In Defense of Davies

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Sometimes there is edification in misery. Drenched in melancholy and nostalgia, the films of Terence Davies neither wallow in the former nor fawn over the latter. Each qualifies the other. Stifling repression unlocks the inner life of the mind – society is imprisoning, pervasive; art is transfiguring, fleeting. But only hand-in-hand does either make any kind of existential sense. For if we were all liberated tomorrow, then we would have no need to retreat. There would be no solace in private rooms, no need to smuggle into song our otherwise inexpressible feelings, no use for movie-house or concert hall escapism – for what is there to be escaped?

Oh the fools who believe that Davies is drunk on nostalgic sentimentality! A few sips, if that, for such a reserved ascetic! And even then, the stomach sickness is acute. Have ye not seen Sunset Song? Honeymoons are hangovers for this gentle cynic! The most rapturous love curdles overnight! Everything that’s worth a damn has an expiration date on it – and Davies tasks himself with beautifying these privileged moments before they go bad (and they will go bad). Art is a coping mechanism, then. A little too clinical a thought? Nay! Art for art’s sake is the real hopeless nihilism – the cinephile snake devouring its own tail. Art for Davies is a means of survival, the last bulwark against worldly corrosion. There’s honest-to-god utility there.

I can’t say this gels entirely with my worldview or experiences or vision of the future – I’m way more optimistic! But that is an optimism born of a certain privilege, a privilege denied to Mr. Davies, the same privilege that allows people like me to throw themselves into artistic consumption at the expense of Actually Living Life. And if Davies’ movies are instructive to me, it’s in endowing art with Real Life Importance, not as a dilettante hobby, not as a vacuous exercise in checklist completism, but something to turn to in trying times for a rarefied experience. You numb yourself to that possibility when you have no day-to-day life experience for the music you listen to or the books you read or the movies you watch to inform or inflect or amplify. If you’re listening to songs about love without searching for the genuine article, if you’re gleaning moral insights from literature without practicing them day to day, if you’re gulping down movies like alcohol – as an intoxicating end in itself – then congratulations! You’ll never know what it means to be really and truly transported by this stuff, you gluttonous shut-in!

I don’t mean to be so harsh. All I know is that I first saw Distant Voices, Still Lives in college, during a deep depression, and its depiction of people sublimating their misery to larger communal rituals, of isolation dissolving into singsong, shot instantly like some chemical into my brain. My sunken heart rose to the surface, my fear of forever friendlessness was forgotten. Because here were people facing the same despair (worse, really, much worse, but it’s all relative and we’re all in the muck together – why split hairs about it?), enjoying what they had in the lovely little ways they knew how. It gave me hope! Real applicable hope! Actionable hope! Not just a pleasant palliative to take my mind off my troubles. Nay, to quote the bard (Harry Nilsson), I was thinking about my troubles, only my thoughts were pierced by the roseate light of Davies’ vision of the world – a world that is emphatically not perfect (on the contrary: cruel, evil, unfeeling, unthinking), but that affords pockets of perfection, of beauty, of love, of feeling, to even its most downtrodden inhabitants. Onward and upward my friends!

ON CINEMA, AT THE CINEMA: An Appreciation

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Cultural production posits a caste system based on creative ownership. Studios, producers, writers, directors, and distributors share ownership of a particular media franchise or phenomenon, while anything brought to it by the lowly audience is spewed out on the lower rungs of fan fiction, message boards, and Facebook groups. It can be fun to re-edit, mutilate, or expand an established fictional universe, but your customized, personalized creation will never be admitted into canon or given serious consideration by the creators of that series. Meanwhile legions of fans wait with bated breath for clues, confirmations, cryptic announcements, canonical addendums emanating from the vaunted lips or twitter feeds of the J.K. Rowlings and Joss Whedons of the world. The flow of imaginative traffic remains uni-directional – from lauded world-renowned talents to ordinary viewers/readers/consumers.

Bypass the implicit classism of this sketchily conceived relationship and you get at something more insidious. The obsessed-over sanctity of franchise-embedded fictional universes always yields diminishing returns. These branded fictions are milked for all their rigorously calculated profit potential, world-building becomes a matter of empty accumulation of meaningless miscellany long after the thematic or storytelling value of the original work has run its course, and every variant of the Klingon-speaking fan is manipulatively kept on the hook awaiting opportunistic market-mandated movie announcements and product launches. Meanwhile, the Art and Entertainment that initially formed the crux of one’s relationship with the fiction has withered and died, and you’ve scarcely noticed because capitalism has devised a formica facsimile in its place. As a one-time obsessive of The Simpsons – to my mind one of the greatest works of modern art – I know this from experience. When you’ve gotten to the point of buying episode guides, following Al Jean’s press releases, and downloading freemium smartphone apps for their tangential relationship to something you once loved for being a radical, subversive, living and breathing work of art, then you’ve lost your way, and we all know who is to blame.

So that’s fan culture in a nutshell, as I see it. But there is one fictional universe a few years under construction that, out of some mad Joycean ambition, has emerged as a never-ending text, wildly at odds with all notions of officialdom, with a fanbase that has been freely conscripted as co-conspirators in its creation. This would be Tim Heidecker’s and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema at the Cinema, a psychodramatic epic played out on a few meager sets, based on the endlessly regenerative joke of the two lead characters’ mutually abusive but tragically codependent relationship. No matter what strange detours it takes or outlandish permutations it experiences, the show is based on a foundational, sitcom-style bit: these guys hate each other, but, deep down, they have no one else.

From this simple, straightforward dynamic, a universe emerges that is Tolkeinesque in its lore, Pynchonian in its densely free-associative sprawl, and ambiguously metatextual in a way far closer to Abbas Kiarostami’s mysteriously interstitial docu-fictions than Charlie Kaufman’s more easily processed self-reflexive puzzle-boxes. It’s also, I’d say, not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette for its splintered, collaborative, freewheeling process of self-creation.

But don’t worry, fellas, I’m not as far up my own ass as you might think! I know that name-drop-heavy academese can bludgeon a work into unrecognizable submission. I know that, above all else, On Cinema is authentically, instinctively hilarious and creative without any conscious aping of hifalutin arthouse precedents or striving for some larger significance. But, obnoxious shithead of a critic that I am, I can’t help but allege that, naturally and miraculously, it achieves what it doesn’t even need to strive for. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, across all of their work, strike me as radical artists by nature. But perhaps even more so than Awesome Show, Neil Hamburger in all of his incarnations, and their brilliant work for Rick Alverson, On Cinema is a work of staggering genius, even if that genius can only thrive so long as it remains hopelessly obscure.

So, yeah, how to take this voluminous unwieldy multi-platform Work Of Art and, uh, break it down so I can get any kind of handle on what I’m trying to say about it? With something like On Cinema, you can only really – to use a medical analogy – scrape off a few cells for microscopic scrutiny so as to make more general inferences about the organism as a whole. The things that I cherish about On Cinema are manifold, and I’m gonna list out only a few as briefly as possible:

1) The blurring of Tim/Gregg the On Cinema characters and Tim/Gregg as Actual people. This isn’t a Stephen Colbert playing-himself-as-a-character approach, as Tim and Gregg are really and truly embodying fully fleshed out characters of novelistic depth, abundant in rightfully stigmatized (but all too scarily human) personality traits in a way that is micro-attuned to the nuances of habitual gestures, bodily tics, speech patterns, and the most throwaway behaviorisms (i.e. this ain’t just comedy, this is capital-A Acting…and yeah, I’d say it’s Oscar-worthy) while also allowing these three-dimensional creations to recklessly, in some sense bravely overlap with their own non-fictional identities. It is in some sense obvious where the demarcation line is between Actual Tim and On Cinema Tim, but there is always the occasional enigma. I tend to believe that On Cinema Tim’s evaluations of various 6 Bag Cinemas jingle submissions are likely reflective of the extent to which Actual Tim is impressed by the fan-generated content that he, both in- and out-of-character, happily solicits.

Gregg, meanwhile, is clearly channeling or amplifying certain aspects of his Actual self – it comes down through the ol’ grapevine that he is an avid vinyl collector and old Hollywood enthusiast. And his characterization of his On Cinema doppelganger is so scarily accurate, inasmuch as we’ve all known (or have sometimes even been) people like that (you can find any number of them on Youtube, especially within the subgenre of basement-dwelling DVD hoarders who creepily pornograph their meaningless collections to likeminded whack jobs), that it can sometimes bypass comedy altogether and enter into hyperrealistic portraiture. But given that Actual Gregg has always hewn to the punk ethos of burying himself in transgressive personae (The Zip Code Rapists, Neil Hamburger), it is extremely fucking difficult to get a handle on Who This Guy Even Actually Is. Such mysteries crop up with staggering regularity in On Cinema.

2) ‘Behind-the-scenes’ takes on entirely new dimensions. Sketch comedy has long profited by show-biz send-ups wherein celebrities, sportscasters, pundits – whoever it may be – can’t help but air out their dirty laundry in an entertainment context (talk shows, radio broadcasts, etc.) where scripted talking points and stiff-necked professionalism are the unspoken law of the land. On Cinema takes this concept to an extreme I don’t think anyone imagined possible. For all of the richness of On Cinema, the plenitude of events and subplots that transpire within this universe – motorcycle accidents, Hawaiian vacations, infanticides by neglect, movie theater fires, rock shows in Dubai – these are all largely depicted off-camera. What’s on camera is just two guys on the same fucking set every single week, trying to do their shitty movie review show, the only real exceptions being the Oscar Specials (which function as special, bravura editions of the main show) and Decker episodes (a spin-off). Either way, we only technically inhabit an extremely limited low-budget space when we engage with On Cinema. And yet the show’s genius is in conjuring an entire fucked-up universe that exists forever outside the nominal scope of the show. Or, to put it another way, it stimulates the viewers’ imagination in a radically compelling way, with Gregg and Tim knowing exactly what microcosmic details to leave in and what large-scale narrative cataclysms to leave out. It is storytelling of the highest order – a multi-volume novel in which a throwaway tweet might function as an entire chapter.

This on-camera/off-camera dynamic might warrant an essay unto itself. Tim’s various maladies – the blood clots in his brain, his acupuncture-needled face, his bandaged, burnt-to-a-crisp hands, and now his rotting skin and protruding skull – are effects (rendered via the gnarliest make-up and costume jobs) from which we are forced to intuit the even more grisly off-screen causes. These continual lapses into what I suppose can only be called body horror are representative of the series’ extraordinary bathos, by which I mean the characters’ utterly mangled sense of priority. One of Tim’s most essential character traits is his short fuse, and yet he only blows his top selectively – usually if Gregg or Mark or another perceived underling is undermining his authority. By outlandish contrast he takes all of his life-threatening ailments in incredible stride, usually addressing them via the most nonchalant top-of-the-show “so this is what’s going on with me” announcements.

3) Uh, The Supporting Cast. Because of this aforementioned limited scope, we don’t see members of Dekkar’s audience, or patrons of the Victorville Film Center. In fact, we aren’t really privy to ordinary humanity – it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Ayaka and Sally Kellerman are the extent of female representation in this man-cave alter-verse. Axiom, Manuel and the rest of Dekkar are totems of the most hollowed-out rock-god culture. Mark and Gregg are charisma cavities, and what to even make of Dr. San, Chef John Lennard, James fucking Dean? None of these are ‘real people,’ except for the fact that they kinda are. The various ‘actors’ inhabiting these roles clearly aren’t chosen for their acting ability, but for something intrinsic to themselves, and the extent to which some of these people are ‘in’ on the joke is subject for extensive debate (if you’re enough of a sleuth, go down the rabbit hole of investigating the ‘real’ Axiom and see what conclusions you can draw).

And, furthermore, what would a general humanity even look like in this universe? We know from our vantage point as fans to laugh at Tim’s fat middle-aged attempts to be a rock god, or Gregg’s reverential attitude toward Michael Keaton movies, but we also take this to its logical endpoint, relishing the idea of a world wherein the VFC is playing restorations of garbage 80s movies to packed houses and Tim is performing at popular EDM festivals all across the country. So while we’re only witness to a cast of carefully selected freaks and weirdos, we (‘we’ meaning The On Cinema Family) can only view them as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave standing in for an even more warped general viewership. If these people are successful – if ‘Empty Bottle’ is the number one download in America, if Decker is exerting a limitless influence over Hollywood, if Joe Estevez is of America’s most esteemed actors – then who is the fictional audience that is fueling all this success?

4) WE ARE. We are fueling this success. We are a dually engaged viewership who, on one level, watches On Cinema as a work of brilliant transgressive comedy, while, on another level, doubling as the fictional audience that is referred to time and time again on the show. The nameless masses who are downloading Dekkar’s hits, writing partisan fan-mail (you know, the Timheads vs. Greggheads), seeking to get involved in the 6 Bag Cinema franchise, driving up Decker’s ratings, going to see Ant-Man, etc. on top of etc. To bring this bad boy of an essay full circle, it needs to be addressed that On Cinema is the antithesis to aforementioned closed-loop fan communities that seem to dominate popular culture. On Cinema does not exist without Tim and Gregg’s trust in our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to tune into their wavelength.

I used the term ‘regenerative’ earlier in this essay, and this is more or less what I mean. For all their shading and nuances as finely wrought characters, Tim and Gregg are ultimately proffering up two extremely simpleminded ways of viewing the world. It’s the old jock vs. nerd canard taken to a crazed extreme. Tim is a sponge freely absorbing all of the douchiest sub-cultures in America – middle-American libertarians, image-conscious classic rock fanatics, alternative medicine devotees, EDM bass heads, fine-dining hipsters with money to blow and ‘enhanced’ food palettes to satiate — and this list will probably never exhaust itself so long as 1) these subcultures still continue to exist in this stupid country and 2) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on. Meanwhile, Gregg’s perpetual reliving of the 80s and 90s, masquerading his nostalgia as Film Expertise, his relentlessly clichéd soundbite approach to evaluating motion pictures, his stubborn analog fetishism, and his single-minded insistence that movies are The Only Thing That Matters (meaning a total lack of interest in sex, an inability to grasp the indecency of insisting on CGI talking animals in a Holocaust movie, and his recently established indifference to the prospect of Tim’s suicide [after all, Heath Ledger did the same thing!]) – all of this is its own paradoxically comprehensive simplemindedness, an idiocy that is so nuanced that it can be explored to the end of time, so long as Hollywood keeps churning out garbage (it will) and (again) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on.

And when I say ‘the spirit’ of On Cinema, I mean the fact that so much of the universe exists outside of the official, ABSO-produced, Adult Swim-distributed show. It exists on Twitter, on Facebook, in casual conversation, anywhere that fans are creatively engaging with it. This isn’t secondary, tertiary, or in any way supplementary material. This is what literally powers the show, not economically but CREATIVELY. On Cinema is not a barricaded world of sleek production values and big stars that we worship from afar. It intakes all the gangrenous refuse of American Culture, the cultural product we consume (and how and why we consume it), and vomits it up as comedy. And because the rest of us are wallowing in the same filth, we are freely invited to join in this regurgitative process. Tim and Gregg are not heaven’s gatekeepers, but the hosts of a house party in hell to which all are admitted, so long as we acknowledge that life as it is lived in this country – defined by pop culture, reflected in Hollywood blockbusters, set to the tune of derivative prog rock, corralled into hiveminded fandoms, role-modeled according to the fratbro mentality of right-wing action heroes, and discontinued as a result of serial neglect – is nothing if not a kind of perdition unto itself. But as long as we’re able to recognize it together and collaborate in the satirical process, then at least we’ll die laughing, our teeth flecked with kernels, and hopefully a popcorn classic playing somewhere in the background.

Evisceration Station: BEETLEJUICE

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Beetlejuice | Tim Burton | 1988

Arsenic and Old Lace cryogenically frozen, thawed out in the 80s – Cary Grant has degraded into Alec Baldwin, Raymond Massey upgraded to Michael Keaton, and the hack comedy has made a noble if futile (/impossible) stab at deteriorating even further. Riddle me this: if normativity is lunacy, but if lunacy is normalized, and if thin sheets of plexiglass ‘camp’ soldered on to a Reagan-friendly wireframe are the far gone postmodernist’s suboptimal substitute for subversion of suburbia, and if 1980s Hollywood is a black hole of so-cozy-it’s-asphyxiating astro-turf auto-nostalgia (phew) insidiously manufactured with disregard for the genuine article,* and if Catherine O’Hara’s genius is met with no rejoinder from a stuffed-animal cast and falls on the deaf ears of a multiplex crowd and just wastefully wafts away into the atmosphere with no one perceptive or talented or worthy enough to even hope to harness or intensify or even bottle it (leaving it at the level of firefly ephemera, when it should blaze about as once it did on a certain sketch comedy show that reigned over the netherworld of late-late-night comedy many moons ago…), then what are we left with? Utter meaninglessness masquerading as the cinematic equivalent of a dimestore knickknack, prompting a marginally less meaningless exercise in strangulation-by-language, as only a lowly loaf of mystery meat is capable of administering. The thrashing I just gave this shitfest is too good for it. 😦

*Nostalgia (as defined by mystery meat, with some assistance from Terence Davies and Marcel Proust): the arbitrary sediment of lived experience that inexplicably, indefatigably rises to the surface of one’s memory — memory being the one thing that cannot be replenished at will or furiously bartered for or selectively destocked or customized according to our whims — such that whatever glints through its landfill of undrainable sewage can be nought but really and truly and purely and eternally treasured. To attempt to mass produce a generalized, commercially appealing on-demand nostalgia is the closest thing in our culture to a Faustian tampering with the cosmic order of things, and this particular cafeteria item emphatically rejects it!

The Mann I Love: DEVIL’S DOORWAY

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Devil’s Doorway | MGM | Anthony Mann | 1950

Anthony Mann made Devil’s Doorway under the same studio supervisors that oversaw his own Border Incident from the year before, as well as countless other envelope-pushing dramas – Stars in My Crown, The Bad and the Beautiful, Act of Violence, The Asphalt Jungle, Intruder in the Dust, The Red Badge of Courage. This was MGM under Dore Schary — vaguely liberal, slightly somber, a trek to the crumbly underworld of Culver City. The worst of these Schary-fostered movies channeled the white liberal do-gooderism that Darryl Zanuck was riding into the ground over at Fox. But the best were downright transgressive. If so much of MGM’s output under Louis B. Mayer could be symbolized by a parade-float Andy Hardy — sentimentality too factory farmed to even appear homespun, too pastry-fluff weightless for even a facsimile of flesh-and-blood reality — then a movie like Father of the Bride was the anchor clamped around ol’ Mickey’s marshmallow ankle, dragging the whole fantasyland enterprise back to Earth’s anxiety-charged postwar surface.

Devil’s Doorway is one of the unsung masterpieces of this fertile period of Cinematic Excellence, an Anthony Mann classic that seems to have slipped through the auteurist cracks. People are more likely to rhapsodize about The Glenn Miller Story — it’s Mann/Stewart collaboration after all! — than to treat this as anything more than Mann ‘warming up’ for his later, greater achievements. But how much greater are they? I’d take Devil’s Doorway over Bend of the River, God’s Little Acre, Men in War, The Far Country, and a helluva lot more. Just because Mann churned out at least three other great works in 1950 alone does not mean he wasn’t perfectly capable of a fourth.

So, get this. Robert Taylor is an Indian back from the Civil War, ready for well-deserved peace and quiet (the movie doesn’t just pay lip-service to pacifism – Taylor has plenty of room to articulate his desire to live harmoniously with all peoples and tend to his land). Louis Calhern is the grim specter of latent nativist evil — a sickly lawyer out West for the climate who gradually morphs into a proto-Judge Holden. Paula Raymond is the middling voice of the ‘let’s not be too reckless’ liberal — sympathetic to Taylor, but ultimately beholden to the racist homesteader laws. Sidenote: each character has a goddamn beautiful Western name — Lance Poole, Verne Coolan, Orrie Masters.

The movie begins at a reasonable scale for an eighty-minute Western — soldier returns to town, where some things are the same (Edgar Buchanan and other old friends reminisce over drinks) and others are different (a sharp tone of bigotry pervades the dusty air). Taylor is ostensibly in a good place — I mean, Jesus, the guy just won the Medal of Honor for his wartime service. But it isn’t long before racism becomes the (literal, figurative) law of the land. Old friends hope to shirk the label of Indian-lover in cowardly obeisance to the emerging right-wing order. It’s a cowardice with a very familiar stench — HUAC contemporaneously, but there’s also a tinge of The Mortal Storm’s domino-effect fascism. It’s this idea that interracial (inter-ideological, by extension?) camaraderie only lasts as long as the rallying cry of the right is in abeyance. But when it thunders (visually literalized to perfection, goddammit John Alton…), it has a way of exposing your ‘friends’ for who they really are — beleaguered backstabbing cretins. Unlike High Noon’s facile misanthropy — people are only cowards insofar as Gary Cooper can emerge as lonesome hero against a gestalt of crestfallen defeat — Devil’s Doorway gets at the honest-to-god ubiquity of moral cowardice. These people are otherwise perfectly ‘brave’ by traditional standards, quick to fight for a plot of land and for the well-being of their livestock. They’re just clinging to bigotry’s mast, more afraid of being accused of disloyalty to the ivory herd than they are to die.

The film is clearly pro-Taylor and anti-townspeople. But when Paula Raymond shows up, the film flirts with rearranging this dynamic for the worse, with Taylor and townspeople representing opposite but equally wrongheaded extremes and Raymond harnessing the objectivity of ‘the law’ to impart enlightenment to victim and victimizer alike. But nah, Mann neutralizes Schary’s milquetoast sermonizing instincts: Raymond is not his mouthpiece. But she is still part of the larger complexity, at times under the spell of law but at others privy to real moral sense – she is sympathetic in noting that the livelihoods of the would-be homesteaders are in jeopardy. But Taylor is sympathetic, righteous, and a few other things besides when he insists, “But do they have the right?” He is (I like to assume, but how can one be sure?) fine to share the fruits of his vast property so long as it’s his to share. But it’s not. Hence, his straightforward resolve: he and his people will not be erased, and if that resolution comes at the cost of a few sheep, then that’s not a problem.

So from the flint-rock of personalized emotions and tragic omens — wounded pride, incremental betrayal, a death in the family — Mann finally strikes at a Shakespearean eruption of epic violence, the only solution to a problem that the law fails (no, refuses) to solve (the anti-legalistic bent of the film is one of its greatest qualities). And God Almighty, it looks and feels like trench warfare (again, hats off to Alton). From a guy riding home from the war, Searchers-style, to the encroaching threat of actual genocide — that’s the escalated trajectory of this endlessly nervy Western. Run-of-the-mill prejudice is more or less equated to Calhern’s blood-curdling incarnation of diffident evil, and the liberal pretense of a fair trial is viewed as no different from an actual lynching. All of these are pathways to Native American erasure. Some are just a bit more polite than others.

It is this series of equivalencies that subsumes an initial bid for complexity into Taylor’s righteous fuck-everything fury. When you and your persecuted people stand the risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth and out of the annals of history, there’s no room to compromise, to take the path of least resistance. Compromise is teased in one glorious moment — a hard axial cut into Taylor’s and Raymond’s lips on the trembling precipice of a kiss — before Taylor backs away: “A hundred years from now it might have worked.” Sure, miscegenation was not going to happen in a 1950 Western. But Mann and screenwriter Guy Trosper play a game of inversion. The romance is unconsummated on Taylor’s terms. He’s calling the shots. He’s not going to compromise, because he’s not such a dope as to believe that Love is more important than the legacy of his tribe. And so Taylor dies and the film is classical tragedy at its best. It’s no wonder Mann made The Furies at about the exact same time.

So what’s, uh, wrong with the film? Besides Robert Taylor in red-face? I don’t really see anything. And speaking of Robert Tyalor in red-face, should that really deter anyone from what is otherwise a stone-cold masterpiece? I mean, I know Taylor wasn’t a great actor, but I think his stolid professionalism is what the part needs. Striving for nuanced, actorly greatness in this role would probably amount to some weird retrograde transracial posturing. Taylor’s just playing it straight. Before too long you don’t even notice the face paint. Western heroic archetypes may have been fashioned with white people in mind, but they ultimately proved more expansive than their makers counted on. Boring ol’ Robert Taylor as a righteous Indian fits comfortably in that mold. It’s a bit off-putting. But it’s also kind of harmonious.

Color Me Depressed

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Howdy folks. Too much time has transpired since my last missive. No resource is more abundant, none quicker to slide through your fingers than Time, like the Ozymandian sands that flood the Western landscape of my cinema-drenched brain. That brain took a beating these last few months. I won’t bore you with too many of the details. Let’s just say that I’ve spent my life ingesting cultural product at a high velocity, absorbing plot points and conflicts and feelings and ideas and abstractions as the remote experiences of fictional characters, all while cozied up in my middle class whitebread problem-free linear-careerism where none of those things really had to be viscerally experienced. But, y’know, they do have to be experienced – the storm-door of your mind won’t stay bolted shut forever – and as of last October I experienced them with a vengeance. I held existentialism in the palm of my hand and felt its melon-rind texture, while depression chained me to the ocean floor and the water pressure asphyxiated all sense of happiness and stability and day-to-day perceptual neutrality. It was pretty fucked.

During this time, movies lost their luster. I mean, what’s the point? “Ah yes, another movie under my belt! My Allan Dwan expertise is through the roof! This is important and totally of value to my mental health!” How to prioritize the kinda consumption I’d built so much of my life on when actually grappling with what finally felt like Reality for the first time in my fucking life? But my aversion to cinema was also Fear of Cinema. It would be self-deception to frame the issue in terms of cinephile self-loathing – whereby watching movies is frivolous, for shut-ins, and all that rigmarole – and ignore the harsher truth engraving the underside of the coin. That being that actually engaging with cinema – where it’s not for checklist cred or mired in ally-watch offhandedness or fossil fuel for hobby-horse habituation – is impossibly stimulating. Depression destocked the armory of my mind, leaving it volatile, vulnerable, like an untended herd of cattle at the onset of a thunderstorm. And if I let cinema into my head – really and truly into it, where its equal parts nebulous and expressive appendages could burrow into my scarily impressionable brain – then what kind of chemical reaction might ensue? Or, to strip my prose of its floridity a bit, would I lose my mind? Would I get terrifying ideas, make frightful associations, exacerbate my depression, lose my grip on the reality I really and truly and desperately needed to reclaim?

That question is not a rhetorical one, and I’ll leave it unanswered for now.

So here’s another: what of other artistic pursuits? It’s interesting. Listening to certain music was a downright terrifying prospect, but literature attained that height of therapeutic serenity advertised by all evangelical bibliophiles. Like existentialism and depression, this too was made tangible – picture a Scandinavian hot spring, the way sunlight glints like crystal on a liquid blanket of aquamarine, and how it feels to lean your head back and stare up at the sky to refresh your numbingly straight-ahead perceptual default. And the books I read! ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, that perennial classic, gave me real perspective, reminded me that my growing pains and uncertainties and anxieties are not exclusive to me as an individual (duh) nor (more revelatory) to the century that spawned me (the fear of being exceptional is a big part of all this, as are the travails of being emotionally sensitive, neither of which I feel capable of exploring at length right now but both of which were assuaged by the original Chuck D at the height of his powers!). ‘The Great American Novel’ by Philip Roth gave me a pleasure I never thought I’d experience again (Alliteration alleviates all ailments! Who knew?), and Joan Didion gave me the itch to return to essayin’ (you are reading the result!).

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But no book was more important than ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements’ by Bob Mehr. My critical faculties are gonna fail me here….Well, look. It’s this meticulously researched tome about the band that epitomized working class Middle American depression. It’s a book about music, but it’s more about alcoholism, bipolar disorder, abusive relationships, self-destruction, the fear of success, and, uh, a lot of harrowing shit. And, I mean, you read those words and they’re just words and maybe even the stuff you expect to get out of biographies generally. Sordid backstories illustrating the dark side of success. Yeah yeah yeah, we know. But I guess the setup/punchline of great famous figure –> fucked up in some hidden unexpected curiosity-piquing buy-this-book kinda way isn’t really a factor here. Cuz Bob Mehr respects that The Replacements aren’t Great Figures, so much as a bunch of fuckups who fortuitously banded together and happened to make great, indelible, borderline primitivist musical illustrations of what it means to be a Minneapolis street urchin with no aspirations. And it’s a testament to who they were as human beings that as they became successful by any objective metric they could still attest to a fundamental aspirationlessness without giving off a whiff of hypocrisy.

If anything, the despair is the core of the story and the music practically incidental. I would recommend this to people who don’t care for music. Just think of a band as a family unit and read it like it’s Eugene O’Neill, except a rock bio. And if you’re depressed like me, then it’s empathy-as-heroin. Like obviously I Feel For These People, but their problems are not pornographed so that I could get off on any “well at least my life isn’t that fucked up” satisfaction. Nor is it some false hope that perhaps I might wield my depression in service of some great artistic achievement the way they managed to.  It’s more like: for better and for worse, the depressing aspects of human experience that produced this band have also produced me at this scary juncture in my life. No potential success is gonna redeem or cure me and no amount of despair is gonna keep me from putting one foot in front of the other and slumming through the days ahead, even if I gotta turn to substance abuse to cope.

And, well, I haven’t had to do that! Life is pretty good. I have friends, I have antidepressants, I have a therapist…and I have books! And music! And even movies! To come full circle, I did end up watching a movie, a life-changing one. And I really and truly engaged with it, at the risk of overloading my battered brain with strange new stimuli. The Landlord by Hal Ashby (listen to the commentary folks!) deconstructs the ways in which certain people (guilty as charged) compartmentalize and commodify the experiences of others, such that self-definition is a patronizing matter of measuring oneself by another’s yardstick – other people are means to an end, and that end is existential tourism. And the glorious genius of this movie is that it somehow avoids compartmentalizing and commodifying the kind of privileged fucks (again, raises hand) who are so guilty of same. And so human experience really does take on a liberating nebulousness, an ineffable empathetic mist whereby the streams of many consciences commingle.

Which is kinda the ideal?

Right?

Wigwam Watches: DOUBLE MCNICHOLS ON THE DIME!

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Just the Way You Are | Édouard Molinaro | 1984
The Forgotten One | Phillip Badger | 198

This week the Victorville Film Archive is parlaying its magnificent Dreyfussfest with a mini-Kristy McNichols retrospective, in one shes a troubled soul aching for love from John Locke and in the others she’s like a crippled flautist (?) but in both she’s STELLAR!!! Hers was a star that only could have shone in the 80s. And it did friends, it did…

This theater continues to suck. I hate Palmdale. I’m so sad and lonely. Starry eyes, starry eyes forever will be miiiiiine…

Wigwam Watches: TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER MOVIE THEATER

Sorry folks! Some serious analytics emergencies at Xerox kept me from filing my Rio Bravado missives, so let’s a-wrangle up some stray viewin’s partners… (yeehaw)

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Mr. Destiny | James Orr | 1990

saw this when it came out …uh it’s even shittier?

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Monkeybone | Henry Selick | 2001

Selick’s Giant Peach is a gem, knew some folks who worked on this, they were shitheads abut this movie was wonderful!

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Tom & Huck | Peter Hewitt | 1995

Yikes, terrible! And JTT is disturbing to look at, like a rubber-y Renee Zellwegger mask or something…? RIP Renfro, a tru bro

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The Addiction | Abel Ferrara | 1995

STill good, I think I saw it like last year maybe, a classic. JTT woulda been good in the Renee Zellwegger role.

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Mr. Holland’s Opus | Stephen Herek | 1995

Saw this when it came out with my Mormon girlfriend at the time, she wouldnt let me get further than a kiss and this movie is equally disappointing

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Once Around | Lasse Hallström | 1991

Always confuse this movie with Home for the Holidays and some Dreyfuss joint where hes a gambler (Let It Ride?). It’s cute but like what a weird movie its just about how this frumpy spinsters new rich hubby disrupts her family but like I kept waiting for him to turn out to be a fraud and then wondered why she was so attached to her family. People are weird to me.

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The Competition | Joel Oliansky | 1980

Dreyfuss-fest concludes with this proto-Hollands Opus, but like he never tries to fuck any students or gets called an asshole in sign language. Plus Amy Irving just makes one long for the superior 80s musical, Honeysuckle Rose

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Crazy Moon | Allan Eastman | 1987

Hey no joke this is a great movie!

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Impromptu | James Lapine | 1991

Also great, but insert your High Grant joke here!

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Two Moon Junction | Zalman King | 1988

Maybe the first female nudity I saw? But she looks better as Audrey, oh I miss hpn gotta get back on the internet!!!

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Boris and Natasha | Charles Martin Smith | 1992

If ol’ wigwam had his way, Dave Thomas would have never been allowed near a camera lens! This opinion is hereby cosigned by Rio Bravado™

[editorial note: I’m gonna let wigwam’s blasphemin’ ballyhoo about Dave Thomas stand, but he’s got two more strikes, and he’s outta here! That two-timin’ rough-ridin’ rat! ~ mystery meat]

All Walshed Up: THE MAN I LOVE

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The Man I Love | Warner Brothers | Raoul Walsh | 1947

The rottenest people are the best people! Ida Lupino gets a lot of that “cheap hussy” flack, but it doesn’t stick (why would it when Wily Walsh is behind the camera?? No way he’s gonna endorse pejoratives lobbed at his lithe, loose-lipped ladies!). I mean yeah, she wallows in a mucky milieu of mobsters and flounderin’ floozies, but when the going gets tough, her brassy slick talk saves the day in a way that her chaste, snoozeball of a sister (Andrea King) never could! But hey, speaking of sisters, this movie has enough plot for three movies to munch on! Complementing Ida Lupino’s blowouts with Bruce Bennet and Bob Alda is this weird PTSD subplot involving King’s husband that’s so scarcely a story thread it can whip up an ice-cream sundae of a third-act twist without feeling cheap. Yeah, not cheap like that other sister, that Dolores Moran character! Walsh shovels her marital problems into the furnace so yet another, more noir-y subplot can take shape. But Walsh shovels with flair, and the little glimpses of this fucked marriage have some real-world oomph — I mean, not to get all auteurist on you fellas, but Walsh at Warners is all about filling in the cracks in his tough-guy foundation with some really lovely, sensitive stuff. And ya know, that’s why this movie can mélange a lot of prior Warners flicks and one-up every one of ‘em. There’s inklings of Mildred Pierce and Humoresque and even fuckin’ Casablanca, but the verve with which Walsh stirs it all up is what old Hollywood’s all about! Capiche?

Chronicle of a Slummer: LABOR DAYS Pt 2

Howdy folks! Here’s everything else I watched on my break, with artisanal, hand-crafted write-ups fresh from the oven! Enjoy!

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Made for Each Other | David O. Selznick | John Cromwell | 1939

Proto-It’s a Wonderful Life Stewart weighted down by financial difficulties and emoting pure anguish like he probably hadn’t done on screen much (at all?) up to that point (thanks a lot MGM!). Carole Lombard has great chemistry with him, but it’s Charlie Coburn who really steals the show, as always.

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Lessons of Darkness | Werner Herzog | 1992

This is my fav Herzog. Aguirre aside, his canonized fiction features are too…oblong? spacey? anthropologically curious to a conked out fault? Extrinsic conceits of steamer-hauling and hypnotized locals and Krazed Kinski Kalamity, with a bemused deadpan cosmic outlook withdrawing all stakes and facilitating the weird eccentricities that these movies were made to grenade-launch at your face (main offenders: Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, Heart of Glass, and *gag* Even Dwarfs Started Small). I dunno fellas, I’m kinda iffy on this primitivism fetish, this grotesquerie. Err, I dunno I guess I see its place and enjoy it from time to time, but also don’t think what Herzog’s doing really necessitates feature length films a lot of the time? And maybe I have a preference as to how and when and under what conditions the human race should be gawked at? I dunno!

Lessons, though, was pure image-making with no freakshow anchorage…image-making worthy of its beautiful classical musical accompaniment, and the Herzog voice-over I was gritting my teeth to cringe at getting absorbed into the majesty with ease! Also, I guess I rarely venture into post-60s cinema, but man, helicopter shots are cool right? Feel like they’re aimlessly misused a lot of the time. Not here, though, this is like peak helicopter cinema!

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Satan’s Brew | Rainer Werner Fassbinder | 1976

This fuckin’ sucked! Fassbinder’s default is already sufficiently, naturally, twistedly nuts, I don’t need this try-hard ante-upping screwed ‘n’ balled screwball nonsense!

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The Nun | Jacques Rivette | 1966

Oh god this limestone aesthetic, splotchy textured swaths of gray/beige/cream interrupted on occasion by muted autumnal outdoorsiness that’s still too limited in its twilit gold ’n’ auburn to really puncture or offset those oppressive hues. Basically this is an opportunity to see Rivette accomplishing a certain set of goals that fall outside the out-on-a-limb shadow-conspiracy stuff he’s known for. And those goals are really impressive/ambitious ones, among them an attempt to (apparently? according to Rosenbaum?) channel a Mizoguchi-like camera style into a fittingly depressing story of soul-crushing institutionalism. Check it out!

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Vivacious Lady | RKO | George Stevens | 1938

More early Stewart! Kinda bummed that neither this nor the other JStew I watched for the break — Made for Each Other — were made at MGM, his home base at the time. But based on how much better these movies are than, like, Of Human Hearts, that’s more than okay! Here Stevens/RKO knows to foil his bashful blueblood prissiness against Ginger Rogers’ red-hot cat fight-ready sauciness, and Stewart knows to do this droopy, weary, exasperated thing with his eyes that sets a better tempo for the comedy than any spastic collar-tugging shit you can imagine a lesser actor directed by a lesser director would do. He’s super square but he’s still in the know! And that’s why Rogers love him, by golly. And, whoa! More Charlie Coburn! and Franklin Pangborn! and Beulah Bondi! Grrrrrrreat cast!

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Lady for a Day | Columbia | Frank Capra | 1933

I don’t know why I put this off for so long. Ensemble dexterity twirling in carousel merriment around a wrenching lead performance, with AMERICA as this rose-tinted razor blade of (on the one hand) class pliability and the on-a-dime implosion of uptight officialdom and a confetti-swarm of infectious, liberating good cheer…and (on the other) lots and lots of sadness, self-loathing, class-based psychological terror. Subliminally devastating? Basically, I’m not convinced that May Robson’s (masterfully performed) stop-the-music confession speech, had it arrived at its endpoint uninterrupted, would have gone over as swimmingly as it might have in the typical class-traversal wish-fulfillment fantasy of the era. The glorious sentimentality of everyone coming together to play-act for the benefit of her artificially elevate social standing is, I believe, offset by the sobering realization that this phoniness really and truly is her only option, that, yeah, her fear that her daughter will disown her in the event that her precarious high society jenga tower comes crashing down is absolutely well-founded. There’s something pointedly unsatisfying here, and I think it’s written on Robson’s face at the end (speaking of which, like Westward the Women, this one was another bawler 😦 ).

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Fear | Roberto Rossellini | 1954

Hey, I liked this! I like Rossellini a lot more now that I’m not trying to play auteurist games with him. Like I think analyzing and codifying and Tag Gallaghering his “style” dilutes him so much, even more so than most auteurs. Cuz his approach is so intuitive/organic, with a pungent flavor that can’t be replicated in a lab! And speaking of labs, I like how the scientist husband kinda looks like Rossellini and the irony that Ross himself would prob be threatening to drunkenly drive one of his fancy racing cars into a tree were these events to unfold in real life. Anyway, I like the melodrama, the pacing, the simplicity, the miraculousness and the themes of justness/punishment vs. rightness/mercy, but I HATE how dumb it is that caging movies into thematic trilogies leaves works like this out in the blistering cold.

Wake to Westness: WESTWARD THE WOMEN

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Westward the Women | MGM | William A. Wellman | 1951

This…this…THIS is a Western! I mean, jesus. It started out cute and fun, like “oh this is a clever idea for a Western” and “yeah, Wellman’s good for this chummy collective stuff [e.g. Wild Boys of the Road, The Lady of Burlesque, Battleground]” but this went beyond chummy into wrenching tests of character and bravery hovering above little private personal anxiety-ridden solo-stories determinedly sublimated to the collective effort! the mass journey! Wellman is so cool about capturing rock formations and dust clouds and creaky wagon wheels and even the tatteredness of pioneer garb and the battered physiognomies of his no-stars-admitted cast of women that the whole movie is pure texture, with no bold chiaroscuro compositions privileging handsome human forms against the surrounding wilderness. it’s all pain, it’s all grit, it’s all WESTNESS. And unlike most movies of this nature, there’s a very real palpable sense, by the end, of having traversed an impossible divide, of having risked it all, of having sidled along the ramparts of hell itself, so that the payoff — the matchmaking en masse and turnstile weddings, with a lot of maybe-disappointments cloaked in the quietude of maybe-discomfort that, in one perfectly timed instant, scatter to the wind while the merry men and women get to minglin’ — this payoff, weird and antiquated and progressive but most importantly gloriously deserved and smile-inducingly cathartic — THIS PAYOFF GOT ME A CRYIN’. That’s right, pardners, i said a bawlin’. It was beautiful beyond words!

Credit to the hirthological imperatives for inspiring this viewing! Yee haw!