Feb 4, 2015

Wheel of Ashes

In a culturally and morally inverted Occidental world that is plagued by rampant philo-Semitism, one would think that every single even remotely talented Hebrew filmmaker would be relatively well known, at least in the cinephile realm, but such is shockingly not the case for American-born experimental auteur Peter Emmanuel Goldman (Pestilent City, The Sensualist), who not only apparently taught a film course to a very Martin Scorsese at NYU during the 1960s (as seems evident in the Guido director’s 1967 debut feature Who's That Knocking at My Door), but also very possibly the only true direct link to the American underground and the French New Wave. Indeed, after directing a couple influential documentaries and shorts, a seemingly impossible-to-find sexploitation feature entitled The Sensualist (1966), as well his revolutionary first 'serious' feature Echoes of Silence (1967), which inspired famous cineaste Amos Vogel to describe as auteur as “A major new talent,” Goldman left for Paris to direct what would be his final and arguably greatest feature, Wheel of Ashes (1969) aka Roue de cendres starring frog counterculture actor Pierre Clémenti (Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista aka The Conformist) as a spiritually and sexually schizophrenic man who is trapped in a crossroad between heterosexuality and homosexuality, as well as Christianity and Hinduism. Considering how the French hate it when outsiders fiddle with their culture (apparently, the frogs decided they hated Francophile kraut Volker Schlöndorff’s Proust adaptation Un amour de Swann (1984) aka Swann in Love before it was even released), it should be noted that the film’s importance in frogland was described as follows in Cahiers du Cinéma: “There was not one of us who was not profoundly touched by this film… perhaps the first to give a true feeling of certain quarters of Paris.” Admittedly, I only learned of Goldman while researching Clémenti who, as an actor/auteur that had worked with not only Buñuel and Bertolucci but also such diverse auteur filmmakers as Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Liliana Cavani, Franco Brocani, Adriaan Ditvoorst, Philippe Garrel, Dusan Makavejev, and James Toback, among various others, is a sure sign of celluloid quality as Wheel of Ashes certainly confirms. Notably, Goldman was such a subversive figure of the NYC avant-garde that he broke with the gatekeeper of the scene, Jonas Mekas, for defending the work of Andy Warhol in his column at The Village Voice. Apparently, Goldman thought Mekas was a hypocrite for advocating “pure cinema” yet praising Warhol’s Eat (1963), which he considered the height of cinematic banality. While fairly outmoded in regard to certain themes and styles, Wheel of Ashes is certainly fresher than a lot of the early pioneering works of the La Nouvelle Vague, or as the director’s onetime-adversary Mekas once wrote: “His people come to life simply and believably – more believably than most of the people in the Chabrol and Truffaut cinema… the film has a thematic and formal beauty that is remarkable.” The surprisingly gritty and delectably dark story of a young socially alienated nihilist turned Hindu dilettante who must choose between the path of whimsical self-absorbed pleasure-seeking that he is used to or a highly disciplined ascetic path of unflinching spiritual devotion and saintly solitude, Goldman’s (anti)metaphysical indictment of the counterculture era and its curious fetishism for eastern religions ultimately lets the viewer know that you don’t have to shoot junk to be a junky. 

 Opening with the following quote, “THE LAW OF KARMA IS UNFAILING IN ITS OPERATION, AS IS THE LAW OF REBIRTH, UNTIL WE HAVE BECOME PERFECT IN LOVE. LOVE FULFILLS EVERY LAW,” Wheel of Ashes immediately lets the viewer know that it will be full of eastern mystical mumbo jumbo, yet it is ultimately a film that tells a tragic love story about a swarthy and scrawny frog boy named Pierre (Pierre Clémenti) who falls in love with a cute Danish girl, only to get scared when things get serious and escapes to an arcane ascetic world of self-imposed isolation where he tries to live the words of Indian Hindu mystics like Ramakrishna. In an opening montage featuring narration by Pierre juxtaposed with some of his crude drawings, the protagonist gives a good hint as to the state of his perturbed psyche by confessing: “Every morning, I asked myself how I was going to live. I could go to work. I could take a boat and leave my parents forever. I could stay on the ground in my filth, without moving. I could live intensely, full of hate, uncompromising. I could be banal, play the game and have a lot of women, try to be happy. They tell me I stray too far from reality. The only reality I know is chaos.” Pierre is in an ambiguously gay romance with a dude named David (played by Pierre Besançon, who apparently did some of the drawings for the film), but with winter coming to end and the sun rising, the protagonist gets hungry for pussy and must leave his comrade behind, or as he states himself, “…I can feel the Spring and with the Spring I smell women and David’s love can’t help me. I have to leave. David takes my hand and kisses me on the cheek, but I draw back. We can’t be happy together when women, with their fine legs, are coming between us.” Indeed, Pierre hits the streets and begins looking for lady meat, but he has no idea that he is ultimately going to take a metaphysical journey to hell after falling in love with a girl and becoming too afraid to completely commit himself to her. 

 Deciding to leave his apartment with David because he has “too much desire and resentment,” Pierre heads to Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris because he is, “determined to walk until overwhelmed by love,” even though, as he reflects, “I had nowhere to go. I had nothing to hope for.” Pierre first attempts to find love in the questionable form of a bitchy platinum blonde hooker, but he seems repulsed by the fact that she washes her gash right in front of his face just seconds before they are supposed to make love, so he leaves without so much as getting a hard-on. As demonstrated by the fact that he routinely points at gun at his temple whilst smirking in a goofy fashion, Pierre also seems to be somewhat suicidal, hence his sudden obsession with Vedanta Hinduism, which he gravitates to because it gives him a reason to live and establishes order in his rather aimless life. As Pierre narrates regarding his angst and feeling of emptiness, “When one is alone, hate grows and gnaws at one’s insides. It ruins everything and creates a real nest of vipers in one’s heart, everything becomes bitter. This bitterness is such a part of me. But it’s not everything. The faint hope of youth remains. But since my youth refuses, that faint light will perhaps go out,” yet his latest spiritual obsession will ultimately plague him with a sense of all-consuming loneliness that he has never felt before. After various botched encounters with bitchy pseudo-blondes, Pierre spots a delightful little Danish dame named Anka (Katinka Bo) at discotheque who smiles at him while she is dancing with another fellow. In the hope that Pierre will follow her and introduce himself, Anka quits dancing mid-song and sits at a bar where the protagonist soon predictably greets her. In a short photo montage, Goldman effectively expresses that the two have fallen in love and are quite happy together, but Pierre’s fear of intimacy and commitment will eventually scare him away from his beloved and throw him into a hermetic world of Hindu-inspired hobo-esque living. 

 When Pierre goes to a screening of the criminally underrated Dutch avant-garde auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst’s debut feature Paranoia (1967), he becomes uneasy when a dark-haired girl sitting next to him in the theater attempts to entice him by spreading her mostly unclad legs. After the screening, Pierre runs back to home to Anka and suddenly bursts out in tears, as if he is a little boy seeking protection from his mommy. When Anka asks Pierre what is wrong with him because he won’t talk and is acting all moody and broody, he refuses to reply and thinks to himself that she is acting, “too possessive and demanding.” Deciding he must “liberate himself from what the Indians call Samsara, the cycle of death and reincarnation” and “find wisdom and god within oneself,” Pierre vows to give up going to restaurants, movie theaters, parties and to abstain from sex, as he sees everything else in life as secondary to his delusional spiritual mission. Before he knows it, Pierre’s sanity begins to crack and he becomes a Hindu junky of sorts who does nothing but sleep and read the philosophies of the great Hindu gurus. Unfortunately for Pierre, he cannot abstain from carnal desires while he is asleep and passively succumbs to progressively bizarre sexual nightmares involving Anka and busty blonde hookers. Influenced by Ramakrishna’s belief, “As long as man lingers in ignorance, as long, in other words, as he has not attained God, he will be reborn on earth. But he who has been illuminated will no longer have to return to earth nor to any other sphere,” Pierre—a fellow that certainly never wants to be reborn—religiously repeats while in a state of perpetual delirium, “The law of evolution may oblige a soul to return in flesh, endlessly.” 

 One day while Pierre is wasting away in bed and looking like death warmed over, Anka randomly shows up to his apartment and brings him some food so he assumedly does not starve. When Anka remarks regarding the squalor her beau is living in, “This is a terrible place, Pierre,” he is not the least bit phased and says nothing. While the two make love, Pierre ruins their special moment together by refusing to hangout with Anka afterwards, as he cannot bring himself to break his spiritual psychosis and devote himself to her for just a couple hours or so. Needless to say, after Anka gets pregnant and Pierre still refuses to wean himself off his addiction to Hinduism hermeticism, she breaks of their (non)relationship, stating, “I’m not coming back anymore, I’m leaving. I can’t wait for you forever, I don’t know what you’re doing.” After Anka leaves for good, Pierre begins to lose what little is left of his sanity and suffers a series of hellish hallucinations involving repulsively effeminate elderly old men and sinister smirking streetwalkers, among other pernicious phantoms. Luckily, in the end, Pierre manages to emerge from his lair and describes seeing tons of people walking down the street for the first time in months as seeming, “completely unreal.” As for reuniting with Anka, Pierre remarks, “I walked towards her and I held her close to me for minutes until her skin couldn’t take any more scratching from my beard.” 

 While auteur Peter Emmanuel Goldman probably could have had a reasonably artistically fruitful career as an avant-garde filmmaker, he decided to give up filmmaking so he could devote his life to the Zionist cause. As described in a somewhat recent article entitled Peter Emmanuel Goldman, Man of Many Worlds featured at JewishPress.com, while raised as an assimilated Jew with virtually nil spiritual and cultural connection to his roots, Goldman was apparently so deeply affected by the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics when eleven Israeli Olympic team members were taken hostage and eventually executed by members of the Palestinian Black September Organization (BSO) that he became a devout Zionist virtually overnight who ultimately led no less than two Zionist organizations in Denmark (where he had been living at the time). In fact, Goldman became so deeply immersed in Talmudism that he divorced his beloved shiksa wife/baby momma because she refused to convert to Judaism and even became a good friend of assassinated Zionist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Instead of continuing to make avant-garde works, Goldman eventually shifted gears completely and whored himself out to the Zionist cause by making less than artsy fartsy propaganda films like NBC in Lebanon: A Study of Media Misrepresentation (1983). In fact, Goldman became such a respected and noted Zionist that he was invited to the White House by President Reagan to discuss Middle East policy after co-editing the book The Media’s War Against Israel, which was apparently a favorite among Israeli prime ministers and of course American senators and congressmen. Indubitably, knowing Goldman’s life story in Zionism makes Wheel of Ashes an all the more potent work, as it depicts a young man suffering an existential crisis that neither Christianity nor Hinduism can solve.  Of course, in his spiritual fanaticism, one could also argue that he became like the character of his film, albeit in a more functional and sane sort of way as a man connecting to his true culturally roots and not as some deluded hippie who thinks that some exotic alien religion will give him what he needs in life.  While the protagonist of Wheel of Ashes ultimately finds solace in his beloved girlfriend, Goldman would ultimately realize that his race and religion were more important to him than a goy gal. With that said, Goldman, who is still alive at the old age of 75 despite some sources saying to the contrary, would certainly have no problem coming up with new material for another film. Interestingly, he recently finished his first novel, Last Metro to Bleecker Street, which seems to be a continuation of the themes he examined in films, as it is about three friends, two Jews and a Christian, who attempt to find meaning in their lives in 1960s NYC and Paris and ultimately become deeply religious, only to suffer new spiritual dilemmas.  Personally, I would not mind seeing an arthouse film about a NYC-bred Jewish art fag who transforms into a Zionist true believer and reads from the Talmud with Meir Kahane, as it would certainly be a change of pace from the obscenely annoying Hebraic neuroticism of Noah Baumbach and the eclectic vulgarity of spoiled half-blood Jewess Lena Dunham.

-Ty E

No comments: