Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Troopers of the World, there is one Bug you can not beat: the Bug inside: STARSHIP TROOPERS, NAKED LUNCH, SCROOGED, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

(The following was written whilst whacked out of my gourd on withdrawal sickness (withdrawal: the best drug in the world) coupled to flu-like symptoms and twelveteen shots of knockoff brand Robotussin while trapped at brother Fred's house for Xmas. Phoenix is an armed camp, your majesty, in a deep unconscious trance born of desert wind chill, plentitude, and cordite. I was gonna scuttle it but wanted something to run next to my AMY review to provide the proper balance/perspective, to take any buzzkill taste out, like HEAD after LOST WEEKEND. So take it for what it is, a deep Xmas poem riddled with diseased insect sci fi poetic film references, enigmatic but revealingly pretentious typos, and a profound realization borne from watching NAKED LUNCH and STARSHIP TROOPERS off Fred's savvy Tivo on Xmas at 3 AM (after SCROOGED) And getting it now - As Bill Murray so egocentrically says "I get it now" Three films! Three ghosts. Three AM - Three 3s.  

Consider the randomness with which I saw them all over a single Xmas night, then behold their similarities. One film is about a bitter TV network executive who has a religious experience after disgruntled employees put LSD into his Xmas gin; the next, a monstrous (latex pre-CGI) 'realization' of the insect hallucinations that accompany opiate withdrawal, i.e. the 'Kafka high' rabbit hole, wherein one's typewriter takes on insect features and moans when you press its throbbing keys. The third film (with early, excellent CGI) finds giant insect aliens learning our secrets through drinking our brains like milkshakes (instead of vice versa, as in LUNCH). It's karma, baby. Beware your own response to the thing you squash, for you squash yourself next, with your giant arachnid claw! 1/27/16

-- If yrt terllin; me that there's a difference, a fundamd,emta;a diffferemce. netwntwwme starsjip stroppp[ers amd Naked lunch, er lust, yr a lawyer and and I;m tellin hyou so

Put it another way - if there IS a difference between STARSHIT TROOPERS AND NAKED LUST then it exists only in the minds of MINOLTA, a Japanese company (oops they bore that into me).

Think about that, Mr. Farewell to Manzinar, Mr. Smarty pants peacenick vzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzn


Return of the Insectoid Meta-gaze, i.e. the projector watches you watch its
projection with its 3-color projector eyes from top: WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953),
THE VISITOR (1973),  STARSHIP TROOPERS (eyes as projector beams),
SCROOGED ("no eye in team" - just in the glass)

Would you like to know more?

There's no correct answer, for we're going to, KNOW MORE, that is, regardless.

Starship Troopers - 1997
This post - present
Regardless: the whole terrifying endurance test of full-awareness is coming.
We shall inexorably, like a keel-hauled eyeball, KNOW MORE.
Strapped into the conveyor belt of fascist indoctrination
as snug as if we were pinned to the tunnel floor by an arachnoid claw,
awaiting the slow gurgling arrival of a brain bug on the 3D screen.

God or parents
have convinced us of the space-time continuum's permanence.
Its row of inky black arachnid eyes behold us in patterns within our urine-froth,
noticed while gazing deeply at a party house toilet bowl
and then later in the beer from the keg or the foam from a highball
and forgotten, filed away under layers alcohol and potty training cover memories,
now returned with a probe to suck our brains dry as a keg and we
 screaming all the while on the human conveyor belt: stop stop!
At least hit pause!

The"like to  know more" button is hit again and again, purse-taken, for the brain bug WOULD like to know
how to SWAT GOD for example
and it knows just where to go for that knowledge,
knows just what fleshy tendril to hit the button with, to slurp the brain slushy cup dry
down to the ice with,
rattling in its spinal column
'til clatter shatter and scatter down to the plinth.

Naked Lunch

Life is but Death's slow yawn, once it ends, he regains composure
does betwixt the columns flit
like some gay brain donor fancy free flitter
hitting the snooze button
agan and a LITE to NO MORE
NO MORE butTON, (is the hand that makes) WOULD YOU LIKE TO...please, NO MORE!!!
Starship Troopers
This is your brain when snorted by bugs
The NO MORE Know More LITE button (the hand that heals)
hit again ("Kiki come and see the parrots with me") LAW no more, slurps your soul's slug white glop from the gurgling straws pushed down into your sleeping head, my love, the sound of your own animal snore,
crashing like waves of liquid lead,
along Poe's obsidian shore, my little lovey glovey...

Vot ISS da LAW?
O'er the Grampian Hills beyond beyond, Harryhausen stops time to move another dinosaur.

(and once again, says weather on the one, we have cool conditions)

cool as the keeper
of the LAW
hung from a tree, his beard glued for hours,
a flag to from its prideful fascist twisting flee,

Weimar lock stock to Hollywood's larder, never believing Breen's censors could swastika snip their decadent art down even there.

The best thing about Verhoeven's ingenious and endlessly rewatchable masterpiece is the idea of an all service DNA imprint manual for fascist military mobilization. In America we didn't really get these until WW2. America's devout isolationism reflected greatly in all sorts of bitter anti-war tracts instead (such as the forgotten man pilots of John Monk Saunders) as far back as the easily seeable GUNG HO, or B-17 STORY OF A FLYING FORTRESS, with the end of high school and the end of other various key moments in life shared by the representatives of labor (lion, roughneck), intelligence (scarecrow, gestapo), and passion/drive or heart (tin man, flight school) and the way all of the Earth has been homogenized into a tract that could be at home as a Japanese anime, a Nazi recruitment film, an Army or National Guard recruitment film, or an anti-war satire of any genre or age. Verhoeven's sense of irony is very Dutch and very abstract, coming from an, how you say, "occupied" country with nothing but windmills and spies, easily tromped across like a neighbor's lawn to get to the hated French.

this is your typewriter on drugs
But this could also even be a movie for and about bugs--"we're in it for the species, people." We've been at war with those suckers since the dawn of time. Only when we're finally ready to start eating them in force will we have a ticker's tape of a chance. Children, I was on the front line in the war against the Japanese... beetle, that is, in the 70s and if it wasn't for DDT they might have won. I'd get a dollar per jar, all captured and dumped into soapy water, until the jar turned dark yellow and the squirming stopped. Quite a lucrative occupation for an eight year-old during a major PA infestation. Would you like to know more about the slight itchy pain when they dug onto my childhood fingers, the difficulty in getting them to let go? Did I learn a hint of masochism even then? I lay at night with a ten year-old's imagination conjuring turning the cute blonde girl Susan Salter in my class into an Amazon queen of the school and me her slave, crouching naked at her feet in chains. Weird but true...  I had my queen, and I her submissive consort, fit to die after mating if I ever found out what mating entailed.

Denise Richards, nailed to the cross of her passive viewing position - STARSHIP TROOPERS
My red state brother and his gun crazy family and friends as well as my liberal bleeding heart pinko east coast friends all agree on one thing, STARSHIP gets better with each viewing. No matter how many times you see it. Be it a satire or a genuine (as Heinlein apparently meant it) call towards dissolving of borders in favor of one global and eugenically fine-tuned communal military spirit, blessed with a conveniently abstracted enemy, an insect of the sort that may not be as evil as the higher ups paint (for a NWO hangs together by its extra-terrestrial foe, as Reagan said), at least if there's any ENDER'S GAME sequels, which I doubt. (its losses transcend comprehension: $100 Million Dead!)

The little tiny bugs inside your money

Next up in the Xmas Viewing Cycle: GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

And the Song WE'RE IN THE MONEY.
I saw this time Ginger Rogers and company as sprites, bugs if you will, within the money, moving with the tick tock military march rhythm, like a click clock salvia divinorum revolution through the space-time continuum thread counts, as literal gold diggers --tick burrowing into the gold of coins themselves, literally little sprites 'in the money' behind every coin, the way the green fairy could be singing "I'm in the absinthe."

Where did the phrase 'in the money' come from and what are the similes 'in the cool of the evening' - 'in clover' - 'in love' not 'in the love' though, so more like some bumper crop, we're in the cotton, or we're in the game.

a money sprite oscillates her 12 legs to hypnotize unwary prey
For life is but Death's brief yawn, the chasm of blank urinal stare from which infant to elder crawling towards bathroom like flogged Christ doth breathe but brief; we in our robes like Lebowski, like Peter, Paul, and Prokofiev on his week off are but shadows that for awhile, while the byang root tea arrived on time, were comported almost like the barbarity that passes for civilized, but when the tea stopped we still had to fulfill because that of yawning Xmas mail irregularities chasm of need, that King Kong Emperor Jones clanging on his hollow huffalumpagus skin drum, chanting madly to the bloodstream like an anguished and unassailed suitor, begging for alms and change and unchanging, and the brief candle onceness.

Not getting the cosmic joke makes the joke on you, and that's the whole joke--it is all there is, that mirthless angry laugh as the flames consume Richard III, or any angry and despotic ego unwilling to surrender its uniqueness and become just another wAVE IN THE SEA-SKY CONTINUum rather than a separate and superior cloud. The mark inside is the one mark you cannot beat, would you like to know more, you brain bug behemoth tottering towards me now in the guise of a pit-bull?

Now, in the guise of the pit bull.
tomorrow the guise of the floor where she lay.
Form of an avalanche,
Form of a water glass
Form of the sailor who's drunk at sea and sleeps all day.

Booze's bars closed down hard upon him ("kerPLUNK" was the sound they made)
and with a drowning howl did he comply to the exit (hurrpy up plays- iTS's time)
and proceeded to haunt Davy Jones' Liquors, for it opened always to him.
Penny-eyed and seaweed wreathed, the early morning sunshine
on bottles glistening like DEEP morphine pearls
til scraping enough off his barnacle billfold
bought him a pint pocket of air... just enough to get him up to speed
a messy, sloppy speed... and
how he breathed this song:

Now, in the guise of a lilly
tomorrow the guise of the hay.
Form of a whiskey jar,
Form of an after bar,
Form of a drunk on the concrete, prostrate...
His saliva as thick as the oceans
to the tiny ass gremlins,
sprites in a sidewalk black chewing gum circle,
drown as he drools in his sleep.

And were there concrete pock-mark impressions on his cheeks when at last he rose? 

Probably, man. He can't feel it.
Even drunk he comes to know more than we'd like to remember ourselves.
Click the 'like' button not the "to know more" button, click the snooze button, click it to yourself, Bill. and member dis
Remember me, Cloris in DEADLY.

Cuz of course only the Spectral Relief Pitcher of Self Annihilation so terrifies our Babe Ruth ego he finally says, here Pee-Wee (the nonegoic amorphous open-hearted self, the one vulnerable in its generosity, easily swindled by sad-eyed strait waif who keep the change tossed, and bring no fat goose to no Cratchett) you go ahead and bat this once and I'll sit out the inning, then, the mighty Pee-Wee lets fly and sends it out of the park, and the Pitcher vanishes! Freedom.

And if we've been a team dominated by its needy spotlight hog insecure star Babe Ruth ego all season, keeping Buddhist Pee-Wee on the bench permanently, then once Pee-Wee hits the homer, Babe Ruth comes running back to the field to take the credit for not taking credit. He needs to take that spotlight again and rant about how "we get it now."

He gets it now... no wait, now he gets it.... wait...
"I get it now," says Murray at the prolonged wearying climax of SCROOGED.

That ending has really dated badly but we used to LOVE it. In the 80s it was the kind of thing people just didn't say. This was the era before Dr. Phil and Oprah, before children became the equals of their parents, when they were meant to be heard only in the basement in a voice that wouldn't carry, until the haunted house was ready for the parents to be led through one at a time blindfolded, or failing that such time as we were called for one at a time to show some new trick. This was a time when therapy was still a shameful secret and a kid had to commit suicide successfully before his parents would consider it. That Leo Buscaglia love trip was strictly 70s naïveté. Scrape 'em off, Claire--that was the 80s rallying cry. Arnold Schwarzenegger was our spiritual leader in so many ways, steam roller paving the Hollywood politicians trail blazed by the mighty Paul Ronald Reagan Bunyan (though everyone knew her as Nancy), in a backwards Terminator motion, icing the Sarah Connor pro-drug 60s-70s with the kind of "NO" bumper stickers that Lennon worked so hard to flank with a "K" and a "W" in YELLOW SUBMARINE.








End Transmission

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Dirtbag Menace: AMY (2015)

What should it benefit the world if it should gain a talented jazz singer with an old soul, perfect pitch and a deep affinity with Ella and Monk, but then lose her to a tattooed snaggle-toothed dirtbag junkie in one of those goddamned mini-fedoras? Maybe we'd have been better off not to know her at all if means watching her make a slow-motion leap into the first smiling thresher that rolls past. The pain of our loss is so great there's only three things can stop it: crack, heroin, and sweet sweet booze. The things that make our fear of death bearable are the same things that kill us. Poison numbs the misery of being poisoned --this is the slow relentless clockwork coiling of the strangling python of addiction.

That's the pain of AMY, Asif Kapadia's chilling documentary about Amy Winehouse, which uses clips from her amply videotaped life, starting from her youth as an innocent Southgate shiksa with loyal friends, family, and the voice of a 40 year-old gold-piped diva, to straggly bulimic loping after a K-Fed-ish skeever. If we happen to be addicts ourselves and have read a few celebrity bios, then we might very well shudder with the realziation that perhaps glommers like her boyfriend (above) are the natural parasites of famous alcoholics. Even Lee Marvin had them, like lice, so tough guy stance has nothing to do with it. When you're drunk and stoned all the time there's not much you can do if a fast talking charmer locks in on you. Addiction has already taught you that the best way to live with yourself while slowly dying from your own lifestyle is to convince yourself you want to die in the first place. The egg's just an excuse for the chicken to sit around on its ass all day.

This is the realization that life's grim absurdity has all but demanded your slow sacrifice to it.

Jonesers and leeches come along like all the extra parts and warranties in the packaging of addiction. Never wanted, never asked for, but you don't throw them out since you may need them one day, when the shit don't even numb the pain of the shit's not working, and all your sane, sober friends are gone. This dirtbag glommer still asleep in your bed will mix your drinks for you, even lift them to your lips, even inject you with speedballs while you're already passed out. They'll never say a word about your 'problem' because they're part of it. They wouldn't be there at your side, access to your wallet unlimited, without it.

And when you're famous enough that passers-by feel you owe them a picture of you smiling next to them, and the paparazzi blind you with epileptic seizure inducing flash bulb light shows every time you peek your head out the door, what you want is someone who's going to keep you well insulated, warm and toasty in the twin orbit of narcissist neurosis, someone who can act as a 'cross-section of the American public' like Susan Foster Kane, or Joe Gillis, someone with whom you can play outlaw couple.

I've championed a lot of messed-up female artists (Lindsay Lohan especially) on this site. I've championed their right to revel in their time, to be ranked with the 'bad boys' rather than denigrated as 'skanks', warranting the pooh-poohing of the stern Puritanical popular Scarlet Letter press. But enabling is second nature to me. It comes from growing up with a heavy drinking dad whose rages always made me feel very very calm, as if I could counterbalance him through Zen stillness. So it's easy to see now that I've been to AA, and therapy, why I feel so relaxed and calm when in the striking radius of insane hotties, even as I shudder to see their insanity consume them in self-immolating hall-of-mirror narcissistic frenzy. It's far easier to criticize the brutal cost of our enabling pop cultural blind eye and schadenfreude than to make bad blood-boiling polemics on the near impossibility of holding onto your self integrity while surrounded by the flashbulb equivalent of the cannibal boys in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Kapadia's film may damn the British tabloid press's insatiable demand for complaints against its insatiable demands or--with the wry guidance of indirect directions--show how such a feeding frenzy creates the very death and tragedy it craves--their sneering and mocking a defense for their rubbernecking the slow-mo car crash that is a vibrant 23 year-old pop star slowly devolving into a bulimic walking corpse--but it offers no alternative. In a way, the film itself is part of the problem. Film corrupts and films about the corrupting nature of film are not somehow double negative made positive, i.e. immune to that corruption.

It's all there in Winehouse's hit song, based on a real attempt by her friends to get into rehab, an attempt kaboshed by her enabling moocher dad. "They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no no no." Dad was the one who told her she didn't need to go, that she was fine (which, I admit is what my mom would have said in similar circumstances), that she had to do another tour so he could get his share as her manager. A man who was largely absent from her life until she became famous and he realized he needed to take care of her, dad's the real villain of the story, not the press. His enabling is out of control. He even crashes her drying-out facility with a camera crew and rags on her for not taking care of her public, and flying her --while unconscious from the night before-- to frickin' Eastern Europe for a show she didn't want to do. But she allowed him into her entourage! How could she judge her dad without judging herself? No wonder she fell for such skeezy men. And I know that feeling too well, because when soooo wasted you can barely walk, you don't know who your friends are, so you just have to trust the ones who seem to know you, from somewhere...

So if it's not the dirtbags', jonesers', and moochers' fault then whose? Slithering beneath it all, right down in our chromosomes, that's the enemy. The sensitive / artistic gene is the same one that falls prey to drugs, alcohol and eating disorders. Our own chemical imbalances, genetic addiction, depression is what makes us artists, man. It's as tied up in the wheels of the celebrity death cult as anything. You can always tell the hacks from the real artists because the hacks have no drug problems. AMY delivers this global socio-historical truth in such a clear and concise way that it makes me kind of ashamed for my advocating self-destruction on this site. On the other hand, I've never stood up for cocaine, heroin, meth or their myriad derivatives and these are the ones that kill most savgely. These terribly un-psychedelic drugs bleed all over the psychedelic warrior's noble shoes by association. Me, I'm a drunk too, and if I vow I won't drink again until Hell freezes over, rest assured I'll freeze it, somehow or other. It shall be frozen.

All in all, AMY is a hell of a harrowing portrait of what alcohol, cocaine, and fame can do to a sensitive artist and her real friends and comes recommended, though the decision to show the lyrics of her songs as subtitles--every single song--seems sophomoric, for these lyrics aren't especially detail-oriented, or so I'd tell her if she was in my creative writing class, if I had one, and she was in it. Without the lyrics onscreen, maybe her raw bluesy chutzpah could shine better, for me anyway. I didn't like Whitney Houston either for the same reasons I'm not a fan of Winehouse. It's like hey, pick a note and stay there, all that single breath octave climbing gives me a headache. Give me Leadbelly or Blind Lemon Jefferson for the blues, Give me an old rocking chair and a song like "In the Gloaming," and Stumpy can take the bottle away.

In case you can't tell, that last sentence referenced NIAGRA and RIO BRAVO. May you find them now, on DVD. And for all the still sick and suffering in and out of the rooms--see you in Hell. I'll be the guy riding the Zamboni.  Watching a poor girl disappear down the chute of bulimia and alcohol addiction just isn't the kind of thing one should be sober for.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Reeling and Writhing: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Seldom seen since its 1933 limited release,  ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Paramount's champagne and hashish centerpiece, can stand on its head proudly, for it turns out to be awash in the same surrealist insanity that so scintillatingly varnishes the studio's peak pre-code '32-34 comedy output, i.e. MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, SNOW WHITE, DUCK SOUP and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933 Paramount was, sez I, the best). For a long time we had to take it on faith that this movie was as boring as those few who saw it said it was, and those few were wrong (maybe because of terrible dupes- the only way to see it for decades). All I know is that I would have flipped to catch this on a five AM Saturday morning UHF station as an early-rising kid in the 70s, or an up-all-night acidhead in the 80s. Kids' TV was a big tent back then: a five AM late night PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE or VELVET VAMPIRE showing would segue into weird Z-grade European 'kiddie matinee' nightmares like RED RIDING HOOD AND THE MONSTERS before finally morphing into LAND OF THE LOST, and all as easy as falling down a K-hole or giggling all night at a ouija board slumber party while our parents wife-swapped and played bridge and drank gin below.

I was never more enraptured by movies then at those times, the lingering images of dreams from mere minutes ago in bed segueing into surreal late night monster movies segueing into early kid puppet show imagery. And finally seeing ALICE on TCM the other night, I know that if this came on either decade I wouldn't have known if I was seeing an early Sid and Marty Kroft-style life size puppet kid's show or a late-late-late show horror movie, and to me there is no higher compliment. Director Norman Z. McLeod (MONKEY BUSINESS, HORSEFEATHERS), screenwriter Joseph Mankiewicz and set designer Menzies (CHANDU) have somehow alchemically combined all those influences, decades before they happened, and that has made the difference.

Even if you don't have that context, maybe you can remember when you were a kid on some haunted or pirate ride at Disney World or some other amusement Park and imagined what it would be like to sneak out of your little car/log flume and into the elaborate animatronic tableaux on either side of the canal or tracks, to hide there, amidst the moving figures? To go off grid, as it were? Well, if there was a Paramountland, or a Fleischerland, and a ride through Betty Boop's early great classics rendered in black and white automated papier mache figures, and you were kind of stuck there, and, like Lisa Simpson at Duffworld, drank the acid-spiked water, and were hanging out with a spookily calm and fearless ten year-old blonde who dragged you around to all the little vignettes and did all the talking, then that's this. And if that sounds like a good time, and if you love cheap rattletrap haunted houses, and creative miniature golf courses, and psychedelic mushrooms, then with the help of Mankiewicz's trippy wit, Carroll's trippy source material, McLeod's zippy unpretentious pace, and Menzies' cartoonish backdrops, this Boopland paradise for acid-addled pre-code Paramount devotees who've had Windsor McKay-style dreams after too much rarebit or cold medicine.

I remember waking up to one of those early Saturday mornings and old, cheap, strange black and white movies fizzling in and out via a round UHF antenna (unable to read yet so not knowing what the movies were). Flash forward 15 years or so, to my late 80s-early 90s Deadhead/Floyd period --there was no better time of the night for a kid like me than when the show was over, and I and my crew were safely home with the whiskey and VCR and every last parent and wally long tucked away. Still tripping our faces off but all the anguished paranoia of driving home without getting arrested finally over, safe and able to finally take our shoes off, with hours and highballs to go before the color bands flashing behind our eyelids would be muted enough for sleep, we needed to watch something that wouldn't bum us out, and I mean we 'needed' it, desperately, for our good trip could become a bad one with a single mean scene.

And at those times, when they were needed most, Paramount pre-code (before anyone knew what that meant) Betty Boop, W.C. Fields, Marx Bros, and Cary Grant--were like glowing toasty fires in the cold darkness. One look into their crazy eyes and we'd know they could see us and felt our pain, they "got it." If MGM was the studio of amphetamines and apple pie, Warners of beer and coffee, and Universal of laudanum and gin, then Paramount was the studio of psychedelics and champagne and ALICE IN WONDERLAND their ideal 'literary adaptation.'

Fully obscuring Cary Grant's head in the mock turtle costume isn't the only misstep of course, but which Alice adaptation is--to the kids' and critics' alike--perfect? None. Disney's 1951 cartoon version is too literal and pedantic; Burton's is beautiful and thrilling but lacks surrealist savvy; Jan Svankmajer's is hallucinatory and uncanny childhood nightmare-level disturbing but lacks class and diction; and all the BBC versions are too much the same other way around. But Paramount's pre-code Alice is sooo wrong on the other hand, it's better than right, it dissolves like a sugar cube under a steady stream of absinthe, maybe a headache later but for as long as now lasts, magical.

Anyway, I had trouble getting past the first few minutes that last time it was on TCM, but this time I came in after the first quarter, half-paying attention and soon there was this crazy mock turtle with a strange yet familiar voice, and I wasn't at all sure it even was Cary Grant inside the shell (since I didn't remember which part he played), until he sings "Turtle Soup" with that British music hall trill and you realize the foundational bedrock upon which 'the' Cary Grant was formed-- all the vaudeville pratfalls and "love to be beside the seaside" style hoofery, that fell below the surface, deep into ocean canyons (surfacing occasionally in diegesis as in Sylvia Scarlet) until he was, simply put, perfect scenery, high and never dry. So it's rather gratifying to see (or rather hear) this sudden resonant force. It's a bit like when he breaks down in front of the child services judge in Penny Serenade and you're like whoa, Cary, we never see this side of you, you're usually so cool! It makes us weak in the knees all over again to realize the vast wealth of brilliance and jubilance folded and edited and streamlined until he was, as Stanley Cavell put it, "fit to stand the gaze of millions."

Here, though, that gaze is rendered moot, so there's no image of cool to live up to. The turtle shell armors and anonymizes so he cuts loose and large. One wonders what kind of miracles Grant could put into, say, a Pixar film. Here it's pretty damn close to that, because some stars just do their persona when doing a voiceover. You won't find, say, Tom Hanks or Will Smith going out on a far limb into madness in their roles, not ever, not like Grant does here. Grant is committed to the madness, like he's reading/acting out a story book for agog infant children while hopped up on mescaline backstage at a 1920's Vaudeville theater, i.e, sublimely.

Amongst the stand-out sights are a king and queen of hearts perfectly gussied to resemble the English pattern playing deck, the king especially looks exactly like him. We've all seen that face since we first learned 'Go Fish' as a child, and suddenly wham here he is, in black and white and surrounded in a curiously 2-D dream space, as if childhood memory, card game, and fever dream had crashed ceremoniously together, as if we're in the primal magic zone from which all the symbols of our lifetime are born. 
And just when you're wondering why they didn't just make this whole thing a cartoon (there was, after all, a Betty Boop version, in 'Blunderland' the following year), a Fleischer animation of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" shows up, providing a nice break from the live action, which by then has settled into miniature golf course tableaux connected by all sorts of surrealistic dissolves, implied drug use, and dotted line followings. Familiar faces and voices buried in the scenery help navigate the off-putting (and rather flatly lit) weirdness, like recognizing an old friend in a throng of strangers during a bad trip moment at a Dead show and then realizing: it might not be them! But then... deciding it is. Lo! Tis old Ned Sparks snarling through his clenched hookah stem jaw as the caterpillar; a strangely sexy Edna May Oliver (w/upturned nose extension) as the Red Queen; Roscoe Karns and Jackie Oakie as the Tweedles; Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, singing about the tea-trays in the sky (and waving around saucers to make sure we get the UFO connection) ; Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare; Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat; W.C. Fields of course as Humpty; Louise Fazenda as the White Queen, looking like a hybrid of Ginger Rogers and the girl in the Eraserhead radiator. Any 'head' will light up when they appear, while apprentice trippers can take a page from Charlotte Henry's Alice, moving from freak tableaux to freak tableaux, size to size, being to being, with an open mind; her deadpan performance never lapses into treacle, camp or obnoxia. Where other would surely cower or freak out or stare rudely or wince in disgust, she just politely notes that things just got "curious." Is it any wonder a nervous sensitive Mad Hatter-type artists like me would worship her? (1)

I've had childhood 'too much chocolate' nightmares that look just like this

any similarities to a human ass are maybe coincidental
This is your dinner on drugs --but  play it cool, bro
The real challenge within the film come in recognizing future matinee idols Gary Cooper and Cary Grant (don't forget this same year even John Wayne was still doing non-western bit parts, like a middle manager stepping stone in Baby Face). Grant's voice is barely recognizable as he sing-cries-speaks of his "sorrow of a sorrow" as the Mock Turtle, while a gryphon laughs and chessmen chortle. It's tempting to be like other lazy critics and dismiss the film for the crime of hiding Cary's and Gary's faces, each then at the peak of their beauty; but instead we should appreciate how, protected from the job of persona-guarding via such anonymity, they show us the character actors they might have been. Grant becomes a music hall maniac and Cooper goes deep into his own laconic cowboy persona for the vertiginously challenged White Knight (below). It's pretty funny to think this tall laconic drink of water could ever fall off a horse, but he does--with great nonchalance--again and again. Unshaken even with his head in a ditch, he tells Alice: "what does it matter where my body happens be? My mind goes on working all the same." Showing Alice his bizarre inventions, like his little box (upside down to keep the rain out), his empty mouse trap and beehive, he's proud but reticent, like a shy ten year-old boy trying to impress a slightly older girl, i.e. Alice's age, by showing off his action figure collection--half shyly, half with little boy bluster.

Gary Cooper, "seated"

But the real selling points for this as the bad acid rarebit fiend K-hole nightmare miniature golf course-cum-carnival-ride childhood fever dream are the grotesque images that linger in the mind, etched on the soul like dark scars in the thick unconscious muck where nothing ever dries or heals, just festers until it erupts into sudden hallucinations and terrifying vertigo with the right 'trigger'. When I see this big lumbering dude in a mouse costume flopping around in a shallow concrete pool (of Big Alice's tears) as if some plushy Overlook refugee paddling forward in the Freaks climax rain, I feel as if my nightmare childhood well (which I though long since paved over) was flooding up all over the basement couch and staining my socks. By the time we get to the scene with the crazy fat mom throwing the baby around while the cook hurls insults and pots, narrowly missing the child/little person and the frog (Sterling Holloway) sits outside, the water's up to my knees. Then Alice holds the baby, who oscillates from an actual baby to Billy Barty (in a baby costume) and back, and then to a plastic doll, and then a real piglet-- the water's up to my neck.

It's over my head and leaking into the above floor for the croquet scene. Are the flamingo croquet mallets drugged flamingos who stiffen when they try to play dead, or just limpid puppets, or dead flamingos in the process of rigor mortis? Like gramps in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), their in-betweenness is what makes them so creepy. Then there's the way the white queen says "better" over and over like a mantra until the word slowly turns into a sheep 'baaa'-ter and she dissolves into a sheep selling a giant egg which Alice stares at until it turns into W.C. Fields as a giant Humpty, demanding she stop staring at him like he was an egg, and state her name and her business. At that point the water goes up my chimney and hits the bell. A winna!

At dinner there's a talking roast (it's bad manners, we learn, to slice off a piece of someone we've been introduced to) defining to a T what it's like trying to keep cool while eating dinner with your parents while on an unexpectedly strong psychedelic trip. (the definition of a NAKED LUNCH). Alice is crowned queen, and everyone dances around, and chokes her and generally carries on like a combination of the FREAKS and BLUE ANGEL wedding dinners and the entirety of Allendro Jodorowsky's canon, boiled and distilled into one black and white raging fever dream bad trip childhood cold sweat delirium tremens nightmare moment. And everywhere we look, things change--the more we stare the more something grows or shrinks. Our gaze, in a sense, makes monsters. Is this not how 'reality' passes itself off as concrete?

Bringing as he does the same sense of deadpan fluid riffing absurdity that made his MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and DIPLOMANIACS scripts so pitch-Paramount perfect, I'm not sure if adapter Mankiewicz ever tried mescaline or reefer or anything, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had. For he's aces at nailing the freestyle way staring at something long enough turns it into something else, or saying any word more than once or twice renders the words themselves alive and fluid, strange and absurd. It could be the bad trip 1933 YELLOW SUBMARINE and maybe in the way it's those atop-linked European kids movie imports finally breaking through their acid-burnt bonds of language, persona and time.

It's also the perfect guide to tripping, offering the same sage counsel I used to when people started wandering towards bad places on my shit: just don't try to recapture the sense of where you just were, are, or what size you are or are meant to be or where you will wind up next. Let go of trying to judge or control anything that happens. Most of all, don't worry what those words someone spoke at you mean, don't try to nail words to the cross of meaning for they'll wiggle farther away the harder you try. Don't try to reclaim the perception of yourself and the world you had before you started to 'get off.'

And don't worry some dark corner of Wonderland is going to ensnare you, for the flux works both ways--nothing can keep you--whether you want to be kept or not--all things are transitional. Nothing can last or be returned now that you're finally loosened from the bonds of self, language, and linear time. When you wind up were you started, the old 'you' won't be there to welcome this new you anyway, no more than a spring husk of a summer cicada. So if you can let go of needing even a single string back to sanity, can throw that last breadcrumb thread into the wind and fall fall fall, then Hole-in-One, baby. You're awake for the first time again, and ready for a whole looking glass country of archetypal forces to reshape what seemed so mundane before you left. It's all real, and you were there, Uncle Gus in your patched pants, and oh Auntie Em, there's no place like home's...
in a mirror...
stared at until the illusion of its 2D space deepens inward
and you can crawl inside the min-golf windmill...
Alarm clocks hands,
probing like serpent tongues,
shan't find you there, at least til Monday.
You'll be fiiine by then.

Longtime readers note one of my graven image idols of worship is the giant Alice statue in Central Park - see Erich Kuersten: A Poet's Journey

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best Erich Writing 2015

PERIOD - END OF REPORT: Sigh... it's been a rough year so forgive the claws, self-aggrandizing self-deprecating ragged scuttling seas and bee plusses, reeling and writhing and tea trays in the sky and grim bahnhoff fahren auf der dumbkopf-- ness, Grand Hotel where nothing ever happens I shall return, whomever I am. Well, maybe I shan't. Aside from some pieces for Bright Lights Film Journal, and Art Decades, I've not panspermiated witticism hither and yon as in year's past. I just been here like a madman, so hard, bro. I'm here so hard. I'm here with a vengeance. Como venganza! Por que no? Why want? Consider the HD Anamorphic widescreen as seen through a clarity-induced foglessness by mind-altering (prescribed) drugs, and unprescribed, and unmindscribed scribbled.  I shall not wander, Shep Hard, I Howard... The Cinema, across from der Alexanderplatz I shall be eaten. Let the tea trays land where they wilt. Unto thee, this pledge: Nichts mehr mit dem mich-krieg and all bandersnatches shunned and turtles dovetailed towards mockery's glam opposite.

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

(April 15)
"One of the unique subtexts at work here is an undercurrent of pro-drunken anger - as still sick and suffering alcoholic Nora regularly has drinks taken out of her hands by Jim who says "none for us, we're quitting" and makes a big show of enjoying life without it. That kind of balderdash makes me want to retch. And I should know. The way the drinks pass her wide eyes by, or the way she works hard to seem deadpan when getting offered some Scotch down in the basement once Jim's upstairs with the ginger kid --it's the kind of stuff only drunks like myself would feel keenly. How nice that there's whole films and wings of Irish literature just for us! No matter how adept his Walken impression, or grace around the dance floor, Jim's refusing drinks on Nora's behalf stings like a slap, especially when he turns out to be sneaking sips on the side from a flask. Only Eugene O'Neill really ever wrote scenes that captured the way every offered drink, every vulnerable liquor bottle, chills the alcoholic's blood like a siren call, and every 'no thanks' on their sickly behalf like a gut punch they're not allowed to wince from. And only Hawks and Huston ever understood it well enough to capture it; only Hawks and Huston understood how cigarettes and drinks are the currency of cool loyalty, how they bring the world into focus as well as out of it. Almereyda doesn't have time to stretch out on these branches. There's no mariachi band playing the Death Song to steady her nerves like in Rio Bravo; no agony of being denied a desperately needed drink just for 'singing lousy' like in Key Largo. No time; the sub-plot just dries out. Plus, "Why be serious? That's for people in sad countries like Poland or Africa" notes the girl narrator. And anyway, the mummy catches on fire and bursts through the window and gets zapped by electric current just like Hawks' original The Thing and add the cigarettes (Harris is constantly lighting them and sticking them in his wife's mouth; the young girl does the same for the old woman, keeping one for herself-- a wee lass smokin'! Save your sermons, o nanny statesmen --this is Ireland!) and drinks (and drink awareness) and that's Hawks enough. We don't need soberin'. Not here. Not no how." (more)

(August 29)
"Neither Italian Zeffirelli or Australian Gibson are inclined to be all Olivier-level wry, measured, or fey--they don't need to work a slow unraveling with subtly sloping energy levels like Kenneth Branagh. It's a deep psychedelic resonance that's lacking in later and earlier versions: Hamlet as a raving but hyper-eloquent lunatic, the type to smash phones in hotel lobbies, leave anti-Semitic rants on answering machines, and trash hotel rooms in fits of manic pique, stabbing at the rats he sees in the walls and behind the paisley tapestries of his college dorm (but what about the Poloniuses hiding inside your skin, bra?). In typical Zeffirelli style, the dusky David Watkins cinematography uses natural light streaks which with the floating castle dust gives it all a haunted painterly quality. Then, at first unrecognizable, along comes Ennio Morricone laying down a score that only becomes clearly his own (via wordless swooping Marni Nixon-esque top notes) during the mad scene up in mom's boudoir, which makes sense as it's such a giallo moment--incest, bloody murder, hiding, insanity, blades piercing through barriers, vows of secrecy, maternal guilt. Despite the tightness of her hippy braids, Glenn Close is subtly unhinged as the queen, following Ophelia following Hamlet into that blessedly cracked and melted mirror which--through the totality of its warp--undoes sanity's merciful blurring and throws the horror of the real into unyielding focus." (MORE)

(Bright Lights 10/31)

"If nothing else remains of the Halloween experience once you’re too old for trick-or-treating or costumes, there are still the movies, and lists of what to watch abound. Well, no list is quite as eclectic as this one, which stretches back to 1929 and ahead to 2008, making stops for over-the-topExorcist rips, ‘70s paneling, Mexican legends, abandoned Norwegian ski lodges, Irish mansions, and California malls, and avoiding all the usual stops. It’s the list of weird and worthy lesser-seen treats for those game enough to seek them out. They are rich with meta refraction, strong female leads, little-to-no misogyny or sexual violence, and are cage-free, except for the cages we build for ourselves, she said, as the shape drew closer . . . the cage we use to keep things out . ." (FULL LIST)

"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." (more)

(March 2nd)
"It's this terrain-based amnesia that makes THE TERROR and THE SHOOTING readable as parts one and two of a very strange textural existential genre meltdown Hellman trilogy (along with 1971's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP), a strange mirror to Antonioni's trilogy of BLOW-UP (1966), ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) and--also with Nicholson--THE PASSENGER (1975). In TERROR, the plot twists are layered back on themselves, then unwound back to separate fibers as if time's moving diagonally backwards; THE SHOOTING's movement is outwards, never back, never up or down, just out into the white blankness of the desert, until its far too late to turn around (or reach any outpost civilization); TWO-LANE BLACKTOP manages to keep in almost constant motion along America's back roads and highways without going farther than a few inches inward or outward. A marked step up in art house complexity from THE SHOOTING (which was itself a step up from TERROR), in TWO-LANE Oates is a GTO driver who sees each new hitchhiker as a chance to change his backstory; and the "Driver" and "Mechanic" have no backstory at all, but when the dust finally settles on 70s cinema, it will be TWO-LANE BLACKTOP that wins the pink slip. All else is vanity."

(Divinorum Psychonauticus)

Sun Ra doesn't actually, like a crazy street person, believe he's from Saturn, but he believes in the power of myth, of fiction, to recreate himself as a myth. The one time I saw him in 1989, singing at a Polish union hall in Syracuse, it was adorable as in this dinky dusty rattletrap lodge hall suddenly there are twirling dancers and all this pageantry (no fancy lights or anything), then Sun Ra comes up to the mic and in this sweet tiny voice starts singing "I am not from here," to "Space is the Place" or whatever his theme was, "I'm from out there," and in this dingy gray place where you'd expect to see, say, a Varsity awards dinner or some union lodge meeting, or an Elk club smoker, a rinky dink piano in the corner, etc. In the freezing hellish snow of Syracuse, those words took on great meaning - a denial, a refusal in a way, that is the heart of meditation, astral travel, music and art - a denial and refusal of the banal limitations of our own place in the time-space continuum, of being black of course, born in the South. Sometimes we love being here - other times, non. But the Exit door is never locked... space is the place - from which no traveler returns unchanged.... (More)

"Knowing what we know about eating disorders (and knowing she was kicked out of two boarding schools for being anorexic) makes it hard to revel in her alien beauty in the Alphaville-esque city wandering scenes, and/or the Warhol factory and YMCA pool party footage. She died mere weeks after her color footage was shot, and you can feel it. Hers is not the knowing sadness, the glimmer of a gorgeous new type of maturer beauty that we find in Marilyn's footage in the unfinished Something's Got to Give. Edie doesn't even fathom where she is, not that she cares, and watching her is like watching a psychic interacting with ghosts, half in this world and half in the past, but was there... ever even another half? Andy Warhol supplied some of that other half, but he supplied it with a vacuum. And who knows how many times the Andy she interacted with was only Andy's double, and Andy's relationship with Edie itself a double, a bizarro mirror to the gay artist-female muse/proxy/twins bond between Waldo Lydecker and Laura... or Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond, but who was who, by which I mean, their relationship was composed of celluloid, light, and shadow... and without a projector, it was just a spool. Swoop swoop, oh baby rock rock." (More)

"Even if feminism and PC sensitivity have killed The Sunset Boulevard model for everyone inside Hollywood, there are still Canadians like David Cronenberg and Frenchmen like Olivier Assayas, to keep the luridly self-reflexive spirit of Billy Wilder and Robert Aldrich alive. And they know a secret denied the average Hollywood hack: the 50s-70s 'horror hag' spirit need only be taken one meta-level further to resonate in our new century's junk TV-addicted consciousness afresh. So they bring us Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche playing Gloria Swansons playing Norma Desmonds instead of just Norma Desmonds hoping to play Salome. Brian Oblivion would be so proud! Long live the new old flesh. (more)gm

(January 29)
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. 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. The symbolic breaker for this less enlightened friend as overstayed its welcome, leaving the friend trapped in a morass of the purely symbolic-imaginary. The only time the friend can feel a glimmer of the 'real' beyond language is when they buy an expensive item or paint the bedroom a new color--thus forcing them to reset their symbolic GPS. And even then, the result is fleeting. These imaginary-symbolic-trapped folks paradoxically dismiss NDEs as just dying brain hallucinations, when the reverse is true. These same people are perhaps also most likely to consider "it's like a painting" the highest compliment they can give an outdoor vista. Or, if they behold some surreal carnage or high strangeness in the real, 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."

(Divinorum Psychonauticus - March 4)

Imagine consciousness and 3D space time as a radio we got for Xmas. We've had it all our lives, and yet we don't even know that we can adjust the dial, change the channel to a different station from the one we're on, lets call it 'Hot 97 FM.' To the left and the right of the dial wait crazy radio stations that can take lifetimes to tune in, or can be found almost immediately on reception, only to be lost when we turn back to Hot 97 and then try to find them later. At the far end of one direction, we can tune into channels full of light and angels; god, loved ones who've departed, heaven. In the other direction, darkness and demons, in between, a million permutations. (more)

(May 6)

"There's a time to play Monopoly and a time to kick over the board and throw the play money in the air like we're motherfuckin' Scarface. Miami Blues (1990) is for that time. Those of us who love charismatic maniacs--especially when they're safely contained by distance, time, or screen--love this movie, for it has a great one. As hopelessly sane writers and artists we need the destructive playfulness that can only be found in certain rare 'awakened' megalomaniacs to spark our pens to life. Such a sparker is our Junior (Alec Baldwin). He is the expression of our id-unleashing dreams, a herald for the maniac renaissance of the early 90s: before Mr. Blonde, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Wendy Kroy, Hannibal Lecter, Tommy in Goodfellas, Harvey in Bad Lieutenant, Lisa in Girl, Interrupted... the was Junior. " (more)

And of course, Babes of Wrath, but I just wrote it last month, so it wouldn't be right to include it here.
(PS - I didn't know there was a Roller Derby team called that when I wrote the piece, but I'm glad - it's a great name)

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Notes from the Class and Alcoholic Struggle in a THIN MAN Marathon

TCM screened the entirety of the alcoholically fluent Thin Man series for New Year's Rawkin' Eve 2016. Naturally I hung around for it, glued, as one is, by the ever-deft blend of comedy and mystery, the natural charm of Powell and Loy as tipsy Nick and Nora, and the colorful thugs. The thing struck me most now for this --nth viewing (and maybe I gleaned this visiting my brother in Arizona over Xmas) is the way rich or upper middle class alcoholics often wind up with slightly lower rungs of friends and mates, the booze acting as a kind of leveler ("it makes you my equal" as Sinatra tells der Bingle in High Society), illuminating the scions of the rich's lack of interest in bourgeois sophistication as opposed to earthy vitality and color. Seen as a whole, in one glorious TCM New Years night, from MGM to my screen--seven (or eight? hic) films stretching from pre-code 1934 to post-war noir jazzbo 1947, we see this class struggle in action, but also the way the long term effects of copious drinking parallel the effects of censorship and WW2 on American life. There's a reason, in the end, for avoiding America's low-lifes-- no matter how Runyonesque they may be. Censorship ironically made us presume otherwise (fighting dumb social norms being an American obligation) but hang out with them long enough and the poor rub off on you until there's no going back, entirely. In your absence, the upper crust cracked open and all that's left of the mansion you left behind is Blanche Dubois, impinging on your booze and personal space. Follow that earthy Runyon flame too closely and the lowlife becomes your whole life; suddenly you're traveling in coach instead of a private car, then packed into the baggage car with barn animals, peasants, drunken bums... Maybe it's that there's a war on...

And then maybe you're the drunken bum...

Nora was definitely slumming when she married private detective Nick Charles, for she started out rich and to the manor-born, the alleged upper crust. But her side of the family all have a yen for the rough trade, as we see firsthand in AFTER THE THIN MAN. Dominated on the home front by upper crust tea-totaler patriarchs and great aunts who need eight servants just to get out of bed, naturally they'll run off with any man who's independent, tough minded and able to breathe life back into their half-suffocated sense of adventure.

In the original THIN MAN (1934) the 'actual' titular 'thin' man (Nick isn't the Thin Man--that's a common misconception), Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) is a successful crackpot inventor with terrible Gold Digger blonde-fakeness-roitin' up tootin' and powder-takin' feminoid chits with perma-waves fit to knuckle a Fred down low past the trotters and the truffles and all the googen plazas in betwixt. By which I mean, he lets a platinum wave undercut good common sense. Wynant was first married to Mimi (Minna Gombell) -a shrill, clipped uptight broad with whom he has a foxy young daughter Dorothy and a creepy-intellectual son Gilbert, and still supports them and also Mimi's gigolo second husband Cris (Cesar Romero). And then there's Wynant's secretary Julia Wolfe (Natalie Moorhead) who cheats on him, presumably, with the squat pug-like Morelli (William Brophy) and the dirty little rat Nunheim (Harold Huber).

The party Nick and Nora throw meanwhile indicates they too like to hang out with the lower dregs just as much as the Wynant family. Their Xmas party is packed with flea-bitten boxers, agents, dumb reporters who don't know what the word 'sexagenarian' means, and a stockpile of gold diggers and sobbing long distance bill-running mom-callers. The only sane sweet two girls in the whole rotten pack are brunettes: Nora herself (Myrna Loy) and Maureen O'Sullivan as Wynant's daughter Dorothy. The rest are hardbitten blondes (including Nunheim's 'frying pan juggler' and Chris' first wife).

I might come off as being snooty in pointing these differences out, but in fact I'm arguing that the variations of class stratified couples in this first film better situate the unique chemistry of our favorite drinking couple, thus answering the question: what would their romance be like if street kid Nick and debutante Nora's respective classes were reversed? And in later films, in a clear nod to MGM Andy Hardy provincial morality-flattering cleanliness, Nick's past is changed to indicate he's not from New York City but from a cute small midwestern town with a well-respected physician father and literally a white picket fence.

I've always liked to believe THE THIN MAN is really a kind of Hammett-to-Chandler cross-over BIG SLEEP sequel. The wry humor and quick back and forth of Bogie and Bacall in SLEEP seems like a prequel to Loy and Powell's Nick and Nora--the class differentiation is just right. Marlowe isn't just a gumshoe, he "went to college and can still speak English if the situation demands it." So by moving into a life of crime-solving she mingles with the dregs, and he mingles with a rung or two down and as a couple they act as go-betweens between these two worlds. Nick knows the night-spots and the thugs; Nora knows their prey, the shattered effete scions, skittery cousins, and blackmailable aunts.

Natalie Moorhead / Edward Ellis
For a contrast, we have the dysfunctional slumming dating pattern of Wynant (he dates downward, and so do the women he dates, making him the Nora in his class divide-crossing relationships). He reminds us, so painfully, that to be rich and successful is to need either a personal assistant, a detective ("Rutledge should hire you permanently to keep those girls of his out of trouble"), or a 'present' parent (like Sebastian's mom in Notorious) to screen out the riff-raff, do background checks, and otherwise make sure you're not sleeping with or getting rooked by any blackmailers, gold diggers, vamps, hookers, or greedy two-timers just because they remind you of some dame in Kansas City. Wealth does not often equal a clue when it comes to dealing with its accompanying social parasites. As a result the wealthy hire detectives to get rid of them without getting their names dragged through the papers. In marrying the detective, Nora in a sense keeps her own wealth immunized.

And in the end maybe what started out as bored jetset thrillseeking on Nora's part (if say, Nick was hired by Nora's late father in the past to shake a grifter off her tail) turns to love that's somehow the ultimate measure of class, the difference that separates the cool rich (the kind we love) vs. the snobby airheads (the targets of our scorn). William Powell is perfect casting for Nick Charles, since as in My Man Godfrey, regardless of what class he plays he has an elegance and charm that is like a beacon, not just great to drink to but to aspire to. For it's also this classiness that magically roots out the con artists and moochers. Even some of the mugs he sent of to prison still like him, and surely there is no higher recommendation than that.

Even so, at the dinner party denouement (of the first film) he articulates a priori animosity towards an as-yet-unmet sleazy lecher for Dorothy (they're interrupted from boarding a train together, perhaps crossing state lines and allowing her to make "first false step.") The guy she's meant to be with is a young dope of amiable quality: Tommy (Henry Wadsworth), who tells her to "pack some clothes and (her) skates" to come with him to his parent's cabin in the country (the addition of the 'skates' is so sharp, detailing all sorts of character traits I always use it as an example of the importance of specific detail in writing, letting us know from a single noun that Tommy comes from good family, is clean-cut, and knows her very well, letting us admire the youthful earnestness of their pairing even knowing absolutely nothing else about him, contrasted with the louche "first false step" guy, who basically has a kind of whiny fey sneer in his voice (he gets one line and gets slugged). Of all the people in the film, it's this one guy Nick isn't nice to, even though, aside from being a scuzzy lecher, he hasn't really done anything wrong. But that lets you know too Nick is above all chivalrous, and maybe even a bit of a prude when it comes to premarital sex. After all, he does live at MGM.

AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936) plunges us into more of a 50/50 mix with the (K)nobb (Creek) Hill types of San Francisco, replete with goggle lensed alienist (George Zucco) keeping doe-eyed debutante Selma (Elissa Landi) strung out pills and, like Mimi (or even Nora), so under the sway of some handsome grifter husband (Alan Marshall) she shuns the respectable slime pails in her class (like Jimmy Stewart).

But unlike Nora's love of cogent Nicky, Selma's obsessive doting over this cad is yet another valuable window into a possible facet/outcome of the rough trade/gigolo gold-digger (male) symplex which we see time and again in the series, putting us in the odd position of realizing money is in its way an amplifier for trouble in ways middle class folks don't usually need to worry about (the really slick operators are going to be hunting richer quarry). In AFTER, the domineering matriarch Aunt Katherine (Jesse Ralph) is clearly underwriting Selma's case of nerves, amplified still further by quack shrink Zucco's undoubted regimen of mind-altering drugs. She's so dominated and overprotected her aunt indirectly forces her into marrying such a swine.

Curiosity about the lifestyles of the poor has long been an obsession of the rich - and during prohibition especially the two were dependent on one another for their very social survival; when Nick says "that man is here," it means their delivery service bootlegger has come by. A variation of that exists today for other illegal drugs like cocaine especially. The last few parties I went to have been at my rich ex-roommate's with all his high roller and top shelf model friends. And in each right around two AM the "call" is made, and some sketchy dude shows up to sell the gathered eight balls of cocaine in a different room (which I never go to--for I hate the wretched stuff with every fiber of my body, mind, and soul). Once said sketcher sees the hotties to be had at my ex-roomie's soiree he calls his buddies and within minutes there's a sketchy hoodrat hanging on a willowy model in every corner of the room - it's an old dance, Monkey Nipples, and it goes back to prohibition in the 20s-early 30s, and when the arrival of a certain package made an ordinary gangster delivery boy become the apple of every thirsty girl's eye.

Now me, I've not only struggled with alcoholism but with my own snobbiness for I've learned to be the bemused hip wingman rather than the worrywart aunt of sulky ectomorphism when it comes to monitoring my friend's and family's mate choices. The amount of suffering I had to undergo to make it to this sketchy truce of peace was/is astronomical. I dated a Cherry Hill NJ girl five years without ever overcoming it. Looking back, I loved her folks, they were great people, but at the time, my indignant snob hackles rose. She later told me they sensed that, but were amused by it. Man oh man, the middle class is a tricky place to be.

What does money have to do with love maybe you ask? It's character, pure and simple, that overrides culture? Yeah it does. A rich family might live poorer than a poor one; a rich house in Princeton might look at first like a rustic cottage, its austerity reflecting--only as we learn later--some early colonial debt of honor to family tradition. Meanwhile a huge mansion next door might be packed with gaudy statuary and uncleaned pee stains from amok puppies while the owner chomps a cigar and insults Mr. Merrill in back by the pool.  Class may not be just about money but in the words Loreli Lee, my goodness doesn't it help?

Right as I wrote that I hear Nora behind me on the phone, noting that they had a wonderful time on their cross country trip: "Nick was sober in Kansas City!" as if that's in itself a rare and precious thing instead of a shameful waste of Kansas City's withering flatlands, of which drunkenness is the only sane artistic response.

By the time of the third film, ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939) with Colonel McFee the family lawyer harrumphing that they drive out to his remote LI estate to help him, the drinking was sidelined at best--a child has landed. They find his compound swamped with security guards but there's "good air for the baby" and overlapping needy characters cramming their way into the smaller and smaller, simpler, and progressively more spartan apartments, bearing pages of red herring exposition like trays of hardboiled eggs. By this third edition, the rogue's gallery giving the gladhand after Nick sent them up the river is kind of cliche, as is the dour humorless upper crust relative / uncle who first summons Nick-o-lass and little Nora to his or her remote mansion, and the MGM treacle seeping over the Breen line ("Gee, boss... a cute widda baby!")--even if that damned baby is goddamned Dean Stockwell, saints forgive him--is an unwelcome intrusion. Even if they do have a nanny, the writing is on the wall.

Muriel Hutchison

The unique selling point to ANOTHER--not later duplicated in the series--is the startlingly touching romance between red herring grifters Sheldon Leonard and Muriel Hutchison. When she pulls a pistol out of her garter belt the whole series grinds to a turntable scratch halt-in lesser hands this skeezy pair of crooks would be quite forgettable, but here they wind up as the second coolest couple in the whole series, further blurring the class lines. Now that there's Nazis in the works and boot strap tightening to ration card to victory bond, well, there's no longer magic in the contrast between rich and low class settings. The way Hutchison says "okay" when he asks her if she wants to play for keeps and make it a duo is like an oasis of sexual vulnerability, streetsmart brass and spritely comedic wit, perfectly fused to Hutchison's Frances Farmer meets Judy Holliday sexual persona. As the patient daughter of the rich colonel, Virginia Grey; Tom Neal (DETOUR star later convicted of murder) is chemist. And in't that WB B-movie gumshoe Patrick Knowles? It might not mean much in terms of charm and acting--all top notch--but it's clear we're beginning to drift off the A-list.

By now Nora is on her way to being totally ditzy but still gets out good lines, tossed off 'yes-and' improv intuitiveness, following Nick's lead to get rid of the pesky romeos at El Morocco: "I won't stay in quarantine! I don't care who catches it!" That shit is awesome, BUT then she doesn't know to look at the maraca player onstage for her contact instead of falling into trite Lucy Show-style mistaken identity-brand comedy with an excitable gigolo. Come on, writers! She's not Lucille Ball... she's goddamned Myrna Loy! She's goddamned NORA!


The weird boilerplate fascism accruing in the dregs of the slumming cocktail seires almost heralds the second world war in itself, as if all the decadent art design and detailed underworld flavor of the first two films has to be sanded down so now the crooks aren't drunks themselves but racial stereotypes borrowing babies for a baby party, with no sense of one another as characters or actors, like they all just met on the G train out of Brooklyn, or are lining up at boot camp, the endless blank white surfaces behind them reflecting a utilitarian minimalism in the set design with which the wall of an LI mansion becomes the wall of an NYC hotel with just a change in a single wall hanging, and none of the lived-in wealth of grime vs. swank in the first film, some of which survives into AGAIN WITH THE THIN MAN but by SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN is just vapor.

And the thrill of drinking while dodging bullets, and enjoying a marriage with a wife comfortable with both, was gone, of if not gone, certainly put away for the moment, eased into storage alongside the west coast Japanese-American population and pacifist humanism until the end of the war, when noir artisans like Siodmak and De Toth would de-mothball the exoticism that Welles and Von Sternberg had previously overdone, the way someone who eats too much of a certain food never wants to eat that food again, at least until, say seven years or a war have passed.

Two things MGM couldn't overbake with Fordian hick Christian small town provincial weepy moralism: the drinking, and the idea of an underworld itself --both essential staples to the series, and both posed their moral hand-wringers a problem. The grifters might now all look like they'd been transplanted in front of walls as phony as a Woolworth painted family Xmas portrait backdrop, but they were there nonetheless. The glorious mansion of the second film, or ritzy apartment of the first, even the visit to relatives in the third, is supplanted. though, in favor of a nanny, a maid and domesticity galore, Nick is even goaded into drinking a glass of milk to appease his demanding son. SIr, that's carrying supplicated wholesomeness too far!

Good bits in SHADOW OF A THIN MAN (1941): Nora summoning Nick from a bench in Central Park, just by shaking up a cocktail shaker near their fourth floor window across the street! But the minimal sets and tedious MGM homespun shit, coupled with Nick's dime store penchant for playing the ponies, seems like their millions are long gone. More than a drinker, Nick's portrayed as a chronic gambler (that might explain it), loafing around in an upper middle class boilerplate (i.e. they're now the Muensters not the Addams Family). The younger mirror to Nick and Nora this time include Barry Nelson (the hotel manager from THE SHINING) as part of an intrepid allegedly good crime solving couple, but the writing coasts on lazy coincidence of the sort that would make Dashiell Hammett ashen: Nick just "happens" to just be where crimes "happen" rather than being swept up in the naturalistic flow realistic to a big city life that brought Dorothy into a hotel bar over Xmas at the sight on Nick, who once worked a case for her father and with whom she had a childhood crush, etc.

In other words, the believable chain of involvement that separates good writing from bad in the mystery game, is gone, replaced by the kind of lazy B-movie mystery writing where murders just happen wherever the detective happens to be. The one interesting saving grace in all that is that the writer is smart enough to use the detective's own fame as the trigger. If you're already paranoid about some devious deal your pulling or pulled years ago during a mysterious hotel fire, the sudden arrival of a Charles or Chan onto your scene might trigger an outburst of blackmailer/witness silencing, and 'threatening note wrapped in a rock' window-throwing --that is believable as an explanation why these sleuths find such ornate murders wherever they go. Thus as Chan might say, famous detective never runs out of crime to solve, for fame causes new crimes to cover older unsolved crimes, like an artist sneaking into museum at night to fix flaw only recently noticed in old masterpiece.

Stella Adler
This time the stealth actor in the bunch is none other than Stella Adler. Watch her big scene with Nick and dig the way she feints forward while he questions her, as if about to kiss him before a serpentine back slither over the word "threaten" until it's practically an admission that Nick's a snake charmer and she's under his sway. But meanwhile Nora is getting daffier and daffier, relegated to all sorts of half-baked in-betweenism of ditzy harebrained derogatory MGM backwards wartime non-feminist clutziness. She's developed a real knack for stumbling down lazy screenwriter shortcuts towards new inadvertent clues, sussed out of the monochrome sets and cardboard cutout characters and spilled in her lap so the little lady can feel involved... aww, MGM back to its old conservative tricks.


"C'est la guerre" - Nick says, almost like compared to the swank hotel compartments they had in earlier films, this overcrowding train coach riding reflects a loss of comfort or privilege, ala DR. ZHIVAGO's, a kind of Communist style MGM would only allow during the actual war (there's not a lot of folk in uniform in this 1945 film, though - Nick's too old by now, or something).

This HOME they go to is also an MGM wartime sentiment Andy Hardy softsoap backpedal. Up to now we though Nick a savvy big city detective, but suddenly his urbane cool is funneled into a Spielberg middle class small town-ism. Look! He's wistful over the old windmill as it passes by in the train window. While in the baggage car with Asta they're sitting by boxes of "Limburger cheese" and many goats.... i.e. cheap hick sitcom laughs, though I love the family sticks with the dog rather in the freight car rather than just letting the group be separated, and no little Nicky, where the hell did he go? Military school? Goood.

But the series surprises with a good thing for every bad, and this time Loy, with her petit bowler hat, is suddenly a whole new mature kind of gorgeous, way above the curve for her or any age. Powell on the other hand looks like he's been a little booze-battered. He seems much older than last we saw the Charles's, also cross-eyed, glossy, complaining about his stomach lining and bearing a flask full of "(non-alcoholic) cider," mirroring maybe Fields' Never Give a Sucker" scene in the ice cream parlor. We do learn he's been working making high fees as a detective, and that family fortune seems apparently gone. Class is gone, too. The war and its propaganda engine have elevated the common man and dissolved the classes in ways which seemed patriotic at the time, but would be considered red commie propaganda as soon as the war ended, and that's the weird thing with Russia. You were patriotic when promoting Russia during the war, and an enemy of the state immediately after. Make up your mind, America! Give Nick back his stomach lining and first-class compartment!

And the lighting, so layered and rich in the original, has been slowly fading away into spacey country light, so bleached out that a person wearing a dark color or sporting a noir shadow would be committed to a mental institution. So now Loy is rattling Nick's town's skeletons hoping a crime will break out as a result "so [Nick] can show his father what a wonderful detective he is." Are we hearing this right? The "only you darling, lanky brunettes with wicked jaws" has morphed to this sober corn pone. "You might get all sweaty and die," Loy cautions wryly. She's aged way better than he has. Did I mention that?

the only other hottie is a muscular little Mary Lou Retinal scan of a blonde (Gloria DeHaven - left) who quotes Shelly while thesping around the first cool set in the film, her mansion, and then we remember the Tennyson quoted by Edward Brophy (in the "I'm the fella who wrote this picture, screwy idea, wasn't it?" bushes dweller role) and we get the feeling that, hey, them what wrote this went to college and wants as we should know. Ann Revere appears in a red herring role as a crazy local wanderer, as if small towns were all apocalyptic Lynchian Godard's WEEKEND cool with genuine links to the founders wandering wild in the weeds rather than suffocated in the "Curse of Arthur Freed" crib. (Deep in the Heart of Texas refrains as Nick suits up).

But the end, the final round up exposition, is as deliriously convoluted as we'd like, with the small town maid-playboy adoption and the Bruce Partington Pants, but there's also Nick popping two buttons that day as a lad who finally earns his dad's admiration for solving it all AND using dad's kind of highbrow medical jargon along the way.

The brush, son... the brush.

1947 -- The War's over now, and the Noir can safely begin, set to smoldering jazz on boats three miles out-ish, though I presume we're not meant to think Prohibition's still in effect, is that for the gage? Bring on the finale, la SONG OF THE THIN MAN.

w/ Keenan Wynn as the 'young hep cat' they adopt,
or who adopts them
But before the jazz, and the hep lingo, it turns all bullshit sterile, with Nora turned into the exacting old bitter battleaxe she stood against in the earlier films, demanding Nick spank Nick Jr. because he wants to pitch ball instead of lumbering along with his bourgeois piano practice, acting like she's the height of hipsterdom for letting Nick bust out his "last" bottle of Scotch to celebrate the--what was it?--no one who hasn't decided their Scotch is their "last" can remember or think what the hell that is. By now it's Nick Jr. who's cool, not his drab parents, with Nora's spanking obsession and Nick's jet black dyed hairpiece making him seem bloated and old, and why not? You'd be too if you drank like Nick Charles for the last 20 years... wait, its only been like 13! That's booze for you- and is exactly how long I drank like that too. Anyway, he plays off his non-alcoholic cider like it won't effect his jubilant ease-in-his-own-skin debonair airs, but where are they?; his alcoholic métier never quite recovers from his character's booze-related health issues, the inevitable age of his character and the actor, the previous films' wartime home front belt-tightening mirroring his slow backsliding out of the upper class, dragging Nora and her family fortune down with him until he's just another Bukowski-esque bum at the dog track.

If you've been drinking all the way up and including this last film in the series here during this lovely New Years TCM marathon, then maybe you'll wonder if Nick's just permanently woozy. Now the drinking is all done by salty sailor types cuz by now a man can not be a dad and still be a lush, aye now there may be something in what all that is about and we must like that the real time between these cases is allowed to accrue, so each time the folks look further aged.

 By contrast imagine if James Bond in that TV BBC Casino Royale stood in for the real Bond instead of making him a perennial youngster and including the same Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell, so that he needed a cane fur crime solvin' while she stayed kinda hot til late in the game, but there you go because the jazz lingo is all about the Jacksons and 'button button who got the McGuffin' and there's a bullshit detector I got when that shit is like strictly Abe Kabibble and Pops under glass, and da bunk and the Jacksons are all out on the MGM lot with the reeds and the Freeds, but the diggity is strictly like from the non-squaresville camp. Like hey the writing has copped to the censorial small town rubric but the noirscape has taken effect anyway, like the profs never stepped all over the straight shit from out the dance floor in good old Hawksian the SONG IS BORN with Gary Cooper instead of Danny Kaye, I mean BALL OF FIRE not soul of the southern song, like strictly from Memphis, "that don't sound like the old Hollis Juice" - and with most of the film taking place in a series of jazz boats and joints (and even Nora picking up the lingo that giving the gal the 'fuller' means "the brush," son). "The brush."

Gloria Grahame

They're still "the squarest bunch of hipsters I've ever seen" notes the young Gloria Grahame, looking Veronica Lake type-ish in what would be her definitive scene-stealing performance if she wasn't stealing scenes even more valuable all through subsequent decade and Nick Ray's flea-bit pocks, er.. pockets. By which I mean the 50s, Asta, the 50s.

Last thing to mention, a really gone (white) Charlie Parker type checks into an alcoholic rest home--one of the first we've seen though they were all the rage in the pages of Chandler. The doctor notes of this suspect that "His mind has been completely shattered by alcohol." As a clearly pre-recorded clarinet solo wails in the background on the rest home grounds, dig the fine line between insanity and just cookin' on yon olde axe.

And compare too the awful ground, only a few feet by some, between the high steppin' livin on 1934's original and 1947's now. Barely 13 years--you took no notice, old VERTIGO redwood slice-- but a whole nation's concept of alcoholism was won and lost as if in an MGM backlot dice game between Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby vs. Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Technicolor Dreamcoat Stalin. And best of all, surprising the hell out of me, Keenan Wynn is their jazzbo mascot, gamely helping shepherd them through the jazz joints like a mix of Johnny Staccato and Charon.

The last image of the entireTHIN MAN series, and maybe my entire life: ASTA sneaking out from under Nick Jr's sheets to not get busted by the Nick and Nora for sleeping in his bed and moving back up through the sheets to the pillows almost immediately as the lights are off.

Positively tha same dog.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...