Monday, April 21, 2014

Antichrist in Translation: UNDER THE SKIN, HABIT

Showing off scars, from top: Under the Skin, Habit
Under the Skin (2014), the new slick dark green opus from Brian Birth Glazer, is a film that links up panic attacks before and after itself (as seen by you, the viewer) and signals the future of cinema horror or science fiction as less about acting and thrills and more about the brain dissolving itself in a pool of black oil in the middle of a dark forlorn forest wondering as it fades how it hears the rain and sizzle without ears. It's 2014's first official transhumanist off-world chance to begin again --the Blade Runner for the 22nd century -- at that stage of post-modern social decay where the screen is as permeable as a jet black oil-filled swimming pool surface and anyone can dive in, not just a Cocteau Orphee, not just Shauna Macdonald in The Descent (the last UK horror film this good). Just don't expect to climb out in the same skin you wore when you dove or were sucked in.


I know how it is, bro. I began the weekend with a terrible panic attack as my whole world crashed down around me in hailstorms of at-work red tape hot potatoes, allergies, depression, anxiety. When my girl wanted to go out to the movies, my blood ran cold and I shook like the gallows pole was sliding up til she tossed a half-Xanax on the floor and like a good dog I went scrambling and so we caught the late show of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin down at the BAM and wandering back from it around midnight, through half-deserted and strangely-lit Good Friday-empty Brooklyn streets in a haze of alienated liquid light reflection, stale popcorn nausea and post-half Xanax glow wobbliness, we knew something weird had happened, to us, to film, to Brooklyn. I admit it I couldn't quite get past the feeling Glazer's film was more of a video art installation swerving towards an And then the Darkness detour than an actual movie. Instead of a flow there is, buried in mossy 'membrances of Basil Twist-y underwater shirt twirlings, the sense of drowning in place -- the darkness of the theater swallowing me up - even as we floated back home up Flatbush back to the smoky din, the paranoid terror red hot potato Poe-level paranoia waiting, unabashed, I felt half-digested.


Then, I realized where my paranoid terror was coming from. It was related to rewatching all six seasons of Mad Men in prep for the new and final season and realizing I'd mixed up Don Draper's forced hiatus from Sterling Cooper with my own work woes. I can't tell where the TV ends and my life begins anymore. I'm realizing I'm already half-sunk into the black oil image. When things get too intense at home, by which I mean onscreen, I move to the kitchen to fix a drink or go to the bathroom and repeat to myself, "it's only a movie, it's only a movie - I'm 'here.'" To our pets we at home must look often like statues, frozen in seated positions on the couch, before the glowing square, awaiting our orders....


But away from the safety zone, the world is cold, dark, harsh: Glazer lures us into a dark and alien theater on the power of Birth and the sexual allure of Scarlett Johansson. Set mostly in and around the dark shroud of Glasgow, Skin is rich with bleakly beautiful panoramas of bowling alleys, cobblestone streets with sad pubs, panic attack strobe dance clubs, drenching rain over misty mountain moors and lashing surf rolling and crashing down in fast accelerations on a family at play (at first), sucking them all into their presumed deaths in a chain of failed rescues, sans suspenseful music or any indication they've drowned, leaving only a screaming infant behind, a sequence so harrowingly existential Herzog-level dark that it kind of crawled inside my stomach like a nightmare I had as a child and suddenly all the layers of assurance and support that nothing bad can happen to an infant onscreen is swept up and away with nary a sympathetic string to let us know that the filmmakers too are horrified rather than mountain-level indifferent. We're not given any indication anyone cares, and it's chilling. And there's also working class yobbos, slang as indecipherable as an alien tongue setting up a class divide against Scarlett's posh Londoner accent and damn I get back to that infant. How do you get back to a film's familiar 'Mars needs Men'-style plot (the rural UK-set Devil Girl From Mars coming instantly to mind) after seeing that poor bereft toddler screaming, abandoned in the primordial surf as the sun sets down around him like an evil shroud? This poor kid's screams hang like a torture-tricked sucker punch cheap shot over the remainder of the film --until the sheer weirdness of the mutant Elephant Mannish boy pick-up throws us for yet another mickey -- is this that Daft Punk video with the dog boy? Whole reels of what the fuck seem to have been edited out, though based on our familiarity with films like La Femme Nikita and The Man Who Fell to Earth we can deduce those missing pieces, but why should we have to if it's only so Scarlett can suddenly turn Ann Bancroft at the Lynchian carnivale of epidermal symbolism? I'm not an animal! See me! Feel me! Touch me! I'm dreaming. Take the shot, Miss Moneypenny, Glasgow is for drunks and junkie loo divers but too dangerous even for a black oil seductresses. Run, (into) forest! Not that one!


That's the problem with this film though I respect others who love it - lord knows I would have followed alien Scarlett J. anywhere, even over to the commercial multiplex wherein she's seducing Captain America and kicking ass instead of playing Venus Flytrap to some juicy soccer hooligans. It's strange and scary but she seems to have very little real power and decays in ways that make us hope Lars Von Trier is waiting in the wings to snatch her from the Kubrick coldness and douse her in the Charlotte Gainsbourg womb of old testament Griffith mortality instead of the unsettling idea that human males might be collectively more terrifying than any carnivorous alien sexually hypnotic prowler. Still, I saw some things I don't usually get to see at the movies - things so weird they're like the dark rural cousin to Matthew Barney's Cremaster. But I guess I'm on the fence (after one viewing) as to whether this is a real movie, a work of staggering foresight and genius that will one day be regarded as the 2001 of our era, or just a long experimental hot mess. Then again, I've seen 2001 dozens of times and thought it was just a long experimental hot mess about half them.


The string of previews BAM showed before the film included something for Locke, which is set entirely inside Tom Hardy's car in real time as he talks on the Bluetooth. A whole hour and a half no doubt of artsy glistening street lamp reflections on rainy dark streets looking like luminous watercolors dripped on a black canvas whilst techno throbs hypnotically and family members and work acquaintances shout their panicked exposition at him via Siri's surreptitious digital strands and signals and strings. Is this preview meant to prepare us for the endless driving shots and slow loop to nowhere repetitions of Under the Skin? It seemed an ill omen. I felt the whole of Under the Skin was trying to escape that Locke, the idea that if you want a real movie that does real things you need to stay home - movies are now about big screen compositions set within cars and the minds of predators --they don't expand your horizons but shrink them until they grab you by the neck like a dominatrix dog collar and pull til you're purple. The next stage will be where you spend your ten dollars just to sit in your car and think about what the movie you paid to see might look and sound like if it was ever made, while you drive around. Dig, the movie is you, mate! Ten dollars!

Locke 
Another problem: what's with the mean male handler (Jeremy McWilliams) with the motorcycle humpsuit? There's a kind of icky chauvinist undercurrent--like male filmmakers aren't comfortable with castrating Venusians unless there's a man in charge (see my sizzling expose of cinema's pimps both before and behind the lens) and with Scarlett's voluptuous body stripped to black bra and skintight black jeans she becomes the whole show, just her and the black box rooms with the wet floors --so we really don't give a shit about this handler with his smug countenance. Ain't right. The first film of this ilk that transcends the pimp factor head on and smashes it -- Daughters of Darkness -- the most recent -- Neil  Jordan's Byzantium!

All that aside, Under the Skin tries hard to puncture some hidden and vital vein in our culture, the way any sense of a dislocated universal all-seeing perception dissolves in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere; Scarlett drives slowly trying to lure into her SUV figures of hunched over men, pummeling their way on foot through the darkness, shopping or working long after normal people go to sleep, for good reason, and Scotland especially seems as abandoned as some lifeless corner of the galaxy. From the darkness of an experimental intro that's just drones and a pinpoint of light, onwards to the rainy woodsy finish, it's hard to get a straight bead on anything. We're used to that pinpoint of light becoming a tunnel, but it's not going to be so easy. Aside from 'in Scotland' we never know where we are, except that we're treading the line between modernist ambiguity and hedging indecisiveness. In Glazer's debut, the Kubrickian Birth, we had a real soul in Nicole Kidman, beautiful with her Rosemary buzz cut and Anne Heche a brassy Lady Macbeth that colored the painting of our fear. It was more Kubrick than Eyes Wide Shut on some level, but still it lacked the feeling of planetary orbit of The Shining and 2001 -- films where you can actually feel the world turning below the feet of the Steadicam operator, and your own seat, the orbit of the Earth spinning around the sun and the longer orbit of the sun around the lip of it's galaxy as the universe expands outwards, and how one orbit --the film--and the other--your head-- meet and eclipse each other until both disappear, the sense that any kind of stasis or stillness is an illusion. Under the Skin has only one decaying orbit, and lots of flashy editing tracks and scars are displayed out from under its sleeve, including an extended melange of overlapping images through which Johansson's strange and lovely face gradually appears, but when the charm's unwound there's nowhere to go but towards the macroscope finality ala the end of Easy Rider. It's the kind of film that depends on Wikipedia and summations of the original source novel for sense. My GF read them to me afterwards but I was sick off too much stale popcorn, and was coming down off a doggie Xanax, and the terrors of bureaucratic power finally besting me am der werkhaus. My weekend was ruined! At any rate, I appreciate the hypertextual angle - a film that needs a drive or walk to and from itself, and also the internet to explain the source novel demands to be judged accordingly, thereto...


Before that, there was Larry Fessenden's low budget Habit (Netflixed after admiring his You're Next) in post-Blank Generation style and Liquid Sky content, Fessenden wears all the hats and stars, as Sam, a bartender and witty drunk from the era of the 90s;  I drank the same way, at the same time, in his same neighborhood - (he bartends at the Hat, the great Mexican restaurant in the LES with the with the super strong margaritas --they'd give them to you in plastic cups for take-out!!!) I think I've even used his great line about committing suicide on the installment plan before. And with his wild hair and missing front teeth Fessenden is a great shaggy antihero, one of those where intellect and the ability to succinctly share one's inner feelings is not the mark of a square nor missing teeth the mark of a working class yobbo. He must have been really drinking cuz he's amazing. And there's some really great drinking scenes, where concerns about his girlfriend Anna (Meredith Snaider) and her habit of sucking his blood during sex come out organic and low key as any normal conversation, neither forcedly so or otherwise and she doesn't need a pimp to wave his wand and 'allow' her to feast.


Fessenden also has a great gift for framing within the tight confines of small realistically dilapidated apartments -- the Halloween party early on is a masterpiece of tight economical framing - we've been to that same party before and the low key conversational tone is also a marvel; sounding like an early Jack Nicholson but not trying to, and believably trying to navigate his way through a rapidly downward spiraling series of options! The hand job in Battery Park with Anna was one of the hotter sex scenes I've witnessed in some time, too, for being so sudden, realistic, intense, out of left field, punk rock, real - exciting --it left me bleeding psychic energy from out my limp imprisoned genital matrix in a way I've not been bled since Lydia Lunch in Kern's Submit to Me Now!


All that said, there's still the issue of the horror, the weakest element of this otherwise strong and moving film. The vamp fangs are clearly the two dollar plastic variety and while that could have worked --like if he was too drunk to tell if she's just joking or really trying to bite him -- plastic or real - etc., they play it straight and by then the film's run on kind of long, there's still no denying this is a significant and impressive low budget work; if the climax is a let-down it's only because the rest of it is so much better than it has any right to be.


The main issue with both these femme fatales of course is the weird dichotomies - Scarlett rocks the posh accent but dresses like a waterfront Lars Von Trier prostitute, and why is her spaceship an SUV? And as vamp Anna, Meredith Snaider is too short to be scary; I would have liked to see her taller, or more mature, played by a real gravitas-bearing actress who somehow seemed separate from the murky twentysomething slacker low-key characters in the film, none of whom seem to emerge from the murk to become any archetypal vampire types (the one kid tries to be a Van Helsing rescuer of sorts but it never pans out though he does get in a great stream-of-babblelogue about the real vampire being all around us in the choking overreach of society and popular culture). So in the end it's not as effective as a vampire or horror film but does work as an authentically booze-engulfed LES twentysomething denizen depiction, wherein the sense of world-weary isolation, the cultural vampire metaphor, works.


The reverse is perhaps true for Under the Skin, which has a few striking visuals involving black goo (are the aliens merely tar babies drawn from this murk, as in they're all one giant amoeba that occasionally splits off and dons a pelt like a wolf in sheep clothing?) and in one climactic shot we're able to realize the way even the most horrifying sight can blend in perfectly with twisting sunless old growth forest. Critics have noted the way Earth becomes so easily alien and terrifying through Scarlett's eyes, and how inherently alien she looks to begin with, and the weird similarities between these alien seduction / immersions and the reality of reported alien abductions, and the similarity between these aliens and the weird eye thing in Liquid Sky. While I get all that I'm still not convinced. Were my expectations too high? I wasn't high at all... just poisoned by panic... was that it?

Days later I'm still thinking about it, and the film did help strangeify that long walk uphill from BAM to our Park Slope digs on a late night Good Friday, half the locals seemingly gone upstate to visit relatives for Easter, leaving the neighborhood feeling very abandoned and surreal like an alien world. I guess, that's the best movies can do if they want to be both artsy and get us to not wait for video. To get us to trek out there into the dark foreboding night and pay over ten bucks to spend a couple hours parked next to strangers, our purse and coat pockets easily accessible to bed bugs and junkie fingers, the film has to seamlessly link up to all those things, to forge a doorway between our lives, where we are inside our own skins and their outer furs, wherein our seeing the film, and the film itself, become merged. If a film can't make the walk home resonate through a different pair of eyes than the ones we came in with, then why did we ever leave the safety of our homes to begin with? Wherein films of the past, like Habit, can link up to our memories of the 90s rather than our dreadful 20's tomorrows, and trekking to the neighborhood video store in the wearying sunshine of a Sunday used to help create some kind of anticipatory context, some ceremony, even for old favorites, all that is forgotten in favor of Netflix, the delivery system that sluggens down to a slowmo swim the last vestiges of our impetus to move through the tar pit black quicksand stasis of reality in pursuit of an escape. One day maybe soon we won't even need our own memories, our own darkness, a seat, speakers, ears, or the screens in our retinae. We'll be the viewer and the viewed in one looping orbital motion -the entirety of our senses transferred onto a stack of DVDs on a dusty shelf, and hopefully none of them, not ever, will be Transcendence. 


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Real Between Curtains: John Huston and Bree Daniels, Gamblers (KLUTE, THE MALTESE FALCON)


Checking out The Maltese Falcon (1941) again--every time it's a different movie! Last time I wrote about it I saw it right after In a Lonely Place and was shocked by much that film's unflattering portrayal made Bogie and Astor each seem as monstrous and misshapen as Joel and the Fat Man. Mary Astor's twisted rococo hair styles made it scan like some Martian transmission from the bowels of one of my old-school delirium tremens. (see Bride of Bogartstein, Acidemic August 2011)

This time around, a slim three years later-ish, there was none of that but another facet, one equally rare in a noir or detective film: a concise expense account, i.e. money. The film is almost completely obsessed with it but not in a big brass ring way--though that is what the falcon represents--but also in a hundred dollar way - the money never gets lower than hundred denominations but even that is unique. It starts with the two hundred given to Miles Archer and Spade by Brigid O'Shaughnessy ("you gave us too much money if you'd been telling us the truth and enough too much to make it all right") and culminating in the envelope of ten thousand dollar bills with the delivery of the dingus. Spade gives the cops the thousand dollar bill (see title of this post), but pockets the rest at the end. After all, he has to keep the office running.


Paradoxically, if the money amounts were larger, they would be less relevant. It reminded me of the few times I ever did large (to me) drug deals, handing over five hundred dollars to a hippie on trust. There's an electric cord of adrenalin clear-headed focus associated with such sketchy large cash outlays that are completely unregulated by lawyers or bankers. When some big deal cokie brings a briefcase of thousands to a drug deal in a modern gangster film it seems to mean a lot less, refracting down to mere MacGuffin status by contrast --but in Falcon every hundred dollar bill has clout, it's power on a printed piece of paper. A C-note buys Spade's loyalty, to a point and it's never really clear whether he's just faking his lack of morals to solve his partner's murder or is just faking his faking when it becomes convenient. This is a movie where even we don't get to see the hero's cards. Dashiell Hammett's dialogue is always realistic in the sense that detective work is a business and, like a lawyer, a fastidious record of retainers, per diems, and expenses must be kept. After his second meeting with Brigid, Spade relieves her of another five hundred, compelling her to hock her jewelry; he then calls his lawyer when he gets back to the office and says into the phone, "I think I'm going to have to tell the coroner to go to blazes, Sid." He asks if he can hide behind his client's privacy, "what'll it cost me to be on the safe side?" another pause as Sid surely lays out an estimate (for what filing injunctions, paying off inquests? We never know). "Well, maybe it's worth it. Okay go ahead."

These kind of details reflect a savvy gambler's awareness of how money predominates discussions when no one is copping to their real motives or who they really are, i.e. in a game of poker. Money talks while bullshit walks as it does in gambling or with Brigid and Sam's love affair, who can say if either is really in love with the other? Who knows what the other guys are holding? In most films we're encouraged to forget we're watching actors play characters --we're not watching the truth. But not seeing the truth implies there is a truth, somewhere outside the frame - the truth is actors are making a film and you're watching it; but great movies like The Maltese Falcon call the idea that there is such a thing as truth at all into question.


A lot of film directors are gamblers by nature, borrowing money to try and break the bank, so they troll through the world collecting philosophies that help them deal with losing huge amounts of money, whether through a hand of poker or a roll of the critics' pens and the public's wallets. In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter Huston's cracklin' pappy gold prospector and Tim Holt realize the entirety of a year's work on the mountain is lost in the Mexican desert wind as easily if shooting the works on a spin of the roulette wheel --and Holt is dejected but Pappy knows just what to do, laugh it up! God's joke on us! So laugh they do. And the fact that Holt is able to let go and shrug it off is the real 'treasure' he finds, for Pappy it's the nearby Mexican village where his rudimentary healing skills make him a hero. And in Maltese Falcon it's about being so good at bluffing, at seduction, at manipulation, that even we, your movie audience, don't know what you're holding. Hell, maybe even you don't. A busboy once told me how his wife was so good at reading tells in that he no longer even looked at his hand in Texas Hold 'Em, just took his chances. Now that's a deadpan gambler!

Not to be trite, but for real gamblers, like Huston, a fortune is something meant to be won and/or lost - its table stakes - the stakes get larger, the table grander- but it's still a game --and the measure of a man is how gracefully he can lose his skin on a toss of the dice, as per Huston's beloved Kipling. I know this poem of Rudyard's must be like holy gospel to old John H.:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!  
I've never been much of a gambler myself --if I win big I turn arrogant, if I lose big I turn ashen, my son. Kipling wouldn't have much use for me. I faint in desert heat and wither in the jungle and my wrists are too thin for my punches not to hurt my hand far worse than my opponent's chin. But if I was thicker skinned, say from a lifetime of adventure as a soldier and boxer like old John Huston, or if I could still drink whiskey like I could in my early twenties, I bet I'd go for gambling - why not? I don't think there's anything immoral about it - unless your children are starving because you lost their lunch money at the track. For me, just getting through the day without cracking up, winding up arrested or run over or in the hospital or fired or broken on the wheel, you get the point. But overall I ascribe to the Great McGonigle's 'never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump' philosophy--a good trimming can be as valuable as four years of NYU if the chump be naive enough to be trimmed. Casinos create valuable service industry jobs and remain meccas for performers. And what's a bigger stakes gamble than filmmaking? A few million dollars is considered a low risk gamble compared to the titanic bloated budgets of normal multiplex fodder. If gamblers didn't know how to laugh off catastrophic losses, Michael Cimino would have wound up wearing cement shoes after Heaven's Gate. Shit, son. He singlehandedly killed our once strong studio system! And he's still walking around... even making movies.


I also resonate with the gambler because I have addictions of my own, and knowing these I've been wary - casinos, like strip clubs, always seem very sad and suspicious to me, like pushy salesmen. The lap dance is okay to receive if part of some academic study, but I know if I surrender to its allure I'd wing up broke and pathetic within a matter of months and no closer to any kind of permanent fulfillment with a woman. Gambling too is okay for research and participation on some minor scale, to get a flavor for it so you can write about it later, but why When Sky Masterson laid down that line about sasparilla in one's ear I took it to heart. Casinos wouldn't even be in business if a right-brained scattershot like myself could beat them.

But beating them is not really the point: Every true gambler is always either rich or broke, it keeps them on an even-keel. Huston was like that, filling his unforgiving minute with guts and glory-- and part of what makes his films work is that few other directors convey such an accurate vision of what it is to be broke enough to understand the sign of class that is giving up your last cigarette to a near-stranger when you can't afford another pack, or the victory of getting a peso coin handout twice from the same American tourist, or quietly benefitting from the two day period involved in finding your partner's murderer to the tune of approx. seven hundred dollars:

Brigitte's initial retainer -         $200.
Brigitte's second cash outlay    $500.
Joel Cairo's 'small retainer' -     $200.
Less the lawyer fee for Sid to keep
her name out of it -- guestimate - ?? est. $200.
-TOTAL est $700!
--------------------
And solving two murders = priceless cred.

Lastly the thing that stuck with me this viewing was the impossibility of knowing whether or not Spade really loves Brigitte or is just a gent since he shagged her and any gent can feign being into a girl for at least 24 hours after shagging a broad. We get his clear-eyed list of all the things that would go wrong if he trusted her - "but look at the number of them!" - Love Bogie's eyes when he says "look" as if he's mentally really looking at the list and shuddering with withdrawal reptilian self disgust -- and on the other side

"Maybe you love me and maybe I love you"
"You know whether you love me or not!"
"Maybe I do."

Note that she doesn't even bother to wonder if her own feelings are real or if she's just scared to death because she too can visualize horror and reptilian self-disgust. Her tears fall so hot and fast you can see her whole persona begin to melt off even if her make-up never runs. She's an off and on again great actress, is Astor, which perfectly suits the material - not unlike Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas or Jane Fonda in Klute - they convey the complexity of performance by in essence dissolving the metatextual difference between good actresses who are sexy by nature (as we well know based on her infamous journal) acting sexier to appeal to men but also trying to be sincere like all actors who value honest sincerity (probably as the result of acting teacher input) because as Mildred Plotka - once put it, regarding the "genuine" tragedy of realizing sincerity is impossible-- "we're not people, we're lithographs. We don't know anything about love unless it's written and rehearsed. We're only real in between curtains."


The triumph of Fonda's Bree is that though she doesn't really feel too attracted to Klute it's the very fact that he doesn't ask or need to be loved or adored that proposes the actorly challenge for her. It's his renouncement of any happiness for himself (including masochism or martyrdom) that ensures her winding up living in Bumfuck PA with this hangdog snoop will be like rehab, or prison, where one can no longer escape the fish bowl confessional that is finally looking at a too-long unregarded self. Such a choice seems like the last thing a girl of Bree's 'drinking wine in the dark and nursing a roach clip'-cool levels would find endurable. But she can at least realize that bored frustration is a unique paradise compared to the nonstop living in sexual twilight and feigning interest in unattractive guys. Klute demands no expression of even minimal interest on her part, and sees through all artifice as his job demands so it's sincerity or nothing, a bit like the court-ordered rehab worker who believes not a word his scamming patients say, he trusts only their urine.

This kind of endorsement can come verily close to being a pro-sexist post-code patriarchy soap opera sanctification of woman's 'choice' to be a barefoot pregnant servant of any man who'll marry her.  Man can't force her, but if she chooses to renounce her freedom then she is the only girl in town who will know true happiness. Looking at these kinds of films now can make one feel dirty - like our most cherished ideas of self-sacrifice were being exploited like we were goddamned Viridiana or Candy Christian. In the end, it may be prostitution, but there is one idea you can trust above all others --not steel, as it was for Conan, it's not even cash, it's that the best possible kind of secret agent doesn't even know he's an agent and that there is no discernible difference between a real person faking being in love and a fake person in love for real. In fact, at a certain halfway point they are indistinguishable -- if that's too harsh a truth then don't play poker, don't fall in love with your prostitute, and don't ever fuck with Roy Rogers' horse. Shit's POTENT, son. Love will not be trifled with, and we fake it at our own risk --but the payoff is all around us, choking the Earth with its relentless distracted appetites. One Tin Actress rides away... yeah, ride it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Prison of a Thousand Dimensions: GRAVITY, BUBBLE BOY, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

"...Please don't shoot me into outer space
P-P-Please Mr. Kennedy (Uh oh!)
I don't wanna go (please don't shoot me into outer space)
I sweat when they stuff me in the pressure suits
Bubble helmet, Flash Gordon boots
Nowhere up there in gravity zero (outer...space)
I need to breathe, don't need to be a hero (outer...space) -- "Please Mr. Kennedy" (Inside Llewyn Davis
"Without going out of my door,
I can know the ways of heaven.
Without looking out of my window
I can know all things on Earth.
The farther one travels
the less one knows" -- "The Inner Light" (George Harrison - via Lao Tzu)
"Never get out of the boat.
Absolutely goddamn right." - Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) - Apocalypse Now 
Vinny Barbarino in the original
We used to call Syracuse the city with the concrete sky; you'd leave your parent's house in NJ to drive back up on a bright sunny day and then, cruising up highway 81, lovely trees on all side, clear blue sky, but then a mass of twisting dark clouds begins to loom off in the distance. The rest of the sky was clear as a bell, but Syracuse loomed ahead like a black shroud; snow never melted therein, merely accrued over the years like sedimentary layers of various shades of frozen salt slush gray; any joy we could muster was a pale blue fire that we continually banked with all the drugs and booze we could afford or handle, surrounded by plastic sheeting on the windows for insulation and still it was too cold. We needed even more layers --wrapped in the protective bubble of mass quantities of bourbon, and blankets, the warmth flickered, maintained via an elaborate magic bullet Jenga --before that I had written often of the depressive yellow film that surrounded me like a plastic bubble, a feeling of isolation all the more painful in a crowd but a thousand times worse alone. Poems and poems I'd written about that yellow film.


Those poems are long gone. My mom threw them out, of course. But their exact existential ennui of is all over Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis (both 2013), which in turn resemble the 2001 comedy, Bubble Boy (2001). The three might just as well be sequels, and the same overall message reigns: we're all of us trapped in the 3-D space-and-time-suit that is the human body, the egoic gridlock that is the mind, and the whims of an Old Testament warden that is the soul, all three relentlessly dragged back into our orbit of desk, car, couch, and bed no matter how high we fly outside the box; it is the penitentiary of our unrealistic hopes preventing us from reaching through the brass bars of expectations towards the gold ring. After all, we know that ring is an illusion.

Better we learn to love illusion directly.
"You know that story of the Russian cosmonaut? So, the cosmonaut, He's the first man ever to go into space. Right? The Russians beat the Americans. So he goes up in this big spaceship, but the only habitable part of it's very small. So the cosmonaut's in there, and he's got this portal window, and he's looking out of it, and he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time. I mean, the first man to ever look at the planet he's from. And he's lost in that moment. And all of a sudden this strange ticking... Begins coming out of the dashboard. Rips out the control panel, right? Takes out his tools. Trying to find the sound, trying to stop the sound. But he can't find it. He can't stop it. It keeps going. Few hours into this, begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with this sound, and he knows that this small sound... will break him. He'll lose his mind. What's he gonna do? He's up in space, alone, in a space closet. He's got 25 days left to go... with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides... the only way to save his sanity... is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes... and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn't hear ticking anymore. He hears music. And he spends the sailing through space in total bliss... and peace." -- Rhoda (Britt Marling) - Another Earth

The ticking, man, Brit Marling, you must hear that all the time, by which I mean the clamor of your geekboy devotees: those of us in love with your heavenly hair but confused by your weird mix of self-serious grad school high conceptual sci fi and skeeved by the wussy hipsters you stock your films with. So much potential so unsatisfying, so ultimately anemic. Those shaggy dork boys need some sunshine, Britt! They're pale. They make the hipster boys in Ti West movies seem robust. They'd break like glass goblins with the gentlest of knuckle taps. I'd fight them for you, Britt Marling. You remind me of a girl I used to know in college. She's older now though.

Save us all from the beauty-remover that is age, Britt Marling!

But if you bear her ticking quote about old Yuri up in space in mind with the upper deck Llewyn Davis ditty atop, recorded in the same approx. early 60s time zone as Britt's Another Earth anecdote WOULD have taken place, you realize there's more going on here than either film quite grasps --there's a very real trepidation about being next in line to be shot into space for both these films, and for Gravity. Britt only wants to go up in space to escape the shame of having killed a kid in a drunk driving accident; Sandra Bullock goes in space to escape the pain of having a daughter killed in a drunk driving accident. Meanwhile I'd spoil the plot to explain whose drunk driving and who or what they hit in Llewyn, but either waywithout shame or grief to propel you there seems no real reason to volunteer to be the next monkey shot into space (unless you're besotted by Tyler Durden).

But the Coens can't imagine what else folk singers were for if not to express trepidation about going off to maybe die for their country. And in 1961 folk craze there's still no Vietnam to name Llewyn's generation. Vietnam! The war that made Milwaukee famous, that made Walter crazy with PSD-by-proxy, that gave Dylan's protests songs resonance for a young male populace pinioned by American flag pitchforks at the border between Canada and Cambodia. Without a war to name them the 1961West Village scenesters of Inside Llewyn Davis can only float in the misty white smoke over the dark green corduroy; the color scheme and lighting like what it must feel like walking through an unlit folk museum in the middle of the day while slowly going color blind. Aurally, there's way too much quiet and too much resonance - old Llewyn can hike his guitar all over creation, whip it out and boom it's perfectly tuned and the sound resonates like you're listening to yourself in earphones with a good condenser mic, ne'er does he have to play over clinking cups or drunkards. Like Mad Men before it, and after it, this is a land where you can actually whisper at a bar and be heard from across the table.

But symbolically, it's the best film about elliptical orbits since The Werkmeister Harmonies!



Gravity has orbits too, and since there's nothing to slow you once you start moving, just bumping into someone can send you rolling along in an infinite terrifying somersault, until you're sure you're going to just hyperventilate up your remaining oxygen and die still somersaulting endlessly out into deep space, endlessly endlessly oxygen draining from your panicked huffing --until George Clooney comes to your rescue, time and again, and harrowing near death escapes and space station leap-frogging and immanent metaphysical evaporation come and go but your suits and pods always be pressurized. Sandra Bullock's incredible module hopping routine here has no correlation in any other film except, I think, The Swimmer, but it's just another orbit of cramped coffins--the average American's stations of the cross: bed, car, cubicle, car, couch, bed are interlocked space modules which she swims through in various space suits and in her underwear! But most of all she finds orbits --everything that goes past her is coming back around maybe twice as fast.

Such interlocking elliptical orbits are the Coens stock and trade, as folk musician Llewyn Davis says after "Hang Me Hang Me," the number that opens and closes the film and we have to wonder if it's the same night a, "it was never new and it never gets old." In Gravity, Ryan seeks a space ship or vehicle to escape her orbit, but Davis is the space ship, old and new and never getting old and it's a folk song around and around, just like any musician playing the same song night after night until he needs to suss out new ways to divert himself within it.  He can't escape an orbit he doesn't admit exists, because it would mean acknowledging the ceaseless ticking of Britt Marling's spaceship's funeral clock. He's learned to sing over it.

"there's no success like failure,
and failure's no success at all" - Robert Zimmerman
He'd rather quit than make any artistic compromise that might jeopardize his folk failure; the basement clubs he plays in resemble (no doubt intentionally) medieval dungeons, spotlights coming in from above and the side like stray rays of sunshine down into Poe's pendulum-swingin' pit -- and Corman's adaptation made in1961 the year this is all set -- no doubt the Coens are champing at the bit for the days of Roderick Usher, I kept expecting Llewyn to catch a screening. Maintaining that allusion would have been nice, but instead the Coens cram in unlikable anachronisms like the dago red working class owner to rob the folk scene of every last ounce of solidarity, as if the Coens don't know the difference between a coffee house and a strip club, thus robbing the folk revival of the one thing that made it special.

But the Coens have never been even close to Altmanesque. People rarely talk in their films and certainly don't overlap like, so we must deal with the subject in isolation, ala Kubrick, forcing us to wonder: are they making movies about alienation BECAUSE they hate crowded ensemble cast naturalism, or the other way around. They make Llewyn into Susan Alexander Kane, driven by an inner Orsons seeking the bubble reputation even into the canon of indifference. There is, after all, only one Oscar Levant. So as Don Draper would say, what is the benefit? Are the Coens just insecure or is insecurity a part of their cultural heritage?

But there are oases --the kindness of the bohemian 'Lovahs'-style Columbia professor academics is timeless, so is the existential aura of the Coen Bros-brand Old Testament god-playing which this time around is rather merciful. They are still finding ways to insert quotes and themes from O Brother Where Art Thou's source text, Homer's Odyssey into Sullivan's Travels-style deconstructions of the rich kid reverence for the poor working negro sick and sniffling at three AM dawn or whatever. Homer's gods note that men create for themselves "grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns”-- they also throw their proxy life lines and opportunities so he might throw them each in turn away, such as missing the chance for credit and royalties, cashing in on the cowardly claustrophobia of the above-quoted song for nothing more than a few hundred bucks which he quickly tosses away. For Llewyn, the fear of being stuck up above the planet utterly dependent on a pressurized suit to survive, i.e. famous, is very real because the sun never shines in his current world and he's terrified to find what not being enshrouded by dark clouds might feel like. Hold on my brother, Paxil is coming!


Moving on --and  Bubble Boy (2001) zips like a giddy joy ride, following a less circular orbit than Llewyn and Ulysses, but that's okay because he's a round planet onto himself, attracting satellites wherever he bounces. Why is he so much better with people than poor Llewyn? Innocence, man, the naïveté of sheltered bubble child Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes an 'honorable' goal of breaking up an impending marriage between his beloved neighbor Chloe (Marley Shelton) and some sleazy rocker. It's a wish that brings him on his own Candide-like innocent abroad incredible journey -- his pleasant manner and is a rarity to begin with in comedy (it wouldn't be as cool if he was, say, Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider). It works because he's a gorgeous, sweet young fellow --the eyes, Manolo, they never lie. So the bubble is just the shell thrown up by any artistic extrovert who can't quite believe he could ever get a hot girl, regardless of how good he might look to himself in the mirror.

The mirror, Manolo, it a always lie.

In his sweet naivete, Jimmy is really more like the Justin Timberlake character in Inside Llewyn Davis, the happy alive, gentle, kind fellow, open to the universe's giving because he is giving by nature, so earns the instant karma.Gyllenhaal's charm awe most everyone he meets -- and though sheathed forever--apparently--in his yellow plastic film, he liberates souls wherever he goes, excepting a few, like Zach Galifianakis ticket window, who remains all alone, trapped in his own bubble of a middle-of-nowhere bus terminal.

Deeper-reshing
He's also like the cat Ulysses, of course, the true astronaut of Davis, because he's a Russian astronaut version, he's learned to love the ticking -- don't all animals? Llewyn Davis himself is more like Galifianakis, or the slightly sleazy rocker Chloe runs off with in Bubble Boy who is at least wanting to marry her and bring her to Niagara Falls, and so it's not just so Jimmy can fall over the Falls in his bubble, which of course he does. That said, Mark's not one to throw punches or be a dick, and in fact conveniently vanishes from his own wedding once the bubble doth intrude, perhaps grateful for the last-minute freedom.
“A man who has been through bitter experiences and traveled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time” ― Homer, (The Odyssey)
In Gravity we're forced to really face the idea of space destruction - though supposedly human beings burst apart without gravity to reign in their natural pressures, we see the corpses preserved except through their debris holes as a Russian test missile ends up starting a chain reaction that wipes out all the satellites. Neither one feels entirely plausible, that this bubble somehow winds up virtually indestructible, and that through all the crazy satellite storm sweeps a kind of snowball accumulation avalanche.

"How his naked ears were tortured
by the sirens sweetly singing" - "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Creem)
I have some problems with Alfonso Cuarón, as underneath his gift for sci fi lurks idealized reverence for a madre's love for her nina that makes John Ford seem like Sam Fuller. I had some deep fundamental problems with santa-de-madre core of Cuarón's Children of Men. Suicide kits made sense in Soylent Green (see my praise of same here) but if there's no more kids there shouldn't be any more overpopulation, just drunken parties. That patented Cuarón sentimental mierda de caballo comes through in the form of Sandra Bullock's telescope designer's haunted past, which enables her to have a few scenes of big emotional crisis and acceptance. It's tacked on baby, like a poster of Rita Hayworth in reverse.

Salvation deferred (from top): Rita Hayworth (Bicycle Thieves),
Carey Mulligan (Llewyn), Marley Shelton (Bubble Boy)
Bicycle Thieves (AKA 'The Bicycle Thief') is not what most people think it is, where the dad makes so many bad decisions (like not keeping an eye on his bike) his first day putting up Rita Hayworth posters that he snaps at any hand that tries to feed him. I think its use as the gold standard of sentimental pathos-drenched Italian neorealism has cast it unfairly in the minds of those who've never seen it (such as myself up until a few years ago) as a sentimental sob story, the kind of thing enjoyed only by the bourgeois who feel seeing and making movies about poverty is an expression of benevolent social largesse (much of the Coens work seems a warped satire of this largesse -- Llewyn is playing at being depressed and poor - because it's 'in' - if he was really hungry he wouldn't hesitate to follow any suggestions that come his way.


What Bicycle Thieves is really is about is that the dad is the bad guy - he's got that poor person sense of entitlement, oh woe is me, to the point he refuses the gifts and advice offered because it conflicts with his idea of himself as a martyr, for example brushing aside the offered ticket for a free spaghetti dinner only to then spend his last few coins on a far less nice-a meal for him and his son. It makes the rich feel better in a way, perhaps, seeing this poor financial planning as evidence of a will to fail --these peasants can't walk away from their conception of themselves as poor and so throw away their chances at wealth (such as the mother paying her lest centavos on a fortune teller, you know, to see if they ever are going to have any money). The Coens stack the deck Vittorio De Sica fashion, and allow for lots of scenes of scruffy Llewyn hitchiking and trudging across the barren landscapes to Chicago to hit up a hotshot owner of the Cape of Horn, a big dusky club bedecked, like the Lamplight, with posters and memoranda. There's a lot of that memoranda here, a sense that the winsome wand of folk history shall not upon poor Llewyn's shoulder tap, with good reason. He's a oglum tempo pony, destined for the two for a dollar bin underneath the good stuff at Princeton Record Exchange. So there's no emotion, only perfectly modulated voice and guitar, rich with the idea he's impressing his listeners with the ability to fake 'realness.'

Brave Ulysses. aboard spaceship Glum Folkie 
The Coens have always been the Stanley Kubricks of the contemporary lit film, by 'lit film' I mean Carver-esque observational minor key rhythmic detail, dotted with quirky symbolism, all as critical in both illuminating the inner and outer life of the character, and so, us all. Nothing much happens in the film, except alienation and possible redemption, told in moments and observational imagery. Like a character in  James Joyce's Dubliners, Llewyn looks around outside his restrictive bubble nowhereland, but never escapes it, never trusts the oxygen will be there when he takes off his pressurized helmet. That said, he knows how to forgive an enemy with a kind of papal benedictory wave. Adios, Llewyn: Vietnam, rock, and LSD soon will wash your incumbent gloom clear away, the youth and academes will realize the easiest route to outer space is within - one needn't lug one's earth-dependent body along with them to see the universe. Unzip they yellow film shell and step out!


It's the body, in the end, that is the prison: its incessant whining for oxygen, its overreaction to desired stimuli in a self-sabotage loop; all the illusions of permanence it creates-- one magnificent gesture, unzipping the bubble to kiss the Chloe in BB; going over the cliff hand and hand rather than surrendering to the law, sticking your tongue out to receive that holiest of tab communions in HAIR, or throwing caution to the wind to rescue a cat, or even just preparing for your immanent death alone in an airless capsule, surrendering one's corporeality to get that last minute mirage of freedom, that's the one decision that actually makes a difference. The joyful participation in the sorrows of the universe can be yours if you just stop judging.


Egoic fear keeps us locked into our breathing patterns on instinct, huffing that oxygen shit down like it's water. Shit will fuck you up, man, get you addicted to the tree of woe like a masochist Conan. Become an oxygen junky and become a coward when death beckons. Why can't we all be like Jake Gideon and just float into the warm body bag embrace of Jessica Lange? Instead we're slaves to our lungs. We're descended via evolution from those who feared death, not the good dying young. We are the spawn of cowards who survived and procreated as a last ditch effort to stave off the reaper, and who reincarnate as soon as they can to try it again and again. Our genes themselves are afraid of floating in that clear black ether, you know, like a MAN would -- rejoining into the seamless endless lotus blossoming of the crown chakra like a cliff diver.

As I write this a rerun of SNL is playing on the TV behind me, it's Cee-Lo singing "Forget You." And suddenly the inescapable loop of karma clicks back in place like the revolution of the planet finally caught itself up back on the tape loop; any musician lucky enough to have a big hit (such as Cee-Lo's) is compelled then for the rest of his life to play that same song, the same way, stuck in amber, frozen in time to the one breakthrough moment, to let its original potency be distilled, pasteurized, for mass consumption. Let's Spend Some Time Together Now!

From there it's all downhill, to the eventual burying and VH1 resurrection. This is the brilliance of the digital tape. Even now we should be able to find Llewyn Davis' entire early 60s output with a few key words entered into Spotify, if he existed. We can recapture the feeling of those coffee houses through the countless live-in-the-West-Village recordings of the era, all remastered onto digital, a time when people could smoke indoors, were trusted to make their own decisions. But in doing so we see that Llewyn's world, where everyone waits in hushed reverence for him to finish his mundane songs, is strictly inside his own bubble, a prison of a thousand dimensions, one that paralyzes even Sandra Bullock's astronaut in a holding pattern rotation.

Reflections of / the way life used us.
Astronaut Ryan (Bullock) has more of the karmic awakening than either Llewyn or BB because Davis' latent empathy leaves him still a ways to go, and BB has his true love energy which is almost like cheating. Anyone can be brave when they're in love. But Ryan's journey actually reminded me a lot of the last few times I did serious meditation. For one thing, in order to really touch the holy white light of spiritual awakening there's a terrifying valley of lonesome shadow you have to pass through, 'the long dark night of the soul' - an initiation of sorts, to allow, with love, your entire egoic self construct to be ripped from you, shredded up, in the mandibles of clockwork reptile guardians. It is terrifying. It took me several attempts, but I got on the clockwork page - because when you transcend space and time at last everything seems clockwork like, interlocked turning wheels, because the idea of stasis is revealed as the illusion -- you are not hallucinating when you feel these reptilian guardian mandibles clicking their sprockets, running your soul through their teeth like film through a projector -- you WERE hallucinating when you didn't see or feel that. Now that you're awake you can feel the earth turning below you, as it really is doing; you're on a giant surfboard rock, hanging on by the treads of your feet as it spins in a slow motion tailspin rolling madly around the sun by an axis that always seems about to tilt the wrong way. The fear is so intense you actually have to go through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, to get to the white light

pulsing amniotic godhead, the orb, the giant egg of vibrational energy that is the sum total of all that is and has been and will be.

If you could look behind and ahead at the same time, you'd see that where you floated from is where you going to; it's not travel as we understand it in a 3-D space time context. You're on a different orbit now, a shorter one, the next track in on the holy mandala spinning LP wheel of life. That's all there is to it, you wind up right where you started. The track was always there, right next to the previous one, it's not like you ever changed albums, you just got conned into believing the first track was all there was. It's not like we die and go somewhere and come back, it's all the same life, because all this time you've just been sitting there in a lotus position, on a mattress or chair in your room, breathing and humming and that's all; you're just a vibration, a wave matrix. Chant long enough, resonate deep enough and you can untangle yourself completely back into the infinite AUM. The ultimate journey for Sandra Bullock's frightened astronaut is ultimately this. It doesn't involve having to be nice to external people; even George Clooney's fellow astronaut eventually seems to morph into the fabric of her psyche, animus as final gatekeeper to the divine; Bullock's real journey is the spiritual one, out in space no one can hear you whine, panic, argue, bargain, hyperventilate, or cast blame. There's no higher mom to cry to; the great thing about Bullock's master class performance here is that her gradual five stages process is so palpable we can almost feel the moments she begins to let go not just of her attachment to life but to her morbid attachment to death as well.


“History ... is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.” ― James Joyce, (Ulysses)

There's only two beings who really wake up from history in this strange world, those in love or on drugs, and meditation-doers-tryers -- or even better, all three at once. Such a trio is a great armor -- Jimmy in Bubble Boy, a weird holy power is given as the ego's fear response is short circuited and it dissolves in a rush of pleasure and obsession and giddiness and loss of appetite that transcends all the concrete skies and yellow depressive bubbles that separate our senses from the fullness of the world. As the Coens seem more concerned with torturing their heroes it's up to us to instill the hope, to reach into the screen with our compassion in ways we don't have to with the holy Cuarón, or in the bouncing Bubble Boy. The difference is all within, baby --it's your perceptions alone... or in the words of Eliot:
"We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison" 

The goal isn't to just not think of a key (almost impossible if you're told not to), but for us to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from the prison walls, the warden, the bars, the cot. You can still be yourself, but you are also your neighbor. You are also the world. Buenos Aires. is your right foot. Your urine stream is as Niagara Falls. Why not? That is letting go... that is what we mean, the obliteration of the phony separations... this is true peace.

So think not of the key and the thousand dimension prison dissolves behind you like a dizzy snore you have to take on your girlfriend's word is something you should see a doctor for; the astronaut comic books must be lifted from their protective mylar prisons and read... whether you rise or not when you pick your sandbag feet off the floor, matters little: the comic book will lose its pristine mint status but the helmet must come off, the fresh air must be breathed. It's as inevitable as falling.

And we will fall.


Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Carpenter Carpet Capsules: HALLOWEEN III, YOU'RE NEXT, MACHETE KILLS, THE OCTAGON

"For me it's simply an exercise in improvisation, since I can't read or write music - I just make it up as I go along. I think of the orchestral stuff as 'carpet' music - I lay a "carpet" under the scenes - it doesn't get in the way," -- John Carpenter (on scoring his own movies)
Horror has never been about moving forward, or being in the present, it's about the past reaching back up from the unclaimed freight basement to pull us back down, and so it's always the simple, insistent, slightly-off scores that wow us. A simple piano riff can send chills down a nation's spine, or a harmonica and single sustained twang of an electric guitar can blow our minds during a climactic western showdown. Ala, filmmakers hire 'real musicians' for their scores, which means complicated strings helicoptering over our shoulders, feeling every emotion on our behalf. As Carpenter's quote above makes clear, knowing too much about writing music and composing complex melodics can be a drawback with good horror and action movies. One crazy squiggling synth line or sustained Morricone guitar note is worth a dozen full-bodied orchestras. When Ennio gets too orchestral he just sounds schmaltzy, but when he simplifies - a girl moaning in turned-on fear, a Jew's harp, and a single chime, or whatever, it's the best thing in the world. You probably heard it in bands, too. The Beatles and the Stones are wondrously simple songwriters, every element stands out to create a unique and effective whole, but it is never about showing off all the stuff you learned in Juliard, the feeling that the more complex and emotional your piece is, the 'better' is a common error in the film scoring world, which is why all the best composers are self-taught, or DJs rather than classical violinists. I digress! Let's look at these four films I've seen the last few days, united by badass music scores if nothing else.

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH
1982 - Written and Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
**1/2
Great as a score can make an otherwise average film, a few terribly ill-advised passages can take just as many stars away, which is why the beloved Jaws theme of John Williams is undone by the jaunty pirate shanty played when the boys sail off on the Orca. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) winds up right where it started, because while the score is one of those great John Carpenter-Alan Howarth percolators, rich with the same kind of 303 cyclic rumblings and unease-producing synth drones that are so mind-blowing and ingeniously simple in Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York, there are some shrill notes here that are less fun and less carpet-like and more like nails on a blackboard, liable to aggravate your tooth fillings, including the diegetic TV commercial jingle for the Silver Shamrock mask collection (a "London Bridge is Falling Down" if remade by Raymond Scott in his "Music for Baby" phase) that plays nonstop until you want to smash your TV or the face of writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace (Carpenter's Christian Nyby). This shrill unscary bouncy headache music plays over some otherwise superlatively unsettling trick-or-treating shots as the sun goes down in an array of Los Angeles suburbs (onscreen text declares they are other cities but they're clearly all the same neighborhood); elsewhere it sounds like a five year-old trying to duet with a car alarm on a triangle.

Supposedly Nigel Kneale, the genius behind Quartermass and the Pit, started writing the script for this but wound up taking his name off. It's clear whomever came up with the concept didn't understand Halloween or how we in the USA consider a shamrock anachronistic in any month but March. Maybe Silver Shamrock could have sold Guy Fawkes masks and have this be set in Britain? That might make more sense (Britain doesn't have Halloween). The jingle could have been "always remember / the fifth of November / because you'll be dead / just five days earlier" --I just made that up and it's still way better! A lot of this film's detractors glide over all that to focus on the lack of Michael Myers. I have no problem with it, but I do have a problem with being expected to believe anyone would want a giant shamrock button affixed on the back of their Halloween mask like they were just down at the St. Patrick's Day parade, and neither would they want to be one of only three mask options. "Don't you have any Halloween spirit?" a bar patron asks when the proprietor changes the channel from the awful commercial. What the hell does "London Bridges" with a bouncing shamrock have to do with goddamned Halloween spirit?


I hadn't deigned to see this since first hating on it back in the 80s when it premiered on TV, and even then, as a kid, the illogic of the plot made it hard to follow, but I've been reading good things on the internet --ooh you should give it a second chance blah blah ---well, I'm glad I did, for the most part BUT there's a lot of dumb decision-making involved with the central gimmick: the idea of using a shamrock to sell designer Halloween masks is just the iceberg tip: the villain's plans hinge on every kid in America sitting around the house at nine PM, wearing a stifling latex mask while watching TV to wait for the 'big giveaway' --there's no clear reason why or how the masks would help one get a prize for watching, and no kid is going to sweat it out in a hot latex mask watching TV for more than a minute at a time; and it gets worse, Silver Shamrock makes only three mask types for Halloween--skull, pumpkin, and a witch (for the girls)--and no kid is going to see a selection of three lame masks and think, gee- I'd love to look exactly like a third of my class in some atypical uninteresting mask. One of the frustrated buyers at the motel complains that her four year-old was playing with the mask and the shamrock design logo chip fell off -- who the freak cares? Will people not get scared if the label falls off your ghostly bed sheet?

Ho ho Ho! Merry Xmas! 
I never squawk about dream logic or inconsistency in general, but here they pile up so fast that they strain incredulity. And I squawk here because I wish there were more great early John Carpenter films; I wish this was one of them and parts are, such as the typically refreshing and Carptenter-ish no-nonsense hotel hook-up between mystified Dr. Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin, the daughter of an early victim of killer automaton-like agents of Silver Shamrock, and there's some good use of tick-tock momentum -the sense of the hotel room as a base of operations where the pair hook up and plan their attack but another demerit for the tiresome cliche of his ex-wife Linda, who we most often hear badgering him on the phone about missing junior's recital or whatever the hell- it's shrill and unneeded, generating the kind of rote bad vibes lesser directors feel they need, but Hawks and usually Carpenter avoid such nonsense; also the cheap shock of the penultimate robot attack that rolls against most all logic and whatever affection may have come over us for this cute, easygoing and Hawksian chick. And our respect for the way Atkins handles himself on the tour is lost when he thinks he should go use the Santa Mira hotel phone to call the cops, after learning from the bum he met that the Shamrock controls everything via cameras and bugged phones!  He seems surprised when the call doesn't go through. Come on, dude! You're throwing my good faith right out the window.


But if you can forget all the ridiculous nonsense, whole chunks of the film have the groovy Carpenter vibe, especially when it's just Atkins and Nelkin driving and hanging out in their room, bluffing their way into tours of the factory with the aplomb of a pair of Hitchcockian lovers-on-the-run. Even freaked out and scared as they might be, they're cool, rational, adult, and no drama. Atkins' shaggy Nick Nolte-ish charm in full effect, "It's getting late, I could go for a drink," how often do you hear a shaggy dog hero of a horror movie say that and have it not be a sign he's an alcoholic? I like that even after they shag he's going out late to score a bottle of booze, just like I would have done, and remembering the ice bucket on his way back too, too, --that's the kind of shit Carpenter probably added --and the cute hook-up where even the nudity and showering is emotionally grounding and nice rather than just merely exploitative and I love the cool dead isolation the Northern California town in the setting sun and utter stillness at night--a lowdown town recalling the wastelands of Assault on Precinct 13, They Live and Prince of Darkness, and near no interesting park or lake; I've driven through--as that awesome music plays, that shit's all primo gold. As the evil genius mastermind Cochran, Dan O'Herlihy exudes great Celtic charm that can oscillate to reptilian evil without showiness -- his whole countenance seems to shape-shift and the cheery paternal charm in his voice drops away to reveal a base line of unperturbed malevolence -- he does after all plan to kill almost all the children in the USA. "It's a joke, you see, on the children!" He even gets in a great creepy monologue about the 'real' Halloween and the last time such a large sacrifice occurred, and "the streets ran red with the blood of animals and children... In the end, we don't decide these things, you know, the planets do. They're in alignment. And it's time again."


I suppose it's wishful thinking to hope for a 'producer's cut' that replaces the anachronistic elements and makes the penultimate anticlimax less dispiriting (by which I hope you understand I do NOT mean less apocalyptic and 'horrifying,' just nicer to the spirit of the Hawks-Carpenterian feminine and less a kind of last minute El Dorado-style abandoning of originality to just homage in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and hope for the best). Alas - fans of the first Halloween--and even the second-- still hated it, even so.  I've got no problem that Michael Myers exists only on TV here, and I'm a fan of nightmare logic--I love Argento and Fulci in my fashion--but the technology in Halloween III is fundamentally flawed even within a fairytale/nightmare context. The problems run deep, a guy with a mask on chasing a kid, unmasked, with a knife, is scary but a TV show killing a mass amount of kids wearing masks is not --it's too abstract --we have to see their faces, know their names, see them scared but brave, and come to like them like we do Billy and Lindsey in the first film. The kids here are all pretty one-dimensional cliches, and once the masks are on, they more or less cease to matter.

Luckily, there's that carpet.

Dig the subliminal VHS box retro vibe (the carpet lip almost a spine crease)
YOU'RE NEXT (2011)
****
Getting back to the idea of the right, simple but strong carpet being so integral to horror, You're Next has one of the best in recent memory-- a vaguely retro synth 303 burbling, eerie drones that are unnerving but never annoying-- it's enough to give one hope for horror's future-past, not that You're Next is exactly horror as opposed to a 'thriller'--there's no repressed to return--but it's certainly creepy, not least for the way we don't know whom to trust or root for and everyone is characterized in a way that's both sympathetic and the reverse, like real people, a family who can devolve into shouting matches at the drop of a pin and be calm a minute later- like my family! The cast is great and I can't really tell you anything else without spoiling it. AJ Bowen, whom I did not care for in Ti West's otherwise nearly sublime House of the Devil, is pitch perfect here, and Ti West himself shows up as one of the heirs. Also appearing is Calvin Reeder who made the genuinely nightmarish and surreal near-sublime The Oregonian (review here), and Larry Fessenden, whom I did not care for as the smug hipster hotelier, chickenshit ghost-hunter, and lame wooer in West's The Innkeepers. But I hear good things about his horror film, Habit. As long as he combs and occasionally washes his hair in future outings, we should be fine.

My brother Fred had that same brass rubbing (far right)
I haven't seen any of Missouri filmmaker Adam Wingard's other films either, but they look like a grim lot. You're Next was completed in 2011 but wasn't released here 'til last year, which is a goddamned shame as this is a future classic. Scrappy Sharni Vinson is a great final-ish girl, full of wily Australian gumption and I love that none of the characters are entirely sympathetic or unsympathetic; it works because it recalls not just classics of the 70s and 80s, but classics of the 30s, i.e. the old dark house full of secret panels, greedy relatives gathered for the will, lightning storms, scary masks, strong female leads and a refreshing lack of any moral compass. What else can I tell you that wouldn't spoil what may be the best thriller-chiller since The Descent? Or at least, Cabin in the Woods? What a treat having 80s cult horror favorite Barbabara Campton as the mom - you may remember her as the badass dominatrix from From Beyond! She still looks damn good.

Barbrara Crampton - top - You're Next (2011), bottom: From Beyond (1986)
MACHETE KILLS!!
2013 - ***1/2
Hard to believe now, but there was a time I found Sofia Vargara shrill and grating --her deafening voice and exaggerated English enunciation brought back memories of my Argentine ex-wife making fun of Yankee accents -- but in Machete Kills! Vagara tones it down as a violent madame of a high end Mexican brothel, able to modulate a playful dominatrix simmer into a vengeful cannibal trash cinema boil without ever waking the frog, as it were, or hurting my ears, thus earning my devotion now and forever. Even the sophomoric breastplate machine gun couldn't dampen my awe.

So hell yeah Roberto Rodriguez is still in the game, only getting younger as he ages, he's at the point now where Carpenter used to be, but hasn't been since Ghosts of Mars. Planet Terror isn't only the better of the two Grindhouse films, it's one of my favorite trash films ever --it's up there in my esteem with the greats, like a combo of Spider Baby, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, and City of the Living Dead and I liked Machete, too, but Kills! is even ballsier; it has less to prove, throwing aside even the usual revenge boilerplate plot and going for a Machete in Space Part 1 angle (the second part being advertised in the opening trailer) having Machete recruited by the president (Emilio Estevez's brother Carlos, taking the mantle from their West Wing father); Amber Heard, tight like a noose as Miss San Antonio; Lady Gaga as top shelf assassin El Camaleón --with Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Walton Goggins some of her thousand faces--but perhaps the coolest and most original angle is that the premiero uno (Damien Bashiro) of the bad guys has a split personality, only one of which is a suicidal psychotic killer, and has a missile launch activator button attached to his heart, triggered to fire missiles at the White House and Russia if he should die or try to defuse it; so Machete ends up going to ludicrous extremes to keep him alive, which all leads to high hilarity and ballsy greatness culminating with Mel Gibson as a light saber-wielding hybrid of Steve Jobs and Drax from Moonraker.


Like the marvelous Planet Terror (which had a great 'carpet' score reminiscent of both the best Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi) there's a great score by Rodriguez and collaborator Carl Thiel here, with musical and/or deigetic nods to: They Call Her One Eye, Skyfall, Live and Let Die, Rolling Thunder, High Risk, Escape from LA, The Professionals, Drive, Coffy, Switchblade Sisters, The Warriors, Enter the Dragon, The Five Deadly Venoms, as well as Lucha Libre, Fantastic Four (the John Byrne-era comics, not the movies) and of course Star Wars, which Gibson's Drax-Jobs loves so much he even has a working X-34 Landspeeder. It's all here, all Mexicanized, and and like Planet Terror, stacked with a hot girl cast rocking nice midriffs. Hold up, you say, that sounds sexist. Yes, but the liberal arts-feminist squirmer like myself found nothing offensive, for Rodriguez loves strong women the way Jack Hill, or Hawks, or Russ Meyer does, i.e. free of corny John Ford sentiment, children, bossy buzzkill safety-first harridanism, sleazy objectification, or last minute bad faith male dependence. I bet, for example, Pauline Kael would have loved Machete Kills, and Molly Haskell still might. Rodriguez's women get whole monologues to assert their power and independence and the actresses relish every syllable. Like the casts in Hawks, Hill, and Carpenter films, everyone seems to be having a grand time on set, and very little looks like CGI or Hollywood pasteurized; the great Tom Savini is once again on hand to make sure blood splatters the old fashioned way, and every head is on straight before it's sliced off. Explosions are often rendered through ye olde drive-in trailer super-imposition variety, and RR leaves the blue outlines in, as the nature of non-digital superimposition demands, and that we fans love, and the color is rich and vivid like a restored Corbucci. It ends on a cliffhanger ala The Street Fighter, Kill Bill, or Nymphomaniac, but by then I felt pretty sated, bloodlust-wise. You should too. 'lessen you're a commie. 'Cuz the film's only made back half it's budget so far --will the sequel be unbroken? 

THE OCTAGON
(1980) - **1/2

There was a time when Chuck Norris was every kid's friend. We'd all seen him jump up as a car is trying to run him down and kick the driver through the windshield on a TV commercial that played constantly during our cartoons in 1978 for Good Guys Wear Black. We all wanted to see it, and could -- it was PG. But it sucked - the cool parts were all in the commercial - there were, as I recall when we finally rented it in the early 80s, about two fights in the entire film! So then came The Octagon, this time rate R, ooh ooh. And though there are more fights and it has a certain cedar sauna charm and is on Netflix streaming and looks reasonably remastered for HD - and it's dorky fun enough for a low key rainy Saturday afternoon or day off from work, while you clean your guns.


And best of all, it's deadpan funny-paranoid. The ominous lack of music, weird looks, close-ups of keys all portend some dire action is about to erupt any moment, but is it just that Norris is a terrible actor, unable to convey any emotion, or say anything of interest, and the car keys exchanged are the best he can do in his delicate fighting condition by way of Hawksian cigarettes and drinks with the Jess Franco-ishly named Justine (Karen Carlson), a Patty Hearst-ish composite heiress with more than a faint air of Ellen Burstyn. And the mercs working for Lee Van Cleef (hired as her bodyguard) are all great rugged cowboy character actors--they probably tied up Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch a dozen times each--and there's romance blooming as Norris looks out for Justine, too, but since Norris can't smoke or drink he pays for it in jumpiness: a mop handle looming into the foreground and rattles him like it's a bo staff in some yet unseen assassins gloved hands - a car backfiring rattles Justine and therefore him. And he has a problem of stutter-echoing his inner thoughts. How do I know? Because we get to hear them-em-em-em. Here's a sample:
"A.J.-j-j-, Justine-ne-ne, you wouldn't even know each other-r-r-r if not for me-me-me- I'm the bridge-ge-ge. It's not too late-e-e."

Dick Halligan's loping score, when it does show up, pilfers from Ennio Morricone, but at least he's stealing from the best. Still, it's kind of a bummer watching Norris spending the bulk of the movie refusing to help various women who beseech his aid in killing a terrorist ninja trainer, just because said trainer just happens to be his own brother. It's cool that the mercs being trained by the ninjas finally get weary of the abuse and when they see their supposed leader being a coward in a one-on-one with Chuck, needing four ninjas on his side plus unfair weapon advantage, they turn on the guards and start kicking ass, led by the hot furry Palestinian trainee named Aura (Carol Bagdasarian).



For all the hype, Norris is a slow fighter. We have to take his word, roundhouse kicks aside, that he's actually a black belt in anything, but that's okay. Maybe he doesn't want to accidentally hurt any of his stunt men so sacrifices ever coming close to genuinely connecting a punch, and most of the fights take place on sand, or in carpeted domiciles so no one seems to get hurt when they fall either, but it's diverting to see the ninjas pop up out of the torch-lit outer darkness from sandy holes under freshly laid corpses and so forth, compelling me to wonder if they just hang out in there all night in case a Chuck happens by.  Sounds rather dull. The Octagon itself is just a space where ninjas are trained in some deleted scene; it's sandy floor, and wooden beams that are varnished by the time of the final fight, giving everything a dusky cedar sauna look like the clinic in Cronenberg's The Brood. If you like rustic wood finish and cozy exteriors, see them as a double feature, and spray some bleach and patchouli in the air, you'll think you're soaking in it. And isn't that what good bad trash movies are all about-out-out?