Page Two: Madness in General
A film review and recommendation for this blur of a year
Introduction: The Good
There are only two issues of the Chronicle left (after this one) before the new year begins. There are always many things to talk about, politics to be debated, photos to share, drawings to offer up for criticism, and points to be made, but when I look at the very few days remaining in 2008, I would love to resort to prayer. Just prayer. But I don't. Instead, in most ways, it's business as usual: dealing with the good, the bad, and the ugly – although seemingly in ways lacking rhyme and in much too random an order.
There is, however, a plan here. These are malformed and disjointed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that will only come together at the end. Seeming to be anything but what it is, this is an abstract film review and recommendation that is intended to evoke without exactly attaining any coherence or symmetry.
I: The Bad
Politically, though there is now some sense of hope because of the new administration that will come into office in January, it is dampened somewhat when we look at the damage done by the current one. Among the many monumental, nonachievement achievements of the Bush administration is that despite its capricious, drunkenly excessive spending, it ended up getting very little in return for all that money (and all that accrued debt). Busy loosening environmental regulations while simultaneously not enforcing any kind of regulations, that group mostly leveled and dismantled.
There are few concrete accomplishments from the Bush administration's years in power. There has been no substantive work done on the country's deteriorating infrastructure. Much of the social safety net was disassembled – not because it was too expensive but for petty ideological reasons. There are those who believe the invasion of Iraq was worth it (worth something of value, of seminal importance). I think they are very wrong. But even if they're not, it still cost way too much.
Remember when the Bush gang had just been elected, and there were all those armies of compliant fans of the administration, many of whom enjoyed strutting with a renewed and redeemed sense of power and inevitability? Now, since they are ideological conservatives, it does seem bizarre that rather than protesting when the Republicans abandoned all their principles to go fiscally berserk, they embraced the lunacy as putting the Democratic left in its place.
A lot of the money – too much of the money, way too much of the money – went toward military spending, including outdated projects. A lot of the rest went to those who were already rich. If correct, proof of the ever- and relentlessly expressed theory that by taxing the rich less, we will leave them money that will then be reinvested in the economy, to the benefit of all Americans, should be in full flower right about now – especially considering the unique and unlimited generosity shown them by this administration. Instead, of course, there is economic collapse. Still, never missing a beat, the same pundits inform us that the only way out is to cut the taxes of the rich even more.
Astonishingly, it would seem that the Bush administration has glaringly demonstrated the impracticality of many of its most utopian beliefs by legislating them into existence. Consequently, one might expect at least a few of its members to be properly humbled – especially given that almost all other major problems and overwhelming issues that they swore they would deal with when in power (including Social Security, Medicare, education, the economy, abortion, immigration, the trade imbalance, the loss of jobs, and so on) are left still unaddressed. Evidently, however, many of us who regard this record as proof of the devastating and comprehensive failures of the Bush administration are missing the point.
It turns out that trying to actually test the core beliefs of many in the Bush administration is evidence of one's corrupt, anti-American, anti-Christian bias, as needing such proof is the hobgoblin of small minds. Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, clearly here, the core belief is the message: Faith trumps practicality, with what is theologically accepted being more sacred and consequential than any reality.
In testing a belief, therefore, this administration acknowledges pre-existing ideological confidence and firm conviction as the only standards by which to judge. Any other results are tainted by the atheism of secular nonbelievers; the overwhelming bias of radical, left-wing, mainstream media; and/or the vapid, meaningless opinions of the traitorous, atheist, pro-Marxist, pro-fascist liberal left – who don't just embrace indecency and immorality but champion them.
II: The Ugly
"There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Don't bite till you know
if it's bread or stone.
What I bite is all bread,
Rising, yeasty as a cloud."
– From "Snow," by Anne Sexton, from her collection The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)
It is the evening of the day; it is the ending of the year. It is only the middle of the month. My arms are so tired; everyone's arms seem tired, as 2008 stumbles into 2009. Even though this past year passed by much more quickly than many other years, it provided no relief or rest. The passage of time was too disruptive and almost never fluid, but instead graceless and erratic: all sporadic starts and abrupt stops, long hesitations and short bursts.
Irony triumphed over all else, as it became apparent that achievements that took years to accomplish, often at great cost, turned out to also be the carriers of a condition that would largely negate any success by creating new and disappointing situations. What was once challenging is now routine, the perilous is safe, and the mysterious long ago neutered into the known and overly familiar.
In many ways, this past year reminded me of living in Boston when I was in my 20s. Sleep was a hindrance, quiet a disease, and contemplation neither desired nor understood. Disinterested in contemplation, we were obsessed with movement: talking, walking, driving, racing around, eating, protesting, loving, writing, drinking, arguing, listening, and watching. It was all about endless adventures, all without perspective, a time of rash romance and bad writing, of too little love and too much poetry.
It all went by so quickly that the highway was my only girlfriend. There is not one unshattered memory from that time; everything is fragmented into brief bits that are so negligible that the fullest still run shorter than my famously short attention span. Instead, everything is crushed together into one unending, blurred explosion of motion, blood, color, loathing, and rain that is so lacking in detail as to deny poetry, thus depriving it of any meaning. As was that time, so has been this past year: too much, and yet not nearly enough.
III: Duck, You Sucker
Now, all of what is talked about above can be viscerally experienced and understood emotionally by watching The Witch Who Came From the Sea, which is being shown at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz next Wednesday, Dec. 17. Intuitively and irrationally, the film evokes chaos, confusion, and confrontation.
This column has frequently acknowledged a passion for the work of Yale graduate and award-winning poet Robert Thom, who was responsible for the screenplays for some of the greatest exploitation films/drive-in movies: Wild in the Streets (D: Barry Shear), Bloody Mama (D: Roger Corman), Crazy Mama (D: Jonathan Demme), and Death Race 2000 (D: Paul Bartel). Earlier in his career, he won an Emmy as co-writer on some of The Defenders episodes, as well as writing the original teleplay for The Legend of Lylah Clare and the screenplays for All the Fine Young Cannibals and The Subterraneans (the first film adaptation of a Kerouac novel).
Last time I wrote about Thom, it was mostly to begin to try to explain and celebrate that masterpiece of nails-on-chalkboard cinema Angel, Angel, Down We Go, the only film he directed (which he also wrote). A sprawling, bizarre narrative assault on modern life, culture, morality, music, family, and whatever else was lying around, and as strange a work as it is, Angel is also remarkably personal.
One reader wrote in to say that I really needed to see the Thom-authored The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976), starring Millie Perkins, who was Thom's wife and had been Hollywood's Anne Frank. Not as poetic or coherent as Angel, Angel, Down We Go (keeping in mind that even associating the word "coherent" with that film is a stretch), The Witch is, if anything, more shocking and disorienting than most of the other films with which Thom was involved.
Directed by famed auteur Matt Cimber, Witch is truly perverse, exploring favorite Thom themes like incest, the madness of families, the madness of romantic love, and just madness in general. Using the flotsam and jetsam of current events and modern culture as spice to its twisted recipe, it deals with the disassociation of reality and fantasy, as well as the realities of dreams and dreaming.
Cimber was Jayne Mansfield's last husband and directed her in Single Room Furnished (1968), a film even I wouldn't recommend. He also helmed Butterfly (1982), based on James Cain's idiosyncratic novel and starring the culturally iconic Pia Zadora, as well as the blaxploitation efforts Lady Cocoa (1975) and The Black Six (1974) – essentially a sideshow filmography with little to recommend it. Cimber's weaknesses, lack of talent, and tone-deaf cinematic style really come together to make Witch a unique, disturbing, and disorienting film. If the last few years have seemed too overloaded, if nothing else, in comparison – though quite unintentionally – The Witch should bestow a certain air of calm upon them.