Wednesday, May 20, 2009

LIFE AS WE SHOW IT: WRITING ON FILM contributor Elizabeth Hatmaker Keeps a Film Journal

“Hysteresis”, Elizabeth Hatmaker's contribution to LIFE AS WE SHOW IT, re-views a largely forgotten film called Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, regarding it from various perspectives (close-up, wide shot, inside out, outside in) which call into question the idea that only so-called classic films have something to say or to read and that only one way of watching is worth one's time or reaps rewards.

Over the next week, she'll be keeping a film journal with the same breadth of insight. She writes:

"My passion is for forgotten films," she writes, "stuff I remember seeing, as they say, awry through the haze of bad late-night cable transfer, mangled-for-TV edits, and decayed soundtracks. For me, these films are not so much cheesy or camp; rather they suggest a very embodied sense of abject invisibility. They force me to recognize that I‘ve spent the last hour and half grooving on nothing more than boredom.

"In reception theory (**) they refer to “distracted” viewers-- suburban housewives who watch soaps amid household tasks, pervs of all ages out for action at the local grindhouse, “dumb” working-class teenagers watching slasher films at a drive-in. Films not worth paying attention to playing to audiences who aren’t bright or savvy or at ease enough to pay attention.

"In the spirit of these viewers (and I identify with them all) I propose to watch four forgotten films: Pick-Up (1975), Blood Mania (1970), Cindy and Donna (1970), and The Bride (1973). I’m not going to make any fancy claims that these films shouldn’t perhaps remain forgotten. Instead, I hope to engage as a sort of optical medium, catching the lacrimal silt of distracted viewing and pushing it out. This kind of viewing feels important to me not only because modes of viewing are problematically classed and categorized and forgotten in the same way films are, but also because the disjointed seeing and hearing, mis-seeing and awkward hearing, even the moments where boredom overtakes all that involves us in film and video culture remain profound physical and earthy acts. Films are not only those shiny heads on the wall."

DAY ONE: "Pick-up" (1975), directed by Bernard Hirschenson

I keep thinking that they should get the drugs in the mobile home to the kids in Tallahassee, that rich kids don’t want to wait for drugs. I wonder what the promise of an extra $20 for timely delivery means in 1975.

In the beginning there are two girls and a stuffed animal, a lame tiger, I think. There’s wheat which is the excuse for natural-like soft-focus. The dream before the film crystallizes to a stained glass window then it crystallizes further– a Thunderbird, maybe a hood ornament since the film is called “Pick-up” and we’ve seen two girls in a rural seeming area and that’s how I imagine girls are picked up, like the Chevy Van song. But it’s a belt buckle finally. A man and he sees the girls and things crystallize. He’ll fuck both women. He’s got big-assed wheels. He’s, we’re told, an Aries, all of whom are frenetic. His van offers a promise of a ride, better roads, of a way even in the 1970s for folks to get the fuck out if only to go to other cities undifferentiated on any map. Of the memory of old time fictional escapes: Bonny and Clyde, Hickcocks and Smith, of wondering what features the mobile home holds. Really it’s a bus on which “mobile home” is featured, I don’t know what the space is called, but the space on the front where “out of service” appears on buses in my town.

Who needs to know this, who needs the variation between? Features: a bathroom with swirly white and pink tile, a fucking phone, no shit. The girls admire. One notes that it's wired for sound as the guy turns up the soundtrack. “Oh, it’s Bach!” one trills. Except it isn’t. Or I guess it’s Pachabel’s Canon, except with a groove beat, a grinding string jam underneath like Jazzercize. Yet the mobile home means less and less, it fades in its material configuration along the Florida highway, the central corridor like the grapevine in California. One girl is toothy and bra-less. The other is spooky. I suspect we see through the spooky girl’s eyes, which is fine with me. Her eyes bug out artily and unintentionally as the camera turns away. The toothy one tempts some Southern rapscallion boys in a truck. They are topless with cowboy belt buckles. The soundtrack music veers to stupidity. She is in a mobile home so their threat seems less prescient. A car or a van or a self-proclaimed mobile home is more an excuse than a viable way to escape, however. “By the time I get to Phoenix” always assumes future-tense leaving, which popular culture doesn’t quite risk. The mobile home passes the truck and the soundtrack returns to rhythmic order.

So we know about the sex. We can do the math. Two chicks. Van. We can read the signs. The phone rings and an actor who looks like Rod Steiger or an older Marlon Brando or the actor who played Boss Hogg tells the mobile home to get the fuck to
Tallahassee. Only in Naples, and a rainstorm is coming. There’s a detour without explanation and the road becomes more and more treacherous and the story stops, and I’m wondering if someone has waylaid the mobile home for the drugs, but no. The van gets mired in the swamp, the Everglades I guess, without reason much like Ballard’s Concrete Island. No effort is made to escape and the music gets Basil Kirshin chic all the sudden.

Spooky tells us to reconcile ourselves to God. She wears eye make-up like Cher and it’s unclear what religion or God exists. She plays Tarot and the audience is God in that they always know which card will be turned. She is Catholic and we see flashbacks to stained glass. She appears to be wearing a bathrobe. Is anyone transfixed? I’m still hung up on the boring questions: Aren’t the Everglades south of Naples? The Everglades are one of those places people with mobile homes go to, yes? My own Gulfstream-owning family members went there. Like the Salton Sea or the Upper Peninsula. Or I wonder if some rival drug gang has set the mobile home off course and plans to gang rape every occupant.

Or the nice protagonist guy is a psycho. Or every guy in the seats in the theatre around you is secretly a psycho. And together we wonder: which chick is hotter and are we supposed to have some consensus about it? The math plays out the dimensions measured, the triangulation complete and lots of women in the theater wonder which chick they look most like. I look more like the spooky one, in case anyone wonders. The rain comes down and the mobile home is pleasant and seems as if it would smell pleasant and I long for moments between the economic pressures for stuff that looks like it would smell good and sexual configurations that don’t involve competition and I am caught wondering why watching things like this is never enough. And nothing happens. In 1975 I would be the chick who sits in the audience and asks questions to the screen. It’s been 20 minutes and no one’s fucking, so what’s the story? Or I’d make lewd comments about the women or I’d make up bad puns. But there’s two chicks, so he has to have sex with them both because it would violate some Chekhov rule if he didn’t. I can imagine the eyes of guys in the theater around me, that sad low look that tells me I’m dumb and naive and I’ve already admitted I assumed there would be gang rape and what kind of girl gamely plays along with this narrative? The look at my looking scares the hell out of me even as I turn the predictable cards of low budget fate. By the time I get to Tallahassee, by the time this movie’s over, by the time this decade closes, by the time I blow this town, by the time I get myself liberated, and the rhythmic soundtrack overtakes me.

The film gets surreal at this point. There’s a friendly raccoon in the Everglades and it draws together the toothy bra-less girl and the mobile home guy. The spooky chick, omni spiritual, has an encounter with the goddess of Apollo; she writhes naked on her alter. She sees a clown and is terrified. There are balloons. The edits are both leisurely and without impulse. The other couple have idyllic sex and it turns out the guy isn’t a psycho. The toothy girl kisses her limp stuffed animal. We find out in a series of flashbacks that: 1) the spooky girl was raped by her priest as a child 2) The best sex the toothy girl ever had was with a round faced boy in her youth and 3) The non-psycho man with the mobile home was both terrified and turned on by his mother as a teenaged boy which is in no way marked as something that might make a guy psycho. Yet the film refuses to foreclose on my hackneyed desires, twirling desire on the string, the naked ideal couple– toothy and obsessed with positive youthful sexuality– swing from the trees in the swamp from which no one wishes to escape.

Except, Chekhov is never wrong. The toothy girl gets tired of sex. The phone keeps ringing to remind us all about late deliveries and our lost $20 bucks and finally the guy succumbs to the spooky girl and it’s, like, great. And all of her hackneyed fantasies appear and swirl at her feet. And leisurely the scene shifts. Except you can’t put rapscallion boys in a picture with no purpose. And the toothy girl gets it. She’s found in the swamp, her small hand emerging grasping the limp stuffed tiger. Except the scene disintegrates. And we see the spooky girl’s eye and we’re back at the beginning of the film in a wheat field and we groan in unison. Except she smiles and gets animated about taking a ride with the guy in the mobile home.

**Reception Theory: This approach to textual analysis focuses on the scope for "negotiation" and "opposition" on the part of the audience. This means that a "text"—be it a book, movie, or other creative work—is not simply passively accepted by the audience, but that the reader / viewer interprets the meanings of the text based on their individual cultural background and life experiences. In essence, the meaning of a text is not inherent within the text itself, but is created within the relationship between the text and the reader.

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