressionism of Karl Freund. Structured like a loose remake of the 1935 Universal horror classic, Dracula's Daughter, there's also unambiguous references to The Vampire Lovers, Daughters of Darkness, the occasional lapses into pixelated imagery culled from a then-the-rage Fisher Price Pixelvision movie camera create a feeling of dreamy disconnect, reflecting perhaps the Nadja eye view (especially when she disappears into parallel dimensions, like Frodo when he puts on the ring) and making the rest of the film's grainy video-ish look seem like high grade nitrate by comparison. It's under the Pixelvision we're treated to one of the hottest lesbian bite scenes ever. It's subtle, beautiful, strange, and outclasses Jean Rollin at his own game in one button. 

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
2014 Dir Anna Lily Amirpour
****

At last there's an Iranian vampire love story, told in resonant black and white and set in "Bad City," actually amidst the graveyards and oil derricks of Bakersfield, CA., "pumping up money" as Hank Quinlan would say, or "blood" as vampire Plainview would say. A place where rock anthems are still and forever relevant, it's forever the 80s, all while Madonna stares out from her poster and the days are marked by a junkie father's itchy paranoia. "The first western Iranian vampire movie" has a startling doppelganger effect in Sheila Vand's similarity to the film's writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, as she's an amazing character, a specter of feminist vengeance for oppressed women in Iran's repressive milieu, wrapped in her black cape hijab like Dracula's cape (or Nadja's hood), she preys mainly on male predators, waiting until they've shot up heroin or done some lines of coke before making her move, all the better to get high off the blood (though this is never spelled out). Gauging their response to her silent staring and seemingly everywhere at once, her playfulness as she stalks and mirrors carries itself a long way; most of the men in the film yammer away like spoiled vain children, figuring out how to come onto her or why she's shadowing them, all but young, insecure but semi-cool Arash (Arash Marandi), a Lynch-ish young go-getter forced to give up his prize car to dad's evil drug dealer (Dominic Rains, below), a giant, buff, coked-up, abusive tattooed pimp with a habit of sticking fingers in girls' mouths (which turns out to be a big mistake). Thanks to a chain of events, Arash gets his car back, and a suitcase full of drugs and money. Even with his blood rich in ecstasy, though, after a costume rave, our girl holds off indulging, instead engaging in a slow motion moment, beautifully set to a madly whirling disco ball and White Lies' "Death," a perfect song to bring them together as it builds slowly from just another click track into emotional sweep and grandeur all the more special for seeming to come so guileless and true, the Let the Right One Inverse of Sixteen Candles: "I love the quiet of the nighttime / the sun is drowned in deathly seas / I can feel my heart beating as I speed from / the sense of time catching up with me."


A lot of movies use pop songs, but how many 'get' the heady impressions deep tissue pop music makes on the young, how the right songs come pouring from radios like poems conjured from their own unconscious, there to linger and associate this moment, this now, which has completely stopped, or at least slowed way down, with this song? Dazed and Confused, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rushmore, The Big Chill, i.e. not very many. A Girl Walks Home Alone might be the first where not only does a song enhance the mood, pages of dialogue are being beamed silently outwards while characters barely move and the music plays.


Slight as it is, Amirpour's film sits nicely between the druggie black and white vampire girl genre, the Jim Jarmusch-Tom Waits graveyard at the edge of town tramp vibe, and the 'down and out' black and white 16mm post-neorealist movement from the early 00s in South America, films like Bolivia and Suddenly (Tan de Repente). I would have dug it if the film slowly turned to color during the ecstasy scene, then slowly back down to black and white for the come-down, but I'm always hoping more films will try that. Or any, besides Coffin Joe's Awakening of the Beast (1969). God damn it.


Either way, the film does nail exactly what ecstasy is like via the rush of blood in the ear sound editing and the way a teasing hottie will surround you with auric tentacles of come hither only to brush you off in an instant and send you reeling, with the double kick of heady intoxication and sudden, short-shock shame. And in its own way, Amirpour's film does it all one better, because she brings real storytelling to scenes that in Jarmusch's hands would just be actors waiting around inside skid row shots for some clever improv idea to strike them or until Jim's film can runs out. Instead there's some clever use of the slow motion to really reflect the temerity of the moment, while we wait for Anash's hand to come out of a glove compartment and the slow drone music drives us onwards, we move into the future, tapping our typewriter train ride way to Annexia, Zentropa, and on and on, as loyal as Oskar, and as doomed as Håkan before him, ready for our William Tell routine, one goddamned fly at a time... and no drug ever so sweet as to turn the city back to color.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Subterraneans: RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, THE BOOGENS,


As bi-polar March melts and freezes and jumps 30 degrees up and down almost every day here in NYC, I'm a veg, Danny, my SADD dragging me around like Angel tied to the back of Mapache's automóvil. My mother died last month, so who am I trying to shock with all my crazy gonzo rambling now? Who's next in the Agatha Christie keelhaul? In the hell of my natural Brooklyn habitat the prices keep going up up up up; I've been writing about the lysergic properties of The Green Pastures all week, but with all the instant crucifying going on in the blogosphere, I'm worried it's racist instead of merely clever. If the weather wasn't so unendurable I might hazard a guess, but the barometric pressure makes clarity impossible. Soon enough, chillin' with some entries in the drive-in triple feature canon instead. Because good recycled trash just might be the only haven from the demons at our doorstep, who be us. And I turn to Joanne Nail to fuck the shit up on my behalf, for my god is one of wrath and vengeance and he's tired of bureaucrats and bourgeois liberal tenure-trickers bearin' false witness. Hear these words long written down: the Jezebels will be back! 






RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR

Dir: Bruno Mattei 
1984 - **1/2

El Rey has delivered the great trashy 1970s-80s Italian goods like clockwork these days, and the best so far is Rats: Night of Terror (1984) -- which is different from Willard or Food of the Gods, or Rats, as in the Frank Herbert series about giant rats: Rats, Lair, and something else, which Stephen King recommended in Danse Macabre, and I found at the school book fair and bought and read avidly and so was crushed by the lame movie of. Whew! Anyway, it's the post-apocalyptic land wandering phase of junk 80s Italian cinema, the time when Escape from New York, The Warriors, The Road Warrior, and Conan the Barbarian all swirled together in the Italian trash auteur mind.



Since the advent of DVD a lot of these once-maligned gonzo Italian trash classics have found a new vibrance, as instant nostalgia for the era - even though at the time we'd just sneer at them, and with the glorious El Rey channel, we don't even have to seek them out. And you can feel the love and eye for deep blacks and deep color restoration on a lot of these, not all, but Rats: Night of Terror looks amazing, and that helps us get over the general grimy look of all the abandoned buildings where the film was shot, and our natural displeasure seeing masse of rats congregated in a room with no clear direction from their alpha leader what they're expected to do in order to seem menacing. The rats don't seem to have anything better to do than hang around though, so why not? Bruno Mattei, el director, makes sure there's other subplots as the events unfold, and so why not? Were rats harmed during the production? This is Italy, mate. So yeah. Probably. But in a hellscape like this, the dead are the lucky ones.

More than just the rats, it's got sci fi futurism as a Road Warrior style biker gang with tricked out vehicles that must have been left over from the 1983 Enzo Castellari film I nuovi barbari (The New Barbarians AKA Exterminators AKA Warriors of the Wasteland) which were from his classic 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and its sequels. In fact, in Germany, Rats: Night of Terror was billed as the Rifts III - Die Ratten von Manhatten i.e. one of those sequels, billed as third in the Bronx Warriors trilogy--hey, there were others still to come, and hey, they borrow from the best, and probably used the same cast and vehicles -- these guys use so many Anglicized names in their credits, how would we ever know unless Tim Lucas was interested enough to find out?

So these Bronx "Rifts" (yeah, "right!") pull into a deserted (bombed out in WW2 and never restored?) Italian (not supposed to be) villa and soon are besieged by shots of nonplussed en masse ratten, never funnier than when being pulled via an 'unseen' carpet towards our terrified post-apocalyptic biker antiheroes and their molls. There's a room with futuristic radio equipment and an opening scrawl that delivers a whole series of post-apocalyptic upsets, evolution amok, up and under.

This biker gang though seems to have dropped into this world from an amnesiac nightmare, initially super psyched to eat uncooked flour, soon enough wondering where it came from, and how to protect it from the rats. There's a long stretch where the camera urges us to think killing the bigger white rat will end the hostilities, and gang members lock eyes with it, but do nothing. Mainly, it's just gonzo 70s-80s Italian nonsense, the gang killing each other as much as the rats, with the fake Charles Bronson going up against the fake Richard Chamberlain; but the music is great, it looks foxy and retro-chic all tarted up by El Rey (or someone) with a lot of drive in fan geek love to the deep blacks and dusky dusty ratty colors. For those of us who saw the Escape-Road-Warriors trifecta over and over and over as kids, it's enough that this film tries hard to look like them, at least on some level. Could-a done without the rats, though. Twist ending!

SWITCHBLADE SISTERS

Dir. Jack Hill
1973 - ****

"The only thing a man's got below his legs is clay feet."

If you love to see men the target of feminine violence, then for you, almost always, lurks Jack Hill, the auteur behind SPIDER BABY, COFFY, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, but second most importantly, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, a loonys cross between the old Warners gangster pictures, and a preconfiguration of what was to become a street gangs/amok youth craze that fused HAPPY DAYS/AMERICAN GRAFFITI-style do wop greaser nostalgia with the urban grime apocalypse of 70s New York:  ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), THE WARRIORS (1978), SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), THE WANDERERS (1979), THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974), GREASE (1978), HEY GOOD LOOKIN' (1981), and the likes. So of course there's Lenny Bruce's daughter Kitty as Donut (lower right), the gang member who gets picked on regularly by doll-faced, sweet voiced but tough-as-nails Lace (the great Robbie Lee).  No one fucks with new girl in town Maggie (Joanne Nail) though. She don't back down. Lace isn't threatened by her spirit, though she should be. Lace's consigliere Patch (Monica Gale) may have only one eye, but she sees the writing on the wall: Maggie's gonna steal Patch's man, the goomba Alpha of their male counterparts, Dominic (Ashner Brauner). Maybe she's just jealous of losing her beta spot in the pack, but ole Patch is right, the sparks between Dom and Maggie are real, and even his breaking into her room to rape her can't change that. In short, this is Jacobean tragedy of the first order, with a roller rink subbing for the town square, and enemy houses in the form of a drug dealing bunch of smartasses posing as a local political group who run up against Dom's operation.


Anyway, it bombed. The film's original title THE JEZEBELS made drive-in audiences think it was that hoary old Bette Davis southern romance (maybe?).  SWITCHBLADE SISTERS as a title is also a little tacky. By the time the distributors changed the title, word had gotten around JEZEBELS was the film to see, but now they couldn't find it. D'oh!! If it had been called  I'LL SLIT YOUR FUCKING THROAT, it would be talked about to this day.  Hill's other great film, SPIDER BABY had the bad luck to be made in black and white right as drive-ins didn't want black and white movies anymore (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had broken the mold the year before, I guess). That title was dumb too, making it seem like some ditzy Andy Sidaris softcore lesbo thing it should have been called THE SPIDER GIRL GAME or I'LL SLASH YOU TO FUCKING RIBBONS!

Anyway, you can guess the story, SISTERS is great when you're really pissed off, like I am right now. It goes all the way and keeps going long after other films pull back and say 'that's far enough, laddies: we don't need, say a feminist black militant ghetto uprising with a badass armored Cadillac or a shocking Cagney-by-way-of Lorre raving mad closing monologue, or an Othello style jealous mind poisoning or the foxy Daryl Hannah-prefiguring eye patch of Patch and heavenly blonde jawline of Bunny. But Hill gives us all that and more, and Quentin Tarantino brings us to the Hill by way of Miramax, looking damn good by way of Netflix Streaming. Forever.


Maybe I'm really pissed off right now, and taking it out on the infinitely carvable idiots in my mind who kept us working until four on while a blizzard raged because they had a meeting with Girl Scouts. I sulked in my office, blasted this movie on Netflix, felt like a badass, then tripped on my snow boot shoelaces like a four alarm ponce. But either way, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is the shit, see it when you're in the mood to stomp on someone, and that it's on Netflix in HD with gorgeous colors is one of cinema's current great gifts. See it when you're super furious at the world, or just strung out with the shakes because your dealer never showed, and bask in the film's gonzo cathartic powers of the fabulous Joanne Nail. She'll be back all right! In the fascinating drive-in capstone, THE VISITOR!

THE BOOGENS

Dir James L. Conway
1981 - ***

Am I crazy to have had to get this on Blu-ray? I had to see what was going on better as all early videos were notoriously too dark in the mine scenes. And I knew that, and having known that, waited until the Blu-ray to see it at all. Which wasn't hard, as copyright disputes seem to have sunk it in limbo off and on since it's brief theatrical release. It's got a pretty dopey title too. "Boogens" is like what some gross kid in the cafeteria might call the peas he stuck up his nose, for example. Another reason: it came around during the slasher boom and seemed part and parcel with all the bland baghead movies coming out of every corner of bleeding indie filmdom and sending my alienated tweenager fledgling feminist pose all a-kimbo. I told you about how I suffered at the hands of imagined slashers in every shadow and branch against the window sound at night at the time! Eventually I realized the slashers probably weren't coming, and then drugs and alcohol wiped all fear away. But in 1981 I was right in the thick of it, and Boogens then had the double whammy of slashers +gross cafeteria mental conjuring. Well, maybe it just needed 30 years for us both to get our shit together, because now I think it's fucking great. Okay, good, okay... good enough.


The monster stuff is all pretty rote, which is great for lovers of said genre, such as myself. What really sets it apart is the snowy environment and the relative cool of two young men (Fred McCaren, Jeff Harlan) fresh out of engineering school taking a job re-opening an old silver mine, and the two young women--one the girlfriend, the other just there to be set up  visiting them for the weekend for sex and skiing (Rebecca Balding, Anne-Marie Martin). I've been on all sides of their foursome and the casual but mature hookup between the girlfriend's friend and the guy's roommate is amazingly well etched. Unlike most scripts, the dialogue has to voice of two separate people, which makes sense considering it was written by two dudes, and then re-written by still more. But for once that works pretty well and we're so used to the usual geeky virgin nerds and hunky alpha bland lotharios, sluts and final girls, that we only realize here in Boogens how under-represented is the gap in cinema between those polarities. Boogens asks: What about the guys and girls old enough to know what they want and not care about their reputations, but young enough they're still a little insecure when real emotion intrudes on the mechanics of a weekend stand? I went into this because I needed as many 80s monster movies I could muster, but what won me over was seeing the dudes and girls who are little nervous about hooking up, but not to the point of geekiness and who hook up with each other without it being about sluts or virgins or getting lucky to the date rapey snickering of baseball cap-wearing douche bags, but just connecting casually when the lover of one roommate brings her friend up to the cabin for the weekend? We must be in Europe! Or Canada. Or in a John Carpenter movie. But we're not!

This was filmed in Utah and Colorado, out there in the woodsy wild. And the monsters have an ingenious connection to all the homes in the neighborhood. The monster are hilarious, cool, and even a little scary. I shall not reveal them here, because the film takes its time not showing them too early, which is how it should be. And by my troth, I shan't be the one to break that most sacred bond for you. You can dig it, right, literally? There's some real terror with a girl in one of the girls fresh out of the shower getting chased around the basement and an explosive ending and some good (presumably real) mine scenes, which we can see and appreciate.... now.