Michaela, an epileptic, enrolls in college to study education. She goes off her medication and soon begins hearing voices and seeing apparitions that tell her to avoid religious objects, although she is devoutly Roman Catholic. One priest scoffs at the idea that Michaela could be possessed by demons, but a younger pastor arranges an exorcism for the young woman.
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12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 6)
This comedy, in the blackly cynical vein of the Soviet-era East European political satires (early Forman, Munk, etc.), doesn’t really get cooking until the three principal characters all have finally gathered at the TV station for the talk show on whether there was a revolution post-Ceaucescu in their small town. The title refers to the moment when Ceaucescu abdicated, and where everybody was when the defining event of present-day Romania occurred (I type this on September 11). And the first 40-50 minutes or so of 12:08 are fairly routine semi-comic miserabilism as everybody goes through their pre-show day, which I found only intermittently funny. But then the show begins, and it’s a total hoot. The visual poverty and monotony of a low-budget small-market TV show causes the eyes to wander and thus alight on the gags as they happen (the best and most perfectly-timed one … I will be vague … involves origami). The show’s host babbles about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and watching him is like watching Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge try to keep face on KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU as the wheels come off around him and his self-importance is ground into the dust; the professor’s account of his revolutionary heroism is stripped bare (curiously, he never abandons it); the old man is the character who survives the glare of TV best, but he’s the one with the fewest pretentions, saying he wanted the $100 Ceaucescu had promised. The film’s moral: “enjoy the snow today; tomorrow it’ll be mud.”
REQUIEM (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany, 4)
My friend J. Robert Parks told me that this movie, which I already knew told the same story as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, was more like one of Werner Herzog’s “madmen” movies. Certainly “you can’t choose what God has in store for you” is a theme I’d groove on, and it’s certainly got a simple and powerful last shot, making it clear that the film is not about exorcism per se, but a Pilgrim’s Progress of lead character Michaela’s soul toward accepting martyrdom. The problem is that I didn’t find Michaela’s “touchedness” to be remotely interesting. Maybe she should have tried to conquer the Amazon or drag a boat over a mountain, instead of just living the life of an ordinary first-semester college student. She’s also a bit of an ugly duckling, and an epileptic who stops taking her meds. With fairly predictable results. She’s a religious woman, so she takes this be possession, but I don’t think REQUIEM is nearly as ambiguous as Robert does about whether she really is possessed. Its style is naturalistic, which tends to privilege natural explanations, and simply taking it as I did leaves no “gaps,” no “inexplicables.” I’m not asking for the EXORCIST “would you like some pea soup” scene, but couldn’t there be at least one scene that involves something a little supernatural, a little strange? Particularly when the film pointedly shows her pouring her pills down the sink and “times” most of her worst bouts of insanity with perfectly mundane causes for stress like having a college paper deadline.
CLIMATES (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 9)
This movie had me from the pre-credits scene. It takes place among some ancient ruins. There’s a man and a woman (played by the film’s director and his real-life wife, Ebru). They talk a little, but mostly seem bored, with themselves and with each other. The woman appears in a lengthy closeup in which her facial expression changes over about a minute from indifference to sadness to tears. And then a fly buzzes in her hair. CLIMATES has the feel of a Bergman movie — one of the first post-credits scenes is of the central couple and a pair of married friends, and it rivals the dinner-foursome scenes from THE PASSION OF ANNA or SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE for how whole universes of anger in swallowed in a glass of red wine. When an insect hits its cue, you know you’re in a the hands of a genius director. Although sometimes he is just showing off (the cigarette, e.g.), there can be no questioning Ceylan’s formal chops. There isn’t much drama, in the narrative-arc sense, in CLIMATES because these are two people who are what they are. Here, “character is destiny.” They’re made for each other, and not in a good way — each knows the other well enough to know when he’s lying, but also not to push the issue; each is as emotionally careless as the other. They’re apart for the middle half of the movie, but not to any great revelations or changes. Character is destiny. But see this movie in a theater, where you can really appreciate how careful and how deeply subjective is the film’s sound mix, and what an eye Ceylan has for using composition, depth of field and focal length to tell a psychological story, one of two people who, like the couples in LA NOTTE or 5×2, can neither be together or apart happily.
A GRAVE-KEEPER’S TALE (Chitra Palekar, India, 3)
Though I really like the Hindi pop cinema of “Bollywood,” I’ve not been a great fan of what I’ve seen of India’s “parallel” or art cinema, and it finally occurred to me why when watching this movie. For one thing, they cover a lot of thematic ground that can’t help but look outdated to this Western firangi. In TALE, DAY OF WRATH becomes a stock feminist morality tale and a screed against “superstitious religion,” by way of THE CRUCIBLE (there’s some Cassandra myth, too). For another, the acting styles tend to be just as artificial, albeit in a different way, as Bollywood’s song-and-dance extravaganzas. In TALE, the gorgeous Nandita Das acts the title role as if she’s on stage — strident, “gesturey” and obvious (if not exactly “loud”). But while “Bollywood” movies are about as unrealistic as it gets, much of the parallel cinema makes a neorealist show of being about important matters. In this declamatory, voicey acting style. Oil. Water. TALE is also not well-structured and kinda illogical, with about half the movie being a flashback to the origin of this “ghoul,” which is a “she’s your mom” tale, told by a character (dad) who has no reason at that moment to tell it (to son).
VINCE VAUGHN’S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW (Ari Sandel, USA, 5)
For the first 15 minutes or so, I thought this was going to be a real dog. For example, there was a scene of Vaughn, Jon Favreau and the whipping boy from DODGEBALL, and they’re improvizing a scene on stage in Hollywood. Only the director keeps cutting away from the scene to interviews and voiceovers of Vaughn and Favreau explaining what was happening (which was perfectly clear, BTW). But the film recovers some as it finds its shape — it’s really more an account of the tour than a film of the four performers’ standup comedy acts, which we never see for more than a minute or so of clips at a time. The comparison to Spike Lee’s ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY — which gave each performer about an uninterrupted 20-25 minutes with some intercalary material between each man’s whole set — is really not favorable. A standup comedian needs to build and get the audience in his hands. Still, I understand Vaughn’s motives for making this film this way. There WAS some drama on the tour — e.g., Katrina and Rita forced some changes in the schedule and one of the biggest laughs comes at a visit to a refugee shelter where the comics visit, along with the painter guy from THE WEDDING CRASHERS. Also, Vaughn’s comics — Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Mansicalco — are all relative unknowns (one even still has a day job), while Spike had performers who were all superstars, at least among black audiences. So Vaughn introduces us to them in the usual ways — giving bio stories, interviews with the four, meeting the family on tour, and cutting to relevant parts of that man’s routine. In fact, had the film-makers gone the Spike route and filmed a pure concert film, this film would have made a kick-ass “Making Of” supplement on that film’s DVD release. As a movie on its own … not so good.
THE HOST (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 8 )
Just about as much exhilirating pure fun as you can have with a monster movie, with THE HOST showing that it’s still possible to make a monster movie like they did in the 50s and 60s, the film the JURASSIC PARK series should have been. It’s funny without being intentionally campy. While being scary and gripping, with a well-designed monster. And being visually inventive and knowing exactly how to frame a shot for maximum shock (or laugh) value. The lengthy scene of the monster’s first attack on the beach is hereby given a “For Your Consideration” plug for year-end award polls (hint, hint). There’s also a quarrelsome family that makes the film, kinda like SHAUN OF THE DEAD only not quite as tongue-in-cheek, largely a comedy for long stretches … my favorite such scene being the exchange in the car, where someone notices he’s not mentioned in news reports. My only real complaint is that THE HOST gets kinda flabby in the third act, largely forgetting the comedy and becoming semi-serious. And it’s not clear from the coda who has (else may have) survived. But generally, this is Midnight Movie catnip.
I make my annual pilgrimage to the Toronto Film Festival starting tomorrow, and one person at work already has asked me specifically whether I’ll be seeing the Bush assassination movie.
I had DOAP on my initial, broken-down-by-days short-list, and I have the scheduling notes to prove it. There are some plot resemblances to THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, so using an assassination (attempt) on a current named political figure as a fictional premise doesn’t per se trouble me (but more on that anon). And the style/premise — a muck-raking “documentary” set in the future tells the real story of what happened in the Bush Assassination — resembles the great ZELIG, which I think is one of Woody Allen’s two or three best films. In a different world, this is a movie I would, in principle, be interested in.
Unless Noah Cowan’s description is completely bollixed (which would not be unprecedented … in fact in some cases, I’m downright hoping for it), I can’t imagine wanting to see this film at this festival. Most unconvincing line in Cowan’s description — “The film is never a personal attack on Bush; Range simply seeks to explore the potential consequences that might follow from the President’s policies and actions.” Reminds me of George Will’s description of how a negative-campaigning candidate defends his ads: “I am not being negative, I am merely alerting the public to my loathesome opponent’s squalid voting record.”
I won’t relate the specific examples until Bilge puts up my Worst Moviegoing Experiences on the Nerve Screengrab blog, but I have had enough “lone Celtic supporter at the Rangers end” moments to know how art-house and film-festival audiences will consume DOAP which will inevitably color my reaction. At Toronto, “Fidelista” is a term of praise (just read this and weep) and Bush Derangement Syndrome and Christophobia are normal. First example to pop into my head from this year, go to the listing for AMAZING GRACE and ask yourself how you would know, other than a vague and unspecified reference to “man of the cloth,” whether religion might be involved and (more specifically) how, and what the title might refer to (you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a reference to how hot the chick in the picture is).
In this time, at that context, DOAP will be consumed as a masturbatory fantasy and I wouldn’t put a round of applause or cheering. Maybe someday, alone, after the film has died its death and nobody remembers how Karl Rove tried to turn Valerie Plame over to Osama bin Laden in exchange for campaign contributions to pay off Katharine Harris (that IS what he did, right?), I’ll see DOAP Not now.
I dunno why this film hasn’t gotten as much flak. But if DOAP is inherently and a priori distasteful, it’s hard to see why a film called HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR wouldn’t be. Still, while I’m pretty much past the point of interest in anything the artist/bohemian class thinks it has to say about politics, I will be going to see at least one political doc. THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING has the potential to be a HARLAN COUNTY USA (director Barbara Kopple, plus my unfamiliarity with the Chicks’s music, is why I’m interested) or the few minutes of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 that I managed to endure when I finally broke down a few months ago and it was playing on a free channel (Sundance). When I know the personages involved, I try to pay as little attention to the descriptions in the Festival Guidebook, so I’ll approach DIXIE CHICKS with the guarded optimism that is obligatory.
As for my schedule, this year was one of the worst for not getting my first choices — I must have drawn a bad box. For the couple of days, i.e., opening weekend, I mostly got second-choice films (though mostly pretty good ones) and overall missed more than a half-dozen of my first choices.
I didn’t get the single to-the-general-public morning screenings of Gala presentations and likely fall awards-bait VOLVER by Almodovar and Inarritu’s BABEL, the former of which I’m more bummed about and will consider going into the rush line to see if I can get a ticket. After all, Almodovar has reportedly managed to get a tolerable performance from Penelope Cruz, acting in Spanish again and who, like Sophia Loren (a previous generation’s favorite Latin sexpot), is much better in her native language.
Some of the other not-gotten 1st choices, all of which I’m considering rushing:
● There is much anger in me when I not getting much ticket to important Kazakhstani cinema. Will start and joining with campaign against racist film making many funs of great country Kazakhstan.
● I should have known that the title THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA would just be too attractive to too many, even (especially) to those with no knowledge of Slavoj Zizek (apparently playing a Michael Palin-like guide). I hope they choke on the Lacanisms.
● Why the heck would a Kore-eda film (HANA) be a big buzz item? I thought NOBODY KNOWS was a masterpiece, but it was not a crowd-please at all. And while it did win a general release, it flopped.
● No Maddin 06. Like with the Kore-eda I hope it’s because a great filmmaker is finally winning an audience, but man, this would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience — seeing a silent film with an orchestra, which includes a sound-effects team, a singer and a narrator. The kind of screening a festival is made for.
But I can’t complain too hard. Here is my schedule of the films I got ticket for, and it’s a good mix of foreign and English, my favorite auteurs and buzz titles, austere and popcorn, and a few blind stabs in the dark — exactly what a festival is about:
B refers to The Beast of Yucca Flats; S for The Skydivers; and R for Red Zone Cuba.
But Isn’t Griffin Evil?
But isn’t Griffin evil? How can he be enlightened?
Although Walter White and Hank Quinlan are also large men who commit bad deeds and come to similar falls – even, as we’ve seen, almost identical ones in terms of cinematography – the comparison stops there. Unlike Walter White, Griffin is not a bland, good man who gradually discovers that, as Jack Donovan would say, he’s not a good man, but good at being a man. Griffin is just a clumsy brute, roaming the countryside and pointlessly brutalizing anyone who looks sideways at him. Although Hank Quinlan’s “famous intuition” at crime scenes suggest the sort of shamanic powers that would make him Griffin’s equal, Griffin is not led into a downward spiral of evil by grief over the loss of his wife; he was already a criminal when he was the “Cotton King of the South,” and although his wife has “spent all the money and become a streetwalker,” she is likely still alive, yet he makes no attempt to find her, or even mention her.
No, Griffin is just a thoroughly bad man, at least in conventional terms; in fact, that could be said to be his only “purity,” his thoroughly and consistently evil behavior. It shouldn’t be surprising that our autistic filmmaker has given us a “protagonist” with no inner life or plausible motivation to “explain” his acts. The lugubrious yet lyrically profound theme song tells us all we need to know:
I’m on this ride ‘cause I have no pride
In myself, or in men or in God.
So if you want to share in the price of my fare
Then feed your mind with greed that is blind
And wander in its evil fog.
So again, we must consider how an evil man can be enlightened, or an enlightened man be evil.
It may seem hard to fathom how Griffin could be an enlightened being, since apart from his Buddha-like bulk, he is surely one of the ugliest and nastiest protagonists ever to sully the silver screen.
And yet . . .
We are not to imagine that various events in a man’s life are out of relationship with one another. A Barbadoes plantation, dramatic school, theatre, professional dancing, and teaching metaphysics – while these seemingly point to a discrepancy in the continuous line of his life, that appearance is only due to our lack of insight. It is one of the characteristics of our age that we see for superficial consistency, failing to realise that there may be deeper levels of reality, hidden from view, where the true line of continuity may be seen. A man’s life is in reality a continuum. Regardless of the number of breaks that may appear in the line of his life, a true continuity does exist. We must not imagine for one moment that growth and development persist anywhere in nature in a straight line. The process of growth involves the idea of a spiral, of an apparent occasional backward trend, of appearances and disappearances, of surges and retreats, of endeavors and new endeavors . . . If we bear such a concept in mind, we will be enabled to understand far more readily the intelligent direction of our lives – and in particular, the work and life of Neville.
Can we think of the Mage, the Realized Man, as a Dirty Trickster?
Uncomfortable as it may be, I think the answer may very well be “Yes.” The Realized Man has by definition passed beyond the “pairs of opposites” and is no more bound by our notions of moral law than JHVH himself. I’ve discussed this many times before when discerning the notion of “passing the buck” – passing on one’s karmic burden to a sucker and transcending the Wheel of Becoming – in various films.
To understand the deeper level that provides the continuity of Griffin’s run “all the way to Hell” we must, as Evola insists, distinguish and keep separate the religious/moral point of view from the mystical/metaphysical. He writes that:
It is worth pointing out that, in the ancient tradition of the Mysteries (which the current history of religions often confuses with the religions of salvation, the so-called Erlösungsreligionen), the essential ontological aspect by which the Initiatory conception is opposed to the religious one is highlighted. From Diogenes Laertius we know of the scandal provoked in certain already “illuminist” Greek circles by the Mystery doctrine according to which even a delinquent Initiate would have a privileged destiny after death, to which even men of such high moral intelligence as Agesilas or Epaminondas, as uninitiates, would not have access. In this connection, one can speak of a “transcendental realism,” which is confirmed also in the conception of the objective effectiveness of the Initiatory rite: it is admitted that its power is, on the spiritual plane, as objective and impersonal, and as detached from morality, as, on the material plane, actions of a technical nature are. Like such actions, the rite only requires that certain objective conditions are satisfied; then the effect will follow of its own accord by necessity, whoever the subject . . .
The conception to which we have just referred, nevertheless, seems to be contradicted by the fact that, even in what is known to us of Initiatory traditions, in Yoga and similar disciplines, strict precepts of a moral character can often be found. However, it is precisely in this respect that an essential difference between the world of religion and the world of Initiation, and between the religious attitude and the Initiatory attitude, stands out, because precepts which can be identical in both cases nevertheless acquire a different meaning in each. In the first case, they are given an intrinsic imperative power, either because they are considered as parts of a revealed divine law, or because an absolute validity, analogous to the categorical moral law of Kant, is claimed for them. In the second case, they have instead the significance of means ordered to an end; they are considered only as conditions to the extent that to follow them creates in the individual certain favourable dispositions for Initiatory transformation. The classical expression of this instrumental conception of moral precepts is given by the well-known Buddhist simile of the raft: it is said that the sila, that is, the totality of the moral precepts, is to be compared to a raft built and used to cross a current; once the raft has carried out its task, it is absurd to carry the raft further (it could be added: it would be equally absurd to build it, if one did not propose to cross any water-course).
This is how the relationship between Initiation and morality can be defined. In general and in every tradition, from the Initiatory point of view, it is necessary to distinguish a part which has an exclusively social and mundane value, acting as a factor to hold in check the human animal, and a part which is really turned upwards, towards transcendence. The relativity of moral precepts becomes clear in both of these areas. In the first case, moral precepts undergo, in the various traditions, ethnic and historical conditionalities which make it impossible to find anything really constant and invariable, and therefore intrinsically valid, in the numerous varieties of rule prescribed according to times and places. In the second case, when, that is, a purely instrumental value is attributed to moral precepts, the sole criterion is the extent to which the means – of whatever nature – allow the goal to be reached, so that, not only are very different Initiatory paths indicated, with a view to the predominant dispositions of this or that individual, but also the chosen means may be in complete contrast to the moral precepts which a tradition in its exoteric aspects prescribes for the life of the majority in the world. The most typical cases are the so-called “Left-Hand Path” of the Tantric vâmâcâra (which has some points of contact with Dionysianism – for example, when it comes to the use of sex and the emphasis put on the orgiastic and destructive element), and the “heroic path” (vîra-mârga), which, under the sign of pure transcendence, have as principle a true anomia, and a scorn for the common moral and religious rules, although the ultimate end is not different from that of the “Right-Hand Path,” which instead uses such rules as a support (“the rules which do not chain but sustain those who do not know how to go by themselves”). In general, the recurrence of “antinomianism” (this word designates the rejection of the rules of the current religion), which almost always indicates connections with the world of Initiation or of esotericism, is well-known in the history of religions.
The violent course of Griffin’s life, as we’ve seen in a condensed and concise form in the film, has succeeded, perhaps even inadvertently, of burning away the mundane desires that keep him, and us, chained to the wheel of samsara (the ironically-named “Wheels of Progress” we are “caught in,” according to the narration in B), thus freeing him to ascend to a higher, relatively enlightened state at the end of R.
If this, and particularly the idea of “passing the buck,” dropping ones’ karma on another, seems immoral, well, that’s just how it is.
The only real reason something should come into being in the course of human events is that “someone wishes it to be here.” To expect that the universe should somehow “make sense” in itself, as if isolation from human actions that shape our world of meaning is a false expectation – and so horror in the face of an illogical or insane universe is misplaced. The abyssal lack of an inherent and immutable order can be seen as the free space for us to make the world meaningful in one way or another.
“Seems I read about a Griffin once . . .”: Griffin as Trickster
It may, however, be more comforting to assimilate Griffin to a well-known archetype, the Trickster.
The narrative gives us many instances of Griffin’s tricky nature. As the “Cotton King of the South,” he “sold a lot of cotton one day, then sent his trucks [tricks?] to steal it back,” a rather obvious move that led to his imprisonment. He then escapes through a method he laconically describes as, “Drain pipe. Dug up some dirt.” He evades both dogs and a curious sheriff by jumping onto the back of Cook and Landis’s truck – “You sure fooled that bull last night,” Cook says admiringly.
Although he is tricked himself into joining up “to fight for some peasants in Cuba” – a point we’ll return to – it could be argued that his presence there is itself a trick played on the CIA: “Those men!” Chastain exclaims, “how much help can they be?” Captured (apparently by Castro himself, or at least his elite guards), he figures out the sentries’ schedule and uses the old “Guard! Water! Thirsty man!” trick to escape again.
Finally, after a few more Griffinizing episodes, he reverts to form, stealing a car (despite earlier assertions of “going legit”) and tricking Chastain’s widow into helping him and the hoboes to look for Chastain’s fabled “mountain of pitchblende.”
Over and above all this, there is Griffin’s name.
In the Prologue, John Carradine intones the theme, muttering in vague reminiscence, “Griffin . . . he ran all the way to Hell” before singing about it in the theme song. Griffin himself will repeat this at the very end.
As Griffin hides, the second sheriff announces, “His name is Griffin” – ominous horns sound – “and the reward is $5,000.”
At the CIA camp, Griffin balks when ordered to sign his name (Cherokee had told them they’d get cash, as Cook helpfully exposits for the audience). Later, in their bunks, Landis recalls that it “seems I read about a Griffin once” and insists on trying to draw out Griffin’s past until Griffin jumps up and chokes him into silence.
Quite a lot is made of the name, and we don’t even know if it’s his first or last name. Nevertheless, it is a clear clue that we are dealing with no ordinary thug; as Wikipedia states:
The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων, grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn, early form γρύψ, grýps; Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. The griffin was also thought of as king of all creatures. Griffins are known for guarding treasure and priceless possessions . . . In antiquity, it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
And so Cook may very well have “read about a griffin once” who was the “[Cotton] King of the South.” Other literary sources quoted by Wikipedia confirm Griffin’s transcendental nature:
In Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, after Dante and Virgil’s journey through Hell and Purgatory has concluded, Dante meets a chariot dragged by a Griffin in Earthly Paradise. Immediately afterwards, Dante is reunited with Beatrice. Dante and Beatrice then start their journey through Paradise.
While others relate Griffin to his Satanic, “all the way to Hell” aspect. John Milton, in Paradise Lost II, refers to the legend of the griffin in describing Satan:
As when a Gryfon through the Wildernes
With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
Pursues the ARIMASPIAN, who by stelth
Had from his wakeful custody purloind
The guarded Gold […]
Truly, there may be deeper levels of reality, hidden from view, where the true line of continuity may be seen.
To flesh some of these out, let us again look at Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus and Atlas, this time Chapter 12, “Mercurial Metaphysics,” which draws some key characteristics of the “Trickster god” Hermes from Hyde’s work. Although “in his capacity as liar and thief” (like Griffin, and the initiated thief Evola references) Hermes is the cultural source of slaughter and butchery, he does not eat this sacrificial meat, “which establishes a connection between self-denial of appetite and the rise of nous (intellect),” just as we have suggested that Griffin’s ride to Hell draws out and cauterizes his material desires (principally, greed).
Indeed, lying for its own sake is, Hyde and Jorjani suggest, a key moment “when the child crosses over the boundaries set by others and, by means of the lie, proliferates meaning of her own making.” This relates us to the numerous crossings Griffin accomplishes by his lies, such as crawling under the barbed wire fence at the opening, the flights to and from Cuba, his (improbable) climb up the Cuba cliffs, the cross-country murder, rape and robbery spree, and the final run across the field pursued by sheriffs and FBI agents, when he achieves transcendence, in other words new meaning.
Connected with crossings is Hermes as the god of roads and safe passage. We note that the section of barbed wire Griffin crawls under is led up to by what appear to be paper cups; did he mark it out for some reason, as part of the (never detailed or shown) escape plan? Cook is sent to watch the highway alongside Cliff’s Café for “cars coming,” and eventually the hobos fool Chastain’s widow into leading them to the supposed pitchblende mine in lieu of a treasure map.
There is also the “connection between hunger and telling lies,” which clearly applies to Griffin, from the agonizing hunger he feels as he hides in the truck, listening to the gas jockey describe the delights on sale by his wife inside, to the surrealistic Cliff’s Café, where the entire menu is painted all over the building — SHRIMP SCALLOPS CHICKEN FROG LEGS TOP SIRLION STEAK TROUT CAT-FISH FRIED OYSTERS ABALONE – but nothing is offered inside but . . . coffee, to the final dinner (a Last Supper?) prepared by Chastain’s widow.
When there is nothing to digest, the stomach acid of hunger begins to break down illusory “truths” and to recollect things conveniently “forgotten.”
Road signs, crossings, lies, and new meanings all lead us to the one counter-example, Griffin’s fury over his deception by Cherokee Jack (he of the absurdly illiterate sign):
“There’s nothing I hate more’n a liar.”
Well, we needn’t attribute much to that; despite the theme song, Griffin still has enough “pride in myself” to be piqued at being tricked by another roadside trickster, and this needn’t lead us to attribute any real moral concern to him, just a bit of hypocrisy – and what’s more Hermetic than that?
While at the café, Griffin engages in some hard-to-stomach Griffinizing which I think we can even squeeze into his Trickster role. He kills the old man, but he was obviously ripe for death. Throwing him down the well is again a kind of inverted reference to the World Tree.
As for the daughter, well, MST3K does cut it out; but even then, her off-key hymn-singing leads the ‘bots to say, “I heartily endorse throwing her down the well” and describe her as “the lure of the Siren,” making Griffin the wily trickster Odysseus.
In line with his Hermetic Prometheanism and Nietzscheanism, Griffin rejects the “Siren” call of compassion. Both deaths are then mercy killings, to a certain degree – the old man did say he wanted to “fold up and pull out” – and anyway, Griffin does immediately pay the price: the cash register is empty, the trickster tricked.
Jorjani contrasts “the trickster and arch-comedian who buzzes about mumbling lies” to the pure, “Solar Oracle of Zeus,” and notes that it is the Semitic religions – Christianity and Islam – that trace their origins to Gabriel, the analogue of Hermes. How much more conventionally respectable an ancestor could Griffin be expected to have?
Besides, if, like Jorjani, we reject the “One True God,” yet must postulate some kind of god to render existence less futile, then we have been, as he concludes:
“Gifted with a new world – but only if . . . we can steal it.”
Or as Cook says,
“If we stick together, maybe we can get money!”
Excursus: Cook and Landis
Cook and Landis are the two hobos Coleman hitches up with; there’s a tendency, given Coleman’s overall failure at characterization, to treat them as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Red Zone, and I confess that in writing this essay I may have on occasion confused the two names, but I think they deserve some comment on their own, both singly and together.
Landis is played by Tony Cardoza, the only actor – I think – to appear in all three films, even “starring” in S as well as being the producer and financier of all three. Here he takes the backseat to Coleman, but I think he at least presents us with what a saga researcher would call a “secondary cycle,” shadowing our Hero, Coleman; and that’s some shadow.
Initially, he is the driver of the truck that Coleman jumps onto in order to escape the bloodhounds, riding hidden on the truck bed. Actually, he’s not very well hidden; he never bothers to lift up the tailgate (a “goof” or deliberate), and the gas station attendant clearly sees him but, though puzzled, does nothing. Anyway, when flying to Cuba he takes the backseat to Coleman, but the latter, as we’ve seen, observes, “My friend here can fly,” which he proves by later taking the wheel of the stolen plane to escape from Cuba. When on the trips to and from Ruby Chastain’s house, it’s Landis at the wheel.
When we first meet Cook and Landis, the latter is holding a tire iron which is clearly shot so as to resemble a cross or crucifix; the investigating deputy tells him to “get rid of it,” and he does so immediately. The abandonment of Christianity, and the ability “to fly” clue us in to Landis as a fellow shaman, perhaps a neophyte in training, still tied to the Wheel of Progress (Coleman’s ironic name for samsara).
And so, it is given to Landis to announce the theme: told they’ll get “a thousand bucks [to pass?] when it’s over,” he mumbles. “Maybe won’t be over.”
Landis is the one of the pair who seems ready to give up Coleman to the cop until restrained by Cook – “Griffin’ll kill you!” he stage-whispers – so perhaps he might have been able to escape the Wheel if he’d had more courage and handed over Griffin. “I’ll be watching you,” threatens Griffin; why not just kill him now? I guess for the same reason Bond villains never just kill Bond: he is a potential successor.
It’s Landis whose questioning of the gas jockey yields the knowledge of a job available at a camp where they “send men to fight in Cuba,” while Cook’s negotiations with Cherokee Jack seem to leave them with the short end of the stick. Landis accompanies Griffin to the café and helps him throw the owner down the well (an inversion of the scaling the Tree motif of metaphysical escape), while Cook is sent to watch the road. Griffin, however, sends Landis to fix/steal the owner’s Buick and returns to the café to rape the blind daughter alone.
The parent/child, guru/chela role is apparent when Griffin demands that Landis “give up” a ring given to him by his father. “I don’t care if Moses gave it to you” – having dropped the Christian cross, he must also “give up on” the Torah – sneers Griffin, who then whips off his belt and beats Landis like a red-headed stepchild.
During the beating, Cook is grinning and jumping around like a monkey. Cook is “played” by Harold Saunders, who was briefly in S. He makes no attempt to hide or alter his thick Brooklyn accent, which puzzles reviewers who wonder how he can be a Southern migrant laborer. I think, however, that it is the key to his role here. He’s a typical New York “wise guy” or “schmarty” who thinks he knows more than anyone else in any given situation. He takes it upon himself to introduce the pair to the deputy at the beginning, and later to Griffin. In the first case, he enunciates the theme:
“We follow the harvest. Crops froze up North, we come down South.”
Cyclical repetition; and futile as well: the gas jockey will comment that the “crops are all froze . . . fruit pickers on relief” before revealing that the CIA is apparently the biggest employer now.
In the second case, he exposits that “we’ve been up the river,” but now they are looking for “honest work” and “no more iron cages,” a rather Weberian phrase that suggests the imprisonment of the soul in the warp and woof (iron bars) of material existence.
Cook’s smug self-assurance leads to the film’s pivotal moment. Lying horizontally on their cots in the CIA camp, trying to sleep, motor-mouth Cook says that Griffin never told them “how you busted out.” With evidently great reluctance, Griffin grunts out:
“Drain pipe. Dug up some dirt. I worked three long months.”
Somehow, this rings a bell for Cook, and he starts to speak in an oddly dissociated voice (a bigger budget might have allowed Francis to insert a flashback here), recalling that:
“Seems like I read about a Griffin once. Called him The Cotton King of the South.”
This Cotton King’s business strategy was simple: sell a bunch of cotton, then steal it back. Surprisingly, this did not work in the long run:
“They sent him up for a long stretch. Seems like . . . a thousand years ago.”
Cook, apparently eager to show off his newspaper-reading ability, and, as The Agony Booth puts it:
[O]bviously not very good at determining the right moment to shut up . . . then says that the Cotton King’s wife has “spent all the money and become a street walker!” He then remarks that the newspapers all had pictures of her, and calls her “a beautiful broad!” Ah, those hobos, so refreshingly un-PC.
Suddenly, and quite hilariously, all this “your wife’s a whore” talk boils over, and Griffin jumps out of nowhere and starts strangling Cook. Unfortunately, he doesn’t finish the job – the bastard! – and he just gets up off of him and goes back to his cot to lie down. Cook lifts his head up for a second to silently stare at Griffin, but then just lowers his head back down and goes to sleep. Sure, Griffin just tried to kill him, but that’s nothing to get all riled-up over. Anyway, we fade to black.
Cook is clearly trying to drag Griffin back to the past, which Griffin clearly wants to forget or overcome. He insists Griffin tell the story of how he made his escape, then further back, to his life of riches, fame, and a beautiful wife, all of which have proven ephemeral.
Griffin responds by leaping up, out of the horizontal position, and standing vertically over Cook, strangling him into silence.
Saunder’s rather simian features – one reviewer calls him “a living cartoon character – and especially his laughing and hopping around as Landis is being beaten, clue us into his role as the idiot sidekick, often literally a monkey, who serves as an illustrative foil for the Hero, reminding him of the joys of a full belly and a warm bed, just as often mocking those who have them (here, he mocks the happily married, mine-owning Chastain) as those who have lost it all, such as Griffin.
At the end, Cook and Landis are standing still, as we saw them in the beginning. Their lives haven’t changed at all: it’s back to the “iron cages” as another deputy arrests them. They are, oddly, standing stock still (another Coleman “goof”), but this serves to emphasize the paradoxical immobility of endless repetition; simultaneously, we intercut to Griffin, also standing, but he is in the middle of a field which he has run across to the center – the Primal Man standing at the World Pole in the center of the phenomenal field.
Ground Zero. Yucca Flats. Trinity.
There, he is not arrested but instead (in the usual Coleman Francis nod to vigilante justice) shot down, falling stiffly onto the field. But as we’ve seen, this is immediately subverted by the voice of Coleman/Griffin voicing over, apparently from Above, speaking “Griffin’s” epitaph in the third person. No more iron cages.
“Goodbye horses / I’m flying over you.”
Shock waves of an A-bomb. A once powerful and humble man. Reduced to . . . nothing.
What happened to Coleman Francis? He seems, appropriately enough, to have simply disappeared, along with his film legacy. Cinematographer and friend Lee Strosnider says he “went down drastically.” Backer, producer, and “actor” Tony Cardoza recalls:
Q: When was your last encounter with Coleman Francis?
ANTHONY: The last time I saw him, he was about Tor’s weight. After being only like 200 pounds, he went up to about 350. He was on a bus bench with an overcoat, and he looked like he was gone . . . three sheets to the wind. I don’t know what happened to him. I was driving by and I saw him on the bench and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt sorry for him, but at the same time . . . you know . . . you gotta take care of yourself and your family.
Q: I was told that he later died under strange circumstances.
ANTHONY: Coleman Francis’ body was found in the back of a station wagon at the Vine Street Ranch Market.
Q: Was it natural causes, or . . . ?
ANTHONY: Nobody knows. I don’t know, he doesn’t know – he’s dead! [Laughs] Nobody seems to know. There was a plastic bag over his head and a tube going into his mouth or around his throat. I don’t know if he committed suicide, or . . . I have no idea. Never looked it up because we were on the outs at the time.
As the mock-narration of “No Dialogue Necessary” intones:
Coleman Francis, forgotten filmmaker. Spent his days filming moving vehicles. Mysteriously found in his own vehicle, not moving. A victim of man’s inhumanity to man.
Like Ruby, shoved into the back of the pickup truck (just as Griffin hides in the back of the hoboes’ truck at the beginning), or Griffin himself lying horizontal in the field (symbolized by the “ranch market”).
That last bit about “inhumanity,” of course, is just another mocking quote from the original B narration. Rather, I think Coleman was the “victim,” if you will, of his inhumanity to . . . himself. That is, as we said about the ending of R, Coleman achieved the shamanic transcendence of self – note the references to extreme body modification and unrecognizability – and simply disappeared from the range of three-dimension vision – “like he was gone.”
“Blessed is the man on whose tomb can be written Hic jacet nemo.” [Here lies no one]
Like the cast of Citizen Kane, the work of Coleman Francis may be new to many of you. If you feel a desire to expose yourself to them – and for once, the bacteriological or radiological metaphor is apt – I highly recommend viewing the MST3K versions rather than the “uncut” originals.
Only B has a commercial DVD release, but as you can imagine, copies of various degrees of legality are floating of the other two. The MST version benefits from two fine though somewhat overlapping documentaries about Francis’s filmmaking career. About this ‘uncut’ business: MST usually cuts films to fit the timeslot and to make room for various bits. B is short enough already to actually need not one but two shorts to pad out the episode; S shortens some of the innumerable, interminable skydiving “action” sequences and some of the antics of the gang of weirdos, but otherwise nothing is lost; moreover, the MST disc includes the “uncut” version on its flipside. Z is the most affected; the rape of the blind woman is cut due to its lack of comedic value, but otherwise there are a dozen or more quick cuts, some in mid-shot or -sentence, that are likely to have already been made in an old TV print. Most of the loss is at the beginning, allowing for the ‘bots to make plenty of somewhat unfair jokes about the herky-jerky narrative. Above all, we never see how the hoboes find out about Cuba, and the important bridge section is cut from the theme song; the latter you can find on YouTube.
Nevertheless, I would advise not viewing either S or Z unless you feel a powerful need to experience Full Metal Coleman. R actually has a bit of zip and “action” to it, what with invading Cuba and all, but B, although short, can seem like a whole lifetime, and S is one of the most deadening, depressing, suicide-inducing experiences available in the cinema. (Personally, like TV’s Frank, I love it.) If you insist on the uncut experience, perhaps the easiest and safest thing would be to avoid actually watching them, and instead consult the incredibly detailed and amusingly snarky “recaps” of “the Coleman Francis Trilogy” over at The Agony Booth. Enjoy!
1. See “Breaking Badge: Touch of Evil through the Lens of Breaking Bad,” here.
2. The Agony Boothsuggests a new term: “I hereby decree that the act of brutally grabbing someone shall now be referred to as ‘Griffinizing’.”
3. Appropriately, the only hint of morality about him is his desire to escape from the CIA camp and “get his hands around Cherokee’s throat” for misleading them about getting cash money: “Nothing I hate more than a liar.” Our autistic auteur can’t understand, and hates, hypocrisy and deceit. Although something of a Trickster himself, it’s interesting as well that Coleman never bothers to change his appearance or clothing throughout the entire film. See Jason Reza Jorjani, Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos, 2016) for a discussion of Paul Feyerabend’s observations on the inability of Homeric man to understand lying and hypocrisy, as well as for his own observations on the Trickster or con man motif.
4. An online reviewer says that, “The main character, played with greasy flabbiness by the auteur Mr. Francis himself, is perhaps THE most unlikable character I have ever seen, and that includes the guy from Manos and Francis’s mentor Ray Dennis who played an amazingly unlikable character in his Mixed Up Zombies movie. This jerk is first seen escaping from prison, and for most of the rest of the movie all he does is smoke, threaten people, grouse, and of course pointlessly beat up and kill people [i.e., ‘Griffinizing’].”
7. In this way Parzival, “animated by indignation and pride,” “separated from God,” and “avoiding churches,” “eventually triumphs, achieving the glory of the king of the grail.” Evola, The Mystery of the Grail (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996), p. 74. Unlike Parzival, Griffin, according to the theme song, is “on this ride because I have no pride”; this illustrates the relativity of moral virtues, as well as the equivalence of inverted symbols, such as Griffin’s goal being described in the same song as Hell rather than the conventional Heaven; the point being “anywhere out of this world” (Baudelaire).
8. Jason Reza Jorjani, Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos, 2016), “Being Bound for Freedom”; quoting and explicating William James.
11. Griffin tells Cook to go ask for more water, and specifically, he wants Cook to get the guard to lean in close. “If I can get my hands on him,” a bored Griffin says, “I’ll snap his neck.” Or maybe I’ll take a nap. Either one would work out just fine right about now. The Agony Booth, here.
12. MST3K and most reviewers seem to think this cryptic phrase means “becoming a good citizen,” but I think it means simply “use a regular means of transportation rather than hopping trains and stealing cars.” He immediately follows this line by forcing Cook to surrender his father’s ring and uses it to trade for a used car.
13. As noted, the voiceover seems to be Coleman Francis himself, as in B.
14. Augmented thus: “with a penny [symbolizing the endless wheel of samsara] and a broken cigarette [the breaking of ties to material desires].”
15. As always in myth, to know one’s name is to have power over one. At various points in the Gospels, Jesus encounters demons who announce that they know who he is (unlike the disciples), using this as a threat when he tries to exorcize them, and later, others will cast out demons “in his name.”
16. Bourgeois critics may cite this as a typical “blunder,” but actually it shows Coleman’s (autistic?) concentration on symbolic import; what would be the point of dubbing him “Griffin Jones” or “Ed Griffin”?
17. “Ore hill” = Chastain’s “mountain of pitchblende”?
18. Referencing Hyde, op. cit., p. 59.
19. “I always wanted money,” Griffin muses in the CIA camp, perhaps the only time he voluntarily refers to his past. The theme song asks us to join him on his ride and “fill your mind with greed that is blind, and wander in its evil fog,” although this is of course the first step only, not the goal.
20. Referencing Hyde, p. 65.
21. “Those are the malt cups from his previous takes,” suggests Mike Nelson.
22. Referencing Hyde, p. 66.
23. “Cook goes to walk away, but the attendant stops him, giving him what sounds like a complete and annotated list of the entire inventory of his wife’s store. I’m even originally from the South, and I have absolutely no idea what half of these foods are. It sounds like he says, ‘Hog jaw, pickle pig feet, cy belly, rib in can syrup, anything.’ Next, the attendant will try to con them into buying that old jar of pickled eggs that’s been sitting on the shelf since the Great Depression. In the back of the truck, Griffin gets a truly pained expression on his face. He must really be jonesing for some hog jaw.” The Agony Booth, here.
24. “Ah, a Coleman Francis motif!” exclaims Tom Servo.
25. Even here, and in the next day’s shopping trip, we hardly see Coleman touch his plate, while Cook (appropriately!) is stuffing his face like a true hobo. “You should fix fine vittles,” he sighs. The shopping trip is itself a blunder, leading to their identification and capture.
26. Jorjani, loc. cit.
27. The Agony Booth review transcribes it here.
28. “She’s been blind since, y’know, her husband got killed in the war. Doctors have done everything for her. With no effect. Spent all my money. Since that freeway went in, I lost all my business. I guess there’s not much use trying! May as well fold up and pull out.”
29. “It is recognized that the sacrifice and dismemberment of the victim are acts of cruelty and even treachery and this is the original sin of the gods, in which all men participate.” Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, p. 12.
30. Sally Jupiter: “Things are tough all over, cupcake. It rains on the just and unjust alike. The Comedian was a little bit of both.” (Watchmen, Snyder, 2009). Coleman’s oeuvre was revived on Comedy Central; his resemblance to Curly Howard is frequently pointed out by Mike and the ‘bots when screening R, though in both Watchmen and R, the “comedian” partakes in a graphic rape sequence. In fact, despite his more obviously “comical” appearance, Griffin dispatches people as easily as The Comedian, using hands, guns (he reveals that he has a pistol strapped to his ankle in the Cuba jail – where did it come from? when did he get it? – and he’s a master of the just turn and shoot school), and even dropping an old man down a well. The Comedian apparently assassinates JFK; this is often attributed to the CIA (e.g., Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK) in revenge for, among other things, the Bay of Pigs disaster Griffin participates in.
31. MST3K immediately notices the resemblance of Coleman to Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, and from the credits onward we are prepared for his lying and shapeshifting: “Coleman Francis is Curly Howard in . . . The Fugitive!” Coleman’s subsequent performance is largely mumbled, perhaps due to his lingering problems with sound-sync.
32. Jorjani’s main interest here is drawing a further analogy between the Semitic revelations and the trickery associated with UFOs and other alien visitors and communications. There might be a further parallel here with Griffin’s shamanistic flights, including his final “appearance” as narration to an overhead shot of his baffled pursuers – still trying to figure out the “penny and a broken cigarette” left behind – which recalls the ending of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, whose connection to UFO and alien abduction accounts is explored in Bruce Rux’s Hollywood vs. The Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry’s Participation in UFO Disinformation (Berkeley, CA: Frog Limited, 1997), reviewed here.
33. Jorjani, loc. cit., where he only italicized “we.”
34. “The ‘characters’ are about as charming as my living room furniture. (And I live in a crackhouse.) The three main characters actually have negative personality. That is to say, as I watched this movie, personality was sucked out of me and I become a significantly less interesting person than I was before I saw it.” The Agony Booth, here. On negative personality, Coleman was ahead of his time; reviewing the Coen Bros’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Miles Mathis starts off with “I hated Oscar Isaac (above) from the first scene . . . Like all modern-day movie people, Isaac has zero or negative charisma. All he has is nice hair, but that isn’t really enough, is it? Plus, his hair is actually too good. Under the circumstances, it always looks about three steps better than it should, which makes you hate him and the directors just that much more.” See “The Folk Scene was Totally Manufactured,” here.
35. The muddy sound recording and poor dubbing by perhaps random actors (a Wellesian touch!) doesn’t help. Also, for some reason, the edits in the MST3K version, perhaps based on an existing television print, remove some key lines, as I’ll indicate in what follows.
36. “I thought I heard something last night,” Landis mumbles, to which one of the ‘bots adds, “But I was too lazy to turn my head and look.”
37. “The Lord be with you!” mumbles Crow.
38. “Oooh, Tony, you’re deep!” snarks Crow, reminding us of how Cardoza’s acting in B was sneered at as “Tony Cardoza gets deep into character and then just sits there.”
39. One of the lines cut from the MST3K version. “There are always two,” as George Lucas tells us. “Inherit my mantle and surpass my achievements,” says Dr. Lecktor to the Tooth Fairy. I address the Bond/Villain dynamic, first outlined by Kingsley Amis, in “Passing the Buck,” here.
40. Another scene cut from MST3K, leaving the question of how they found out about the camp a mystery unfairly chalked up to Coleman’s incompetence.
41. MST3K cuts the rape scene, and consequently we never see, or rather, hear, Cook shouting a warning from the road. Is Griffin exercising droit de seigneur or assigning an ascetic trial to Landis? The whole scene of the deserted café, “where everything dried up” when the new highway went in, and where the menu is bizarrely painted all over the walls, but only coffee – of course! – is available inside, the blind damsel, the well, and so on simply screams Grail Legend.
42. Given the framing of the shot, one of the ‘bots says he “hopes that’s his belt he’s whipping out!”
43. The ring, and the mountain they are seeking, containing a mine of treasure, suggests Lord of the Rings, but the staging here, on a slag heap, recalls the confrontation of Anakin and Obi-Wan at the climax of Revenge of the Sith, continuing the “chosen one/there are always two” motif.
44. Again, the framing and dubbing make the latter scene confusing as to who’s talking, a typical Colman motif.
45. Agony Booth review, here. The ‘bot later suggest he should ask the camp commander, “Are your roommates supposed to strangle you?”
46. “Hearing my name from out of the mouths of others is like being caught in a prison break.” Jarrad Ackert, “Do Not Believe in Yourself;” Aristokratia IV, ed. K. Deva (Manticore Press, 2017).
47. See Boris Nad, op. cit.
48. “Our conscious ‘life’ is a process, subject to corruption and death. It is this life that must be ‘arrested’ if we are to live immortally.” Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, p. 87.
49. “Glad did I live and gladly die / And I laid me down with a will.” Robert Louis Stevenson, “Requiem.”
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