the great five minutes - halloween edition by Greg Bills

In  Suspiria  (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

In Suspiria (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

Early on, I woke up and wandered out of my bedroom to find someone watching the late show.  A wealthy family kept one of their brothers or uncles locked up in a room in the tower.  He had escaped somehow and came lumbering down the staircase, terrifying the servants, until one of the family intervened and convinced the uncle/brother to return to his hidden chamber.  The man or monster was never seen; the camera looked out from his eyes—a fish-eye lens like the peephole in our front door.  We were inside the unfortunate relative during his brief moment of freedom.  For years afterwards, I was secretly convinced that I had a brother living in a hidden room under the garage, accessed through the back of a wardrobe closet in the downstairs furnace room.  I never told my family that I knew about my monstrous brother, or made the connection with this early horror movie experience, until long after I was an adult.  Ah, the power of cinema.


Later, I seriously considered skipping trick-or-treat one year so as not to miss the premiere of Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  Luckily, I came to my senses.  Free candy versus what would undoubtedly turn out to be a pathetically bad TV movie.  Still: Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  The title itself is as tasty as a Tootsie Roll.


All those made-for-TV movies.  Why were they all 90 minutes and not 2 hours back then? How was this decision made?  And why did the running times change?  Perhaps it was the fault of those gargantuan miniseries.  Winds of War, anyone?  In any case, in addition to Get Christie Love and Stockard Channing in The Girl Most Likely To…, there were some works of terror that seemed very thrilling at the time.  Duel from Steven Spielberg.  And Gargoyles, which burrowed deep into my imagination.  It opens with a researcher visiting a roadside attraction/curio shop in the Desert Southwest and discovering a strange, horned, humanoid skeleton in the back room.  I had visited so many of these creepy shacks off the highway during family camper trips through Arizona and New Mexico, that the scenario seemed eminently plausible.  When the researcher flees the burning shack after the death of the crusty old man who possessed the skeleton, he takes the horned skull back to his motel room.  Surely, he could have foreseen this was a bad idea!  The movie was exactly scary enough for a seven-year-old.


The Gold Standard of 90-minute TV horror movies of the 1970s must be Trilogy of Terror.  The first two parts are difficult to recall in any detail, but the last one…the talk of the playground.  Karen Black, giving a tour-de-force performance, plays a woman who has somehow trapped herself in her own apartment with a fetish doll possessed by a demonic spirit.  Among the lessons learned: Do not try to grab a knife by the pointy end.


By the time my pubescent years rolled around, I was creating monsters and mise-en-scene for other trick-or-treaters in my parents’ front yard (Those plastic eggs full of green slime? Essential), and I had entered my Junior Cinephile Period.  More precisely, I was cultivating my Bad Cinema Fascination (and I still love them, bad movies, although my standards are higher [lower?] than they used to be when I would watch anything in search of those jewels of awful greatness).  Plan 9 From Outer Space is pretty much the epitome of this…um…genre?  And Criswell’s introduction can serve as the keynote address.  So sublimely ludicrous, this speech could have been on the bill for Dada Night at the Cabaret Voltaire.


And then I hunted down VHS treasures like Exorcist II: The Heretic.  It seems to be hard to locate in our current moment, but this film is ripe for rediscovery.  Director John Boorman after Zardoz and before Excalibur.  Richard Burton in his long, bellowing decline.  James Earl Jones in a grasshopper costume.  About as tangential to the original as a sequel could be and still get funding from a major studio.  Equal parts tedious and marvelously weird.  The climax features a plague of locusts and Linda Blair tap-dancing.  The trailer works beautifully as a disco-goth music video.


Then there was Invader from Mars, the 1953 version that I had to track down after seeing publicity stills in Starlog Magazine.  I thought it was going to be a so-bad-it’s-good, but it is actually pretty much just good.  The alarming tale of little boy who finds first his parents and then his entire world taken over by mind-controlling aliens who have hidden themselves under the sandpit at the back of the yard.  The film is understood as an hysterically anti-communist Red Scare allegory, but it resonated with me as a gay adolescent: your parents, your teachers, the whole town are your enemies. They are conformist zombies, and you are fundamentally different from them.  You cannot trust them, and you need to escape!


And now, some musical treats.


The obvious choice here is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The film escapes the crushing respectability of being a truly good movie by peaking way too early.  We are given “Damnit Janet,” “The Time Warp,” and then this number in quick succession.  Then the narrative meanders aimlessly, possibly redeemed by the remarkably louche and languid ending where everyone is in fishnets prancing around the pool.  If Anne Hathaway can snag an Oscar for her enlivening five minutes jolted into the corpse of Les Miserables, then Tim Curry was surely robbed. (And if you watch it below, you can practice your Italian!)


One of the concoctions Joseph Losey came up with in his expatriated career phase was a seaside English tale featuring an age-inappropriate romance, expressionist sculpture, and radioactive children.  And Oliver Reed leading a gang of what I suppose are Teddies, somewhere between Clockwork Orange and We’re the Boys in the Chorus, We Hope You Like Our Show.  The title is great: These Are The Damned (I want to write that book!).  The film opens, after some moody credits, with a sorta musical number, a perfect tune if you are a Kenneth Anger fetishist.  There are subtitles here, so karaoke everybody!


Although not strictly a musical number, the first killing from Dario Argento’s Suspiria serves to illuminate the cinematic parallels between elaborately choreographed slapstick, Hollywood production numbers, and gorefest death scenes.  Hyperviolent but detached and process-oriented, it could almost be Matthew Barney performance art, or kinetic sculpture (and possibly aesthetically misogynist: pretty girls make the best corpses).  What makes the scene thrilling is the set and lighting design (such colors! those wall treatments!) and Goblin’s rarely equalled soundtrack.


David Lynch is the master of the unlikely musical interlude (though sadly not in Dune, which would have been fun).  This scene from Blue Velvet is more potent in context, but standing alone, it still underlines the service Lynch performed by reminding us how amazing Roy Orbison is.  Happy Halloween In Your Dreams!

Have a safe holiday! ( Suspiria  1977) 

Have a safe holiday! (Suspiria 1977) 

the art of repulsion: bret easton ellis & jeff koons by Greg Bills

The Informers, 2009.

The Informers, 2009.

One of the lingering artifacts of Jeff’s years spent out of town as a visiting professor is our two separate Netflix accounts. This duplication seems unnecessary, and a needless expense, since we do all of our television watching together.  But we are stubborn men and both unwilling to give up our carefully curated queues.  I often imagine this list of movies and TV shows as a kind of cultural fish ladder with each title working its way upriver to spawn.  On my list the most vigorous and energetic new arrivals leap up the ladder, heedless of the protocols to wait their turn in the stream, and I am always fussing around in the pool at the very top, sorting and lining up arrivals in front of the gate where they will be shipped off.  My list is rather long because I use it as a notepad to remind myself of films, shows, performances, that I may want to catch up on or re-watch or use in a class at some point.  I visit the top and bottom regularly, but the middle…there are some items that have been languishing mid-ladder for years (I know I had the impulse to watch Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and the Wachowki’s version of Speed Racer at some later date—but will that day ever come?).  Jeff is supposedly winding down his account, adding no new titles and letting his queue’s autonomic motion bring us what it will.  His Netflix then is less like a frothing, aspirational fish ladder than the recession of the tide, ebbing to reveal whatever remains, lying drenched and slick on the sand. The latest beached object to wash up in our mail was The Informers, the 2009 film version of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1994 story collection, directed by Gregor Jordan.

If you are ranking Ellis adaptations, this one will be slotted somewhere beneath all the others that you’ve seen—although it is perfectly watchable as a portrait of ersatz 1980s ennui.  It is one of those melded plotline/portmanteau narratives in the manner of Robert Altman’s conversion of Raymond Carver stories into Short Cuts, in which actors Winona Rider, Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Chris Isaak, and an assortment of Pretty Young Things go about their bits of business in vaguely connected episodes that never manage to add up to anything in particular.  But then this lack of a larger point is itself consistent with Ellis’s fiction.  If there were to be resolution to these little playlets, cautionary tales, and satirical gestures, that might suggest that these were glimpses into the lives of characters whose fates we might actually, potentially, care about, and that kind of emotional investment feels antithetical to Ellis’s larger authorial project: Only Disconnect.  While it is hard to give credit to the filmmakers for succeeding in producing an incoherent, unsatisfying movie, it does in fact serve to highlight how Ellis has always been less interested in providing a neatly-charted narrative arc of revelation and resolution rather than a spiralling vortex of more of the same and more of the same (American Psycho’s endless iterations of debauched consumerism and sociopathic mayhem are the most notorious example of his circling-the-drain style of storytelling, but all of his books seem to drift into a sargasso of aimless complication and numbing repetition at some point).

Typical for Ellis, the Los Angeles of The Informers is populated entirely by the young and on the make (or rather those who would be “on the make” if they weren’t perpetually stoned/hungover/existentially paralyzed) and the has-beens decaying from moral rot—a bestiary meant to illustrate the idea of a society in collapse, a culture in fatal decline.  Like Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, etc., The Informers, book and film, repaints the same two inch triangle of the broad canvas of Los Angeles that almost all narrative works about the city choose as their focus: bounded by “celebrity” (movie stars, rock gods, fashion models), “lifestyle” (sex, drugs, inane pop culture and gadgetry), and “apocalypse” (earthquakes, traffic, riots—the place where America runs out of geography and crumbles into the ocean).  This formulation of what Los Angeles “means” appears to satisfy a need in the New York publishing and cultural production industry for an antipode to NYC’s self image as a place of power, cultural vitality, intellect, and soulfulness.  Unlike a story set in Manhattan where a young man could suffer a crisis of conscience and purpose in a complex, dynamic mesh of family, career, and social and artistic forces, the callow dudes of Los Angeles have already been rendered dead inside by the shallow, plastic narcissism of the Hollywood Dream Factory.  They are too narcotized to thrash on the hook as they are yanked about by destiny, and the narrating voice is too blasé to react much as their guts are spilled out on the killing floor, in part because we (storyteller and audience) are inclined to suspect that it is all stage blood and special effects anyway, yet more disillusioning fakery.  Despite his status as a native son of Southern California (born and raised in Sherman Oaks), which might suggest his possession of some background and nuance on the topic, Ellis has obligingly confirmed and reconfirmed the handy shorthand of Los Angeles as a poisonous Lotus Land, corrupt yet sterile.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the setting of his most controversial work American Psycho—infamous as the book that his hardcover publisher got cold feet about and dumped—was centered on Manhattan; it may be reasonable to describe child rape and sex murders in Tinseltown, but quite another to link those sordid acts to America’s City.

More so than the book, the movie version of The Informers seems intent to make a statement about not only the metropolis but also the 1980s as a cultural moment.  Musical cues and news reports are interspersed for purported context, including an especially pointed interlude about the growing crisis of the AIDS epidemic.  With no apparent clue how to integrate the script’s various vignettes into a satisfying mosaic pattern, the film chooses to close on a classic trope: the sacrificial death of the beautiful maiden.  Christie (portrayed by the gorgeous topless torso of Amber Heard) flits about the film, sleeping with her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s boyfriend, etc.; watching some TV; talking to her sister; and then disappearing from the narrative for a while. By the time Christie resurfaces, a significant amount of time in the characters’ lives seems to have elapsed—although another character is still on the same resort vacation with his dad in Hawaii—and the narrative’s default protagonist, Graham (Jon Foster), encounters his former girl sprawled on a desolate beach in Malibu.  In addition to her off-white bikini, she is bedecked with what seem to be a large number of tastefully-rendered Kaposi’s sarcomas.  The two ex-lovers exchange some inconsequential banter, he watches a fly land in close-up on her diseased thigh, then in a longshot her head keels sideways.  Curtain.  This scene offers the crassest and crudest deployment of HIV and AIDS imaginable and suggests that the filmmakers feel entitled to some entirely unearned moral gravity to bring their variety show to a close.  Oh, the wages of sin…or something! The moment is both infuriating and laughable, and if the film up to that point had given any indication of a mastery of tone, it might be possible to imagine the conclusion paying homage to the spirit of Ellis himself as he sniggered at the ludicrous scene’s violation of sanctimonious taboo.  Instead, it seems both ethically heinous AND a delicious bit of unintended camp.  Take your pick.

The film’s inadequacies of tone do serve to underscore the source of Ellis’s power as a writer.  His books draw their strength not from deep insights into character or brilliant plot mechanics, but from his control of mood through language.  Like Joan Didion or Ernest Hemingway before him, Ellis somehow manages to succeed as a middle-of-the-stream, best-selling author despite the fact that his greatest gifts are as a textual stylist—never the most obvious literary commodity.  And just as there aren’t any great movies adapted from Didion or Hemingway novels either, the most compelling qualities of Ellis’s narratives largely evaporate when extracted from words on the page.  Mary Harron’s gloss on American Psycho—the best of the Ellis films I’ve seen—succeeds as a darkly comic fable about misogyny running in parallel to Ellis’s novel rather than as a strict adaptation. And it is hard to imagine any director who could do Ellis “right.”  For instance, David Lynch might share Ellis’s fascination with the unhinged grotesque, but his palette is visual and sonic, and he ultimately cares deeply about his characters, despite the hellish torments he enacts upon them, in a manner at odds with Ellis’s detachment.  An Ellis protagonist always feels like a construct, a syntactical placeholder, and the physical embodiment of any adaptation—actors must be hired to perform the characters; locations must be provided to house the action—betrays the sense that these individuals are nothing but reconfigurations of the alphabet, proceeding in sequence down the page.  They live, they die, they fuck, they shop, but they do so in prose, not in Brentwood.

One of his closer artistic kin may be the writer Dennis Cooper.  As in most of Ellis, Cooper is obsessed with sexual predators and their eerily willing prey, and like Ellis, his work is as much about the power and limits of language as it is about the transgressions of the flesh (in Period, the fifth and final book in Cooper’s “George Miles” series, things have gotten so dire linguistically that the narrator can barely compose a complete sentence while spinning his tale of ritual sex murders).  And judging from the botched movie of Frisk, Cooper may also be unfilmable.  But like David Lynch, Cooper is, in his deep dark heart, a romantic; he longs for a world in which his characters could achieve beautiful union, even if that union involves violating and devouring each other.  His torturing experiments with language seem attempts to make words express the inexpressible, to drain his sentences as life feels drained; there is a wounded passion in their zombie stare. Ellis, in contrast, does not seem a romantic—or a cynic either, which is, after all, the romantic’s Bizarro reflection.  His authorial heart feels crisped with liquid nitrogen.

Throughout his career, Ellis has regularly been condemned as a sensationalist then redeemed as a satirist. But his is sensation deprived of spark or novelty, and satire delivered with blunt force trauma.  At rare moments, Ellis makes a comment or offers a conceit that seems witty, he can craft passages that feel light on their feet, and there are other, lesser, moments when his attitude seems snottily juvenile, when the snarkiness of his desire to be a “bad boy” of literature feels gaseous.  But mostly, his efforts as a writer seem designed to squeeze the world into a plastic sheath and set the vacuum seal.  In the Ellis universe, there is no party in the restaurant at the end of the universe, no heat and flash of apocalypse, not even any portentous trout stirring in an icy stream as at the close of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Not even cinders maybe.  Not even anything.

Which may be one of the reasons that, while reading or trying to read Ellis, I often find myself wanting to flee from his fictional world more than I want to find out what happens next.  I can’t “curl up” with a good Ellis book; I can’t get “drawn in” or “lose myself.”  Instead, I recoil as something cold and hard pushes me insistently away.  This repulsion is not disgust; it is not the sick outrage of watching Leni Riefenstahl orchestrate the Nuremberg Rally.  It isn’t the mortification of being discovered blasting Celine Dion or Erasure or the Black-Eyed Peas on your car stereo then attempting to disavow your attraction (I don’t…it was just on the radio…somebody else’s playlist or…).  It is a distinct sensation I have experienced in the presence of only a few other artists and artworks, including Ellis and another Eighties Sensation that I have been thinking about recently: Jeff Koons.

While in New York in July, I considered attending the big Koons retrospective that recently closed at the Whitney, but I have seen so much of his work in various venues in Los Angeles—most of it courtesy of collectors Eli and Edythe Broad, who must own a whole warehouse of his stuff—that this show seemed unnecessary.  Koon is one of those artists whose first impression is so forceful and vivid that no subsequent encounter really replaces it—so much so that seeing even more of his stuff or finding out what he is up to at any particular moment is unlikely to add to any impression one already has of his work.  His key project of examining the detritus of pop culture then creating paintings and sculpture that monumentalize and mock-beatify the original debased material results in art that truly stupefies. Beyond shouting, “Wow, what an amazing giant puppy statue encased in living flowers!” or “Wow, that’s some giant high chromium stainless steel balloon dog with transparent blue color coating!” what else is there to say about his objects?  It would be interesting to discover what precisely the Broads consider as they purchase yet more Koons to add to their inventory (“Oh, look honey, he’s doing polychrome aluminum reproductions of pool toys now!”).

Carefully posed art babes respond to Koons paintings.  Or don't.

Carefully posed art babes respond to Koons paintings.  Or don't.

For me, like the art world equivalent of mothballs, Koon’s works desiccate my artistic viewing experience of all vital moisture, leaving behind a space sucked dry of emotional content.  Although it might be possible to consider Koons’s attitude toward the subjects of his work as one long leering, sniggering mockery of other people’s bad taste, leers and sniggers require some sense of a brattish clown behind the scenes, whom we, the informed audience, are meant to sense and join.  In this scenario, the uninformed might look on the flowery puppies and gargantuan balloon art as decorative, even beautiful, while we, the cognoscenti, are allowed to smile ruefully over the intermingling of kitsch and sacred artifact.  The fact that most Koons works exist in the present world less as aesthetic objects than as solid assets in a monstrously over-inflated art market might be seen to expand the frame of Koons’s joke to include his clients as dupes.

The aspect of Koons’s method that undermines this interpretation of his strategy is the sheer perfection of his output.  Unlike Bret Easton Ellis who has had limited control over what filmmakers have attempted to do with his fiction, Jeff Koons has exhibited absolute control over the products of his fabrication facilities (it seems absurd to describe the source of his art with a cozy term like “studio”).  Nothing clumsy or even suggestive of handcrafting has been allowed to emerge with his name attached.  No one even bothers to suggest that Koons has any direct contact with the objects that are credited to his authorship.  Unlike the practice of Warhol, whom I can at least imagine bending over a silk screen or holding a camera even if the bulk of the work was performed by his associates and minions, the image of Koons never evokes any sense that his actual hands are involved in his handiwork.  His gargantuan, vulgar, tacky trinkets are fabricated with consummate, anonymous skill.  They lack any signs of the imperfections of human life that might lead to humor.  If there is any joshing going on here, the jokes are as chokingly dry as high chromium stainless steel dust.

For me, the funniest aspect of Koon’s performance as an artist arises not from his objects but from the false credulity with which the art world media greet his pronouncements about his work.  No one seems to believe for an instant in the sincerity of Koon’s gee-whiz commentary about his inspirations and intentions, yet most critics and commentators proceed as if they are professionally duty-bound to pretend.  Take this typically Koonsian pronouncement, as an example:  “I have always tried to create work that does not alienate any part of my audience.”  Is there any conceivable rationale under which the artist who has created an enormous polychrome ornament depicting a gilded, white-faced Michael Jackson snuggling with his equally gilded, white-faced monkey could credibly argue that this object was not intended to alienate anyone?  And if it is not meant to alienate, what reaction could it possibly be meant to invoke?  Unless someone is prepared to argue that Jeff Koons is an outsider-artist simpleton—and who could convincingly make that case?—his statement is blatantly disingenuous.  Yet critics and profilers continue to present his statements with a blank face as if maybe somebody, somewhere, does or will believe them.  I prefer to imagine Koons as he prepares for interviews thinking, What ridiculous crap can I spout and get away with this time?

Definitely not alienating

Definitely not alienating

Or perhaps I clamor to envision a puckish, lively person within the cultivated vacuum of his public persona as an antidote to the chilling void at the heart of his art.  If you are in a vulnerable mood, a stroll through a roomful of Koons can be the utmost dream-killing, soul-deadening experience. What if all the joyful energy of human culture has truly spun down into yet one more hideous lawn ornament—an ornament that is not even allowed the saving grace of being surrounded by a living carpet of grass but instead towers imperiously above you in a sterile gallery, shining fingerprintless under showroom lights.  Koons’s art is supremely alienating, profoundly repellent.  I suspect this sensation accounts for the deep anger of the negative criticism Koons often receives.  We are unwilling to believe that Art has betrayed us like this, that what used to seem the highest expression of our shared humanity is now an android commodity.  Surreally expensive, dauntingly flawless, utterly meaningless—all these things we could, and do, handle, even celebrate.  But all of those things plus, tediously ugly (his uniformly hideous paintings), or idiotically prurient (Look at my pornstar wife’s airbrushed genitalia, everybody!), or painfully banal…

Jeff Koons should make his cinematic debut by hiring a fabrication team to adapt Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms or Glamorama.


elaine stritch (1925-2014) by Greg Bills

Elaine Stritch died today, July 17, 2014, at the age of 89.  A life-force and supreme show business pro, she sang "I'm Still Here" for so many years, and now, shockingly, she suddenly isn't.  She was one of those rare artists who have given the world performances that are indelible.  Once you have heard Stritch dig her way into a Sondheim song, say, you will never get it out of your head ever. For me, getting Elaine Stritch to sing "The Ladies Who Lunch" was all Stephen Sondheim needed to do to ensure his immortality as a songwriter.  There is an amazing DA Pennebaker documentary about the recording of the original 1970 Broadway cast album to Company that is well worth viewing in its entirety.  Here is a watchable YouTube copy of the film focussing on the struggle to record Stritch's version of "Ladies."  The sequence begins about 1:50 minutes into the first clip and carries through to the end of the second.  This is one of the great examples showing how hard it can be to make great art, and how rewarding it can be to finally succeed.

I had the chance to see one of her very late live performances at Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2012, and while her voice was sometimes uncertain and she kept forgetting the lyrics, she was very much a presence onstage.  I felt much the same as I did when I finally got to see Nina Simone sing in person: for anyone who believes in art as a force in the world, these were visits to the shrine.

Everybody Rise!

the caves of childhood by Greg Bills

While writing my recently-completed fantasy Through the Silver, I thought a lot about the novels and stories I had read as a child, works of mystery and magic that I realized have worked their way well below any conscious observations I might have about them into the dreamsoil of my imagination.

For many of these, I can recall not only the stories and characters but also the act of reading them itself.  The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin is the first book I remember reading from beginning to end without stopping. The afternoon light dimmed into night through the window above my bed, and I carried the paperback spread open across my palm as I fumbled down the hall to the bathroom.

Okay, the novel is not very long, but as a fourth grader, it felt like an exciting achievement to absorb an entire narrative in single arc.  I had read and enjoyed the first book in LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I was prepared to like this one as well, but I had not realized the most of the story would be set in one of my favorite childhood fantasy locales: underground, in a cavern.  Most of the interesting stuff happened underground in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I had read not too long before—Gollum’s cave, the home of the dwarves, Smaug’s lair, etc.—but the visceral sensation of rooms and passages under the earth is even more central to this book.

The Tombs of Atuan unfolds the story of a young girl who is forced to adopt the role of priestess to the nameless gods haunting an underground chamber and a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the convent-like community of women and eunuchs where she lives. Officially, she is the only person allowed into these caverns although other characters break this rule, including Ged, the title character from the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea.  He is searching for a powerful artifact, and when the girl discovers him, she imprisons him for a time before events lead them to help each other to escape from their differing forms of imprisonment.

What struck me most about the novel were the ideas of darkness and secrecy, tunnels full of ancient spirits and treasure that had never seen light, and the need for the girl to learn how to negotiate the hazards with senses other than sight.  I also loved that there were maps in the front of the book: of the buildings on the surface, and of the tunnels and chambers below.

I had done quite a bit of cave map drawing myself.  These were poorly drafted sketches of pairs of squiggling lines in black pen on sheets of typing paper that probably looked to the uninitiated like obsessive diagrams of bowls of spaghetti or a very upsetting gastrointestinal tract. The names of important features would be carefully printed nearby, perhaps with a helpful arrow: amazing natural wonders like skyscraper stalagmites, waterfalls, bottomless pits; manmade features like secret hideouts and hidden rooms; and mysteries—tunnels that ended with two parallel broken lines and a final question mark [?].  Even the mapmaker could not claim to know all the cave’s secrets.

I had a particular fascination with Carlsbad Caverns.  I had pored over the issue of National Geographic that featured color photos of most of the highlights, and I had favorite movies that were filmed there, or purported to be set there.  For some reason, these movies always seemed to be on the late show, and I would stay up way way past my usual bedtime in the summer to watch them.  The 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Pat Boone.  And Gene Rodenberry’s follow-up to Star Trek, a pilot for series called Genesis II, in which a man wakes from decades of suspended animation to find that his lab within Carlsbad Caverns had been cut off by an earthquake and forgotten while civilization collapsed in a nuclear holocaust. He returns to find good-guy scientists trying to rebuild the world while tyrannical mutants stand in their way.  I didn’t remember this tidbit, but a summary I found online explains that the mutants are identifiable by their double navels, modelled below by Mariette Hartley.

Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

I watched these shows until early in the morning, as if the night were a cave that they and I and the big console television in my parents’ house had all burrowed into.

Around the same time that I read The Tombs of Atuan, my family went down to Carlsbad Caverns in person on a long camper trip that began just south of Salt Lake City and ended a little less than 900 miles later at the southern state line of New Mexico.  I loved it all: the flight of the bats at dusk, the chambers as large as cathedrals with formations of intricate pleats and folds, the chill air, the mineral scent.  But I was most intrigued by the lunchroom, 1950s Space-Age Modern and 750 feet below the surface.

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Looking at a vintage photograph of the cafeteria at its height, the folks gathering their box lunches seem a lot like sinners being assigned to the Eisenhower Wing of Dante’s Inferno.  There is something about the fact that this dining is taking place in subterranean splendor that gives it an imaginative charge.

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Freudians or Jungians or readers of James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld have likely already made a proper psychoanalytic assessment of my childhood cave enthusiasms.  A hero’s journey into the archetypal and the unconscious.  Symbols of sexuality and exploration (all the cavern-centered books and movies I can think of have a weird libidinous pulse to them.  In the 1959 Verne movie, Pat Boone strips to a pair of cutoffs then has a naked musical interlude in a natural underground shower, and the leading lady, Arlene Dahl, loses her inhibitions and smiles, smiles, smiles as she whooshes up through the vent of a volcano!)

All I knew was that there was something down there, something hidden, in the dark and the damp, at the end of a maze or behind a bolted door, and I wanted to find out what it was.

the great five minutes by Greg Bills

With some movies, it is more about the individual pieces, than the puzzle as a whole.


Les Miserables

I was putting together a mix of showtunes, listening to the Anne Hathaway version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from the film version of Les Miserables, and I found myself wondering, How the hell did this performance end up in that movie?:

It is not simply that this number is show-stopping in the expected way that a musical’s big songs are supposed to be; instead, Hathaway’s performance tears free of this big, lumbering, dinosaur tar pit of a movie, cauterizes its wounds, and flies off.  In fact the ten or fifteen minutes surrounding this song form a wrenching mini-musical about betrayal and degradation that serves to make the rest of the production seem like an act of bad faith.  Elsewhere, there are also about ten minutes with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (singing “Man About the House” etc.) that seem to have wandered in from a much livelier, funnier movie that Tim Burton might have made with more verve.  Otherwise, it is the kind of movie you let mindlessly bludgeon you between moments when your critical brain switches on for an instant: the crassness of the absurdly lavish cgi spectacle of the opening, or the way that the narrative concludes with a religious conversion (reversion?) and an existential aria followed by a suicide—a climax that it is impossible to imagine originating from a musical born in America instead of France.

Nonetheless, Anne Hathaway owns this film, and her great five minutes make the other three hours (almost) worthwhile. 

Enter the Void

Short sequences that stand out from the larger narrative may be most common and familiar from musicals because the songs and dances are often produced and designed with a conscious distinction from the material that surrounds them—even, in earlier times, with entirely different crews and directors at work.  French filmmaker Gaspar Noe’s works are not musicals exactly, but they have a similar rhythm, with showstoppers and the lulls between them. The most striking five minutes of Enter the Void from 2009 may be the opening titles.  It is as if an intelligent species of fonts from another dimension are ready to invade and conquer the earth, making their first landing inside our movie credits. (Warning: flashing colors.)

After that, there is a nifty drug-induced hallucination as follow up, and in fact, the movie motors along with patches of pretty dazzling cinema.  The story tracks the meandering of a druggie expatriate in Japan and his brush with death, but plot and characters are not what is in focus here.  The movie is the Idiot’s Guide to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  And I mean that literally, not as a joke.  Some very stupid people spend more than two hours experiencing the most profound mysteries of existence.  With that warning in place, I can say that I quite like this one. For me it is a huge step forward in Mr. Noe’s filmography from Irreversible, which was more or less a feature-length music video about (celebrating?) homophobia and misogyny.  That film features an ultraviolent rape so tedious that I actually fast-forwarded (and I never fast-forward—glad I watched it at home!); it is the antimatter version of a Great Five Minutes: the Twenty Minute Black Hole.

Still, Noe was setting himself up for a big challenge to follow credits like these.  It’s like the James Bond or Pink Panther openings; you suspect they’ve put all their best stuff in the store window.


It’s Always Fair Weather

There is always some star of stage and screen that you have never heard of before: in this case, Dolores Grey, belting through "Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks" in some sort of Muppet-pelt gown.  This film is a Jeff favorite.

The film actually has ten or fifteen marvelous minutes.  It is directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly with some good stuff for Kelly to do, has songs from Comden and Green with Andre Previn, and is interesting sociologically as study of how a Hollywood musical could address the struggles of GI’s after their homecoming from World War II.  However, the whole thing is really a flimsy pretext for moments like this one, with Cyd Charisse.


Suddenly, Last Summer

This 1959 cinematic expansion by Gore Vidal of Tennessee William’s one-act play remains under-appreciated.  It is as well-shot and as well-acted as the much more celebrated A Streetcar Named Desire, and it has enough lurid material—nuns, mental hospital snake pits, predatory poets, graspy Southern relatives, cannibalism, deus ex machina—to stock an entire season of an HBO show. It also has Katherine Hepburn as the villain, so that, for once, we don’t have to admire her plucky, indomitable spirit and can instead enjoy her venom.  In the film's key moment, Violet Venable describes a transformative vacation with her son to a world-renowned lobotomist played by Montgomery Clift.  Hepburn pushes quickly and effortlessly past the absurd to that place that might be described as camp lyricism—a style that Williams perfected and of which he remains the master. Terrifying? Ridiculous? Yes!

the (white) rose by Greg Bills

While writing about D.H. Lawrence and his rose (6/14/14), I was also adding a connection to the Ubu Web site of art/avant-garde films on my links page.  This conjunction got me thinking about Jay De Feo's monumental painting, The Rose, and Bruce Conner's 1967 film about the painting's removal from De Feo's studio in San Francisco: "THE WHITE ROSE."  The Ubu Film and Video site does not have any listings for Conner's work, but I did manage to find a copy of the film online:

Bruce Conner THE WHITE ROSE on

With its super-stark high-contrast black and white images and wistful Miles Davis soundtrack, there is likely no more melancholy film that involves a forklift and a team of Bekins movers. This version of the film nearly reverses Lawrence: there, whatever rose he might have been imagining has long-since withered and gone while his words about the bloom endure, while in the copy of Conner's film, the massive painting (it weighs a ton) seems so much more substantial than the film that documents it: a second or third-generation video dub of a dodgy print of Conner's original. The film threatens to dissolve into static or pixels while the monolithic slab of The Rose is lowered, crated, and pushed through a hole in the studio wall onto a waiting lift platform before making its last appearance, its bottom edge glimpsed inside a moving van pulling away.  The final images find De Feo sitting in the gap though which the work of eight years of her life has vanished.  Is she disconsolate?  Relieved?  Both?

To find a home for the painting, De Feo agreed to loan it to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was installed in a conference room. After a few years, worries about the condition of the painting led to its surface being entirely covered.  Later, a false wall was installed, completely masking the painting.  There is a good, short documentary on YouTube that explains what happened next:

The painting, surely a key American artwork, is now in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  It is very tempting to find an allegory in the walling-up and subsequent rediscovery of The Rose--a statement about the fate of indisputably visionary women artists (like De Feo, Lee Bontecou, Vija Celmins…), whose name recognition still lags far behind that of their male artist contemporaries (Pollack, Stella, Johns, etc. etc.). But many of these artists would likely find this perspective on their work limiting and tedious, and in any case, there is always the art itself, looking more substantial and amazing than ever.

The Rose - Jay De Feo

The Rose - Jay De Feo