During the party sequence at the beginning of Pierrot le Fou, Godard places Jean-Paul Belmondo, Gauloise in one hand, champagne glass in the other, next to Sam Fuller, who wears shades and nurses a stogie.
JPB leans over to Sam: “I’ve always wanted to know exactly what cinema is.”
Fuller explains: “A film is like a battleground… love, hate, action, violence, death, in one word—emotions.”
Well played, Monsieur Godard, well played, particularly from the auteur who had offered his own, Bartlett’s-level epigrammatic definition of film: Cinema is truth at twenty-four frames a second.
And they were both right: once movies began to unspool before me on my tiny home screen, I was hooked, an eight-year-old junkie, jonesing for hits of emotion and truth.
When I found out that The Thing from Another World was an intellectual carrot, my mind boggled just like Scotty the Newsman’s.
I blissfully soared on the winds of absurdity when, in Attack of the Crab Monsters, the babe ichthyologist’s beau cited Darwin to explain why the disappeared had been incorporated into the collective crab consciousness: Preservation of the species—once they were men, now they are land crabs. I felt the same amour l’absurde as John Agar swung deliriously between protag and possessed in The Brain from Planet Arous.1
I was moved to tears when Mr. Rodan2 chose death with the missus rather than life alone, just as I became similarly weepy when Dr. Serizawa nobly sacrificed himself at the end of the anglicized, Raymond Burr Godzilla, King of Monsters, so that his oxygen destroyer would never fall into the wrong hands once it had successfully dispatched der König der Monster.
My idea of a hero was Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly. He was a one-man gang of hard-boiled destruction as he swept through Los Angeles in his covetous pursuit of the great whatsit. I identified (perhaps too much) with Jack Palance in Attack. Once his arm had been ground into hamburger by the treads of the Nazi tank he had bazooka’d out of commission, the only thing that kept him alive long enough to (almost) realize his quest for vengeance was his adrenaline-fueled rage.
Yet I never made the connection between either hero’s lower-chakra energy and Forbidden Planet’s monsters from the id. Had I been more perspicacious, I would have noted that my introduction to the beastly element in Freud’s self-centered Trinity also served as the (SFX) objective correlative for the source of both my heroes’ animas.
The Pharaoh, warned by his astrologers that the liberator of the Jews had been born, ordered all newborn penis-bearing Hebrews to be thrown into the Nile and drowned. To save him, Moses’s mom Jochebed placed him in an ark of reeds and sent him floating down the river. His wails caught the attention of Bithiah, the royal daughter, who was baby crazy but lacked the means of production (she was either a leper or barren, it’s not clear which). Either way, she looked on the baby in the bulrushes as a gift from the gods, took him home, raised him as her own.
In the Midrash it is told that when Moses was three and sitting on (grandpa) Pharaoh’s lap, he grabbed the crown from off the king’s head; the potentate of the pyramids ignored the calls of his sycophants and soothsayers to off Kid Yid and instead ordered a trial by fire. A diamond and a hot coal were placed before the child. If he picked up the diamond, he was toast; if he reached for the coal, all would be forgiven. Just as Moish was about to pick up the shiny bauble, the angel Gabriel intervened. He guided the hand to the hot coal, and in so doing saved Moses’s bacon.
Like Moses we start making our choices young and we never stop making them. It is this ability to make critical decisions that positions opposable thumbers at the top of the hominid heap. Whether they are rational, instinctual, or providential, the choices we make are determinative: they define us and in turn define the world. Søren Kierkegaard, who had broadened the discourse of despair for young, alienated nihilists back in the mondo-mad day of my youth with titles like Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death (both had been available in a single paperback—the first of the Metaphysical Mischugass series of Ace Doubles3 ), laid it down this way: Subjectivity is Truth.
Truth is idiosyncratic and is sometimes projected at twenty-four frames per second. It is up to us as critical thinking homo saps to determine which ones offer the satisfying emotional truths that derive from the Fuller-Godard film formulary.
It was my experience living on Mongo4 that shaped my choices.
When we are little tykes and tykettes, we take our choices for granted, or perhaps more accurately, we are unconscious of the act of choosing and simply see the world as a series of discrete a priori truths: it was, for example, intuitively obvious to this cub reporter that there was no comparison between a glorious Knickerbocker Milky Bite—raspberry gel enrobed in luscious milk chocolate—and a joyless Joyva Jell Ring; it was equally obvious that an otherworldly full sour from Hollander’s had way more umami than its more pedestrian counterpart from Guss’s. I held these truths to be self-evident, and if you didn’t agree with me, you were a retard.
There comes a time when you become aware that within any manifest string of things—baseball players, peers, war movies—you are making judgments, creating hierarchies, deeming some within any given group really good and others really shit: the french fries from this place are crisper and creamier than the ones from the place over there; the lemon ices from the basement bakery have a lemonier flavor than the ices from the Italian bakery next door. Judgment is as natural and involuntary as breathing.
Even though you might be lacking the sophisticated critical vocabulary to defend your choices with anything more than because I said so, once you become conscious of this critical knack, you never go back—from that moment you’re hooked. My addiction to judgmental aesthetics began the day I contemplated To Hell and Back for the first time.
I had been excited to see it. What, I wondered, could have been better than watching a war movie in which the hero had, in real life, been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for offing beaucoup Nazis? Once it had worked its way down the exhibition chain from Broadway to back in the world, I tore ass down to the old nabe, where I caught it at the Delancey (in the kids section — vo den?), with a couple of my frummie5 friends.
I left the Loews bitterly disappointed. It should have been a really good movie, but it wasn’t. In fact, it sucked. In order to understand why, I compared it to a pair of war movies that had stuck with me, the aforementioned Attack and The Steel Helmet. Intrigued by their names, posters, and stills on the Deuce, I had watched them on my DuMont. Both were in b&w, which meant they had lost nothing in the translation to my tiny tube other than image quality and the splendor of size, neither of which were, at the time, as important to me as the simple act of watching them.
Both movies were gritty, dark, death-filled; their heroes hard-boiled and battle-hardened, informed by the wisdom of war, animated by a passion to see the men they led survive combat hell.pre-credit sequence, punctuated by a helmet rolling downhill to a dead stop by a lone flower, sets up the conflict—a war within the war—between the insanely intense Palance and his craven sluck CO, Captain Cooney, whom he holds responsible for the deaths of an entire squad, slaughtered in a futile attempt to take out a Nazi pillbox. It ends with Palance on the floor of a rubble-strewn basement—he had crawled out from under the treads of a Kraut tank, crawled across the floor toward a .45 the tittering Cooney kept kicking just beyond his reach, and died before he could grease his douchenozzle commander.
The Steel Helmet ends in smoke and death in a Buddhist temple. Most of the squad that has set up an artillery observation post within are dead, killed during a North Korean assault. While Sergeant Zack lies in a semiconscious state of shell shock, the other three survivors—a black medic, an Asian sergeant (Tanaka) nicknamed Buddha Head, and a bald, squeaky, ofay radio operator—lean against a pillar. Smoking seems almost too taxing; they’re famished as well as spent. When Buddha Head finally speaks, he sets the agenda: First we’ll eat, then we’ll bury them (this in a movie where the hero has threatened a mortally wounded enemy with the rapturously loopy line If you die, I’ll kill you).
A patrol comes upon the temple and coaxes the survivors outside. They stand before the temple’s shoji screen doors, each face frozen with the same thousand-yard stare—a group portrait of undiagnosed PTSD.
The patrol leader, knowing something has happened there, not knowing what it was, has a Mr. Jones moment; he asks, What kind of an outfit is this?
But then this cat thinks better of his curiosity, drops the questions, and orders the survivors to fall in. When they finally stagger off, Zack is self-possessed enough to limp over and exchange his eponymous, bullet-perforated steel helmet for the pristine one that sits atop the CO’s grave marker—an M1, bayonet fixed, staked in the ground.
Attack and The Steel Helmet were movies absent sun or sentiment, the very opposite of To Hell and Back, which was shot in Technicolor, shown in Cinemascope, and amounted to nothing more than a lame exercise in the hagiography of heroism. Bookended by soldiers marching in formation on a parade ground, the movie is a series of blackout scenes, a rudderless repetition of battle, bivouac, battle, bivouac, battle, R & R, turtling its way to a climactic action sequence—Murphy, the baby-faced Ares, singlehandedly beats back an armored counterattack: first he calls in an artillery strike to take out the Panzers, then he hops on top of a burning Hellcat Tank and uses the mounted Browning 50mm machine gun to mow down every Nazi in sight. In the final scene, a continuation of the first, the soldiers come to parade rest as Murphy’s medals are enumerated, culminating in his receiving the Medal of Honor. Tired and listless, the movie doesn’t end so much as it simply stops.
Attack was a black hat/white hat cautionary tale with the moral simplicity of an I’ll save you, Nell!6 encounter. In The Steel Helmet Zack and the others at the temple ruin look like they just lurched off the set of I Walked with a Zombie. Both movies left me unsettled, frightened, left me with the feeling that there are no winners in war, just some guys kinda breathing. The only feeling To Hell and Back left me with was that I had just wasted my time, a rare response to my escapist indulgences. If an overbearing teacher had forced me to explain why I felt the way I did, and if I was scared less by him than by the movies, I probably would have said, with great conviction, Because I said so.
Day to day, week to week, you never knew what might show up on the Deuce—black hat/white hat shoot-’em-ups, Axis and Allies blow-’em-ups, Martin and Lewis triple features, furrin films, weepies, noirs, nudies, monster movies, or horror flicks; Freaks might even make one of its intermittent appearances on B-movie Boulevard.
The same was true of movies on the tube. Getting the Guide, beelining to, fine-tooth-combing through the movie listings was always an exciting proposition because you never knew what much-sought-after cine treasure might pop up on The Early Show or Million Dollar Movie. If a must-see appeared, you had to jump—if you manana’d it, you might discover that Tomorrow Is Too Late or Tomorrow Is Forever or Tomorrow Never Comes or, worst of all, that Tomorrow You’re Gone. In this fashion I slowly, surely collected what to my mind amounted to a full set of movies.
To my primitive, autodidactic way of thinking, this collection (stored only in my memory) represented knowledge and understanding; they were the basic building blocks of an aesthetic as well as a weltanschauung; they were, in other words, reels of projected truth out of which I parsed a way of seeing, as well as a way of being.
1 John Agar was the scion of a Chicago meatpacking fortune. A prep school swan, he chose teaching phys.ed. in the Air Force over college. After the war he married Shirley Temple, and as Mr. America’s Sweetheart, got a backstage pass to Hollywood stardom. He made six movies with John Wayne, two of them helmed by John “Manifest Destiny” Ford—Fort Apache_] and [_She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—before divorce and the absence of talent sent him tumbling from the penthouse to a string of basement sci-fi cheapies of which The Brain from Planet Arous was his masterpiece. A disembodied (criminal mastermind) brain named Gor has escaped captivity on Planet Arous, made land on Earth, and is in the market for a host body so that he might take over our world (just like the Brain in Pinky and the…). The body he hijacks is Agar’s, giving Johnny Boy the opportunity to display the full range of his wooden thespianic skills. Meanwhile a law-enforcement brain from Arous named Vol, looking to drag Gor to Arousian justice, squats in the cerebral cortex of a pooch belonging to Agar’s betrothed (prefiguring the whole Son of Sam mischugass). Deputy Dawg transmits telepathic messages to Agar, schooling him in Arousian biology. It seems that a brain from Arous, when attempting alien world domination far from home, must briefly decouple from its host each day in order to reinvigorate itself by absorbing copious amounts of atmospheric nutrients. During these refueling periods the brain must fully corporealize, exposing its Achilles Heel—the Fissure of Rolando. Vol assures Agar that if you kill that part of the brain, you kill the ghoulish Gor. Agar bides his time. While Gor floats, soaking in the good shit, Agar sneaks up on the defenseless boffin and brings the axe down on its soft gooey center, Lizzie Borden–style, freeing himself and saving the planet in the process.
2 While Gojira is the most elegiac of the daikaiju (giant monster) movies and Mothra the most surreal, Rodan is the most heartrending. Hatched from an egg uncovered by coal miners, Rodan quickly achieves destructo size; it terrorizes Japan with super-duper winds generated by its flapping wings. The local humans freak when they realize that there are not one but two mutated pterosaurs on the rampage, and that if the berserker couple should become fruitful and multiply, the sun might well set on the island nation of Japan. The military, aided by an army of scientists, decide to kill the monsters by blasting their nesting ground, a dormant volcano, with enough power to bring it back to life. As lava erupts and the soundtrack becomes more mournful by the nano, the reptilian couple emerge from the mountain and try to fly away. But Mrs. Rodan (chalk the gender assignments up to the chauvinist in me, if you must) cannot achieve escape velocity and falls back into the flaming primordial ooze. Mr. Rodan will not leave without her, flies back, tries to get her airborne. When it’s clear that he can’t, he chooses to die with her rather than live a solitary monster life. The Japanese version is a silent tableau—the actors watch, riveted, moved by Mr. Rodan’s transcendent sacrifice while the music weeps. But when the film was dubbed into English, a voice-over narration was added which I found profoundly poignant every time I watched it on The Million Dollar Movie: _As Kiyo-chan turned to weep on my shoulder, I realized the Rodans were doomed. The heat, the gases, the bombardment [all] added to their bewilderment… The last of their kind, masters of the air and earth, the strongest, swiftest creatures that ever breathed, now they sank against the earth like weary children. Each had refused to live without the other… and so they were dying together… It was as if something human were dying.
3 That’s a lie, but they were printed in a single paperback. The highly collectible Ace Doubles have, in the words of the interwebs, the unusual appearance of the tête-bêche format, which is the fancy-pants way of saying laid out in opposition to each other like sardines in a can. Ace Doubles, mostly mysteries, westerns, and sci-fi, provided me with my first taste of the loopy paranoia of Philip K. Dick as well as the fortuitous discovery of a gem, The Mad Metropolis by Philip E. High, a story that plays out in one twenty-four-hour period in a dystopia where the day is reserved for the straights, the night for the crazies, and anyone locked out after curfew is on their own till the cock crows. Our hero is a schlub who knows something he doesn’t know he knows, something that makes a cabal of business interests want him dead, and so they arrange that he be locked out at curfew. The narrative follows his attempt to survive and to figure out why this was done to him. It would have made a great movie, as I told anyone who would listen back when there were people who at least faked listening to me, but now seems like its been done a million times.
4 I have referred to Mongo a number of times in Part 1. However, My Daughter the Conscience forcefully tells me that none of her peers know what or where the fuck it is. Mongo, which may or may not be in our solar system, is, according to the Wikipedia, about the same size as Mars but denser. It has a gravity a bit weaker than Earth’s, all the better for Flash to hop, skip, and jump around on. It has an atmosphere capable of sustaining life, which is abundant and various and includes Monkey Men, Lion Men, Hawkmen, Shark Men and their deadly pet octosaks, Forest People, and my favorites, the accursed Clay People, who would exude out of cave walls when summoned and whom Flash tries to restore to human form. Mongo also is home to fire-breathing monsters, carnivorous flora, and exotic pharmaceuticals like the Incense of Forgetfulness. The planet’s name is derived from the home of Genghis Khan’s hordes; it is ruled by the Oriental-sounding Ming the Merciless, who sometimes works with Queen Azura of Mars. Ming is the inscrutable archenemy of Flash Gordon not least because he is driven to carnal distraction by the powerful letch he feels for Flash’s main squeeze, Dale Arden. Ming is always causing mischief on Earth—seeding our clouds with the self-explanatory Purple Death; aiding Azura in mining nitron from our atmosphere, which results in devastating hurricanes and floods. These threats to Earth’s survival necessitate that Flash, Dr. Zarkov, and Dale intermittently take jaunty-jolly space cruises in their art deco Strato-Sled, the preferred means of intergalactic and intraplanet transportation on Mongo as it is on Earth.
5 I first heard My Friend the Film Critic use frummie to describe the men in black and their bewigged women. It’s derived from frum, which means pious or devout, here used as a diminutive for my friends, Kalman Stein and Marty Kerner.
6 In my yoot, each Saturday morning presented me with a grave dilemma—how to satisfy my parentals’ expectation that I go through the motions of morning prayer in shul, and still get to watch my shows of choice, most of which were scheduled to conflict with this onerous religious responsibility. Any Saturday that I couldn’t duck out of my yiddishe duties was a Saturday that I missed Crusader Rabbit, Mighty Mouse, Andy’s Gang, and most importantly The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, my most favorite show, the self-referentialist, post-modernest Saturday morning cartoon show ever (and the necessary precursor to Animaniacs, which I joyfully watched with My Daughter the Conscience on post-PS afternoons, getting a particular kick out of the all-too-infrequent adventures of Katie Ka-Boom as well as Pinky and the Brain, the latter of whom shared a megalomaniacal affinity with The Brain from Planet Arous — see footnote 1). R & B followed the serialized adventures of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his dim-witted, big-hearted sidekick Bullwinkle J. Moose, both of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, bêtes noires to a pair of Pottsylvanian spies: Boris Badenov, self-styled world’s greatest no-goodnik, a tiny man in a tiny trench coat with a pencil mustache and red eyes, who does his dirty work at the pleasure of Pottsylvania’s Fearless Leader, and his partner in espionage, his unrequited love object Natasha Fatale, a towering temptress in a low-slung purple evening dress who looks like a cross between Joan Crawford and Dracula’s wife. In between bookended episodes of Moose and Squirrel (as BB contemptuously refers to them), there was a revolving series of features including Peabody’s Improbable History, in which Mr. Peabody, a super-erudite dog, and his pet boy Sherman would time-travel via the wayback machine so that genius dog could lecture wide-eyed boy on the dialectic of history; Fractured Fairy Tales and its variant Aesop and Son, need I say more; and Dudley Do Right of the Mounties, which detailed RCMP Dudley’s continuing melodrama with Snideley Whiplash, a handlebar-mustached supervillain always plotting to win the heart of Dudley’s one true love, Nell, and who, in the face of constant rejection by her, places Nell in ticking-clock, cliffhanging danger, forcing Dudley to race to the rescue, hence, I’ll save you, Nell!