By sheer coincidence (well, not quite, there's an ongoing Donald Cammell retro at Walter Reade), this past weekend was spent by this humble cinephile taking in a slew of films widely considered cult, occult, or both. A brief survey:
The robot woman in Superman 3 gave me the screaming heebeejeebees, so you can imagine how Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977) affected me. What’s incredible about this sci-fi/horror cult legend is how often it skirts the laughable—especially with that floating polygon weapon of doom -- only to firmly and ultimately stake out a spot as one of the movie history’s most highly unsettling experiences. A possible amalgam of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, and the cinema of David Cronenberg, Demon Seed (based on the Dean Koontz novel) concerns itself with the borders between rationality and irrationality, flesh and metal in our technological age of unstable identities, boundries, and ethics. The story is simple but unforgettable -- an A.I. supermachine, Proteus, takes control of Julie Christie’s computerized abode and sets out to make itself immortal by, yes, impregnating her. In the course of her rape-by-house, Christie and the audience discover Proteus, so determined in its rational pursuit to aid the human race, has been prey to the same emotional and unreasonable impulses that plague our species. The net result of Proteus’ deisgns is the same as the film’s Borges parable of Shih Huang Ti’s plan to build the Great Wall of China and burn all the books that proceeded his reign: nothing. Or, perhaps, something unknown and thus without a name: Demon Seed inverts 2001’s finale, in which man outwits machine to climb a step on the evolutionary ladder to be reborn as diety, any Zarathustrian pretensions (evoked by the psychedelic computer animations that mimic Kubrick’s film’s “trip” sequence) replaced by an ungodly union that portends pure destruction and ersatz hope (or is it the other way around?) in the naive guise of an offspring who's no messianic star child. Like the best of nightmares, Demon Seed is absurd, uncanny, horrific -- if a film can ever be said to live up to the bill of “getting under one’s skin,” this is it.
Most famous -- or infamous -- for having its soundtrack composed and performed by a member of the Manson family from within jail, American Avant-Garde pioneer and occult practitioner Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1970-1980) is to date the concluding movement of his Magick Lantern Cycle and, if the last major work from this accursed cinematic dreamer, then surely a fantastic way to go out. And when actually experienced and not simply relegated to a piece of trivia one realizes why. A ritual enacted across time and space, sutured into evocative being with an incomparably expressive montage, Lucifer Rising leaves behind, as has been oft noted, the Thanatotic tendency of earlier Anger to engage in a regenerative heralding of . . . you guessed it. See, according to Crowley protégé Anger, Lucifer isn’t the devil of Judeo-Christianity; instead he is Venus, the Morning Star, god of light and creativity. But if the advent of the deity’s energies makes Lucifer Rising the most spacious, luscious, and glorious of Anger’s films among those I’ve seen -- with Egyptian gods (Cammell) and goddesses (Myriam Gybril) summoning the forces of nature, processions through Celtic shrines, and mysterious antechambers housing or incubating the pagan messiah, a UFO hovering above a sphinx -- it’s also the most hermetic: unless you’re a studied occultist the flury of symbols and figures will fly way over your head. Carel Rowe’s “Illuminating Lucifer” essay (contained in The Avant-Garde Film anthology, ed. P. Adams Sitney) helped as a guide (though I had to stop myself mid-eye roll at certain points -- never been one for the new age), but this is a long way from the more accessible, and hardly less haunting, realms of Anger masterpieces like Fireworks and Scorpio Rising. The Left Hand Path is esoteric that way.
Performance (1968), written by Cammell, lensed by Nicolas Roeg, and directed by both, is one of those permanent staples of the midnight circuit that benefits as much from obscurantism as from counterculture cache. A second time through it I still couldn't quite catch everything (those thick British accents need to be cracked via DVD subtitling) but got more than the first: as in Demon Seed, identities clash and merge, although how parasitic or symbiotic (or how sane) the process is in the transformation of mobster James Fox through his encounter with reclusive former rock star and current hippie God, I mean Mick Jagger, is open to question. Perhaps I still haven’t gotten past the film’s stylistic pyrotechnics -- aside from Don’t Look Now Roeg would never surpass the radical editing and compositions of Performance, a film unafraid of scrambling and reorganizing the associational abilities of its audience to create juxtapositions at once audaciously blunt and alchemically arcane. Sure, it’s partly what Parker Tyler would deem a “pad film” in its lay-about erotica, partly a vehicle for Sir Mick (if only through his blistering “Memo From Turner”), but it’s all Cinema, a deconstruction of conventional viewing habits portending an entirely new approach toward moving images.
What Is It?
I won’t spend too much time on Crispin Hellion Glover’s much talked about labor of love (premiered in 2005 and now making its way across the country as part of a screening and book signing tour; this critic came late to it in its third time through New York City at the IFC) because I plan on writing a full-length review about it soon, but suffice it to say that What Is It?, in the words of 8 ½, “has none of the merits of the avant-garde film and all the drawbacks.” That’s not because What Is It? -- which features a cast largely composed of people with Down Syndrome, a soundtrack including Manson family hits and Johnny Rebel’s “Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)” and characters identified as “Dueling Demi-God Auteur and the young man's inner psyche” -- is unfortunate juvenilia, but because its provocations fall far short of its director’s intentions to contain “content that some will consider beyond the realm of good and evil” and to challenge the taboos enforced by “corporate funded and distributed cinema.” While many try to go Nietzsche and fight the system, few cinematically succeed: Glover’s spirit is evident in this debut film (and his Big Slideshow collage/performances display a level of craft missing from What Is It?), but the follow through isn’t there yet. More to come regarding this singular effort . . .