Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, January 29, 2015

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


Cronenberg's 1999 mindbender eXistenZ grows in its many-tentacled relevance with every passing year, but this one's the cake-melter. Its initial release date, lest we forget, was the height of internet growth, right before the dot.com bubble burst; it was to us what 1928 was to capitalism. Virtual reality was just beginning to figure itself out and William Gibson cyberpunk adaptations or offshoot homages were popping off right and left: Donnie Mnemonic, Strange Days, New Rose Hotel. The big fear on the horizon was the turning of the century clock to year 2000. We worried the internet was going to explode and cripple the worldWe stocked up on bottled water and duct tape; we loved The Matrix but other virtual reality films were a bore --since nothing was ventured - it was just fiddling around in empty dream sequences unless the threat of actual physical death could be incorporated. We bought Morphius' sketchy "the body can't live without the mind" adage so that the hero's journey could have some consequence but that adage didn't hold true by the dull sequels. I remember seeing the first one, Reloaded, and walking out during the 'big' fight with a thousand cloning agents vs. Neo, as neither side was ever going to win or lose - so why were they bothering? I went out for a cigarette, came back, they were still at it... and the franchise died in its CGI black leather bootstraps.


Now, 16 years after it came and went in theaters, eXistenZ  seems the real sequel to The Matrix, or rather, the version of the virtual reality future that came true. The dot.com bubble burst long ago; nothing happened when the clocks ticked 1/1/00, or 12/21/12. The dew erased its data from the lily drive. Even the first The Matrix seems dated and naive. Its conception of the 'Real' as grungy and depressing (lots of grotty grey dreadlocks, cream of gruel ("everything the body needs" - good lord, who cares?), leaky pipes, cold grates, robot threats (ala the Terminator) so the sterile depressing artificial reality (corporate skyscrapers, busted down telephone booths) seems believable as artificiality, i.e. the fake real as more real than the 'real' seems the most naive of tricks. This is because, in the past two months or so, the symbolic and imaginary are trumping the real to the point reality is at best a third class passenger to the symbolic and imaginary realms.

For examples of the way popular art (imaginary) usurps reality via the news (symbolic) consider: the storm of bad press over the all-white 2014 Oscar noms; the storm of pro-and-anti-American Sniper sentiment; the sheer weirdness of North Korea's cyber-attack on Sony, over The Interview; the "Je suis Charlie" bloodbath. There is very little real left for us in the first world. At the same time, in the third, especially if it's undergoing a civil war, symbolic and imaginary dimensions are destroyed leaving only the horrible misery of the unmediated real. This is especially true when dealing with radical Islamists, who are--to begin with--so anti-graven image that any kind of representational (non-decorative) art is destroyed once it falls within their purview.


ALL REAL AND NO IMIGINARY OR SYMBOLIC MAKES JACK A HOMICIDAL BOY

To most westerners, 'thou shalt not kill or steal' are the only commandments worth fussing over. Adultery, lying to your parents, bowing down to graven images: these are negligible sins at best, their potential for evil dispelled most often with a simple apology. Certainly you won't be stoned to death for them. But not everybody is as 'evolved' as we are. We here in the USA, we who seem never more than a swing state away from The Handmaid's Tale, we know best? The bottom line is, if you believe in your religion, how zealously do you cling to its tenets? Are freedom of thought, education, and independence merely rationalizing masks worn by the seven deadly sins?

Al Jazeera America welcomes you to the Desert of the Real
eXistenZ asks these kind of big questions, obliquely, of course. The chronicle of an immersive interactive virtual reality game that's interrupted by a terrorist threat on the life of the designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cronenberg's film is a fine illustration of how western culture's ever-widening hall of virtual mirrors keeps edging out the 'Real' to the point images provoke real life threats just as much as vice versa. The terrorists even call themselves 'realists.' They seek to destroy the game and specifically Geller, in order to save our collective sanity. The game's artificial reality is so vivid that the realists worry our breadcrumb trail back to sanity will disappear altogether, resulting in a collective psychotic break.

And they're right. Man should never go so far out of consensual reality he snaps the cord and can't find their way back. It's dangerous work, the province of the artist and writer, done in service of the pack; creative thinkers as scouts and foragers, ambush-blockers, spies, counter-intelligence entrappers, stray rounder-uppers--this is the purpose of recreational drugs in a social sense. The user leaves the everyday realm to find something missing from that realm, something to bring back into it. If the drug taker just wants to escape and never return at all, they'll wind up floating helplessly through space like Syd Barrett, or Brian Jones, or Don Birnim, or Dr. X, the Man with X-Ray Eyes --ostracized by the social order, locked up in a psych ward and shot up with tranquilizers so you can't make Madeline Stowe believe you're from the future. So if Allegra's game is too real, if it tries the Matrix trick of transcending the real through the performance of realness--"more human than human is our motto," as Tyrell tolds his Roy--the entire world becomes a Brian Jones or Syd, lost in the windmills of their mind, maybe forever. "Is this still the game?" asks one bystander after all the presumed layers get peeled back. And of course, the worry is that no answer at this point can be ever be correct again.

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

"Fountain" - Marcel Duchamp / eXistenZ gaming console
"(as we know from Lacan) the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle." - Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real
The Void/Real Thing, as Zizek extrapolates from Lacan above, is approachable only via the fake spectacle, the Perseus Medusa shield, i.e. TV. To confront the thing in itself means total annihilation. The mistake of the 'realist' terrorists is to think that, in killing the fake spectacle, they align themselves with the power of the Void, that its tragic raw horror dimension becomes their ally. But it's a big mistake to identify with your inner demons, they still won't like you. On the other hand, identifying purely with the spectacle, as most of America does, isn't good either. The result is that we become so entwined with the screened spectacle that the spectacle doesn't mirror the Void/Real at all, but science fiction. We only notice the eruption of the actual real when we walk past armed soldiers in the train station or when getting our fingers dusted at the airport. Aside from that, unless we happen to be caught in their blast radius, terrorists are just images on CNN, delivering anti-image violence to America through images.

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

Source: WIKI

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


But the converse is true, too: not enough 'real' is just as corrosive, creating a 'real' image dysmorphia. If you ban harsh images, you give them power. Just ask any Brit who was denied Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) for 25 years due to Britain's ban on 'video nasties.' Those nasties became any Brit horror fan's obsession. Nothing gives an image power like enforcing its absence. No actual 'nasty' measured up to the dread associated with not seeing it.

Of all the nasties, though, Texas comes closest to capturing the pure horror of its absence. This is partly because it provides the extra 'real.' The "smash to the head" power it still holds today might have to do with the hell the cast and crew underwent to make it and that's a hard thing to intentionally duplicate. In a way, it rips the screen open to become a whole new thing, a once-in-a-million-tries 'true' horror. Even so, it can't measure up to the potentiality conjured by the image-starved imagination. It comes mighty close though. We see in that house sights beyond what we thought could exist in this country or any country - and all the attempts to recreate it by adding 'more' to its sequels and imitators have failed - more blood and grime only abstracts it, reveals the hand of someone trying too hard to be scary. The decor of the house in Hooper's original is far scarier for its comical attempts to be homey, artistic, genteel even.


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


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

Feedin' the masses... with the masses

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

But it's all come true since then. Hasn't it? eXistenZ, I mean? Once we get over the 'using living organic matter for data transmission' stigma and learn how to tap the inner recesses of the pineal gland and bypass the clumsy ear and eye, we'll be exactly there --using third eye visualization energy to craft something our brain can't distinguish from the reality it's used to--and we'll be able to restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, even if what they see and hear is just virtual reality.

 It's got to be coming! It's just too controversial to be public until it's ready. Either way, we've come a long way since The Matrix (1999) or Ralph Fiennes selling other people's bootleg sensory impressions in Strange Days (1995). Virtual reality isn't just for Michael Douglas breaking into a virtual safe in Disclosure (1994) or falling off a roof in The Game (1991), not no more it's not. Cuz this here's real. Unlike Matrix, though, you can't die in reality just because your avatar is killed by a World of Warcraft marauder. It's just a damned game after all and maybe that's part of the problem... there's very little at stake. But is it really so little? Really? Reealleeeee??

 We can't really tell. We just keep waking up out of one reality into another; is that death, or just finishing one more level on a video game with an infinite number of levels, all waiting for us to unlock them. Even if we never figure out how to access them they're all nonetheless on the same disc.

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

I don't mean to compare a meditation or a powerful psychedelic drug experience to being in combat but either experience can be pretty damned terrifying and traumatic, so to dismiss any of the three as 'mere hallucination' or 'mere reality' is to convey, clearly, you've never had that experience yourself. If you did then you'd know that what's going on is a deep drinking in of the pure intersubjective real. The horror of constant growth and decay that is our organic, physical world is suddenly grasped on a level that our unconscious barrier mechanism (or symbolic mediation) usually screens or filters out. Without these screens/filters we wind up either penniless spiritual wanderers, trapped in a cult, dead (from jumping off a building, setting ourselves on fire, etc.) or institutionally-committed. But by the same token, if those imaginary-symbolic filters aren't ever compromised or transcended, then we turn into pompous a-holes, didactic pragmatists without, as they say, a clue.


For example: A real sunflower beheld by someone with their imaginary-symbolic blinders on is merely a sunflower - identified against one's inner rolodex of flower names and then dismissed, its full elaborate mystery screened out since it's neither a source of fear (unless you're allergic) or desire (unless some sexy new lover gave it to you). But for someone without those blinders, like a yogi, Buddha, starving artist, tripper, child, or schizophrenic --that sunflower breathes and radiates light and is alive with the little yellow petals around the big stamen center like yellow flames from an eclipsed sun. This radiant crown image is not a 'mere hallucination' though a less enlightened friend might dismiss your enthusiasm, saying "dude, it's just a sunflower, chill out." In fact it is that idea --that the real is completely contained within its symbolic component, that it is 'just' its label--that is the hallucination!

You might tell your dismissive friend that he's trapped in a morass of the purely symbolic-imaginary; that he's traded in his rose-tinted shades so he can fit in with the social order, but as a consequence he'll never be in 'the moment.' You can tell him that what you feel for this flower he can only feel when he buys a very expensive item or paints the bedroom a new color, or gets a new girlfriend, and even then, the feeling is fleeting. Yours is, too, alas. As the signifier chains trap down all sensory impressions sooner or later.

You can tell your dismissive friend that he probably also paradoxically dismisses NDEs (Near Death Experiences) as just dying brain hallucinations, when the reverse is true. This same friend might look at a beautiful mountain vista and say aloud, "it's like a painting." Or, if they witness some eruption of strangeness, perhaps a Native American ceremony in progress as they walk back from the trail, they note that "it's like something out of a movie" i.e. the more 'real' things get, i.e. outside their language's dismissive pincers, the more things get "like a movie" or if some natural vista strikes their eye it must quickly be labeled "like a painting" - its beauty therefore contained and defined, and therefore 'safe.'

And for those on the outside of the purely symbolic-imaginary--the Islamic fundamentalists or eXistenZ's realists--the symbolic-imaginary prison of labels is taken as a real threat, hence the Parisian cartoonist massacre. These people might seem crazy to us but at least they recognize the hypnotic power of the image and do everything in their power to fight its narcotic effect. And yet, if a fundamentalist Islam terrorist considers the hallucinations of the atheist consumer to be a physical threat, then the purity of his conception of the real becomes its own hallucination! He goes to war 'in the real' over a purely symbolic representation (i.e. a cartoon of Mohammed) and through this enters the symbolic (via CNN). For us this would be, in a sense, like arresting Spielberg for depicting war crimes in Schindler's List or demand actors killed in a cannibal movie prove they're not dead.  Or stepping inside the screen of Sherlock Jr.. The Ring, or Purple Rose of Cairo, to blow up the cameraman so no one could follow you.
------

JUDE LAW = TOTAL WALLY

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

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

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

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

Real (pre-symbolic)
So I came to realize Cronenberg's Naked Lunch's InterZone has always been true. When the majority of people have taken or are currently on powerful hallucinogens, a kind of group mind outside linear time and space becomes the new paradigm. Even if you haven't taken any substances, you too start seeing things 'as they really are' (i.e. really aren't) when in their company and the result is a profound existential nausea (Sartre was a big mescaline fan).

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


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

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as close to Traumatic Real as horror can get.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (remake) - the Re-Staging of the Re-Staging of the real becomes
unreal through excessive realness i.e. the art direction is so 'real'--
 thanks to the high contrast photography, elaborately stressed wood, and other 
art direction-- it becomes commercial jeans ad banal
But since in eXistenZ we're dealing with agents and counter-agents, spies, saboteurs called 'realists' who are worried--understandably as it turns out--that once games get too 'real' we'll lose our grip on reality (and yet are working within the game itself) it's clear that re-staging the staged real collapses any exit strategy back to our old symbolic-imaginary repressive mechanisms. So determined are they to be free of the Platonic cave of illusion that they create their own even smaller cave through a performance of non-caveness. Where do you draw the line between killing someone for drawing a a guy in a big hat with word 'Mohammed' on his chest and firing an NBC comedian for letting an 'F-bomb' slip during a live broadcast, or crucifying a sports team owner because his mistress leaks a private phone conversation where he uses the word 'nappy' or am I thinking of Don Imus, who was also fired 'in real life' for word use deemed unsavory?

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

The minute / you let it under your skin....  
Ted: We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.
Allegra: That sounds like my game, all right.
Ted: That sounds like a game that's not gonna be easy to market.
Allegra: But it's a game everybody's already playing.
It's a game everybody's already playing, it's just no one uses the same rules, and admitting that it's a game means they lose half their pieces. So shhhh, pretend you didn't read this. It's too long anyway, I been rambling. My mom died yesterday... very sudden, and far away.... and words are just fingers pointing to illusions and skittering away to the next schizoid dot connection... and this is a time for me when illusions don't work at all, and I'm forced, alas, to exit the Boar's Head Inn, Falstaff's woolen eye coverlets trailing behind me like the last few strands of my latest televisual cocoon. Adieu my mommy. You never fell for a single trick even if, heaven help us, you loved The Big Bang Theory. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Gummo Marx Way: INHERENT VICE (2014)


With eyes glazed and a suspicious tan, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) began languidly gyrating atop our semi-supine and stoned hero (Joaquin Phoenix), her every slow deep rhythmic breath sending electric thin twisty second chakra waves through him, the couch, and out in rippling currents of 2nd chakra energy out from the screen into my own shattered nervous system. Buried in a seat next to a giant who never took off his leather coat, its barn ghost pungency somehow reassuring in this one moment, the way pain can become pleasure, annoyance can become unconditional acceptance, all in a few deep Shasta breaths. Each shadowy spiderweb sketch line filament of the Inherent's seething Gordita glow like a haunted hazy amnesia-curing brushstroke framing these lovers against the darkening afternoon of his Gordita Beach apartment; her Tropic of Capricorn-style twisted sexual power trip extended single take spoken word narrative slowly driving our hero into a ferocious rutting frenzy. 


"You're moaning again," my girl next to me whispered. Apparently this was a thing I did in such moments, unbeknownst to me.   


I've seen the glowing anguish when a psychedelically pinwheel rocketing 2nd chakra is ignited by some random hottie captured in a film only once: Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, when just being in an elevator with a laughing Cameron Diaz is enough to send Benicio del Toro's acidhead lawyer into a slow-building howl of pain that infects his mind and body for the rest of the trip and results in him even pulling a knife on her friend. Ya dig?


I remember I had my first trip, a $5 envelope of mushrooms scored and taken in the dorm before a late night double feature of YELLOW SUBMARINE and HEAD as a college freshman in 1986... Not knowing what to expect and excited and scared as hell, wondering if they were going to work, if I'd freak out and need a straitjacket, ruin my DNA, go legally insane and never recover or worse, be in some terrible panic hell. But then "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" started and when the girl plunged down on her carousel horse and the animation shifted into an Art Nouveau Matisse rotoscope, I plunged down with her; the floor of the Student Union opened up beneath me like a trap door, and I fell into a rainbow whirlpool; my idea of what was possible in the realm of my perception widened with every chorus. I never looked back. By HEAD I was rolling on the floor laughing hysterically, never ever happier. Before... or after. 


Benicio is a very attentive druggie lawyer (from top: FEAR, VICE)
Everything that came before and after, right up until last night, was never the same. Well, that Katherine Waterston scene in director Paul Thomas Anderson's crowded canvas VICE does deliver something PTA's sorely needed, a damned good femme fatale anima for all his damaged fathers and sons and there's even a holy ghost this time, via a moving and very weird scene with the great Eric Roberts, and a spirit operating a drug dealership via Ouija board.


And most of all, rather than Monterey or wherever the hell in the dullard post-war 40s-50s, this is 1970, California, via the literary tripper's choice, Thomas Pynchon.  I wanted to hang onto everything but most of it is a blur of names and faces and places. What resonated for me: a stray streak of sunshine on Doc's face during a drive to the beach; a sunrise reunion of a reformed junky family, the glow of the doorway and the horizon line behind matching in perfect transcendentally lucid pink; and that Waterston monologue --that's what I remember most. Just a stem and a cap to heighten the gorgeous golden magic hour moments, just a little Gordita Beach Turkey Ranch, that's all I got. Just a couple of acres. And the Marx Brothers, weren't dey dare? Groucho looking out from the ANIMAL proscenium CRACKERS arch, talking to Doc like a most gnarly cross-mediated platform surfer? Stuff was on TVs, troupe, back when everything was thrice the magic for it was nothing you could tape, screenshot, debunk. I remember that much. Always is that magic of the untapable TV-chronicity in a Pynchon; he'd be a great film critic if he wasn't so regular falutin'. Knows his pop culture, blends it and spikes it with post-modern glug glug glug, like a drowning submariner crying Lot 49 or Vat 69 or May 68. And if those strange figgers, mysterious figgers (Anaconda 148) don't add up, neither does life, it's just time lapping into seahorses, and for my sins, they gave me some. And neither does BIG LEBOWSKI. But Shasta adds up. Those legs sprawled naked and soaking in a storefront alcove, Phoenix's scroungy Jew Marxist professor from the 70s look, from back when professors bedded co-eds with sanctioned impunity, and Nazi bikers worked as Aquarius Age bodyguards, and nymphomanic maids screwed everything that wasn't nailed down in her madame's boudoir. 


Mystified mainstream critics have reasoned English major Generation X stoners like myself who remember the 70s from a wide-eyed childhood perspective, aren't seeing the 'real' thing. Our parents are disillusioned with that decade, just as we are with ours. I still get weirded out when I hear the Y generation venerate the 80s like it had some mystic power, when for my generation that power faded in the anguished morass of puberty and sex comedies and slasher movies. For my generation we feel connected to the mystical 'truth' of 70s-style Fleetwood Mac/Sonny and Cher California consciousness raising rather than a scam. We see the Age of Aquarius high water mark Hunter S. writes of, we remember an orgy we saw from afar but never experienced, letting the distance between that peace sign-sticker flanked scene and ourselves widen until the distance until our longing soured into bitter frigidity of the slasher movie, feeling our last shred of innocence die at the hands of David Mark Chapman, moaning in pain as the AIDS 80s slam the door shut right as we were approaching layable age. We, these mainstream critics have notes, will probably dig INHERENT VICE more than the bourgeois top critics on our papers, the ones who naturally grabbed the Paul Thomas Anderson film for themselves, alpha dogs grabbing for the chew toy just because they sense we want it. For these top dogs the decade's Aquarian tommyrot is just an embarrassing reminder of the month they tried to wife-swap with their bridge club. Paul Thomas Anderson, as far as they're concerned, hasn't made a decent movie since HARD EIGHT. The Gen X-ed of us love everything but HARD EIGHT, but THE MASTER had thrown us for a loop. Speaking for myself, I dutifully saw THE MASTER twice thinking it would cohere into genius a second time, but no, it was still just gorgeously photographed acting of no more lasting effect than being made to chop wood and build chairs at my buddy Al's grandparents' house, and liking it despite grousing before during and after. Seeing it again, I can smell the wood varnish. But it doesn't get me high anymore

But even I'm not sure I like INHERENT VICE. The only moment of THERE WILL BE BLOOD-level badass Babe and Bunyan truth in either of his last films is when Hoffman shouts "Pig Fuck" with a coiled unresolved adolescent fury any frustrated enlightened charlatan knows all too well. The more spiritual drivel you speak, the surlier your squirming toad cortex seethes below. But it was hard to buy Hoffman, for all his towering talent, as a cult leader--his fingers were too stubby. Neither he nor Phoenix is the sort, for example, you'd want a bedroom poster of, or to pray to on an altar, the way say we would James Dean or "Bob" Dobbs. Luckily, in VICE we have the sexual power of Sam Waterson's daughter. She seems legit --the real thing. Her vaguely cat-like face and ease with her body, that sweet sad wistful 'already gone'-ness no amount of acting workshopping can fake. Her Shasta isn't hung up on Mother Jones sermonizing or slumming Edie-ism, she's complex, and you can believe she doesn't show anyone her full self, and those who come close to getting the big picture are just as likely to lose her with their first inauthentic breath. It's terrifying, nerve-wracking, dating a free spirit like that. I always preferred to have them as friends though and date the Joanna Newsom character rather than the reverse. It's safer, warmer. Picking the girl who'll bring you lasagna rather than the one who'll promise to call then leave you hanging for weeks, or until another girl seems interested in you.


But this is INHERENT VICE: Ultimately, as the narrating Joanna Newsom notes, a nameless eternal evil has seeped like a vapor out from the ancient opium Pacific and co-opted the Age of Aquarius. But just where has the vapor condensed? It's a hard thing to trace in a 1970 California where hippie-dom is apparently so very near becoming the dominant culture that cops don't even bat an eye when you spark up a joint in their presence. They do beat you up for having long hair though. Ain't no gettin' around that. So just assume the passive stance of protecting head and fingers and groin and let the billy clubs fall where they may.

Milk
Thus the strange ancient frenemies relationship with Josh Brolin's flat topped cop Bigfoot. And Brolin's character invoking hazy memories of the 'Twinky Defense'-copping assassin Dan White in MILK (2008), connecting with Newsom's debut album (The MILK-eyed Mender). Coincidence? No such thing, man.

PTA's always been first and foremost a filmmaker for de facto brother or father relationships, and part of what BLOOD's power emerged from was the relative lack of a feminine element. Certainly, to my memory, no female character has a line of dialogue, aside from maybe Mrs. Sunday. Instead it was like a boy scout-cum-capitalist narrative nursing on the crude oil teat of the Paul Bunyan masculine John Henry Steel Driving consciousness to craft the dark father of capitalism. THE MASTER tried to do the same, but Amy Adams' as Hoffman's wife snaked forward with more power perhaps than even Hoffman (as his Clinton-esque hand job indicates). Now, in VICE, it's even narrated by a woman, and not a Spacek in BADLANDS blank slate but a savvy all-knowing Cali free spirit shamaness of no small wit, harp expertise and mystic acumen. Her albums are rich with great existential lines that would stagger Whitman and leave my iPod devastated--"and though our bodies recoil / from the grip of the soil / why the long face?"--that line reduces me to jelly every time. She and Waterson are not stealth buzzkills like Amy Adams, but wild untamed goddesses of strange alliance, orbiting men in motion like moons but belonging to no single planet or direction.


Then there's Joaquin as old Doc, the hippie detective. His office lurks deep in a medical suite, Anderson's ex-girlfriend Maya Rudolph as his doctor office receptionist; Doc in his gynecology chair a zone for smoking weed and staring at the window, huffing laughing gas when the myriad threads get too much for a single viewing and the dentist next door permits. Seeing double somehow allows the plot to come into focus for old Doc. Not me. I do know that it's Maya Rudolph's mother, Minnie Ripperton, singing the song that rises triumphantly from the soundtrack during Doc's mosey back to his office:

Ring all the bells /sing and tell 
the people everywhere that the flower has come
Light up the sky with your prayers of gladness 

and rejoice for the darkness is gone... 

Of course 1970 it was still possible to be idealistic enough to believe that darkness would one day be gone, or even had gone already. And it's Anderson's genius that he can recreate not only our Gen-X collective memory of that era, wherein he and I were children, but to make it a source of lasting mythic resonance. I know for me,  every strand of long blonde straight hair I see reflects the gossamer shimmer of Anita Louise's as Titania, queen of the fairies--my anima! If it's over a denim jacket, I'm agog.

Here's why: in 1975-8, my mom volunteered part time at a runaway shelter, which was basically a two story suburban house with a big porch. I remember one Xmas my dad's company bought them a coffee percolator. They listened to a Cheech and Chong album nonstop in the living room. All the people working there brought home a runaway for the holidays. My mom brought this girl named Toots, a gorgeous 16 year-old thing in a jean jacket and perfectly pressed long blonde hair. My mom gave her two packs of Marlboros as an Xmas present. It left me forever a-swoon for her type, and a smoker.

For Xmas, my rapture over her every movement paralyzing me so I still remember how hard it was to croak, "Hey Toots, want to do Doodle Art?" Those words etched into my brain with some small shame, the way my voice broke on the word "want." It was a 'Mythology' one - and ten years later it hung in my friend's drug den living room -- it's the circle of life.

But it was mainly that fate had deposited her there, on my orange shag rug, like an Xmas gift from the karmic wheel. In the safety of my family, she let it all hang out. And it's a family affair in H.O. double hockey sticks why double-you double Oh-Dee in camp PTA too: Sam Waterston's sexy daughter Katherine is the femme fatale (is Martin Donovan as the angry dad of a similar hippie chick the stand-in for Col. "I enjoyed that drink as much as you did" Rutledge, or old perma-slur Sam himself?); Elaine May's daughter Jeannie Berlin is Doc's savvy New Yorker Aunt Reet; James Brolin's son Josh is the cop; Eric Roberts is Julia's brother; Serena Scott Thomas is Kristen's sister; Jena Malone is an emancipated minor. Some of us remember Joaquin didn't come up the ladder to fame so much as be revealed standing there after brother River died (sister Summer's also in movies); Joanna Newsom is married to Andy Samberg who later that same night (that we saw VICE) showed up on ERIC ANDRE SHOW uncredited as Eric's double and their schtick together evoked the mirror scene 1933's DUCK SOUP, starring the Marx Brothers, and the street name Gummo Marx Way--Gummo famously the only Marx Brother never to appear on film--is on one of the files looked over by Doc at the Hall of Top Secret Records in VICE.


And what about GUMMO? It's by Harmony Korine, who also made SPRING BREAKERS, set also on a beach involving pretty people doing crimes while engaging in deep druggy binaural second chakra breathing. Of course that film was set in Florida, where Elmore Leonard set so much of his oeuvre, and that oeuvre a clear inspiration for Pynchon's source novel, along with Hunter S. Thompson (Doc and Duke sharing Benicio del Toro as an eccentric lawyer) and The Firesign Theater's How Can you be Two Places at Once when You're not anywhere at all. And back around again. Gummo Marx's film oeuvre, a study through which someone in some Allen film obtained some film doctorate... which brings me back to VICE yet again, and Martin Short's obscene corrupting uncut Cockaine dentist love... with an underage girl ("But it did happen.")


And back to that wow of a super sexy girlfriend free spirit played by Katherine Waterston (Sam's daughter) named Shasta Fay Hepworth. She basically owns the movie, no mean feat considering the heavy hitters in all directions. She's the mystery, and by the end we can understand why this stoner detective is so crazy about her. Like Lebowski is about that rug, or Gould's Marlowe about that vanished wrong guy friend, or Hackman for poor Melanie in Night Moves. Woke last night to the sound of thunder / how far off I sat and wondered / started gummin' a song from 1970... was it Minnie Ripperton's "Les Fleurs?"

Throw off your fears, let your heart beat freely 
at the sign that a new time is born

Yo, Minnie's daughter Maya Rudolph was that fleur? She was born two years after that song came out. So no. She wasn't even a gleam in her father's eye. But in Hindustani texts Maya means illusion and is eternally beguiling. No black coating of terrible weave could hide her value from PTA's eyes. Maya, under the Moorish wall, flowers in her hair like the Andalusian girls used. Maya, the woods we must hack our way clear of towards the clear-cut riverside of Nirvana, with no Excalibur machete or golden ankh to wave. And let's just take a look at this fabulous Yucatan Blue, price: only what the traffic will allow, delivered to me, Ralph Icebag, by a brown-shoed square, in the dead of night. Yeah, two Communiss on that cover - one Lennon, one brother of Gummo. Neither one of them into guns or sharp swords in the hands of young children / or frozen bananas sucked on / by Josh Brolin.


By 1970 we had already given up on the utopian ideal for a united and very hip America, one inflated to new heights by the California experiment. We thought universal Love, reefers and LSD would convert every last square to the One True Vibe. Instead: Altamont. Instead: 'free love' grubbers from the 'burbs. Instead: Manson decoding The White Album. Instead: cokehead troglodytes dropping by your intimate ego-dissolving LSD party at four AM, drinking all your bourbon and harassing the women, and you realizing you need your ego after all, because only your ego could get aggressive enough to kick them out, and all you can do instead is try, vainly, to formulate a coherent sentence without contradicting the love vibes you've vouchsafed. Instead: peaceful but filthy barefoot hippies clogging ever last public bathroom pore of the Haight and everyone being too cool to work or pay money, just presuming they'll be taken care of by the very social order they spit on. Instead: communes all slowly coming unglued as psychedelic unity and the blazing tribal consciousness that had emerged from the primitive inner rolodex for the first time in 1,000 years gave way to petty squabbles, malnourished infants of uncertain parentage, and tension over undone chores.

Instead: Squalor reducing even the most enlightened of near-Buddhacatholichrists back down to grouchy adolescent Earth, craving the comfort of mom's clean sheets and the now-weakened capitalist behemoth's car keys.

But we had brought all the trappings of the counterculture with us back to our home suburbs, and 1970 signaled the beginning of that smooth Laurel Canyon sound. The radio lit up with songs that managed to be sexy and vaguely dangerous to us kids without seeming to offend or challenge in any way. Parents and children in unison swooned from the emotional connection of "American Pie" or "Go Your Own Way" or "You Light Up My Life." We loved Fleetwood Mac. Whatever dreams Stevie Nicks wanted to sell, we'd buy them.Vietnam still sulked around but we'd given up on protesting. Instead there were bridge games, wife swapping, martinis, and above all kids unleashed, freed by Jaycees parenting lectures all hip on Buscaglia, Spock, and EST. I took advantage of that freedom. I stole every cent I could to buy Wacky Packages. We kids ran loose in packs, like dogs. We could still get spanked or slapped in public by people not our parents and no one would bat an eye. One whack for every year on our birthday in front of the whole class. At home, indoors, we towered like Godzilla over wood block towers we'd smash again and again before sloughing back into the depths. Wood paneling was our horizon; orange shag carpet our jungle canopy; couch cushions laid in a line on the floor our Bridge of Toome in County Antrim, Ireland. We'd march up and down it in time and pretend to be hung like Rodney McCorley. PTA was there, I was there. Were were you, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith of Anytown, USA?


I don't know how many times I've seen BIG LEBOWSKI.  I don't even like it but it's endlessly re-watchable; some part is always just right for the moment I stumble onto it, and its always on some channel or other.. Sooner or later though, it grates on my nerves. But it's never the same film twice, until now, for Jackie Treehorn's shoe prints are all over the Pynchon PTA's lovingly detailed semi-sordidness. VICE even uses the same Les Baxter-Yma Sumac Tropicalia vibe that was Treehorn's leitmotif to conjure the same crossroads between the Jack Horner nurturing free love spirit and the Treehorn mobbed-up porno-decadence. But that's just one of a thousand twuggy-druggy twiggy-wiggy branches. You can dig it. I can dig it. Cyrus, the one and only.... But most of all, Paul Thomas Anderson has exhumed himself from beneath THE MASTER's weighty muck to re-dig it.


Who knows what would have been the result if Welles made a 70s stoner detective film. Would it have been INHERENT VICE, or is there just no character titanic enough within the story to hold his interest? In the end, that may be the thing. There's no core or center to VICE, no 'hurrah' moment like the pool party in BOOGIE or the "I'm the antichrist" climax of BLOOD. Phoenix is a great actor, but he's a scrawny shell of a thing, a short wiry little weirdo whose hipster disaffect on talk shows is alienating and less clever than he thinks. We don't gravitate to him like we do to Warren William or Bogart in similar roles, or even Dick Powell or big Jeff Bridges (or his father, Lloyd Bridges, for that matter). As for VICE's detective narrative, it's more coherent than some, but trying to explain the plot to my underwhelmed GF, all I could do is relate the anecdote about Hawks calling Raymond Chandler from the BIG SLEEP set to ask who actually killed Owen Taylor and Chandler not knowing the answer either. It doesn't matter. I've seen BIG SLEEP a dozen times at least, and I'm almost ready to blame Joe Brody, but Joe's saying he just sapped him for the incriminating picture from the back of the head of Krishna, So don't even draw the connections, baby. Just soak in Eric Roberts' brilliant monologue that rips the guts out of capitalism with an LSD trowel and reveals nothing but jewelry-coated vultures beneath the black enamel topsoil, the breathing aurae of cinematographer Robert Elswit, spiderweb lines of light and shadow haloing around every actor; the great clothes and cars like some old album come to life, Phoenix a little monkey wiggling free of his angel dust entrapment cuffs and every drug you have ever done shivering to your DNA surfaces. You're home, if you're like me, in this murky mythic din of countercurrent flashbacks. Every time you smoked angel dust it was because some dirtbag laced his joint and didn't tell you til it was too late. You were only an infant but you well remember the morning when every TV channel showed only the streaky continuous feed of astronauts bouncing around the moon in molasses air, like they were underwater, the audio just transmitted astronaut chatter and space interference, hour after hour, the usual old science fiction movies of the morning pre-empted, their futuristic fiction now outmoded into ancient fact.

"Ain't been high since '69"
In some strange way that was true love, that one stretch of continuous time --no commercials, no political dissent or grandstanding or fear-mongering, no sponsor, no agenda. Just community, finally. Harper Valley, we didn't know how much you meant to us until we thought we'd lost you. But a new time has come: your cosmic Maya has given birth to a new generation of Rippertons. We're free to love movies like those mythic moon moments again, free to see you and me in the same slow motion bouncing astronaut ground zero persona-dissolving mythic glow. A new go-to comfort food bible is born, if you care to blast for it. It's the Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective, brought to you by Wild Root Cream Oil Hair tonic. Yeah, it tastes electric... crimson... almost like fire. Almost. But were real 70s cars ever this collector clean? Or ever a humor in this Woman One? Take this lozenge from my tongue, this quill from out my heart, this pink and blue Tab (languette) of / Purple Barrel Plums / Untie from me the TruCoat, Ralph Spoilsport. Though our bodies may break and our souls separate, why the long face? We don't need no sealant, not anymore. No salt coheres along an ever-moving shoreline. Arise for the darkness has come / back! And so Black! Remember Les Fleurs, Walter! Ils brillent dans le noir. And most of all... Rejoice, sisters and brothers and siblings transgendered: there's finally a movie where being a stoner isn't the same thing as being an idiot. I never in a million addled years thought we'd overcome that dopey stigma, let alone Washington and Colorado. Let alone, baby.  Let alone.

Dirty up that car, Paul. This ain't no expo
Al Shean Presents: Vice Grip of the PYNCHON

RIFF INDEX:
1. Jackie Treehorn -(Big Lebowski) Pornographer played by Ben Gazzara (a riff on Eddie Mars in Arthur Gwyn Geiger + Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep) - "I'll Say She Is" - title of the last (unfilmed) Marx Bros. Broadway revue / Jack Horner - Pornographer played by Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights)
3. "when the drugs began to hold..." - opening lines from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing... Vegas 
4. "Turkey Ranch... that's all I got" - Hank Quinlan - Touch of Evil (1959) / "lapping into seahorses" - Patti Smith, "Horses" / "Steel Anaconda," etc. - Animal Crackers, Pynchon - Crying of Lot 49
5. "Spoilsport Motors," "Where were you, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith" - Firesign Theater (How Can you be Two Places at Once...) / IV. "Communiss" - Confederacy of Dunces / 7. "Roddy McCorley" - Irish drinking traditional (via Clancy Brothers album we had as a child)
6. "like the Andalusion girls used..." -"crimson... almost life fire" -  James Joyce, Ulysses 
7. Trucoat - protective coating / sealant - scam extra Lundergaard tries to sell - Fargo (Coen Bro.s)
12. Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic - "Again and again the choice for men who put good grooming first" Squaresville, in short. (Sponsor for old radio show "The Adventures of Sam Spade"  / Walter - (John Goodman in Big Lebowski; also Dick Miller in Bucket of Blood)
9. "Take this Longing..." - Leonard Cohen / "quill from out.... my heart" - Poe, The Raven 
42. Tab - common 70s slang for square from a sheet of blotter acid, also one of the earlier Diet colas: the latter of which I am now hopelessly addicted, and for which I blame past use of the former - ya dig?
ii. ".... Why the long face?" - lyrics from "Sawdust and Diamonds" by Joanna Newsom / "make you lasagna' - Clerks
iv. Purple Barrel... - play on a common form of mescaline from the 80s
xx. "If you care to blast for it" - Ben Hecht - Nothing Sacred (1937)
17. Harper Valley - Cockney-ish slang for Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) - re: "Harper Valley PTA"
21. Al Shean - AKA Abraham Elieser Adolph Schönberg (Marx Brothers' uncle, credited for coming up with their names and schtick) 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

10 Reasons DOOMSDAY (2008)


Every blood moon or so comes a movie I seem to be in the minority of calling great. I'm happy to time and again sacrifice my free hour or two on the altar of their DVDs. And for them, the ten reasons: 10 Reasons GHOSTS OF MARS ; 10 Reasons TERMINATOR 3 and 10 Reasons THE THING (2011)

The 10 Reasons -- an idea whose time has come... And so... DOOMSDAY. En garde! 


After the critical and commercial success of his 2005 sleeper hit THE DESCENT, Neil Marshall was Brit-horror's golden boy. Given a big budget for his next project, Marshall chose to go all out and make a big John Carpenter-George Miller-Walter Hill post-quarantine plague semi-apocalypse action thriller. Critics found it muddled and derivative. I never would have found it all had not I checked IMDB to see what he'd been up to a few years ago.

I'll confess it looked terrible from the outside, like just another RESIDENT EVIL-style video game adaptation. But turns out this is a film aimed directly at ME, or my demographic, the type who grew up shaped by the same great 70s-80s films that shaped this, Marshall's gonzo masterpiece. First, let's examine three films which are perhaps DOOMSDAY's main influences:

1. John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981): JC had scored two big back-to-back hits in HALLOWEEN and THE FOG. He was now a brand name, associated with launching the slasher boom, a sub-genre he had no interest in. So he took his rep and profits and went all out with this gonzo adventure story. His own hero, the maverick iconoclast Howard Hawks, regularly did the same thing, switching genres with impunity and mixing comedy with tension and vice versa. And Carpenter found a cheap source of post-apocalyptic urban wasteland in downtown St. Louis, which had been devastated by a terrible fire and was yet to be rebuilt. He basically had the run of the place and the result are huge marvelous sets, deserted streets, a gigantic train station, etc.
2. George Miller's THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) 
MAD MAX hadn't made a big dent here in the US, but was a four alarm fireball in the rest of the world (AIP -the American distributor- insisted on dubbing the voices to get rid of the Aussie accents), so Miller had real money for the sequel and it's all onscreen. And he found a cheap source of post-apocalyptic urban wasteland in the Australian outback. We kids didn't quite understand where the Outback was in relation to the rest of Australia... but we sure do now. The idea of needing speed to survive in the wasteland is now totally clear - that vast flat desert emptiness makes the whole continent like one big drag strip. 
3. Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979): Hill found a cheap source of graffiti-covered urban wasteland in 70s NYC, which was then at its most gang-accursed days since the days of the Dead Rabbits. Crime was so rampant the city cried for a vigilante, and got Bernard Goetz, the Guardian Angels, and (onscreen), Charlie Bronson. In THE WARRIORS, taking the subway line from the far heights of Pelham Bay Park all the way back to Coney Island was (and still is) an Odysseus-style journey. We all wanted to be Ajax (James Remar) and laughed at the seriousness and narcissism of Swan (Michael Beck). It's still the quintessential New York movie, and those heady days are returning thanks to our mayor Bill "Cyrus" de Blasio.
I've already written of how my own life was changed the Halloween night in the early 80s when my mom rented us both WARRIORS and ESCAPE and had them waiting when we got back from trick-or-treating. We saw them back-to-back high on our scored candy, the sense of edgy urban danger bringing us higher and higher... and were never the same again. I would never have believed I would ever be crazy enough to want to live in NYC after those two movies, let alone for 20 years. And I've seen all three of the above enough times that this whole blog and my whole life flows with quotes from them - Look at yourself, Max, you're a mess. See what you get, Warriors? See what you get when you mess with the Orphans? You're the Duke! You're A number one. The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla... you always were smart, Harold. And, to that outfit that had such a hard time getting home, sorry about that, guess all we can do is play you a song.

What a puny plan.

Maggie... he's dead. Come on...
Losers! Losers wait!
I'm gonna shove that bat so far up your ass you'll look like a popsicle...
Keys, map of the bridge, hey! hey! Hey!
We're the Lizzies...
Just walk away... just walk away...

I think DOOMSDAY was in the end undone by one of the most derivative titles and posters that ever haunted a great trashterpiece: the biohazard tattoo and crossed sword-anarchy hybrid symbol, the face tattoos and the graphic novel-esque three color style, along with the tag "Mankind has an expiration date" tag. So banal by then.  I remember seeing this poster outside of a theater and thinking "oh brother, again with the Neo-Pagan post-apocalypse warrior chicks engaged in endless slow mo CGI blood-splattering combat" and the whole RESIDENT EVIL, UNDERWORLD, SUCKER PUNCH, KILL 'EM ALL vibe, all the 360 whip-around slow-mo camera CGI shots of CGI carnage and ammunition expenditure and zero count characterization or giving a damn. Even the Imdb.com main film description is lame. Who needs another "futuristic action thriller where a team of people work to prevent a disaster threatening the future of the human race."?

In short, it looked like yet another adaptation of a manga based on a FINAL FANTASY-style rotoscoped CGI animation TV show based on an arcade game, rather than a moody analog return to the 80s Carpenter-Hill-Miller heyday, a loving homage to a more visceral time. Instead of promoting it as kind of retro Tarantino-esque throwback/homage they banked on the idea we'd be intrigued by graphic novel illustrations of body mods and homemade weapons. Imagining yet another incoherent parade of overused CGI and SIN CITY high def black and white graphic novel cannibal combat, my demographic bravely stayed away. They all but redubbed it into 'American.'


I only hesitatingly Netflixed DOOMSAY in the end because of seeing THE DESCENT yet again a few years ago and checking up on Marshall's imdb page to see if he'd done anything new. Like that Halloween night long ago in the 80s, I knew I'd never be the same. So here they are, 10 reasons with SPOILERS... so beware.


1. Rhona Mitra as the one-eyed Major Eden Sinclair: She lost her eye as a child at the border between England and Scotland (the latter the site of an unstoppable plague) and was the last civilian to make it out, thanks to a compassionate soldier who traded his seat on the last chopper out. Sure it's familiar - but I like the idea that she basically stays with the Special Air Service (SAS) like an adopted mascot (though this isn't clarified), since she takes the place of one of their own, and now has no mom or family. Growing up to the rank of major while her home country disappears behind a robotic machine-guarded quarantine wall, she narrates as the world turns its back on Britain for being so cold to Scotland, basically turning it into a no-fly zone quarantine prison, killing anyone who tries to escape. The eye she loses near the wall melee is replaced by a detachable camera orb that can record images to tiny discs in her watch. Very cool idea. And I like that there's no 'Eden grows up' montage, just her voiceover detailing the ensuing 'gone dark' status of Scotland.


And Mitra plays the Major dead straight - neither macho nor comical nor boring nor sexualized, instead possessed of smartly British esprit de corps. Bob Hoskins is great as her de-facto father figure, who perhaps was even there during her rescue but at any rate has clearly come to regard her as a kind of daughter but not in a corny way. She's Snake Plissken as a military officer. That she winds up in charge of a mostly male insertion force is never a cause for snickering or her needing to prove herself, and there's no romance, nor sex, consensual or otherwise, in the film. No boyfriend, no spark-baiting. It's glorious.


2. Malcolm McDowell and his younger punk son Sol as the bad guys  (in two separate chapters - they're never seen together) and the levelheaded daughter ('the cure'). Dad is living in a castle and reverted to Medieval basics (including torture devices and gladiator combat), while Saul (Craig Conway - one of the monsters in THE DESCENT!) is more a mix of Cyrus from THE WARRIORS and Wes (Vernon Wells) from THE ROAD WARRIOR. It might be hard to imagine why they'd practice cannibalism when fields of cows are just a few miles away, but there you go... it's ceremonial. I like that Sol doesn't try to get rape or torture porn-ish when he has Sinclair trussed up. For these folk, it's all about the spectacle. And Conway is a little much at first, but by the end we're glad he's around. The dude gives every hiss and sneer 110% and his lean muscular body looks like he's actually doing lots of hard work and exercise -they're not gym muscles like a juicehead drinking whey, they're frickin' punching guys in the mosh pit muscles, i.e. not 'sculpted' all uneven based on what he's doing in the real fucking world. Go get 'em, Sol.


As for the father, whose crowned himself king of a new era of medieval barbarism, Malcolm gets a few good scenes but barely has time to register aside from a few CALIGULA at the coliseum-cum-field of honor-style gladiator arena moments. His steel blue eyes glowing in the shadows of the actual castle location look great though.


3. The crazy cannibal feast scene and Lee-Anne Liebenberg - which meshes punk club antics with cannibalistic orgies, ska shuffles, Satanic strippers, fire eaters, bikes, the captured soldier dinner trussed up on the front of a vehicle like the captured townsfolk strapped to the gang vehicles in THE ROAD WARRIOR. It's funny (the showmanship involved made me think of similar scenes in IDIOCRACY), electric, and gives everyone a time to shine, especially Lee-Anne Liebenberg, who makes such a good impression as Sol's 'first lady' she wound up on the poster (and the top image). Her part is small but that crazy look in her eyes, pierced tongue fluttering like she's devouring the captured soldier's terror as he watches her light up the grill below him, is a great glimpse of someone dancing in the flames of raw Pagan madness rather than the usual 'actress trying to look scary.'


4. David O'Hara (THE DEPARTED) as Canaris - his "thinning the herd" mentality and gravel-voiced iron hardness makes a great gravitas-enriched parallel to Malcolm - three separate bad guys! And his is a much better comeuppance than Snake's pulling the tape out at the end of ESCAPE to screw over the president (Donald Pleasance).


5. The ROAD WARRIOR-style car chase climax -minus one demerit for cheesy addition of a 90s Siouxie and the Banshees (?) song that I think you need to be British to deem appropriate. Imagine if George Miller put some Men Without Hats song over the climax of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Neil! Yeah, now you know how we feel. Otherwise, sublime. And the cars and trucks are so badass you can't even begin to appreciate the detail the first viewing -- as in the human skeleton hand holding the rearview side mirror above.


6. Scotland - it's like an EMPEROR JONES of Scottish history - the troupe traveling (in DAMNATION ALLEY-style assault trucks) through the fields and highways first to TRAINSPOTTING punk rock Pagan Glasgow back to BRAVEHEART-era castles and knights on horses, before returning to the modern highway, and eventually to Eden's intact and untouched aside from dust childhood home.


7. The Time Window - They only have 48 hours to complete their mission, 'otherwise there'll be no 'back' to come home to, as the plague has broken out in London. It means they can't slow down for a second, which explains the crazy heedlong wild weekend racing to catch a train vibe. It's not clear why Canaris would come on so menacing--arriving in a giant combat helicopter--when she finally delivers the cure, and she's so stand-offish, and then two seconds later he's saying "come with us" as if there's no reason she would. Well, why wouldn't she be returning with them? They sent her! Did she miss the window? Is it because the PM--the presumed good guy-- her boss (Hoskins) trusts and works for is dead? Hoskins still works there after all. Are there script revisions that don't quite cohere? Well, all the above referenced movies have similar problems, and who cares? It rocks.

8.  Ingenious 'collapse of the real' art direction and set decoration- rewards close notice (i.e the 'souvenir shop' signs in the castle - ironically now a sign of ancient history rather than vice versa), all the great body mods and other details. It didn't have to be so rich. But it is. Just take a look at Liebenberg in the top image, look closely and notice the white ink biohazard tattoo on her shoulder. Savor the rich tribal detail.


9. Another moody score by David Julyan - I wish it had pulsed with analog synths more, but I love its subliminal checks and nods towards scores by Carpenter (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13), Tangerine Dream (SORCERER), Vangelis (BLADE RUNNER), Bart De Vorzon (THE WARRIORS), just to let you know the references are lovingly intentional. Rather than doing the helicopter score bit, Julyan deftly acknowledges his references rather than dictating audience emotions. The result is a score that's largely invisible in that it never draws too much attention to itself (except in the above-mentioned Siouxie incident)


10. The great ending The way first Sinclair 'breaks' as she finally gets back to her childhood home in Glasgow, to find a picture of her mother --it's not corny since she's been so stoic all the while.

And then the superb "have a piece of your friend!" last line with the head and the punks. Why didn't every great post-apocalyptic movie end that way? Do I stand up and cheer every time and wish for a sequel that will most likely never come?

I do. 
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