Jul 30, 2015
While it is certainly no surprise that Andy Warhol never directed a martial arts flick, he and his head Factory filmmaker Paul Morrissey’s overly gritty (anti)aesthetic heavily influenced at least one such flick in a fairly idiosyncratic way that demonstrates the sort of racial and cultural schizophrenia that American style multiculturalism produces. Indeed, like a good percentage of the films associated with the NYC No Wave Cinema movement, The Deadly Art of Survival (1979) directed by Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style, Fear of Fiction) reeks of outstandingly amateurish pseudo-cinéma-vérité Warholian ineptness and unequivocally makes the late-1970s rotten Big Apple seem like a post-apocalyptic human zoo plagued by widespread destitution, mental derangement, and good old sub-lumpenprole debauchery. Admittedly, if there is any one film (sub)genre that I find more hopelessly banal than westerns and musicals, it has to be martial arts and karate flicks, but after watching excerpts of Ahearn’s film in the documentary Blank City (2010) directed by French documentarian Celine Danhier, I got the sudden urge to rape my eyes and ears with pure and unadulterated urban negro style kung fu. A real piece of D.I.Y. celluloid and no bullshit guerrilla filmmaking, the Super-8 feature only became a serious idea for its auteur after fairly effeminate white boy Ahearn was coerced into making it after being approached by a group of young black kids who saw him playing around with his film camera around their ghetto and urged him to make a movie about the karate school that they attended. Sort of The Karate Kid (1984) of the New York Underground minus the elderly Chinese dude, evil blond Aryan villain, and intolerable sentimentalism, The Deadly Art of Survival is an authentic example of art imitating life that stars real-life Lower East Side karate instructor and community leader Shidoshi Nathan Ingram in the lead role as a sort of negro folk hero in the making whole wages a sort of quasi-racial war against a rival Latino instructor who gets his prepubescent students to run coke out of his proto-hip-hop dojo. Of course, if you have ever wondered why certain rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan (which derives its name from the film Shaolin and Wu Tang (1983) directed by Hong Kong martial artist Gordon Liu) have have become so seemingly culturally schizophrenic that they have developed a deep fetish for esoteric Chinese martial arts aesthetics and philosophies, Ahearn’s film will give you a good idea and thankfully it is completely devoid of gangster rap garbage and ill-literate neo-minstrel morons whose pants are falling off their marijuana-marinated asses.
A piece of shockingly amateurish negro-realism of the pleasantly politically incorrect sort where the melanin-privileged ‘actors’ freely throw around words like “nigger” and “spick” whilst fighting one another, The Deadly Art of Survival features an aborted script with countless plot-holes and completely dead-end subplots, wretchedly bad acting and equally botched dialogue, sound quality so horrible that it is nothing short of hypnotic, and horrendous handheld camera work that reminds me of one of those ghetto brawl videos that usually comes courtesy of the geniuses at WORLDSTARHIPHOP and that were probably shot by some random government-subsidized jigaboo on a stolen iPhone, yet the film certainly has a sort of raw and visceral charisma about it that reminds me why I rather re-watch it than any Bruce Lee flick. Certainly a ‘brother’ film to Melvin Van Peebles’ proto-blaxploitation flick Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) and Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) starring Jimmy Cliff, albeit sans the nihilistic message and misguided glorification of savage gutter-level criminality, Ahearn’s film is also notable for being a rare film with a positive black hero as portrayed by a real-life positive black hero who does not speak Ebonics or sling crack or crusty crack-addled colored cunt. Despite its almost quaint positive prole message, the film also manages to drip with the slime and sleaze of Paul Morrissey’s Forty Deuce (1982) starring a very young Kevin Bacon as a young hustler who pimps out the corpse of prepubescent boy to an unwitting middle-aged New England preppie. Somewhat inexplicably shot by S&M-obsessed hipster nihilist Beth B—the ‘better half’ of an ill-fated marriage with Scott B that produced such post-punk art-fetish films as G Man (1978), Black Box (1979), and Vortex (1982)—The Deadly Art of Survival is a rare example of marginally working true multiculturalism in celluloid form, as a collaboration that brought together weak white hipsters and poor black kung fu champs. Indeed, the film may have been shot and directed by weak ass hipster crackers, but the negroes ultimately have all the glory, thus making the production a sort of unwittingly allegory for how mainstream corporate sport leagues like the NBA operate.
I once had a friend from Annapolis, Maryland who told me about a local urban legend that he believed was true about how a Japanese tourist that completely vanished without a trace after he made the catastrophic mistake of wandering into the wrong side of town where black government housing is the norm. It seems that The Deadly Art of Survival director Charlie Ahearn had a rather different experience than the Jap tourist, or as the seemingly naively negrophiliac auteur stated in the doc Blank City regarding the genesis of his ludicrously ‘lo-fi’ directorial debut, “It was part of that whole thing of getting the hell out of the art world and finding a kind of cinema much closer to reality. When I decided to take my camera out to far Lower East Side…I didn’t have any film crew at all…so I could basically just disappear. I met this whole kung fu school and they said ‘Will you make a film with us?’” Out of all the films I have ever seen associated with the movement, Ahearn’s first feature certainly most personifies filmmaker/painter James Nares’ remark regarding the philosophy regarding No Wave Cinema that, “We purposely alienated ourselves from the avant-garde cinema. We wanted to make narrative films instead of art films…because it seemed like you could reach more people.” Certainly, The Deadly Art of Survival, like Ahearn’s other films, could not be any less pretentious, but I cannot say the same about No Wave filmmakers like Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell who seriously thought that they were America's answer to La Nouvelle Vague. A sort of cultural cuckold with a Super-8 camera, Ahearn ultimately sired what is more or less a glorified homemovie that also works as an eccentric ethnology and unintentionally absurdist example of cultural appropriation where the Far East meets the Far Lower East Side. If any film can bring new meaning to the timeless word ‘Négritude,’ it is most certainly Ahearn’s singularly shitty yet nonetheless strangely captivating debut.
The film begins fittingly enough with protagonist Nathan Ingram shirtless in a bargain bin chiaroscuro scene flexing his muscles and doing kung fu moves until eventually verbally announcing the film’s credits orally, stating, “My name Nathan Ingram. The name of this film is THE DEADLY ART OF SURVIVAl. Scripted and directed by Mr. Charlie Ahearn,” thereupon underscoring the flick's realist, almost dcoumentary-like tone. As if almost mocking the innate ineptness and amateurishness of The Deadly Art of Survival, Ingram is subsequently featured walking around a graffiti-plagued ghetto basketball court and excitedly stating to a comrade regarding a Bruce Lee film that he just saw, “The style and everything…it was just beautiful. The choreography of the whole film was good.” Of course, everything about Ahearn’s film is absolutely appallingly bad, but as American negroes oftentimes say, it is a work about “Keepin’ it real” and that is one of its greatest charms. Ultimately, Ingram’s trouble arise when an Afro-Latino pal named Miguel Villanueva approaches him while initially acting chummy, but then completely changes, says to him out of nowhere, “Listen, Larry, what happened the last time I saw you? I told your ass to not come around here, didn’t I?,” sucker punches him in the face like the typical ghetto coward, and then has a pack of wild feral spades attack him. As a result of his beating, Ingram is not only left hospitalized, but his bodaciously bitchy baby-momma also rebukes him in the cruelest of ways, yelling at him, “I wish that god had killed you. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about you no more.” Needless to say, Ingram—a kung fu instructor (whose dojo is curiously never shown once in the entire film)—decides to dish out revenge against treacherous fair-weather friend Miguel and his slavish ‘play thug’ accomplices. Like in real-life when it comes to ghetto negroes, these two-faced “shines” are not so tough when it comes to fighting one-on-one and Ingram even manages to beat up a couple of them up after catching them bragging regarding his hospitalization and stating things like, “Dat nigga is crippled” and “He got fucked up so bad.”
As Ingram soon discovers after handing out various beat downs, a small-time wop Mafioso with the stereotypical name ‘Frankie’ ordered Miguel to kill him because the Guido assumed he impregnated his Chinese girlfriend. Indeed, after buying a revolver wrapped in a dirty newspaper from a young boy while composing music on an organic at his local church, Ingram decides to confront his (ex)friend and pulls the weapon on Miguel after catching him admiring himself in a mirror like a sort of welfare Narcissus. Rather absurdly, Miguel attempts to declare his innocence, pleading to Ingram while he has a revolver pointed in his face, “I had no choice” and “They put me up to it […] it wasn’t me. You know I wouldn’t do something like that.” After declaring, “I outta blow your brains out,” Ingram hits Miguel in the gut and lets him off fairly easy by giving him a quick little beating that demonstrates that he is a man of honor and self-restraint. After talking to a low-level thug sporting an Adidas t-shirt at a super sleazy pool-hall that confirms that he and Miguel were hired by Guido goon Frankie to murder him for supposedly impregnating the chink chick, Ingram heads to a fried chicken joint where the East Asian whore works and bitches her out, threateningly stating to her, “Let me tell you something, Bitch. You know I was nowhere near your stinking pussy. You know that, right, You know that. We were supposed to be friends, we were supposed to be friends.” After stating to her that “I gave you a lot of respect” because she was only female he knew that was serious about martial arts, Ingram threatens the Chinawoman by telling her that if she does not smooth things over with Frankie, “I’m going to take my fist and bust you into a million pieces – pregnant or not.” Needless to say, the petrified race-mixing Chinese girl obliges Ingram.
Somewhat ironically, as it turns out, it was not Ingram but Miguel who put his spade seed inside of the Chinese chick. Needless to say, when his Chinese concubine reveals to Frankie that he is actually the father of the monstrously miscegenated fetus inside her tiny East Asian womb, treacherous Afro-Latino turd Miguel naturally opts to get out of town and even expects his oriental baby-momma to foot the bill for his self-imposed exile, thus leaving the half-breed baby a bastard before it is even born and causing Ingram to have one less problem to deal with. Unfortunately, just as Miguel leaves, another nemesis arrives in town named ‘Handsome Harry’ and he begins dealing dope out of a transparently dubious business that he opens called ‘Disco Dojo’ that uses the less than hip motto, “Martial Arts – With Style.” Of course, the dojo is merely used as a front for dope-peddling, as ‘Sensei’ Handsome Harry has his prepubescent students run drugs for him while he sits on his ass and counts his candy money. On top of overcharging his students (he demands $20 for every single service he provides to them) and forcing them to make him money for him by running cocaine and heroin, Harry gives rather lackluster kung fu instructions that mainly involve him doing dopey poses while smoking a cigarette. Not surprisingly considering his line of trade, Harry receives his drug supply from an exceedingly arrogant Hebrew in a white suit. When Harry fires an empty weapon at him as a sort of sick joke and then obnoxiously remarks, “You dumb white boy. I could have killed you if I wanted to,” the Judaic gangster humorously replies, “Listen. You’re a ten year old moron anyway. When you grow up and get out of nursery school, I’ll give you a real one of those.” Aside from hating whites (or, in the case of his dealer, Jews), Handsome Harry—a supposedly Hispanic chap with discernible Negroid admixture—is also no fan of blacks, even if they make up his largest clientele. Indeed, when Ingram confronts him at a phone booth, Harry less than jokingly says to him, “What’s up, Nigger?” and the protagonist replies, “What’s happening, spick? How you doing,” though the two decide to postpone their showdown for a more appropriate date. Since Ingram is in the company of a fine ass white female whose panties he wants to get into, he ultimately opts to take down Harry at a later date as he has much bigger priorities. After all, if there is anything that will totally incapacitate a black man, it is white trash pussy.
While watching an adolescent kung fu tournament and talking to a journalist, Handsome Harry brags, “These kids are real cute. Very cute. Shit….My class kicks better than that and their stoned the whole time. I mean, the whole time…I can’t believe this.” Harry now runs a fairly successful dope-dealing operation and of course the only person that can seriously stop him is Ingram, so he opts to take decisive action against the protagonist by hiring two ninjas from a mysterious Chinaman named Lang Wang Chow to take him out. While Ingram is banging his baby-momma in his Cadillac while parked under the Brooklyn Bridge, the two ninjas manage takeoff all four of his car tires and then throw them in the river. Naturally, when the black-clad ninjas kidnap his bastard baby and then give him an ominous message that includes a decapitated naked baby doll and a note reading “Get your baby on your roof tonight 8-PM,” Ingram decides to wage war against the comically dressed ghetto mercenaries. Against his students’ advice (one of them wisely says to him, “Sensei, you may be a martial artist but you’re not Superman”), Ingram opts to follow the ninjas' directions by meeting them on a dilapidated apartment roof by himself where he manages to not only kick the specially trained Chinamens’ asses, but also gets his wee black babe back. At this point in the film, Ingram realizes that being a hero is tough and decides to throw in the towel, at least temporarily.
While riding in a taxi with two of his students, Sly (‘Sly’ Arthur Abrams) and Freddy (Freddy Rivera), Ingram complains, “When you don’t got a job…and you got a kid…man, it is rough,” which leads to all three men discussing the pros and cons of dope-dealing. After Sly alludes to the fact that he slings coke, Ingram and Freddy complain about how it is a less than respectful trade that destroys the community. After parting ways with his two comrades, Ingram seems to admit defeat and reveals that he might have busted his moral compass as indicated when he thinks to himself, “I wonder what kind of business Sly is really into. If Freddy would have kept his mouth quiet, shit, he probably would have told us. Man, if I was born rich, I could teach anything. To hell with this whole karate business. Harry’s got it and Harry can have it. Money is the real deadly art of survival.” Indeed, while Ingram decides to give up on fighting the epidemic drug problem in his neighborhood and resolves to let Handsome Harry keep running his evil enterprise, a chance sighting by his baby-momma ultimately leads to the protagonist having a real one-on-one showdown with his nemesis. After his baby-momma spots Handsome Harry assaulting a girl named Paula from their apartment window, Ingram decides to leap into action (somewhat humorously, his lover says to him “get your shirt” before he runs out of their apartment) and begins chasing down the more silly than sinister dope-dealing Sensei. In what is ultimately one of the most absurdly anticlimactic showdowns in martial arts movie history, Ingram beats up Handsome Harry and then kicks him off a concrete pier into the East River in a scene juxtaposed with ambient noise that seems more typical of a Scott B and Beth B flick.
Notably, two years after The Deadly Art of Survival was released, star Nathan Ingram was honored with a medal by kosher crypto-cocksucker NYC mayor Ed Koch—a man that was hated by many members of the No Wave scene due to his soft stance on battling AIDS despite his own assumed aberrosexual proclivities—for using his martial arts mastery to thwart a robbery in his ghetto. Before earning the medal, creating the apparently very effective D.A.S. fighting system, becoming the most famous negro martial artist in NYC, training over 10,000 students (over 50 of which would become masters) and becoming a truly positive black community leader, Grand Master Ingram was himself apparently a criminal thug that worked for Chinatown gang boss Yin Poy Nicky Louie and ran with the infamous Chinese-American the Ghost Shadows, thus making his stranger-than-fiction legacy as a true black role model all the more remarkable and inspirational. Indeed, if anything, The Deadly Art of Survival downplays both Ingram’s karate skills and heroics to the point where the film makes him seem like nothing more than a semi-nerdy and terribly culturally confused negro with a inexplicable Bruce Lee fetish who went berserk after suffering one-too-many beatings and just happened to take out a couple bad guys in the process during his quest for revenge. It should also be noted that a Ingram biography with the same name as Ahearn's film was released in 2012. Of course, in terms of films depicting the conspicuously culturally mongrelized merging of martial arts and black ghetto culture, The Deadly Art of Survival is more or less the The Birth of a Nation (1915) of the bizarre subgenre. Indeed, without Ahearn's debut feature, there would probably be no The Last Dragon (1985) directed by Michael Schultz or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) directed by Jim Jarmusch. Notably, with his subsequent feature Wild Style (1983) starring legendary New York graffiti artist Lee Quinones and rap pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, Ahearn would ultimately sire what is probably the Citizen Kane (1941) of hip-hop cinema, which is no small accomplishment for a wussy white dude who would probably be instantly beaten and robbed if he dared to currently walk around the same black ghetto neighborhoods that his films inspired.
Admittedly, I literally have nil interest in martial arts films and I doubt I have ever even seen a single movie featuring Brue Lee in its entirety, so I am not exaggerating when I say that The Deadly Art of Survival is one of the most unintentionally enthralling kung fu flicks that I have ever seen. Indeed, aside from Deadbeat at Dawn (1988), which features actor/auteur Jim Van Bebber doing all of his own stunts, including kicking ass with nunchaku and jumping off of buildings, I cannot think of a more captivatingly confused, idiotically idiosyncratic, and strikingly gritty contribution to the genre. Forget blaxploitation buffoonery like Dolemite (1975) and other intentionally schlocky celluloid coon crap, The Deadly Art of Survival might be a chronically psychotronic flick that is completely lacking in both wit and wisdom but it is also indubitably the real darkie deal as a true ‘black power’ motion picture that is to martial arts what Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) was to the vampire subgenre and what The Harder They Come (1972) was to real Jamaican reggae. Of course, unlike the degenerate jazz worship in films by the likes of No Wave filmmakers like Amos Poe and Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Ahearn’s first feature thankfully does not feel like a patronizing attempt to appropriate and/or mindlessly glorify American negro kultur, even if it features negroes that have strangely appropriated Chinese culture, hence why the film is probably less popular nowadays than certain shamelessly xenophiliac and nihilistic No Wave classics that glorify crime and old dead black men. After all, as MTV and Hollywood has showed us with countless neo-minstrel style rappers and films like Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) and shows like HBO’s The Wire (2002–2008), there is nothing cool about a law-abiding negro who dares to fight against parasitic drug dealers that have completely ravaged his community, or so says the unscrupulous Hebrew and his hopelessly cuckolded minion the white liberal. Indeed, as a film that completely lacks any phony altruistic white character and where a black man single-handedly saves his neighborhood from a racially dubious Hispanic dope-dealer who has turned all the local children into coke-peddlers, The Deadly Art of Survival promotes negro self-determination and rather refreshingly betrays the mainstream liberal narrative that negroes need to be coddled and that they cannot do anything on their own without the help of the white liberal slave-master, thus making the film a true black power picture that undermines uniquely absurd hocus pocus pseudo-theories like so-called post-traumatic slavery syndrome and proves that black men can be bad asses without having to sell drugs or kill other black men.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 4:22 AM
Jul 28, 2015
Despite the fact that his films, especially his debut Permanent Vacation (1980) and Broken Flowers (2005), would probably lead most viewers to assume that he could never be tied down by one single woman over a long period of time, Jim Jarmusch has been with the same exact dame for most of his life. In fact, this woman, Sara Driver (Sleepwalk aka Year of the Dog, When Pigs Fly), is a notable filmmaker in her own right who, at least during the early 1980s, seemed like she had the potential to become a more respected auteur than her white-haired neo-bohemian beau, or so that is the impression that Jonathan Rosenbaum gives in his somewhat obscure text Film: The Front Line 1983 (1983). Indeed, as Rosenbaum noted in his book, Driver received the ultimate compliment for a young avant-garde filmmaker when rootless cosmopolitan European alpha-avant-gardist Jean-Marie Straub said to her at an early screening at the 1982 Rotterdam Film Festival regarding her hypnotically haunting early work You Are Not I (1981), “I like your film ten times better than Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies.” As to what Driver’s 50-minute black-and-white film has to do with Poe or Corman, Rosenbaum attempted to make a connection when he argued, “Insofar as it uses narrative ambiguity and foregrounds some of its formal elements, YOU ARE NOT I demands a certain amount of collaborative work from the spectator. At the same time, it adopts the method of a Poe story, which requires the virtual submission of the reader/spectator to the will and power of the narrative voice.” Not unlike with her boyfriend’s first feature Permanent Vacation (1980), which she briefly appeared in and worked on as a production manager, Driver made her film while attending New York University’s graduate film school with the help of a Louis B. Mayer grant (the film had about a $12,000 budget). Based on the 1948 short story of the same name written by queer Beat Generation writer Paul Bowles about a schizophrenic woman that escapes from a mental institution and ultimately gets her sister to take her place that Driver liked so much upon reading it for the first time that she immediately knew she wanted to adapt it into a cinematic work, the film certainly gives one the impression that the auteur might have become the female David Lynch instead of a fecund Jarmusch. Despite being a relatively huge critical hit in Europe that had a long ride on the film festival circuit and was even described as one of the best films of the decade in Cahiers du Cinéma, You Are Not I was actually considered lost for nearly thirty years after the original negative was burnt in a fire in the warehouse where it was stored and the only other copy had deteriorated due to being screened one too many times. Luckily, source writer Bowles, who apparently regularly exchanged letters with Driver while she was assembling the film, was such a fan of the film that he had a pristine print, which was found in 2008 by a fellow named Francis Poole when he traveled to the writer’s old apartment in Tangier, Morocco to gather things for the University of Delaware’s library collection. While I am not that familiar with Bowles' work, I have a feeling that he was more pleased with Driver's You Are Not I than he was with capitalist-minded Guido commie Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky (1990).
A sort of avant-garde post-Gothic psyche-horror flick with seemingly nil direct cinematic influences (though Driver has credited German Expressionism, Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) as inspiring her in different ways), You Are Not I might be described as the female Eraserhead that Lynch’s own daughter Jennifer Chambers Lynch failed to make when she released her badly botched and laughably misandristic but nonetheless fleetingly entertaining debut Boxing Helena (1993). Indeed, if there is such a thing as true estrogen-charged arthouse horror, it is Driver’s film, which is what you might expect if Danièle Huillet had kicked her pansy hubby Straub to the curb, listened to some Joy Division and read some Flannery O'Connor, dropped the pedantic Marxist idiocy, and assembled a film that truly tapped into the darker depths of the innately irrational and labyrinthine female psyche. More specifically, You Are Not I is one of those handful of seemingly inexplicable female ‘psychic transference’ flicks like Ingmar Bergman Persona (1966), Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1994), and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) that hints at the melding of two different female identities. While co-penned, co-produced, and shot by Jarmusch (who also later acted as the cinematographer of Driver’s first feature-length effort Sleepwalk), the film has thankfully virtually nothing to do with the No Wave Cinema movement, which the filmmaker herself more or less confirmed in a December 2011 interview with George Sikharulidze of Senses of Cinema where she stated, “There were a lot of movies about the scene, but I was not interested in that kind of representation. In a way, the film was part of the No Wave movement because we all worked on each other’s movies, we were all in the scene together, but I never liked the kind of cliquish, who’s cool and who’s not setups.” Indeed, You Are Not I is far too aesthetically elegant, masterfully stylized, apolitical, and idiosyncratic to be associated with the proudly amateurish and dilettantish of No Wave figures like Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, James Nares, Scott B and Beth B, etc. Unlike many of the major films of the No Wave movement, which were very much a glaring product of their particular zeitgeist, Driver's film has a truly timeless quality that, not unlike Eraserhead and the better films of Straub-Huillet like Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) aka The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and their Franz Kafka adaptation Klassenverhältnisse (1984) aka Class Relations, totally transcends (and was quite atypical of) the era when it was made. As for Driver's own objective in terms of adapating Bowles, she confessed in 2011, “I just wanted to tell the story. I was interested in telling stories in a new way. My only intention was to make something that I thought Paul Bowles would be proud of and I would be proud of. And also make a movie that would get me to the next film, which I did. I mean, I think I felt so strongly about the story and what I was going to do, that I did not think what impact it was going to have.”
A film that seems to completely psychologically imprison the viewer inside the uniquely unreliable psychotic mind of its ‘paranoiac’ (anti)heroine, You Are Not I is surely one of the most consistently fiercely foreboding films that I have ever seen and even by the very end of the work, I was not able to shake off the borderline severe sense of unease that it almost perniciously permeates. A sort of contra Girl, Interrupted (1999) in virtually every regard, Driver’s delectably dispiriting yet no less eccentric work features a gratingly homely lead of the somewhat ominous sort who through narration, strange facial expressions, subtle physical gestures, and highly personalized esoteric rituals forces the viewer to enter her metaphysical hell and ultimately confront a couple conspiring rural womenfolk, including her rather repressed looking sister. If I were to guess, Driver’s amply atmospheric Bowles adaptation is a sort of allegory for the filmmaker’s sense of alienation with female family members and her childhood community, as well as typical so-called gender roles in general, though the film thankfully lacks any sort of discernible feminist subtext. As Rosenbaum rightly noticed, “…YOU ARE NOT I begins more or less the way PSYCHO ends—with a schizophrenic in close-up remaining absolutely still while explaining everything off-screen.” Unlike Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s proto-slasher masterpiece, the unnervingly loony lady of Driver’s film immediately plunges the viewer into her uniquely unhinged psycho-neurotically nightmarish realm of morbid esoteric inwardness, as the film seems to take place entirely in her head. Notably, Driver would state regarding the very conscious influence of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence on her film, “I think it’s because of the study of timing between people in that film […] It’s not stylistic, it’s just a gut emotional reaction—and wanting to involve and audience that much.” Indeed, despite the film’s excess of narration from the lead character, You Are Not I is an exceedingly visceral work that seems to have been made with the objective of haunting the viewer’s soul as opposed to picking at their brain or flattering their intellect (though the flick leaves the viewer with much to think about in the end). With the intent of attempting to depict a sinisterly sisterly territorial showdown of sorts between two diametrically opposed adult siblings—a schizophrenic free spirit and a grotesquely sexually repressed old spinster—Driver isolated lead actress Suzanne Fletcher from everyone else on the set and even had Melody Schneider, who plays the protagonist’s sister, bring personal items to the set to inspire an organic rivalry between the two actresses. Indubitably, You Are Not I is one of only a handful of films that I know of that effectively depicts the pathologically cryptic passive-aggressive ‘games’ that members of the so-called fairer sex play with one another. In that sense, Driver's film, which has an intrinsically feminine touch to it, could have only been directed by an actual woman.
Featuring a female lead whose mind and motivations seem more arcane than that of ‘The Gamin’ played by Adrienne Barrett in the quasi-Expressionistic cult classic Dementia (1955) aka Daughter of Horror directed by John Parker, You Are Not I is a decidedly Delphic flick that stays with the viewer long after it has concluded. In an assumed attempt to make the film seem less enigmatic, Driver handed out a publicity flyer during screenings where she provided the following synopsis: “…It is the story of a young woman, Ethel, who escapes from a mental hospital during the chaos of a nearby multiple-car accident. She is mistaken for a shock victim by a rescue volunteer who finds her trying to place a stone in a dead woman’s mouth. The volunteer drives her to her sister’s house. The sister is confused and angered by the sudden arrival of the psychotic Ethel. Not wishing to be alone in the house with her, the sister brings two neighbor women over. Finally the sister calls the hospital and finds out that Ethel “wasn’t released at all but somehow got out.” They nervously await the attendants from the hospital while Ethel, refusing to speak, formulates a plan to stay in the house.” Ultimately, the ‘plan’ that the lead carries out is arguably the most inexplicable and sphinxlike aspect of the entire film, but I guess that is what one should expect from a bat-shit crazy bitch who has a curious fetish for placing stones in the lifeless mouths of female cadavers.
You Are Not I opens with a still photograph of lead Ethel (Suzanne Fletcher of Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) and Driver’s Sleepwalk) sitting on the ground and jotting notes juxtaposed with the character narrating, “You Are Not I. No one but me could possibly be. I know that. And I know where I have been…And what I have done. Ever since yesterday, When I walked out the gate during the accident.” From there, Ethel somehow manages to get over the barbed wire fence located around the mental institution where she has been imprisoned and then wanders like a forlorn somnambulist to the scene of a tragic three-vehicle car accident where over half a dozen or so people have died. After thinking to herself, “Of course! This is just in man’s world. If something real should happen…they would stop sinning,” Ethel begins singing to herself like one of the little girls from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and then steals and subsequently wears a pair of dress shoes that she finds on a male corpse. After also stealing a large coat from a cadaver that she will place a number of important stones in, Ethel begins roaming around the woods and complains to herself in her own mind, “I always hated cars. Hated to see them go by down there. Hated to see them disappear way off up the valley toward the next town. Made me angry to think…All those people moving from one place to another…Without any right to. Whoever said to them, ‘You may go and drive your car this morning to Clifton. You may driver wherever you want.’ No one. I know that. I know there’s no chief that says things like that to people…But it makes it pleasanter for me…When I imagine such a person does exist. Perhaps it would be…Only a tremendous voice speaking over a public address system set up in all the streets.” Indeed, it seems as if Ethel welcomes and even derives a sense of schadenfreude from the tragic accident, which ultimately acts as the genesis of her fight for freedom.
Upon encountering six corpses lying side-by-side and covered with white sheets, Ethel begins placing stones that she has found in the woods inside the mouths of these unfortunate car accident victims. When a rescue crew member spots Ethel doing this to another corpse that she later finds, he sensibly yells to her, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” and she reacts by self-righteously replying, “It’s my sister and she’s dead!,” even though her sis is far from dead. After the medical volunteer has Ethel sit next to a couple wounded survivors from the car accident, she begins repeating to herself out loud every couple seconds, “She’s dead.” Notably, Ethel also reveals her innately insane sense of inwardness by curiously thinking to herself, “It seems to me that life outside was like life inside. There was always somebody to stop people from doing what they wanted to do. That was just the opposite of what I’d felt when I was still inside. Perhaps…What we want to do is wrong. But why should they always be the ones to decide? For once, I will decide what was right. And do it.” After giving the rescue volunteer the address of her sister’s house, Ethel curiously thinks to herself while being driven to the truly humble abode, “I managed to count the gas stations along the way. And I found…There was one more of them than I remembered.” Naturally, Ethel’s Sister (Melody Schneider) is quite angered when she shows up at her home and complains to the rescue volunteer when he asks her if she is alright, “She don’t look well yet to me.” Of course, Ethel is not only far from alright, but she also has big plans that defy both logic and reality.
While standing outside the house while turned in the opposite direction of her conspicuously cunty-looking sister, Ethel smirks in a sinister fashion while thinking to herself, “I often feel that something is about to happen…And when I do…I stay perfectly still…And let it go ahead. There’s no use wondering about it…Or trying to stop it. At this time, I had no particular feeling that a special event was about to come out…But I did feel that I would be more likely to do the right thing if I waited and let my sister act first.” Upon having her discernibly scared sister escort her inside the house as if she is a retarded child, Ethel is somewhat annoyed to see that everything in the house, including the rooms, has been somehow “reversed” by her sibling. After thinking to herself, “I decided to say nothing and let her do the explaining if she felt like it. It occurred to me that it must have cost her every cent she had in the bank,” Ethel begins laughing hysterically about the prospect that her sis has wasted all her money on the seemingly imagined ‘reversal.’ After a couple of minutes, Ethel’s sister tells her to sit down and then exits the house. Ethel's sister is almost deathly afraid of her and the mentally perturbed protagonist seems quite proud of that fact to the point where it becomes a source of solace for her.
Looking for assumed ‘backup’ in case her estranged nutjob sibling blows a fuse, Ethel’s sister brings back an overweight old housewife named Mrs. Jelinek, who is also totally petrified by the protagonist even though she probably weighs twice as much as her. Under Jelinek’s recommendation, Ethel’s sister decides to “call the home” so she can give the head psychologist, Dr. Don, a piece of her mind about the fact that her sister looks no less deranged than when she was originally institutionalized and that she should never have been released from the psych-ward in the first place. After her sister goes to fetch another old fat woman named Kate Schultz, Ethel thinks to herself while humming like an autistic toddler, “I did not even look up when she went out […] I had made a big decision...And that was to stay right in the house and, under no condition, let myself be taken back there. I knew it would be difficult…But I had a plan. I knew it would work if I used all my will power. I have great will power.” Resolving to “keep quiet” so as to “not break the spell that is starting to work,” Ethel thinks to herself like a true megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur, “I knew it was going to be a battle between my sister and me…but I was confident that my force of character and superior education had fitted me for just such a battle…And that I could win it.” Sort of like if Nietzsche had regained some of his mental faculties after his mental break and decided that he would use his philosophical prowess to free himself from his scheming sister's care, Ethel decides that she will use her true ‘Will to Power’ to reclaim the house and banish her sibling.
After talking to Dr. Don, Ethel’s sister learns that she was never actually discharged from the mental institution but instead “somehow she got out,” so she wastes no time in making a call to have a couple fellows from the nuthouse come down to pick up her unhinged sibling. Meanwhile, Ethel proudly thinks to herself that neither Mrs. Jelinek nor Mrs. Schultz will dare to have the gall to do anything to her unless they are willed by her sister, who is far too petrified herself to sick the two old farts on her sibling. As Ethel thinks to herself like a bat-shit crazy braggart of the cunningly sadistic sort, “For although I had never done her any harm, she had always been convinced that someday I would. It may be…that she knew now what I was about to do to her. But, I doubt it, or she would’ve run away from the house.” As all three women wait in a discernibly horrified fashion for the guys from the mental institution to arrive, Ethel begins planning for a brighter future of the domesticated suburbanite sort, thinking to herself, “The house was already ugly…But I was already getting ideas for making it look better.” Ethel seems to more or less look at the three women as insignificant maggots, thinking to herself with a sense of self-satisfied glee, “I could’ve laughed out loud when I thought of what they were really waiting to see. If they had only known it.” When the guys from the mental hospital finally arrive and proceed to take Ethel away, the protagonist stops in front of her sister, pulls out a stone from the pocket of the coat that she stole from the corpse at the accident site, and then aggressively places the rock in her sibling’s mouth. After Ethel’s sister screams in abject horror, the screen cuts to black and the protagonist proceeds to narrate, “I felt that my front teeth were broken. I could taste blood on my lips. I thought I was going to faint. I put my hand to my mouth…and I knew…that this was the turning point. I shut my eyes very hard. When I opened them…everything was different and I knew I had won. For a moment, I could not see very clearly. But even during that moment…I saw myself sitting on the sofa. As my vision cleared, I saw that the men were holding my sister’s arms…And she was putting up a terrific struggle.”
In the end, Ethel’s sister replaces her and is brought back to the mental institution instead. While being strapped to a stretcher in an ambulance before heading to the loony bin, Ethel’s sister cries hysterically, or so the unreliable protagonist narrates in vivid detail as if she is the one that is actually being restrained. Indeed, despite still sitting at home in a chair, Ethel is somehow able to retrace her sister’s every move while she is being transported to the mental institution, including regarding the EMTs that, “They kept promising her ice cream for dinner but she knew better than to believe them.” Upon finally arriving to the nutward, Ethel’s sister takes a stone out of a pocket of the coat that her sis had been previously wearing and then places it in her mouth, thus causing her to choke. Eventually, Ethel has a revelation of sorts and thinks to herself in a prideful manner regarding the seemingly inexplicable accomplishment of switching places with her sister, “The strange thing, now that I realize it, was that no one realized she was not I.” Somewhat curiously, at the end, Ethel remains sitting in the same chair where she has sat for about the second half of the film because she lacks the drive and motivation to move and thinks to herself, “I could walk upstairs, and look into her bedroom, if I wanted to…But it’s such a longtime since I’ve been up there and I no longer know how the rooms are arranged…So I prefer to stay down here.” Meanwhile, Ethel’s sister is portrayed jotting down what may or may not be the film’s story in a very Expressionistic room in the mental institution that looks like it could be inside the lunatic asylum featured in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
It should be noted that Jonathan Rosenbaum speculated in his book Film: The Front Line 1983 that director Sara Driver would probably not have a successful filmmaking career in the United States due to her avant-garde approach to the artistic medium, writing, “More recently, she cites as the two films that have most impressed her Dreyer’s LA PASSION DE JEANNE D’AR and Tarkovsky’s THE STALKER, both of which might be regarded as archetypes of the European art film. Whether or not that tradition has a viable future in this country, Driver is clearly a filmmaker to watch; it’ll merely be our bad fortune if we have to cross the Atlantic in order to see her work.” Unfortunately, it seems that Rosenbaum fears were not unfounded, as it has been over two decades since Driver has directed a film, not to mention the fact that she has only managed to complete two features, which include Sleepwalk (1986) aka Year of the Dog once again starring Suzanne Fletcher and the German-Dutch-American coproduction When Pigs Fly (1993) starring Marianne Faithfull and Alfred Molina. Still, the two features that Driver has directed are notable for being a rare example of American ‘magic realism’ (or what Rosenbaum describes as works belonging to the ‘fantastique’ genre). Aside from her two features and the occasional short like the documentary The Bowery, Spring 1994 (1994), Driver has unfortunately been mostly regulated to living in the shadow of her longtime boy toy Jarmusch, whose films she has worked on a variety of capacities that certainly seem to be beneath her talent as a rare genuinely talented American female arthouse auteur. Personally, I will take one Sara Driver over a dozen Sofia Coppolas any day. Indeed, as far as depictions of female schizophrenia go, You Are Not I can only really be compared to Teutonic auteuress Helma Sanders-Brahms’ singular dark masterpiece Die Berührte (1981) aka No Mercy No Future, even if the two films have little in common aesthetically aside from featuring fairly homely and deathly pale she-schizos and sometimes transcending the line between reality and deluded fantasy. In other words, Driver’s film features easily one of the most unsettling yet, at the same time, truly cinematic depictions of feminine mental derangement ever committed to bold black-and-white celluloid. In that regard, Driver's film(s) also has much in common with the cinematic oeuvre of Austrian artist Valie Export (Unsichtbare Gegner aka Invisible Adversaries, Menschenfrauen), though she has credited some more surprising personal influences. Indeed, at a retrospective of her work held by Anthology Film Archives entitled Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver, the filmmaker had a couple of her favorite films screened, including the Val Lewton produced cult horror classic Cat People (1942) directed by Jacques Tourneur and Jack Hill's Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967). Of course, in terms of atmosphere, You Are Not I is pure and unadulterated oneiric horror cinema that owes just as much to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) as it does an avant-garde work like Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Simply judging by her films, I would most certainly more enjoy raiding Driver's DVD collection than that of her lover Jarmusch, who probably owns one too many French New Wave flicks for my taste.
When mentioned by an interviewer at Senses of Cinema that some critics interpreted her film as telling a story that manages to “question our notions of insanity and it is a play between real and dreamy” while other critics though it was “simply about depersonalization and identity confusion,” Driver revealed regarding her personal thoughts on You Are Not I, “I’m very boring, it was very pure. It was very surprising because I found out it was being shown to a group of psychiatrists as an example of schizophrenia (laughing). But I think in their early twenties, a lot of women go through this; they sort of have a little bit of obsession with women and madness – you go through your Sylvia Plath thing, and you go through your Zelda Fitzgerald thing, but I did not look at madness that closely.” Apparently, source writer Bowles claimed that he sired the story while in a semi-conscious state that was, “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking,” but I find that somehow irrelevant to the film, as Driver transformed it into her own highly personalized and even metaphysical story that is comparable to Lynch’s Eraserhead and Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) in terms of being a highly intimate auteur piece of the totally transcendental and seemingly allegorically psycho-autobiographical sort. In terms of its literally and figuratively dark post-Gothic aesthetic, unconventional time running time, fiercely foreboding and paranoiac ‘Kafkaesque’ tone, macabre quirkiness, and otherworldly phantasmagorical ‘modernist horror’ approach, You Are Not I also deserves comparisons to criminally underrated Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst’s 48-minute Willem Frederik Hermans adaptation De blinde fotograaf (1973) aka The Blind Photographer. Although it might seem like a strange comparison, both Driver and Ditvoorst’s films reveal that they even beat Kubrick at his own game in terms of transforming someone else’s story into something that is completely and unmistakably their own. Indeed, after watching You Are Not I, I can only assume that Mr. Jarmusch is with a woman whose mind is much darker, stronger, and labyrinthine than his own, hence why he managed to reach the mainstream yet Driver's filmmaking career fizzled out before it ever really got to blossom. Of course, if the schizophrenic protagonist of her film is in any way autobiographical, I can see why Driver might find a hard time finding funding for her films. After all, You Are Not I features what is probably the most innately horrifying and intimidating frail young woman in cinema history and I say that as someone that regularly sees a literally skeletal young woman every day with the unfortunate wasting away illness of Crohn's disease who puts the average holocaust survivor to shame in terms of resembling a walking and talking corpse.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:59 AM
Jul 25, 2015
When I saw avant-garde jazz musician and all around ‘hipster renaissance man’ Jim Lurie for the very first time while watching his buddy Jim Jarmusch’s classic ‘buddy flick’ Down by Law (1986) well over a decade ago, my immediate instinctive reaction was to want to kick his ass and knock the perennially ‘tragically hip’ look off his relatively swarthy face, yet my view of him has changed somewhat since then after seeing him in other roles like the strip club manager/quasi-pimp in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) and as the inmate Greg Penders in the tastefully trashy HBO prison series Oz (1997-2003) and now I can actually watch him in films without getting the urge to cause his hospitalization. Indeed, one cannot look at someone as a totally insufferable pretentious twat who would dare to get high on LSD with his comrades and direct a film in his apartment about spaceflight involving the most ludicrously ‘lo-fi’ of science fiction scenarios. Indeed, for his second (he previously directed a short the same year entitled Hell Is You (1979)) and ultimately last film Men in Orbit (1979)—a largely plot-less and superficially experimental 45-minute anti-sci-fi Arte Povera that seems like it was assembled in a couple hours that might be best described as the Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) aka A Trip to the Moon of the Colab-sponsored No Wave Cinema movement—Lurie boldly went where no self-stylized hipster had gone before by pretending his dilapidated apartment could pass for outer-space, thus making the flick a great double feature with Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky (1982). Hopelessly hipster-esque in its innately ironical portrayal of burnout neo-bohemians as brave and adventurous men of science, the film was shot on Super-8 with an incredibly low but not surprising budget of $500, which Lurie managed to secure via a quite questionable insurance claim he made after staging a phoney robbery in his own apartment where his beloved saxophones were supposedly stolen. Considering that James Bidgood created a kaleidoscopic Uranian universe in his mere apartment for his high-camp queer masterpiece Pink Narcissus (1971) and Apollonian pornographic auteur Wakefield Poole achieved something nearly as grand with his experimental fag fuck flick Bijou (1972) long before Lurie assumedly thought he had a bright idea while stoned to make a film in his flat about a space trip where he and his comrade are actually tripping, Men in Orbit is in no way cinematically revolutionary and is ultimately more plot-less and, in turn, more pointless than the most static of Andy Warhol’s mostly botched pre-Morrissey cinematic experiments, yet it still has its charms as a sort of hyper hokey Super-8 abortion that demonstrates the inexplicable lows that those involved in the so-called ‘No Wave’ scene went to when it came to effortlessly defecating out what is nothing short of true disposable art. In fact, with the original film print being long lost, it was assumed for a period of time that Lurie's celluloid anti-love letter to true Aryan technological supremacy was forever lost, but a fittingly low-quality version of the work was eventually accidentally located at the end of a mislabeled 3/4" U-matic videotape that turned out to be compilation reel for a weekly Manhattan public access TV program called Red Curtain (1979-1983) and later released in 2012 as part of the offbeat sci-fi DVD set Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films From the Final Frontier. Needless to say, Men in Orbit will probably only appeal to Lurie fanboys, No Wave completists, and fanatical fans of lo-fi sci-fi. Admittedly, why I decided to take the plunge and actually watch the film is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but I have a suspicion that it was largely the result of me wanting to confirm my assumption that the No Wave scene was comprised of a collective of the most singularly lazy, decidedly derivative, and uniquely uncreative filmmakers that ever got together and formed a noted filmmaking movement.
In an assumed attempt to rationalize why Men in Orbit is so superlatively shitty and patently pointless, director Lurie stated in the fairly worthwhile documentary Blank City (2010) directed by French documentarian Celine Danhier regarding the film and the curious artistic philosophy of the No Wave movement, “I hid the fact that I knew how to play the saxophone from people…and I would make these movies because nobody was doing what they knew how to do. If you knew how to do something it was like, ‘No, no, no…you can’t have any technique.’ Technique was so hated. The painters were in bands, the musicians were painting or making films. I mean, nobody was doing what they knew how to do.” Undoubtedly, if the film has any real discernible technique, it was provided by British filmmaker turned painter James Nares (TV Faces, No Japs at My Funeral), who acted as the cinematographer of the film (notably, Lurie previously appeared as a culture-cringing Roman dandy who proclaims to be Jesus Christ in Nares’ sword-and-sandal No Wave epic Rome ’78 (1978)). Indeed, if there is any possible indication that Men in Orbit might be set in an atmosphere lacking in gravity like outer-pace, it is the result of Nares' oftentimes cockeyed and spastic ‘floating camera’ technique, which he achieved by standing on a ladder while hovering over Lurie and filmmaker Eric Mitchell as they less than triumphantly trip in their piece of shit makeshift spaceship. In fact, it would probably be more logical to credit Nares as the true director of the film and Lurie as simply the star, ‘co-writer’ (obviously, the film was completely improvised and had nothing resembling a real physical script), and musical composer. In fact, in an interview conducted by filmmaker and media artist Andrea Callard (who unwittingly “saved” Men in Orbit from being lost forever after sending a tape featuring her own work and Lurie's film in one of the twenty-two boxes of materials she had given to New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections), Lurie would admitt, “I probably put more thought into the sound than the camera. And what James Nares did was more than brilliant, achieving a weightless quality by floating the camera, constantly, above us. It was shot in Super 8.” On top of that, Lurie more or less holds his co-star Mitchell responsible for forcing him to assemble the anti-NASA vanity piece in the first place, or as he also revealed to Callard, “The driving force behind all of this was Eric Mitchell, who basically demanded that everyone make a film. I doubt much would have happened without his unstoppable and sometimes annoying energy. He had an idea to open a theater using the films that we would all make.” Of course, as the innate incoherence and technical ineptness of Men in Orbit—a work that seems like the director’s half-hearted attempt at making a film with the same structure as the discordant degenerate jazz he composes—surely demonstrates, Lurie is at his best when doing virtually nothing like creating preposterously pretentious facial expressions and poses in his buddy’s films and not when assaulting the art of cinema by laughably attempting to degenerate it into the filmic equivalent of freeform jazz.
Notably, Lurie has become a recluse of sorts over the past decade or so because he has suffered debilitating neurological problems as a result of chronic Lyme disease, which was only further compounded by the fact that he had to leave the rotten Big Apple because an unhinged six-foot-three half-Korean/half-Jew ex-friend named John Perry began stalking him. Of course, one would never suspect this while watching Men in Orbit, which makes Lurie seem like a sort of exceedingly extroverted and buffoonish hipster party boy that loves nothing more than indulging in McDonalds and LSD with his friends. Indeed, the film hardly seems like it was created by an artist of any sort, as it is essentially an absurdly amateurish homevideo that feels like it was created solely to entertain the director's hipster friends. In terms of political messages, the film makes a fairly passive attempt to mock NASA and mainstream America’s Cold War obsession with the Space Race of 1955 through 1972, though I suspect Lurie would agree with his Hebraic hipster ‘spiritual father’ Norman Mailer when he wrote, “the real mission of the Wasp in history was not, say, to create capitalism, or to disseminate Christianity into backward countries. […] It was to get the U.S. to the moon” (of course, one could much more easily argue that, as noted at the end of Uncle Adolf's Bavarian bohemian junky poet mentor Dietrich Eckart's classic posthumously published pamphlet Der Bolschewismus von Moses bis Lenin: Zwiegespräch zwischen Hitler und mir (1925) aka Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: Dialogues Between Hitler and Me, the real mission of the Jews in history is to destroy the world via the atom bomb and class warfare, among other things). Probably one of only a handful of people in the world that has the racially schizophrenic distinction of being both half Hebrew and half Welsh, Lurie still manages to look and act quite like his frog buddy Mitchell in Men in Orbit to the point where the viewer might confuse the two while watching the film. Despite being ostensibly brilliant and cultivated neo-beatniks tripping on the supposedly creativity-inspiring drug of LSD (which certainly acted as an inspiration to right-thinking writers like Ernst Jünger and Aldous Huxley), the two would-be-iconoclasts strangely manage to not say a single eloquent, intelligent, or insightful thing during the entire film, thereupon making them seem like the all the more stupid and swarthy fathers of Beavis and Butt-head (of course, at least the latter two are devoid of pretense and have at least a tad bit of good old-fashioned prole charm and wit).
To write a detailed synopsis of Men in Orbit would be patently pointless, as the film is mainly comprised of the two leads, who seem hopelessly in love with one another and their own imagined witticisms, sitting in their big boy toy spacecraft and doing such marvelously mundane things as shaving, slurring words, giggling like preschool girls, pointlessly bickering with ‘Mission Command,’ and eating greasy McDonalds hamburgers in a slob-like fashion that would most certainly deeply offend modern-day hipsters, who tend to like to wear the coveted ‘good guy badge’ of partaking in veganism. Admittedly, I think it is most fitting that Lurie and Mitchell’s ‘inebriation’ seems to begin to peak after takeoff and especially once the two vaguely delightful dullards have reached outer-space. When engaging in messy verbal diarrhea while in orbit, the two men spend more time heckling ‘Mission Control’ (Michael McClard) than admiring the view. In fact, the two autistic astronauts probably spend most of their times giggling like a Mexican schoolgirl whose brother just touched her nipple. In between shoving McDonalds hamburgers down their throats that they have hanging from a wall next to their seats in the cockpit of their spacecraft, Lurie and Mitchell also engage in ‘avant-garde shaving’ to ostensibly demonstrate they are real men who do real manly things. Of course, no film featuring John Lurie would be complete without the musician playing an instrument in an obscenely obnoxious fashion that is bound to alienate and/or inspire Fremdscham in most viewers. Indeed, while Lurie strums his git-fiddle in a merrily lackluster fashion, Mitchell delivers his most humorous dialogue when he ironically sings, “America is really great…I like Texas, that’s where I come from.” Via TV monitor, the boys also talk to their discernibly homely ‘wives’ (played by their then-real-life girlfriends Becky Johnston and Mary Lou Fogarty) in a manner that resembles a couple people plagued with ‘trisomy 21’ (which would most certainly be a great name for their spacecraft) attempting to flirt with one another. Strangely, after talking to their spouses, Lurie remarks, “I’m not sure if I want to go back or not” and his comrades concurs, replying,“I’m not sure myself either.” Towards the end of the film, Lurie states in an overtly tongue-in-cheek fashion while smoking and eating junk food, “We’re going to spend these last days of space as relaxed as possible.” Unfortunately, Lurie and Mitchell’s spacecraft does not pull a Space Shuttle Columbia style disaster in the end, which would have been the perfect way to conclude such a chaotic film.
As Andrea Callard would note in her introduction to her interview with John Lurie in regard to Men in Orbit and how the original print of the film is presumed forever lost, “It was not unusual in the 70s for Super 8mm filmmakers to cut and edit their original footage, handle it many times, then screen the results using unpredictable projectors, without ever making prints or video copies. Keeping track of everything one made did not seem so important at the time. One just moved on to the next compelling idea.” Indeed, Lurie’s film, like many contemporary consumer goods, looks like it was made to be disposed of after only a few uses, yet it somehow lives on today, which is quite possibly the most strange thing about it (it should be noted that a number of classic No Wave films are either completely unavailable or assumed lost). In fact, Lurie seems so proud of the film that he actually went so far as to have it taken down from YouTube after filing a copyright claim, thus more than hinting that he no longer subscribes to the ‘no bullshit’ punk-beatnik ethos of his youth. I can only assume that Lurie is somewhat of a hypocrite as he stated in his somewhat recent interview with Collard regarding Men in Orbit, “It was great back then. It was all energy and ideas. There was no concern for money or credit. It was really pretty wonderful. Very soon after that everything changed for the worse.” Of course, Lurie should probably feel lucky that there are actually foolish people out there like myself who would dare to watch such a remarkably retarded piece of painfully schlocky Super-8 sub-twaddle. Notably, when asked in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine how he came up with the idea to shoot a sci-fi film in his apartment and how it was to act while high on LSD, Lurie got a little bit pissy and stated like a true art fag queen, “How did you come up for the idea is a question that really baffles me. Acting on LSD is not acting at all, is more the capturing of a weird event. Dock Ellis pitched a no hitter once on LSD but it is not something I would recommend to young actors take to improve their performance.” Indeed, “a weird event” is probably a good way to describe Men in Orbit, as it is hard to fathom that such a work was not only made, but is also still championed by the sort of shameless cultural parasites that like hanging out a modern art museums where images of erect horse cocks and unclad bull-dykes with mega-bushes are passed off as art. Considering that musician Arto Lindsay (who not surprisingly played guitar in Lurie and his brother Ethan's jazz group The Lounge Lizards) once described it as, “one of the best movies ever made on the Lower East Side,” one must just assume that the film is simply one of the most longwinded inside jokes ever made, though I doubt Lurie intended to make it at the expense of both the No Wave scene and himself, which it ultimately accomplishes.
When everything is said and done, Men in Orbit ultimately proves to be a more tolerable experience than Lurie’s Jap-produced proto-reality-TV series Fishing with John (1991), as it is short and almost sweet and thankfully does not feature the Stranger Than Paradise (1984) star engaging in the pointless platitudes that he is arguably best known for. Additionally, the sci-fi featurette benefits from featuring an original quasi-punk and noise soundtrack as opposed to the sort of aesthetically aberrant avant-garde jazz music that one typically expects from proud negrophile Lurie. Indeed, arguably the greatest thing about watching Men in Orbit is that, if one did not know better, the viewer would probably assume that Lurie is the sort of guy that likes drinking cheap beer while watching football and Girls Gone Wild videos as opposed to being a pathologically posturing neo-beatnik whose greatest contribution to film is being a mensch that has the dubious talent of looking simultaneously intricately bitchy yet pretentious in most of his major acting roles. A work that might be best described as a heterosexual hipster low-camp take on science fiction that semi-succeeds in it's assumed objective of attempting to make space-travel seem hopelessly banal, the film ultimately seems like it features the most real and vulnerable depiction of Lurie to date, which is no small accomplishment considering that he seems like a fairly impenetrable guy. In that sense, LSD certainly seems to have some benefits, as it forced two of NYC's most perennially posturing and image-obsessed hipsters, Lurie and Mitchell, to take off their carefully constructed masks and do more than leaning against a wall while looking so tragically forlorn like they do in most of their acting roles. A stupendously stupid piece of passive-aggressive NASA-parodying, Men in Orbit is to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) what the scribblings of Anton LaVey are to the philosophical hammering of Friedrich Nietzsche, as a cheap carny-esque sub-bastardization that does not even touch the surface of its progenitor yet still makes for a fleetingly entertaining experience. Of course, one of the film's greatest attributes is that Lurie—a hardly productive half-Hebrew hipster—is the ultimate anti-Faustian man and thus the idea of him becoming a brave astronaut is about as likely as Haiti becoming a world power or Austrian avant-garde Peter Kubelka directing a feature-length film with a linear plot and starring mainstream Hollywood actors.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:31 PM
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