Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Do you ever feel like there's a thousand people locked inside of you?"

I found out quite unexpectedly about Jaime Grijalba's challenging Richard Kelly blogathon at his Exodus 8:2 site; had the maverick Eric Kuersten at Acidemic not provided a submission of his own, I likely would not have heard about it at all. But since it's going on, it provides me an opportunity to yet again race under the wire to offer my thoughts on the much-battered sophomore outing from the ballsy writer/director.

Having seen all three of his theatrical features, and also Tony Scott's film of his screenplay of DOMINO, a theme has come to my mind that I don't see much exploration of. For all the expansive environments he presents, be it the suburban playground of DONNIE DARKO or the penultimate days of apocalypse in cosmopolis in SOUTHLAND TALES, or the southwest social junkyard of DOMINO, all of his produced screenplays also suggest that, quite possibly, these dramas exist entirely within the mindscape of one of the movie's characters, as purgative fantasies.

For an obvious example, at its core, DONNIE DARKO is a retelling of Ambrose Bierce's AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, only instead of a condemned soldier fantasizing of escape to home and wife, it is a troubled teen who, in the seconds he has to contemplate his death, purges his guilt for the tumult he's created by fantasizing that it's all for the best, and he will be vindicated by his family and peers. The haunting, Kieslowski-esque "Mad World" montage serves the latter purpose - even Patrick Swayze's false healer/pedophile character can sense the loss, because while his career is ruined in Donnie's alternate reality, it brings a closure to his double life that he will still be tortured by in a Donnie-less world. All the allusions to theosophy and portals could just as easily be deathbed notions of escape from his environment, or perhaps his transition into another existential plane, a theme revisited in Kelly's adaptation of Richard Matheson's story "Button, Button" into THE BOX. For a more opaque example, Museum of Cinema proprietor Blake Etheridge has posited that in Kelly's screenplay for DOMINO, the events described to government investigator Taryn Mills by Domino Harvey are entirely a lucid mescaline fever dream; Domino has been earning a living as a bounty hunter, but the events which brought her into custody are by no means as colorfully bizarre as she is describing them. Consequently, with SOUTHLAND TALES, while Kelly would like the viewer to plunge into the adjuncts to the film (the prequel comic books, Krysta Now's website, Boxer Santoros' MySpace page) and immerse themselves in the side details of his ambitious vision, they're all red herrings, entertaining but non-essential, in the same manner that "The Philosophy of Time Travel" is an engaging but ultimately needless sidebar to DONNIE DARKO.

Before I go any further, I want to give a huge acknowledgement (and some web hits, I hope) to the excellent and provocative critic Kim Nicolini, whose wildly enthusiastic review of SOUTHLAND TALES back in 2008 inspired my own analysis, which I initially offered only to her and a few messageboard denizens. Kim had eagerly devoured all the extracurricular material Kelly created and thus included them in her analysis of the film, so it feels a little funny that I am also praising it while dismissing said added material which was partly integral to her enjoyment. But then, much like Hercule Poirot stated in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, this mystery has a simple solution and a complex solution, and perhaps they are both correct.

SOUTHLAND TALES is another extended fantasy, though despite the constant allusions to "the end" not a deathbed fantasy. To me, almost all of the sprawling tale is a somewhat drug-induced construct of Justin Timberlake's wounded war vet narrator Private Pilot Abilene, who is wrestling with how to deal with the injuries done to him, both by his best friend Taverner in combat, and by his country as a whole. Key to my reading is that aside from tertiary contact with minor characters, and his firing the fatal shot that kills a government mole (which would thus be an imaginary act through this reading), Abilene has no interaction with Boxer, Krysta, the Frost family, or any other of the ostensible leads of the story. Abilene lives separated from them all in medicated inertia amidst a hyperpoliticized America, angry with the friend who scarred him, the politicians who sent him to kill, the revolutionaries who failed to stop it, the celebrities who sold the war to him, etc.

So he begins to split these people as if they were all "good cop/bad cop" (literally for Scott's character Taverner), which allows him to explore and empathize with their redeeming qualities. By letting his imagination run wild, he finally begins to see that all causes can be corrupted, good souls make bad compromises - the duality of humanity is inescapable. And he sees how to reconcile those two halves, in the almost literal manner of his former best friend. Yes, the friendly fire incident left Abilene ugly and wounded, but it also got him out of the war zone, where he would have likely perished, and back to a semi-comfortable life in America. The "end of the world" he keeps talking of is not a literal one, but of the fogged, drugged world of hurt and anger he inhabits - the "bang" is the necessary rush of pain when the drugs are gone and he is fully conscious of everything that's happening. And now that Abilene can understand that his friend Taverner can be both source of his disfigurement and savior of his life, as can his country be, he can forgive them both and start his life anew.

I am always left to wonder if this is an autobiographical read on Kelly's behalf too. In interviews, Kelly has never been terribly vocal about politics (I've found no declared party affiliation) or religion (for all the constant notions of Christ figures in his movies, he professes to be an athiest). But when one considers that the Republican party is depicted as the initial antagonists of his story [though ultimately, every fringe group is shown to be venal and corrupt], and Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar were registered Republicans during filming, that odd contrast offers intrigue. The film definitely takes a dim view of the Iraq war and its effect on society, but this spirit of collaboration with actors of an ostensibly polarized opinion to his parallels Abilene's resolution, as if to say Kelly once judged his stars by their politics, but now can see they had a sincere belief in the same manner he had one that was in opposition, and that all of them found flaws in those systems of belief.

On a dishier level, I'm also rather fond of the possible "shoot" aspect of the tensions between the characters played by "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" alumnae Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri. The four play characters very definitely at odds with each other, and each actor comes from a different incarnation of the show's history (Dunn and Lovitz sharing theirs). Again, there's no high profile accounts of any rivalries between the performers, but comedians are a family that can be both collaborative and savage, so when Poehler's character castigates Oteri's with "Just 'cause it's loud doesn't mean it's funny!", you are reminded that Oteri's "SNL" tenure consisted of portraying a lot of shrill characters, and Dunn's character's duplicitousness towards her cause may remind older fans of her rather self-serving refusal to work with shock comic Andrew "Dice" Clay when he appeared on the program. Comics do certainly love to milk dirty laundry for a laugh, so it wouldn't surprise me if Kelly encouraged the performers to improv and throw a few low blows.

I instinctively feel I'll always carry a minority opinion on SOUTHLAND TALES, and depending upon my debate opponent, I may not always be in the mood to defend it; if left to fight an army of snarksters fully bent on declaring it "Worst. Movie. Ever.", then, as the late Frankie Bastille once said, I may as well be Captain Kirk left to fight the Klingons in a Mercury fucking station wagon. But it's a film that's given me stimulation over repeat viewings, and for fans and foes of Richard Kelly's who aren't intimidated or annoyed by the film equivalent of an Everlasting Gobstopper, I would firmly say it's worth visiting multiple times as well.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah Holcomb: A Letter for a Lost Friend

Hello, Ms. Holcomb. My name is Marc Edward Heuck. How are you? I know that is a banal question that gets thrown around for empty conversations several times day, but I am honestly interested. You don't have to give a boilerplate answer like "fine" or "okay" if you don't want to; I certainly don't like those vague terms. I always lean towards words like "reasonable" or "content" myself - it's still pleasant enough to let the moment fizzle and go back to the day's business, but it does makes the other person pay attention and notice that I'm not just saying what they expect to hear. And right now, I would like to hear whatever is on your mind, in however manner you would like to express it. 

"Once I was part of the scenery
Now I am part of the problem
Everyone looks at me funny these days
But I'm not laughing
 Nobody knows what to say to me
Nobody bothers to ask
Once I was part of the problem
Now I am part of the past"
--Mike Viola

I know who you are. Like many who perhaps try to strike up conversation with you, I grew up in your shadow. You're roughly a generation older than I am, you were already making commercials and ready for college while I was still in middle school, so I was not supposed to be seeing you or the movies that you were so funny in. In fact, I recall my mother literally gave me a Come To Jesus speech when she found out my father let me watch them during my weekends in his custody. But the dirty deed was done, and besides having two movies that I would go on revisiting to the present day, I really liked Clorette DiPasto and Maggie O’Hooligan, I wanted to be friends with them. I didn't want to date them - Clorette was too young and sweet and to try heavy petting with her would make me feel as guilty as Pinto felt, and Maggie was so ruff and tuff and pissed off all the time that I probably would have annoyed her as a boyfriend - but they were good-hearted gals and it would have been fun to spend more time with them beyond what the VHS tapes offered. And so, as my lifelong obsession with film got honed and refined, and I started paying attention to character actors, I figured out that I wanted to be friends with you, Sarah Holcomb.

That's an odd statement to write, and I'm sure it's a hard statement for you to read, because I've spent a lot of time piecing together your life's story, and the recurring line I'm finding is that you didn't have a lot of good friends...or at least, the right kinds of friends. There were probably the enabler friends, the ones who knew that you had health necessities but instead of helping you manage them, they took advantage of them because they found it entertaining. And the fair-weather friends from the movie sets, who liked you hanging around unless you got to be all heavy and uncool, and then forgot about you when they moved on to other movies and other friends while you took the steps necessary to heal yourself. Certainly there were good, kind people who wanted to help you, but couldn't understand what you needed, or lacked the patience to be there when you couldn't go it alone. 

And among the myths that have arisen since you took your exit from show business, what is certainly the most heartbreaking one, provided that it is true - and I speak for many when I suspect and pray it is not - is that over the years, you have been passing your time in near-seclusion, never seen in pleasant company or sharing animated conversation with others. Of course, if that is true, maybe that is what you want, and from that track record of people letting you down in the past, I would not find any fault with that choice. Similarly, hearing a complete stranger in the cyberverse say they want to keep company with you may well sound sour as well, since I don't really know you, we're not in the same city, and "cyberhugs" are empty treacle when one feels really isolated. 

"That's the memory I filed on the fringe
Along with the memory of the pain you lived in
I don't have the password
But the path is chainlinked
So if you've got the time
Set up the tone to sync
Tap in the code
I'll reach you below
Hello, hello
Are you out there?"

Sifting more through the truths and the speculation in the wake of your exit, I can imagine the hurt and pressure of trying to keep all your conflicts contained in that harsher period of history, when mental and emotional obstacles were not spoken of in the common vernacular, but were more often fodder for ridiculous third-act twists in horror movies. Today when bad wiring and bad choices reach critical mass, an entertainer can publicly say they are seeking help and no one will blink. Heck, I have close friends who speak candidly about their struggles with depression or bipolar behavior and the progress they are making in keeping it from devastating them. We might be a society that overdiagnoses and overmedicates what is arbitrarily determined to be aberrant activity, but at least we understand that these are real problems and no one need apologize for them. In this modern climate, I could easily imagine you engaging in some gallows humor, perhaps using that lovably terrible Oirish accent from CADDYSHACK to mutter "Ran outta me meds agin; that's a' ah need!". I can't help but feel that you could have been much more at ease in those later years that I came of age, and would not have to make the all-or-nothing choice that you did. 

"You had a dream
You know you dreamt so much
You had a dream
You know it meant so much
You're just a victim of the circumstance
I mean, what else could you do?
You saw your dream and you just took a chance
And for a while your dream came true
What could you do?"
--Pete Ham

What troubles me most in the fog of rumor about your life now is the notion that you take no pride or pleasure in your small but potent body of work. That because of all the terrible realities that took place when the cameras stopped rolling, you can't look at Clorette today and laugh, and appreciate that you had excellent comic timing. Or that in the off chance someone recognized you and tried to compliment you, it would only send you back to the bad times and thus darken the moment. Again, a perfectly legitimate and understandable reaction if this is true, but as a viewer who loves to watch your finest hours, still a sad thought. Because it was not just Elton John sitting in the 22nd row and looking at you and our other favorite screen females with simple innocent thoughts of appreciation and respect back then, and today there's even more of us who genuinely like you for being such a great presence in those movies. To learn of any apocryphal sordid events offscreen would not nor should not diminish our love of you and the work, and it seems to me that when you've brought that genuine, unblemished pleasure to millions over the decades, that has to be a good thing, something for which you deserve to reap the rewards.

Because I don't know if you ever spend time on the internet, or Google yourself, but you are still on our minds. A one-time encounter with a kindly railroad worker has become your unofficial messageboard for fans and former schoolmates of yours, trading memories and prayers. You have inspired orginal artwork, and eclectic mixtapes. And, well, a whole bunch of urban legends...

"In 2000 I heard she lived in Boston. Thats all i know"
"I googled her name and came up with a photograph on the website for Northern Arizona University. Account for age and it sure looks like her."
"A Providence radio DJ claims to have seen a former cast member of Animal House working in a convenience store near Brown University."
"Sarah still resides in Connecticut receiving government assistance far removed from the public eye and prefers to remain that way."


...and the one thing in those tall tales that is indeed clear to all of us is that wherever you are, you're not coming back, and you'd like us to let you be. And for as much as we miss you, we just want you to be as untroubled as possible, so we are all keeping our distance.


"But it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know, why should I care
Please don't bother trying to find her
She's not there"
--Rod Argent

Thus, this is where my outreach to you ends. For all I know, you will never read this letter, and things will stay as they are. But in that microscopic chance that you would ever want to say something, anything, to a receptive stranger...I'm an easy person to find. In the meantime, I guess all I can do is play you a song.


If it is true that you've dismissed your previous achievements as nothing, well then, to borrow from your own quotebook, "Tanks fer nuttin'." Because for many of us, your "nuttin'" was really something.

"Wherever she is, I hope she's doing fine,
But I wish that she would phone or drop us a line.
Till then I've got nothing to ease my mind,
And I'm thinking about her all the time"
--Ray Davies