Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Integratron

In 1947 George van Tassel, a former aircraft mechanic and flight inspector for Howard Hughes, moved to Landers, California where he purchased “Giant Rock,” a massive 7 story freestanding boulder. With the intent of launching a tourist attraction, van Tassel opened a café and airport near the rock, which happened to be a sacred site revered by the Native Americans. Years before, a prospector named Frank Critzer excavated a series of tunnels and caves beneath the sacred rock. Critzer was considered somewhat of an eccentric, and as he was a German immigrant “mining” beneath the Rock during World War II, he came to be suspected a spy. He was tragically killed in a police siege at the base of the Rock in 1942. Van Tassel occasionally worked with Critzer in his uncle’s garage and learned of Giant Rock through him.
After acquiring the site, van Tassel began to regularly meditate within Critzer’s caves. In 1951 he claimed that during meditation he had “astrally projected” to an alien spaceship orbiting the earth, where he met the omnipotent Venusians (travelers from the planet Venus). Purportedly, after several “astral” visitations, the beings from the “Council of the Seven Lights” visited him on earth and instructed him to build a structure to “extend human life.”
Van Tassel began building a wood and fiberglass structure that he deemed “The Integratron.” The design was based upon a domed machine he allegedly encountered while aboard the Venusian flying saucer. Van Tassel proposed that the Giant Rock site was a powerful vortex, and that a domed building would concentrate the earth’s natural energy. Human visitors could harness this energy and focus their own electrical forces to create “resonance” and recharge their cells like a battery. He did warn his followers to exercise caution when telepathically communicating with the “Space Brethren” inside the Integratron ….due to the potential of over-stimulation resulting in spontaneous human combustion.
Van Tassel founded a research organization known as the “Ministry of Universal Wisdom,” and began hosting an annual UFO conference called the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention (1953-1978). Needless to say his airport and café were never more successful. He continued to make slight alterations on the structure until his death in 1978.
Post: In the early spring of 2002, Giant Rock split in two. The structure now exists as a roadside tourist attraction, though there have been several proposals to convert it into a Joshua Tree disco. A loosely organized UFO-cult called the Ashtar Command now claims to have resumed van Tassel’s original vision.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The American Astronaut (2011)

The American Astronaut defies categorization, a kind of independent noir science-fiction Western musical art film about sex, rock 'n' roll and Nevada. Shot for what appears to be about $15, the black-and-white movie is so low-rent that it makes use of paintings to depict space travel and cuts to a montage of still images to advance the narrative.

Yet the film contains some striking high-contrast imagery, moments of loopy surreal humor, catchy rock production numbers—all by McAbee and Bobby Lurie's band, the Billy Nayer Show—and a peculiar plot that's literally so out-of-this world that audiences won't know what they're looking at.

American Astronaut is the culmination of McAbee's San-Francisco-based performance act, corralling his interests in music, performance art, acting, animation and filmmaking into one spaced-out enterprise. At times, it has the feel of David Lynch's Eraserhead; at other times, a Westernized Rocky Horror. But mostly, it's its own thing, and most of the time, that isn't bad.

McAbee is like a skid-row Hugh Jackman, and the interior of his spaceship is furnished like, well, a furnished room: peeling wallpaper, antique sconces, a brass bed and a control panel that looks like Flash Gordon's, only older. Unlike the cantina at Mos Eisley, the Ceres Crossroads is populated by outer-space rejects so foul you can practically smell their dirty undershirts—and the stand-up act there would give Charles Manson the creeps.

Jupiter, by contrast, is an abandoned movie theater in Queens, lit like 1984, with ranks of zombified mineworkers attending a spotlit Fuehrer. Their entertainment? A young boy, dressed like an Art Deco Thor, prancing to a mystifying rock song about being the only man on Jupiter to see a woman's breast.

A space station is a barn with a wizened alien. And Venus is a Victorian tea party on the banks of a wintry lake, populated by aging Southern belles fluttering their fans. Characters often break into song to advance the story—most oddly, two middle-aged men marching in a men's room while the hero takes a dump.

Weird and mesmerizing when it's not amateurishly self-indulgent, American Astronaut is unlike any other genre film—or any other film—you're likely to see this year, so if you have 10 bucks and an hour and half, it beats reruns. (Patrick: From film reviews)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blueberry: Reinventing the "Baguetti Western"

The 2004 French film “Blueberry” (released in the United States as “Renegade”) is a meditative tale of a weary lawman, Mike Blueberry (played by Vincent Cassel), who is struggling to maintain peace in a lawless town inhabited by villains and scoundrels. The film, vaguely based on the Moebius French comic series under the same name, is a visual tableau of hackneyed western imagery fused with psychedelic sequences.

Despite its tiresome pacing and obvious weak points in the narrative, the film’s director, Jan Kounen, received accolades for his experimental approach to the American western genre. Far from a popular film, audiences and critics tore apart the work, criticizing its exaggerated cinematography, largely inaccurate/stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans, clichéd thematic focus of “revenge and honor,” and of course, the inclusion of that giant flying lizard-demon…thing. Though deeply flawed in these regards, the film is acclaimed as a sensory piece, more of an “Acid Western” so to speak.

In the film’s climactic final sequence, the “good” and “bad guys” face-off in a most unexpected manner, not by shooting it out or warring for the good, but by instead laying in a cave and tripping out of their minds on a Peruvian drug called ayahuasca. This nine-minute psychedelic montage of intense visions and swirling patterns overlays Blueberry’s traumatic memories, effectively deconstructs the film’s vague narrative and reveals the disgraceful secret history of our “hero.” The sequence is at times jarring, overwhelming, and even boring. However, it exposes the true nature of the work: it is about images and ideas, senses and feelings that are raw and unrefined, the solitude and silent tortures of the repressed inner self and the deconstruction of identity. The seemingly trite and listless film transforms to deliver something shocking but intangible, haunting and beautiful.

It’s hard to predict if “Blueberry” will become a cult film such as Jodorowsky’s “El Topo," "Holy Mountain,"and Bird’s “Ravenous,” or if it will slip through culture's memory. As for now, it remains exceedingly obscure.

Monday, November 10, 2008


From 1959 through 1963 the television western, Laramie, ran on NBC. The reruns, of course, continued for years following. They were a consistent influence in my childhood experiences of the western film genre along with Rawhide, The Big Valley, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, F-Troop, The Gene Autry Show, Zane Grey Theater, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, High Chaparral, How the West was Won, Laredo, Maverick, The Rifleman, The Roy Rogers Show, Shane, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, among many others.

A list of TV westerns can be found here:

Wikipedia entry on Laramie:
Laramie is an American Western television series aired on NBC from 1959 to 1963. Laramie was a Revue Studios production which originally starred John Smith as Slim Sherman, Robert Fuller as Jess Harper, Hoagy Carmichael as Jonesy and Robert Crawford, Jr., as Andy Sherman. The story was about two brothers and a drifter who come together to run a stagecoach stop for the Great Central Overland Mail. The series ran for four seasons and is considered by some to be one of the best family-oriented westerns of its time.
After the first season, Hoagy Carmichael decided not to return, tired of the demands of filming a weekly episode. His character was written out with the explanation that he accompanied Andy to boarding school in St. Louis. Andy, however, would appear in a couple of episodes that second season. To restore the chemistry of the original cast, as the third season began, Spring Byington and Dennis Holmes joined the cast as Miss Daisy Cooper and Mike Williams.
When the series ended, Robert Fuller went straight to the television series Wagon Train, where he replaced lookalike Robert Horton, who'd quit the show, as the scout.

On January 1, 1962, a new version of the NBC peacock "living color" logo was introduced before that night's Laramie broadcast, and would be used before every color show on the network until 1970. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as the "Laramie peacock".

Dead Man (1996)

(Text from Gino Moliterno, Conver of Film Studies at Australian National University (2001).

Shot by Robby Müller in a high contrast black and white reminiscent of the nature photographs of Ansel Adams, and with a sometimes jarring but always haunting solo-guitar soundtrack, courtesy of Neil Young (see music video), Dead Man immediately made the running for the Golden Palm when first presented at Cannes in 1995. Problems with its distributor, Miramax, delayed its American release but when it finally opened in the States a year later it was generally greeted with a sense of puzzlement and consternation. The highly influential American film reviewer, Roger Ebert, seemed to be voicing the misapprehension of many with his candid admission: "Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is". (1)

For other more imaginative viewers, however, Jarmusch's intentions -and his achievement- in the film were immediately obvious. (2) To put it bluntly, the kid gloves had come off. In the earlier trilogy which had established his reputation as the leading American independent filmmaker of the 1980s, Jarmusch had always gently satirized the indolence and emptiness of contemporary American culture. But he had always done it, in true hipster fashion, in a minimalist style and with a cool sense of detachment, for the most part allowing his mild critique to emerge naturally in the perplexity of his films' outsiders: Willie's Hungarian cousin, Eva, in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Benigni's amiable Roberto in Down By Law (1987) or the young Japanese couple in Mystery Train (1989). With Dead Man, this satire of American culture was making a quantum leap to take on the features of a fully-fledged, passionate, moral denunciation. The target in the earlier films had largely been that vacuousness at the heart of American "throwaway" popular culture, but in Dead Man the object of Jarmusch's critique seems to be nothing less that the very existence of America itself, to the extent that this existence has been clearly predicated on the wholesale destruction of the land and the cultures of native American peoples. (3)

It seems quite appropriate, then, that in framing his denunciation, Jarmusch should abandon the postmodern hybrid genres of his earlier films and here return to that most classical and "native" of genres, the American Western. But he adopts it, clearly, only to implode it, to utilize its own iconography against itself, to lay bare the spuriousness of its myths and ideology, in effect to put the genre itself "under erasure" (4). The result is that this most familiar of film genres is suddenly made, so to speak, newly strange. Or, as Adrian Martin put it, with his usual acuity: "Although Dead Man is obviously some kind of Western, it's not one of those smart homages to a Hollywood genre (like Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead) - it's more like the ghostly burnt-out shell of a Western, commandeered for sullen and obscure purposes." (5)

These "obscure" purposes, as we've already suggested, are directed at the foundational myth of America, the notion of the "opening up" of the West as the great dawn of American civilization. In order to pursue this objective effectively Jarmusch reprises the stratagem so often used in his earlier films, namely seeing/showing America - in this case the America usually portrayed in the Western- from the estranged perspective of an outsider to the culture. It's fiercely ironic, of course, that the "outsider" in this burnt-out shell of a Western should be none other than an American Indian (played by Gary Farmer) who has consciously chosen to call himself "Nobody". As arguably the only true "Native American" in the film, Nobody should, by nature, be the real "insider" but, like all native Americans living under the law of the gun, he has been relegated to the role of a foreigner in his own land. It's even more ironic, of course, that Nobody, regarded as a savage by the white men, should be the only one in the film well-enough acquainted with European culture to be able to recognize the name of one of its major poets. If such ploys are somewhat reminiscent of the wry comedy in Jarmusch's earlier films, here they function to set up a small but nevertheless significant and historic victory: for perhaps the very first time, after an entire century of whooping and screeching senselessly on Western screens, a native American is able, and with full justification, to pronounce the lapidary phrase: "stupid fucking white man!"

For all this, however, Dead Man is ultimately less a political treatise and more an allegorical cinematic poem in which, through a merging of the traditional iconography of the Western and the radical poetry of William Blake, Jarmusch succeeds in creating a filmic analogue of Blake's subversive poetic vision whilst writing his own personal Lament for the fate Innocence at the hands of Experience. The result is a film that, in spite of the vehemence of its language - in lines that are taken directly from Blake- and the violence of its images - derived from the Western genre itself- actually comes to function in a highly contemplative mode. By the deliberate use of the fade out as a form of visual punctuation- a device introduced early in the film and then used consistently throughout- the narration is broken up into what appear almost as a series of juxtaposed tableaux vivants related by a slow, hypnotic rhythm, which thus makes a viewing of the film into something akin to a spiritual meditation.

Such a viewing ultimately gives the lie to the epigraph by Henri Michaux, which introduces the film, "It's preferable not to travel with a dead man" for those who have made the journey with, and through, Dead Man will know that it offers a sublime poetic experience like few others in our jaded contemporary culture.

  • *Quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dead Man, London, BFI Publishing, 2000, p
  • *Foremost among them were Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader - on Film (June 28, 1996), Kent Jones in his review of the film for Cineaste, (vol. 22, no. 2, 1996, pp. 45-46) and Jacob Levich in his "Western Auguries: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man", Film Comment, May-June 1996, pp. 39-41
  • *As Kent Jones points out, (ibid, p. 45), one can certainly find the seeds of such a "blunt attitude" towards America's past in earlier Westerns such as Arthur Penn's Little Big Man but Jarmusch's film is the first to adopt it as its central focus
  • *See Gregg Rickman's illuminating and comprehensive analysis, "The Western Under Erasure: Dead Man", in The Western Reader, Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickmann (eds.), New York, Limelight Editions, 1999
  • *Quoted in Rosenbaum, Dead Man, p. 47


    Superb pastiche science fiction Western, starring Yul Brenner as a sexy robot gunslinger.
    Directed by Michael Chichton, 1973

    Once Upon a Time in the West

    One of the best epic westerns ever made, Once Upon a Time in the West, C'Era una Volta il West.
    Sergio Leone, Director
    Ennio Moriconne, Composer
    Dario Argento & Bernardo Bertolucci, Story