Cast: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill
‘Look out Haskell, it’s real!’ There is a moment towards the end of the relatively overlooked counterculture masterwork Medium Cool, newly released on DVD by Eureka Entertainment, where these urgent words shake filmmaker and viewer alike. The movie cameras themselves are quite literally shaking and flailing in front of a cloud of tear gas, as the film’s fictional narrative – a love story between a television news reporter and a poor, single mother from Appalachia living in Chicago’s ghetto – reaches its denouement against the very real backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest, where the National Guard is deploying tactics surreally seen rehearsed earlier in the film.
Influenced by directors of the French New Wave and the cinema vérité movement, which he was a part of, veteran filmmaker Haskell Wexler’s approach in Medium Cool is an unusual and electrifying one: by following and filming social and political ferment in Chicago and Washington D.C. throughout the tumult of 1968, he captured a sprawling patchwork of real events, onto which he hung a conventional scripted tale of romance and political awakening. Wexler, together with his small crew, was adept at gaining access to events that would most likely be highly controlled today. Hence, in the first half of the film, we see National Guard members practising their military drill on colleagues dressed up in whacked-out garb and aping hippie culture, as seen through the establishment’s eyes. Talcum powder ‘tear gas’ is fired while ludicrous lines are spewed out by a fake political figure: ‘We’ve given you everything we thought you wanted… We let you use our swimming pool, every 4th of July’.
The spoken warning at the demonstration – although sounding like a spontaneous cry – was in fact recorded after events and spoken by Wexler’s son as a voice-over; another example of the blurring of fact and fiction that makes Medium Cool such a compelling study on the nature of film. The words serve as a reminder to Wexler and his audience alike that the tear gas on screen is no longer the stuff of theatrical training exercises at Camp Ripley but a real physical threat in the city street; and, in doing so, the words underline the mollifying distance created by film, both in those creating and viewing footage. It is not only at this meta-moment that we are made aware of such things; John Cassellis (Robert Forster), the cameraman-protagonist of Medium Cool, acts as Wexler’s vehicle for a long meditation on the power and ethics of the moving image as a social force.
Indeed, Medium Cool is an overtly political film, which saw its release delayed while another counterculture landmark of 1969 – Easy Rider – faced fewer obstacles. Perhaps, as Wexler has later reflected, Dennis Hopper’s cultural revolution was more easily co-opted than his own vision of concurrent attempts at political revolution. Through footage of real-life events, improvised set-ups and straight-to-camera soliloquies, Wexler weaves a complex tapestry of voices, from African-American political radicals to the dirt-poor Appalachian community of Chicago’s Uptown, representing viewpoints and ideas found outside the freewheelin’ hippies or diffident heroes of New Hollywood.
A collage of competing words, sounds and images, Wexler’s feature is a chaotic, experimental mess of a film; and, because of that, it acts as a perfect artefact from, and record of, its time. The breadth and force of social and political unrest called for a special kind of film, one that reacted to and reflected the changing situation rather than trying to restrain or dictate its subject matter. And, while Medium Cool may be a perfect time capsule of America in 1968, it should also be seen as vital viewing for today, part of an ongoing conversation in which these very same questions surface time and time again.
A rambling title is often a reflection of a rambling narrative; it can indicate either ambition or indecisiveness. There is a reason these long-winded titles proliferated in the late 60s and early 70s – things like William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), Ulu Grosbard’s Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (1971) and Paul Williams’s Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), not to mention a slew of Italian giallo films. All of these films have a zig-zagging sense of aimlessness and leisure, a cultural urge to ‘be here now’ that can be alternately transcendent or masturbatory, depending on the film (or the viewer). Underground and commercial cinema alike at this time were quilted with countercultural concerns, sensibilities, techniques and aesthetics – the writing of the Beats, the mobilization of protest movements, the ubiquity of pop stars, the street use of LSD, Timothy Leary’s urge to tune in, turn on, drop out (it’s also telling that many of these film titles come in the form of a question). The mainstream increasingly appropriated the signifiers of the avant-garde in an attempt to woo an exploding youth market (as well as that demographic keen to hang on to their youth for dear life), and in this climate, a title like Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion was likely enough to sell a producer on a project. By the 1970s, when even squares lined up to see Deep Throat in the cinema, it was often hard to tell who was the real deal and who was exploiting the convenience of a double standard. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum said in their book Midnight Movies (1983), ‘the counterculture cash-in peaked in 1970’, and the Italian production Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is one of many films to tap into that zeitgeist.
But for a film whose title references a narcotic trip, it is surprisingly bereft of any real lysergic sensibility; the opening credits (cropped as they were, from a Greek-subtitled ETC bootleg) are among its few moments of visual experimentation, with psychedelic colour splashes, jarring sonic shifts and fish-eyed shots of Eurotrash starlet Ewa Aulin grooving in slow motion to the tone-deaf eponymous theme tune, sung by Ronnie Jones and penned by director John Shadow – a mysterious figure in the cult film pantheon.
Repeated use of oppressive lighting underscores the predatory nature of John, a tenured college professor (Alex Rebar, later to star in The Incredible Melting Man) who feels his school’s reputation is threatened by rampant drug use among its students, namely the delinquent heroin addict Billy (Italian horror staple Carlo De Mejo, almost unrecognizable without his beard). After a fellow teacher leaps to his death, supposedly under the influence of drugs, John enlists the help of nerdy student Henry (Eugene Pomeroy) to lure Billy into isolation at the professor’s Italian villa with a plan to dry him out. John’s young, subservient wife Elizabeth (Ewa Aulin) is not too keen on sharing her vacation with a heroin addict, but the professor reprimands her for being selfish when ‘that boy’s under the grip of a deadly neurosis!’ John relishes his privileged position as the boy’s saviour, to such an extent that he’s willing to subject his impressionable wife to the druggie’s charms; it only has to be merely suggested to her that she try a shot, and she’s immediately a sweaty, shivering addict. So now John and Henry have two addicts on their hands.
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The professor uses every opportunity to torment Billy, and also manipulates Henry, appealing to his loyalty by referring to him as ‘a peer’. But eventually the tables are turned on John as the doped-up Billy mocks his masculinity: ‘Elizabeth, have you ever seen your husband’s penis?’ Under the influence of freshly administered heroin, Elizabeth is liberated, theatrical and aggressive. But while in her stateside breakout film Candy (1968) Aulin’s vacuity was perfectly suited to the part of angelic naïf, here it just seems an embarrassing put-on. The stoic professor’s motto – ‘no emotion!’ – will be tested throughout the film as his experiment veers out of control.
Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion posits itself as a counterculture film, thinking that its parade of non-sequiturs somehow aligns it with the existential kookiness of Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), the swingin’ free love space-out of Joe Massot’s Wonderwall (1968), the inverted suspense of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Volker Schlöndorff’s A Degree of Murder (1967) as well as various AIP youth-in-revolt and drug films. Unfortunately it succeeds at assimilating none of the qualities that make these films stand out, and instead seems a schizophrenic, somewhat inept cadavre exquis. There is a great sense of temporal dislocation (which is not helped by an unexplored subplot involving some hippies camped out nearby). But as Jonny Redman of cult film site lovelockandload.com has suggested, there is the distinct impression that the film was unfinished.
Aside from its tongue-twisting title, one thing that keeps Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion in the history books is the ongoing mystery about who directed it, and where (and if) it was ever widely released. Although it is credited to John W. Shadow on screen, some have maintained that this is a pseudonym of producer Roberto Loyola, whose eclectic roster also included Sergio Corbucci’s goofy Western Sonny and Jed, Mario Bava’s claustrophobic crime film Rabid Dogs, and the Decamerotic sex comedy Canterbury No 2. The latter (which also stars Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion’s Alex Rebar) is credited to director John Shadow, but it has been argued that the name was a pseudonym for Aristide Massacesi, best known as Joe D’Amato. The name John Shadow resurfaces again as the screenwriter of Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces, also long assumed to be Joe D’Amato.
But a look through the newspapers surrounding Ewa Aulin’s brief fling with fame following the sensational Candy reveals John Shadow to be not only a real person, but married to Aulin from approximately 1968 to 1972. Actor Eugene Pomeroy, one of many young British expats working in Italian cinema at the time, remembers calling the director ‘John’ on set, although he too was confused about whether this John Shadow and producer Roberto Loyola were the same person . Without being able to pinpoint who John Shadow was, it is difficult to discern what may have happened to the film – which appears to have only ever been released on Greek video – and why the narrative’s many tangents are left dangling.
Despite featuring no murder set-pieces, the film nevertheless wound up in the giallo files by association; the giallo tended to be a playpen for all manner of visual and moral excess, and not only was drug abuse one of its staples, but Aulin had appeared in Giulio Questi’s head-scratching 1968 art-giallo Death Laid an Egg (and would later appear in Romolo Guerrieri’s 1971 The Double). Ultimately, the film defies categorization, living on only through its superficial ties to other various sensational subgenres, refusing to follow through on any single element – drugs, music, sexual liberation – that would make its content live up to the countercultural promise of its spectacular title.
(who adores interminable sentences and whose catalogue boasts a convoluted title of its own: House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). For more information and to pre-order a special limited edition hardback published in May 2014, visit the Fab press website.
Some years ago, I was invited to write a piece on a cinematic cult hero. I chose Roger Corman without hesitation. This was doubly fortuitous as I had just been lucky enough to have interviewed the misnamed ‘King of the B’s’. He was gracious, savvy, witty, charming, informed and possessed amazing recall of many of the characters who had graduated from the so-called Corman School. This was all the more noteworthy as he was already 81 and still had seven or so film projects on the go. Corman proved to be a gentleman and an inspiration, and so it is only fair to paraphrase - in this season of Shakespeare - the following line: ‘I come to praise Corman, not to bury him’. That is my caveat to readers of this review of Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a long-overdue documentary on this unique (now 86-year-old) maverick producer/director now released on DVD, as this is a film for savouring, leaving all critical baggage in the hallway.
This documentary’s tone is by turns witty and irreverent while keeping a proper historical and biographical eye on things. It is as controlled a piece of presentation as one could desire given the breadth - not always depth - of the Corman oeuvre. Director Alex Stapleton has come up with an exemplary documentary that respects and plays with conventions and tropes of Corman’s style - and cheesiness - in a fascinating piece of ‘other’ Hollywood history. And what a history! You want to give a first chance to young directors? How about the following list, whose sophomore efforts were overseen by Corman: Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Robert Altman, Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Robert Towne, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Anderson, Paul Bartel and Richard Rush - to name a few. Young actors to play the parts? Pam Grier, William Shatner, Jack Nicholson (who breaks down and cries with his reflections), Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, David Carradine, Barbara Hershey, Talia Shire, Sandra Bullock and Robert De Niro - not a bad list. Many of the above still hold Corman in great esteem and offer fine insights into the man during the course of the documentary.
As part of the legendary American International Pictures, Corman directed and/or produced the terrific Edgar Allan Poe cycle and dozens of low-budget drive-in ‘classics’ with titles like The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Caged Heat, A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. When he struck out on his own with New World Pictures he not only continued to make delicious drive-in fodder but commenced distribution of foreign language films that no one else would touch. It was due to Corman’s work in this field that American audiences were introduced to, among other films, Fellini’s Amarcord, Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Corman seemed to move seamlessly from drive-in classic to art-house classic with an unerring sense of both. Who else can compare? Corman is a one-off, and although Hollywood ignored him - though studios were happy to poach his subject matter - they eventually saw the light and honoured him (thankfully not posthumously) with an Honorary Academy Award, which is the touching ‘money shot’ of the film.
Almost worth the price of admission alone though, are the end credits that have a high-octane, spirit-raising rendition of ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ by the Ramones from Rock and Roll High School while clips from various films and decades - he made hundreds: 10 films in 1957 alone - literally explode onto the screen. Clips which highlight the maestro’s instinctive understanding of the cultural zeitgeist and the genres he developed for a growing baby boom audience: monster movies, sci-fi, horror (especially his apogee with the Poe cycle), beach party frolics, bikers, rock n’ roll sagas, speeding car spectaculars, gritty blacksploitation flicks, counter-culture tales - you name your sub-culture and Roger Corman was there, well before Time magazine could do a cover story on it. And all on miniscule budgets and legendary production miserliness - as he himself observes: ‘You can make Lawrence of Arabia for half a million dollars - you just don’t leave the tent’.
Thankfully there has been no ‘Premature Burial’ of either Corman or his cinematic products - as his co-producer wife of many years states when commenting on Corman’s attitude to on-set or professional set-backs, ‘the dogs bark but the caravan moves on’. My only real disappointment with this DVD is that it only lasts for a mere 95 minutes (which rush by) and not for at least 180!
Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ trip across America in the summer of 1964 is a keystone of the countercultural mythos, largely due to Tom Wolfe’s much read ‘new journalism’ non-fiction book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The legend runs that Kesey, an ex-Olympic wrestling hope and Stanford graduate, on the rise after the positive reaction to his novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, took a yellow school bus and, with a revolving cast of kooks, painted it in rainbow colours, christened it ‘Further’ and took it on the road with Beat legend Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s On The Road) at the wheel. They made a long arc starting in La Honda, California, and sailing through LA, Arizona, and New Orleans to end up at New York to see the World’s Fair, and deliver Kesey to a promotional event for his second (published) novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. On the way much marijuana and LSD were imbibed, the pranksters hooked up with Timothy Leary and sundry Beat writers, many squares were freaked out and social conventions overturned and, y’know, everybody learned stuff about themselves, and the road was paved for the full-blown hippie freak-out of the later 60s, especially by the Acid Test, which occurred after the bus carried on moving after New York and became a kind of roving psychedelic party centre.
Kesey wanted to document the original trip, but seemed to believe that his prose wasn’t suitable for the task, and so filled ‘Further’ with tape recorders and 16mm movie cameras. Forty-odd hours of footage were shot, but unfortunately guys called Zonker tripping balls on acid don’t necessarily make for the most technically adept film crews. Much of the resultant film was haphazardly framed and composed, key events of life on the road went undocumented, and, more often than not they failed to synch up the sound correctly, resulting in chipmunk-voiced mayhem. Whatever Kesey’s ambitions for the film were, it largely ended up as background projection at various parties, with only the Dexedrine-assisted Cassady making it through the whole thing when the Pranksters attempted to screen it (unedited) for the first time. Magic Trip, a documentary by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, valiantly attempts to make something cohesive, feature-length and watchable from all that tape and stock, incorporating archive news reportage to give context, a little subtle reconstruction to fill in the gaps, some trippy animation frills and an artfully layered soundtrack culled from various interview sources, held together with a linking, questioning voice-over by Stanley Tucci.
The result is fascinating, but largely for the way it contradicts and undercuts the legend in various ways. For a start, the Merry Pranksters don’t look the part. They were, in Kesey’s words, ‘too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies’, but I’m sure most readers of Wolfe’s work still pictured a mass of Indian-flared fabrics and flowing locks, not the vaguely preppy-looking Beach Boys session players the film reveals - Kesey is balding, for Christ’s sake. They are graduates, ex-marines, women seeking work at the World’s Fair aquatic ballet. These aren’t drop-outs or revolutionaries, at least, not yet.
Secondly, the trip was a bummer, or at least much more of one than most of the later hippies must have assumed. Wolfe’s prose (or Kesey’s, if he’d written his own book) could give forward momentum and meaning to the events depicted, putting you in the centre of the giddy psychedelic whirlwind. But other people’s trips, like their dreams, are personal, internal. 16mm film stock doesn’t record a kaleidoscopic audio-visual/emotional freak-out, it just shows a bunch of stuff happening, or, more often, not happening. Leary was apparently freaked out by the bus and his inhabitants and stayed in his room when they came to visit, Kerouac is a bitter old man nursing a cold beer, the World’s Fair is a let-down. Someone is left behind, another is lost to a psychiatric hospital. Time and again the voice-over reveals how much various Pranksters (mainly the women) wanted to get off the damn bus and go home, how much the soap opera couplings and uncouplings created tension and rancour, and how little of Cassady’s speed-freak psychobabble you could endure before wanting to beat him over the head with a steering wheel just to get him to shut the hell up for God’s sake. Magic Trip shows the ramshackle, unheroic reality of it all. An especially queasy sequence has the Pranksters rushing to dive in a lake outside New Orleans before realising, with mounting paranoia, that they are the only white guys there, swimming in the wrong part of a racially segregated lake. I’m sure that most viewers these days will be a touch disappointed that their reaction to this turn of events is not to throw together a desegregated protest party/bar-b-q, but to grab their stuff and get the hell out of there as fast as their pasty white legs can carry them.
Still, a fair bit of the footage makes you envious that you weren’t on the bus, at least for a short while; the restored photography is crisp and colourful; the landscapes, and some of the passengers, are beautiful. A great sequence creates entertaining imagery to accompany Kesey’s tape-recorded Stanford University LSD experience (part of the CIA’s MKULTRA programme!). There is much here to amuse, bemuse and tantalise; we get to see the inside of a particular bubble, with Ginsberg and Kerouac and the Grateful Dead, a nascent scene before it went global. And then trace it’s decline. Cassady was a nowhere man outside of the ‘Further’ driving seat, ending up dead on some rail tracks in Mexico. The Pranksters atomised, and Kesey never wrote another novel worth a damn. Still, we have this. It’s a record of being where it’s at in 1964, even if where it’s at is never truly, y’know, all that. Groove on that, brothers and sisters.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews