Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Jong who stole Christmas: THE RING around the ROSEWATER (or I'm dreaming / of a BLACK MIRROR)

"What you have to do is enter the fiction of America, enter America as fiction. It is, indeed, on this fictive basis that it dominates the world." ---Jean Baudrillard
“Nothing says solid like a cloud,” - Jon Hamm 
If Baudrillard was alive today he'd be rolling around in his grave, trying to claw his way out of the earthen simulacrum, because a Palm d'coco de oro treatise on today's events would write itself. The sheer 'told you so' power (he declared the image had replaced the real as the dominant paradigm in modern society) would revive him to live another thousand digital ages. His quote above was made a long long time before today, the day our theater chains surrendered to a virtual terrorist and the dominos tumbled and a pair of stoner comedians created the most bizarre post-modern international incident since WikiLeaks. It's more post-modern than a Julian Assange biopic leaked on the internet and satirized by SNL.
The post-modern satirized be future shall happens!
Actually, there is no precedent for something like this at all... at least not in 'real' life, but as this incident makes clear, real life has been eclipsed by the virtual. The only TV show that seems real enough its surreal dystopian nightmare reflection of our internet age's inevitable progress acceleration future is the BBC TV series BLACK MIRROR. I've been sticking their logo over every picture I can find (above and below) in an attempt to situate the surreal events of today (and yesterday) in a context by which their high strangeness might be grasped. In 'real life' for example Sony has been extra-dimensionally skewered --a 3D sword sticking through a 2D movie screen simulacrum--the alleged giant kowtowing to the ornery David while it struggles to shake off the disorientation from being sling-shotted. It's just a dumb comedy, after all. But Americans all implicitly understand that comedy is serious business especially since thug dictatorships--like militant feminists and fundamentalist extremists--tend to not understand the complexity of satire or critique or even how fiction works. If you make an action film with a bad guy saying he wants to kill the president, they might arrest the actor who said it, for example. Or accuse the director of terrorism. Witness the directorial debut of Jon Stewart, ROSEWATER, about a British-Iranian journalist detained and tortured by the Iran govt. after being interviewed by a Stewart show correspondent Jason Jones pretending to be a stereotypical cold war CIA spook.

Meanwhile there's a show that came out this past Tuesday on BBC Channel 4, a 78 minute BLACK MIRROR Christmas special and it makes the nightmare post-modern digital-internet worlds conjured by the first two seasons seem like Candyland. It even puts Jon Hamm through the ringer. Have those Brits no mercy? Is this what happens when you let atheism get in the way of peace of mind? What is Christmas even mean when such things can happen in "the world."?

This was a time for America to put its ass where it's mouth is, and stand up to a Napoleonic complex bully who talks really big but has limp missiles. But when that same kid uses the very TV-media-internet complex you see him on against you, grabs you right through it and shuts off your lights like Samara in THE RING, then you better do what people had to do to avoid being dragged down the well by Samara in that film --show someone else that weird avant garde film she made with her mind, or in this case the reverse, not show anyone the film you made about how her art is pretentious. I mean, do I dare say it is? A ladder? A woman on the cliff? What is she, Maya Deren?

I'll shut up. In case she's right now snaking through the intricate back alleys of the web and on her way towards me. Just to avoid it, here's the video!

What BLACK MIRROR "White Christmas" trades on is more of an eternal Buddhist hell vibe, making the idea of eternal torment through sheer maddening boredom and stasis (as being trapped in a virtual simulacrum world for centuries and centuries with nothing to do and no need to sleep or eat) feel horrifyingly tangible in ways Christian imagery of flames and pitchforks (or enemas and electroshock) just can't match. The recently released CIA torture report is, by contrast, a lark. And Samara's killing habit seems merciful. After all, there's no one watching once Samara's victims are taken. They don't have any demon with a sackcloth waiting just off camera to grab their freed souls before they can swim up to the white light, and keep them trapped in the well with them for ten thousand centuries. I know that because--this we are at this time sure of--Samara Morgan isn't 'real' and Naomi Watts, our post-modern mother of mirrors is really scared of her.

More terrifying than a thousand Jasons
But that doesn't allay our terror, the fear of having our one place of amniotic safety--the screen, the 'black mirror' (i.e. you can see your reflection when it's off)--used against us. Beyond just VERTIGO-style deja vu flashes of being Jimmy Stewart still hanging from the infinite height of the infinite Saul Bass roof gutter, I learned today all about the true nightmare that's just a couple decades of technology away. It's already too late to even think about going off-grid to escape it. You'd only wake the demons with the sackcloths: "We got another runner." Best to just wait and be a good boy and be nice to animals and children, and full of prayer and wise oaths, then when the modern instance of your death comes, go quietly and race with all your might towards that white light.. Because at any moment, someone could just switch you into the grid, or just hit pause.

So I'm going to bed and actually pray. Because in the words of the great Curtis Mayfield, "if there's a hell below / we're all / going to go."

On vinyl, invincible

Man, though, could he play guitar. "Move on Up" alone is proof we've got a friend upstairs. French intellectuals like Baudrillard can note America's fictive dominance, but if there's one thing we know, it's how to stay funky and close to the lord even as the flames of perdition consume us, be they Christian, Buddhist, or Hollywood's. After all, we have done our share of consuming, it's only fair we be consumed too, in the end. That's karma -- cuz everything you do / you do it to you. So c'mon Buddha, c'mon Jesus, c'mon Elijah, c'mon Krishna, c'mon St. Michael, St. Anthony, and St. Francis, St. Vincent. Save us from the horrifying fate of being blocked, cloned, or duplicated, or digitized. Yea as we walk through the Uncanny Valley towards our full pixelation, we call on you, SWEET EXORCIST... on vinyl!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Retrofuturist Pharma III: The "Metatextual Cigar" Edition: ASCENSION, VENTURE BROS, SNOWPIERCER + the Plastic-Fantastic World of Kim Jong Un

While the weirdest war of isolated 'fake' reality constructs-- a Hollywood stoner comedy about killing a dictator vs. a dictator whose constructed his own fantasy that's stuck in the past-- we have on a TV mini-series about an 'experiment' in social isolation, Syfy's ASCENSION!

The latest astro-swinger pad fantasia deftly commingles MAD MEN's early 60s cocktail sexist classist intrigue on a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's space ark, post-modern indoor beaches, nice space views, reclinable chairs, oxygen masks for turbulence (or radiation belts), sexy stewardesses, lower deck resentment of the first class passengers ala SNOWPIERCER, and so on. Because this is no ordinary NOAH-in-space ark, this ain't your daddy's space ark, or rather it is exactly his space ark. It took off in 1963 and neither their sexism nor clothing has changed since. So while we're all post-post everything down here, they're like a space version of the Amish, stuck at the RIGHT STUFF barbecue. It's a ginchier bigger-budgeted better written version of SPACE STATION 76 which came out this year as well, the same year BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW showed up on Netflix streaming! In short, it really is retro-futurism's time, if that wasn't an anachronism (see part 1, and part 2) . It's also TWIN PEAKS-y, as the focus is a Laura Palmer-esque girl's murder--that stirs up the soapy sediment as the ship passes year 51 of its 100 year mission to some far-off galaxy.

I got sucked into watching it last night via Syfy showing INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), which never fails to get me teary-eyed and proud to be an American, alcoholic, and human, in that order. And sure it's crypto-fascist Reagan-esque dogma, but so what? Jeff Goldblum walking back from their crashed saucer in the white salt flats, his macho fey hips swaggering in that flight suit with the cigar and Will Smith at his side, while a flaming UFO burns behind them? Perhaps the sexiest image of the entire 90s. Smith got the credit but it's just as much Goldblum's movie--both are in tippy top form and bring out new depths in each other--and for once the wives are more than just hovercraft --the president's wife (Mary McDonnell --she'd become a de facto actual president in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) is rescued by a a proudly non-cliche'd stripper mom (Vivica A. Fox), Goldblum's ex is a presidential aide (Margaret Colin - never better). And everyone gets to hang out together, from the drunkest yokel to the most brassed up general. And most of all, it's Reagan's dream come true, at last, the nations of the world putting aside petty differences to fight the alien threat. But best of all, no Reagan as prez. Bill Pullman instead! That's a leader we can all get behind.

I was going to change the channel after but ASCENSION cleverly slid into place before the ID credits of could even start rolling, it's own blast from the past we're all one planet now, a speeding locomotive or space ship crucible --and I was crying too hard by then, 'not until the fat lady sings' cigar smoke in my eyes, to find the remote and thus avoid another dippy Syfy-Canadian joint, But having been all up in the retro-futurist thing, how could I switch up a few clicks on the old time machine? I like how they explore the idea of how damaging it must be to one's psyche living an entire life in a giant spacecraft, doomed to never have to go outside and play, or learn to drive a stick. But on the good side, it's an environment free of urban blight, STDs, and racism, though with a rigid class system keeping things 'in order' of the oppressive sort most white people only get to generally experience walking angrily past first class to our miserable G27 aisle seat.

Cementing the Syfy connection is the indefatigable Tricia Helfer (Cylon #6- the girl in the red dress on all the posters for BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) as an enigmatic head stewardess / politico / master planner (top) who connives and controls her ambitious but weak-willed captain husband. Helfer is amazing. Tall, statutesque, blonde, gorgeous with just enough Nordic alien hybrid to her TV star vibe. But she's not the overall focus. It's Laura Pal--I mean Lorelai Wright (Amanda Thomson), a Megan Fox-esque bitch sleeping with, apparently, everyone. Her mom meanwhile has secrets, too, and the killer skulks around during radiation storms in a big hazmat suit like the killer in GREEN FOR DANGER. And the black cop (Brandon Bell) struggles to get answers; his mom (?) works at the library that also rents out movies on disc (?) and tells her son to check out the works of Lang and Hitchcock to help him catch the killer. Bonus points!

The fantasy in ASCENSION, SNOWPIERCER, NOAH and INDEPENDENCE DAY is to smash through the TRUMAN'S SHOW-ish God complex-brand Ed Harris / Kim Jong Un/Jaweh-ishness of our miserable overcrowded lives. It's a an idea common to dreams and science fiction: the fantasy of one day being able to scale back the sheer overpopulated, polluted, fucked in the head society we live in--to go back into the past, make it all locally sourced and small business and somehow recapture the essence of what we lost as a tribe -- especially heterosexual white dudes old enough to remember all the shit their father got away with, and who feel resentful they don't get away with the same amount of sexist crap, but at the same time we don't even own a tie, let alone need a whole rack of them, so gather ye perks while ye may. But to have the social order openly privileging us again, and to live in a cool space craft and drink martinis served by hotties in sexy outfits while stars spin by outside -- it's like Windows on the World or Crystal Peak, you know... the old "animals could be bred and...slaughtered" skidoo and--and there's a great twist ending that makes a great metaphor for what Salvia Divinorum is like if you know how to meet it halfway. Cuz who knows what weird things are waiting for us by the time we get to Arizona?

It's space, man... it's in the air. And we are made of dreams dreamt a million years ago by a serpentine morass of DNA scary enough to make Carpenter's THE THING shit its pants. And we're still evolving and morphing and spinning madly through the abyss like Prometheus lashed to a giant golf ball that will never land.

I used to be quietly fascinated by the Cartoon Network show, THE VENTURE BROS., which is like a queer Crystal Peak version of JOHNNY QUEST, with a well-constructed bizarro world retrofuturist vibe in which a bald ectomorph named Dr. Venture is the genius scientist son of the kind of square-jawed super dad space race titan of industry that Tony Stark had, and who's left his son this gigantic retrofuturistic scientific research center, laden with faded modular relics from the early days of the space race. There's a few things that irk me and are why I stopped watching after a scant five seasons, though, like the insistence on gross bathroom humor that seems needlessly tacked on and which, thanks to my overly acute imagination and super-sensitive nerves, I perceive way too vividly and so can't really endure it unless I'm half-anesthetized upon the Usher crypt table, which luckily is how I spend a good deal of my life. That windy sentence said, if you're the type who can handle scatological humor, and loves the retrofuturism as I do, then know that it's on Cartoon Network, ready for the Pretty Polly plucking. There's a hybrid Kissinger-Mary Poppins, a foxy supervillainess with a voice like Harvey Fierstein, a magician who holds ayahuasca parties and his sexy narcoleptic daughter and his power animal voiced by H. Jon Benjamin who lives in her closet; a sex-changed Hunter S. Thomson working undercover as a female stripper; a bodyguard with a mullet and a shoebox full of Led Zeppelin cassettes; and even a secret sub-basement of mutants presided over by that weird haired haired singer of that old Brit band Prodigy. That's just off the tip of my head.

So savor the rich attention to retrofuturist space race Questian detail, the weird streak of semi-closeted gay stuff, and the brilliant idea that supervillains and superheroes have come to terms with their interdependence, and taken steps to ensure each other's continuation, and let the sweet lull of HD widescreen TV make everything that was old new again, even America... in the early 60s... as seen through Big Brother eyes... of Canadians.

Or super cool South Koreans.

SNOWPIERCER (2013, but released in the states this year) is directed by South Korean son Bong Joon-Ho, who directly addresses the brutal need for mass murder at the core of overpopulation and global warming, and how pulling the plug on the whole damned tub of foul humanity may just be the most heroic thing we can do. In the film's post-apocalyptic ice age landscape, Earth has frozen solid and the only surviving life is crowded onto a giant speeding train that rarely slows down and just races around in crazy circles across the frozen tundra, mile after mile, years measured by laps around the course, like a solar-powered silver bullet serpent pecking order -- the lower classes herded like concentration camp detainees in the rear of the train, fed bricks of gelatinous gunk, and subjected regularly to harsh brutality by a police force led by a bespectacled Tilda Swinton. The front of the train holds the elite, and the very head of the train holds the 'engineer' - Wilford (Ed, 'it's all for you, Truman' Harris) who makes the rules and lives high on the hog. The rear is presided over by filthy leftist John Hurt, and his right hand muscle, Chris 'Captain America' Evans.

They stage a revolt, which involves fighting (in Bong's favorite style: claw hammers in tight quarters) from car to car, each new car a shock or surprise as--among other things--the filthy urchins get to try sushi for t the first time, and see just what sort of micro-livestock they've been eating all their lives. It's a brilliant, existential critique of everything from the rigged 'real truth' behind war, to conservative brainwashing, jet set decadence, reproduction's insidious con job, and class warfare. Watch it on your Kindle before boarding your Xmas plane, and see if you don't want to take a swing at one of the first class douchebags you pass on your way to coach, and go down swinging rather than sitting cramped in your seat for another 30 years and not lighting up your Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum victory dance cigar because they don't allow smoking any more on planes. You think Kim Jong Un wouldn't light that cigar? The 'No Smoking' sign went out as soon as the aliens attacked, General!

Bong's film didn't really come into any kind of theatrical release here until this year, so I'm quietly folding it in with NOAH. INTERSTELLAR and ASCENSION to make grand points about our longing to get some friends together, pack up, and head off world, for a chance to begin again while the whole shit-house below goes up in Rekall-implanted digital flames behind us. Witness the latest slimy moves of Wall street and Republicans today and tell me they all shouldn't be frozen by reverse global warming or burned in a sea of fire, or at least left behind in a shower of Matthew McConaughey sparks! Instead they'll probably have golden ark tickets. That's the depressing reality- that even in our imaginations we're third class citizens forced back into steerage, like John Cusak and his 2012 band of stow-away freeloaders. But at least if we're in the right movie we can maybe bash those first class passengers with a hammer real good. As long as we remember to do it onscreen, of course, and have the wisdom to know the difference. 

NOAH even agrees. In Ridley Scott's film, Russell Crowe's plan is for his family to be the last surviving humans, and die out with grace after setting the animals post-flood free, because humanity is a vile plague, with greed and malice fueling a continual destructive turbulence wherever it flourishes.  But even then, his liberal shit of a son is sheltering the vilest of humans in the back of the ship. "My father Enoch told me that one day," Russell Crowe says, "if man continued his ways, The Creator would annihilate this world." Well that's some Creator you got, Russell, blaming all but two giraffes for the crimes of their cagers. This almighty Creator should really look in the mirror, or stick to something like a human-only plague next time, ala the forthcoming TV series version of 12 MONKEYS or the PLANET OF THE APES series, so the animals can roam free down the city streets rather than being cramped up with each other, seasick and with no room to even take a shit for over 40 days and nights.

NOAH's virtual water
Let 'The Creator' suck, then, on our own willingness to wipe ourselves out (at least virtually) before He gets a chance, or can stop us, yet again. Let us get the last laugh and a middle finger raised, the victory dance cigar (or cigar wrapped blunt) smoked before we're wiped out by His humorless petty wrath. If He can't take a joke, it's by jokes we defeat Him.

How bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to, goes the garbled threats to Sony. But, if terror's all we ever get, then terror better learn to loosen the fuck up. Because we're coming for it, with all the CGI and stoners we can muster. We put the props in propaganda, Kim, and we will bury you in unsold DVDs of THE GUILT TRIP. Activate... Mecha-Streisand... and George Burns forgive us.


POSTSCRIPT 12-18-14: Sony backed off. The real has been eclipsed by the virtual - and watching it unfold on CNN, followed BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS and the final episode ASCENSION was a post-modern triple threat that has completely broken my sense of self, America, Don Geiss, and hope. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

BLACK MIRROR: Handle with Care

I'm a big fan of 70s-80s sci fi dystopia films because they show a world of space age outfits, modular furniture, free love, gigantic computers--which is reassuring as none of that happened --maybe humanity will triumph over itself after all! But then a show like BLACK MIRROR comes along and sneak attacks me right in the screen-screen-screen criss-crossed world I "live" in (computer at work, cell phone while traveling, TV at home). The world suddenly vanishes behind me, as worlds will once you cross into new ones. Since we don't need to go out anymore, the 'out' ceases to exist. The entire planet becomes indoors; a vast maze of living and work cubicles powered by exercise bikes; full-wall screens instead of windows. Surround sound, surround screens, and everyone shouting and everything paid for by 'merits' we can follow onscreen as they rise and fall with every step (each squeeze of toothpaste a merit,  as does each FF past a commercial). In this crazy world even closing your eyes to an ad costs merits and if we don't have them a shrill noise permeates your 'room' until we open our eyes again, so the commercial can resume. And that's just one grim future outlined on this crazy BBC IV TV show.

In other words, as far as nightmare dystopian parables, BLACK MIRROR is twenty years ahead of its closest neighbors and that it's on Netflix streaming is just too perfect as far as metatextuality. Watch and be warned, though: This show questions the very presence of media in your life in ways I know I, personally, wasn't quite ready for. The show has left a burnished patina of dread to my life; the usual amniotic safety of the widescreen HD image is no longer so reassuring. There's no magic at work, no hallucinations, no monsters in BLACK MIRROR - just sci fi-tinged but believable parables about where we're headed with the light speed advancements in digital media and advertising saturation, and maybe it's already too late to change. Maybe all those contracts we clicked 'I accept' on have quietly stripped us of 'real' self, like watching a commercial for the swinging pendulum from the couch-strapped pit, as thousands of avatars cheer from nearby screens, or the razor coming at your eye in a Dali or Fulci film right as you find yourself having left the last few scraps of 'reality' behind and entered the no-exit image, trapped in a nightmare feedback loop. It's a feeling I had forgotten about, safe in my mediated womb, a feeling I know only from the few times I took way way too much acid back in the 80s. But this show's got my womb all cased out and they're not afraid to cut right in with the cesarian scalpel.

The Channel 4 
If you're new to the series, I'd suggest what I was recommended: Don't start with the first episode of the first season, it's a bit disturbing, disgusting, and ultimately pointless. Save it for last, for one final sucker punch on your way out. Start with the last episode of the first season (there's only three episodes per season, ah the BBC) "The Entire History of You," then move through season 2 in order. ("White Bear" is my favorite), and then the second and then first episode of the first season. I can't tell you much more as they're all best approached cold, as "they" say. The really devastating, unbelievably on-point one is episode two, "Fifteen Million Merits." It still haunts me.

And the most terrifying part: it's all coming true faster than we can stop it. Just pressing this link here to see them on the Channel 4 (or on Netflix for a mere 8 merits a month) implicates you in the problem... I... think you should... wait. No I don't. Never mind and have a lovely day... Run! Their Xmas special with Jon Hamm premieres next week, if you got the BBC 

Thursday, December 04, 2014


I was a young kid when ALIEN (1979) came out, too young to see it in theaters and VHS wasn't out yet and we knew it would be edited to death when it finally came to the ABC Movie of the Week, so it was all but lost to us, except through the blanched faces of the adults who'd seen it, and "survived." We could try to read the novelization, maybe, but we weren't up to that level of reader comprehension. When we were finally able to rent it on VHS a few years later, we were still terrified every step of the way. We watched it together, two families, as an army, rented along with COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER back in the early days of VHS. And yet, the whole thing with the robot gurgling white liquid and being reactivated took me out of the suspense-generating, all-consuming dread, as if that dread was so rare and delicious I resented Ian Holm taking me out of the zone--I'd forgotten all about the alien threat while he was doing his whole milk spew thing, and noticing the alien patiently waited until that whole scene had played out to resume its attacks.

And what was the deal with going back for Jones, the damn cat? They didn't even have that cat in the film until they wandered out in the loading dock. Still The stomach burster was unforgettable, but especially on the pan and scan, a lot of the great composition was lost. We were used to that, of course and if we didn't see it in the theater we didn't know what we were missing.

Then: the summer of ALIENS (1986), and I had just finished my freshman year at Syracuse. My girl and I still had to kind of get our courage up-- the whole point of the gore and trauma was to get us scared of seeing more of it, scared every moment and around every corner. The first stretch involving space soldiers investigating the complex kept the theater I saw it in on pins and needles.

Alien: Resurrection (Extended Cut)
But by the end of ALIENS our collective fear of the boogeyman had been stretched once too often, and as a result had militarized us. Now when I see Ripley running terrified down Nostromo corridors I feel nothing as far as suspense, instead I'm thinking about Ridley Scott's commentary track, wherein he notes that Sigourney Weaver's running down the same corridor, over and over again, spray-painted different colors of gold and silver to give the illusion of difference. Not having to worry about the physical threats awaiting the final girl is a relief; repetition-compulsion disorder had proven its worth. Ripley was weaponized -- "Let her alone, you bitch!!" got every ALIENS audience to its feet. By the time of ALIEN: RESURRECTION in 1997, just trying to generate suspense from aliens stalking humans seemed pointless, and Ripley being super tough was just par for the course. She was now half-alien herself, like Sil in SPECIES, but any declaration of 'you bitch' could now be only directed at herself, and there was no longer any recognizable human in the cast, replaced by French director Jean Pierre-Jeunet's METAL HURLANT-style cartoonish bizarro world exaggeration, so that the only cool scene at all is of the always welcome and super-cool Michael Wincott discussing payments and acquisition of sleeping cargo for hosts while having a cigar and drink with military commander Dan Hedaya (below). But even there, Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes sure Hedaya's eyebrows are even more disturbing than usual. There's no shred of identifiable normal to latch onto - just layers of exaggerated CITY OF LOST CHILDREN-style over-artsiness.

Then there's the alien itself. In the first film it was truly other -- there was nothing remotely like it, nothing we'd seen before - not even remotely close to any of our species except in the most preliminary or advanced of stages. But by RESURRECTION it was just another smart mammal, making noises that sounded like pitch shifted lions, barking dogs and braying donkeys all at once-- the stages in the original design by now so familiar as to be more nostalgic than uncanny.

Galaxy of Terror
That's just human culture though, ALIEN's over-exposure-disseminated fear level drainage was inevitable. Throughout its long gestation there have been imitators and films that it in turn imitated, to the point John Hurt even shows up in SPACEBALLS (1987), less than ten years later, and gives birth to a Vaudeville-kicking alien, a kids' movie by all accounts -- so an alien bursting out of a stomach goes from R-rated shock to PG-rated joke in under ten years.

Hurt at the diner - SPACEBALLS (1987)
Copy cats abounded too, James Cameron even got the job for ALIENS partially based on his success with turning out a lot of atmosphere on minimal dollars as art designer for Corman's ALIEN-imitating GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). Which makes sense, as a lot of the baroque majesty and sheer alienness of Ridley Scott's original is gone for Cameron's sequel, replaced by an erector set military gun locker aesthetic and cool feminist weaponization ala TERMINATOR. But not all films in the ALIEN imitation canon lost the Ridley Scott look, and ALIEN itself is just a very strong central link in a vast web of motifs that have been simmering for 60 years. Time enough for a space pod to carry your frozen body across the vast expanse between 1965 and 1989 for example, and with that...

Dir. Mario Bava
88 minutes
Some films know just how to ease you into twilight sleep, your unconscious mind using the impressions from the soundtrack and dialogue as paint brushes to conjure alternate vistas as you dream yourself right off the couch and into the molasses chill of something like Bava's space fantasia PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. If you love dreaming in patches of otherworldly fog, the colors purple and red, the whoosh of space engines and throbbing moans of ancient races, unearthly winds, and badass proto-punk leather space uniforms with yellow piping, this should be your destination. And the clear points of inspiration for Alien are numerous: for one thing, we don't have to deal with the usual origin story that sinks so many unimaginative sci fi films (such as most of Ib Melchoir's other scripts), i.e. we don't have to see the space ships taking off from Earth or anything. Only FORBIDDEN PLANET before it knew that we could start from a very alien place and not need origin stories; the humans even fly in a saucer UFO instead of a phallic rocket, and we don't need to know why.

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES picked up on that - the crews here aren't even necessarily human or from Earth at all, and it doesn't matter. Similarly, ALIEN starts in a distant future where humans regularly spend up to decades in frozen sleep in deep space, missing their children's entire life spans, and the idea of starting events in a ship where everyone's in such a sleep, then waking up and not having to explain the whole plot is so rare it's really only ever been in a few films before or since. And in PLANET there's a mysterious SOS signal calling a spaceship to a strange planet where they discover an ancient crashed spaceship with dead giant aliens now reduced to calcified bones that make them look like they were giant elephant men, a bit like the huge space jockey looks in ALIEN, and there’s also a great ending which in its way harkens to the theatrical ending of ALIEN: RESURRECTION.

The film's got some issues, such as it being hard to distinguish most of the cast from each other and the plot--starting just like ALIEN with a search party (here comprised of two vessels) answering a strange beacon's call at a remote inhospitable (but lovingly lit) planet about to be devoured by its dying sun (or something)--becoming kind of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS where the dead rise from their plastic coverings and hot Italian girls in leather jumpsuits (the kinkiest high fashion space crew uniforms ever) become possessed. And with Bava devotee Tim Lucas' commentary track on the Blu-ray, we learn a lot of the maestro's DIY in-camera special effect tricks, which only enhances enjoyment. Lucas' reverence of the Bava canon is contagious and its reassuring that no no matter what's onscreen, we know it was intended it just that way by one of horror cinema's great artists, so we can kick back and let the soothing space noises... lull us... to... sleep. eep... ... bleep... blip.... blip... captain the coffin's empty, all over again! 

Dir Thierry Notz
88 minutes

This New World Alien rip smartly moves the Nostromo  underground in the Mojave desert on a post-plague Earth, where only snakes and wandering mutant gargoyles still roam. Aside from some terribly duck-like rows of teeth, the gargoyles aren't quite as ridiculous as most monsters in big rubber suits shambling around after suicidally slow-witted prey, and their craftiness and invulnerability make them formidable as hell, able to jump out of small spaces while being seven feet tall, as if inheriting all the DNA of both The Terminator and Michael Myers. Uniforms are very similar to ALIEN and there’s even a Yaphet Kotto-Harry Dean Stanton-esque pair of shiftless ensigns, drinking homemade ‘shine and grumbling about pay raises for “this kind of duty” which by now scans as merely quaint as opposed to appalling. But this is a Corman production, and that means when a surviving human is found running through the Mojave brush, she's sexy, terrified, and pregnant, and thanks to the reticent scalpel of the doctor, her abortion arrives too late and the baby gargoyle comes out and even runs across the room like he's freshly de-Kaned.

Eroticized monster rape practically insisted on feminist backlash in Corman productions, and with good reason, but they also gave him R-rating guarantees and allowed for a two-for-one shock--1) the pre-PC lurid pulp cover fetishizing of sexy girls having their clothes ripped off by all sorts of claws, ghost hands, or centipede legs; 2) the inevitable unwanted pregnancy, short gestation, and ALIEN-esque cesarian birth. For me, at least, that makes it somehow less traumatizing than if perpetrated by football teams or frat guys.

Star Andreef vs. Wade
That aside, I admire the ballsy pro-choice angle when Sue (Star Andreeff) demands an abortion. The lady doctor refuses and we're allowed to wonder if it's because she's got designs on Sue's man, the 80s coiffed hero David (Andrew "Kirk Douglas’s telekinetic son in The Fury" Stevens); she says the reason is that Sue's too weak to undergo such a surgery, and that there's plenty of time to do it tomorrow, and that it's probably Andrew "Kirk" Douglas's baby. Oh man for an alternate future with ultrasound. At any rate, David's the sort who
thinks lugging a crossbow around in tight quarters is going to do shit against an invincible giant heavily toothed, clawed, armored, and muscled foe, so his genetics might not be ideal anyway. But his hair is perfect.

Most of the cast dies rapidly in their Darwinian order: including George Kennedy as the C.O., and Sue, who thinks that--if her man's in trouble battling an invincible seven foot tall yet stealthy and rabidly horny monster three floors below--the best thing to do is hop in an elevator, unarmed, and come find him. But the rapid cast disappearance is only the start of the greatness, because we end up with a wounded terrified under-armed pair of survivors who communicate mainly one a two-way intercom as they try to obliterate a monster mutant whose only weakness is his painful sensitivity to Steven's dog whistle. The last stretch is just the three of them locked in endless tussle like THE TERMINATOR meets CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

And there’s a dog in the film who ably helps out in cool ways (he’s their tracker and early warning system and fearlessly distracts and attacks their foes) and even survives at the end. I'm not spoiler alerting for that, because dogs get a notorious bad break in horror films. When one survives, it's a cause for note... celebration.

So... skewed pro-choice compassion, a reasonably clear idea of where each person is in relation to one another at any given time in the deep compound, and the usual quick rush Corman-brand momentum, it all conspireas to make TERROR off-worlds better than most ALIEN rip-offs. If only they hired Thierry Notz to make ALIEN 3 the way they hired Cameron for ALIENS, someone with a knack for doing a lot with a little instead of that cold misanthropic clinician David Fincher who does so very little with so much. If I didn't mention ALIEN 3 at all in the introduction, it's because Fincher gutted everything that was great about the first two films, setting the film entirely on a dismal mud planet prison that could be anywhere in any closed-down prison anywhere in shit-field England, so he can hire a bunch of Brit thespians, shave everyone's heads, and roll around in the mud, so instead of a sexy Ripley or a weaponized Ripley we get an almost gang-raped Ripley who needs to be rescued by a self-righteous Muslim, and the dog, oh goddamned you, Fincher... and for what? So another CGI blur can get thrown in another dumb cauldron of liquid metal? Or something? The ending's straight out of TERMINATOR 2 as I recall. Actually, maybe I need to see it again. I hear the extended 'work print cut' is better, and the alien comes out of an ox instead of a dog, as nature intended.

I'm prejudiced too, for I remember renting ALIEN 3 from Blockbuster while visiting my brother in Arizona back in '92-ish, and not being able to understand what the hell was going on half the time thanks to bad pan and scanning, and seeing double thanks to a 1.75 liter of Seagram's, many one hits, and the constant interruptions by Fred's dumbass buddies. But hey, that's what it's all about: from a child savoring his terror after enduring COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER in a room full of people as a child in 1980, to the sequel as a college kid on a date in 1986, and now in the dry desert, drunk off my ass, after shooting empties in the backyard with an air rifle in 1992, picking on the dumbass friends of my well-armed little brother and slowly going from excited to bored to angry to just plain drunk. And not a girl other than a bald, androgynous Sigourney either onscreen or off, for no women came to visit my brother, ever. I was never so lonely and miserable as I was in that desert with those lost boys.

The internet came soon after that, thank god. AOL discs floated in from the mail like holy wafers and connected to a buzzing phone modem of instant "human" connection. Our modem's alien bang bang-ing connecting noises lulled us into trances like when we slept suspended in our M.O.T.H.E.R, not knowing what yet what she looked like, not knowing the modem signal wasn't a distress signal but a warning. Until the inevitable unmasking-- the grim evening she materialized out the ether, and plopped into the opposite chair of our Astor Pl. Starbucks rendezvous--she was our warm ethereal dream. Afterwards, our secret monster.


The Evolver Virus: PROMETHEUS, The Dead Files (10-21-12)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer: SZAMANKA (1996)

The American holiday trifecta has already passed its first hurtle, Thanksgiving. Now the sluggish traffic and unruly Wal-Mart tazing begins in earnest and a skittish mummified shamanic Pisces like me turns naturally inward, for movies are the best way to avoid holiday shopping lines. All those commercials that try so hard to become a patronizing life coach for Americans: "we don't settle for anything less," and "we're always pushing just a little further" like they already know you, like a narc would if he suddenly appeared at the edge of your circle. You don't know us, pal, and we already got the score on you from the roommate of the last kid you busted. So stay inside, like an urban hermit, and savor the unenlightenment, the peaceful darkness of the amniotic sac couch bog, and then just wait for nature to take it's course, that's my life coaching. One century soon, some decadent Warsaw university students will dig you up and put you in a nice preservative solution isolation tank, rummage through your bags and find your secret stash of mushrooms both psilocybe and 'flybane' (i.e. fly agaric or Amanita Muscaria) and then eat them, so they can bond with you, and warn you about the crazy woman fixing to devour your soul, SZAMANKA (or She-Shaman) is her name... and like so many hot girls in cold climates, she's fucking crazy. 

Speaking of crazy, those shrooms: Amanitas are currently legal, and it's easy to see why if you ever tried them. Too many can make you feel poisoned, not enough can make you feel like you're not getting off - and just the right amount gets the colors enhanced and the sweaty glow feeling of being connected to the world, but they also make that world smell like urine. Maybe they were better in Poland or Siberia, 2,500 years ago, because the anthropologist played by Boguslaw Linda in SZAMANKA sure digs them (literally and figuratively). But even he learns the hard way: once you've submitted without fear to the full stripping away of persona layers, divested yourself of all attachment, unmade the trappings of self, remembered your own birth, bathed in the white light of pure love, and forgiven everyone everywhere. Then what? No one gets you, your fiancee thinks you're nuts, and the people who do get you wear sandals and patchouli and garlic and look anemic from not eating meat.

So we need Mexico's Alejandro Jodorowsky, America's David Lynch, and Poland's Andrzej Zulawski to guide us in a holding pattern 'til the rest of the world slowly catches up and we sink down into the post-Thanksgiving depths of Mordor Xmas. I save SZAMANKA for when I'm delirious or have been in the cave so long I've forgotten there's even an outdoors at all. Zulawski doesn't even need to show us anyone actually taking the drugs, the shit's in the celluloid.

I first discussed Zulawski's SZAMANKA in conjunction with Carrie Matheson and Claire Forlan's awesome Dewar's ad! while back in November of 2012, during that previously discussed enlightenment breakthrough awareness state: "from boxes heart-shaped shapelessness, bags tossed as rubbish into the Warsaw mud, flown, Angus, darlin' - rather, a punk-en down Dalle Betty Blue-blackend bird spazzing through anthropology classes as her lover pilfers thousand year-old psilocybe and Amanita Muscaria mushrooms from a mummified shaman's pockets. Each wodka shot or peanut butter-covered stem tracking each punch and drunken stumble dream pie like meth and coveralls to grinding mechanical factory sex atop crumbling swamp corpse; grinding academics in their dancing and beer spillage and moving far away from the needle tip distance twixt the ancient fungal shaman's last expression train down through more more the turn style jumped, coiffed, jumped back through and gay references hurtled like Jack Benny's Polish theater troupe bombed and built anew under which in the shelter Zulawski slept as a child. (more)

I dig my crazy jive poetry from two years ago, finding references to everything from T.S. Eliot to SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS to the obscure Lou Reed song, "Billy," but I wouldn't write like that again if I could try. I'm too jaded. I was on a holy fool pre-apocalyptic role back this time in 2012, as seen in The Scrooge Satori, all without a single mushroom, And I would never have made the TO BE OR NOT TO BE connection in my current cave-bound form. Yet when else is a Polish theater troupe the main character of a comedy film set and shot in 1942 Hollywood? Before you answer, quick imagine Roman Polanski skittering like a rat through the Warsaw sewers while Germans shell the city above and Russians wait on the outskirts, until the Resistance is wiped out, so they can step in an Iron Curtain the place. What a bum deal.

Am I going somewhere with this, as some ancient astronaut theorists believe? Shamans are waiting for you to exhume them! Did you hear in the news that a 747 recently crashed in a cemetery in Poland? The Polish officials have so far retrieved 2,000 bodies! (1)

SZAMANKA (1994), aka SHE-SHAMAN, is one of them. Great judicious synthesizers underwrite Andrzej Zulawski's uber-bizarre panic movement-ish meditation on the nature of primitivism, Neanderthal train sex momentum, insanity, eating brains to gain wisdom, and the lack of mores or coherence in 90s Warsaw. And the script was written by a woman, Manuela Gretowska, who co-founded the Polish Women's Party and ran for office... in Poland! Badass, so best believe it's way darker sexually than even Zulawski would normally go. But thanks to his own 'maturer' madness, he makes a pretty good movie around it, way better than that punk Jean-Pierre Leaud was making in LAST TANGO IN PARIS (below, overlaid by me with a Bosch detail for easy decoding).

I mention this because Zulawski and Gretowska clearly know SZAMANKA is a lot like LAST TANGO IN PARIS, and that star Iwona Petry looks and foams at the mouth like Beatrice Dalle in BETTY BLUE which, lest we forget, ends with Dalle going totally crazy, getting electro-shock, and winding up smothered with a pillow ala ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. As with Bertolucci's film, Zulawski's crazy roving camera chases sexy nutcase Petry running everywhere--onto trains, off of trains--upstairs and down--and at times there's obscene perverse men leering from every corner and it begins to almost seem like some perverse sexual nightmare paving the way for the whole sparagmos devouring her lover like a mantis thing, like Beatrice Dalle's in her holy trifecta - BETTY BLUE, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, and INSIDE.   One of her lover's pals notes of some people being "God's fools, with souls so big there's no room for brains," Iwona Petry's "Italian" is at least smart enough to realize they're talking about her, and to knock over their table accordingly. So while Boguslaw Linda goes on his lecture, she's illustrating his tales of Neanderthal shamanism by mouthing a display case and "careening through the streets of Warszawa like a culturally inept marathon runner who's afraid of clowns" (2). While Linda pursues a doctorate in medicine, she's going to engineering school at the same school, so it's a metaphor to the division of labor and culture in Poland, and of woman's sexuality as something so archaically Precambrian as to devour the entirety of Apollonian civilization in a single sparagmosticated brain bite.

Her hotness making her a one-woman cliff for Warszawa's leming males, it's as if she's constantly trying to keep them at bay by behaving in a way that turns even the staunchest stomach; she also foams at the mouth, eats cat food out of her landlady's cat dish, and in short behaves like a proper panic movement-era primal screen actress undergoing convulsions like one feels on, say, too way way much acid. Four times what you usually take, I guess, is enough to get you to that level of walking down the middle of the street with no pants on screaming at the top of your lungs, each root of hair in your scalp tingling like fiberoptic tendrils pummeling signals past all your normal blinders and defenses; from every web string of time and space, sensory impression magnified to the point of distortion, contradicting the other impressions, so that you literally hear your own thoughts talk to you in the roar of a passing truck or the bark of a dog and everyone you see looks like melting Cubist seventh dimensional sculptures. And it goes on like that for upwards of six hours (or if on DOM or STP, up to 36 hours). The only salvation is benzos, or whiskey... lots and lots, like you're a raving bull elephant huffing Ketamine in a vain attempt to put yourself under before the circus guy shoots you. Sometimes open mouth kissing display cases, salting your clothes, peppering your hair and spraying perfume on your lettuce, will at least help you break free from the normal behaviors of your social and cultural position, which is suddenly reveled as a terrifying unconscious cluelessness.

this is your brain on drugs

Zulawski's been there, too. Petry and Linda know all the tricks, and maybe so has Gretowska, I'd imagine, because in SZAMANKA even engineering lectures fuse sexual-reproductive organs into the discussion in a way that would probably blow Cronenberg's mind.
"Zulawski said the animus inspired by his film was mainly directed at his uninhibited actress. The press “hated her and destroyed her, and she disappeared.” He has not made another movie in Poland since: “This country is still in the Middle Ages.” - J. Hoberman NY Times March 2nd, 2012 (my birthday!)

Still in the Middle Ages. I agree, half of America is right there with them, and as Petry's performance is clearly meant to have a certain 'the whole Cro-Magnon Thing passed my evolution by" -style idiot savant savage ambivalence, she's a living contradiction to all the Texas Board of Education--and by extension the International Film Critics Circle-- holds dear, he said, reading aloud from his notebook while running it under water in the sink, then dripping the blue ink all over her naked body. Clearly, he (Boguslaw Linda) is tripping balls. But it's for science! And he doesn't need a frickin' medical hothead standing by overacting like Charles Haid (in ALTERED STATES), or even a shot of him actually taking the mushrooms. He's just suddenly on them, and we have to guess when he's under the influence. He doesn't even need to mention reasons. But he says what they are eventually: he just wants to find the shaman in modern paranoid schizophrenics, realizing that "drugs, hunger, danger, darkness" - were all enough to keep all primitive humans in a paranoid schizophrenic state of delusional pleasure-pain, i.e. at that every hair a luminescent antennae to a thousand contrasting and contradictory signals too-much acid vibe. To find the nugget of truth, Boguslaw starts slowly devolving along the same lines, craving that mystical union with the power of what he does yet know via any ceremonial sex magic or 2,500 year old mushrooms he can find. And like all Zulawski films I've seen, no narcs.

In that sense, no one does it quite as shamanistically correct as old Andrzej Zulawski --Jodorowsky is too vulgar, Emir Kusturica too whimsical, Lynch too straight, and Gilliam too bent. None are the types to take "fucking flybanes" at their science lab and pitch a doctoral thesis to their advisor and future father-in law while rolling around on the floor in the hospital chapel. In other words, to offer fusion of the dramatic, forward-thinking, mystical, druggy, and socio-political all without whimsy, vulgarity, weird-for-weird's sake-ism, or any semblance of humor... or drama... Because Poles, like their Russian neighbors, just don't give a fuck. They sidestep altogether the things that trip up America--for all its talk of freedom--in unhackable tendrils of churchy censorship and narratives in morasses of need to explain things to the rubes in the cheap seats. These students don't need to worry about narcs or rubes like we did. If they find some shrooms in the ancient pocket of the exhumed shaman, they're going to do them. And wait for the shaman in the dish to make the first move. And they're going to hide that they did them from even us, so you have to know what the signs are. And the signs are indistinguishable from 'everyday' Warsaw life in the 1990s.

Dude, I've been on all sides of that equation, everyone except the mummified shaman. And that, according to my spirit guide, is what's waiting in fall 2015. Because let me tell you, without our space mushroom brothers as co-workers, we'll never get off this rock in any conveyance other than space ships. What's it gonna be, big dollar-intensive conveyances just to wind up back with Jessica Chastain in the Pre-Raphaelite TREE OF LIFE shirt reflection, where we could have been all this time through some simple deep breathing meditation and/or a handful of nonlocal mushrooms? By the power of Terence McKenna, I can validate that psychedelic mushrooms are standing by in petri dish agar solution somewhere, ready to work hand in stamen with the next generation of psychonauts, and the future's alien skies are limitless... just make it past the Scrooge tomb slab, the hottie primitive from the Middle Ages eating your brain on drugs as it sizzles apart in the heated pan of pure consciousness, and the cops inside the marrow of your bones. Maybe the dollar-intensive conveyances would be better, frozen forever til some far gone destination, comfy in the couch-like peat bog of the 'old freezarino' out in deep space. But not even INTERSTELLAR sleep lasts forever. No matter how long they drag it out, it's inevitable one will wake up to house lights, and the terror of an empty screen (and unlimited que options) once more reflects like a DOS prompt on your empty helmet. Fucking flyboys...

1. Old Polish JokeS
2. The great Yum-Yum, House of Self Indulgence (5/30/13)