Sunday, April 19, 2020

Things that Will Shatter Your Imagination: The Accidental Genius of Lucio Fulci 1979/1982.



 
Supernatural disgust! No one approaches without revealing to me, despite himself, the stage of his putrefaction, the livid destiny which awaits him. Every sensation is sepulchral, every delight a dirge.
E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist. 


5 September, Rome: - We saw Zombi 2 – science fiction horror film. Ghastly, repulsive trash.
Andrei Tarkovsky, from his diary.


In the golden age of Italian film-making, there were three distinct tiers of directors. At the apex, at least in terms of cultural prominence, art house giants like Fellini and Antonioni commanded international respect and considerable artistic freedom. Next, genre auteurs and specialists like Sergio Leone and Dario Argento carved out niches in specific popular genres. Critical respect would come more slowly to these directors, but they enjoyed a kind of prominence and budgetary license within the Italian film industry. Finally, at the lowest rung in terms in budgets and critical appreciation, great journeyman directors like Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi produced movies, quickly and cheaply, in whatever genre producers happened to be churning out at the time. Only more recently have these directors come to be appreciated as auteurs in their own right. 


 A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (Fulci, 1971).

If you don't count Mario Bava in this category, Lucio Fulci was perhaps the greatest of these journeyman directors. It is a peculiarity of Fulci's legacy that the bulk of his cult notoriety rests on a sequence of ultra-gory and increasingly surreal horrors which he directed between 1979 and 1982. The iconography of these movies – gouged eyeballs, spewing entrails, deliquescent faces – defines Fulci as an auteur and icon of horror cinema. Yet Fulci had been making movies for decades in 1979, and only really stumbled into the horror genre because he was broke, and the success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) put zombies firmly on the radar of Italy's magpie-like producers. The artistic peak of Fulci's career was in the early to mid-70s, when he produced the historical masterpiece Beatrice Cenci, and three of the greatest of all the giallos in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Don't Torture a Duckling and The Psychic.

Yet Fulci's output in '79 to '82, if not his highest achievement, is nevertheless a unhinged treasure trove of cult/midnight movie madness. The peculiar appeal of these movies has to be understood in the context of how they were made. Champions of Fulci's gore movies often present them as highly deliberate, authorial works of surrealism and pure cinema. This is at least partially true, but it ignores the difficulty of untangling intention and accident in the strange aesthetics of movies like The Beyond and House by the Cemetery

 Inferno (Argento, 1980).

These films were made subject to breakneck schedules, fluctuating budgets and frequent production interference. Fulci himself described The Beyond (as well as Argento's Inferno) as examples of “absolute film”: “a film of images, which must be received without any reflection.” Inferno provided a template for the kind of irrational, almost non-narrative horror that Fulci would pursue in the 80s, yet it was itself partially a product of accidental circumstances. Suitably enough for such a fever dream of a movie, Inferno was plagued by illnesses. Argento himself was laid up with hepatitis, and frequently had to direct lying down or via notes from his hospital bed. Star Irene Miracle had recently recovered from a fever, and her hair began falling out, prompting Argento to kill her off early in the film, effectively re-writing the story on the hoof. While there is no doubt that Argento was more preoccupied by dream logic and cinematic formalism than narrative clarity to begin with, Inferno was a picture that became more abstract and non-linear in the telling. Similarly, screen-writer Dardano Sacchetti claimed that The Beyond acquired it's “non-grammatical” nature by virtue of the depletion of its budget.

This is not to detract from Fulci's achievement in these movies, but only to suggest that it could only have occurred within the constraints of a particular production milieu. Italian popular cinema had always been highly derivative of what was happening in the international market. Nevertheless, in the 1960s and 70s, the Italians developed versions of US genres – the spaghetti western and the giallo – which were uniquely Italian enough to constitute original indigenous inventions. By the 1980s, the great creative energy of the post-war art-house boom was waning, and the Italian popular film industry embraced the ethos of rip-off cinema with an increasingly blatant abandon, creating a near infinite number of low-budget hybrids of Mad Max, Escape from New York and The Warriors. Filtered through the feverish Italian cinematic imagination, however, these movies were largely failures as copies, but frequently come to life as cinematic Frankenstein's monsters, lumbering undead creatures made up of other movies incongruously stitched together.

 

Although only House by the Cemetery and Manhattan Baby fully conform to this idea of Italian rip-off cinema, Fulci's 80s gore period has to be understood properly in the context of this wonky, off-kilter production milieu. Rather than seeing them as the work of an artist in full control of his medium, Fulci's 80s horror is perhaps best envisioned as the work of a great cinematic crafsman set adrift in a declining film industry, whose imagination paradoxically rises to an almost fatalistic pitch of morbid creativity in the hothouse atmosphere of these chaotic and rushed productions. 


 

Whereas Bava and Argento had always tended to aestheticize and eroticize horror, Fulci went straight for the uncensored amygdala of the genre, becoming a poet of charnal house decay and putrescence. In Fulci's horror cinema, bodies and buildings are always subject to decay and dissolution; the extreme vulnerability of the physical frame, exemplified by the eye, is constantly imperilled by abrupt, nightmarish assault; the frailty and gory plasticity of the corporeal hangs over these films like a stench. Lacking the opulent colours and architectures of Bava and Argento, beauty appears in Fulci only in eerie and unnerving forms; in, for example, the sudden appearance of blind seeress Emily and her guide-dog in the middle of an empty stretch of road in The Beyond, or the emergence of Bob from a kind of birth canal into a world of listless ghosts at the end of The House by the Cemetery.

To achieve these effects, Fulci was fortunate in the amount of highly gifted collaborators which he worked with throughout this period, most notably the cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi. Frizzi's work is particularly crucial in establishing the aesthetic of these Fulci movies. Typically for Italian horror scores of the time, Frizzi's prog-influenced cues are alternatively hypnotic and bombastic, possessing a kind of wild and unapologetic incongruity which makes the movies oddly mesmerising. His typical zombie theme begins with a low, sepulchral intro, perfect for the slow rise of the zombie, but then segues into a bizarrely anthemic and up-beat chorus. His beautiful main theme for The Beyond suggests a slowly unfolding religious epiphany:



Zombi (Zombie Flesh Eaters), 1979. 


Though it was sold in many territories as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters has nothing in common with Romero's film, aside from the basic premise of the ravenous and perambulatory dead. Eschewing the Swiftian satirical undercurrents of Romero, Fulci sought to return the zombie to its roots in the voodoo lore and exoticism of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie. Zombie Flesh Eaters, then, is a pure pulp film with no subtext, and not a great deal of subtlety; nevertheless, it is executed with considerable gusto, energy and skill. If you wanted a pure pizza and beer movie which still has some claim to artistic merit, this fits the bill perfectly – it's probably the best non-Romero entry into the modern zombie movie cycle.

Trashy and all as it is, Fulci builds the pace slowly, and develops an over-powering mood of decay and hopelessness. Whereas Romero's zombies were always comically quotidian, Fulci's are nightmarishly rancid creations, infested with wriggling worms and mottled with bloody sores. Viewed today, Zombie Flesh Eaters is a masterclass in make-up and practical effects, and feels like a paean to the glories of pre-CGI cinema. In the climatic sequence, squibs explode, real flames engulf the set, living and undead bodies are assaulted with dizzyingly inventive abandon. The dare-devil ingenuity and remarkable craftsmanship of the practical effects work in this film is really something to behold.

Zombie Flesh Eaters has also gained considerable notoriety for a underwater sequence in which a zombie fights an actual shark. It is, to say the least, a somewhat jaw-dropping scene, whose enjoyment is leveraged to some degree on the obvious legal and moral issues raised by filming such a thing. This speaks to my main point about the accidental qualities of these movies, however; the sequence had nothing to do with Fulci, who neither wanted it in the film nor directed it. You can read the full story in this piece on Little White Lies.

Zombie Flesh Eaters stars the Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, who also appears in another unalloyed joy of Italian rip-off cinema, Luigi Cozzi's Aliens/Invasion of the Body Snatchers/James Bond mash-up Contamination. He gives a pretty good performance, despite a fairly palpable sense of contempt for the material. I always get a huge laugh out of the cosmically dishevelled state of of his comb over at the end of the picture. It feels like a metaphor for the humiliation of his serious thespian ambitions.

City of the Living Dead (1980). 


Fulci really began to develop his own style of horror movie with City of the Living Dead. It is the first in what would later be categorized as the “Gates of Hell Trilogy.” It is worth noting that these films were not originally intended as a trilogy, and that the third entry in the cycle (The House by the Cemetery) doesn't actually feature a gateway to hell. (There is a better case to be made, I think, for Manhattan Baby as a thematic follow-up to City and The Beyond.) City and The Beyond are difficult films to categorize. They both feature zombies, but neither can really be described as zombie movies. After completing Zombi, Fulci apparently devoured the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and these movies are in a sense low-budget Lovecraftian apocalypses. However, whereas Lovecraft remained a supreme rationalist, even while consigning human reason to insignificance in a vast indifferent cosmos, Fulci's appropriation of Lovecraft veers in the direction of the irrational. Whether by accident or design, Fulci arrived at a type of horror which lacks a conventional centre of gravity, and expresses itself as a series of increasingly inexplicable and terrifying events, “things”, in the words of the medium in City of the Living Dead, “that will shatter your imagination.” On a narrative level, these nightmare tableaus are held together by the loose convention of opening a gateway to hell.

In the fictional, quasi-Lovecraftian town of Dunwich, a priest (about whom we learn virtually nothing), commits suicide, thus opening a gateway to hell (in a manner never actually elucidated). On this simple premise, Fulci develops a plot which rarely makes a lick of sense on a literal level, but it doesn't matter. City moves and flows seamlessly in the sheer, all-enveloping mood conjured up by Fulci and Salvati's images of eerie, dust-blown streets and putrescent viscera, and their arrangement to Frizzi's mesmerizing score. Like Phantasm (1979), the most Italian of American horror pictures, City is a dream obsessively haunted by the spectre of mortality, by mortuaries, corpses and cemeteries. It is a nonsensical Gothic whose aesthetic falls somewhere between EC Comics and Francis Bacon. The iconic gore sequences in City have been amply discussed, but perhaps not enough attention is paid to the early section in which Mary (Catriona MacColl) wakes up in a coffin, and is rescued (albeit while being almost axed in the head in the process) by Christopher George. This set-piece (later homaged by Tarantino in Kill Bill) is a stunning piece of pure cinema worthy of Hitchcock, and a standout in Fulci's entire filmography.

The Black Cat (1981). 


Between the sustained insanities of City and The Beyond, Fulci took a left-field detour to the cosiness of the British countryside for this (somewhat) loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. An American photographer (Mimsy Farmer) and Scotland yard detective (David Warbeck) become involved in a series of murders and mysterious goings on in a quiet English village, all of which seem to involve a black cat belonging to the rheumy-eyed local magus (Patrick Magee). Though beautifully shot (again by Salvati) and stylishly executed, I think The Black Cat is the weakest in this cycle of films. Fulci apparently wasn't particularly interested in making it, and this translates into a feeling of lethargy pervading the project. Lacing the feverish intensity of his other films of this period, the plot iself fails to provide much in the way of dramatic impetuous. Nevertheless, with diminished expectations, The Black Cat is not without considerable bucolic and soporific charms of its own. Farmer, somewhat of a cult cinema icon, hasn't much to do with her character, but remains a striking and watchable presence. Magee is fantastic fun as the loathsome but hypnotic antagonist, and David Warbeck exhibits the unfussy charm which made him the most fondly remembered Fulci lead. The effect of The Black Cat is akin to watching an old episode of Midsomer Murder or Bergerac while under the influence of a potent, time-dilating sedative.

The Beyond (1981). 


Our setting moves to the Seven Doors Hotel in Louisiana, where once again the gate of hell is opened, this time by the crucifixion of aesthete and warlock Schweick in 1927 – or by the unweary excavations of Joe the Plumber in the film's contemporary setting - I'm not exactly sure which. The Beyond is regarded almost universally as Fulci's horror masterpiece, and while I've developed a considerable fondness for this crazy picture over the years, I still feel like it's perhaps too erratic and uneven to be quite a masterpiece. It is certainly a midnight movie barnstormer, and a grand compendium of everything that is both sublime and ridiculous about Italian horror as it was moving into the decline of its golden period. In terms of the ridiculous, The Beyond's eccentric goofs are legendary:
- The fact that the plumber is called “Joe the Plumber.” In fairness, the comedic value here isn't entirely Fulci's fault, but it doesn't help that the “Joe the Plumber” sign on his van looks like it was pasted on immediately before the cameras rolled.
- The “Do Not Entry” sign on the door of the morgue.
- The English dialogue track. Typically, the Italian dialogue track is far better acted and more atmospheric, but the English language track contains probably all of the best unintentionally funny lines in the entire Italian horror cannon. Most of them belong to Catriona MacColl's Liza: “I said you had carte blanche, not a blank cheque.” “I've lived in New York all my life, and if there's one thing I've learned not to believe in – it's ghosts.”
- The Death by Flesh-Eating Tarantulas in the Library Sequence. Even within the demented purview of The Beyond, Michele Mirabella's death is utterly random and bizarre, and it's main function I suspect was to allow Fulci to emulate the similarly random death by rats (and possessed fast food vendor) scene in Argento's Inferno. However, while Fulci's execution of the death by unexpected betrayal of guide-dog scene is arguably technically better than Argento's in Suspiria, here the grand ambition of the spider sequence is not well served by its execution. Sadly, neither the pipe cleaner-like spiders or the mould of Mirabella's face are particularly convincing, and the whole thing resembles a rather alarming contribution to an arts and crafts class at times. Still, the sound design is spectacular, and the sequence is nothing if not memorable.


On the side of sublimity, The Beyond is another stunning collaboration between Fulci, Salvati and Frizzi. The Seven Doors Hotel, with its dusty and dilapidated rooms and cavernous, terrifying basement, is a painterly triumph of production design and lighting. Cinzia Monreale's Emily is probably the most iconic minor character in horror film history, and in its best passages, The Beyond captures the morbid, decadent and dreamlike poetry which makes Italian horror so distinctive. If not quite a masterpiece, the discordance between its portentous metaphysics and campy and careless eccentricities certainly makes it unique.

The House by the Cemetery (1981). 


It is apt that House invokes the Frankenstein myth, since this outing finds Fulci and co. firmly in Italian rip-off cinema territory. House by the Cemetery takes elements of The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, The Amityville Horror, The Turning of the Screw, even a dash of The Evil Dead, throws them all in a blender, and then dips its fingers in the ensuing chaotic stew to deliver the chief's kiss. 

 
One issue needs to be addressed right out of the gate, and that is the performance of child actor Giovanni Frezza as Bob Doyle. Frezza was a kind of grotesquely cute child Klaus Kinski, and his Bob Doyle has frequently been labeled the most annoying child performance in the history of horror film, or indeed of film in its entirety. I would like to partially rehabilitate Frezza here. The primary problem with the performance lies in the fact that, on the English dub, Frezza is voiced by what appears to be a high-pitched woman in her forties. Watched in Italian, about 80% of the annoyance of Bob vanishes, and the film is improved immeasurably overall.

The House by the Cemetery is the real sleeper and slow-burner in the Gates Trilogy. I wasn't a fan originally, but it gets better every time I watch it. The stark, wintery meloncholy of the New England location is magnificently evoked by Salvati, and feels like the central character of the film. Various sub-plots and suggestions are established in the script, and left completely hanging. While I assume that this is an unintentional by-product of a rushed production, these structural definincies only add to the movie's mysterious and dreamlike tone. The ending is particularly striking. Having exercised a degree of restraint throughout, Fulci finally unleashes perhaps his most complete and almost unbearable evocation of nightmare in the Fruedstein basement. Basements have always maintained a peculiar significance in all of these movies, going back to Irene Miracle's dive into the flooded basement in Inferno. In Jungian psychology, such motifs would represent a descent into, and confrontation with, the unconscious. Bob finally escapes from the nightmare of Freudstein's basement by crawling through a narrow crack in the ceiling, a image which clearly evokes a birth trauma. In Jungian terms, Bob should now be a full, individuated adult, having endured the cathartic ordeal of encounter with the unconscious, and been reborn. However, in the movie, he emerges into a dead world in which he will be a child for eternity, swallowed up by the timeless and brooding New England landscape. This refers perhaps to the gloomy metaphysics screen-writer Dardano Sacchetti had developed for The Beyond, the sense of “being born condemned to die....of being born to be erased.”

Manhattan Baby (1982). 

 
I've lost all critical perspective.”
Dr Fruedstein, The House by the Cemetery.

Manhattan Baby marks the end of the era covered in this essay, essentially the relationship between Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis which began with Zombi 2 in '79. The movie has been disowned by its screen-writer, Fulci himself, and a great many people who have seen it. I would have to go against the grain and say it's a wild masterpiece, and possibly my favourite picture in the sequence. The chasm between what it was clearly intended to be, and what it actually ends up as, is part of what makes Manhattan Baby so fascinating. Once again in crazy quilt rip-off territory, the intention of Manhattan Baby was to embrace the new optical effect/family friendly horror style of Poltergeist, and marry it with elements of The Exorcist, Indiana Jones, and the Egyptomania of the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars (filmed brilliantly by Hammer as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb in 1971, and blandly as The Awakening in 1980 with Charlton Heston.) The conception of the film is so muddled that nobody really knows why it's actually called Manhattan Baby, the most plausible suggestion being an attempt to evoke memories of Rosemary's Baby.

However diffuse the concept, the film was clearly intended to be the most commercial endeavour the partnership had produced to date; yet Fulci winds up directing something far more surreal and non-linear than The Beyond, and far more experimental in its compositions and mosaic-like editing. Virtually every scene is a hypnotic play of facial and eye close-ups, shifting focus and aural weirdness, yielding a truly bizarre dreamscape which feels far more like David Lynch and Kenneth Anger than the Tobe Hooper neutered by Steven Spielberg vibe the production seemed to have intended. It is in some respect the culmination of what I have been discussing throughout this essay: a masterpiece emerging alchemically, and accidentally, from the brilliance of Fulci and the comic disarray of his production milieu.


Friday, April 3, 2020

Intermundia Airport. (Chapter 8)



Chapter 8.

They emerged into a long, dim and musty hotel corridor. The look of relief on Freddie's face reassured Mark that they were still in the Overnight, and had not been transported to its adjoining hostelry in some unfathomable elsewhere. The corridor was instantly familiar to Mark, but he was uncertain whether to account this as tentative recollection of a previous stay, or the stirring of some primordial collective memory. It felt like the maddening, purgatorial corridor that everyone had wandered hopelessly though at some point, lost in the eternities of a bad dream brought about by winter fever or some catastrophic sleeping posture. The wallpaper was an undeviating pattern of horizontal bars, blue and gold, with a slender white line traversing the centre of each. The numbered doors were plain dark timber with handles that resembled pouting, puzzled faces, and the lights that receded into the distance encased everything in a brownish half-light, which might have served to fossilze insects for long aeons beyond the extinction of their kind. The drabness and age of the furnishings embodied the precise meaning of the term seedy, their bare funtionality and aparent disdain for aesthetic comfort suggesting a place to whom its occupants were an objectified and anonymous afterthought.

After every five rooms, the corridor terminated and branched out at either side into identical iterations of itself. A song was playing in the dimness, seemingly piped into the corridors from the ceiling. The volume of the music wafted in and out with such subtle insinuation that Mark found it impossible to catch the precise instants where it faded out and back again. Rather, there was a haunted air of music moth-eaten with silence, and silence pregnant with the ghost of subliminal melodies. The song was a quaint romantic ballad, a synonym, it seemed to Mark, for memory and the past:
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll met again
Some sunny day

Perhaps it was merely the discussion he had just had with Freddie in the elevator, but the song made Mark think about the War – or, not the War itself precisely, but a great war as subsequent generations might have experienced it, as something almost cheap or kitsch in comparison to the actual experience. It occurred to him that this was the nature of all his memories – not of things themselves, with all their immediacy and intensity, but rather in their lingering after-effects, wherein they had been reduced to cliché and comedy, to the distant lightness and mustiness of old sitcoms endlessly replayed on television. In contrast, a borrowed memory, Freddie's recollection of the idylic hayday of Sheldrake's Summer Camp, rose unbidden and lucid in his mind as though it were his own. His thoughts drifted back to the woman in the photograph, her hair unkempt in the sea breeze. He pictured himself following her through the endless corridors of the Overnight, inacting the unrequited desire which is the undoing of every idyll.
Keep smiling through
just like you always do
Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds
Far away

Freddie took a left turn, and they started down a fresh corridor. 'Freddie', Mark asked, 'have I ever stayed here before? Do you remember me?' Freddie was looking with harried concentration at the door numbers as they passed. 'Well, sir, all due respect, that would be for you to know and me to ponder. There's so many what passes through 'ere, day in day out, that you could 'ave been 'ere only yesterday, and I wouldn't know you from Adam's sleeve.' They paused at an alcove in the corriodor, marked at either side by tall plants whose sharp, brittle leaves gleamed like leather lapels in the brown light. The alcove had a low table with a couple of chairs, and in the small, curving space between the table and jutting leaves, an elderly couple danced slowly to the alterations of music and silence that ebbed through the corridors.
So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know
Tell them I won't be long

They were both, Mark guessed, in their mid-70s or older, if age had any meaning in Intermundia. The man was slender and tall, the woman small and stout. Their eyes were shut tightly and their expressions serene, as though each clung to a soft dream that would remain secure so long as their arms were entwined, and their mutual mood in total surrender to the slow sway of the song. The scene affected Mark in a peculiar way which he could not initially pin down. Then it struck him: the couple must have been flying out in the morning. As such, they were not old, but young, immeasurably young. They would soon cast off their bodies of reified memory, and with their bodies all the dense and delicate threads of memory from which their identities were woven, and somehow, those threads would then rejoin the vast network of their prior incarnations, and the slumbering and infinitesimal conglomerate would return to the world of matter and life, summoned by human passions and blind molecular necessities to form a zygote and then an embryo, travelling from the dance of their frail and spent bodies in the corridor of the Overnight back once again into the maelstrom of pure being and beginning. In precisely the same way that the familiar world was haunted by the proximity of death, Intermudia was haunted by birth. The airplanes would soon begin their ascents, their gleaming flight paths related in some obscure fashion to encounters between living people, to innumerable moments of frenzy and boredom and love and violence, the points of intersection between the world of living finitude and the etiolated eternity of Intermundia's runways and terminals.

A cigarette smouldered in an ashtray on the table, and its curling plumes gathered thickly in the light of the alcove. Freddie shrugged. 'More bleedin' action that I'll see tonight.' They contined down the corridor.
They'll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song
Freddie paused in the middle of the corridor, at the door of room 36. Mark thought at first that it must be his room, but Freddie had a peculiar expression on his face, like a startled animal listening for predators. He motioned Mark to be quiet by touching his lip, and then leaned close to the door, pressing his ear to listen. Mark followed suit, and the two men faced one-another, Mark's eyes widening in puzzlement and Freddie's narrowing in concentration. They maintained this absurd posture for some time, and Mark perceived a scratching sound behind the door. Freddie looked through the keyhole, and then cocked his head to indicate that they should continue on.

'What was that about?' Mark whispered. Freddie flashed him a cagey, sombre look. 'There's somefing not quite right about that room. Unoccupied, sir, or so they say. Never been a sinner in it as long as I've been here. So I asked Digsby how come we never let Room 36, and 'e looked right peculiar and put out to be discussing it. He told me a fishy yarn, sir, to the effect that guests were never 'appy in Room 36 – that there was somefing about that particular room that lead them to 'ave what you might call troubles in the mental faculty. And this one visitor, 'e said, was so perturbed by Room 36 that he set himself on fire, if you can credit it. Well, enough is enough, Digsby said, and shut up the room for good, or so 'e says. But Teddy Bilk 'as been in the Overnight from day one, and 'e reckons that Room 36 'as always been empty, and that old Digsby spins a different gruesome yarn every time anybody asks about it. If you were to ask me, I'd say that Room 36 is most definitely occupied, by somebody who prefers to remain cogito ergo sum, as the French say.'
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again
Some sunny day

They had been walking for some time, and Mark was becoming increasingly disorientated by the sprawling scope of the corridors. 'Do you know where we're going?' he asked. 'I do indeed sir. We are heading for the front of the house.' He held up the key and shook it. 'Which means that you have snagged for yourself one of the most desirable rooms in our modest little hotel. You will have, sir, adjacent to your bedroom, a coveted balcony with stunning views of the terminal and runways. Well, perhaps not the most breath-taking vista admittedly' – his voice lowered – 'but the other rooms are all so pokey I wouldn't put a knacker's sick nag in them, being honest with you, sir.' They turned a corner, and arrived in an atrium which faced a single wall of rooms. 'Here we are,' Freddie said, gesturing to room 17. He unlocked the door and they went inside.
Freddie turned on the light, and Mark took stock of the room. It resembled an indigents bed-sit more than a hotel room. On the wall to the right, a single bed and a locker had been wedged into an alcove. On the left, immediately inside the door there was a bathroom and a small cooking area which consisted of a microwave oven and a box-shaped electical grill, both filmed with grease. Mark sat on the bed. The sheets looked filthy, and carried the smell of old flesh and disinfectant characteristic of hospitals and rest homes. 'Have these been cleaned?' he asked. Freddie looked sheepish. 'Yes, sir, cleaned every day. But they're so bleedin' old, it doesn't make much odds, know what I mean?'
'Well, what about replacing them? Getting some fresh ones?'
'I recommend you take that up with old Digsby, sir. I just run around and get shouted at, begging your pardon.'
The waiter stood awkwardly for a moment, and then looked around the room with a mournful and sympathetic expression. “I wouldn't fancy it myself, sir, but it's only a temporary situation. In no time whatsoever, you will be leaving this madhouse, sir. Going up there.” He raised his arm and pointed skywards. Then he nodded, and darted out of the room, leaving Mark suddenly and poignantly alone, as he had felt previously when Eddie and Giacomo left him to his meeting with Renton. His mind quite lucid and wakeful, he decided to take a careful itinerary of the room and its contents.

Positioned on the counter, there was a cookery book called THE NEW MAGIC OF MICROWAVE by Cyril Smythe. The book's subhead read: “Television's Famed “Confirmed Bachelor” Cyril Smythe Demystifies the Microwave Miracle!” Smythe is pictured standing by a microwave oven and small selection of unappealing dishes. He is a tall, portly man in middle-age, well dressed in a grey suit, with thick, carefully combed locks, sad, frightened green eyes and an expression of catatonic depression. Incongruously, he wears a Mexican sombrero. He is also pictured on the back cover, now seated at the dinner table. He has lost the sombrero, but a multi-coloured party horn hangs limply from the side of his mouth, as though positioned there without his cognisance. His dinning companion is an unconvincing inflatable similacra of a young woman. The text, bearing an only incidental relation to the subject of microwave cooking, reads: “The ultimate nature of life is the anguish of a goal which can neither be attained nor repudiated. The mythiopoetic iconography of hell as eternally frustrated satiation is merely this essential realization abstracted to a notional after-life. Includes Pictures, Party-Icebreakers, and Cyril's Patented Dry Anecdotes and Howlers Overhead on Public Transport.” Despite it's obvious utility, Mark found the book rather dispiriting overall.

There was a bulky tube television in the right hand corner of the room, and in a tray beneath it a selection of television listing magazines, puzzle digests and tattered war comics. For each day of his stay, the contents of the tray would morph into a new selection of periodicals, responding to the shifting demographics and memory complexes of each round of new arrivals: pamphlets advocating the extension of equal rights to inanimate objects, or sinisterly avowing the innate superiority of one or other of the root vegetables; almanacs haunted by sullen and inscrutable vegetation deities and zodiacal processions of gibbering monstrosities; pornographic dioramas that depicted anatomically impossible conjoinings and the worship of abstract and elusive fetish objects; lifestyle magazines show-casing an aspirational leisure society in which suburban residents were transformed into coolly distant potted plants, watered by automatons, and lulled into quiescence by a daily television broadcast in which guided meditations are whispered over atomic weapons testing footage; in time he grew bored with the fecund imagination of Intermundia's garbled memory circuits, as he did with the daily alterations in the patterns of his bed-sheets and curtains.
The balcony, as Freddie had promised, was at least more agreeable than the squalid bedroom. He stumbled about in the darkness at first, until he found a lamp. The little conservatory was sparsely but pleasantly furnished, with a table and two wicker chairs in the centre, and a writing desk to the right. The desk had a typewriter and some fresh sheets of paper, and in the drawers beneath the folding board, he found pages which he took to be the discarded memories of previous occupations. One of them begins -
- I hide under the table in my grandmothers house, watching the legs of my grandmother, my uncle and my father moving about on the dark, muddy stone of the kitchen floor – I can smell the earth from the floor – a neighbours dog comes into the kitchen and approaches me cautiously under the table, the sad, imploring saintly eyes of dogs – at night the three of us sleep by an open fire, and the shadows of the ornaments dance against the wall in the fire light – a porcelain dog, a Russian doll, a smooth glass paper weight – dancing in the fire light while we talk ourselves along the dimming path to our dreams -

Above the desk, he regarded the painting which he first noticed hours earlier from the terminal below. From a distance, it resembled an abstract geometrical mosaic, but closer inspection reveals that it depicts a block of elegant red-brick terraced apartments. The apartments are lit by a kind of magical blue evening twilight, suggesting an antique, sun-baked Eastern city of the painter's imagination. A winding stairwell runs between the terraces, and the apartments are small and cosy, with balconies decorated by tall, slender and carefully trimmed plants. On one of the balconies, a young woman stands between the plants, apparently waiting for something. There is an expression of ecstatic expectation in her searching eyes and parted lips. Three terraces below, we see a young man ascending the stairwell, his gait suggesting keen and fleet determination. It is for this questing youth, we imagine, that the maiden on the balcony waits, and to her he goes with such ardour. However, the painting tells us that he will never reach her, for two terraces above the balcony where the maiden waits, the youth begins his ascent again, and three terraces above that, waits the maiden once more, a reoccurring pattern which we must assume persists beyond the margin and the frame of the painting. In the stairwell along the border of the painting, it is the maiden who ascends, and we must assume that, were the image to continue beyong the border, it would be the youth who waited on the balcony, with searching eyes and parted lips, in eternally frustrated expectation of the maiden's arrival.

The painting struck an indelible cord with him. He know instantly that he had seen it many times before, with a far greater certainty than any of the other shadowy forms and dull chimings that resided in the fog of his memory. It was in fact, more than a memory. He felt that the painting was in some sense his personal possession or creation. Intermundia, Renton had told him, was constructed from the memories of the people that passed through it. He wondered if, in the midst of that communal composite, here and there, there might be objects that belonged to the memory of a single individual, like the face of a conqueror or a vanquished saint, carved into heedless mottled stone.

Mark took a seat at the low table, and looked out at the terminal below. It was still night, and Intermundia's moonless and starless sky shrouded everything in its undiluted void. The runways, however, were paths of gleaming light that drew to one-another until they met at the illuminated yet barely perceptible line of the horizon. Airplanes were being fuelled for the day's first flights, and tiny, skittish figures moved about them, while their engines, dimmed by distance, howled in the wide, frozen expanses below.

Beneath his resting palm on the table, there lay a book. Inspecting it, he found it to be a book for children, with beautiful illustrations and elaborate dioramas. It was called The Adventures of a Boy and a Girl, Along the Old Winding Road. Like the painting, it seemed to hold a vivid and poignant place in his otherwise dormant memory. He turned to the first page, and started to read. During the full course of his stay in Intermundia, he would read a few pages of the book every night before he went to sleep; but, because he was always drowsy when he started, he could never be certain how much of what he remembered the next day was actually contained in the book itself, and how much his waning attention and the stirring errancy of his imagination had interpolated into its contents. Everybody has two minds, that which is burdened by the chains of the day, and that adrift in the freedoms of the night. The book would become a palimpsest of his two contrary selves, with no clear borderline where the one left off, and the other began.


The Adventures of a Boy and Girl, Along the Old Winding Road.



Chapter 1.

This is a story of the very old times, when the land was different from how it is today. This is a story of when there were no cities, or even large towns. Much of the countryside was covered by deep woodland, and people lived in little cottages, keeping poultry and livestock, and gathering wood to heat their modest little homes. None of them, however, would venture far into those woods, for they were fearful places that had their own ancient orders, and their own powers and principalities. It was a simple, hard and satisfying life, in which one had simply to feed oneself, warm oneself, and then watch the twilight gather around the dense canopy of the woods, and dream a little of the mysteries that stirred each night to thread anew its primordial and untrodden paths.
Outside of the woodland in the centre of the country, there were great plains and valleys of verdant meadows and squat hills and tall mountains that loomed grey and brown in the sunlight. And the people who lived there were farmers and traders and tradespeople, and they lived in little villages and hamlets, and regarded the woodlanders as wild, unsophisticated and eerie creatures. Now those peoples were not the first who had ever lived in that land. Another tribe had lived there long, long ago, but nobody really knew a thing about them, because they had left no records or relics after them, but for one thing. That thing was a long, winding road, which the people, either for clarity of expression or lack of imagination, called the Old Winding Road.

Now that great stone-paved Road made its way through the whole of the land, and nobody knew where it began, or where it ended. One story says that the builders built their Road all the way to the ocean, and then continued building it, until such time as they were submerged beneath the water, whereupon they drowned with paving stones in hand, and that was why they were never seen in the land today. Such stories are amusing but cannot be credited.

A change was slowly coming to the land in the time this story was told, as always it must. Men were beginning to dream once again of progress and ease, and at night their sleep saw visions which they barely understood, of vast, bustling cities, and great storehouses of food that had not to be hunted, tended or slaughtered. The King was dreaming of roads that might link all of his kingdom, and taxes and tributes that could be collected thereupon. But Hush! we are still in the olden times yet.

Now in the woods in those times there lived a very fearsome old witch. She was in fact the last of the true witches, and thus she had great power, and thus she was as old as the oldest, most gnarled oak tree. And the people who lived in the forest feared her greatly, and with just cause, for people had been cursed by that witch for no greater injury than merely chancing upon her in the woods, and those people lost their hair, and the colour in their cheeks, and their appetites, and the power of speech, and eventually they would crawl off into a lake or an old tarn, and become a kind of muddy algae which was sometimes heard to cry at night. Such was the power of the witches curse, and such was the severity of her pique and caprice.

As the end of an age was coming upon the land, however, the witch had grown very old indeed, and her malefic powers were waning. All of the old powers of the land were waning, and all them knew dimly that soon they would be only tales such as this one, told when storms whistle in the hearth. Nothing, however, was so determined as that horrible old hag, and while the other creatures of the forest would wind their way mournfully yet ungrudgingly into the mist of tales and legends, she had a plan to prolong her existence and the vitality of her powers. She knew of a ritual – the most abominable of all forbidden spells – by which her powers might be renewed, and extend their reign into the coming age.

One night, the wife of a woodcutter sat by the fireside, cradling her newborn daughter in her arms, and cooing little lullabys while her lips brushed the infants forehead, and never in all the world was there such love, peace and felicity. The witch observed this scene from the window, and her face, like a leaden sky split asunder by lightning, was racked with bitter envy, for great power compels all things, except love. And the witch put a glamour on that young mother, such that she fell into a kind of trance, and when she emerged from that slumber, all she cradled in her arms was a bunch of old twigs and roots.

In another house not far from the woodcutters, a farmer and his wife lay upon a soft rug on the floor of their cottage, sporting and playing with their new-born son, and never in all the world was their such giddy and innocent joy. But the witch put a glamour on that young couple, and when they awoke from their trance, they played and sported with a little goat with a piebald coat.

And so the witch wound her way back into the deep woods, with the boy and the girl cradled in the folds of her immemorial rags, and as the sound of keening grief erupted through the clearing she had just departed, the witch threw back her head and cackled with joy, for there was none on earth that took measured pride in their goodness, as that witch reveled ecstatically in her undiluted evil. With great haste and fell purpose did she stride through those ancient groves, and the woods, which feared her waning powers still, drew themselves aside to make her path more easy: branches twisted away and wrapped about their trunks, like people hugging their shoulders; mosses rallied their strengh, and raised and rolled stones and boulders out of the way; clumps of nettles withdrew their sting, and proffered timid and soothing balsams instead; in such manner did all the varigated woodland show deference to that horrible creature, while inwardly mourning and weeping the fate of the poor babes she carried in her rags.

In no time at all, the witch arrives back to her cottage, whose aspect is just as fearful and disturbing as that of its occupant. Imagine a large two-storey cottage with a porch in a woodland scene, and no doubt you picture something quaint and homely. But now imagine that the structure is built upon a fairy mound, and that every plank of timber is painted pitch black; now, conjure turrets, the largest over the front door, which are as black, as sharply pointed and malefic in appearance as the hat which popular superstition falsely ascribes to the witch; picture further that the other turrets are adorned with evil-looking weather vanes, the right surmounted by the figurine of a grotesque and bilious fish, the left by that grim reaper whose harvest never falls fallow; now for your homely porch, envision that it is illuminated by tapers that burn in the concavity of two human skulls; and in those dancing flames, add the grim spectre of a forest of wind-chimes, the bones of various animals, that hang like stalactites, and whistle a mournful and foreboding tune in the night-time breeze. Now you have pictured the domicile of that hateful creature.

The witch laid her stolen babes upon the porch, and regarded their tearful and frightened little faces with indifference. “These two will be a handful,” she thought, “until they have come of age.” And she made a great cry which was neither human nor bestial, neither divine nor demonic, but an unhallowed mixture of all things which can make utterance; and to that cry came three creatures of the forest: the raven, the fox and the owl. The witch regarded the three animals, crestfallen to have come under her spell, and thus she spake: “These two brutes will make ample slaves when they have grown up out of imbecility, but I fear a long time will they remain thus incapacitated and cretinous, and needful of care and attention. Such care they will not receive from me, for I am no mother, but the very chill spite of barrenness itself! I charge you three to feed and nurture these whelps, until such time as they can make amends for themselves. Then, and only then, you will be free to go about your business, and pray you do not hear my summons again!” 

 

Thus it was that the boy and the girl were nurtured in their infancy by the raven, the fox and the owl, and this is how it was done. The raven went about the woods gathering food, and perched on the shoulder of the infants, he would drop it into their mouths. Milk he stole from the goat, who was never clever enough to fathom his sleights and diversions, and the magpie watched the raven closely at this activity, and this is how the magpie became a thief. The fox played with the children, so that they learned the power of their limbs and the joy of the world, but the fox was a proud creature, and much was it to his chagrin to be a minder of human children, and this is why the fox is red. Nevertheless, the fox developed a great fondness for the boy and girl despite himself, and this is why the fox approaches the world of humans both with fear and a longing for kinship. Finally, the owl lulled the children to sleep with the sonorous echo of his strange twilight calls, and the hypnotic intensity of his ancient and wise gaze. This is why the eyes of babies today sometimes assume the wisdom and serenity of all the ages when they are nodding off, because the owl once sang them to sleep.

So in time the boy and girl grew to be robust little children, and the raven, the fox and the owl returned to the forest and their erstwhile ways. The witch took full possession of her stolen charges, and set them to work on all the menial tasks in the upkeep of the cottage: milking the goats, tending to the chickens, gathering firewood and various fauna for her spells, cooking, cleaning, and otherwise attending to her whims and the assaults of her evil temper. The witch was thus free to begin her preparations for the abominable ritual by which she hoped to renew her powers. And those poor children, from the instant that their minds had gained lucidity, knew of no other life but that of constant, grinding toil. Of love and kindness, they had no inkling, save for that which they showed each other; for long vanished into the mists of memory were their parents and the warm cottages from which they had been stolen, and gone too, into the inchoate realm of dreams and half-reflections, went those days when the raven had fed them, when they had sported with the giddy fox, and when they had drifted into sleep's warm embrace under the watchful gaze of the owl.

And so the boy and girl developed the closest bond betwixt one-another that ever was in all the world; and ever fearful of the witch's ungovernable temper, they developed a wordless way of speaking, a whole world of opposition to that world in which they found themselves, which they conveyed with their eyes and their expressions alone; and it chanced occasionally, that either the boy or the girl were about some chore outside the cottage, and they might see the raven alight upon the tallest branch, or catch for an instant the fleet and wily fox gambolling between the tree-trucks; or sometimes at night, when the cottage shook with the witch's baleful, wheezing snore, the two of them might hear the owl's call echo through the woods like the world's first riddle, and then their eyes would share the knowledge, certain though utterly inarticulate, of something truer and sweeter than that with which they had to contend.


Morning had come to Intermundia while Mark read. The first planes were beginning their ascents into a sky slowly shedding its twilight textures and assuming the petroleum haze and electric blue of busy day. The vast, endless dance of gleaming fuselages was renewing itself out into the limits of visibility. One again, the litany of birth and death was translated into this aspirational languge of speed and motion, this old dream of flight and freedom. New arrivals were emerging from the terminal with stricken faces, gazing across at the Intermundia Overnight, and into the impossible sky. Mark closed the book, and closed his eyes. His mind ranged for a time over the course of the day he had just experienced, which, in a sense, was the whole of his existence. Those thoughts were like the last fitful flickerings of a candle, and they went out in an instant, surrendering to a sudden exhalation of the air. 

End of Book 1.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

A Thousand Feet High: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019).



 
In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane famously mutters 'Rosebud' on his deathbed. Only the audience is given the solution to the mystery: it refers to a sled which Kane played with as a child, long before he would lose himself in the Xanadu of personal wealth, power and ego. In later interviews, Orson Welles often downplayed the significance of Kane's central riddle, labelling it a cheap gimmick and a bad joke. Gimmick or no, Rosebud taps into something universal about life: the older you get, the more the details of your childhood assume a lustrous, irretrievable magic.

In his 9th picture Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino returns to the era of his childhood, to the year of 1969 when the director would have been 6 years old. It is the end of a decade, and in a wider sense, the end of the whole period of bounteous energy, optimism and self-belief which characterised America in the post-war period. The next decade would usher in economic slow-down and the political scandals of the Church Committee and Watergate, and America's image of itself would never be quite the same again. The texture and appearance of 35mm film in Hollywood movies changed notably between the two decades. Up until about the mid-60s, it still had something of the lustre and artifice of the Technicolour era; the movie world looked brighter and prettier than the everyday one. In the 70s, movies adopted a more muted palette, with a softer, hazier visual texture, accentuated by natural light and deepening shadows. Location filming became the norm; the studio backlot became the street.



This loss of innocence, eulogized in Once Upon a Time, was a necessary and perhaps inevitable coming to the terms with the dark forces and contradictions that underpinned the American Dream at its apogee. Nevertheless, even if the innocence itself was built on illusionary foundations, there is no denying the considerable beauty and energy of American culture in its golden age of Pop: the curvaceous, untethered exuberance of Space Age architecture and automobiles, dusk and night-time skies tattooed with a giddy, psychedelic chorus of neon signs, crackling radios tuned to the hormonal teen symphonies of Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and the Shangri-Las. 


 
Once Upon a Time seeks to bask in the energy and ambience of this era of American pop culture, right at the point where the clock had finally run out on it. America had already lost its innocence by '69; after a series of traumatic assassinations and demonstrations, the country found iself more bitterly divided than it is even today. The Manson Family murders, however, became a symbolical culmination of that loss; they were the harbingers of a bleaker era to come, where optimism gave way to the cold grip of paranoid uncertainty. Tarantino's movie alters the facts of history to create an alternative timeline where that death knell never occurs. Of course, in the real world, had the Manson murders never happened, an appalling tragedy would have been averted , but history in general would progress in largely the same way. In the self-contained fairytale of the movie, however, the magic LA of Tarantino's childhood persists forever. Rosebud again. 
 
In this sense, Once Upon a Time goes against the grain of historical revisionism as it tends to be practised in movies today. Most contemporary revisionist movies seek to undermine the mythic image of a by-gone era by illustrating its dark undercurrents and contradictions. Once Upon a Time does the opposite: it revises the historical facts in order to restore the mythic image of the period. In many period movies, the period is merely the setting for the story. In Once Upon a Time, creating a meticulously detailed yet ultimately dreamlike simulacra of LA in the late 60s is the central aesthetic purpose of the movie. 
 
One the things I loved about the first (better) half of Death Proof was its unabashed celebration of American popular culture: jukeboxes, pretty girls, pop records and muscle cars. In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino becomes a fully fledged poet and rhapsodist of Americana in the tradition of Chuck Berry and Brian Wilson. The movie is infused with an obsessive, infectious love for the culture and ambience of its period. Television and radio samples are integral components of the mise en scène and soundtrack, and of the historical dream state that the film induces. A remarkable collaboration between director, cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Barbara Ling, its dream LA feels as boundless as a Grand Theft Auto game. Sequences where characters drive at night are transportingly beautiful.



Once Upon a Time feels like a departure for Tarantino, and the emergence of a more mature vision. With the exception perhaps of the first half of Kill Bill, the primary focus and energy of his movies has always been with the speech of his characters. Cinematic technique has tended to be subservient to the dialogue, and he has often been carried away by the enjoyment of his own voice. In Once Upon a Time, he has pared back his verbal exuberance, making the dialogue less showy and more specific to the characters. He has learned the value of silence, of simply watching characters behaving and being, whether it be Pitt's serene Cliff Booth climbing the roof to fix a television antennae, or Margot Robbie's Tate surreptitiously enjoying an audience's enjoyment of her performance in The Wrecking Crew. There are long stretches of Once Upon a Time which are the closest the director has come to making an actual drama. As an artist, Tarantino seems in no danger of becoming a has-been; but the melancholy of ageing has brought something of hum-drum reality into his incorrigibly escapist cinematic world. To my taste, any rate, it might be his best film.



In the devastating conclusion of Lynch and Frost's Twin Peaks: The Return, Dale Cooper travels back in time to prevent the TP world's defining tragedy from occurring. Lynch's vision is extremely dark and tragic: you can't eradicate the trauma of the past; change one thing, and the tragedy will simply re-emerge, perhaps in an even worse form, elsewhere in the karmic ledger. Tarantino has always been a comic rather than a tragic artist, and in Once Upon a Time, history is re-written and redeemed: Sharon Tate survives, and all of the darkness is expunged from the Manson story. Yet Tarantino maintains an awareness throughout of the impossibility of this scenario; it is a fairytale and a magic trick, sustainable only by the illusionary magic of cinema. Rick Dalton plays cowboy heroes and (latterly)heavies, but in reality he is a comic, shambolic figure. The irony is that it is his stuntman, who belongs in the anonymous class of movie performer whose face or name will never be known by the public, who embodies the reality which Rick merely plays on the screen. He is the stoic, indomitable, self-contained archetype of American cinema, embodied on screen by McQueen, Redford and countless others. Carrying Rick's load once more, he is the one who saves everybody from the Mansonoid intruders, leaving Rick to enjoy a hero's welcome in a Cielo Dr residence unscathed by blood and sorrow. 

 

Postscript: Hippies. Does Tarantino hate hippies? Maybe. Certainly there are enough gratuitous hippie beatdowns in Once Upon a Time to make Joe Friday, Vincent Bugliosi and Bigfoot Bjornsen salivate with joy. Or maybe he's just playing up Rick Dalton's peculiar antipathy for the hippie for comic effect – either way, it is admittedly hilarious.

Iconic Hippie Haters: