Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An Invention for Radio 3: Amor Dei (1964) by Barry Bermange and Delia Derbyshire.

From the second of the Bermange/Derbyshire Inventions:

Other parts: Conceptions of God and There is a God! 

An Invention for Radio 2: The Dreams (1964) by Barry Bermange and Delia Derbyshire.

The first of the eerie, cult classic Inventions for Radio produced by dramatist Barry Bermange and the brilliant and beguiling Delia Derbyshire:

An Invention for Radio 1: Private Dreams and Public Nightmares (1957) by Frederick Bradnum and Daphne Oram.

Wonderful pre-Radiophonic Workshop experiment:

Monday, September 23, 2013


I'd be very curious to see this forgotten 1974 film-adaption of Herman Hesse's proto-psychedelic classic Steppenwolf.  The movie's producer Melvin Abner Fishman was an avid enthusiast of LSD, Jung, and alchemy, and hoped to produce the first "Jungian film".  Michelangelo Antonioni and John Frankenheimer were considered as directors (Antonioni passed because he felt, perhaps not unreasonably, that the novel was unfilmable), but the film eventually wound up as the sole directorial credit of script writer Fred Haines, no stranger to the unfilmable having scripted Strick's quite enjoyable 1967 stab at Ulysses.  The Polish director Wojciech Hass would have been my vote to adapt Steppenwolf.

366 Weird Movies article on the Steppenwolf movie here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reaganite Reverie: 80s Stallone - Work Your Body.

The Cold War as abstracted homoerotic training montage:

Holy Magick: The Crowleyite Acid Jazz of Graham Bond.

By all accounts, the British jazz/rhythm and blues pioneer Graham Bond got way too into the occult.  Bond often claimed to be an illegitimate scion of the Great Beast himself, and fellow Brit blues man Long John Baldry accused him of sacrificing his pet cat in a ritual.  In 1974, after several years of mixed musical fortunes, sporadic drug addiction, and possible bipolar disorder, Bond walked into the path of an oncoming Piccadilly lane train, aged only 36.  Friends believed that he was clean of drugs, but that his occult preoccupations had reached manic levels.

The most noteworthy musical fruits of Bond's chaotic involvement with occultism are 1970's Holy Magick and '71's We Put our Magick on You, both recorded with his then wife and fellow magick devotee Diane Stewart.  According to Malcolm Dome writing for Classic Rock, both are "enveloped in a disjointed yet quite brilliant occult atmosphere. Neither record should be regarded as a classic, yet they had a certain claustrophobic, doomed sensibility that makes them even now rather eerie. You can hear a man actually celebrating his demons in a musical context that is something of a jumble of confusion and philosophical contortions."  The following is one of my favorite of Bond's explicitly Crowleyite tunes: 

Bond and Stewart were also members of Ginger Baker's short-lived and pretty awesome Air Force group:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mark Fry - The Witch.

Acid folk and scary children's television:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Breaking Open the Head: Michael Hollingshead, the World Psychedelic Center, and Self-Trepanation - the Alternative Lifestyle Choice that Never Took Off.

This story is made up of a couple of curious and eye-opening foot-notes to the history of psychedelia.  My sources are Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens, Turn Off Your Mind by Gary Lachman, and some webpages that I'll link at the bottom.

In 1970, Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March, then aged 23, put on a bandana and went to eat a steak in a restaurant near the Chelsea embankment, London.  Feilding was tucking into her steak in order to replace the blood she had recently lost - by boring a hole in her skull with a dentist's drill.  The operation had been filmed by her boyfriend Joey Mellen, to be used in a documentary called Heartbeat in the Brain.  To elaborate on the milieu out of which this bizarre London evening emerged, we will divert to the life and times of another man who opened his mind - this time with a mayonnaise jar which would become the stuff of legend.

         Michael Hollingshead outside the Harvard building were he turned Timothy Leary on to LSD.

In 1960, Michael Hollingshead was an expatriate Englishman with a slightly shady reputation, living in New York and working in some kind of capacity for the British American Cultural Exchange Institute.  One day, a small package arrived from the Sandoz corporation in Switzerland, containing one gram of LSD, roughly five thousand hits.  (Hollingshead became interested in LSD after reading Huxley and experimenting with mescaline, and claimed he had persuaded a doctor friend to write the request for the acid on a hospital letterhead, ostensibly for the purpose of some kind of bone marrow experiments.)   He decided to mix the acid with water and confectioner's sugar, and store the whole fiendishly potent stash in a sixteen-ounce mayonnaise jar.  The problem was that Hollingshead had been carelessly tasting the mixture with his finger as he worked on it, later estimating that he'd unconsciously absorbed 5 strong doses of pure Sandoz before screwing the lid on the legendary jar for the first time!  He went off on a 15 hour trip from which he never fully returned:  "It was a very strange first trip indeed, and it was of many hours' duration, perhaps fifteen. What I had experienced was the equivalent of death's abolition of the body. I had literally 'stepped forth' out of the shell of my body, into some other strange land of unlikeliness, which can only be grasped in terms of astonishment and mystery, as an état de l'absurde, ecstatic nirvana. I could now 'understand' why death could produce the sort of confusion I was experiencing. In life we are anchored through the body to such inescapable cosmic facts as space, gravity, electromagnetic vibrations and so forth. But when the body is lost, the psychic factor which survives is free to behave with uninhibited extravagance."  (The Man Who Turned On the World, 1973.)

 On Huxley's advice, Hollingshead packed up his mayonnaise jar and headed for Massachusetts to seek out Leary.  The rest is fairly well-documented history: Leary had been on a kind of collision course with the straight, middle-class world for some time, but in the shattering nirvana of his first acid trip, the Harvard professor finally got off the boat and split from the whole fuckin' programme for good.  Everything was revealed to be a tawdry television-set, and like the WS Burroughs of Nova Express, Leary felt compelled to Storm the Reality Studio and Retake the Universe.  An anarko-hedonistic-egotist was born.

At the back of all this, Hollingshead's role as Leary's lysergic Svengali is somewhat murky.  There is the palpable air of a dark magus about him, the air of somebody who found anything but the Light on the Other Side of the Rainbow.  According to Lachman in Turn Off Your Mind:  "Hollingshead would get a reputation as a real demon of a psychedelic guide, spiking people with massive doses, or leading trippers down convoluted paths and then abandoning them....his penchant for manipulation, lying, and coercion are clear signs that he was basically interested in power.  Like Charles Manson and the CIA, Hollingshead 'grokked' LSD's potential for mind control."  At first falling at his feet like a student to his guru, Leary eventually wearied of Hollingshead's disruptive presence, and sent him to London to proselytize the acid revolution on his home turf.  Like Johnny Appleseed-cum-John the Baptist, Hollingshead set sail with another gram of LSD and thirteen boxes of psychedelic literature, quickly establishing a apartment, 21 Pont Street, Belgravia as "The World Psychedelic Center."

 The location of Hollingshead's Psychedelic Center (picture from The Great Wen blog.)

All serious misgivings about Hollingshead aside, the World Psychedelic Center sounds like a hell of a scene while it was was going; basically the ultimate chill-out zone with quasi-religious overtones.  The place was decked out with cushions and candles everywhere, a projector that showed slides of mandalas and Hindu deities and Bodhisattvas, a sound-system that played Ravi Shankar and John Cage space music and wild Moroccan pipes (and the ubiquitous Bardo or two, of course)....the ceremonies usually began at midnight, when grapes laced with 300 micrograms of acid were passed around.   I don't know who actually cleaned the place up, but I could definitely imagine curling up of an evening in 21 Pont Street.  Unsurprisingly, with acid in London in relatively short supply during this period, the World Psychedelic Center became a mecca for serious scenesters and a nexus point of hip London royalty and avant-garde notoriety.  During its short lifespan, Roman Polanski, Paul McCarthy, Eric Clapton, the Stones, Donovan, Burroughs, Alex Trocchi, and many others passed through, sampling the grapes and opening fourth, fifth and sixth eyes.....what a scene.  Fuck Clapton, though.

Needless to say, a visionary, Eleusinian speakeasy like this couldn't stay in business for the long haul.  For one thing, the host was gradually turning into a scarily drug-fried zombie of the highest order: "Hollingshead himself was increasing his drug intake to incredible levels, soaking his nervous system in hashish, methedrine, acid.  He never slept, and shocked himself out of a zombie-like walking coma with injections of dimethyltriptamene, a fast-acting psychedelic." (Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind.)  Yikes.  Eventually busted for possession of an ounce of hash, Hollingshead elected to defend himself, while dosed on acid.  The story just keeps on giving.  Sent down for 21 months to Wormwood Scrubs, Hollingshead receives a batch of acid from visitors Richard Alpert and Owsley Stanley, and decides to turn on his cellmate.....who turns out to the English double-agent and KGB-aiding traitor George Blake......who naturally enough freaks out, thinking Hollingshead is a spy.  Blake eventually escaped from Wormwood Scrubs with the aid of two anti-nuclear protestors, and fled for the USSR; Hollingshead's next port of call was the Scottish island of Cumbrae were he hung out with an acid cult for a while (assumedly no virginal constables were sent from the mainland to harsh up the scene)  before embarking on some globe-trotting.  Anyway, that's all I know of Hollingshead's story; let's bring it back to the gruesome head-trip we started at.

                                           Bart Huges Breaking Open the Head in 1965.

Just about every adult in the world must have an acute sense at some time or another of how much fresher, richer, and more expansive were their consciousness and perceptions when they were children, how much slower time seemed to move, and how more novel and interesting everything appeared.  In fact, we devote a great deal of time and energy to trying to restore this prelapsarian vivacity of consciousness,  this condition which Huxley in The Doors of Perception called "the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept", whether it be via drugs or sex or absorption in the heightened emotional landscapes of movies and music, or anything that might puncture the comfortable numbness of adult perception.  But all these restorations are only temporary; you can't stay high forever.  During the early sixties, a Dutch librarian turned medical revolutionary named Bart Huges thought he had found the answer to this perennial  problem - and it wasn't pretty.  Trepanation is the practice of drilling a hole in the skull, normally as a surgical procedure designed to alleviate some mental or inter-cranial illness.  It is in fact one of the oldest surgical procedures for which we have archeological evidence, and it was practiced all over the world.  Huges, however, came to believe that trepanation could restore the lost vivacity and intensity of childhood perception - could in effect "cure" the debilitating illness of adulthood - by increasing the flow of blood in the brain.  He was so convinced of his thesis that he performed the operation on himself, eventually unveiling the results to a crowd of hip cats at an art happening in Amsterdam in January of 1965.  According to John Michell in Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions "Babies are born with skulls unsealed, and it is not until one is an adult that the bony carapace is formed which completely encloses the membranes surrounding the brain and inhibits their pulsations in repsonse to heart-beats. In consequence, the adult loses touch with the dreams, imagination and intense perceptions of the child. His mental balance becomes upset by egoism and neuroses. To cure these problems, first in himself and then for the whole world, Dr Huges returned his cranium to something like the condition of infancy by cutting out a small disc of bone with an electric drill. Experiencing immediate beneficial effects from this operation, he began preaching to anyone who would listen to the doctrine of trepanation. By liberating his brain from its total imprisonment in his skull, he claimed to have restored its pulsations, increased the volume of blood in it and acquired a more complete, satisfying state of consciousness than grown-up people normally enjoy".

Huges, then, believed himself to be a self-mutanted child of the New Aeon; as he wrote in his manifesto Homo Sapiens Correctus, "Gravity is the enemy - the adult is its victim - society is its disease...I think that no construction of adults can work optimally unless each adult in the construction has been trepanned."  Needless to say, trepanning didn't quite take off with the same intensity as Leary's proselytizing on LSD's behalf - indeed the first response of the Dutch authorities to Homo Sapiens Correctus was to place Huges in a mental hospital.  But Huges did find a disciple in the form of Joey Mellen, who would become one of Hollingshead's main partners in the World Psychedelic Center.  Mellen first met Huges in Ibiza, and became so impressed by the trepanning philosophy that he eventually secured the fiances to bring Huges to London and set him up in a Chelsea flat.  (Where did these cats get all the bread for setting people up in flats from?)  Polanski and Clapton weren't lining up like they had been for Hollingshead's grapes, and a Sunday newspaper rather uncharitably suggested THIS DANGEROUS IDIOT SHOULD BE THROWN OUT.  Nevertheless, Mellen eventually followed in the footsteps of his master.  Unable to persuade any medical professional to perform the operation, he was forced to do it himself.  After a couple of grisly botched attempts - undertaken while under the influence of LSD....YIKES - Mellen finally performed the operation successfully.  (His partner Amanda Feilding followed him in 1970 in the circumstances described above.)  Joey Mellen documented his experiences in a kind of Doors of Perception for the drill-bit set called Bore Hole; its first line is up there with Call me Ismael:  "This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my skull to get permanently high."

. “Gravity is the enemy. The adult is its victim – society is its disease…I think that no construction of adults can work optimally unless each adult in the construction is trepanned. - See more at: http://www.madscientistblog.ca/mad-scientist-6-bart-huges/#sthash.f52z9n27.dpuf
Well, that's tonight's episode.  Are Joey Mellen and Amanda Feilding courageous mutants, harbingers of a new, free-floating and permanently childlike consciousness?  Or just suggestible people who followed the yearnings of a strange time for transcendence from the tedium of the adult world to a gruesome and insane extreme?  Whatever the answer, don't try any of this at home - except maybe mayo.

Secret London: LSD Experiments at the World Psychedelic Center.

The People with Holes in their Heads by John Michell.

Mad Scientist 6: Bart Huges.

Monday, September 9, 2013


On May 3rd, 1967, Timothy Leary, in the height of his Marshall McLuhan-coached High Priest phase, debated psychiatrist and neurosurgeon Dr. Jerome Lettvin in MIT.  The debate was televised by WGBH -TV, gaining some notoriety for Lettvin's use of the word "Bullshit!"  Leary's performance is sometimes inspiring and incisive, and sometimes glib and rambling; Lettvin is certainly an energetic critic of Leary's hedonistic gospel.  A very entertaining cultural artifact of its time:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Where the Rainbow Ends: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (Part 2)

I always enjoyed representing a slightly surreal situation in a realistic way.  I have always had a penchant for fairy-tales, myths, and magical stories.  They seem to me to come closer to our present-day experience of reality than realistic stories, which are basically just as stylized.

Stanley Kubrick.

A Fairy-Tale for Adults.

Before beginning a proper analysis of the film, I'm going to look briefly at what type of film Eyes Wide Shut is.  Of course, a Kubrick film is always primarily a Kubrick film, but EWS is more difficult to categorize than many of the others - it isn't too reductive, after all, to call 2001 science fiction, or The Shining horror, or Full Metal Jacket a war (or anti-war) film.  Part of the difficulty in assigning EWS a neat generic pigeonhole goes back to its source, Arthur Schnitzler's weird, beautiful 1926 novella Traumnovelle (also known as Rhapsody: A Dream Novel or simply Dream Story.)  Schnitzler was an experimental and hugely controversial author and dramatist who worked as a doctor in Vienna during the disillusioned twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Schnitzler's work was controversial because of its frank and consistent preoccupation with the psychology of sexuality.  Vienna in this period was of course the epicenter of a revolution in the opening up and airing of previously hidden dimensions of dream and sexuality, and Sigmund Freud believed that Schnitzler was arriving by means of creative intuition at the same submerged material which he was slowly discovering through practical work with patients:  "I have gained the impression that you have learned by intuition - though actually as a result of sensitive introspection - everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons."   In some senses, EWS follows Dream Story very closely - we have a married couple, Dr Fridolin and his wife Albertine, whose relationship becomes strained after they have an intimate conversation about their sexual feelings towards other people.  A jealous Fridolin embarks on the same series of nocturnal adventures as Bill Harford in the film; he nearly solicits the services of a prostitute, and encounters an old friend (Nick Nightingale in the film, Nachtigall in the novella) whom he follows to the mysterious costumed orgy.  A dream novel is perhaps the best way to describe Schnitzler's novella; like EWS it draws us into an ambiguous world which never quite seems real and never quite seems a dream:

"And again it crossed his mind that his body might already be carrying the seed of some fatal disease.  Wouldn't it be absurd to die because a child infected with diphtheria had coughed in one's face?  Perhaps he was already sick.  Didn't he have a fever?  Wasn't he perhaps lying at home in bed this very moment - and hadn't everything he believed he had experienced been nothing more than his delirium?"  (Dream Story.)

Another effective way of describing Dream Story (and EWS) might be as a fugue - both in the sense of the dreamlike and potentially prolonged dissociative state, and in the musical sense of a composition which establishes a central theme which recurs in different voices throughout the piece.  Fridolin contemplates prolonged fugue-states and the ambiguity between dreams and reality in Dream Story:

"True, such things happened very rarely, but they had been authenticated none the less.  And in a milder form they were experienced by a great many people.  What about when one awoke from dreams, for example?  Of course, there one could remember....But there were also surely dreams which one forgot completely, or which nothing remained but some mysterious aura, some obscure bemusement.  Or else one remembered later, much later, and could no longer tell whether one had experienced something or merely dreamed it.  (Dream Story.) 

An earlier incarnation of Eyes Wide Shut: Schnitzler's Dream Story was adapted by Wolfgang Gluck for German television in 1969.  These pictures are all I could really discover of the earlier version:

From a generic viewpoint, the best descriptor for EWS might be as a fairy-tale for adults.  In one very common narrative type of the fairy-tale, a protagonist leaves a state of comfort and security and undergoes a trial in the form of a journey and series of adventures, usually culminating with the protagonist attaining some goal or higher stature, and the restoration of their initial state of security and ease.  The adventure usually takes the protagonist to strange, enchanted, and liminal territories such as deep woods and ogres' castles, where guile, trickery, and disguise are often employed to avoid disaster.   During the course of these adventures, various interlopers may both test and provide magical aids to the protagonists.  These magical helpers are called donors, and commonly take the form of fairy-godmothers, spirits of departed parents, and animal helpers.  This type of fairy-tale thus resembles the hero's journey or narrative of initiation; they show us characters who are tested by dislocation and ordeal, and thus attain greater self identity and sufficiency.  In the sense characteristic of Shakespearean comedy, they lose themselves to find themselves.  It's easy to see how this template can be applied to EWS.  Bill Harford leaves the middle-class securities of his professional and family life, and enters a nocturnal realm which is liminal and enchanted in the sense that the outer world cannot be easily separated from his own inner anxieties and fantasies.  There are several donor and magical helper-figures - Nick Nightingale who gives him the password to enter the ogres' castle, a more sinister variation in the proprietor of Rainbow costumes, and finally the most significant of his helpers, the mysterious woman (presumably Mandy Curran) who sacrifices herself at the orgy so that he will be saved.  Other elements of Eyes Wide Shut suggest fairy-tale motifs: Bill Harford's costume, whose mask finds its way uncannily to his pillow in the last act of the movie, feels like a somewhat sinister echo of the enchanted gown and slippers by which Cinderella effects her gate-crash of the socially exclusive ball; the mansion where the orgy takes place might be likened, from the perspective of an adult male, to the house made of confectionery in Hansel and Gretel, a treacherous space that promises maximal indulgence and gratification:

"Doors on either side opened, and through one set Fridolin recognized the shadowy outline of Nachtigall's figure at the piano, while the room opposite was suffused with dazzling light, and there the ladies were standing motionless, each with a dark veil covering her head, brow and neck, and a black lace mask over her face, but otherwise completely naked.  Fridolin's eyes roved hungrily from sensuous to slender figures, and from budding figures to figures in full glorious bloom; and the fact that each of these naked beauties still remained a mystery, and that from behind the masks large eyes as unfathomable as riddles sparkled at him, transformed his indescribably strong urge to watch into an almost intolerable torment of desire."  (Dream Story.)

In some senses, then, Eyes Wide Shut can be seen as an initiatory adventure or hero's journey for Bill Harford.  However, as we shall see, Kubrick has subverted this formula.  Harford's adventures in EWS present him with the opportunity to better understand how the world works and the nature of his position within it; they afford him the opportunity to exhibit the courage and integrity of a traditional film hero (the name Harford is, after all, a construction after Harrison Ford).  Both these opportunities he appears to reject, and in the movie's conclusion we suspect that he has passed through the wild wood and returned unchanged, back to precisely the position he started from.

 Crime and Ambiguity of Perception: Eyes Wide Shut and Blow-Up (1966). 

As I argued in the previous installment, EWS operates as a kind of optical illusion, presenting a different thematic focus depending on which elements you place in the fore- and which in the background.  The explicit themes are matrimony, monogamy, sexual fantasies, and jealousy; the more hidden subject matter reiterates the sexual theme, but places it a context of power, wealth, and corruption, and how these forces objectify, commodify, and exploit sexuality.  These themes are explored through a series of ambiguities.  Are Alice's fantasies regarding the Naval officer, though never consummated, somehow as real and significant as her actual marriage to Bill?  Are Bill's nocturnal experiences real or just a projection of his troubled and jealous psyche?  Similarly, is Alice's dream of her sexual promiscuity and scornful humiliation of Bill just an involuntary concoction of her unconscious, or is it instead a revelation of her true desires and feelings towards her husband?  Again and again, EWS encourages us to ponder two questions which in some respects mirror one another: are dreams and fantasies somehow as real in their emotional intensity and significant in their implications as actual reality? and does our actual experienced reality sometimes become a projection and a play of the obsessive forces which dominate our inner lives and imaginations? 

These questions relate primarily to the matrimonial theme; with regard to the underlying theme of power and corruption, the most important ambiguity relates directly to the plot.  Was the sacrifice ritual in the mansion merely a parlour farce designed to frighten away outsiders, or was it in deadly earnest?  Was Mandy Curran actually murdered?  This aspect of the movie allows us to consider EWS in relation to another sub-genre of film which I've always had a particular fondness for: films that hinge around the ambiguity of whether or not a crime was actually committed.  Traditionally, crime films focus on some aspect or other of the mechanics of a crime: who did it, how did they do it, will they get away with it, and so on.  In Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), much of the suspense derives from the ambiguity of whether Stewart's character has actually witnessed a murder, or merely created a narrative out of misinterpreted visual cues in order to assuage his boredom.  Of course, Hitchcock defers to generic form, and the murder is not imagined - but in so far as the film explores the limitations and ambiguities of both its protagonist and viewers' visual perceptions, Rear Window can be seen as an early precursor to the type of ambiguous crime film we are discussing here.  The crucial film, of course, is Michelangelo Antonioni's iconic 1966 feature Blow-Up, in which the Italian maestro warped the conventional thriller scenario into a sustained exploration of the unreliability of human perception.  At the time of its release, all most people saw in Blow-Up was its scandalous depiction of mod London in full bacchanalian swing - but the film was only superficially a creature of its zeitgeist.  It had a profound effect on other filmmakers, becoming a canonical cinematic text and inspiring a whole cycle of films - Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and De Palma's Blow Out (1981) explored tape recording and sound in the way Blow-Up had photography and vision, and Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Profondo Rosso (1975) similarly riffed off themes of murder and the unreliability of human perception and memory, the latter even borrowing Blow-Up's star David Hemmings.  It is interesting to note that many of these ambiguous crime films deal like Eyes Wide Shut with the idea of wealthy or political elites getting away with murder - Blow Out and Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, both released in 1981, are suffused with post-Warren Report, post-Watergate despair, paranoia, and conspiracism.

I've always felt, however, that EWS had some special affinity with Blow-Up, and thinking about the two films lately, I've come to the conclusion that Kubrick almost certainly had Blow-Up on his mind when he was making EWS - that one of the things Schnitzler's Dream Story plot allowed him to do was create his own version of Antonioni's canonical cinematic text.  Blow-Up is the story of dissolute and cynical fashion photographer who, in the course of a more or less typical day of work, self and world loathing ennui, and sexual debauchery, wanders into Maryon Park and photographs a couple having a tempestuous encounter.  Later on, Thomas returns to his flat and begins to blow up individual frames from the park photographs, and becomes convinced that he has captured a murder on film.  Let's look at some of the interesting parallels between the two films beyond the ambiguous crime motif.  The overall structure is remarkably similar: both take place in compressed time-spans (Blow-Up covering roughly 24 hours, and the main action of EWS occurring in 48.)  In both, the protagonists have a series of seemingly random and aimless adventures which turn abruptly into a murder investigation.  As a result, both films have a kind of symmetrical doubling of locations and action; Thomas and Bill both return to each of the scenes of their initial experiences, to the enchanted locations where the crime (or dream of a crime) took place.  For both characters, the supposed murder seems to briefly offer them a way of making their lives more meaningful.  For Thomas, it snaps him out of his boredom and disgust with life, and awakens a kind of obsessive, creative, and artistic spirit long dormant in his glamorous but empty life as a fashion photographer; for Bill Harford, the idea of Mandy's sacrifice introduces an element of selfless morality into the otherwise sordid and dehumanized reality he has discovered in the course of his nocturnal adventures.  Both investigations end with resignation, Blow-Up with Thomas watching a troupe of mimes playing tennis on a park green, and Eyes Wide Shut with Bill watching Ziegler playing billiards.  Thematically, both films are concerned with the misogynistic and sexually exploitative character of capitalist society, with the commodification of sex and transformation of woman into doll-like objects.  Some other ironic resonances: Blow-Up was deemed to be far too permissive and sexually explicit when it was released in 1966; in 1999, when all the anarchic and disruptive energies of the 60s had been safely co-opted and commercialized, Eyes Wide Shut was criticized for not being sexually explicit and shocking enough.  There is an interesting inversion between the protagonists of the two movies: Bill Harford is a monogamist trying unsuccessfully to be a philanderer,  whereas Thomas is clearly bored and exhausted by sexual permissiveness.  Bill never gets to where the rainbow ends with the two models he encounters at the Christmas ball in Eyes Wide Shut, but in one of Blow-Up's most iconic scenes, Thomas' encounter with another two models is not similarly thwarted.


Continued Shortly.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Where the Rainbow Ends: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (Part 1).

.....only those who look for a meaning will find it.  Dreaming and waking, truth and lie mingle.  Security exists nowhere.  We know nothing of others, nothing of ourselves.  We always play.  Wise is the man who knows.

Arthur Schnitzler, Paracelsus.

'I've forgotten it,' replied Fridolin with a vacant smile, feeling totally at ease.
'That's unfortunate,' said the gentleman in yellow, 'for it makes no difference here whether you've forgotten the password, or whether you never knew it.'

Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story.

 When Eyes Wide Shut was released in the summer of 1999, the overwhelming critical reaction was one of respect for its recently departed director, and muted disappointment with the movie itself.  Trading on the popular image on Kubrick as a monastic (or perhaps autistic) recluse, the consensus was that Eyes Wide Shut was sterile and painfully out of touch with the sexual mores of the 20th century's twilight years.  It was, or so the wisdom went, a relic mined from the splendid isolation of its feted creator, as divorced from the social and cinematic currents of 1999 as its soundstage "New York" was from the real thing.  This all sounded persuasive enough to me that I didn't watch the thing until a few years later.  My expectations remained extremely measured, but I'd somehow or other acquired a vague suspicion that maybe the critics had been all wrong about Kubrick's swansong.

That suspicion became a certainty almost immediately: EWS dazzled and engrossed me from the first frame.  It felt like such a different beast from the movie so many critics had either savaged or politely dismissed - Andrew Sarris called it "turgid", David Denby "pompous", and Louis Menand in the New York Review of Books claimed that "nothing" worked in it - that I was actually stunned by what I was seeing.  EWS was shot through with many instantly recognizable staples of Kubrick's formal mastery - the smooth, sinuous Steadicam tracking, the utilization of natural light sources - and yet at the same time it felt different from anything the director had attempted before.  Though possessed of a grand visual imagination and world-building sensibility (as evidenced, for example, by A Clockwork Orange), Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick's first complete foray into surrealism and the cinema of dreams.  It was almost his "Lynch" movie - playing like a collision between Lynch's psychosexual dream landscapes and Kubrick's more clinically precise formalism and intellect.  (The presence of Chris Isaak on the score, though apparently a serendipitous discovery on the set, feels like a direct nod to Lynch.  In the picture above, Cruise looks almost like he could be Dale Cooper lost in the maddening corridors of the Black Lodge.)  EWS felt somehow thematically denser and more meticulously thought out than any of his previous features - Kubrick had after all been mulling over Arthur Schnitzler's source novel Traumnovelle (or Dream Story) since 1968, and the shooting of Eyes Wide Shut itself had ballooned into a record-breaking 15 months.  The result was the creation of an oneric landscape or labyrinth where every detail is infused with a wider significance and meaning, however initially elusive.  I've watched EWS many times since, and my appreciation for its sly complexity and consummate execution has only increased with each viewing.  To whatever extent I would stake my shirt on an aesthetic judgement, I would stake it on the contention that EWS is a masterpiece that soared over the heads of its many detractors in the summer of 1999.

If the consensus on EWS has not quite turned since then, the world itself has changed immeasurably.  With hindsight, the 90s feels like it was the last oasis of illusionary calm before everything became saturated with anxiety and uncertainty.  In the 90s, the Cold War was over, and free market global capitalism appeared robust enough to warrant Francis Fukuyama's famously precipitate declaration of the end of history:  "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."  After the excesses of the 80s, the burgeoning ethos of political correctness persuaded us that we were after all good, enlightened people: we internalized a morality of correct language and attitudes which could be spun like a gramophone record wherever the occasion required it, and in this manner kept our eyes wide shut from the darker realities of the world we participated in.  However, as Sam Capola tells Travolta in Saturday Night Fever: "You can't fuck the future.  The future fucks you!"  History wasn't over; it was just clearing its throat.  The beginning of the 21st century proved the oasis at the end of history to have been a mirage, and the supposed equilibrium of western democracy was subject to a biblical gamut of calamities.  But while everything was collapsing around us and the scales were being lifted from our eyes, the ambiguous technology of the internet was slowly rewiring the world's collective neural pathways: the simultaneous slow-collapse of the world-order and rapid growth of the internet precipitated an explosion of conspiranoid folk mythologies.  Just as the nature of the world's power-inequalities and injustices became ever more crystal clear and unavoidable, so its projections in the popular imagination became ever more fantastic and unreal.

It is a testament to the mythic aura surrounding Kubrick and his work that no other 20th century director has become quite so thoroughly enshrined in this conspiranoid mythos (or, at any rate, I suspect a google search of Ingmar Bergman illuminati doesn't yield quite so many hits.)  Neo-Gnostic Jay Weidner became the most notorious of Kubrick's mythologists by arguing that The Shining was an allegorical confession of the director's involvement in the creation of fake Apollo 11 moon landing footage.  If you buy the first premise, I suppose the second is not unreasonable.  Inevitably, Eyes Wide Shut has experienced a second lease of life amid the garish internet culture of Illuminati "exposés" and pop occult symbology overload.  Believed upon its release to be a baroque fantasia about the difficulties of marital fidelity, EWS was now revealed to be an exposé of the occult rituals and mind control techniques employed by elite secret societies.  In particular, the film was associated with perhaps the murkiest back-alley of conspiracy culture: the mythos of the mind-controlled sex slave.  This highly lurid strand of conspiracy theory was initiated by one comparatively credible book: The Control of Candy Jones.

I've blogged about this before; in brief, Candy Jones was a Pennsylvania-born model who had been a pin-up during the 2nd World War.  In 1972, she married Long John Nebel, America's first paranormal talk radio host.  I know, you couldn't make it up.  Troubled by mood swings in Candy that almost amounted to a split-personality, Nebel began to hypnotize her, and gradually a very disturbing narrative emerged.  According to her recollections under hypnosis, Jones been been subjected to a barrage of hypnosis, experimental drugs, and sexual trauma by shadowy figures associated with the C.I.A., with the result that she developed a surrogate personality which the C.I.A. utilized as an operative.  The jury remains out on the plausibility of the Candy Jones narrative - stories like this would make you wonder, though.  But it remains eminently credible compared to what was to follow.

By the 90s, the loose-ends of the real MK-ULTRA program had mushroomed into the mythical form of Project Monarch, and the mind-controlled sex slave mythos became incorporated into the whole strange miasma of paranoid millennial fever dreams which also included Bill Cooper's militia manifesto Behold A Pale Horse and the notorious satanic ritual abuse panic.  Cathy O'Brien (TranceFormation of America) and after her Brice Taylor made the Monarch sex slavery narrative into a minor cottage industry that stoked the fears (and, one suspects, repressed desires) of the paranoid religious right.  The essential formula of these books was to include as much lurid and truly appalling sadistic depravity as might not altogether numb the mind of the reader; and to document the sexual exploitation of the protagonist at the hands of as many prominent politicians and popular entertainers as might not altogether beggar his or her belief.  I find it difficult to tell if these women were mentally ill and tragically exploited, or just entrepreneurs of the unspeakable; their material is so mind-bogglingly horrific and depraved that it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.  (Check out, for example, Richard Metzger's DisinfoTV interview with Brice Taylor in which she claims that Sylvester Stallone shot a pornographic film wherein she was forced to have sex with dolphins.  Now that you really couldn't make up.)  A major component in the attraction of this peculiar mythos lies in the control cues and triggering devices which are supposedly utilized to manipulate Monarch victims.  The Manchurian candidate of the novel and John Frankenheimer movie had the Queen of Hearts suit; Mark Chapman, if you believe the lore, had The Catcher in the Rye.  The Monarch Project, on the other hand, tended toward children's fantasy novels with female heroines, most notably L Frank Baum's uncannily archetypal Oz novelsConspiranoid critics of EWS reason that this is the source of the movie's prominent and mysterious rainbow motif.  But was it really plausible that Kubrick, chipping away at his decade-spanning ambition to adapt Traumnovelle, was tuned into this low-grade tabloid conspiracism?

On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure that the conspiranoids got EWS completely wrong.  The film is, after-all, certainly about sexual slavery and exploitation of some kind, and it does feature a ritualistic sex orgy which Kubrick associates with the powerful echelons of society to a much greater degree than Arthur Schnitzler did in the source novella.  Ironically, just as the reception of EWS was drifting into the realm of fantasy and folk-lore, many of the film's themes (which were deemed largely insignificant on its first release) began to percolate into the nightly news.  The sybaritic and predatory orgies of Silvio Berlusconi and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, combined with the unnerving sense of a very rotten and corrupt British establishment implied by the Grand Guignol of post-mortem Jimmy Savile revelations, have lead us to rediscover a feeling of unease about the sexual license and immunity from prosecution of our elites.  Part of the reason why our perception of EWS is gradually shifting is that our vision of the world has become more acute since then.  In the more optimistic and carefree years of the 90s, who but radicals and conspiracy-theorists dwelled overlong on the notion that society was largely under the thumb of a neo-feudal over-class which runs rampant and gets away, often literally, with murderNowadays, who doesn't?  Even back in 2000, cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider wrote a brilliant analysis of EWS (Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut) which argued the film's primary theme was not the difficulties of marital monogamy,  but rather the fundamental and ingrained corruption of a society enthralled by the wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption of its elites:  "The real pornography in this film is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of millennial Manhattan, and of its obscene effects on society and the human soul.  National reviewers' myopic preoccupation on sex, and the shallow psychologies of the films central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element of the film - the trappings of stupendous wealth, its references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, its Christmastime setting, even the sum Dr Harford spends on a single night out - says more about the blindness of the elites to their surroundings than it does about Kubrick's inadequacies as a pornographer.  For those with their eyes open, there are plenty of money shots."  So, in a sense, if Kreider is right, EWS is a kind of conspiracy movie, in so far as it essays the real theme of cogent, intelligent conspiracy theory: the corrupt and corrupting nature of how power is exercised in our world.  But was Kreider's analysis right?

Over the years then, two separate ways of viewing Eyes Wide Shut have emerged.  The most immediately obvious, and still the most common, is to regard it as a basically humanistic study of the tensions between sexual fantasies and reality, and between monogamous intimacy and sexual license and libertinism.  According to this way of viewing the film, the conspiracy thriller elements are really only a projection of the sense of danger associated with unfettered sexuality, and of Bill Harford's specific anxieties regarding his wife's fidelity and its threats upon his own masculinity.  As the whole film may be viewed as a kind of dream quest for Harford's character, then these elements can be regarded as pointing to psychological rather than literal aspects of reality.  The drama of the sacrifice at the orgy can be viewed as the charade which Ziegler insists that it was.  The ending is happy: having lost themselves to find themselves in their real and dreamed adventures, Bill and Alice are reunited, a little older and wiser, a little more honest with themselves and better equipped to deal with the difficulties of married life and the long haul of monogamous commitment.  This was, more or less, the movie I saw the first couple of times I watched EWS.  The third time, however, was a very different experience.  The background and foreground seemed to shift places; elements whose importance I'd minimized in the previous viewings became the most significant this time around.  Although I hadn't read Introducing Sociology at that point, I saw the movie very much as Kreider had.  I was struck by how many details I'd failed to notice, even though they were staring me in the face.  I suspect that Kubrick deliberately and ingeniously constructed Eyes Wide Shut to resemble that specific type of optical illusion which plays on how we organize and structure perceptual information.  I selected the above example (probably the best known) because I have a very vivid recollection of finding the emergence of the old crone image a rather sinister and uncanny effect when I first saw it as a child; it then occurred to me that it was an apt enough choice, considering that notorious sequence in The Shining which nobody has ever been able to forget.  Eyes Wide Shut embodies this kind of perceptual ambiguity, this sense of a different picture emerging from the same image depending on how you look at it, through and through, even down to its title.  On the one hand, in an obvious sense Eyes Wide Shut refers to the initial naivete of the Harford's regarding their sexual fantasies and complex feeling towards another; viewed another way, however, it can refer to the ways in which we function in a corrupt society by shutting our eyes to the aspects of it which we find unpalatable and lack the courage to confront.  At an even more sly level, it might refer to how we can watch the movie and think we know what the title means, without seeing a damn thing.  We diagnose the blindspots of the Harford's, but miss our own.

Continued shortly.

Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut.