Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, May 30, 2013

John Monk Saunders' Flying Death Drive: THE LAST FLIGHT, EAGLE AND THE HAWK, ACE OF ACES, DAWN PATROL (vs. DRACULA)


If you want to scoop deep into the real murky moral ambiguity of war, the heart of the heart of darkness, take to the air and hunt the pre-code 1930s WWI flying ace movies written by John Monk Saunders, where dogfights and aerial maneuvers are performed in the era's rickety biplanes by day and mortifying guilt, terror, and despair is drunk away with rousing camaraderie by night. Using recycled aerial footage (and shots of the Red Baron) from the silent film Wings (1927- based on Saunders' book) the dogfights are conveyed via quasi-kabuki anonymity as pilots are shot at through rear projection, adding to a sense of depersonalized, out-of-time aloneness 'up there' in the deadly skies. Since all the pilots wear the same evil-looking goggles it becomes important to cast actors with differing jaw lines, leading to some pretty strange specimens and accentuating the anonymity of death. The same Red Baron-type hun shoots and dies and salutes either way, in the same footage, in almost every one of these films but that only serves to unite them, and together they make a startling picture of a moment in time in between the advent of sound and the arrival of Hitler and Tojo, whose combined barbarity crushed-out Hollywood's anti-war sentiment like a brief candle, or at any rate made it seem willfully naive.

It's hard to imagine there was ever such a time now, a time when anti-war/pacifist isolationism was a viable Hollywood stance. But the conscience-stricken flying ace films of Saunders' took advantage of the pre-code "amorality" to provide more than up-to-the-minute reflections of the forgotten man's deep disillusionment over coming home to the Depression. They also eyeballed the sketchy border between war as a boy's holiday from the Ten Commandments and the post-war (or even post-battle) isolationist post-traumatic stress. Looking back from our 21st century high, wherein hindsight has proven our involvement in WWII was a worthwhile endeavor (to liberate the camps if nothing else), Saunders' 1930-33 films haunt the landscape like a dark shadow. No wonder they were seldom re-released and are now available only on Warner's Archive or Amazon downloads.

Saunders and wife, Fay Wray

A professional aviator and trainer of WWI fighter pilots,  Saunders was a good-looking, intelligent, heavy-drinking depressive genius. His published stories of WWI aerial combat and heavy drinking provided perfect pre-code script material. He became a hot commodity in hard-drinking Hollywood and married Fay Wray! Was he flying the bi-plane that got Kong? Was it Saunders killed the beast? No, but Saunders' powerful, alcoholic thousand yard stare can't be dismissed from the metaphor, as we shall see...

As you know, I take a strong stance on the importance of death and drugs / alcohol abuse in being able to face the existential horror of the void and. More importantly, it helps a writer stay lucid while delving into the void, just deep enough to make it all flow like wine to the eye drums. The proximity of death opens the door to the screaming Lovecraftian horror of life, the terrifying tentacled devourer in the blackness waiting right outside your bubble of delusion, and the booze allows you to stare right into its gleaming, rotten yellow eye, and wink like a half-digested Jon Voight. Without booze, this grim confrontation which all sensitive poet hunters and fisherman must make every time they look into the terrified, dying eye of their prey, would be unendurable. Where would Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Huston, Tennessee Williams, or John Monk Saunders be without the booze OR the horror, the 'blue devil', the 'spook' that comes with war or delirium tremens? Like W.C. Fields' keeping serpents handy to warrant his use of 'snake bite remedy,' without these visionaries would not our generation, too, be lost, falling in a downward spiral like Major Kong? You may argue that it is in such a spiral, and you'd be right, but man have we learned how to plummet in style!


Saunders' first filmed story was WINGS (above) in 1927. A turning point in aerial combat war realism onscreen, Saunders provided a probably accurate recording of the bloody birth of the modern mechanical man and the nerves of steel that allowed him to soar into machine gun fire at 3,000 feet, on nothing but some wires and canvas (and no parachute) and the way the alcohol and mademoiselles of gay Paris provided a welcoming bubble in which to crash land one way or another. Audiences loved the aerial stunt photography, and thanks to Saunders they also caught a whiff of the full-on madness of cartoon champagne bubbles and Clara Bow's imitation of an uptight nurse's imitation of a vampiric courtesan.


But it is later, in the sound era, in a disturbing, brilliant WWI quadrilogy of pre-code sound films, where Saunders finds his true naked lunch 'how to keep your cool even when the walls are trying to eat you' calling.

The early 30s pre-code years were themselves naturally existential: Remember my Forgotten Man?  He hurled his lunch across the land? Remember how a totally ineffectual censorship board made it easy to tell the truth about the pre-Social Security and unemployment insurance-era's widespread poverty, horror, disillusionment, sexual double standards, war-related post-traumatic stress, and the seething resentment over Prohibition?

By the early 30s the time had come to reflect the horror of the previous war in full, as nervous isolationists were already looking anxiously towards Hitler's rise and Japan's aggression against China and saying "uh uh, not tonight, Josephine!" And Saunders was the right man for the job of deflating our war balloon, giving us a little aerial action in the process via: THE DAWN PATROL (1930), THE LAST FLIGHT (1931), and THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933) and ACE OF ACES (1933). Let's examine!
THE DAWN PATROL (1930)
Directed by Howard Hawks (Warner Bros.)
****
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Neil Hamilton

In the first scene of this early Howard Hawks film, Commander Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) rants on and on about the cold idiocy up the chain of command, but from then on, the film gets better, and was even remade by Edmund Goulding in 1938 as a vehicle for Errol Flynn and David Niven. Basil Rathbone took Hamilton's role and his pointed fey affect made the anti-idiocy rants better but there's a brooding soulfulness missing from Flynn that's all over the joint with Richard Barthelmess. As with Hawks' best films, there's a querencia, an enclosed shelter within which our brave group waits, drinks, smokes, sings, and passes out.  And like all the best Hawks, we're made aware of every drink poured and cigarette rolled and match lit, and no one leaves a drink behind half-full. We come to know the layout of the place very well, like a second home. The bunks are upstairs, the bar is downstairs, and the CO's office opens out onto the bar, making it easy to hear your orders, get drunk, and then carry the lightweights up to bed all without going outside in the rain or having to deal with women.


I was a big fan of the remake (here) and longed to see this one, and it's available at last via WB Archives. It turns out Goulding's film borrowed most of the dogfights, and as such should take a knee and heed the older film's wisdom. Richard Barthelmess as Capt. Courtney isn't quite as dashing as Flynn, but he's more believable, more method. When he gets out of his plane after a mission his legs wobble, like mine after mowing the grass. He's far less boisterous than Errol Flynn, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is less jolly but more authentically inside a war than David Niven. Sometimes it may be hard to understand why Barthelmess was considered such a star, he's so stocky and short and thin-lipped, but there's a lot of acting going on behind his lidded Peter Lorre eyes, even while the rest of him stays posed like a wax statue. But all his statue posture is worth savoring because of the flickering warm light in those eyes when he sees Scotty come back alive (with bottles) that made me almost choke up, whereas in the remake the same scene is merely jubilant and exhilarating.

All in all and remake aside, Hawks' 1930 version is the CITIZEN KANE of WWI ace pics, and balances the anti-war sentiment with a more stoic existential acceptance of duty, which is where it comes in as a great acid film, since part of tripping involves keeping your cool and shrugging it off even when the walls are melting and the handrails down the stairs are like two pincers and the steps the tongue of some throbbing scarab beetle, and everyone you see seems to be bleeding even when they're not and you can see the blood pulsing through their translucent skin. Oh my god, so much blood almost always about to spill. Maybe it's not the same as 'really' being in a war, but then again, maybe only schizophrenics, war vets, and survivors of 12 hour-long nightmare STP trips truly understand one another. BANG!


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After the credits, sometime, the war ends and the surviving pilots go in various directions, usually after some opening scenes borrowed from WINGS and DAWN PATROL. Some pilots go home to usher in the early days of commercial flight, ala AIR HOSTESS (1933) and CEILING ZERO (1936). Some go into barnstorming. If they're too shot-up or broken and can't even fly a safe boring passenger route (which according to one ex-barnstormer is "like being a trolley conductor") they can try air mail routes in South America, over the Andes ala NIGHT FLIGHT (1933, my appreciation here) or ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). If they're too damaged even for that, there's always staying in prohibition-free Paris and drinking themselves into sweet oblivion, as with: 

THE LAST FLIGHT (1931)
Director: Williem Dieterle (for Warners)
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Helen Chandler, David Manners - ***

After opening on a wordless montage of war footage that stretches from random explosions and WWI shots of tanks, exploding boats, the overhead railroad depot bombing money shot from DAWN PATROL, and aerial footage from WINGS, there is--spliced in--anonymous goggled close-ups showing the fiery crash that has allowed Signal Corp. pilot Cary (Barthlemess) and his rear gunner Shep (David Manners) to be too fucked up to fly again. After discharging them, the doctor notes they're "heading out to face life, when their whole training was in preparation for death."

It was the preparation for death that had been, of course, Saunder's job during the war as a flight trainer. "I'm afraid they're like projectiles, shaped for war. Hurled at the enemy, they described a beautiful high-arching trajectory, and now they've fallen back to earth... spent... cooled off... useless." The doctor keeps going, noting that they fell 600 feet, "like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement - it shattered both of them." Okay Okay, we get it.

On the plus side it legitimizes their desire to live and die awash in a sea of boozy screwball gibber-gabber.


Saunders had clearly been reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald before writing this and it could have become a Lost Genration cult classic if directed by a rapidfire overlapping dialogue and smoking and drinking wiz like Hawks or W.S. Van Dyke, George Cukor or someone with a dark-streaked screwball comedic humanism like Leo McCarey, Capra, or even Norman Z. McLeod. But, in the hands of once-impoverished German immigrant Willam Dieterle, the champagne bubble "hurrah for the next who dies" dialogue sinks down like smoke from an unfiltered Gauloises, revealing only a perfunctory understanding of boozy tuxedo modernism and the natural flow of spoken English. Everyone over-enunciates, waiting for the other to finish talking, allowing a long pause between each speaker, like a tableful of drunks never would in real life. The result plays like a 1929 Paramount Marx Brothers movie directed by a drunken Todd Browning, with (most of)  the cast of DRACULA (1931) all playing Groucho and Geoffrey from UNDER THE VOLCANO at the same time, though without a slur. Which sounds great, by the way, and almost is. We find the boys after their discharge swilling away down at the local cafe, along with some other ex-pats, where they run into and all fall for, an ethereal vampire-like alcoholic played  by Mina Harker (aka Helen Chandler). They all fall into a moveable feast that heads off to Lisbon to party, and from there, a date-rapey creep in their midst ruins everything. Don't they always? 

To me, it's the date-rapey creep that ruins it. Aside from Barthelmess and Manners, the crew of fellow drunk expat aviators aren't very hip. It's really only Barthelmess and Manners that Nikki likes, and we like. Frink (Walter Byron) is the icky journalist who keeps hanging around their fringe; his creepy omnipresence stops most of the zaniness from being really fun (then again, "who cares?" is their motto). There's also a suspiciously loud Texan played by Johnny Mack Brown, who tackles horses in the street outside the bar on a dare and rocks the flattest of twangs. There's also Elliot Nugent (who'd go on to direct the awesome 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY) as Francis, the shot-up, dour marksman who ends up spending most of the time eyeballing Frink (as I would be doing), though he waits until almost the end to finally do us all a favor and shoot him.

Luckily for us there's a weird poetry in the chemistry between Chandler and Manners, who seem even more ESP-whisp-thereal than they did in the same year's DRACULA, no easy feat. As Shep, Barthelmess's drinking buddy, bosom pal and ex-gunner, Manners' otherworldly feyness finds a great natural outlet--we believe he's forgotten what month it is--and when he dies shot in a cab and proclaims "in a way this is may be the best thing that ever happened to me," we actually believe him.

And it's understandable that both he and Nikki would be so drawn to the quiet strength of Barthelmess' densely rooted pilot; they seem to float when standing still, their eyes following wisps around the room only the two of them can see, making them like a taller, drunker version of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but with their invisible strings fastened to Barthelmess's anchor, they don't need to worry about floating away

And the similarities of DRACULA and FLIGHT don't end there: Chandler's character Nikki is much more like the Mina in Stoker's novel of DRACULA than her actual Mina was in Todd Browning's adaptation. She might be reading crazy gonzo lines but she's delivering them like she's about to cry or relate her strange dream of a dark figure coming out of the mist. In the novel she becomes a kind of revered virgin icon-mascot for Van Helsing, Harker, Dr. Seward and Lucy's other grief-stricken suitor (a Texan!). If Frink was Dracula it might even be a remake, but in a way, the war already had the Dracula role, making it really like Dracula part 2, wherein Manners, Chandler, Barthelmess and co. all try to drink away the awful memories of, and wounds from, their big climactic staking.

In real life, Chandler would later experience kinship with monsters horrified by their lack of recognizable mirror reflection. Wiki notes that "she ironically fell victim to alcoholism later in life and was badly disfigured in a fire caused by falling asleep while smoking." And of course vampirism is a great metaphor for dependence on alcohol, morphine, or the horrors of war. Each is a key that can easily replace the other, soothe the worries of the other, and in the process open the lock of great literature and art (Barthelmess's character has a nervous tic but "the tic doesn't work when he's tight, so he stays tight").

If only I was there, I could have helped them ditch Frink sooner, for I was expert and driving off wallies, and man we'd have a time -for  they drink like I used to, and I loved my moveable feast crew, and we had the same infallible sense of surrealist absurdity and a hatred of date rapists.

Brushing aside Frink's dour lechery, Mick La Salle notes in his essential, beautifully-written 2002 book, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man (where I first learned about Saunders' films, so this post owes La Salle a heavy debt):
"These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over [Nikki's] legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking a dim memory when such things were to live and die for...." 
"Nikki isn't a woman of the world, but an airy figure with a child's honesty and an adult's sadness, a female version of the men. (Chandler, whose own hopeless alcoholism would lead to tragedy, couldn't help but bring a special truth to the role.)" (p. 100)
The presence of Barthelmess makes it also a sequel to THE DAWN PATROL (if his lived and got discharged with buddy Fairbanks), and a perfect distillation of trying to drink away one's broken watch status via the icy abstraction of martinis and a beautiful, hard-drinking girl (a Zelda). 


Throughout the film the idea of being 'a big success' is played with, and the competition to be the last one in the room with Nikki is part of that, and also what drives Francis to finally off Frink, requiring Francis's subsequent disappearance into the Lisbon shadows. "This is the first time he's looked truly happy," notes Nikki as she watches Frances disappear. Manners has also been (accidentally) shot in the fracas, and a sense of VERTIGO / Purloined letter circular death drive / Appointment in Samara ensues: As he slowly dies in the back of a cab, Shep reports feeling like he's falling, and falling... like he and Cary did in the opening scene over the skies and screens of France. "He was ready to die once," Cary notes, "and he was ready to die again." 

Here it is, the real love affair of the story, that between Barthelmess and Manners, the way men bond eternally in the field of combat, like orphans forever clinging to paddle-less rafts during battles with shadowy Robert Mitchums (imagine if Stewart in VERTIGO had a buddy to fall into the infinite with, someone other than motherin' Midge). "Comradeship," says Barthelmess, "was all we had left."  

And maybe that's what the real lure of war is for men at home: an escapist grim fantasia of true brotherhood and comradeship and no prohibition or small town morals. In wartime it's just buds against the world, firearms instead of nagging wives, the chance to prove one's mettle when it's all stripped down to just you and the guys experiencing the same hell the next seat over. And Barthelmess--his usually impassive face contorting into a slow burn wide-eyed terror at being finally unable to save his gunner's life in the cab-cradles Manners' head as he dies, like a lover. But when it comes to pitching confessional woo to Nikki in their private train car back to Paris in the next scene, he seems to doing some lipless burlesque of what having lips is like. Still, the pair's lonesome auras collide finally and the sense of two lost souls clinging to each other continues, each grateful that something and someone at least lets them pretend they're not already crashed.

And more importantly, won't ever take the bottle away and say "you've had enough, honey."
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Then, in 1933, Hitler consolidated power and Prohibition was repealed: two very good reasons for moving back to the States, where the voting majority were determined to keep out of the next world war. Sensing the new threat on the horizon, Saunders wrote two more anti-war movies that promoted a new isolationist propaganda stance.

This was when the need to start mobilizing the national military industrial complex was vastly more important than most people in their sloshed disillusionment could have realized, not only because arms build-up would lift us out of the Depression but because, as La Salle notes, "Had the United States found the will that year to throw a net over Hitler, tens of millions of lives might have been spared."

Well, anyway, these two 1933 Saunders flying ace films are great stuff now that they can't do any real damage to our collective freedom, so here we go:

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933)
Directed by Stuart Walker (for Paramount)
Starring: Frederic March, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Jackie Oakie
***

The descriptions of this film tend to describe it as a love triangle between Frederic March, rising Paramount star Cary Grant (in the same year he played opposite Mae West in her two best pictures), and a vamped-to-the-point-she's-ceased-to-look-human Carole Lombard (billed only as 'the beautiful lady' she seems ethereally daemonic enough to be the "bloofer lady" in DRACULA). But contrary to the picture at left, Cary Grant and Lombard never actually share a single scene in the film, and at left Lombard more resembles a wife or WAC in a WWII home front propaganda piece rather than a mysterious sympathetic ear wrapped in ermine who March trysts with in the dead of night in Hyde park.

And Cary Grant is no hero, but a sociopathic if ultimately loyal gunner to March. Grant's hawkish vibe allows March to play the guilt-stricken noble. He becomes a top ace, but he has to get progressively drunker to keep it together once his body count rises, to the point a grinning French general pinning a medal on him can smell the alcohol on his breath even in the pouring rain!  Hey, c'est la guerre! And when one of his gunners later simply falls out during a loop-de-loop maneuver, March's decent into alcoholism and existential guilt goes from spiral to straight downward dive-bomb.


The thing that tears the game up more than anything for Jerry (March) is that he can't admit how much he loves to kill. When he comes back from his first foray over the lines he's exhilarated and giddy, only to find his first-assigned gunner is dead behind him. From then on, he's horrified, not by fear of being killed, but of being responsible somehow for the deaths of his gunners (he loses five in a matter of months) while he gets his kicks. It's guilt for loving killing and collateral damage. What I dig most about EAGLE AND THE HAWK is just how flimsy the WWI bi-planes here seem. They look ready to fall to pieces at a moment's notice, little more than kites with guns attached. 



What's less exciting is the way, just like Kirk Douglas in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), Jerry's self-righteous anti-war stance includes blissful freedom from the big picture, i.e. the responsibility endured by Neil Hamilton in DAWN PATROL. It's very convenient to bad cop it to a higher-up and play the wounded dove without worry of the long-ranging sociopolitical consequences. That said, March's performance is brilliantly modulated and it's quite intense watching his polite veneer slowly crumble under strain of conscience, until, during the big drunken binge thrown in his 'top ace' honor (after he shoots down Voss, a Richtofen-like ace who's barely out of his teens), March finally snaps, interrupting his fellow flier's drunken singing with a crazy rant: "I earn my medals for killing kids!" He then staggers off to his room and commits suicide, a tour de force statement! Yeah right. What a waste...

La Salle notes that Jerry's suicide had a real-life parallel to Saunders' real life booze-enhanced turmoil:  "Seven years after the film was made, Saunders, age 42, hanged himself." (105) That would be 1940. You do the math; he died along with any socratic ideal of a future negotiated peace with Hitler. He also probably realized, as so many drunks do, that sobriety was his only other option.

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But all that was still a ways off in 1934. Saunders could, at least for awhile, channel his booze-fueled depressive drunken combat envy to pictures and literature. We alcoholic poets come alive when our paranoia and sense of immanent calamity finally have a proper setting. Saunders' anti-war sentiment at its most effective always includes pro-war relish, a mix of emotions including a paradoxical sense of brotherhood with the enemy fliers. As long as he could seethe with isolationist fury he could indulge this Hyde-like dark twin as well.

One can imagine the outlet for such isolationism being choked off after 1938, never to return (until Vietnam). But American pacifism was all the rage in 1933, the year of such polemics like MEN MUST FIGHT and political satires like DUCK SOUP and DIPLOMANIACS, all of which adds up with Saunders' relative homicidal glee to compare favorably as a predecessor to PATTON if he pretended to be ashamed of his yen for slaughter, or Dr. Strangelove's amok hand making peace signs instead of Nazi salutes.

I'd hazard a guess too that, for one of WWI's more peerless Air Corps. fiction authors, Saunders' lack of actual combat experience reflects his guilt more than his characters' over killing kids. This is perhaps the one weak aspect of his work but as far as weak aspects go, you won't find these kinds of sentiments voiced so clearly anywhere else in pre-code film. Other writers were either anti-war pacifists screaming the dogmatic socialist credos while fascist soldiers hauled them away (ala IDIOT'S DEIGHT), or "over there / over there" lemmings. Saunders was too smart for either out, he explored the actuality of the grisly homicidal fish that bites the propaganda lure with a boozer's realization that they were two sides of a same lousy nickel-plated excuse to get away with murder.

ACE OF ACES (1933)
Director: J. Walter Rubin (for RKO)
Starring: Richard Dix, Elizabeth Allan, Ralph Bellamy, Theodore Newton, Joe Sauers - ***1/2

Sculptor Rocky (Richard Dix) and his wealthy fiancee, Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) begin the film in an idyllic upper class garden guarded by a strangely disagreeable ceramic gnome. Someone runs over with alarming news. It's war! He just saw the paper! Rocky immediately declares that signing up to go fight is for chumps, and in a subsequent scene up in Rocky's second floor sculpture studio, he and Nancy have an argument of principles while parade footage unfurls outside the window below his work in progress, a winged angel. She dumps him for his 'cowardice.' Which leads to the next scene, Dix entering his new barracks to meet his fellow fliers, while a guitarist sings "Ten thousand dollars for the folks back home / ten thousand dollars / for the family," while they roll up the possessions of the latest killed flier whose bunk Rocky's taking. We get the message, your family gets ten grand if you die in the air.

It's a startlingly modern scene, these pilots seem like they stepped out of a 50s Corman film. They're far too beat for1933. They jive like they should be swindling Tony Curtis out of his sax or chasing James Dean around an abandoned swimming pool. Each of the pilots has a mascot and a nickname: "This is Tombstone Terry, the Tennessee Terror, otherwise known as Dracula!" The man leans forward to eye Rocky's neck, "Welcome to the ranks of the undead!" (WWI ended 13 years before the premiere of the 1931 Lugosi film, mind you). They each have an emblem of their power animal/mascot emblazoned on their ships: Rocky just happened to think to bring a lion cub and there's a chimp who drinks to ease the pain when his master's in the air. There's also a dog, a parrot, and a pig with an iron cross tattoo. Each flier's bunk has a flag with the amount of killed enemy planes represented on it by big 'X' stickers on the headboard (usually a chunk of a shot down plane wing). The plane of each man is taken care of like a teenager takes care of his Pontiac Firebird.

Then there's the ingenious way Rocky's artistic understanding of natural light benefits him in dogfights. He chokes on the trigger at first and has to get winged in the shoulder by an enemy bullet before he mans up and squeezes. The boys celebrate his kill and Dix realizes that he may never make the grade as a sculptor, but this new bloody brand of performance has a nice adrenalin kicker.

But what is the 'meaning' behind this art? When Dix smacks a kid in the face with an ammo belt because he loaded it wrong, we know we're not supposed to be buying war bonds in the lobby. This shit is personal. And the very hip disaffection of the fliers bears out my theory that war and acid are just two different sides of the same empty, terrifying void.

The Lemming and the Lion
When, upon his initial coward-branding by nurse Nancy, Rocky decries war as a chance to duck out on your wife, and work, and responsibility, you know he's right, and he gets to say I told you so after she's become a nurse and personally dealt with being shelled and overrun. When they meet in Paris on a furlough she says she regrets goading him into enlisting, but he'll have none of it: "This is a great war and I'm having a grand time; every minute is grand!"  He's high on the cleanness of the war up where he is, the feeling of life and death so close and all that separates them the movements of his plane and firing of his guns: "Yes, it's a great war. I hope the next one is half as good!" He's giddy with insane sardonicism but his eyes look empty, reflecting a kind of DEATH DREAM somnambulism that some critics dismiss as merely Dix's wooden acting style. But behind that wooden mask lurks an agonized sculptor who has given up trying to hold onto his humanity, since he knows it will only get him killed. Like all sensitive artists, he starts out with far too much compassion, so he just jettisons it all. When he makes a brusque pass at her, Nancy balks. He exclaims war is is no time for scruples: "How can you refuse whatever you have to give?!" He all but twists her earlier words back into her face, and the moral hypocrisy of placing import on a woman's virginity dissolves in WWI almost as if that was the whole point of the war in the first place.

All in all, Rocky ends up being the more complex and interesting figure than March's Jerry in EAGLE. March endures his tenure as ace, but any joy in the sport of it falls instead to Cary Grant's sociopathic gunner. We know from DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE that March could have chilled us to the core if Rocky was allowed a duality, but Dix is almost better for being less versatile, more stiff (in both senses). Just as Cary shoots an unarmed parachutist in EAGLE, Rocky shoots down an unarmed German cadet and winds up in a hospital next to him. This finally snaps Rocky out of his psychotic stupor.

Luckily there's a happy ending, albeit with a strange 'is this just a dream and I'm really dead?' quality, like the end of TAXI DRIVER or VERTIGO or LAST FLIGHT. Rocky winds up the film back in the garden and in Nancy's arms, harmony restored: "We'll live only for ourselves, and by ourselves," she says, an eloquent if impossible advocations of the romantic ideal behind isolationist pacifism and the fantasy that America could take all the time it wanted to lick its wounds and Europe would just sort itself out on its own.

After all, America was still a teenager in 1933, a mere 157 years-old, yet it knew deep down it would never get a chance to even get comfortable with itself before being shipped off to die in yet another country's war. Rocky's last line, though meant as a joke, leaves a chilling after-effect. As he and Nancy embrace in the garden, his eyes rest on the garden gnome that bugged him in the film's first scene, noting cryptically, "I still don't like the looks of that guy."

Who else could that gnome be, but Adolph Hitler?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pharmageddon!: JOHN DIES AT THE END


As John Carpenter ages into his RED LINE 7000 phase, a horror genius named Don Coscarelli has quietly stolen the title of the new Hawksian Drive-in fuzzy horror guru. What is fuzzy horror? I can only tell you it encompasses all of Coscarelli's films, the early Sam Raimi, some Cronenberg, John Carpenter til he started doing cable TV, Quentin Tarantino if he ever made a horror movie. It's a loosey goosey termite art digging and goofing around - simultaneously mind-expanding and brain-addling; it never has to rely on vicious sexual violence, misogyny, torture, yelling, or religion; it understands normal healthy adult sex is the creepiest most uncanny thing ever once you can finally see it clearly for what it is, stripped of all its alluring-in-the-heat-of-the-moment bark. Why is it Hawksian? Because it's still scary even though it's witty and irreverent. It transcends genre and is based on character interaction, a droll shared language--the gallow's wit of RIO BRAVO, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE THING, SCARFACE, THE BIG SLEEP, and HIS GIRL FRIDAY--and because there's so much less pointless twisting and random acts of shock designed solely to get bad (better than no) publicity, it understands the two bros being cool language of deadpan calm and running jokes. Why fuzzy? Because it can get pretty sloppy, so is best to watch late at night, with a nice buzz and low expectations, and the films only get better with each new fuzzy view, cuz the earlier fuzzy has made you forget most of it anyway.


I won't go too much into JOHN DIES plot - you can just mosey over to Netflix streaming and watch it, and then come back to this scintillating post. But let's just say this - that dude up in that picture with the sunglasses and mysterious device? He played the infantry trainer ("Medic!") in STARSHIP TROOPERS, another fuzzy horror masterpiece.

I will say also that time looping is involved but I liked this film way way better than LOOPER. And I believe in time travel, if only via one's third eye, and when a movie makes the third eye hallucinations real instead of dreams it works because a hep person knows movies already exist at the hallucinatory level. Unfuzzy directors feel compelled to separate the two - what is just a dream and what is real - like we'll upend the apple cart if not brought safely back to rut, as in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, wherein the wolf must come out of David through grand physical agony or it won't be 'believable' --and the welcome eruption of Nazi werewolves with machine guns is revealed to be a dream. If John Landis made the dream the real and focused on those Nazi werewolves for the whole film, than hot damn, that would be hardcore fuzzy, and also a bit like the opening of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME.


What mainstream science still can't quite admit, but which leading edge scientists are realizing to their amazement, is that the universe is totally subjective. If we can move past notions of size, perspective, and spatial relativity then space/time travel is possible regardless of the distances between solar systems. As humans with limited ESP ability (or, as with most scientists, none at all) we can't imagine space travel any other way except by carting our bodies from point A to point B, in a vessel relative to own size, but that doesn't mean we all won't one day be long past that limited conception of ourselves. If space itself is a vacuum, the idea of needing to travel a certain amount of miles to get there is foolishly short-sighted. Why not just collapse the vacuum? Why not merely shrink the space?

The closest we have to ESP as a legitimate science today is the cell phone, relay tower and wireless router, but we take those things for granted the way we took ESP for granted in the 70s, back when we would have considered cell phones an unrealistic fantasy (even Deckard in BLADE RUNNER had to find a phone booth for his booty call). Now we take for granted the sound waves that beam all over the globe constantly, billions of voices, TV signals, radio and military and Google Map drone images, soaring up and down like ping pong balls between humans and satellite paddles, remote controlling martian probes millions of miles out in space, and yet we scoff at alien abductions due to light year distances. We once laughed at the horseless carriage! Radio! How can anyone be so stupid?

Perhaps this is why what was absurd fiction a mere century ago is taken for granted as science fact today and yet no one dares broach the subject of  pandimensional travel's validity! And it's because the subjective experience of hardcore psychedelic drug trippers would then be valuable and science fears this, understandably since objectivity is the foundation of their known world and subjectivity the foundation of the trippers. But we know the horrifying truth: Fiction is truer than reality! 

All of which serves as a warped introduction to my praise of Don Coscarelli, a man who I've written of in the past as being suspiciously like myself in extrasensory speculation, to the point that one of my pet AA intervention metaphors, self-performed eye surgery, crops up in JOHN DIES AT THE END. Check out this exchange in the film after Dave calls a priest because John seems possessed.

Dave: What do you think it's like, Father?
Father Shellnut: What's what like?
Dave: Being crazy, mentally ill.
Father Shellnut: Well, they never know they're ill, do they? I mean, you can't diagnose yourself with the same organ that has the disease, just like you can't see your own eyeball. I suppose you just feel regular, and the rest of the world seems to go crazy around you.

Now check this from an old post of mine in the C-Influence:
Eyewitness testimony can be considered “fact” in a court of law but means nothing to science, which cripples itself through its dismissal of everything “subjective” as if there was something that wasn’t (...) Our collective disbelief about things beyond our comprehension is itself beyond comprehension, revealing the fundamental impossibility of trying to think about nature objectively from inside an organic brain (sort of like trying to perform eye surgery on yourself without a mirror) (5/27/11)
I have no choice, therefore--considering the film's avalanche of uncanny coincidence-- to believe JOHN DIES AT THE END was written by me in the future. 


I mean this as no disrespect to JOHN DIES' creators, Coscarelli and author James Wong (a pseudonym, so they say), and of course all three of us are clearly inspired by Lovecraft, William S. (and Edgar Rice) Burroughs, Alan Moore, and Hunter S. Thompson, so who knows who I really am? I always hoped Lovecraft might read my work one day in a time travel loop and be inspired to write the Cthulu mythos based on my own August Derleth-based fiction. That's probably not in our immediate 'future' as I haven't written any, but I once meant to and if time is elastic and we are all one, then we are all one right now, connected through an elastic time tentacle, boinging back and forth through time in order to play not just many parts, ala Shakespeare, but every part, ala the Brahmavaivarta Purana. In other words, if you weren't me before reading this, you are now, or will be, now that this word tentacle has boinged into your future cognition. This is how we become our own great-grandmothers, and this, and this alone, is why Ramboona never fails.


Such weird collapse-of-time distortions in JOHN DIES AT THE END are only one of the great side effects of a black ooze-style drug dubbed 'soy sauce,' a mix of the black ooze from the X-FILES, the black centipede meat of the NAKED LUNCH, and the Black Sheep Dip from my own unpublished novel... and of course, probably, organic psychedelic 'alien intelligence' gateway drugs like psilocybe cubensis mushrooms (the block spore stuff inside the caps and stem veins) and Salvia Divinorum (the black of the gorgon's eyes). Aside from time dilation, this 'soy sauce' allows one a Zen-like calm as well as the ability to read minds and to astral travel, which includes visiting an interzone-style alternate reality to invest in biotech that's a literal fusion of bio and tech wherein computers and Lovecraftian multi-tentacled horrors fuse into one entity that sucks the intellect and experience of the entire world through its crab-claw-tentacles, ala Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (or David Cross in FUTURAMA: BEAST WITH A MILLION BACKS - see my 08 post, and More Tentacles from the 5th dimensional Rift) or "if" SKYNET was a giant octopus (and recall the name sky-"net" existed long before the creation of the internet; the film came out in 1984, the same year William Gibson's term 'cyberspace' entered pop culture). That's not even forgetting the tiny nanobyte brainputating spores that take over bodies in THE THING (1982), GHOSTS OF MARS (2001), and the ones that just dissolve humans from the inside out, like those celluloid emulsion pinpricks in THE FLESH EATERS (1968)-- all super, and super fuzzy.


And of course we can't not mention Don's own previous films, including the definitive fuzzy horror, the PHANTASM series, which depicts post-death Archon soul harvesting procedures, and the zany melancholy of BUBBA HO TEP, wherein the real Elvis and Ossie Davis as a wheelchair bound JFK battle a mummy from the old west. 

There's great metextuality and in-joke humor in all Coscarelli's films--all without sacrificing narrative or suspense--but JOHN DIES is particularly clever: the 3-D glasses Fabianne Therese wears are a nice touch, for example: she has phantom limb syndrome and the ghost of her hand is visible in the glasses, turning a magic key in a secret door in the mall, which is one of my more memorable dreams (in my version Marsha Brady was waiting in a hospital bed through the door). That her magic 3D glasses would work in a 2-D film is just one of the stunning filmic choices that puts Don Coscarelli's film way out in front of the cult-contending pack, up past even BUCKAROO BANZAI (1982), which for all its archness never could quite commit to its interstellar overdrive psychotronic roots, and into the zone of timeless fuzzy classics like REPO MAN!


Pay close attention to the banners hanging on either side of the church pulpit in the above still, as I get ready to lay down more of the massive flood of similarities to my own work that will bear out the theory I shall become John Wong in the distant future or have already been in the distant past (that they are the same --for history is not linear, but looped - it's the Moebius strip tape splice section where it can sometimes jump its thread count - but if time is looped than that 'jump' is eternally now). Note that the phone Dave uses in the scene depicted on the far left banner is a hot dog, similar to the banana and Marlboro phones in my QUEEN OF DISKS! (2007)

What's that you say? Everyone does the old banana phone gag? Well not when addressing psychedelic transdimensional tape splice time slippage! Another similarity is that the 'Mall of the Dead' is similar to my 'Mall of Time' from an old unpublished short story about a guy looking for a special cigarette in the distant past (based on a time when I briefly lived in the head of a Chinese baker) at a conceptual mall. Here's an excerpt:
The mall of time had been designed to appeal to the tactile senses to lure the net-dazed shopper back in. The theme was an evolution of history with spacey gadgets on one end and gradually decades receding as you walked down the aisles until you past the dawn of man and into some weird cannabalistic pagan wordlessness. Eighties clothes and jewelry down to seventies retro, flapper prom tuxedo shops, Cowboy Dan's, and then farther back still… through pre-Columbian dining room sets, a series of moving sidewalk exhibitions with tinsel rain and roaring plastic volcanoes and the voice of Christian Bale narrating your trip through time. The roar of a dinosaur as we reach the kid's robot dinosaur displays, and, if you are a tripper, looking for the special cigarettes, back farther still...
... and as we took the escalators down and down and ran giddy but full of dread along the black tiles, our shoes echoing amid the cacophony of music and the crowd thinning down to only us, and Bale’s voice on the loudspeaker as it discussed the mating habits of the terandadon, that flying dinosaur that was the missing link between birds and reptiles. Down where we were heading the music got quieter and the lights got lower, and the animatronic dinosaurs became lower to the ground, hiding in the shadows and in the coin fountain now bubbling with fake moss and plastic sludge. Blood and mud filled the air, like a slaughterhouse zoo. 
Right? See the similarity? Coscarelli's film is a little different, but the idea of a "mall of the dead" and a special drug being associated with interdimensional time travel is the same, and James Wong writes really bizarre, perceptive stuff for Cracked. Am I totally comfortable in saying that Wong is me in the distant future or distant past or in an alternate reality where we come from the same persona stalk in the blazing tree of souls? Yes. Do I 100% believe it? Well, for that I'm going to turn it over to an Arkham University-style detective in the film:
Detective Lawrence 'Morgan Freeman' Appleton: I'm an old school Catholic. I believe in hell. I believe it's more than just murderers and rapists down there. I believe in demons and worms, and vile shit in the grease trap of the universe. And the more I think about it, the more I think that it's not just some place down there. Oh no, that it's right here with us. We just can't perceive it. It's kinda like the country music radio station. It's out there in the air, even if you don't tune into it.

So what does that tell you? That for a fuzzy horror filmmaker Don Coscarelli is amazingly prescient about the realities of post-death alternate dimensional enslavement, forging a direct link with theories espoused by everything from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the writings of Nigel Kerner, Phillip K. Dick, Nick Redfern, and to David Icke, and that he understands the collapse of reality that comes from opening up past mainstream science and Christianity's tight-ass gates and stretching one's tentacles out into the slimy levels where just entertaining crazy ideas taps one into the mythic.

The heavens and hells of the bibles are all around us, man.
Morgan Freeman is right.
The future, present, and past exist simultaneously.
The heaven and hell we create for ourselves is created with each inhale, destroyed with each ex.
Karma is so instant that retribution precedes the crime, like MINORITY REPORT (another Phillip K. Dick "prediction"); this explains the 'lucky in love unlucky at cards' adage
and if time travel is possible than people from the future have already manipulated our past to suit their own future ends.
The Hassidic Jewish community has mastered this which is why they continue to dress the same as they did before the stock market crash, to as not draw attention to themselves when they come time traveling back and forth with investment tips.
Do I believe they caused the stock market crash of 29? No.
Do I believe they knew about in advance? Not really.
Do I believe the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a 'real document'? No.
Have I read parts of it? Yes.
Was this 'truth' revealed to me by the alien intelligence, with an image of a Hassidic scholar reverse screwing himself into existence out of the pages of a giant, opened scroll? Yes.
Did I wonder then whether my spirit guide was a member of the Thule Society and possibly by extension also appearing to David Icke?
mmmm could be. Spirit guides are so often sleazy tricksters you can't believe everything they say...and therefore can believe nothing they say.
On the other hand, just hearing them say it is more illuminating than a year at fair Harvard
or so my spirit guide tells me.


Of the two alien (plant) intelligences I've encountered in my 'ahem' travels, one is legal and the other should be. One is like a strict Catholic gardening teacher named Salvia, who skins me alive in a slow, circular orbit every time I drop by her communal garden, like a clockwork of dragon's teeth. And if I can sufficiently let go (of self, time, duality) and identify with the nature of the universe, with the floor beneath my meditation cushion (if I had one), then I can just let her teeth strip away my egoic shell and 'pop' I'm suddenly free in awash of one love no sense of time or space --the bright yellow cosmos, where any question the remainder of my psyche can think to ask is answered, in a way wherein I remember being told the answer in the distant past. That's how I learned the truth about Bigfoot

The other is a little younger and less austere -- the cool hippie teacher instead of the stern egocidal gardener; this one Psilocybe C., is a space jockey, you know the type: he moves into your room like that fun kid from college, sweeps the crap off the floor of your life, sneaks you into all the coolest wildest clubs and teaches you how to see the spirits between the cracks of reality. Then, after awhile he starts to get on your nerves. It takes hours and hours for him to say goodbye, lingering in the doorway, hugging you every two minutes, coming back five minutes later to say he forgot his... uh... pen. Each minute passes like hours and you're like it was great having you around but now you're getting on my nerves, bro; and you're still seeing his shadow days after he's allegedly gone home. By then he's totally gone (by Tuesday usually) and  you miss him, terribly.

So as you can see, these 'poison path' pen pals do take a bite before they go. Your mileage and enlightenment may vary, and only holy fools, madmen, and artists would be insane enough to ever even want to meet them.


If this rambling 'review' has been more about me than JOHN DIES AT THE END I apologize. All you really need to know is where it exists in the family tree of midnight cult goofball fuzzy: it's to the soft side of THE EVIL DEAD trilogy, it's a more low key sci fi trippyhol version of TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL and REPO MAN, up the street from Don's PHANTASMs and sitting at the same table as NAKED LUNCH, BUCKAROO BANZAI, NIGHT OF THE COMET, even maybe a smattering of HELLBOY and CONSTANTINE waiting in the corner. It's ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1939 meets 80s John Carpenter. That should be enough for you, me, or ant waiting to an Indra be.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Early Hawks: THE CRIMINAL CODE, TIGER SHARK, CEILING ZERO, BARBARY COAST, ROAD TO GLORY


Much as I love Orson Welles, I've never quite forgiven him for the Cahiers du Cinema interview when he was asked to name the three greatest American directors and answered "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." How dare he exclude our greatest director, Howard Hawks? Ford was brilliant visually and mythologically but easily mired in his misty-eyed Irish sentiment. He wasn't American -- he was "Irish-American."  Hawks is 'all-American' --he is what makes America great: knowing the difference between being brave in the face of death and just being an imperialist swine. It makes sense I guess for Welles to prefer Ford since Welles is first and foremost a visual director - packing his screen with baroque detail and anchoring it all with his one-of-a-kind voice and genius. Camaraderie means nothing to Welles. He's always been a one man show, presuming himself the center of attention at any restaurant communal table.  What Hawksian men do instead is to face danger, not just external but internal danger, so when violence comes their way it's already after they've conquered themselves; and they sing and play music together (rather than just listening to some Sons of the Pioneers Navy or Cavalry singing group), and they most importantly drink and smoke, but without wasting time on comical brawls. And when they die, they die like men, or they survive like men, either way without speeches about printing the legend and trying to forget the facts.

And if a Hawksian man meets a woman it's ten times faster and more disorienting than a Maginot line charge. There's no chaperone, no parson beaming, no dance, no time; the Hawksian man has to face that woman alone, and no amount of inner death-defying can prepare him for the Hawksian woman's forward advance. The whole fabric of the John Ford fort, the small town unity that extends in generations for centuries back, is sublimely pared down by Hawks to a gummy old cripple, a drunk, and a limping sheriff, holed up in a jail and visited daily by attractive women playing barely coded prostitutes who seem more modern and free of phony glamor than even Ford's wild Irish tomboys. There's no mutually consenting premarital sex in a Ford film, and nothing but premarital sex in a Hawks. No stern moral matrons, no kids (unless they're froggy-voiced old people in kid bodies, like in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).


Needless to say, John Ford John Ford John Ford has won the history, the legend's been printed; he's got dozens of boxed sets in his name; Hawks gets none (aside from R2 where he has one three movie set), and part of that may be that Hawks films are still very modern. There are very few misses in his canon but also nothing of bourgeois importance like GRAPES OF WRATH. The closest Hawks gets is maybe his most unHawkslike film, the Fordian SGT. YORK. Usually, instead of emotion, race, and historical accuracy, Hawks' films are fun, archetypal, witty, engaging, resonant more on a Jungian than Freudian level. It's as if Hawks films take place in the universe that Ford has set up, the same towns and valleys, but then the Hawks characters are never seen in Ford's films because they hide out from all the boring town functions (they don't go to church or square dances).

In the 30s, though, Hawks was still figuring himself out (comedies aside). He had some great writers, many of whom, like William Faulkner, had served with him in the Flying Escadrille (so had to deal with death daily) or gone hunting with him, BUT Hawks had yet to find his signature action movie style, the male bonding-in-isolation. Anyway, maybe examining these five early films (in order of release) will help. They're all rather obscure, so I mention how to locate each film, be it available only on VHS, DVD-R, or TCM--which is a crime considering nearly every John Ford movie ever made is remastered out there on disc--and my own ratings.

I'm presuming too, by the way, you're coming to these films having run through all your other Hawksian choices as one does and craving more like a junky craving junk. To what extent these will satisfy is of course the issue each of us must answer.

THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931)
Avail. on VHS and Region 2 DVD
**1/2
Walter Huston is a tough but fair warden who, as DA, sends a naive kid (Phillip Holmes) up the river for ten years on a manslaughter charge (the kid whacked a masher with a bottle in a notorious speakeasy, and the masher died). It's a bad break, but as Huston tersely snaps, "an eye for an eye - that's the foundation of the criminal code!" Waving a black book like a blackjack, Huston has to come to terms (once he becomes warden) with a whole different criminal code: you don't rat out your fellow inmates, no matter what. And there's a climax wherein if Holmes rats out the killer of a previous criminal code violator (i.e. 'squealer') he'll walk out a free man, but he won't break the code. He won't! He won't he won't! he won't!hewont!hewonthewont! Huston gets in some intense acting, grabbing the boy by the lapels and demanding to know who did it. WHO DID IT!?? That kind of slow build-up to an impassioned tough sustain is the Huston Sr. specialty. But what else, really, does this early sound Hawks offer?


In shades of HIS GIRL FRIDAY to come, there's some nice overlapping dialogue in a press room, and Huston gets some chances to be super tough, like walking unarmed into a throng of hateful prisoners, or getting a shave from a lifer who cut another man's throat, and Karloff gets to loom like a white tunic-sporting Frankenstein as he stalks a squealer, but otherwise these characters are all trapped in a polemic. The situations are clearly contrived for the demonstration of Big Moral Issues, and an air of existential gloom hangs heavy uber alles. There's not much room for Hawksian heroics in such a clamped-down situation (like if the whole of RIO BRAVO was told from the point of view of the imprisoned Joe Burdett).  In TARGETS (discussed here) it's the film my fellow Hawks devotee Peter Bogdanovich and a barely-fictionalized Karloff (playing a horror actor named Orlok) watch on TV while throwing down drinks in Karloff's hotel suite, whatever that's worth to you.

TIGER SHARK (1932)
Occasional TCM airings, Warner Archive DVD
**1/2
There's some disturbing documentary-style scenes here of tuna fishing off the coast of Steinbeckian Northern California: a crew of fishermen in the thick of the schools, pulling them up one after the other, throwing them, all into a big trough running the outer length of the boat, where they flip and flop trying to escape, gasping for air, slicing each other up with their razor fins, thousands of these poor animals, their death throes six deep, a blur of shaking fins and flapping tails. It's an ugly reality the men on the boat are blind to: when one man fishes for himself or his family, it's the natural order; when a crew 'harvests' this many fishes at once, it's death-out-of-balance.

Luckily for my conscience, man's not the ocean's sole apex predator, because where there's panicked fish, there's tiger sharks, and they love the spicy tang of a Portuguese-a commercial a-fisherman's appendage for-a the nice-a dinner. Edward G. Robinson's initially-jovial sea captan loses his hand to one in the intro, and so wears a shiny hook (he gets it polished for his wedding day). Another guy loses his legs and dies, leaving his only daughter (Zita Johann) broke and powerless against Eddie G's boastful charms. Either way, what a life. Bad accents (though I'm not sure I'd recognize a Portuguese accent-Eddie's sounds terribly fake-Italian), stereotype local color, and inevitably, of course, a handsome young sailor to make a nice-a love triangle. At the time an inescapable plot-line for all movies (they even shoehorned it into MOBY DICK!)

Eddie's accent isn't the only problem with TIGER SHARK: Zita Johann's ghostly alien pallor worked in THE MUMMY where she was supposed to be hypnotized most of the time, but her she doesn't have the inner fortitude of, say, Greta Garbo's Anna Christie. And so when she falls for Eddie's partner (two-handed hunk Richard Arlen) there's only the sense that he might have access to some benzos that would make the overacting of Robinson bearable. Wrote Andrew Sarris, "Hawks remorselessly applies the laws of nature to sex. The man who is flawed by age, mutilation, or unpleasing appearance to even the slightest degree invariably loses the woman to his flawless rival." Yeah, but really it's the promise of benzos, and no fear of getting slashed in the face if he comes home a-drunk and in a short guy jealous rage. There's some good scenes all in all, but Robinson seems miscast. His constant chatter and Portuguese accent seem unduly weak for such a great actor. When he shoots at sharks from the safety of the crow's nest it only makes a sensitive viewer sick. When the illicit couple are making out below decks and the gun firing off camera suddenly stops--that the film's sole moment of 'whoa!' here he comes. How often does a cease fire signal the start of real danger?
 
CEILING ZERO (1936)
VHS
***1/2
A chronicle of the early days of the Newark airport airline dispatch/ traffic control room, wherein stray pilots are nursed through heavy fogs by tense radio operators and the 'beam,' and ex-WWI-ace turned chief of the skies Pat O'Brien deals with overlapping crises while old friends and a snoopy aviation bureau rep (Barton MacLane) try to interfere and/or say hello. We come to admire the way O'Brien can refrain from snapping people's heads off while engaged in life-or-death radio contact and some oblivious person walks in with an oblivious joke and a pat on the back. But then, enter (tumbling) James Cagney as Dizzy, the clownish daredevil who's been O'Brien's pal since the Signal Corp. Naval aviation pioneer Spig Weed wrote it and it's clear the usual Hawksian scribes of later years, Jules Furthman or Leigh Brackett, didn't. Maybe it's just that since they're not courting death right and left, the bureaucracy has filtered in to the game, and it's fostered some mighty un-Hawksian cockblocking and smug womanizing and lying and misogyny and other sleazy gigolo machinations from old Dizzy.  Hawksian young pilot June Travis is a near-Hawksian babe engaged to another fella--clean cut and true-working on a wing de-icer. Cagney's punchy but not nearly as sexy as he thinks he is. Cary Grant he ain't. And the overall result of his showboating is quite tiresome early on. It undermines the 'men in a group' thing (imagine if Dean Martin was hitting on every dame in sight in Rio Bravo).


What saves it all and makes it rock is the compressed time frame and extended real-time stretch when they're all trying to help a lost Stu Erwin after his honing beam goes out, and he can't get their radio signal but they can all hear him shouting in panic and rage, him presuming everyone on the ground is off shooting craps and the one girl in the room cries and shouts "Why don't you do something?" and they all bark at once "SHADDUP!!!!" Awesome. There's also some surprising sexual frankness:  Travis offers herself to Cagney for succor after the death of the pilot who took the doomed flight so Cagney could have a date with her -- a shadowy prefiguring of Joe's death in the early section of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS two years later. And kinda sleazy. Her willingness to two-time a nice respectable boy (he played Maureen O'Sullivan's fiancee Tommy in THE THIN MAN) with this demonic leprechaun (Cagney comes off more as the sleazy guy who helps Maureen O'Sullivan almost take that first wrong step). There's some good effects like a streak of blazing gasoline outside the office window on the tarmac, and a surprisingly nuanced tour de force by Pat O'Brien.

BARBARY COAST (1935)
(DVD)
**
Miriam Hopkins is one of the first white women to enter San Francisco, back in the 19th century gold rush boomtown days, when a pre-Panama Canal ship had to travel all the way around South America to get there and took the better part of a year. Arrivers found a city of unpaved mud roads so nasty they could suck a pedestrian under like quicksand, a dense pickpocket-filled fog, and inside the buildings nothing but crooked roulette wheels, overdressed floozies, murderous bouncers, and that pint-sized unlucky-in-love big shot Eddie G. Robinson, once more controlling the works. Naturally Miriam comes to work for him, as a roulette operator, the honey in the trap, and as some what more.


There's a few elements that let you know Hawks isn't fully allowed to be himself here. This being one of the films he made as a hired gun of Sam Goldwyn's, he's clearly not particularly enamored with his leading man, Joel McCrea, a foolish poet-type who loses his hard-earned sacks of gold in one turn of Hopkins' fixed roulette wheel, intentionally, as he's disillusioned. It's a "cheap price for such an education," he notes sardonically. What's made him hate her so? Since it's yet another trite romantic triangle thing with the older wealthy short guy who knows the angles vs. the tall, naive and handsome young idiot, each competing for the hand of the fallen-but-not-too-far dame. I don't have to tell you that this all began back when she and Joel fell in love as strangers both seeking shelter from a rainstorm at an old deserted cabin. Think Eddie's fallin' for that old lame excuse, even if it is true? He's not, see? Myeah. Notes Cinephile:
"There’s little sexual tension, chemistry, or even the vaguest hint of innuendo between the two leads, it would seem a sign attached to one of the gambling tables in Robinson’s casino which reads “No vulgarity allowed at this table” is a rule disappointingly applied to the rest of the film as well. It has little visual identity beyond Ray June’s atmospherically foggy night-time photography (which does some fine work with shadows towards the end) and little of the cynicism or edge which marked out other collaborations with screenwriter Ben Hecht, instead opting for flowery, pretentious dialogue many of the cast clearly struggle with."
I keep forgetting Ben Hecht wrote this, maybe I block it out intentionally, see? Myeah!  It does show that no one hits it out of the park every time and even great writers can sometimes resemble hacks fresh out of remedial poetry.


Another thing: gambling is a hard thing to make cinematically engaging and Hawks isn't a great one for making money seem important. Lugging sacks of gold through throngs of thieves like McRae does seems foolhardy, unrealistic, i.e. you can't show a guy getting his pocket picked one second then another one lugging overflowing sacks of gold around by himself in the thick of a hungry, eagle-eyed foggy night throng and not getting his corpse picked clean inside of of six seconds. This inconsistent financial environment takes us as far from the usually clear-cut Hawksian sense of group solidarity and danger pinpointing as you can get. As 'Old Atrocity,' Walter Brennan alone seems to achieve some sort of noble savagery. His prolonged survival in this place, his disheveled, foul-smelling self being welcome even in the glossy casino (where he lures strangers for a cut of the trimmings) makes him one of those rare figures (like C3PO or John Holmes in WONDERLAND) who can believably wander back and forth between classes, enemy camps, nature, and civilization at will. Add some throw-away lines like "it's hard rowing when I'm so emotional" and it still adds up to a tritely formulaic but well-detailed socio-historic romantic triangle thriller that's no SAN FRANCISCO (1936), nor even--when all is said and done--a TIGER SHARK.

THE ROAD TO GLORY (1936)
(Portugese DVD - Region 1)
***

William Faulkner co-wrote this name-only remake of one of Hawks' silent films. It's hard to imagine it was made a year after BARBARY COAST (or two after TWENTIETH CENTURY!) as it looks straight from 1930, which this time is actually a compliment. As a dreamy WWI Parisian combat nurse with a beautiful black velvet choker-wrapped neck, pale skin, bangs, a sexy Red Cross on her cape, and a low-registered speaking voice, June Lang has the air of Lauren Bacall on the cover of the March 1943 Harper's Bazaar --which famously first won Slims' (Mrs. Hawks') notice and led to her overnight stardom in To Have and Have Not. You can see the same prematurely world-weary petulance in Lang's face all through this 1936 prelude.

Note the self-reflexion that gives this picture such power,
as if pausing to remember your dead soldier husband was a normal prelude to walking through
selfless sacrifice's vampiric portal. Or if she's just given so much blood she's
about to pass out.


An uneasy mixture of inter-generational jealousy (old needy fathers allowed to enlist way past their prime so they can prove to their sons they're not drunk cowards), and the same old love triangle (ala FAREWELL TO ARMS) and how both are bad for victory, ROAD agrees with itself that war is hell, but sure spends a lot of time there. New officer Frederic March meets nurse Lang when they take shelter together from a bombing raid in a blasted-out basement saloon. He plays some tunes on the dusty piano, and puts his coat over her as the rafters rattle and the dust falls and she lies down in a chair. Unaware she's the mistress of shaky drunk Warner Baxter (his new C.O., of course), March shows up at her hospital the next day, playing cute while she's being coy, trying to bandage the wounded and dying instead of fawning over him.  Once Baxter finds out March is kicking in his s tall, of course, it's suicide mission time, a bit like the situation facing one of the soldiers chosen to die in Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY or Gary Cooper in Von Sternberg's MOROCCO, or any of a dozen other films (like FRIENDS AND LOVERS, reviewed a few posts ago). Adding to the trouble is Baxter's father (Lionel Barrymore) showing up and--as Lionel loved to do-- hogging screen time before blowing up his fellow Frenchmen with a grenade thrown in the wrong direction. March puts up with it all stoically, and there's never a guess how it ends, DAWN PATROL-style. Oh wait, you guessed?


A memorable segment of the film involves Germans digging underneath the Allied lines while the soldiers can do nothing but wait it out, rolling cigarettes with their shaky hands as the Germans scrape away below, knowing that as soon as the scraping stops the bombs are likely to go off. That's where the true courage is tested, that painful, prolonged waiting... and smoking. There's also a rousing charge across no-man's land and a sneaky night time flank maneuver, but in the end it's still the same auld triangle and sermons on the ignominy of war, the sense of being pawns in the grip of a writer with a theme and message rather than a director with the guts to let that highlighter pen fall to the floor and trust his own shoot-from-the-gut sense of comedy, overlapping dialogue, cigarettes, whiskey, coffee, and one damned good looking low-voiced girl. This time, well, at least he finally figured out the last part.

See also, the 1932 Hawks film THE CROWD ROARS, which I capsuled earlier. 
See also, the 1930 Hawks original THE DAWN PATROL which I capsuled later
See also - LATER HAWKS for reviews of RED LINE 7000 and HATARI

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"In the words of my father... Oxnard." - Ghoulardi


For the average auteurist critic, deconstructing an opaque work like Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER (2012) tends to involve making connections to the topographical 'conscious' of the artists' life, while the geological 'unconscious' -- the subtextual kernel to which the artist himself is usually blind by definition -- tends to be ignored. And yet it's this exact lower strata where underpinnings are made clear, a strata linked inextricably not to the artist but to his parents. In other words, to understand THE MASTER don't look at at Paul Thomas Anderson, look at his father, Ghoulardi.

I just re-watched THE MASTER (2012) today, and while the first time it mainly left me irritable (too stuffy in the theater), this time, on the safety of my own couch, paying only marginal attention, I thought of my own late father, Jim Kuersten, and of Paul Thomas Anderson's late father, Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi, a Cleveland horror movie host of some legendary renown from the mid-60s. I knew the name, but figured he was just a Vaudeville schtick-jiving Mockula ala mein own Dr. Shock (with daughter Bubbles, below) on Channel 17, my favorite as a child in Wilmington, Philadelphia.

 

But as I researched Ghoulardi on Wiki, my eyes started widening and the pieces of the MASTER plan puzzle popped into place. He was beyond any mere horror-host pigeonholing, apparently. Ghoulardi was a maniacal anarchist, blowing up models and toys the kids sent in, live on air. He used a lot of free-associative beatnik slang of his own invention, like 'stay sick!'  He played his own surf rock intros (he was a direct inspiration for the look and sound of The Cramps), and ranted against suburban towns like Parma (Par-ma) with its polka music fetish. He had a pet raven named Oxnard. He smoked on air. He aroused the ire of the higher-ups. It was all broadcast live, and he said whatever the hell popped into his head. Not a lot of it survives. But the T-shirts live on. 


Watching THE MASTER this second time I could see some of Ghoulardi in the Satanic twists of Freddie Quell's forehead and in the cult-building improv 'making it up as he goes along' prowess of Lancaster Dodd. Anderson's cult might have been of young, crazy Cleveland mid-60s proto-punks rather than serious-minded adult proto-Scientologists, but it was a cult nonetheless. As Cleveland.com remembers: "Ghoulardi came before all the things we identify with the 1960s: the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles, Vietnam, civil unrest... Ghoulardi was the last Beatnik from the '50s and had this wisecracking irreverent attitude..." Check out this, one of the few surviving clips of the great Ghoulardi in action:



Listen to that deep, resonant Charles Middleton-ish voice! Do you hear a touch of Lancaster Dodd's deep croak? Most interesting is the knowledge that he had trouble memorizing his lines so just made it all up as he went, live on air, which is how Dodd's son describes his dad's methodology. And Ghoulardi was a chronic challenger to authority, standing up to the big wigs at his local TV station, and regularly doing crazy things like driving a motorcycle through the offices.


 Here's what Paul Thomas Anderson said about his dad in an interview, as reported in WIKI
"He was in the Navy stationed mainly in Guam. I don't think he did any fighting. I think he was trying - he was fixing airplanes and knew just where the beer was stashed and played the saxophone in bands and stuff like that. You know, every picture I have of him [shows] a beer in his hand. Every single picture from the war he's got - so he was pretty good about probably finding ways to get out of fighting. But again, you know, we never really talked that much about it."

In other words, Ernie Anderson was a wild man, a ballsy, deep-voiced iconoclast, a trickster, the father as wild man. He later became the announcer for most of ABC's programming and promos. And some of that fine work can be heard here. 


I know it's weird to write about a father on mother's day, but I was just on the phone with my mom to wish her a happy one, with THE MASTER paused on the first big 'session' between Dodd and Freddie. My own dad died of cancer a year and a half ago, and I never got to visit him in the hospital; he never would have wanted me to, either. He despised soap operatics. Our true good-bye was watching and rhapsodizing over Lumet's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), the highballs making him merry and open, and both of us enraptured by the pure ballsy artistry of every aspect of the film. I'm sure I'll think of him whenever I next see it again, which I hope is soon. I don't have any recordings of my dad, but he lives on in whispered pro-golf announcers, and old horror movies for me, which we used to make fun of together in a ritual of wit-honing.


My dad was fierce, tall and with a booming Wellesian voice, a drinker. He was larger than life, and he drank right up until the end, like a Peckinpah maverick. The doctors were amazed his metastasized cancer hadn't killed him years earlier, they theorized the booze was keeping him alive.  He fell and broke his ankle mixing a drink and had to be hospitalized, since his bones were shot because of chemo. And of course being in the hospital meant no booze. He was dead in a matter of days. I've hated doctors ever since, worse than Kate Hepburn's character does in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY.  I still smoke, because fuck living forever like my 107 year-old granny, and when I feel my big Wellesian dad's archetypal energy alive in a film I tend to love that film as if it were my father's ghost. I want to avenge it against the Claudius critics and shout it from this blog's parapets. 


Ernie Anderson died of cancer in 1997, the year BOOGIE NIGHTS came out, the year I was first struggling to get sober. Paul Thomas was there for it all, sitting beside his dad's bed ala Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his 1999 film MAGNOLIA (see here for an analysis of this in context with Edward G. Robinson's death scene in SOYLENT GREEN).  Anderson wasn't around for his dad's Ghoulardi phase, as it was over by the time he was born. He did get to see it on the VHS tapes that are around in circulation and pieces of which are on youtube (and above): "What I do and what he did is so different, but he hated authority and he wanted to stir things up. And I hope my work always has that kind of spirit."

It does. Tell your parents to turn blue, he'd say. "Stay sick and turn blue." That must be a weird thing for PT to hear on a tape made by his own late father, but it's a weirdness the same late father left him equipped to handle. As a result PTA's films fly past the maudlin sand traps and safety-first water hazards of most films about flawed or dying fathers, and straight into the hole of modern myth. There's no stern moral or tsk-tsking in a PTA film. No matter how vile some figures are (such as the incestuous talk show host in MAGNOLIA), Paul just shows them forgiveness, because he respects wild men. It's pretty clear in studying the Ernie Anderson story just where PT's love of wild man Screamin' Jay Hawkins-esque energy comes from.


There's also the sense Ernie was a partier, like my own dad, like me, like Jason Robards and his dad in LONG DAY'S, and of course Freddie Quell, who always has a drink in his navy hand, and knows alcohol for what it is, the last true line of defense against the void, as well as the void itself, the mirror through which the artist may behold the Medusa Muse of Mortality without turning to stone. If, in the end, it stones you just the same, at least you get to pick your frozen pose. 

---
One last coincidence: my dad always joked he was going to retire... to Oxnard. I forget why. He loved that name. It wasn't related to Ghoulardi's use of it as a name for his raven, to my knowledge. We never lived anywhere near Cleveland, but he too loved its crazy name. Oxnard. He joked he wanted to retire there, and I needed to make money to pay for it. "You gotta earn a lot of money so I can retire in Oxnard," he'd say. I didn't. Oxnard exists now only in my memory.

(See also Great Dads of the 70s: Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights)

(and my initial post on The Master - Butler of Orbs 
and the The Master's Questions Answered by the I Ching)
And of course, The Wild Man from my CinemArchetypes series.
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