Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Saturday, August 29, 2015

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



The recent discovery of cannabis traces in Shakespeare's old pipes only confirms it: Shakespeare was 'experienced.' It takes weird alchemical magic to write as potently as he did, which means mind altering heights not dreamt of in your dusty professor's philosophy. And even more common than cannabis was the potent psilocybe cubensis mushroom which--lest we forget--grows naturally in the foggy climate of merrye England. Thanks to an obscure but enduring law stretching way back to the ancient times, it's always been an inalienable British right to grow, harvest, sell, and ingest all shrooms. They even had a renaissance when that law was remembered, I saw some for sale at the Portobello Street Fair. I nearly lost my then only five year-old sobriety. I thought I'd stepped into Lewis Carroll's Wonderland or Burroughs' InterZone, or a Hitchcockian version of Pepperland. Then came Ben Wheatley's A Field in England; and then I knew. North America is way, way behind the evolutionary curve when it comes to tripping. And even the ravers of today, no matter how clenched their jaws, can't hold a candle to their Elizabethan ancestors, the flourishing of alchemists, astronomers, and poets, Spencer's Fairy Bower, leading to the metaphysical poets, seances, fairy photography, and ghosts of ancient castles made visible only through enhanced eyes.

Conveying the full breadth of all-cylinders psychedelic madness in coherently poetic dialogue is beyond even the most willing and wasted authors; too often they lapse into either incoherence or abstraction; they fall into the bad trip asylum (Poe, Lovecraft) or the good trip monastery (Ram Dass, Ginsberg), or fake their way along in a kind of faux hip snap (Eric Robbins). Only the truly far out can see once all the walls and territorial lines are burned away there's a radiance so bright it encompasses the depths of darkness and a whole new layer of shadow emerges, and that shadow snakes like the clouds of Sils Maria over Shakespeare's craggiest plays, creating beauty by illuminating in HD clarity the depths of the collective unconscious' and voicing an archetypal rogues gallery.  Not all Shakespeare's trippy, but they all have that hip playfulness when it comes to non-sequitors, and Beatles-esque wordplay reflecting the imperanence of life and the constant movement of the moon and stars.

And there's no Shakespeare play more layered in meaning and counter meaning, given the full measure of multiple meanings--all three eyes aligned and taken in the full wide-eyed weirdness--than Hamlet. And no version more attuned to the druggie parallels than Mel Gibson's in Zeffirelli's 1990 film, with: Glenn Close is the queen mother, Paul Scofield as the ghost dad, and a 23 year-old saucer-eyed tarot card come to life, Helena Bonham Carter is that ultimate in hometown girlfriends, Ophelia. I had forgotten all about how good this was until it showed up on EPIX the other day. It blew my mind. How did I forget how good it was? Of course. Mel Gibson. Even then we was too big an action star, so it was stilted down to a snarky late night TV joke. But the joke's on us, because this Hamlet is the one to beat. You can taste the tang of acid in its air and Zeffirelli, who became a counterculture honoree when his 1968 Romeo and Juliet caught on big with the free love generation, hitting the perfect note of how young love and idealism is trampled underfoot by the older generation's petty grudges (Vietnam, the drug war as an excuse to arrest and ruin innocent flower children for the crime of being free, etc.) Well, a lot has changed since then, but you can still feel the psychedelic pulse in all Zeffirelli's subsequent work. I reviewed a lot of it for the Muze canon at the turn of the century, while I was newly sober, and seeing his long version Jesus of Nazareth and Brother Sun Sister Moon was a bona fide spiritual awakening). I hated The Dreamers, but think Stealing Beauty is underrated. Zeffirelli works in a kind of Merchant Ivory of Italy classical beautiful light style that's almost cliched'ly 'art house' but he's the real deal, his films pulse with a genuine connection to Italian art stretching back to Michelangelo, a sublime mix of sublime natural light craftsmanship and genuine artistic-spiritual feeling. In other words, he's a perfect Shakespeare dude, he's the Italian William Blake.

Mel Gibson's great genius in the lead is to use all his star wattage and 'crazy eyes' Martin Riggs Aussie wildman energy to bear on Hamlet's mood swings, rather than bury that wattage in some stilted bowing to the pillars of 'important' art like so many classically trained Shakespearian actors would. He'a fully aware stuffed shirt critics are going to roll their eyes at the thought of this Mad Max playing the tortured Dane. Almost to spite them, he rips it up, he brings Max's and Martin's madness with him, ranting and frothing like the dark bad trip cross between Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx's paranoid schizophrenic shadow. Bringing terrifying coherence to a miasma of late night drug dealer paranoia, the way the fear of death--normally down to a manageable abstraction--becomes terrifyingly vivid. Wen morning breaks, you wonder "is that the sun or a cop?" And when the band finally comes on, the players arrive, you rush to the distraction like a drowning man to scorched desert.

It's called Salvia Divinorum, dad. We've all been there

It's not for everyone, that kind of 'high strangeness.' You have to be drawn to it, called. Most people fear it--they cite government misinformation about how it damages chromosomes and makes for mutant children; or that--in letting go of your sanity--you may never get it back, never quite come down--which is true. This kind of reticence, fear of flying, appears in Hamlet courtesy of the coterie of buddies who lead Hamlet to the battlements where his father's ghost walks, then urge him not to follow where it beckons, as even seemingly benevolent spirits can turn into demons and convince you to jump--that you can fly... mirroring another big urban myth about LSD. How often have dumbass wallies been drawn to to the ledge with absurd thoughts of flight or elasticity of bone!? Hard to say, as that sort of detail doesn't get reported in general, except through the grapevine--it's just another college student leaping off the roof otherwise. The thing with psychedelic drugs though, is dosage. A drop gets you high, but drink the whole vial and your psych-ward bound. You're only chance is to get very, very drunk and/or gobble many Thorazine. That's why any good and responsible dealer in the more extreme of psychedelics takes care in prescribing. Give a 90 pound nerd the same dose as a Woodstock-era Wavy Gravy and you've got either a complete breakdown (like that naked chick trying to crowd surf in Gimme Shelter) or worse, a guy who's not nearly as high as he needs to be.

Thus the detailed caution of Horatio and the rest of Hamlet's entourage, that the father's spirit might be a trickster, the type who tells you three truths so that you believe the fourth which is the lie that undoes the other three before you can profit by them, as if this was all too common, a form of demonic possession or cult brainwash (isolate the subject from his friends, make it impossible for him to turn back, and then spring the trap). That Shakespeare had even the language for such bedevilment (the priest cautions against the three trickster witches' predictions in Macbeth) indicates this was a time when people were still allowed, perhaps, to believe in such things, especially in Elizabethan England, "the Golden Age." In that era of freedom from Catholic church oppression, discussing supernatural beings openly in a play was a form of ideological propaganda against those who believed only priests were allowed to see spirits, and then only holy ones. In fact, America's own draconian drug laws make a fine analogy to their persecution of witches and pre-Christian herbology. The caution against believing witches or ghost dads the same as cautioning against a charming dealer who lures you in with tasty free weed, and moves you slowly up to inescapable and expensive heroin.



Black magic, in fact, is all over Hamlet. Just like at Jimi Page's castle or NASA, there's deep 'rottenness' in Denmark. We never see the odious Claudius given evil ideas by spirits himself--there's no three witches pronouncing him Thane of Cawdor but it's trickster move-countermove as Hamlet's rash ghost-fueled frenzy of revenge strikes amiss and kills doltish Polonious instead, setting off a whole second arc of vengeance this time from Laertes on Hamlet, the instant chain of bad karma set in motion when, for example, a kid you sold doses to gets busted and next time you see him is toting two tie-dye undercover cops (Rosenkrantz and officer Guildenstern) who speak to you with falsely jocund familiarity. We'd let them know that we were drunken high-as-hell decadents only north by northwest; when the wind blows southerly we know a righteous high brother hawk from a narc handsaw.

It takes him a few beats for him to snap out of his wan funk, but after dad's ghost lures him up to the dangerous heights of the Stonehenge-tower battlements, after receiving 'the word' from his ghost father, he's like Moses coming down the mountain, then Mel's genius madness kicks in. For his Hamlet, performing his madness in a way that hides his true insanity by conveying it openly (a trick I myself did when shrooming my face off at the dinner table and trying not let my parents notice) then he's already past the point of no return, arguing with himself, stalling, hallucinating dad wherever he looks but paralyzed with dread--as we all would be at the thought of killing our uncle in cold blood--and going genuinely insane from the acting of it, dragging Ophelia (her "young woman's wits mortal as an old man's life") in his lysergic wake; she's the girlfriend you convince to shroom with you but it's soon clear she's not going to handle it well at all, and you're too far yourself to talk her down, and his mom, too, going mad--as if it's a contagious disease spread by this initial horror.  



And as that dame of Denmark, a 23 year-old Helena Bonham Carter, is the most dosed of all Ophelias. Super duper young and fetching, able to oscillate brilliantly between innocent, confused, thrilled, blessed, sexually aroused, distracted, crushed, and round the bend wavelengths all in a single bounding wave of a chicken bone she thinks is a flower (but could even more easily be a thick psilocybe cubensis stem), Carter's game for whatever. Like all the best young saucy acting natural blue bloods of England (she's related to baronesses and prime ministers), she's got the kind of class that goes so deep she doesn't ever deign to be merely ladylike. Architecture of the era was designed to compliment her cheeks and eyes. So unlike American actors who, alas, get stuck in the white elephant tar pits of bourgeois loftiness when doing Shakespeare, their bodies and tongues forced into all manner of unnatural poses, passing the antithetical monologues across the proscenium arch as if kicking it against the wind, Carter swims in it. It's like that line in Hawks: She's so good she doesn't feel she needs to prove it.

A lifetime of decadence and recovery has left me with a sharp eye for who's been to the mountaintop, 'experienced' in the Hendrixian sense. Gibson, Zeffirelli and Bonham Carter have all been up there, clearly, so when they plunge into heedless madness they do it way better than, say, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh or Olivier or Leigh could (1). That said, the more classically modulated the player-- as far as the people who go to Shakespeare plays in America are concerned (i.e. the bourgeoisie) -- is the better. For them classical acting must at all times strive for conveying the high arts. But Shakespeare doesn't need the protection of lofty grandeur. It spits openly on such lionization and in doing so elevates itself higher than its forebears,

In 1948, mountaintop-been-to madman Welles' termite art Macbeth came to art theaters but was overshadowed by Olivier's white elephant Hamlet the same year. Olivier's was how Shakespeare should be done the bourgeois critical body proclaimed. For Welles, 'done' was the key word there--his Shakespeare writhed and pulsed as something never done... eternal as madness itself. The best moments in Olivier's Hamlet are with the ghost dad, who looms in full and weird armor enshrouded by fog and speaking in an echoing boom whisper, seeming to be flowing right out of Hamlet's brain. Welles' entire film flows that way. (See Hallowed be thy Shakes).

Pssst, those stones in the moonlight look like me in about 20 years, i.e. rock, star-crossed, stoned dead - but an experienced space cowboy would just eye this specter and presume it's a hallucination... even if it's real, isn't it safer? 
The dad ghost (Paul Scofield) too, that woeful shattered superego, is like a bad shroom hallucination, not showy or iverly surreal, he's allowed to blend into the darkness so that he may be the moonlight reflected on the mineral veins in the stone of the battlements.  is the ghost - good as the part is small but essential that it's nailed by an orator full up to the challenge of embodying that most horrified of souls, forbidden by some unseen master specter from spilling the secrets of just how fucked the other side is.

And when Hamlet comes down from the parapet he's alight like some mix of Moses from the mountain and that annoying kid who comes back from Burning Man or the Rainbow Gathering with dreadlocks, an activist girls phone number, and the feeling he's been chosen to keep the world green. For one semester's stretch he doth berate unreceptive ears with facts gleaned from phone calls with his allegedly corporeal Greenpeace girlfriend. The ranting rage of Mel crying "like a whore" and unpacking his heart with words (and pamphlets) rather than direct and violent action (blowing up a factory). His is the woeful midnight tantrum of a lad who realizes no amount of feeling-- poured into his angry young poetry slam soliloquy notebook even unto whiskey stained margin--will undo the catastrophic damage his already crumbling American white male legacy hath wrought upon the world. Even if he pound his plodding pen to plastique it would explode no illusion beyond popping the proud bubble of his own inchoate solipsism.

And in this analogy to a college drug dealer drinking his way towards a chimera self assurance, each new blessed deliverance from the dead father's terrible injunction, that crippling superego self-consciousness, comes at a terrible price. He can't even make out with his mother in her bed than dad's ghost pops up, dismayed at this halting of his son's bloody path.


In order for this all to become psychedelic though, it can't be told by the British, by the Royal Shakespeare Company... neither Italian Zeffirelli or Australian Gibson are inclined to be all Olivier-level wry, measured, or fey--they don't need to work a slow unraveling with subtly sloping energy levels like Kenneth Branagh. It's a deep psychedelic resonance that's lacking in later and earlier versions: Hamlet as a raving but hyper-eloquent lunatic, the type to smash phones in hotel lobbies, leave anti-Semitic rants on answering machines, and trash hotel rooms in fits of manic pique, stabbing at the rats he sees in the walls and behind the paisley tapestries of his college dorm (but what about the Poloniuses hiding inside your skin, bra?). In typical Zeffirelli style, the dusky David Watkins cinematography uses natural light streaks which with the floating castle dust gives it all a haunted painterly quality. Then, at first unrecognizable, along comes Ennio Morricone laying down a score that only becomes clearly his own (via wordless swooping Marni Nixon-esque top notes) during the mad scene up in mom's boudoir, which makes sense as it's such a giallo moment--incest, bloody murder, hiding, insanity, blades piercing through barriers, vows of secrecy, maternal guilt. Despite the tightness of her hippy braids, Glenn Close is subtly unhinged as the queen, following Ophelia following Hamlet into that blessedly cracked and melted mirror which--through the totality of its warp--undoes sanity's merciful blurring and throws the horror of the real into unyielding focus.






Author at left -Oakwood Cmty, Syracuse NY 1986

The graveyard, Oakwood, in Syracuse, where I shroomed so much in the late 80s and where we too found a skull, but it wasn't of poor Yorik, but H.B. Crouse one of the trustees of one of the lecture halls... and some idiot freshman took it back to his dorm and started boiling the skin off (in the communal Flint Hall kitchen) so he could use the skull in an art project. Yeah man, eerie similarities. I was too aware of that I was having dated in the hippie chick A-list towards the end of my band's tenure, and they were all as thick in the head as thieves in their warrens. Anyway, the morning after we first hooked up (me still high on shrooms, natch), me and this gorgeous Italian-American crystal blue-eyed girl who shall be nameless but had been following me like a haunting dream all through sophomore and junior year; we saw the broken-in tomb and the skull sticking out, and I thought about climbing through the bars to get it (which the more limber of us could do and regularly did, that mausoleum being on the hill we all hung out on -sort of our unofficial hippie meeting place. I almost climbed in to take it, but then she stopped me... and a day later we read about this idiot getting kicked out of school. (I wasn't in the dorm then, and would have got away with it---for I had thought the same thing, get in there, get the skull, boil the parchment think skin and long thin gray hair (for hair really does keep growing after death) off in a big pot, and have the coolest of all skull tchotchkes. I was glad I'd listened to her though, then. For it would have no doubt cooled our budding love if naught else.

Man, that girl really did a number on me... so hot, so cool, ultimately so dumb... she could kill a big swinging group conversation stone dead with a single interjection. I didn't realize at the time how really pretty women are often damaged from excessive male attention that they act like idiots almost as an unconscious passive aggressive dude repellant... and never need to develop the wits by which the lesser mortals up their appeal.  It wasn't a stretch for me to realize her attraction to me, then in my the first flower of my alcoholism, paunchy and bloated, was part and parcel of this idiocy. Her beauty was such I could barely look at her without it hurting. Those clear light blue eyes with flawless white skin and wild jet black hair, I still feel my electric blood up its voltage just in thinking about her. She and I went westward after graduation to seek our fortunes. Shrooms told us we were broken up on afternoon at the Seattle aquarium after about a year. I moved back east to my rotten Jersey Denmark basement, my parents shaking their heads over my erratic drunken unemployment. And only then (as you know from my incessant mentioning) I realized I loved her. If it wasn't for Night of the Iguana who knows where i might be today? And when this film came out, the same year, I taped it and watched it over and over, though at first it wrankled, for it was painful seeing Max Max so hampered by conscience against a foe so worthy of his usual vengeance. He should have chained Claudius to a car about to explode and left him with a hacksaw and five minutes on the clock.

In between TV access (my dad watched a lot of golf, baseball, and football), I smoked and drank in the dark cellar and wrote her endless letters. Only decades later did I realize how easy true love is when so one-sided. On Facebook now she's old, gone wild gray haired and dowdy like an Anna Magnani--but in 1990--ah, she was still so hot--I wrote her such letters from my boomerang ensconcement back east in my parents' boozy Jersey basement as would wilt the most iron rose to mush. I got a phone call one afternoon whilst half asleep in a dopey drunkard funk--twas her new husband! He promised to kill me should I ere I write again. I was furious and hurt, but obeyed, my love wounded gravely until my own insanely jealous wife, ten years later, forced me to make a similar call, to a girl in Seattle-- a different one--ah, life, like Shakespeare, never offers one absurd staged scene within a scene lest its dark twin later appear, warped and ill woven as if to mock the first, hence the conscience of the king-catching drama Hamlet writes (the artist's version of vengeance?) mirrors the scene Ophelia is forced to play to lure Hamlet into confessing his love and intent while their fathers watch from without. Polonius's strategy here is eerily similar to when I first had dinner with the aforementioned hot girl's Italian-American parents; after dinner the dad plied me with wine, drinking along as I downed a giant bottle and got more and more wasted. I thought we were bonding, but they were testing me, worried I was a drunk. The dad though, was delighted as well, to have an excuse to drink so much. His father had a problem too, and when he'd do shots with me I'd hear about it as grandma had to clean the sheets the next morning, for his bladder was not strong.

I mention this, why? This all went climaxed in 1990 --a magical year - the big hair 80s disappearing into the past. As if a herald, Zeffirelli's Hamlet arrived, and symbolizing the death of the home perm, Gibson's hair legions better than Olivier's super short and creepy blonde bangs.



As for the recent anti-Semitic deep end of Mel; well one can't fake crazy that well, unless one is a bit crazy to start with, which is the problem with so many British interpretations. With a masterful slow boil, Gibson seems overwhelmed and weakened by the role until the ghost encounter-the deep end beckons, he dives in. His Hamlet's obnoxious, the type you never want to see movies with because he's always shouting "this is the part where..."

And there it ends... I refuse to give away the ending, or influence your findings. I will say that all enduring works tend to be universal, organizing one's own history like a transparent overlay, and so it has done the same to mine. See it on an ergot-encrusted rye cracker and peanut butter and think of me as I used to be in our old rooms at Allen Street, pacing to and fro with my bong and bass, and driving the neighbors to the point of sad distraction. Oh wait, that's Sherlock Holmes, not susceptible to the gibbering unspeakable elder god things in heaven and earth, more ghosts and machine elves, and absinthe demons-- than are dreamt of in his philosophy or fairy photography! Watson, the needle... is dusty. The charm's unwound. We will speak further...









NOTES
1, I rag on Olivier a lot - BUT he does deliver a great termite Shakespeare on film//video performance, and that's, strangely enough, while in disguise of blackface and a voice lowered a full octave as OTHELLO (1965). Though shot on video, it pulses with an off-the-cuff energy that makes it feel like it's all happening in real time, with a great 'go on forever' settting sun orange sky and a superlative Iago in Frank Finlay; though Welles' OTHELLO finally looks good on a remaster which will be on Blu-ray hopefully soon, he's almost out-Wellesed by Olivier here. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Avenger of Whatever: KILL LIST, QUEEN KONG




I started to write about Ben Wheatley's disturbing KILL LIST (2011) and how British cinema's so edgy and America's so lamely safe, even when it's trying to be naughty cheeky. But if I think about KILL LIST my paranoia leads me straight to the Illuminati and mind control, ala EYES WIDE SHUT meets MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and then I got to write about the alleged 'entrance fee' into the inner circle: child sacrifice or violation, which 'binds' one to the devil and subject the victim (if they survive) to the dissociative traumas used in brainwashing.

I'll tell you the gist: Wheatley and his longtime collaborator and co-writer Amy Jump (the Debra Hill to his Carpenter, the Gale Ann Hurd to his Cameron) create a mood of cheery kitchen sink naturalism that makes the subsequent descent into ceremonial strangeness all the more disturbing, in ways Kubrick could never quite manage (the more Kubrick tries to depict 'chummy' the eerier he gets). Neil Maskell stars as Jay, the laziest hitman in town, trying to loaf around with wife and son, and dodge a job coming his way via his partner Gal (Michael Smiley, who also appears in the eerily similar BLACK MIRROR episode "White Bear"); Nordic alien hybrid Myanna Buring (THE DESCENT) wants him out of the house and back in the saddle. Fine, but Gal comes by for dinner and lots of drinks with a strange new bird, Fiona (Emma Fryer) who marks the back of his bathroom mirror with an arcane symbol... That's all I can say, except the super eerie drone score by Jim Williams gives even a simple torture murder a nightmarish edge far ungodlier than just seeing brains bulge out of a cracked skull.

Meanwhile, I've been having a series of mild panic attacks watching ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Season Three, man. No one escapes the trauma of continual self-realization on that show, and it's too well acted and written, and I can watch too many in a row so that soon I can't distinguish fantasy from reality anymore, which in turn reminds me of KILL LIST again, because that's what indoctrination is all about -- breaking down a person's mind and distancing them from the collective 'concrete' reality so they're receptive to programming in order to activate the inner killer. Ever since being dragged to a dry frat rush as a freshman at SU I've harbored a streak of horror and hatred towards the baser elements of the masculine species. And when a man like me is all hopped up on depositions or depictions of rape and sexualized misogyny, I'm ready to go stomp anyone with Greek letters on his sweatshirt. Amp it up a little more, dissociate me so that I think I'm just vividly imagining a heroic role in a vigilante rape-revenge picture and I'm ready to kill... ready and set and waiting for the starter pistol.


There's no word for this kind of ambient rage but it's potent, a justified TAKEN-esque homicidal fury that heightens the senses. It's instinct. A good male populace patrols itself, and if a pedophile or frat boy violates a woman or child it's the job of 'any man that's around' to destroy him rather than hope the law can successfully complete its myriad incarcerating hurtles before the victim is destroyed by endless humiliating cross-examination. This instinct, to protect the weak, is innate in men, it is a good, courtly thing. And yet only a few 'pushes' more and it approaches the same mindset as the lynching, the fascist rally, and the riot. The biological urge to protect women and children and even animals taps or primordial homicidal well with a razor sharp Plainview milkshake straw.

Of course if it turns out the victim is lying, or the story is misreported for ratings, then we may have murdered an innocent man... but then it's no longer a drive-in trash spectacle, it's a self-important Stanley Kramer vehicle. We cut the rope, slink home, and wait for the inexorable hoot-hoot of Spence's approaching train in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK.

Bad Day at Black Rock 
I'm no racist, but would probably string up some of the creeps I read about if I had the chance, and the safety of numbers, and was properly drunk, so I need to recuse myself from writing about the Illuminati or Cosby, Polanski, and Allen. It gets me just too damn mad, for I have no target to vent this hostile rage upon, or the wherewithal. 


That's why there's KILL LIST, which twists the Plainview milkshake straw to the primordial killer, tapping this collective 'good' male inner killer and the puncturing the sac, draining the jet black sperm of vengeance until all that's left is an empty sac under the igneous strata. Is that the whole point, perhaps, of all this evil in the first place? To provoke a response that will enable us to kill people on command (via post-hypnotic trigger word activated false accusation)? In movies like TAKEN the filmmakers tap that sac knowing we'll instantly be deeply focused on the narrative, that Plainview milkshake straw twisting like clockwork from our empathic response to Liam's mounting bloodlust until we're as fired up as Hotspur in HENRY V.

Only occasionally, as in MYSTIC RIVER or GONE BABY GONE, is the full futility of that fiery vengeance truly exposed, the ease with which it can blind you to the truth of a given scene. The girl who casually admits she was lying after you've already done the retaliatory assault, the abduction that turns out to be a benevolent rescue from the real source of abuse, it all forces us to confront the ugly truth of that primal response. In GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO on the other hand, we're so on the side of Lisbeth Salander that her liberal reporter friend's law-abiding humanistic hesitance at her full measure of retaliatory violence is seen by us with disgust, emblematic of how following society's rules is like being in a cult for some people, making them blind to their own self-preservation. And the result: we grow upset with mankind as a whole, rabidly against anything capable of creating such true vile sexual evil. Lisbeth is our redeemer, killing the men who need killing. When men are too stuck in passive wuss journalist mode, teaching us what it is to be a man and sickening us at the same time, the same way TOOTSIE did in reverse.

Other sources, like SIN CITY, are almost anti-misogynistic porn; women-hating creeps and pedophiles set up like nine pins to be disemboweled in vivid high contrast black and white. It's cathartic, but it also panders. One of the reasons I love old TV like CHARLIE'S ANGELS is that total absence of that sort of thing. If rape or child abuse cropped up on TV in anything made before the 70s it did so in 'special episodes' with much forewarning and the violence was abstracted (such as the candle being dropped in THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE). Now just watching LAW AND ORDER SVU is enough to give me an ashen sense of being brutalized by the system as well as men in general, for weeks. In CHARLIE'S ANGELS a girl might be tied up and kidnapped but she's never sexually abused once so (other shows like the later hour-schedule POLICE WOMAN might be different, that show's way too intense for me). HBO programming like GAME OF THRONES and SOPRANOS meanwhile is so rapey I can't watch it at all. For example: In Season three of SOPRANOS, Lorraine Bracco's character is brutally raped in the stairwell just so the rapist can get off on a technicality and she can be presented with the option of telling Tony Soprano about it so he can kill the guy. She decides not to tell him, thinking herself some great hero I'm sure, but of course leaving the rapist free to continue brutalizing women who don't have the mob recourse. Naturally--it being HBO--the rape is brutally graphic and well acted--and exists solely to create this moral quandary, to challenge our response--is she the weak one (protecting her attacker like an abused wife) or the strong? (not giving way to the thought of revenge?)


In 70s films on the other hand, this kind of shit happened to your wife and child and the vengeful vigilante as hero was born, guiltless and unbroken. The legal systems presented in these films preferred to trample on the weak and innocent rather than risk even offending the sleazy murderers who walks off scot-free every time due to some minor technicality. As in the SOPRANOS, the D.A. would rather harangue Dirty Harry for his off-book mauling rather than try to get the Zodiac off the streets. The biggest, meanest, most New York of all the 70s urban vigilante movies was DEATH WISH, a vile yet huge hit that led to a score of imitators, the best of which is Abel Ferrara's MS. 45. (above) On the other hand, that female avenger's sin is then 'absolved' and dissolved through her nun's habit into the raped nun in his BAD LIEUTENANT (below), where she forgives her two rapist attackers while everyone in the city fantasizes about catching them and beating them to death in front of their parents. Once again, raping a 'good' woman ensures you're not only forgiven and go unpunished, but that she'll consider herself a saint for not getting even (her other option is to go insane, and find God through Joan of Arc-style bloodshed). In a way the rape victim in these films is bound to get revenge on one group or another, either on the attacker/s through violence--direct and personal (since cops are useless due to liberal legal restraints)-or on all the other innocent girls, potential rivals, that will also be destroyed by these creeps in nights to come, as they pillage their way around the neighborhood, unchallenged.




Sorry to go off like that. This kind of shit really gets my goat, as so many of my friends in college were raped their freshman year at frat parties --and when we men wanted names so we could go bash them--the girls all refused, wanted to protect them and what's done is done blah blach backhh... And so many decades later, and having become a total recluse in my off hours, my comfort zone has narrowed down into a tight strangling shroud. Besieged and eaten away by death, money, and employment all changing and shifting, riding the lifeboat of the televisual, these unresolved issues really stir my hackles with rage.

And yet... when in the throes of sexual excitement, what is the fantasy (either spoken or read or performed) that works time and again to bring both parties to orgasm? That's right. I don't even want to say it, so I'll just quote Camille Paglia, who helped me first make peace with this terrible dichotomy:
"Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. … My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into decadence. … The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure."
In other words, as women become more forceful as a workplace presence, their penchant for masochism rises (just as many top CEOs are often into being dominated at BSDM parlors... it's the freedom of total capitulation - of not having all decisions taken away, if only for an hour). This is the roller coaster that once the bar comes down, there's no getting off no mater how much you plead and struggle.

As Skeet says in SCREAM: "Life is a movie, Sid, you don't get to pick your genre." One's life (if you're me) starts out a warm hearted family film, becomes a high school alienation downer, a war movie, a tragedy, a college-set sex and drugs concert film, and then a young couple comedy, then a break-up drama again, a comedy, a drama, a romance again and again and finally the narrative shrinks all together into one of pure and unending horror, and one must begin drug and alcohol recovery. In a horror movie "sex equals death." In a sense childbirth is death as well, death of an old paradigm of self, and isn't that all death is anyway? Yeah but talking to God as you understand It and getting the lord in your heart can lure you right into a nice family movie again. Boring, but safe, you're not stuck as the grumpy uncle or a landlord while young people slowly accrue, ever younger, pushing you right on out of the door of your own house and into a nice pine box or crematorium. You're part of them, and of all life, and all is one big comfortable white cloud with heavenly Tami Briggs harp music, all without having to actually spawn oneself or shun, surlily, children as a class. Surely your unborn children are grateful to be spared the inexorable SOYLENT GREEN future. of play dates, tiger moms, bulletin boards, of the bar coming down on that endless roller coaster of changing genre, long upward climbs and sudden downhill drops.



Now, sober and vulnerable, I personally go out of my way to have never seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, IRREVERSIBLE, or any of the TAKENs, any white slavery documentaries, THE HUNT WITH JOHN WALSH on CNN, any of the ID programs not DEADLY WOMEN or WIVES WITH KNIVES and so forth. We watch a lot of DEADLY WOMEN. One thing I've noticed... these women con dumb bleeding hearts like me into killing husbands and fathers all the time, via, what else? Fabricated stories of systematic abuse.

Luckily I live in an age where it's easy to cocoon oneself in a unique patchwork quilt of one's own curation. The result is, I watch a lot of El Rey channel and TCM, avoid all button-pushing true crime abuse-of-the-innocent sagas, and listen to mixes I create that never end and can't tell one ninety-pound chalk-white dude in suspenders and tiny fedora or Children of the Corn hat playing a standup bass or mandolin from the other, nor would I wish to. As a result, unless I get stuck watching THE VOICE, these anemic high-voiced smarmy pishers escape my fury and doubts about the future of masculinity outside Australia.

A guy in my day would have been beaten soundly for being such a wuss, and as a result nerds like me became manly... because that's what men do- we patrol ourselves--stomping out the sign of weakness in our kind (and preying on women and children is the worst weakness of all). Now that it's such a serious crime to harass these dudes, and there's no cigarettes around to make them cool or deepen their voices, these high-voiced needle legged hipsters are just long keystroke or guitar poke fingers, ears with little white 'ear buds' in them, and clunky glasses reflecting some glowing screen or other. Where is their goddamn crippling anxiety and self-loathing? Why did Courtney Love even bother getting sober?

And now... demons.

The goal of demons is beyond just possession, but to create in general a backlash against all spirituality. When priests or beloved childhood figures like Michael Jackson, Cosby, etc. are revealed to be sex offenders, our sense of trust in our fellow man dwindles. The devil takes steps to rob us of the ability to enjoy God's grace. Overpopulation makes even the beauty of childbirth seem selfish. The animals we love to eat are given soulful sad eyes all the better to haunt us with--all various components of the devil's plan to shrink our soul from wispy stratus clouds into contracted dense purpose cumulonimbus so when it rains (i.e. you die) the soul falls, and the water is collected for Hell's steam engines that run the THEY LIVE mind control force field. The agony of collected souls is trapped in its own isolated battery cell, then slowly burned into nonexistence to fuel the steam engine that keeps them in dominion over us.


Human sacrifice involves the idea of throwing another soul under the bus to escape being ground up oneself in the steam engine, being able to hold onto one's evil self, the liquid condensation of the evil ego making all sorts of harmful deals rather than surrendering.

 But there is in the end, on the macro level needed to dig where I'm coming from, one soul, so every victory of the demons is another square mile of our precious rainforest lost. That's why we, when our souls are rising and almost up and out of the wheel of woe, so often turn around and go back to help others along. I've done it three times already!

And once I'm back down, buried under the mystery misery I always kind of regret that decision, or rather the ego, which returns, inevitably, convinces 'me' to regret it. The 'Me' who regrets isn't the me who made the choice to stay, it's the difference between a terrified kid on his first day of school and a graduate with a million friends, or the difference between a selfish thug and the benevolent social worker trying to reach him. You can't get to heaven without becoming a selfless love thug. The trouble is that once you're that selfless, you hesitate to go to heaven when so many of your denser soul fellows are still suffering. The rich man can't enter the kingdom of heaven anymore than a camel can go through the needle, etc. Once unburdened by wealth, the needle threader pauses and looks back. Is this wisdom, compassion, or another devil sucker play? Is there a difference?

Who am I to judge ya / on what you say or do? Deep breath. And so it is I run... I run so far away.... all the way to QUEEN KONG.


QUEEN KONG
(1976) Dir. Frank Agrama 
**

God bless British women, British Actresses... for they are in inspiration to men the US over in the hopes that their own girlfriends, actresses, wives, and mothers might be assertive, witty and capable without needing to drag a man down to get there, without becoming a bitch (or c-word) in the process, without mistaking the voice of assertive self-resolve for the voice of browbeating and joyless aggrieved harangue. There's very few shrill Annette Bening types in Britain (or at least British actresses - and the Brit women I've met and partied with). American women (again, this is all in films, mind you) are either simpering objects or rugged bitches, or both--either way their feminine flair is lost when they make the move to GI JANE/Ripley in ALIENS-ism, except as far as motherhood, protecting the nest. But in England, with its rich history of S&M (borne perhaps of their brutalizing school system), women are badass and still sexy -- they smoke and drink and don't sweat their carbs in shallow pools of gossip, and while our women are browbeating their husband for having a faint odor of cigarettes on his clothes, Brit women are saying ah fuck-off and give me one. Didn't we know all this as kids when we first beheld the toothsome Emma Peele in THE AVENGERS? And now, rather late in the game (De Laurentiis sued to hold it up), is QUEEN KONG. 






Its young hot female cast is sublime -- barely a man in the whole thing, but QK has two slight problems: 1) its bawdy 'Carry On' brand of cheeky humor doesn't translate well upon leaping across pond and decad; 2) it may have the lamest ape suit in the entire history of lame ape suits--looking like it's just a bunch of fake fur throw rugs stapled together--but damn it, movies with reversed genders (where women are strong leaders and men all fey weak objects) are few and far between. We must cherish every single one. The whole men in drag thing is not the same, and gets old fast and seems more and more sexist as time goes on (if done for comedic effect rather than as a lifestyle choice and because the male comics don't want to share the stage), while the sexy broads acting like they're the dominant strong class and men just few objects of beauty is fresh as can be (think Shakespeare's TAMING OF THE SHREW and Kate praising the youthful maiden faire bloom of the old man on the road to Padua) as if it's still too controversial to even imagine, and that's cuz 90% of men are weak-ass pussies afraid of a aggressive tall broads with cigarette holders and razor wits, broads like there are in QUEEN KONG.

It's telling too that QUEEN gets abysmal ratings (3.4 on imdb), when shittier films get as much as 3.5 or 3.6. Hunted and despised just for being terrible, it's suffered for its progressiveness. It can stand with the utterly unavailable anywhere ALL THAT GLITTERS (Norman Lear's ill-fated 1977 soap opera imagining this same women-in-charge world) and the British-West German co-production STAR MAIDENS (1976 - same year, tellingly, as the QUEEN). Clearly 1976-7 was a high watermark in the depiction of alternate realities where women were stronger than men. And all three examples are either unavailable or despised, tellingly, for our sexist world is clearly slow to change its patriarchal mindset, scared to even imagine an alternative. So when we stumble onto something like QUEEN KONG, it's a blessed relief. Some of that terrible KILL LIST Plainview straw rage melts away when delivered into the hands of assertive British women. Valerie Leon, so assertive and imperious and sexy in BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, is a favorite in this regard. So when I learned she was in QUEEN KONG, I had to see for myself. That said, she's almost unrecognizable - she's lost some weight and is wearing disco-level make-up, spouting offensive ooga booga lingo, and the print on Amazon Prime is royally messed up.

But it's a good film for all that. The plot offers some nice high views of the Portobello Street Fair and we have the cheeky Ray Fay ("eat your heart out, Elton John") and great snatches of diva dialogue between Ray and the local girls prepping him for sacrifice:

"Why does she want me?"
Leon in PREHISTORIC WOMEN
"She wants you to because you look like Doris Day." 
"Who's he?"
The leading lady is Luce Habit (Rula Lenska), Britain's answer to Zsa Zsa Gabor or Peggy Hopkins Joyce. At least that's what we figured back in the 70s when she got off a plane like we were supposed to know who she was in an Alberta V0-5 ad. Our not knowing set a chain reaction to the point she was canned by her agent. But all that's in the future. Here we learn she's a grand comedian if nothing else. As Luce Habit she's the Carl Denham of the narrative, offering her loving protection to her shanghaied boy (she drugs him after catching him stealing a KING KONG poster in the Fair, slings him over her shoulder in a sack, and makes for her vessel, a little tugboat party vessel of a thing). She even carries some joints for him. In short, Lenska's Luce Habit is a great camp diva delight as "the biggest producer (of B-films)... with love interest... in the business." In fact, her wry delivery of intentionally terrible lines reminds me a little bit of my own in

Of course they eventually wore out the schtick, at least for me. I liked the JAWS dance but when a lame shark shows up with lipstick and breasts and a big sign around her neck it's a good sign this shitshow's going to collapse long before it's officially over. I confess that I stopped watching after two tiresome battles in the jungle section of old QUEEN. And there was one too many leering Benny Hill ass shots and just too damn much of that damn moth-eaten 'lady' apesuit. But how often do we get a movie that's nearly all female - just a few baggy pants weirdos on the island and the rest either Luce's chorus of leggy bikini models or the all girl Nabonga tribe.... it might be gayer than John Waters and campier than 60s BATMAN but once we're just forced to reckon with this truly wretched ape suit and papier mache monsters; I just couldn't let it go on. I had to stop and take a nap. That's show biz.

But the point is, thanks to the QUEEN I was delivered from brooding about the diabolical paranoia-fueling brutality of KILL LIST and its all-knowing savvy about the long game of mind control, and how maybe that's what all this shit like A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, is for... MK-ULTRA programming of male assassins... get us all riled up to go stomping frat boys, sex offenders, or whomever we're conditioned to think is raping and abusing our innocents. (And we all know who's next on the kill list... if you saw the Trump speech in Atlanta).

And hey, both QUEEN KONG and KILL LIST are British so it all ties together. I wouldn't go so far as to say wonderfully but it's there, because my brain is always making connections to random unrelated events, and its susceptible as hell to the mad loop of conspiracy theory. Unless maybe I'm about to charge into battle or office and need a speech about how the enemy or immigrants are raping our women and children, I don't need or care to have that Plainview milkshake straw tapped and manipulated. It doesn't do me a bit of good. I'm for the kind of killing where the dead person gets up a moment later and takes a bow.  It helps avoid trauma to see the fakery of death. The genius of actors like Arnold is we never really take him seriously. We can't distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined, but in keeping everything fake and weird, our narrative immersion dissolves and we're symbolically freed from the drama of our lifetime movie.


When we decide our movie's a comedy, any grim circumstance is just the jet black ink on the page. Past Buñuel and Kubrick, the sans-eyes darkness devours all but your whistling, so make the tune brave, lads. Something from Joyce, mayhap, Oh I was a day in Portlairge, there was wine and punch on the table. God hears our complaints and can only roll His one red eye and hope none of the other mothers at the supermarket judge Him for having such brats as we. It's not fair and we didn't ask to be born, and all the evil, suffering and destruction in the world, all heard by Him as whining about an early bed time or booster shoot, or ye auld yucky Brussels sprout.

As far as God's concerned: the phrase 'no atheists in a foxhole' explains war's entire existence.

And when we take off our masks at the end of our film, like we receive his indulgent applause, the patient father, with only the merest of notes. Godard would know how to save QUEEN KONG: Have Kong slap the pterodactyl's head off (above), or rather the headpiece, to show a saucy human girl inside (ala Ms. Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS) but THEN --have the fight still go on. The girl rampages through the jungle, as if still gigantic. She slings Ray over her shoulder and hauls him up into the sound stage catwalk, singing "Tous les garçons et les filles." Queen Kong looks up as they disappear into the shadows, shrugs, sits down on a screaming native and starts smoking a cigarette, pausing to smash a miniature tank which explodes in a ball of fire. Dividing lines between all textual levels and the real: CUT!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hauntologic Roxy: ANTICHRIST (1974), TIMES SQUARE (1980)



I consider myself pretty familiar with the myriad weaves and offshoots of the EXORCIST-ripped corners of the 70s Italian cinema tapestry, but THE ANTICHRIST (1974) slipped past me... until now. That's not entirely true, father. I lied it turns out for when I was watching it last week, during its memorable Satanic induction ceremony I had a flash of past life remembrance so foul and monstrous it tore loose a swath of my soul. And I remembered in that grisly instance a Times Square grindhouse whose cursed name brings a knowing shudder to those who've been there.... Roxy.






We walked in cold, three teenagers determined to check one of these places out, seeking lurid thrills and regarding as most still do that 42nd St. and Broadway the extent of NYC, as if it was all a mix of tourist trap and continual vice and corruption freak show, its dangers apparent but we protected in our naive suburban sense of invulnerability and masks of jaded disaffection. But after navigating treacherous halls we entered a world that filched the jade right off our masks, punctured our naive armor and left us paralyzed, a hot hellish box of a theater the screen pulsing with a lurid Satanic ceremony already in progress, replete with naked woman and real goat, the sound crackling insanely with screams and chants, and the people off screen as horrific as those on, creating a scene of indescribable sleaziness where screen devils and offscreen junkie criminal dregs were all part of a weird twisted whole.

But what I remember most is the smell, so troubling it's even memorialized in Bill Landis' and Michelle Clifford's indispensable NYC grindhouse history Sleazoid Express, who dub the place "one of the Deuce's grungiest, most pungent smelling, and most dangerous adult houses... People smoked everything openly in the audience, from nauseating Kools to cheap psychotic crack, those scary angel dust smokers puffing along with the weedheads." (285)

I had forgotten about the full horror of the moment, but it came back to me reading Landis and Clifford's book - their description of the Roxy was so on point I knew instantly that was the one I had been to back in '85.
"To walk into one of Roxy's mini-theaters meant walking into any number of crazy scenes or violent outbursts.[...] You never knew what movie you were walking into. You'd have to stand there for a few minutes to figure it out.
"If you stood long enough though, people would start to surround you, thinking you were looking for a possible sex partner or just stupid and asking to be robbed. So it was wise to take one of the ass numbing seats anyway if you weren't sure, then figure it out. But before you sat down, you'd have to flick a lighter at the seat to make sure there was no weird mess on it." (285)
It wasn't just the ones smoking at the time, of course, but the stale uncirculated air that kept every last stale 'wet' joint (1) alive in layers of stale 'cigar urinal' despair, the insanity in the trapped air circulating in lieu of air conditioning. I was there in 1985, my first and only visit to a Times Square grindhouse, and it turns out to be one of the scariest. That same year I went--on a dare with my thrill-seeking PA buddies--it had been converted from adult to a multi-leveled fourplex that showed exploitation double bills on video projectors (though they don't tell you it's video when you buy your ticket). But even after that transformation, as Landis and Clifford note, the Roxy "remained void of fresh air, retaining both its BO aroma and super-sleazy vibe..."

It took me decades of smoking, drinking, and bellowing like a great inelegant walrus to expunge its malodorous aftertaste from my delicate le nez âme, but even without the smell, the unwashed derelicts, the sleazy vibe, the stale "wet" and the million other fucked up and foul smelling druggy smokes both from that day and all the days before turning already dangerous unshowered homeless scumbags into mouth frothing gibbering shit-where-they-stand psychopaths... even with all that...  Man, to enter a theater so skeevy to see a girl rimming a goat at a Satanic altar. The minute we spent there debating our next move seemed outside space and time, the horror of the smell and the cramped unfamiliarity of the boxy theater short-circuiting our brain's natural fight of flight objectivity. I was still only 17, and sober, straight-edge a virgin to weed, booze, and all other things, except--barely--sex. So this scene affected me in ways I'd have been immune to just a year later, numbed by whiskeys galore, weed, shrooms, and despair.

Now on DVD, in the safety of my triple bolt apartment, I can appreciate Ippolita's (Carla Gravina) induction ceremony with the goat is in an alternate dimension, running concurrently - and it's to director Sergio Martino's skill (and Gravina's) at narrative that it's always clear that the damned and devout can always be two places at once--that her murderous debasements are not just a dream nor is she a passive victim under mind control cover memories ala Rosemary). We don't really judge her for giving in -- we might do the same in her shoes. It fits my argument that when you're too prohibitive and micro-managing on your kids (never allowing them a locked bedroom to masturbate in, etc.) you give the first person to come along who broadens their horizons (or gives them an orgasm) more power over them than you'll ever have, and when your kids realize they've been mislead, it's too late. Take it from one of the ruiners, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith of Anytown USA!

Simultaneously back at the Roxy, back before I ruined anyone, nor was myself yet ruined,  my fellow faux-jaded suburbanite teens and I turned immediately to leave this godawful shoebox of the damned to find a different screen. The Roxy had numerous nonstop running little shoebox cinema double features playing on video projection, with stairs stretching between condemned buildings and along the exteriors of the outside, kind of like a haunted house ride where instead of papier mache ghouls there's derelict muggers crouched in corners ready to stick you with a hep-C encrusted needles. The second cinema was better, we caught the end of RUBY (we learned what it was only because they listed it in the end credits "Ruby" - a habit of exploitation movies in those days which made sense since theaters like this never had showtimes, you just went in whenever, to see whatever) Followed by some super Bruce Lee-imitator movie (Bruce Li, or Leh, or Lei). In here, at least, there was air conditioning, and it froze our souls but at least numbed the smell. The dubbing was atrocious.

If I had to do it all over again, well, who the hell knows, We should have suffered through the stench, for ANTICHRIST (AKA THE TEMPTER) is a great great gonzo film. Set in the real life Rome, and to tie in other trend-cresting films, the lead girl, Carla Gravina, has Rosemary's Baby short red hair, though it gives her a very manly countenance, as she's not so pixie-like. But it doesn't matter, because as Ippolita she's the whole show and it's easily the most deranged, inspiring raw performance of the entirety of the 70s Italian EXORCIST rip micro genre.

Crippled as a child by a car accident (dad was driving, mom is dead) she's a 40 year-old virgin, on the cusp of becoming an old maid, and terrified her dad (Arthur Kennedy) is going to leave her for another woman (giallo regular Anita Strindberg). The niece of a priest (Mel Ferrer), she turns to God for guidance, but how's a priest going to her advise her on coping with sexual frustration, especially since he's played by the perennially browbeaten Arthur Kennedy? He's probably responsible for her torment in the first place, filling her mind from childhood with the evils of masturbation and the female orgasm as the devil's tool. With her Rosemary red short hair and manly countenance it fits perfectly that when she's possessed she sounds like a dirty old Italian man and seems for the first time comfortable in her own skin. Sounding like the arch villain in a spaghetti western, the way she sprawls out in her chair, rocking back and forth and smiling is truly disturbing to ex-drugglies like me because it's so familiar, the way one acts when something lifts us free and clear of our old insecurity and discomfort and depression so we feel alive and thrilled to luxuriate in our movements. She revels in her newfound freedom, i.e. her body's full-on abandonment and reception by the devil. In one of the cooler sequences, with her Satanic awakening giving her sudden gift of being able to walk, she goes to visit an old church and seduces a pretty German tourist boy - then kills him- leaving the body sprawled out in the catacombs (she also leaves a toad head and severed body in the communion wafter cache.

But then she comes out of it and is sprawled out only a few feet from her car -unable to walk again and needing help into her vehicle. Did she just imagine things? Again, it's to the credit of this full-blooded possession film that both answers seem to be occurring simultaneously. There's never a question that these happenings are real and vividly imagined.

What is it with the Italians and red hair, though? Especially in the horror films of the 70s-80s, they are utterly obsessed. Luckily, we get to see Gravina in her past life / current alternate reality / sabbath surrender in alabaster skin an a flowing blonde wig, and she looks plenty hot, which makes her that much sexier in the modern age, because the shameless gusto with which she pantomimes her rimming of a goat's devilish arse-hole (a scene originally--unless I'm delusional--was seen first in the silent 1921 opus, HAXAN) hand her susbequent penetration by Satan, is so bravely, fiercely acted that we feel every emotion, pleasure and joy of surrender as well as the sleazy countercurrent. As with the Roxy itself, if you want to be free of the burden of self-consciousness, one must prepare to let that conscious self be utterly debased.


I also dig that, as this film occurring in the hauntological 70s (ala Scarfolk), her shrink sees as established scientific fact that traumatic past life events (namely unnatural, violent deaths) can carry over into subsequent incarnations. Nowadays these kinds of films feel obligated to have at least one scientific dogma mouthpiece dismissing it all as a bunch of hocus pocus mumbo jumbo, but here it's simply not that big a deal that past life trauma carries over (2), with the shrink noting that the only risk in freeing the current self from past self trauma is that a possession can occur, especially if she's a Satanic witch - (and even the devil follows her, via flames ala AUDREY ROSE, which we forget now but was huge in 1977). Strange then that the shrink feels he can't approve of the Catholic exorcism that's eventually called forth. What the hell?

Audrey Rose (1977)
Ah well, Kennedy is pretty funny as the impotent priest, and Father Mittner (George Coulouris) is way more badass than Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) as the pinch hitter in the EXORCIST original, and the cool climax, running all over Rome under multi-colored rain, including around the Coliseum, is truly haunting.

But there's another Times Square - I almost wrote "it ain't your parents times square" -but that's the thing, it is. And your parents' childhood should never be more edgy and badass than their your own, but there it is... but also isn't For in TIMES SQUARE (1980), the two lead girls (13 year old and 16 year old actresses) easily keep their innocence somehow while living as mental hospital escapees amidst the squalor, floating above the cesspool like lighter than air street angels. It's perhaps their excised lesbian scenes that convey this immunity from pimps and scammers, though then again being so young it's not quite clear what could have been shown in that regard.

Dude, I got the last one of these DVDs before they went OOP too, based solely on a professor at Pratt's recommendation after I gave a lecture on what 42nd Street used to look like (before the kids I was speaking to were even born, I shudder to say), when squalor and vice were the order of the day... I showed them about 30 minutes of '42nd Street Forever' trailer compilation (replete with an old Jewish couple raving about some Andy Milligan debacle or other at the Lyric), and then, torn between ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE WARRIORS, I went with the latter- the kids loved it, and said those magic words, "after your lecture I was all worried it would be super gory and sadistic - I was expecting to be traumatized" - its like yeah, we all were seeing THE WARRIORS for the first time back in the day, having read about all the gang violence it caused in theaters. And the film traded on that scariness, so that we were scared for the gang themselves, bopping all the way back to Coney, which made those glorious fights so much more electric. The courage to face the gritty horror of the city somehow made you a part of the gritty horror rather than its victim. The ultimate in dour self reflections, the Baseball Furies pursue until you stop running. Turn and face your NYC Koch-era demons (threaten to shove a bat up their asses and turn them into popsicles), bust some heads maybe, and now you're a bopper, a Sleez Sister. Now you get to prowl around scaring the tourists, too.

But there's more connecting these two films than this one teacher's recommendation, the surrender to the Satanic power that comes from facing your own twisted reflection, and the stench of the accursed Roxy: Like Ippolita, Pamela (Trinie Alvarado) is the fucked up (several suicide attempts) only child daughter of a widowed father who's wealthy, important and influential; both Pamela and Ippolita find liberation and strength via what might be considered a bad influence friend, certainly a social outcast (Satan, Nicky [Robin Johnson])... and both need to figure out how to escape that friend when said friend's own issues come to the core (green vomit and sexist telekinetic possession, drunken tirades respectively). Both end with the daughter now returning to dad a better, wiser person and the devil going back to their due (a strong fledgling grrl fanbase, a Virgin Mary statue that acts as kind of single demon bulletin board or 'take one leave one penny tray at the cashier station).

And on a metatextual level, my own early experience at the Roxy, entering that one room with the druggy stench exactly at the heavy Satanic ceremony moment, perhaps inducted me, in an all-at-once kind of iboga flash transdimensional moment, to the core of grindhouse Deuce evil. Recognizing it decades later, in the coziness of my own home, on an HD TV, looking better probably than it did on that old analog Roxy roller video projector, considering that video brought down the grindhouses more effectively than Giuliani ever did, though he gets the credit, I felt a weird flash like one must remembering past lives or buried trauma under hypnosis, but from the HD safety of time and incense, safe--delivered. While in TIMES SQUARE, the original more low key lesbian friendship aspects were jettisoned to make a bigger statement with Nicky's big final concert on the roof after her on-air drunken breakdown seemingly added for rock catharsis. Also added: hot songs to pack a double album of relevant tracks in the producers' hopes of duplicating his SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER albums sales having its correlation to LaGuardia's mix of paternal concern, rock anarchy championing, and exploitative ambitions (3). Said producer also took advantage of star Robin Johnson, who got a lot of deserved cult praise for her role as Nicky, by singing her to a three year exclusive contract, and then failing to cast her in anything. "Johnson took a job as a bank teller whilst waiting for her RSO contract to expire, and by the time it did, there were no offers for work. Johnson did some minor film and TV roles, but by the late 1980s, she gave up on acting and got a job as a traffic reporter on a Los Angeles radio station."

I don't know what  I would have made of TIME SQUARE back in 1980. Nowadays I can't compare it to anything but LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS which came out two years later, and was better distributed on video (and USA's Night Flight).

The problem with STAINS (see my early BL post The Frauds and the Fabulous) was that it was directed by a (male) music producer, the legendary Lou Adler; and written by Nancy Dowd, a macho lady (she wrote SLAP SHOT), but who used a drag pseudonym, as if hiding her gender rather than trumpeting it, and that it's marred by the spoiled bratty girlish character played by a super young Diane Lane, who promptly confuses her own message by shacking up with the more experienced punk on her tour played by Ray Winstone (who's backed by members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols). Even the imdb.com blurb is sexist and condescending:
"The media and disaffected teens mistake the acerbic rants of an obnoxious teenage punk rocker as a rallying cry for the women of America, launching her and her talentless group to national stardom."
Jeeze! "obnoxious... talentless" Well good thing at the height of the mass merchandizing overkill, Winstone takes the time to berate the gathered girls (all wearing red and New Wave make-up authorized by the band's monetizing manager) thus sending them all home to, presumably, get married and chain themselves to kitchens as is proper. I don't blame Ray Winstone for being pissed when Diane lane steals his song ("The Professionals"), lame as it is (and we hear it endlessly, a long dull dirge that goes nowhere... forever... over and over) but for a girl empowerment movie this gets awfully chiding, almost as offensive in its last minute patriarchal second-guess as KISSING JESSICA STEIN.


Well, there's none of that crap in TIMES SQUARE, the uniform of this revolution is a trash bag and eyeliner thief mask to reflect the cast-off anonymity fostered on young girls by their heedless parents, who'd rather lock their daughters away in rehabs than listen to them (all this added after lesbian overtones taken out). The only drawback is that that rather than explore openly the secret gay subtext, it just handles the girls' soul mate status as a kind of Xena-Gabrielle chaste affection.

But the girls sleep in the same bed and its their loving friendship that holds the film together, there's not a single straight boy in the cast to come between them, nor one who has more than a superfluous role or is an authority figure-- unless local radio DJ and 'voice of Times Square' Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) has some oblique move planned. Acting as their fairy godfather, he catches wind of the outcry launched by the mayoral aide dad of rich girl Pamela worried about the dangerous influence of wild punk rocker Nicky after the two escape the hospital, and he makes the girls local stars via his radio show acting as a kind pf post office letter exchange between worried dad and bonded girls who dub themselves the Sleez Sisters and start tagging the area, dropping TVs off roofs, and recording spontanous sounding, rather joyful declarative tracks live at the radio station ("Your Daughter is One") so well done it seems like they're kind of making them up on the spot when of course they were co-written in advance by people like Billy Mernit.

This aspect is of course a staple of the time, as seen in VANISHING POINT (1971) and... uh... at any rate, the exchanges between LaGuardia and Pamela's concerned, progressively humbler, father (Peter Coffield) are hilarious and sad, we respect both sides but there's some great hot wire angst between the two, with Curry's fearless goading and the father's progressive fury and desperation creating a situation that, especially in today's post-sleaze Times Square present, when an open container or lit cigarette is considered akin to a terrorist violation, is uniquely real and promising, that freedom of speech could somehow protect a DJ from reckless conspiracy towards endangerment of a minor laws, or something like that.


But while patriarchy tries, it can't beat the all-consuming yet protective 'the zone takes care of its own' chaos of the Deuce. We all wish a braver cut existed as the lesbian romance between these two is cut sadly away, but that's actually interesting in a way as the whole film becomes less about sex or drugs (or even rock and roll) and more about how two fucked up loners can sometimes find each other and form a family that's more than the sum of their parts, brought together by chance while sharing a room while under psychiatric observation at a NYC hospital, then bond over poetry and the Pretenders, and escape together in a stolen ambulance (making it's closest companion, more than anything, KAMIKAZE GIRLS).


Whereas Nicky Marotta's initial declarative punk devotional to Pamela, "I'm a damn dog now" has a great arc (she starts kind of wobbly onstage with her new wave backing band, but ends up crushing it, I'd be pissed to if I was one of the Blondells and had to lug my amp up to the roof, risk arrest, tap into a a power source, and hook up a PA, hoping I don't get electrocuted, all so Nicky can sing half a song, apologize to her girlfriend, and dive into the crowd, leaving her saner Sleez compatriot to reconnect with her by now fairly cool mayoral aide father (we hope he no longer feels so harshly about Times square after this). But that's just part of the weird fairy tale aspect of this film, helping to lend it some of the elements that, say, the relentlessly depressing actuality of the film SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER lacked (4)




What I especially like is that of all the 'evil' things we see the Sleez Sisters start doing, smoking (and both girls are very young let's not forget) isn't even considered a vice, and punk rock expression never considered anything but positive. Along with the genuine rebelliousness of the then-shelved OVER THE EDGE (1979) it marked a time when parents weren't considered anything but fallible and damaged kids were encouraged to find outlets wherever they could, even in squalor and destruction. There's a point, such as when Nicky gets obsessed with dropping TVs off of roofs, (or the gang starts blowing up cop cars in EDGE) that the saner minds like Pamela and Claude (or Keitel in MEAN STREETS, or Winona in GIRL INTERRUPTED) step back, get a little pale, and start thinking of exit strategies to get away from their crazy liberator friends, but that's natural. Some of us burn up rather than fade away, some of us singe ourselves by the flames, then make careers chronicling the lives of those who've burned.

It's a great shame that Robin Johnson never had a huge career. Like a throaty resonant New Yoahka street poet mix of Patti Smith and Kristy McNichol, alternately utterly androgynous David Johansen-esque rock star (almost Jagger-esque), exotic faux 30s dyke, and eye liner dripping emotional wreck / scrappy street urchin. And as their champion, Tim Curry is sublime. A British actor here he perfectly captures the Brooklyn accent gone nasal and ultra calm and sexy that can only come from amphetamines or listening close to Lou Reed's Transformer album... and as the "Voice of Times Square" his championing of the two girls isn't as cut and dry, as didactically exploitive as the local newscaster's exploitation of Diane Lane's posturing in STAINS. LaGuardia is too complicated to be either exploiter or underdog champion, a shady chicken hawk or weird profit-minded self-promoter. 

A favorite of Kathleen Hanna (whose sing-in-her-underwear sexy self-appropriation approach also harkens to Diane Lane's big moment in STAINS), TIMES SQUARE has stood the test of time even as, in its way, it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In imagining Times Square as a place to sleep protected in giant condemned waterfront buildings, it made it so. The real estate is too precious for squats now, of course. They still exist while legalities drag and architects argue, but the grit is gone, replaced by a stream of tourism so rapid and incessant I personally can no longer even go anywhere near 42nd Street without having a panic attack. 

But more importantly, gayness has gone out of the closet and editing room floor and into the streets. Even if the vile Roxy has been razed, the movies remain, free of stench and vice, in our living room. Back in 1985, with 'Wings Hauser and his coat hanger stalking the Season Hubely' (5) cable, we never would have predicted this smokeless clarity and tolerance... Miracles, man, are all around. So what if we lost our map through the Bog of Stench? We still have the Goblin King. Is there life on Mars? No, my dear Hoggle... but there will be Netflix.



NOTES:
1. 'Wet' being the NYC slang for the dried formaldehyde sprayed-on-cheap weed smoked by the truly deranged so well known in Bellevue where the users so often wind up, raving about demons following them with microphones, etc.
2. If you doubt this kind of thing is true, check out the book Life after Life and the TV showThe Ghost Inside my Child.
3. The end of the 70s marked a time when, as punk/new wave was going mainstream, the NYC godfathers like Johnny Thunders and Lou Reed were reaching wretched pinnacles of near-death dissociative speed/heroin junkie mania, where jaded fans, high on Lester Bangs' prose, crowded in to venues to goad their idols into ranting fitss before devolving into incoherence, ala Lou's Take No Prisoners LP
4. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER ended, as I recall, with the gang deb being gang banged in some big car while Travolta sulks, and then later one of his annoying mob kills himself by jumping off a bridge, and so finally Tony decides to go try and sponge off his rich dance partner in Manhattan, still the paint can lugging scrub. Damn but I was disgusted by this movie... and I was only around thirteen and seeing it at the drive-in with my mom and brother - and man it was way too depressing and tawdry for a thirteen year old expecting GREASE style life-affirmation. And don't get me started about how, also at thirteen,  I got permanently scarred after stumbling the last half hour of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR one afternoon on Movie Channel (which showed R-rated movies during the day), thinking it was ANNIE HALL. (See: Blades in the Apple)
5. See: VICE SQUAD (1982)