Thursday, January 22, 2015

Eternal Recurrence: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) Part 1.



Buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is by that sweet word alone – by Ligeia – that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more.
Edgar Allen Poe, Ligeia.

                In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was elevated to the top of Sight and Sound’s poll of the greatest films of all time, finally unseating Welles’ Citizen Kane from the perch it had maintained with peculiar tenacity since 1962.  This represented the culmination of a critical reappraisal which had been a long time in the making.  Vertigo drew mixed critical reaction on its initial release, and did tepid box office comparative to Hitchcock’s previous hits.  Hitch’s ownership kept it out of circulation for a decade, so its critical stature only began to gather real momentum when it re-emerged for distribution in 1983.

                Nowadays, Vertigo is considered as integral a part of the cannon – both of Hitchcock and cinema generally – as it comes.  Nevertheless, there remains a certain minority not entirely persuaded by Vertigo.  I recall a friend many years ago who just couldn’t get into it, despite being a big film buff and admirer of most Hitchcock pictures.  His problem was with the credibility of the plot.  In fairness, there is no denying that on a literal level, the resolution of Vertigo’s mystery is almost impossible to swallow, or “devilishly far-fetched” as Bosley Crowther put it back in the day.  One might also wonder at Hitchcock’s peculiar decision to depart from the original novel and reveal the story’s twist two thirds of the way through, rather than at the end.  It is probably this logical straining of the plot which prompted critic Tom Shone – in his 2004 book Blockbuster – to argue that “Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.” 

Vertigo is a film of two distinct parts, each ending with the fall (or apparent fall in the first) of Kim Novak’s character from the bell tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista.  In the first part, the audience, like Stewart’s character John “Scotty” Ferguson, is enraptured and deceived.  In the second, the dream is gradually decoded, and everything is different.  Ferguson, sympathetic in the first half, becomes a domineering bully and fetishist; Novak, so remarkable as the haunted society woman Madeleine, is a little more exaggerated, and consequently less convincing, in her performance as the earthier working-class Judy.  The great spell of the first half – its hypnotic sense of surrender to waking dreams and the ghostly persistence of the past – has to give way in the climax to a rational explanation, to the mechanics of plot.  For this reason, dissatisfaction with Vertigo – the sense of its “loose ends and lopsided angles” – tends to be focused on this second half of the picture.

Nevertheless, even if we grant this criticism of Vertigo’s strained plot, I still think it’s a pretty strong candidate for the Sight and Sound title - bearing in mind of course how subjective and chimerical the notion that any film could be the greatest of all time.  Nobody has ever denied that Vertigo is immaculately directed and acted, but this is only a component of its distinction and greatness – there is an extra quality to Vertigo, something that transcends its magisterial craftsmanship as much as it does any logical contortions of the plot.  The only metaphor that springs immediately to mind to get at this is the illusory “Madeleine Elster” that Ferguson falls desperately in love with.  There are certain blunt, obvious reasons why somebody might fall in love with Madeleine - Kim Novak being a straight eleven on most scorecards.   (I’m going to put “Madeleine” in italics to avoid more tortured locutions like Judy as Madeleine as Carlotta.)   But Madeleine is more than simply a ravishingly beautiful woman – she offers Ferguson something which is simultaneously far more intoxicating and terrifying than mere surface glamour, however abundant.  Madeline is haunted by the presence of another woman, the tragic Carlotta Valdes, who is herself a being of mutable facets: first the beautiful Carlotta, then the sad Carlotta, and finally the mad Carlotta.   Madeleine is a mystery, a sleepwalker down a darkened corridor of broken mirrors and dream fragments, a woman struggling to assert her identity against some supernatural current that pulls her into the past, into the cold fixity of an old painting, to a premature engagement with the darkest place at the end of the corridor.  She is a presence through which the primal forces and mysteries of sex, death, dream and time assert themselves.  It’s little wonder Scottie had it so bad.



Little wonder, too, that we have had it so bad for Vertigo over the years.  Like Madeleine, the surface beauty of its craftsmanship is elevated by the sense that it is haunted by other presences and endless subterranean corridors, by the uncanny sensation of something which we know but cannot precisely articulate.   Woven around its familiar structure as a suspense/mystery story, Vertigo has a peculiarly dreamlike and literary quality – it’s infused with poetry even in its most incidental details, and becomes over repeated viewings one of those oddly labyrinthine movies where every motif and idea recurs and repeats throughout in different forms.  The effect is like the image which appears in the opening credits and later in Scottie’s nightmare – the figure falling into a spiral, the spiral in Kim Novak’s hair, the spiral of the past recurring in the present.  Vertigo has the thematic richness and aesthetic consistency of a great novel – or at least it seems to.  How much of its suggestive power we can ascribe to the source novel (D’entre les morts, literally “from among the dead”, by Pierre Boileu and Pierre Aryraud, which I haven’t read), how much to Hitchcock and his esteemed collaborators, and how to our own imaginations, I cannot say.  Movies are made in a pressurised scramble to catch the light of a single day, and then linger with us for lifetimes.  The following essay is an attempt to untangle why Vertigo casts such a potent and enduring spell over filmmakers and film lovers.  Some of the echoes and resonances I find in it are doubtless intentional to its authors, some accidental, and others peculiar to my own viewing sensibility.  It seems apt enough that we bring something of our imagination to bear on Vertigo, as it is a film in which we see the whole world, its haunted San Francisco, through the enchanted and disordered eyes of its protagonist, Scotty Ferguson.





To rehash Vertigo’s familiar plot for reference: John “Scotty” Ferguson is a San Francisco detective who discovers during a rooftop chase that he suffers from acrophobia.  Feeling guilt over the colleague who fell to his death trying to save him, and a sense of inadequacy owing to his spells of vertigo, Scottie quits the force and takes solace with his friend and one-time fiancé Midge.  At a loose end, he finds himself reluctantly employed by old college acquaintance Gavin Elster, now married into a shipping fortune, to follow his wife Madeleine.  Elster claims that his wife has become possessed by a long dead woman – Carlotta Valdes – and wants to know more about Madeleine’s daytime activities before involving doctors.  Following Madeleine, Scotty discovers a woman apparently in a trance, endlessly revisiting a handful of historical San Francisco locations of some particular emotional resonance.  These include Carlotta Valdes’ gravesite at the Mission Dolores (in reality the oldest surviving structure in San Fran), and the art museum at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor where Madeleine studies a portrait of Carlotta.  Madeleine appears to be modelling herself after the figure in the portrait by carrying a bouquet of roses and fashioning the back of her hair into a tight, spiral-like bun. 


    
Having saved Madeleine from an apparent suicide bid in San Francisco Bay, she and Scottie begin a tentative relationship.  The clock, however, is ticking.  Carlotta Valdes committed suicide at 26, the same age Madeleine is now, and we have a strong sense that Madeleine is melting into Carlotta, and history destined to repeat itself.  Scottie, however, believes that Madeleine can be saved, and the mystery of her apparent possession explained rationally.  Central to solving this mystery are Madeleine’s frequent dreams of an 18th century Spanish monastery whose church has a large bell tower.  This location seems to be the key, the locus around which the spiral turns.  Realizing that these dreams are of a real place, the Mission San Juan Bautisa, Scottie takes her there, hoping that its tangible reality will finally overwhelm her delusions of possession.  However, the opposite results: having made a last avowal of her love, Madeleine runs into the church.  Scottie attempts to follow her up the spiral staircase of the bell tower but is prevented from doing so by attacks of vertigo, and he watches helplessly as Madeleine plunges to her death from the top.  In a sense, we have returned to the beginning of the film, Scottie’s vertigo being the inadvertent cause of somebody’s death, with the toll of grief and guilt more severe this time around as it was the woman he loved.

We now move into the second section of the film.  Scottie, grief-stricken to the point of madness, has become like Madeleine in the first: a ghostly figure, haunted by the past, endlessly returning to San Francisco locations of an obsessive personal significance.  During his wanderings he encounters a brunette, Judy Barton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine.  Despite the physical resemblance, Judy is a working girl from Salina, Kansas, who is earthier and more overtly sexual than Madeleine.  In the aforementioned bizarre reveal, the audience is immediately let in on the whole of the plot: Judy was employed by Gavin Elster to impersonate his wife.  The Madeleine Scottie fell in love with was a fiction, the Carlotta Valdes story an elaborate (painfully so, to Vertigo’s detractors) ruse to secure a witness for Madeleine Elster’s supposed suicide, in reality a bait and switch murder carried out by Gavin for cold hard cash.  However, in the midst of maintaining the Madeleine illusion, Judy really did fall in love with Scottie, and so decides to indulge his courtship in the hope that he might fall in love with her for who she really is.  This, however, proves to be painful and demanding, as Scottie is obsessively devoted to the idea of bringing Madeleine back to life to every last detail.  With meticulous care and often tyrannical coercion, he makes Judy over as Madeleine, changing her wardrobe and hair, and finally adding the last crucial detail: the pinned spiral in the hair.  With everything in place, we have one of the cinema’s great raptures: the apotheosis of romantic passion and perverse fetishism as Hitchcock’s camera wheels gracefully around the couple, around the increasingly ambiguous hero who has attained his impious goal, the impervious blonde goddess who represents a symbol of unattainability in life, and becomes literally so in death.

The rapture is short-lived.  A piece of jewellery gives Judy away, Scottie begins to suspect the truth, and we circle back to the bell tower of the Mission San Juan, where Scottie overcomes his acrophobia and forces Judy to confess.  The sudden appearance of a nun startles Judy, causing her to slip over the edge and thus repeat the film’s inescapably tragedy.  Vertigo concludes with Scottie, standing in the bell tower, thrice grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, seemingly trapped in a cycle of reliving the same tragedy, over and over, round and around.





Some of the most common thematic resonances drawn from Vertigo centre on the relationship of Scottie to Madeleine/Judy, and particularly Scottie’s remodelling of the latter into the former in the second part, so I’m going to look at them briefly before exploring the film’s literary and mythical qualities.  In a general sense, Scottie’s fetishistic obsession with Madeleine reminds us of the tendency of people to fall in love with idealizations, images, or narrow ideas of people, rather than with the imperfections, complexities, and day to day variability of the full person.  Love of a strongly romantic or sexual character tends to be the love of an idealization, or a particular ardour engendered by the image.  For the person enthralled by this type of passion, the idealization and the image exist in a realm exalted above the everyday reality in which the object of desire exists as a fully-fleshed out person.  This is the predicament Judy finds herself in; she wants Scottie to love her for her real personality, but he remains obsessively enthralled by the fantasy of Madeleine which she and Gavin Elster created to sucker him.  (Another question raised here relates to identity: did Scottie fall in love in Judy because it was her appearance and personality moulded to become Madeleine, or only with the performance and fantasy of Madeleine?  Are the two – the person and the outward persona adopted – so easily separable?)



Scottie’s recreation of Madeleine has most frequently been associated with the characteristic fetishes and feminine ideals of Hitchcock himself.  The director’s recurring penchant for the reserved, cultivated blonde has been described by Trauffant as “the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.”  Hitch himself expressed this duality in somewhat more blunt terms:  “We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies who become whores when they’re in the bedroom.”  (Source: Style on Film: Vertigo.) This fairly typical masculine desire to embody Madonna and whore in a single person – outwardly repressed, privately wanton – goes some way towards understanding the duality between Vertigo’s blonde and brunette incarnations of the same woman, and the distinct styles of dress and types of sexuality embodied by Madeleine and Judy Barton.  Madeleine’s characteristic dress is the grey suit – subdued, tight in a manner restrictive rather than sensual, almost severe but elegant in its understated simplicity.  The overall sense of restriction, moderation, and control is completed by the final detail in Scottie’s recreation of Madeleine – the pinning up of the hair at the back.  This clearly represents Hitchcock’s ideal – the sexuality made all the more alluring by being understated, hidden beneath the cold, business-like surface.  In contrast, when we first encounter Judy Barton she wears a lustrously green outfit that emphasizes the natural shape of her body, with (unusually for the time) no bra.  This is the opposite of the restrictive, subdued sexuality represented by Madeleine; in her somewhat forced working gal tones, Novak’s Judy tells Scottie: “I’ve been on blind dates before – to tell you the truth, I’ve been picked up before.”  It’s this earthier, more natural woman that fails to excite Scottie, as he remains enthralled by the fantasy of the artificial Madeleine, the woman who is becoming a painting, a work of art.  In a an interesting piece of life-imitating art, Kim Novak had to be cajoled in the grey suit by her director, just as Judy must be coerced into it by Scottie.

It’s thus not difficult to see Vertigo as a perhaps inadvertent glimpse into the darker corners of its director’s psychology, and a study in general of the subjugation and mistreatment of women.  Although some of the details remain contested, Hitchcock’s preoccupation with his personal blonde ideal seems to have become utterly unhealthy by the time of his relationship with Tippi Hedren.  The intersection between Scottie as an only intermittently sympathetic bully in the second half of Vertigo, and Hitchcock’s apparently obsessive, domineering, and abusive relationship with Tippi Hedren is a fascinating subject, but it is an aspect of Vertigo so well-trodden elsewhere that I’m not going to dwell on it in this essay.


Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musee National du Chateau et des Trianons, wikipedia.


Modern stories which have a certain resonance and archetypal power frequently have analogues with much older myths.  This, at least, is certainly the case with Vertigo.  The most obvious mythic precursor is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Orpheus loses his beloved, and goes into the Underworld to reclaim her from the world of the dead.  His music so charms Persephone that he is allowed to bring Eurydice back to the upper world, with one condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of his bride, and not look back until such time as they have regained the land of the living.  Orpheus is careless, however, and loses his beloved for the second time, this time forever.  Vertigo recapitulates this classic double-punch tragedy: Scottie loses (or appears to lose) Madeleine to death, but then miraculously gets her back.  His own actions, however, ultimately lead to the real and permanent loss of his beloved.  The prohibition against looking back seems particularly apt in relation to Vertigo’s primary theme of the inescapable return of the past in the present.  Scottie’s tragedy is that when he finds Judy, he has the woman he loved, and her love for him was the one thing about Madeleine which wasn’t counterfeit.  But he is haunted by the past, and must look back, first in the re-creation of Madeleine, and then in the return to the Mission San Juan Bautisa, where what was the first time an illusion becomes reality, and he must lose Judy/Madeleine forever.

Scottie also recalls Pygmalion and Oedipus.  Pygmalion was the Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory – Galatea – so perfect that he fell in love with her.  Pygmalion prays to Aphrodite for a woman as beautiful as his statue, and upon returning home and kissing Galatea, finds that the dead ivory has become living flesh, and the idealized work of art a real woman.  This myth differs from Vertigo both in its happy ending, and in another crucial element: Scottie falls in love with a work of art which he has not created himself, but which is rather a creation of Gavin Elster’s dramaturgy and Judy Barton’s acting.  Nevertheless, Vertigo reflects and inverts the uncanny transformation of the Pygmalion myth: Madeleine is a real woman in the process of being absorbed into a painting and the chill of history, and Judy a real woman who Scottie cannot love until he transforms into a work of artifice.  Oedipus, on the other hand, is often called literature’s very first detective.  He resembles Scottie in the sense that his tenacity in solving the riddle of his own parentage and identity is ultimately his undoing - cracking the case brings him nothing but profound suffering.

continued shortly




Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Federico Fellini is making a picture in February..." Anita Ekberg (1931 - 2015).


Picture: Pier Luigi (via Guardian)

Anita Ekberg's childlike frolic in Rome's Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) is one of the defining iconic images of cinema's maiden century.  When Marcello Mastroianni passed away in 1996, the fountain was turned off and draped in black.  Now Federico, Marcello, and Anita are all gone.  Sadly, her later years were characterised by illness and severe financial difficulties - but cinema lovers will always be returning to the strange, bittersweet rapture of that fountain sequence, chasing something, like Marcello's character, which can never quite be attained.   Here is a interview with Ekberg filmed just prior to La Dolce Vita: 



Interview found at the Playlist.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Inherent Vice: Robert Altman, Thomas Pynchon, the Coen Brothers, and the Evolution of Stoner Noir.



PT Anderson’s latest movie Inherent Vice will be released theatrically this December (stateside, European viewers will have to hold out until late January.)   The film is hotly anticipated by two separate but likely overlapping cult enclaves: cinephiles because it’s an Anderson picture, and fans of cult, countercultural literature because it is the very first cinematic adaptation of the work of the legendary Thomas Pynchon, an author who stands as one of the few remaining literary voices indelibly stamped by that turbulent, vibrant state of mind, or period of cultural history, which is called the 60s, but really encompasses the 50s through to 70s, whose characteristic embrace of drugs, anarchism, surrealism, and mysticism still strikes some of us who came along later as one of the most extreme outbreaks of mass sanity in modern history.  His fans will doubtless make the most of what is likely to be Hollywood’s only foray into Pynchon’s distinctive literary universe for some time (if not all time, considering the untranslatable nature of most of his larger works.)

                Early reviews are mixed, but hardly in a way which would unduly alarm anybody acquainted with the source novel, as they seem to suggest a fairly faithful adaptation of its befuddling, fractal plot and typically Pychonesque tonal incongruities.  One thing many of the reviewers are agreed upon is in categorizing Inherent Vice as a stoner noir.  Most anybody who is even going to be aware of Inherent Vice’s existence probably knows what stoner noir is, having the Coens’ Big Lebowski in mind as the defining example, the virtual Shane, of this particular sub-genre of hard-boiled ratiocination.  However, having browsed around the web, I see that there appears to be few (if any) articles devoted to the evolution of stoner noir as a specific modern variant of the hard-boiled detective school.  By way of warm-up for Anderson’s Inherent Vice, that’s what I’m going to do in this post.

                In basic terms, stoner noir is exactly what it says on the tin: a detective story, drawing on the conventions of the Chandler/Hammett hard-boiled school, where the protagonist happens to be a pothead.  This crucial interpolation is the main wheeze or ironic pivot around which the genre is built.  Traditionally, the detective has a certain gravitas, an inherent capability, about him.  The hardboiled detective, as the name suggests, requires at least a modicum of toughness; otherwise, going down the mean streets on a routine basis would be life-threatening to an unhelpful degree.  He needs to be able enough in the realm of verbal and physical drubbing; quick to scoop up a pistol, and put the drop on somebody, until the next party saddles in unexpectedly, and puts the drop on him.   He needs to be able to recover rapidly from the blow of a stiff blackjack on a cold night.  He’s normally cool, laconic, and disciplined.  He has a certain sex appeal, even if it’s that weird, rake-thin longshore man with a mouth on him vibe that was only ever considered sexy when manifested in the persona of Humphrey Bogart.  The hardboiled detective may, in a sense, be a loser, but only in a noble or tragic manner; in a melancholic rather than farcical register.


 
Most of all, however, the gumshoe, like every other species of detective, by the very nature of the enterprise, needs to have his shit together, mentally.  Detective plots are complex – sometimes so complex that even their own authors don’t fully understand them.   Hollywood legend tells us that during the filming of The Big Sleep, neither Howards Hawks nor his screenwriters could figure out whether chauffeur Owen Taylor had committed suicide or been murdered.  Sensibly enough, they sent a cable to the novel’s author, hoping to clarify the matter – but Chandler later conceded: “They sent me a wire….asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.”  Existing, then, in a universe where even God doesn’t have all the answers, the gumshoe traditionally lives and dies on his powers of concentration, the strength of his wit.

                The stoner noir asks us: what would happen if the gumshoe had to live or die based on the powers of concentration, the general state of mental adroitness, characteristic of the pothead?   In this sense, stoner noir operates to some extent in the parodic tradition of the mock-heroic.  According to wiki, mock-heroic fictions are “satires or parodies that mock common Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature.  Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.”  This is a fairly good definition, but it’s worth noting that modern mock-heroics don’t necessary seek to mock the conventions of their classical models – they are quite often informed by a deep love of those conventions.  However, what mock-heroics invariably do is take the heightened, perfect archetypes of classical story-telling, and place them alongside the comic imperfections of the real world.  In so doing, they tell us something about both the real world, and the story-telling conventions we employ to represent it in fiction.  Stoner noir certainly replaces the unflappable, sardonic hero of the hardboiled detective novel with a type of fool – the pothead being an ideal modern archetype of the fool, a figure whose fraught relationship with the hardships and nuisances of everyday life we can all identity with to some extent.  The Dude, as the Stranger observes, takes it easy for all us sinners – all us perhaps greater fools who are guilty of the sin of actually trying to stay up on the bucking bronco of life, rather than just kicking back and hoping its severer mood swings will just pass us by.

“THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS LOSE!”  An Elegy for the 60s Counterculture.



                So, to understood stoner noir, the first thing to note is that its protagonist is somewhat more scattered, more dishevelled, than the traditional hero – and perhaps a little bit more like ourselves in this regard.  To explore what themes are important to stoner noir – difficult enough in the context of a very loosely evolved sub-genre – I’m going to concentrate on two which seem particularly relevant in approaching Inherent Vice: the disillusionment at the end of the 60s dream, and the nature of plots themselves.  One of the only theoretical articles I did find about stoner noir was an interesting piece for Boing Boing by Mark Dery called Facebook of the Dead.  Dery isn’t really writing about stoner noir as a genre here, but rather uses the term to designate a certain malaise in 70s youth culture – a sense of cultural vacuum opening up when all the idealisms of the 60s were gone, leaving only its hedonistic escapism to chase an increasingly garish, mass market dragon.  This specific zeitgeist, combined with Dery’s personal, and not altogether rhapsodic, memories of high-school, give the term a much darker aspect than we typically find in stoner noir as genre, but the piece is worth quoting: 
   “By contrast, the sludge-brained anomie of stoner noir is just what it looks like: the rudderless yawing of youth culture on the morning after the ‘60s.  It’s the numb realization that the tide that carried in the counterculture’s utopian dreams and cries for social justice has ebbed away, leaving the windblown scum of Altamont and My Lai, the Manson murders and the Zodiac killer.  Stoner noir stares back at you with the awful emptiness of the black-hole eyes in a Smiley Face.  Have a nice decade.  As late as the mid-70s, the iconography of rebellion, at least in the track-home badlands of Southern California, was a politically lobotomized version of hippie: the bootleg records, blacklight posters, underground comix, patchouli oil, and drug paraphernalia retailed at the local head shop.”
                As an artistic exemplum of his conception of stoner noir, Dery highlights Charles Burns’ brilliant, somewhat dark 70s coming of age comic book Black Hole.  The difference between the bleaker stoner noir of Dery and Burns, and the more mournful, elegiac variety found in Pynchon, is perhaps the difference between growing up through the 60s, and growing up in its aftermath.  Nevertheless, the 70s conceived as a hang-over decade is crucial to the development of stoner noir – Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the most important cinematic precursor to The Big Lebowski, emerges from the foggy haze of a very specific zeitgeist: the moment when the insurrectionary, utopian frisson of the 60s dissipated into the aimless narcissism of the Me Generation.   Hunter S. Thompson’s “high and beautiful wave” had crashed, leaving in its wake a flotsam of glazed pleasure seekers, health faddists, and pop psychologies, all of which hovered satellite-like around the nebulous concept of the “self.”   These trends were consistently mapped by the movies; as early as ’71, Alan J Pakula’s Klute registered a chilly emptiness in the liberated sexual mores of the new decade, and as late as ’78, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers repositioned the Cold War anxieties of the original firmly in the dense Californian fog of the Me Generation.  In his 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s late Philip Marlowe novel The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman decided to relocate the action to modern day Los Angeles.  Modernizing Chandler was not unheard of (see the trailer for Marlowe, 1969, above), but Altman made this transposition the thematic core of the film, imagining his Philip Marlowe as a perfectly preserved relic of the bygone values of the 40s and 50s, somehow transplanted into the flaky miasma of 70s L.A., a kind of “Rip Van Marlowe.”  Ironically, then, the first hero of stoner noir was not himself a stoner – far from it, Dude.



                The Long Goodbye begins with a classic mock-heroic gesture, and one of the all-time great film openings.  We find Marlowe (Elliot Gould) struggling, not with brawny hoodlums or brassy dames, but with the dietary whims of his cat.  Woken in the middle of the night, he is forced to drive to the supermarket to try and buy the pet’s preferred brand of cat food.  When the store is out, we next see Marlowe engage in an elaborate and ultimately unsuccessful ruse designed to fool the cat into eating an alternative brand.  Having immediately established its unconventional Marlowe, the opening sequence also firmly locates Marlowe in a social context of decaying 60s counterculture leftovers.  Marlowe’s neighbours are a group of permanently stoned young woman who will engage, throughout the movie, in nude yogic exercises on their balcony.  Their existence is funded by the manufacture of scented candles which they sell in a local head shop, prompting one of gangster Marty Augustine’s hoodlums to observe ruefully “I remember when people JUST HAD JOBS!” 

Marlowe’s concern for his cat, like his unstinting and misguided loyalty to his friend Terry Lennox (Tim Bouton), emphasizes his status as a heroic fool.  Nobody cares about loyalty and honesty in this fallen world, and nobody cares about Marlowe’s cat.  The winners are ruthless thugs like Marty Augustine and Terry Lennox.  Most likely well-intentioned people like Marlowe’s hippy neighbours have retreated into a zonked-out fog of hedonistic self-exploration.  “The best lack all conviction, while he worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”  Like Paul Newman observes in Harper (1966):  “The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert.  Only cream and bastards rise.”  Or, as the winner Lebowski tells his loser namesake in The Big Lebowski, “The bums will always lose!”

 It is this thematic undertow which ironically makes Altman’s movie closer in spirit to the Chandler novels, although this aspect of the film was and continues to be misunderstood.  Upon its release, Gould’s somewhat dishevelled take on the detective lead many viewers to perceive nothing more than a revisionist spoof – even an affront – in the film.  Writing for Time, Jay Cocks wrote that “Altman’s lazy, haphazard put-down is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at Philip Marlowe, but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized.”  Charles Champlin went even further in the Los Angeles Times: “This Marlowe is an untidy, unshaven, semi-literate dimwit slob who could not locate a missing skyscraper and who would be refused service at a hot dog stand.”  Partially, the problem was that these critics were working off memories of previous screen incarnations of Marlowe, rather than the Chandler novels themselves.  What those previous adaptations lacked was the lonely, melancholic spirit at the core of Chandler’s creation.  Chandler’s world is inherently a fallen one where the evil prosper, “a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be a finger-man for a mob….”  The redemptive figure in all this is the lonely detective who moves through this world seeking a “hidden truth”, always retaining his own sense of honour and integrity even though it profits him little in a material sense.  Altman placed this melancholic aspect of Chandler – and this distinctly noirish conception of the world – to the fore in The Long Goodbye, whereas previous adaptations had tended to emphasize the cynical glamour of Marlowe’s world.

But part of the shock of Gould’s Marlowe was due to the fact that it was, in certain respects, crucially different to Chandler’s conception.  One of the things which fascinates me about The Long Goodbye is that it undercuts – whether intentionally or otherwise – its own central premise of the detective as a frozen-in-time “Rip Van Marlowe.”  I would argue that Gould’s Marlowe, despite his stubborn sense of values, is a very much a product of the 70s.  One of the first ways in which this premise feels undercut is by virtue of the very casting of Gould himself.  With the exception of Donald Sutherland, surely no other actor is as quintessentially a leading man of the 70s?  Gould’s Marlowe is a product of a zeitgeist where the rise of feminism and anti-war pacifism had served to undermine many conventional aspects of masculine heroism.  (While some may associate 70s masculinity with the Bert Reynolds moustached stud archetype, it’s worth noting that this decade also witnessed the iconic prominence of non-alpha type males like Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen.  Hoffman’s breakout in 1967’s The Graduate apparently provoked a paranoid freak-out in Steve McQueen, who feared that it signalled the demise of the alpha male movie star.  Sometimes these days I wonder if McQueen’s freak-out wasn’t entirely unwarranted.)   Hence, Gould is infinitely less confident with women; Bogart’s implicit, unquestioned dominance of women is no longer possible.  As much as he is not a lover, Gould’s Marlowe is even less a fighter.  The style of wisecracks, too, has changed, absorbing Gould the actor’s more ironic, improvisatory, and zanier persona.  Marlowe’s characteristic refrain throughout The Long Goodbye – “It’s alright with me” – sometimes appears amiable and easy-going, but more often carries the caustic, passive aggressive sting of the later coinage “Whatever.”  Like Woody Allen, this Marlowe responds to an absurd world with wry, ironically detached humour – until, of course, the film’s nihilistic final reel.

The Long Goodbye’s significance to the stoner noir cannon lies primarily in the fact that is almost impossible to imagine The Big Lebowski without it.  Both films present revisionist, comic twists on the noir genre, featuring protagonists who are not quite the unflappable and laconic heroes of yore – the mock-heroic tendency, obviously, being dialled up a few notches in the case of the Dude.  Marlowe’s dishevelled supermarket quest for cat food bleeds into Lebowski’s iconic introduction to the Dude as an informally-attired nocturnal shopper:





The Dude is also, we are informed, uniquely a man for his times; yet also, like Altman’s Marlowe, a throwback to an earlier era, a man out of time.  He is a Rip Van Winkle who has not so much been asleep, as stoned out of his gourd, for decades.  The real-life influence for Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski was former political activist and film producer Jeff Dowd.  Dowd – along with SIX OTHER GUYS – made up the “Seattle Seven”, a core group of Seattle Liberation Front members who were charged with “conspiracy to incite a riot” following a protest at the Seattle Federal Court in 1970.  After the hurly-burly of 60s student activism, the Seven went this way and that, with Dowd drifting to Hollywood to work as a screen-writer and producer, where he would encounter the Coens while they were promoting Blood Simple in the early 80s.  To find a fictional precursor to the Dude, however, we will turn to Vineland, Thomas Pynchon’s novel of California in 1984, the year of Orwellian undertones and (not coincidentally for Pynchon) Ronald Reagan’s re-election.

Vineland was the first Pynchon novel published since the gargantuan Gravity’s Rainbow, some 17 years earlier.  Perhaps because of this long wait, coupled its shorter length, comparatively simpler structure, and unexpectedly gentle and sentimental tone, Vineland has been consistently underestimated by critics and Pynchon devotees, frequently dismissed as Pynchon-lite.  Though by no means as imposing as the larger quasi-historical works, Vineland may nevertheless be the most perfectly executed of Pynchon’s novels, and has struck some readers as the most direct and emotionally resonant.  Just as its tie-dye plot spirals off into multiple flashbacks, tangents, and interludes, before finally returning to its beginning, Vineland is a novel of many homecomings: the political past coming home to roast in the present; the psychedelic adventurers of the 60s coming home after their long, strange trips to (something at least a little bit like) everyday reality; Pynchon himself, the literary anarchist/outlaw of the 70s, coming back from the often scary headtrip of Gravity’s Rainbow to (something at least a little bit more like) the realist novel, and to themes of familial responsibility and the American present.


 
For the purpose of this essay, our focus is on the novel’s (sometimes) protagonist, Zoyd Wheeler.  Like the Dude, Zoyd is a burned-out, slightly frazzled aging hippie, who is nevertheless mostly together (after his own fashion).  Washing up in harsher, less giddily Technicolor decades (the 80s for Zoyd, 90s for the Dude), the protagonists of Vineland and The Big Lebowski show only partial adaption to the passage of time: both still smoke large quantities of weed, and both bask in the recollection of former acid epiphanies.  Both find the pursuit of their marginal and largely placid existences abruptly shattered, Zoyd’s by the re-emergence of his old Federal nemesis Brock Vond, and the Dude’s by the desecration of his room-completing rug. 
  
Vineland is Pynchon’s greatest elegy for the 60s counterculture, a period and ethos which the author clearly celebrates, for all its woolly-headed flaws, as a unique, almost miraculous time when it briefly appeared possible for the world to fork off from the highway of modern history, to veer away from its implacable course of technocratic, militaristic capitalism, off onto kinder, stranger side-roads.  This sense is beautifully expressed in an exchange in Vineland between Zoyd Wheeler and Wendell “Mucho” Mass (Opedia Mass’s deejay husband from back in 1966’s The Crying of Lot 49).  The timeline of the scene is roughly analogous to Inherent Vice; with the looming spectre of Manson, the Nixonian counter-revolution, and the increasing commercialisation of rock n’ rock, the death of the 60s dream is drawing in. 
Mucho blinked sympathetically, a little sadly.  “I guess it’s over.  We’re into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, and then it’ll be the Reagan Years - ”
“Ol’ Raygun?  No way he’ll ever make president.”
“Just please be careful, Zoyd.  ‘Cause soon they’re gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that.  And they will.”
“Fat police?”
“Perfume police.  Tube Police.  Music Police.  Good Healthy Shit Police.  Best to renounce everything now, get a head start.”
“Well, I wish it was back then, when you were the Count.  Remember how the acid was?  Remember that windowpane, down in Laguna that time?  God, I knew then, I knew….”
They had a look.  “Uh-huh, me too.  That you were never going to die.  Ha!  No wonder the State panicked.  How are they supposed to control a population that knows it’ll never die?  When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death.  But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one, so of course they had to take it away from us.”
“Yeah, but they can’t take what happened, what we found out.”
“Easy.  They just let us forget.  Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock n’ roll is becoming – just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die.  And they’ve got us again.”  It was the way people used to talk.
“I’m not going to forget,” Zoyd vowed, “fuck ‘em.  While we had it, we really had some fun.”  (Vineland.)
Inherent Vice is also infused with this sense of sorrow at the end of youth, the end of an era, and the closing down of the temporary autonomous zone of the real and metaphorical 60s: “….and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…..how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”   As an aside, somebody really should write a song (possibly in the psych-Country vein) called Caught In a Low-Level Bummer (I Can’t Find a Way Out Of).

Conclusion: AS LONG AS THE TALK IS HARD AND THE ACTION HARDER.



Anyway, it is via Altman’s Long Goodbye, and Pynchon’s Vineland that we arrive at The Big Lebowski, and hence stoner noir.  (I’m not sure that Vineland was a conscious influence on the part of the Coens, but it’s always played primarily like a mixture of those two elements for me.)  Vast sociological desertions and studies might be written about precisely why The Big Lebowski struck such an indelible chord with a fairly large sub-set of the film-viewing public – particularly men of a certain generation.  It was first released in 1998 to a mixed critical response and lukewarm box-office, but repeat viewings on DVD created a snowballing cult phenomenon – first noted in Steve Palopoli’s 2002 piece The Last Cult Picture – which would ultimately result in the near-canonisation of Jeff Bridges, and the sense that the Dude was some kind of modern archetype, comparable in significance to Hamlet.  Maybe it was that a generation of young men, making their first inroads into the travails of the adult world, were suddenly struck with the intimation that perhaps trying to stay up on the bucking bronco of life – earning a crust, advancing in a career, chasing carnal pleasures, pursing endless trophies or minor affirmations of the ego, voting, everything – might actually turn out to be the original low-level bummer that you can’t find a way out of.  Something like what Dustin Hoffman was going through in The Graduate, every time he’d look off into the near-distance, and Paul Simon’s arpeggios start to fade in over the score.    Or maybe it was just that Bridges’ unique charisma, likeability, and maturing handsomeness somehow managed to make an otherwise marginal and unrewarding existence seem idyllic.

Howsoever, I’m going to finish by briefly considering The Big Lebowski in relation to the second stoner noir theme I wanted to look at: plot.  The idea of plots – complex, puzzling, sometimes illusory - ties together the various strands of this story like a good Moroccan rug.  In a sense, the idea of a plot has always connected the world of the detective and that of the stoner – the good detective story requiring a plot above all else, and the stoner often being subject to the conspiranoid intimation that everything might be some kind of plot.   The complexity of the traditional detective plot is a large part of the stoner noir gag – witness, for example, the Dude undertaking a “strict drug regime” in order to keep his mind “limber” enough to meet the mental rigours of the case:



When The Big Sleep was released in ’46, there was a general consensus that the plot was mystifying.  Bosley Crowther observed that “so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused.”  Crowther concluded that the movie “was a web of utter bafflement.”  However, a writer for Time argued that the plot’s “crazily mystifying blur” was an asset, and that The Big Sleep was “wakeful fare for folks who don’t care what is going on, or why, so long as the talk is hard and the action harder.”  This raises an interesting point about hardboiled detective plots: in one sense they are all important, and in another almost completely arbitrary. For all their complexity, their function is largely to keep the dialogue, and the detective’s encounters with the bizarre, the beautiful, and the deadly, coming hard and fast – to keep, in other words, the “talk hard and the action harder.”  A good example of this is Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly.  This movie is all plot, and yet the plot itself is largely made up of an arbitrary pursuit of the ultimate McGuffin – the mysterious, shinning case which would re-emerge much later in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp FictionKiss Me Deadly’s script feels very self-conscious about all this, as we see in Velda Wickman’s somewhat Pynchonesque speech at the mid-point:  
They?  A wonderful word.  And who are they?  They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit.  Does it exist?  Who cares?  Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?”
The stoner noir genre tends to engage this aspect of detective plots – their complexity and ultimate arbitrariness – with affectionate humour.  Joel Coen said of Lebowksi that they wanted to “do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.”  For this reason, the “plot” of The Big Lebowski unravels and evaporates in the last act into a fog of misdirection and misapprehension which the various actors had fashioned around an illusory kidnapping.  This relates also to the paranoia of potheads, and the literary paranoia of Pynchon’s work.  The paranoiac’s grand plot also tends to evaporate and vanish, either at the point where the paranoiac realizes that the plot was, all along, a creation of his or her possibly weed-befogged brain – or, at the point where the plot reaches it maximal state of complexity, and hence vanishes because it has become everything and nothing.  This brings to mind the famous passage in The Crying of Lot 49 which many have taken as emblematic of Pynchon’s work:
In Mexico City, they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre’, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.

A LOT of strands, in other words, in old Duder’s head.  It will be very interesting to see how PT Anderson fares out in translating Pynchon’s sensibility to the screen, and whether, in the longer term, Inherent Vice will follow The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski in eventually acquiring a cult following after meeting with initially mixed responses. 

References.

Facebook of the dead, by Mark Dery.

The Simple Art of Murder, by Raymond Chandler.

The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon.    

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bird Out of Space and Time (Part 5).



7.
After the chaos of the storms, there came a calmness, but no clarity.  I remember that February as a supremely funereal month, with everything shrouded in a deep, milky whiteness.  Think of the effects of clear blue sky and undiluted sunlight on the earth.  The colour in the sky is everywhere absorbed on earth.  Everything is brighter, clearer, more vivid, detailed, and more ineffably itself.  Under the auspices of sunlight, operating on the senses like a drug, the ordinary can become an epiphany, for this sunlight, just as it goes into the pores, browning and brightening the skin, goes also into the mind, making it feel as though it has awoken from a long, dim sleep, rekindling the old passions, and resuming a sense of life’s quest, however opaque its ultimate object.  We were not in that time of renewal yet, however, and winter, exhausted from its raging against the light, still clung on, like an old man holding fast, but with an increasingly tenuous grip, to an idea while he drifted off into sleep, the picture in his mind losing its context and fading, coming in and out of focus with the rise and fall of his breath.  The whole world, or so it appeared to me, was that picture, its edges softened by sleep, its past and future diffused in a haze of forgetfulness, until it was only a blanched present, a tiny inlet bordered all around by oblivion.

Just as sunlight has its characteristic effect of making the world more substantial and alert, so its prolonged diffusion makes the world sleepy and disengaged, imparting to it the feeling of those mornings, or days, or sometimes weeks, where the gulf between waking and sleeping are never wholly crossed, and your daylight chores call to you from across a great distance, more soothing than alarming, like the low hum of a foghorn from shorelines so spectral they might not exist at all.  Those February skies never stinted in the whiteness of their backdrop, the monotony broken only by little patches of grey that rolled sluggishly across the sky, like the last fleeing wisps of smoke from a drowned fire.  The days, too, rolled along, each one having the sense of never fully dressing, of just pottering around in pyjamas and dressing gown, reading the headlines but barely scanning the text beneath.  This was not simply my own private mind-set, but a general sense of suspension and hibernation.  The weekdays all had that lazy, introspective ambience palpable of a Sunday: the hush, the sense of everywhere closed, the absence of things to do but ruminate on the sameness of how things stand relative to how they stood last week, the unspoken sorrow of those without families, drawn as they are to seek whatever embers of Saturday might still burn in the public houses.  We were all bidding our time, waiting to be re-awoken in spring.
   
The whiteness of those days was nowhere more apparent than in the main square of the Quarter, where the mood of the great glass towers was always at the whim of the surrounding ambient light.  I had anticipated that the view from my balcony would provide a cornucopia for the voyeur, now that the gales had subsided.  Instead, I found myself surveying a scene of eerie stillness.  Signs of life were present on the other decks – tables and chairs, potted and hanging plants, clotheshorses, bicycles, little ornaments and baubles that sought to offset the rigid and clinical geometry of the high rise – but it was as though their owners, having pledged those modest keepsakes of human habitation, then promptly conceded defeat, and left the rectilinear terrain to its preferred ambience of cool emptiness.  I saw nobody else on the balconies that month.  Lights went on and off, of course, and clothes were left out to dry – but the human hands which carried out those mundane activities remained invisible.  It reminded me of the Fireplace Channel Conundrum. 

When I was a student, people were having their first experience of the massive proliferation of television channels which became available with the advent of the satellite dish.  Nothing epitomized the dazzlingly indulgent scope of the satellite epoch better than the fireplace channel.  It was a channel – way out in the further reaches of the Sprawl, nobody could ever quite remember what number – which showed an uninterrupted close-up of logs burning on a warm, relaxing fireplace.  Sometimes it had a yuppie satori New Age score piped over it, but most of the time the soundtrack was just the soft hiss and crackle of the fire.  This, of course, was long before the days of Noosfeed, so the satellite channels were a very significant cultural outlet in many student households – especially those where marihuana was smoked in any reasonable quantity.  This particular building that I was living in was one of those weird old family houses in which not a stick of furniture or lick of nausea-deco wallpaper had been altered since the ‘70s.   The living room was a long, narrow little space, like a waiting room.   We spent many dimly-lit hours there, seated on faded, aromatic old armchairs and couches, smoking weed and plugging ourselves into the entertainment multiverse of the Sprawl.
 
A Sprawl session usually began in the early evening, with the whole household sharing a smoke before going out on the town.  One or two, however, would always remain behind – one who’d probably intended to go out, but inadvertently lost the will to become vertical much less mobile, and another who was of that mystical type which scorned the social sphere altogether, favouring from the outset the type of mental journeying facilitated by marihuana and the remote control, then known affectionately as the “Gadget”, the “Machine”, the “Thing”, or almost any moniker excluding that of the “Remote Control” itself, as though its magical efficacy would vanish forever once invoked by its True Name.


    
Having first drank a few beers and chatted for a while, the two stragglers would eventually reach a stage of marihuana intoxication characterised by a heightened intensity of immediate perception, coupled with severely impaired short-time memory, this condition signalling the optimum time to begin channel hopping.  For the next few hours, they eased themselves into the shifting topography of the Sprawl, beginning in the Old World of what were then aptly labelled the “terrestrial channels”, weekend chat-shows so familiar and mundane they might as well have been beamed directly from the next room, nightly news parochial enough to be happening outside their kitchen window, gradually lifting off into the stratosphere, towards the edge of the ecliptic, where the archetypal forms of New World constellations swam past them in dizzying profusion, pioneering American chat-shows that mixed real-life voyeurism with ambiguous Wrestlemania spectacle, television judges, psychologists, shamans, gynaecologists, bounty-hunters, cops, all plying their professions on a public that might have been real people or actors playing real people, infomercial channels where actors shilled exercise equipment and actors playing real people shilled kitchen appliances that appealed to the miraculous New Physics of the Cyclonic Cutting Zone (not, contrary to the name, a sci-fi torture chamber), out further again, through a wormhole that fractured near and far, past and present, into an atemporal labyrinth, which opened here in an old kung fu movie, whose extraterrestrial dubbing and intergalactic punch-impact sound effects were a perennial joy to the stoned Sprawler, there into an 80s soft-core porn fantasia, whose impressionistic lighting and showy editing rendered its erotic content abstract and piecemeal, taking sideways turns into a portentous documentary detailing the professional and emotional upheavals of the musician and performer Meatloaf, and always, by some mysterious serendipity, landing at precisely the right moment in the midst of an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, which, if luck held out even further, might turn out to be Mirror, Mirror, much beloved by Sprawlers for its evil, bearded double of Spock, or The Way to Eden, similarly cherished for its Space Hippie guest stars.




Although on the surface a lethargic and untaxing activity, this type of television viewing required the cultivation of certain sensitivities and instincts.  When channel-hopping, it was important to know when to stop at a particular channel, and when to move on again; when to comment on some bizarre aspect of the viewing experience, and when to remain silent; when you had no choice but to go out to the kitchen to make toast, or when a few extra minutes might have caused your partner to crack, and volunteer to do the same.  The cultivation of these instincts was aided by the fact, widely known but rarely discussed out in the open, that stoned satellite viewers generally developed a kind of close psychic rapport, sometimes suspected to extend into the circuitry of the television, or perhaps even out as far as the electromagnetic ether itself, where packets of information hovered like spirits of the departed, seeking proper mediums and suitably rapt audiences.  In hindsight, it is possible to trace a definite lineage between satellite Sprawling, and the internet surfing which would come largely to replace it.  Both involved trawling a non-linear, randomized network, and both emphasized a realignment of the mind towards modes of thinking which were fragmentary and episodic.  Both seemed to place a particular currency in experiences which prompted either audible hilarity, or a kind of sheer befuddlement in the face of the inexplicable, bizarre, or utterly randomoid.  Sprawlers, like acid trippers, often completely forgot earlier peak moments of a session, until they eventually returned as dreamlike flashbacks, prompting astonishment, and sometimes considerable doubt as to the veracity of the memory.  (A couple of us retain the conviction to this day that we once hit on a movie which turned out to be a cross-over between the Elvis Presley Blue Hawaii cycle, and the Toho Company Godzilla franchise, although no evidence of its existence ever emerged in subsequent researches.)

Later on in the night, the others came back from bars and nightclubs, and some awareness of the world outside the living room was briefly and tenuously re-established, but it wasn’t long until the newcomers had smoked themselves into the Sprawl mind-meld.  It was usually during these latter stages of the session, with the torch of the remote passed on to fresh hands, that we would sooner or later hit on the fireplace channel.  It seemed at the time as though we spent hours watching those logs burn, but in reality, it was probably never more than ten or fifteen minutes at a turn.  The fireplace channel could be very soothing, or more than a little sinister, depending on your mood.  It was extremely hypnotic as long as the New Age music wasn’t playing, and with the stoner’s capacity for synaesthete blurring of categories, it was often easy to lull yourself into the illusion that you were looking at a real fire, to begin to feel actual warmth coming from it.  (We’d all heard the cautionary tale of a particularly far gone Sprawler who’d actually attempted to stoke the fire with a poker, causing the destruction of the television set, and an ontological melt-down from which that household had yet to recover.)  Our running trip with the fireplace was to ruminate on the central mystery, or Conundrum, of the channel: the fire never seemed to go out, nor was anybody ever witnessed adding new logs to it.  Clearly, some law of thermodynamics was being violated here.  We’d watch the fireplace channel for long (in Sprawl terms) stretches, trying to catch out the Hidden Hand that Changed the Logs, until we eventually tired of the wheeze, and moved on in search of a Magnum, P.I. rerun or Toho monster brawl.  “We’ll catch him the next time,” somebody would say.  However, one of our flatmates, an idealistic and slightly fragile young man called Simon, started to become obsessed with the fireplace channel.

“Seriously, though, how is it that the fire never dies down?” he’d say.  “It stays the same strength, all the time.  Somebody has to change the logs.  I don’t know how they do it, but somebody has to change the logs.”

We tried to explain to him that the footage was surely playing on some kind of edited loop, but, whether due to his idealistic nature, or some profound ignorance of the capacity of editing to trick the eye, he refused to accept this.

“Who makes the channel, anyway?” he continued.  “How is it funded?  There are no ad breaks.  No ad breaks!  How does a television channel survive without advertising revenue?  What function does it serve?  Television serves just two functions: advertising and propaganda.  Well, the fireplace channel doesn’t sell anything, so it must serve an exclusively propagandist function.  But what message could it possibly have?  What message is being subliminally communicated to us by this smouldering fireplace?  What is its worldview?”

This was a side to Simon, normally sedate and even a little dull, which we hadn’t seen before.   It was obvious that he was getting a little too preoccupied with the Fireplace Channel Conundrum, and some of us started to mutter that perhaps weed just didn’t wasn’t his thing.  But he seemed to cool off on the subject for a while, so we didn’t give it too much further thought.  That was until this weekend came around when everybody happened to be going home – everybody except Simon.  Before we all left, we found him in the living room, preparing for an epic and unconventional Sprawl session.  The ground was strewn with bags of potato crisps, in which the whole bestiary of the low-budget snack world was represented: Monster Munch, Meanies, Hot Lips, Banshee Bones, even (ominously) some jumbo-sized Space Raiders, a relatively obscure, pickled onion-flavoured corn snack whose packaging featured a quite accurate rendering of the feared Zeta Reticulan Grey alien.  He also had a bag of weed, and his plan was to watch the fireplace channel continuously, until such time as he finally saw the Hidden Hand that Changes the Logs.  Obviously, this was a very unhealthy course of action to undertake, and we really should have attempted some kind of intervention at that point.  But – whether due a youthful inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation, or some streak of that malicious tendency which prompts some dopers to feed LSD to dogs and cats – we left him to chase down our buses, and go about our weekends.



We returned, and were more than a little relieved, to find Simon apparently none the worse for wear.  There was an excited gleam in his eye, and a certain air of quiet accomplishment, almost smugness, in his manner, but other than that, he seemed no different than before.  We quizzed him about the fireplace marathon, and found him oddly reticent on the subject.  Eventually, he told us that he had finally experienced a breakthrough after twelve straight hours.  He had seen the Hidden Hand, and alluded darkly to more besides, but refused, no matter how we prodded him, to elaborate any further.  It was a subject which we were happy to let drop.  In the weeks that followed, it became increasingly apparent that Simon simply wasn’t the same after that weekend.  He had become distant, disengaged from life, secretive.  He started to read voraciously, in a variety of esoteric and seemingly unrelated disciplines, and when he watched television, it was with a certain specialized, academic focus.  You’d notice him taking frequent mental notes, or sometimes nodding sagely to himself, as though some abstract thesis had been confirmed by an incidental detail on the screen.  The expression “away with the fairies” is much abused today as a synonym for the mildest levels of distraction from consensus reality, but must owe its origins to a very specific phenomenon in our agrarian and animistic past, whereby a person, having met some experience out in the fields or crossroads of night, was henceforth only a physical refugee in our world, and a mental denizen of that other world which the rest of us cannot see.  This was an apt description for what had happened to Simon, except that his experience had occurred amid signals bouncing down from the edge of space, at the crossroad between standard channels, in the white noise interstices that wind their way like an adverse Qlippoth into the pathways between proscribed signals.  In subsequent Sprawl sessions, whenever Simon held the remote, eerie and sometimes prophetic synchronistic linkages abounded in the segues from one channel to the next.

After moving out of the house at the end of that college semester, I lost track of Simon for a few years.  Much later on, when I had developed a penchant for aimless street rambling, I started to bump into him from time to time.  In the ensuing years, he’d dropped out of the regular flow of life altogether.  He didn’t work, and lived in a tiny bedsit, whose tasteless and decrepit furnishing suggested a compressed version of our narrow old living room – only the television was gone, replaced by a laptop.  I didn’t think he had too many friends, and imagined him striking up conversations with strangers outside cafes, another one of those eccentrics who introduce themselves with some idle chit-chat about the weather, before lurching abruptly into a geopolitical manifesto of apparently infinite scope and duration.  Nevertheless, he seemed quite content, in his own way.  I went back to his flat occasionally, to smoke some dope.  He devoted most of his time – and most of the limited space offered by the bedsit – to the study of labyrinthine conspiracy theories.  He seemed particularly enamoured of the notion that global events were controlled by a cadre of secret societies, whose guiding hand was made apparent in the recurrence of certain qabalistically significant numbers and images in newspaper headlines and artefacts of the popular culture.  He had compiled detailed analyses of what he called “cluster events” – terrorist attacks, mass shootings, plane crashes, natural disasters, NASA press announcements – and how they corresponded with Hollywood blockbusters, music videos, awards ceremony set-pieces, and trending topics on Noosfeed.  His underlying thesis was that reality was an infinitely malleable mathematical construct, and could be manipulated by feeding certain numerical and archetypal patterns into the collective psyche, like a malicious computer code.

“Have you ever wondered why Frazer’s Golden Bough remained so popular and influential in the 20th century, even to the present day?” he asked me once, “A turgid, almost unreadably prolix compendium of unsupported, outdated armchair anthropology?  It’s because its readers knew intuitively what Frazier sought to suppress – that the modern global village is exactly the same as its ancestral precursor – the same indivisible web of sympathies and correspondences, the same dense network of conscious and unconscious sorceries, the same dim shapes weaving destiny in the hidden places of fields and forests, weaving destiny from a thread of placations, sacrifices, and ancient curses -  the irony of Frazer was that his book was infused with the energies of the very magic he sought to consign into history, and offered its readers a glimpse at the hidden web of intentional and symbolic forces which underscore the façade of the modern world - ”

It was difficult to navigate the cramped space of the bedsit without knocking over a book-pile or two.  I was gathering books from the floor one evening when a familiar cover gave me a start: Pendleton’s Circuitous Path.  It seemed that Simon, too, was much preoccupied with the enigmatic motif of the bird out of space and time.  The bird, according to his researches, was an ambiguous symbol of immemorial provenance, whose appearance sometimes denoted regeneration, and sometimes damnation.  Its ancient analogues included the Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel, of the Yazidi religion, the phoenix of Greek mythology, and the Firebird of Slavic folklore, whose peacock-like plumage burned with the effulgence of a bonfire always on the cusp of waning.  In more recent times, Simon found an echo of the archetype in the eponymous symbol of happiness sought by Mytyl and Tyltyl in Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play The Blue Bird; he believed that certain verses of Crowley’s abhorred Book of the Law referred elliptically to the bird out of space and time; and that the “rough beast” of Yeats’ apocalyptic Second Coming was another oblique reference.

“It’s strange,” Simon noted, “that all these echoes cluster around the early part of the twentieth century.  First Crowley channelling the Book of the Law in Egypt in ’04.....then Pendleton’s European travels in ’05 forming the basis of The Circuitous Path…..Maeterlinck, operating in the same Symbolist milieu as Pendleton, writing The Blue Bird in ’08…..Yeats, a few years later, working from the same Golden Dawn tradition as Crowley, producing visionary poetry which is enthralled by the idea of gyres, by the circuitous turning of vast wheels of time, kalpas, yugas, aeons….ideas which are pretty similar, if you think about it, to the sense of eternal recurrence which seemed to drive poor Pendleton to distraction in the Paimio Sanatorium…..”



At this point, Simon veered off into a conspiranoid digression regarding the mythical lost album of Charles Manson:
“It’s fairly common knowledge that Charles Manson desperately wanted to be a rock star, right?  Also that, in order to further this ambition, he somehow managed to insinuate himself into the company of record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.  Actually, the connections between the Manson Family and LA music scene went much deeper than this - deeper, perhaps, than we will ever know.  The sheer preponderance of weird coincidences swirling around the case – the unshakeable sense that each player in the drama was somehow intimately and secretly connected with every other – has led some to speculate that the Manson murders were merely the visible manifestation of some vaster SATANOID conspiracy which engulfed the entertainment world during the Age of Aquarius.  Anyway, to say on the subject at hand….”  

“….Wilson arranged for Manson and his entourage to spend a couple of days recording in L.A.’s prestigious Gold Star Studios.  This was the same studio where a young Phil Spector had developed – or, as some vinyl Platonists insist, discovered – the Wall of Sound.  The Manson sessions were first commercially released in 1970 as Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, and have been in the public domain ever since.  This much is known.  However, it has been persistently rumoured that another recording session took place in Brian Wilson’s home studio.  The fruits of this session were said to embody a ‘vibe which was too heavy and evil for this world to bear’, and the tapes were apparently destroyed.  Or so the official story went.”

“However, unofficial, subterranean sources have always insisted that the master tapes of Manson’s lost album were never destroyed.  Around the period of the trial, they claim, the tapes were in the possession of Dennis Wilson.  He really wanted to destroy them, but just couldn’t do it.  Like many involved in the case at that time, he was caught in a tailspin of hyper-paranoia, frozen by the sense that all of his actions were somehow enmeshed in a nexus of black magic and dire, unexpected consequences.  So the story goes that he passed the tapes on to Terry Melcher, figuring he’d have the nerves to do what needed to be done.”

“Except Melcher also gets the FEAR – sheer, crippling, paranoiac terror.  What if Manson gets out, and comes looking for the tapes? Or sends some of his glassy-eyed jailbait militia out to collect them?  What if burning the tapes succeeds only in releasing their evil vibes, dispersing them into the ether until the L.A. smog itself becomes thick with contagious Mansonoid lunacy?  WHAT IF THAT WAS MANSON’S PLAN ALL ALONG?  Melcher knew there was only one person he could turn to - his mentor, and the man whom he credited with a greater affinity to the arcana of sound recording and black magic than any other living soul: Harold L. Zarkoff, better known in the music world as “Professor” Buzz Zarkoff.”

“Though largely unknown today, outside of the narrow subculture of Surf & Drag/Hot Rod music enthusiasts, Buzz Zarkoff made a big name for himself in the early 60s, arranging and producing hit records in the genre sometimes nicknamed the “death disk” or “splatter platter”, and later categorized as the teen tragedy song.  Zarkoff specialized in that particular song-cycle within the genre, best exemplified by Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve, Ray Patterson’s Tell Laura I Love Her, and the Shangri-Las’ anthemic Leader of the Pack, wherein pious teen devotion is thwarted by fatal vehicular misadventure.  Following the lead of Shangri-Las production visionary George “Shadow” Morton, Zarkoff incorporated elaborate vehicular sound effects into the mixes of his hormonal melodramas.  The actual provenance of these sound effects has been the subject of persistent rumour in the Surf & Drag subculture, many believing that Zarkoff employed a cadre of brylcreemed, speed-obsessed fatalists to cruise the Hollywood hills at night, often traversing certain stretches of Mulholland Drive reputed to be haunted by malevolent entities, with the intention of deliberately precipitating accidents, whose screeches and crashes a helmeted Zarkoff would record from the backseat, believing that the risks taken on their side balanced the karmic debt of injuries (and automotive repairs) on the other.  Whatever the truth of these rumours, the scream which climaxes the spoken-word bridge of Now She’ll Never Tell Me to Slow Down Again by Ricky Danube (of Ricky and the Rubes) still chills to this day.”

“Anyway, Melcher meets Zarkoff in a parking lot on Sunset, and explains his predicament.  ‘Don’t worry about it, Terry,’ Zarkoff reassures, ‘I know just exactly what to do with this.’  As it happened, he did know precisely what to do with the cursed recording.  Zarkoff’s plan was flawless.  He would first erase the Manson material from the tape, and then record a banishing ritual over it.  Next, in order to ensure that the negative vibes had been forever erased, he would drive out to Joshua Tree, find a certain “power spot” where he had frequently tripped on peyote, and bury the tape there.  Zarkoff knew that this was the right place to bury the tape because once, during a particularly lucid and revelatory part of his trip, a spirit guide appeared at his right ear, and whispered: “Whatever is buried here – whether good or evil – will bear no further fruit.”  With the benefit of hindsight, this was clearly higher-dimensional advice, designed to become useful in precisely this crisis.” 

“The plan then was flawless, fool-proof – but it never happened.  Zarkoff kept looking at the tapes – all ready to be erased, to be banished forever for the good of mankind – and some instinct took over.  Call it morbid curiosity, the imp of the perverse, whatever.  He starts to think to himself: I could listen to a few seconds of it, right?   A few seconds would satisfy my curiosity.  What harm could it do?  A song.  One song.  One song isn’t going to kill anybody, right?  So he procrastinates, spending a few hours every evening just looking at the tapes, his mind swinging like a pendulum between yin (It’s just a recording, for Christ’s sake, what harm can listening to it do?) and yang (Its evil vibes are worming their way into my brain as we speak, forcing me to play it!) until eventually, inevitably, he cracks, and plays the tapes - gazing, as it were, with his Third Ear open, into the Mansonoid abyss……”

“Six months later, Harold L. Zarkoff was found dead in his Whittier Drive home.  His house was a short distance away from the North Whittier Drive dead man’s curve, immortalized in the song of the same name by Jan and Dean, and just a few blocks away from the very spot where Jan Berry, by one of those peculiar quirks of destiny which is by no means innocent or coincidental, suffered a near fatal car crash himself - driving, as in the song, a Stingray.  Zarkoff’s cause of death was autoerotic asphyxiation, reputedly the result of a sex magick ritual – in which he was costumed as the Egyptian deity Osiris – gone wrong.”
 
“The significance of this to our story is that the lost Manson album was never destroyed.  After Zarkoff’s death, it fell into the hands of Clarence “Butch” Spiv, the saxophone player with Zarkoff’s hard-rocking Surf & Drag house-band The Bloody Pink Slips.  After “Butch” Spiv, it passed on to road-manager, groupie groomer, and general mid-level sleazoid Marty Ballinger.  And so it has travelled ever since, a morbid talisman in the tarnished underbelly of the L.A.  music scene, another illicit and extreme experience offered in a world of dreams gone awry and hedonism run rampant, from one owner to the next, from skid-row hotels to mansions in the hills, from the generation of hippie star children aging into cocaine gypsy-millionaires, to the era of yuppies and bouffant glam rockers, to the present, always being played in the early and weird hours of epic bacchanalias, in the too-bright and vivid hinterlands between ecstatic night and morning’s come down, played as a last resort when an immunity to amyl nitrate had been attained, and the desire to say out of it will court any madness, leaving a trail of bad luck, mysterious reversals of fortune, and death by hedonistic misadventure in its wake.”

“I was on this Noofeed forum recently, where an anonymous – apparently a former child-actor – claimed that he had seen the master-tapes of the lost Charles Manson album.  He said that he was at some glitzy, debauched weekender in a house in the Hollywood hills in the early 90s – Timothy Leary, River Phoenix, and some or all of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were also in attendance.  At some point, he and a handful of other revellers were exploring a recording studio in the house, and they found this really dusty old tape in a box, which was labelled Hymns to the Cosmic Bird Out of Space and Time, and just as they were about to play it, somebody rushed in and told them it was an old Charlie Manson recording which was supposed to be cursed.”
“You mean, you think Manson read The Circuitous Path?” I interjected.
“Yes, I think Manson must have read Pendleton, and associated the bird out of space and time with Paul McCarthy’s Blackbird on the White album: Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/ Into the light of the dark black night.”



My encounters with Simon always left me with mixed feelings.  Every time we met, our conversation started in relatively mundane and everyday territory, so each time I would begin to suspect that perhaps he’d finally left aside the thrall of his solitary obsessions, and set his mind to things more fruitful to the everyday existence.  I might have hoped for this outcome, owing to a lingering sense of guilt, a feeling that we should have looked out for him a little bit more when we were flatmates.  His conversation, however, would inevitably turn back to the exotic fringes of the possible, and the theme of all-pervasive occult conspiracy.  I never knew exactly how to feel about this.  I felt sorry, I suppose, for the lonely and spartan nature of his life, its sense of disconnection from the bustling world which the majority lived in.  And yet, at the same time, it was hard not to acknowledge that these subjects, at least on the surface of things, made him happy.  When he spoke about them, a look of conviction, even transportation, stole over him.  He assumed the quiet joy, the strange personal light, of a religious ecstatic.
 
As time wore on, and I began to have problems with work, and at home with Catherine, it sometimes occurred to me that perhaps to live as Simon did wasn’t really that bad.  At that time, I was beginning to suspect that simply to exist in the professional world, to provide for oneself some slight measure of luxury above bare necessity, required an extraordinary sacrifice of energy – a diminution of the energy to create, to be inspired, to be enraptured by the very fact of one’s existence.  Simon, for whatever he lacked, didn’t suffer those intrusions into his personal pursuits and interests.  There was, however, also something in his look of religious transportation which deeply unnerved me.  This world as he perceived it was the unholy text of a demiurge – a web of information whose careful unravelling raised him to a sensation of intimate connection with the hidden wellsprings of reality itself.  This was appealing to me, but there was also something frightening in that appeal – some intimation of the close proximity between total revelation and total madness, between gleaming godhead and annihilating vacuum.  When he became most animated in the explication of his ideas and theories, a light entered his eyes, but when I looked closely enough, I saw only the coals of the satellite fireplace, and even began to hear the sound of its low hiss and crackle, drowning out his words, and filling the cramped space of the bedsit like a quietly malevolent presence.  Faces appeared to swim around the light in his eyes, mesmerised and empty.


The same mystery seemed to surround the Quarter that February – the mystery of a fire which burned untended.  I could never catch any glimpse of my neighbours, only the indirect evidences of their continued presence.  Paranoid scenarios occasionally suggested themselves – the idea, for example, that I was in reality the only tenant of the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter, with the whole complex serving as a laboratory space, in which I was to be first isolated, and then subject to various psychogeographical experiments.  I could proceed, for example, by attempting to befriend some of the supermarket staff, or the people I occasionally saw loitering tensely around the offices during the day.   But I would have to suspect that they were also part of the experiment, feeding me misinformation, liable any day to vanish without trace like the other tenants of the high rises.

Occasionally, these paranoid ruminations were interrupted by a light streaking down from above, which my eyes quickly registered as a still-burning cigarette tossed from one of the higher balconies.  This was perhaps the definite proof that I wasn’t alone in the Quarter, but it still seemed possible to me that the falling cigarettes were in fact merely ones which I had tossed from my own balcony, perhaps a day or a week ago, returning to their point of departure by way of some localized quirk in the curvature of space/time.

Of course, these were merely fancies, but anybody following the Noosfeed accounts of my neighbours that February, and indeed the accounts of many individuals scattered across the city, would also have noticed a peculiar quietness and reticence descending on the network.  Many had stopped posting altogether, and those who continued to update their status did so in a kind of perfunctory manner, as though trying to withdraw from the community without soliciting undue attention to themselves.  Large sections of the population had become abruptly and mysteriously secretive; and, far from abandoned, the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter was a hotbed of hidden and subversive activity which would only become apparent in due course. 


Then, however, I knew nothing of this, and was only wondering where everybody had gone.

Continued shortly. 

Top image: Ivan Bilibin's illustration to a Russian fairy tale, via wikipedia   
Toho image: Shinto priestess performs purification ceremony prior to the filming of Terror of Mechagodzilla, via wikipedia.
Gold Star Image: Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, and Phil Spector, recording A Christmas Gift To You, at Gold Star Studios, 1963, via TV Guide.