• Filmic LSD or Pure Cinema

    enter the void

    Some, if not most would agree it’s nice to get your head messed around with every now and then. There are several ways of going about it of course.

    Fractured narrative, disorientation and the like are hardly new to art. Yet in movies, largely a commercial art form, you have to look to find them.

    But there are reasons for doing so, if only once and a while: stimulation, fresh perspective, provocation of the senses and intellect. As a visual medium movies come ready made for blowing your mind. But you want the good stuff, not the dreck.

    These works follows in the footsteps of the great surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, though these versions may not always be at the same level of moral and philosophical provocation as Bunuel at his best was. Yet the visual element is more astounding by several orders of magnitude.

    First, are two films by American director Jamin Winans. Ink gives you the imagery of your best and worst dreams, though with less banal plotting. Here, your subconscious is where the action is, and there are a lot of people in there. Some of them are pleasant, some are just awful, and ugly to boot. What happens in the subconscious here all but determines outcomes in the real world, as in life itself, to some extent. On the surface, it’s a story about a widower stockbroker and his sickly, estranged child. But the drama for their souls and survival is a vividly twisted and fantastical one. And despite its title, it isn’t about tattoos. I don’t think.

    In The Frame, also by Winans, two people are thrown together, figuratively at least, by a strange, inexplicable development, and the world that begins to envelop them grows only more inexplicable and finally, surreal. The characters here are full and distinctive, and their individual lives and circumstances patiently laid out before the funny business is taking hold for real. One of them has been forced into a life of criminality, but seeks escape, the other has been devoted to helping others, after a past life of shame and distress. Visually, the film slowly but surely becomes ever more intriguing, and at times beautiful, and understandable, at least on its own terms. Fate, alternate realities, the mysteries of people finding one another seem to be what’s in play here. But you tell me.

    Made by French provocateur Gasper Noe, Enter the Void is by far the most pure grade psychedelia of the bunch. Visually, it is literally out of this world. It’s in English, but set in an extraordinarily filmed Tokyo (Think Lost in Translation on yes, acid) with an international gallery of characters. The separate and entwined lives of a young American and his younger sister in the demimonde are at its core. It has a prevailing eschatological aspect, as well as prodigious amounts of drugs and sex.

    The drug life, the sex life, the inner life, the before life, the afterlife, they’re all here. It’s the film most likely to set your eyeballs spinning on the gerbil wheel, and have your poor synapses pleading for mercy. You’ll be by turns tantalized, enthralled, stupefied and disgusted.

    The films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai might more accurately be characterized as stylized than hallucinogenic, even if they are as visually distinctive and enthralling as any you will ever see. They are moody, drenched in ambience and studied poses, transporting, emotive, and told as much through mood and poetry as through conventional storytelling.

    Days of Being Wild, which in some ways resembles a classic film of the French New Wave, is photographed and filmed in such a manner as to transform Nineteen-sixties Hong Kong into Paris in the Thirties, accompanied by a Django Reinhardt-like Hot Club de France jazz guitar score (performed by Los Indios Tabajaras, a Brazilian duo). The tale itself is a cross between Rebel Without A Cause and The Third Man.

    It includes one of Kar-wai’s typically caddish male protagonists, and more than one of his ethereal, damaged females, and every kind of cultural cross-referencing. It’s stirring, and just plain cool.

    In Kar-wai’s 2046, 2046 is several things: first, it’s the number of a hotel room, and secondly, the year to which a train on occasion travels, where it is said, nothing ever changes, and lost memories may be recovered there. Yet no one knows if this is true, since no one who has ever travelled there ever returned. Except that is for one, the narrator of the story itself, who has written the novel, 2046, the third incarnation of the number. The novel, 2046, is about the past, not the future, reflective, nostalgic and melancholy.

    The story gives us a beautiful Cambodian female gambler, known as the Black Spider, a stunning android, with whom the man on the train either to or from 2046 wishes would fall in love with him, but won’t. It’s a meditation on the ephemeral nature of romantic feelings and human connections. In love, timing is everything.

    Speaking of love, Kar-wei’s In the Mood for Love is more linear, visually less flamboyant, than the others, yet a moving interplay of words and pictures seldom encountered in conventional moviemaking. It’s the story of a man and woman, neighbors, who discover their spouses are cheating with one another. Drawn together by their loneliness, they develop a friendship and eventually fall in love, though they never act upon it, in order, “not to be like them”.

    The faces of the cheating spouses themselves are never seen, their presence largely that of ghosts. Ironically, it is the two non-cheating spouses seeking solace with one another who become the subject of gossip. The film is delicate and elegiac, suffused with sumptuous imagery and poignant music. Not simply a foreign film, it’s a film in another cinematic language.

    Fallen Angels is Kar-wai gone wild, this one laced with amphetamines. With traces of Scorsese and Goddard, and Natural Born killers perhaps, it’s an even bolder work in its own right, a hyper-stylish, visually and musically witty joyride. This is Hong Kong after the sun goes down, and a gallery of young lost souls who wander there.

    There’s The Killer, his beautiful, mysterious Manager, there’s Blondie, who really, really enjoys the rain, and like the Manager, has a thing for The Killer. Cherry believes Blondie has stolen her lost love, Johnny. There’s a young man who has ceased to speak ever since the age of six, victim of a “bad pineapple”. He roams the city opening businesses closed for the night, operating them himself.

    Like the rest of the Kar-wai canon, it’s chocked with longing, desperation, doomed romance, bad timing, hedonism, lusciousness, doomed romance, self-destruction, immense beauty, and blossoming and repressed sensuality. This may be the coolest Kar-wei of them all.

    I would be remiss if I failed to mention British director Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, having rougher edges than most of the others here, altogether rougher indeed. Set in fact in a field in England, it juxtaposes the English Civil War with tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. Yes, you read that correctly.

    You won’t find any high-minded talk of Parliamentarians versus Royalists here, nor do either Charles I or Oliver Cromwell make an appearance. Our heroes are four deserters who band together in search of an alehouse. They are commandeered more or less by two men who compel them to search a field for a rumored buried treasured, though the men have just dined on a stew flavored with mushrooms growing in the field, and gone, shall we say, weird.

    Certainly A Field in England is in the running for oddest and most experimental historical film ever, rendering the period, whatever ideals propelled England into war with itself, as greatly more influenced by notions of the supernatural, whether Christian or pagan, greed, ignorance, and base need than any concern for the nature of government or true representation of the people. On the other hand, several of these fellows seem like pretty good blokes to me.

    Upstream Color may be the most unorthodox of all the films here, yet the boldest and most successful example of pure cinema. It was created by actor and director Shane Carruth, whose earlier film, Primer, a brainy, complex, special effects eschewing story about the problematic nature of time-travel, is something of an underground science fiction classic, and deservedly so.

    Upstream Color is largely, if not entirely indescribable, but wonderfully perplexing and transcendentally beautiful. Its two main protagonist are a man and woman whose lives have been profoundly altered by a series of events, in the case of the woman, that we are witness to, but the characters themselves struggle to recall.

    In this film, as in A Field in England, a psychoactive substance is central to the story. A larvae goes from human to pig to orchid back to human again, and on with the cycle. I wouldn’t tell you every detail of how, even if I were entirely certain (you can get the gist though). The larvae are found in the orchids. The beautiful blue orchids grow in a stream where pigs infected with larvae removed from the human body have been discarded.

    Outlandish as it all sounds, it really is a story about human beings, identity, life cycles, mutable or immutable, and mysteries relevant to us all. It’s exquisite, mesmerizing, and genuinely affecting.

    Both Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick have been cited as Carruth influences. Malick, a favorite of mine to put it mildly, and among America’s greatest living directors, has of late been moving more in the direction of Carruth. Though Malick’s Tree of Life may have inspired Carruth, Malick’s most recent film To the Wonder (Knight of Cups has yet to be released, and is expected this year) to an unprecedented degree for Malick, eludes the conventional narrative, relying greatly upon Malick’s incomparable prowess with image and motion.

    Though the films here, for my money are some of the most successful, and rewarding of their kind, there are other films that are less so, yet still worth the trip. These include the Czech film from the Sixties, Daisies, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and The Fountain, several of British legend Ken Russell’s films, and Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.

    Happy trails.

  • Stefan Zweig, Grand Budapest Hotel, And The Writing on the Wall

    The World of Yesterday

    Stefan Zweig is not a household name, but not an obscure one either, though until the Zweig-inspired Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, his was a seldom remarked and sparsely praised literary-historical presence.

    The Vienna-born novelist, biographer, poet, essayist, story writer and memoirist was the most translated author of his time, and in the wake of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, his works and his legacy were all but expunged from history in his native tongue. Arguably his most lasting and influential work was his reminiscence of a time and place, the Central Europe, and in particular the Vienna of his youth and young adulthood during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, The World of Yesterday.

    Zweig presents a world that appears to reside in a kind of suspension from history, a golden era in many ways, well past the disruptive and destructive European wars of the Nineteenth Century and before the devastating ones to come in the Twentieth. It was a Vienna, according to Zweig, where intellect and artistic achievement were highly and widely prized, there was broad acceptance of nationalities and ethnicities, indeed tolerance in general, social progress was valued and manifest, Austrians the beneficiaries of what we now would identify as a generous safety net that provided every Austrian with relative, and much welcomed security.

    The world had advanced, as Zweig himself believed, the worst inclinations of human nature and politics if not surpassed, largely, and perhaps permanently set aside, managed, or out of favor. History had reached a moment, rested upon a plateau that an American observer might describe as Jeffersonian, where there was sufficient time and sufficient leisure for, and more importantly, pervasive interest in devoting oneself to higher pursuits, learning, beauty, art, ideas. The prevailing sense was that it would always be so. Austria, Europe surely, and even the world beyond would continue on this path of steady improvement. Obviously it did not, catastrophically so.

    Grand Budapest Hotel, like other of Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) has no recognizable counterpart or even familial resemblance to any movie that I can think of, at least not in American film, and certainly not in Hollywood. That he would draw inspiration from The World of Yesterday, which, though it conveys Zweig’s optimistic and congenial nature, also is permeated, naturally, with an abiding feeling of loss, and create such a wickedly funny and clever, and flamboyantly vivid movie, for me at least, affirms again an awe-inspiring knack for creative legerdemain.

    Indeed, the story takes place in a fictional hotel, in a fictional country, peopled with wholly invented characters, and yet, sometimes down to the smallest detail, perfectly recalls a specific time and place. Anderson has said he likewise took inspiration from several of Zweig’s novels, but whatever he put into the pot and stirred, the result is a dazzle of rococo visual style, absurdist plotting and slapstick presentation, all of which still manages to compellingly evoke the Central Europe of the early Twentieth Century.

    Old enough now no longer to be classified still as a wunderkind, like any highly idiosyncratic artist, audiences tend to find Anderson’s work either refreshing, sui generis, touching, thoughtful and invigorating, or else unbearably annoying, gratingly pretentious, gratuitously juvenile and utterly detestable. I will say having read numerous interviews with Anderson, and listened to several discussions, Anderson at the very least isn’t what one might call a literary tourist, and in fact strikes one rather as a literary person as most of us would conceive of one, and remains as far as he possibly could be, from the Hollywood sensibility raiding literary works for the purpose of transforming them into ghastly products, or with good, but misguided intentions, clumsily bringing highly regarded books to the screen.

    What can’t be forgotten, and isn’t by Anderson, is that this world so colorfully recreated in the movie, and lovingly recalled by Zweig, is doomed. In the movie there are both signs and real events to convey that everything is about to change, and in a not very pleasant way. Zweig’s recounting of what transpired is of course detailed and quite specific.

    This is where the import of the book insinuates itself uncomfortably, yet presciently in my view, into the present. Anderson has said nothing in anything I have read or heard that could remotely be construed as revealing any intent for the film to be cautionary, nor is any such quality evident in the film itself. That said, and especially discernible during repeated viewings, there nevertheless is an elegiac undercurrent if not overt aspect in the film.

    Zweig’s own world and the world itself at the time he was completing The World of Yesterday were in such a shambles, it was difficult to know if there would even be a future, much less speculate what it might look like. Yet to the extent all books are written as much for the future as for the present, only a dolt would fail to see the universal warnings in what he recalls.

    Zweig was a traveller and letter-writer, and he had friends spread across Europe. During a visit to Italy in the 1920’s, he witnessed the Blackshirts in the streets of the Italian towns and villages as fascism in Italy was coming to power. In Salzburg, near the border with Germany, where he took up residence after the first of the world wars he became aware of the Brownshirts who regularly crossed the border into Austria to propagandize and organize Austrian sympathizers.

    As sunny as Zweig seems to be temperamentally, his memoir is permeated, quite naturally by despair and disbelief at what has happened to him, and happened to the world. He describes a sense among the Viennese of the time, and among Europeans even more generally, that life will always continue as it is today, always will be more or less, as it is at present. What seemed preposterous then, and for that fact seems even more powerful and tragic now, is the idea that a civilization can indeed collapse, even the most seemingly stable one, even one transformed and demonstrably enlightened.

    What’s more chilling, and even more pertinent to the present I would suggest, is Zweig’s descriptions of his fellow Austrians, the Viennese especially as they encounter the signs, the augurs, the indications of the materialization of the darkness to come, with an almost resolute denial, and later, a blithe fatalism, the two mixing together to render a strange sort of intoxication. Zweig regards it all, when it becomes entirely too concrete, as akin to a waking dream, life taking place around you, but in your dream-state helpless to act yourself.

    To reduce The World of Yesterday to the cautionary would be to unforgivably trivialize it. Zweig had lost everything, his home, his lifetime collections of books, manuscripts and musical scores, witnessed his books banned and burned, friends and family brutalized, the civilized world of yesterday delivered to barbarism. Having fled to England, and eventually all the way to Brazil, the day after completing The World of Yesterday he, together with his wife committed suicide.

    Our own present is unlikely to be mistaken by anyone for an idyllic era. No one really talks about underestimating the forces of reaction or regression, the allure of philistinism, the power of nationalism and xenophobia, fanaticism and the ideologically extreme. I sometimes have that sense of living in a waking dream myself, when I observe the political world unfolding everyday around me, wondering if I am the only one to notice.

    That I see those signs in the present of something dark to come, signs visible, even in plain sight, and the all but the same infuriating complacency surrounding me, it may only be my own neurosis, or my own political imagination unacceptably out of kilter.

    In any case, extrapolate from Zweig, and even from The Grand Budapest Hotel, what you will.


  • Will Majority Rule Return to America, or is it too Late?


    America at present not only is a country whose governance is out of sync with its population, it’s a country whose governance meets the definition of tyranny by the minority over the majority, one of the founders greatest fears.

    Many safeguards and checks and balances were set in place in order to deter such an eventuality. But ultimately, the responsibility will always rest upon the majority itself, its enlightenment, attentiveness and constant vigilance. Sadly, whether Americans in recent years have retained those qualities sufficiently is a real question. But at the very least, the minority’s ability to continue its present hold over the majority is not yet a foregone conclusion.

    Keep in my mind that should Republicans successfully seat another Donald Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice, adding to the two appointed by George W. Bush, four of nine Supreme Court justices will have been appointed by presidents who did not receive a majority of Americans’ votes. As it now stands a third of the court has been appointed by minority presidents.

    To make it worse, in the case of George W. Bush’s election, not only did he lose the popular vote, but a Republican-dominated Supreme Court ordered the vote count to be terminated in the state of Florida, one which had it continued ultimately would have given the state, and the presidency to Al Gore (See: over votes).

    Again, in the case of Donald Trump, not only did a majority of the electorate oppose him, but the election itself was indisputably tainted by interference from a foreign power, whose express goal was to put him in the White House.

    One can’t excuse the shoddy voter participation of the majority, especially in post-2008 elections. But the result, in particular in the 2010 midterms, was to give Republicans domination of a great many state governments, leading to enactment of voter suppression laws that contributed significantly to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

    All of this comes on top of the systemic advantages currently working in the minority’s favor. The Senate drastically over represents smaller population states. California’s forty million citizens have the same number of senate seats as North Dakota. New York’s millions have the same representation as tiny South Dakota. Twenty-two states whose populations added together equal that of California’s retain 44 seats in the senate to California’s two. And so the priorities and preferences of these small, largely rural rightwing states predominate.

    In the House of Representatives, congressional seats have been gerrymandered in such a way that major population centers in numerous states retain a single congressional seat, while the rest of the state’s geography is divided into countless districts, guaranteeing smaller, more conservative areas have considerably more representation in the House of Representatives than the majority of the population.

    And then there’s the obsolescence of the Electoral College. Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections. And yet, should Trump finish out his first term, Republicans will have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 26 years, nearly half. Does that seem like majority rule to you?

    Together, these are the factors that allow an extremist political minority opposed by the majority to dominate all three branches of government, and to lock their advantages in going forward.

    But the tension created between the governing and the governed long may simmer, but eventually it will boil. The temperature of the inevitable conflict between the tyrannized minority and the majority can only rise. Exactly how this conflict will play out in the United States, and how it will be resolved remain to be seen.

    It’s worth noting, and we can see it in front of our eyes, that as the rumbles from the majority grow in volume, so the absolutism and the autocratic tendencies of the majority spike in turn. From the point of view of the minority, a classic strongman, a natural autocrat is a useful convenience, and they’re lucky enough to have one at this very moment.

    The Republican, and now Trumpian dedication to ideology above country, to party over democratic principles is evident for all to see in the vicious and unprecedented attacks upon America’s traditions and institutions, including federal law enforcement and system of justice.

    And what are the goals of this ideology? An obliteration of capitalism’s balance between labor and capital in favor of the permanent domination of capital, the perpetual subservience of workers; a permanent disparity in wealth, tax burdens shifted to the middle and working classes, investments shifted from the working and middle classes to the wealthiest; corporate and business unaccountability, in service to an exotic brand of Ayn Rand, eugenics-based feudalism (the call it supply side, or Austrian School, pick your snake oil); the promulgation of anti-science propaganda; and theocratic and cultural regression on everything from gay rights, abortion rights, to civil rights in general.

    One can observe in the smug grin of Mitch McConnell the level of confidence in the right’s capacity for rigging the system, and engineering this minority rule in perpetuity.

    What it will take to depose this tyranny is difficult to estimate, but likely it will require the fight of our lives. Whatever it takes, we need to do it.

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