A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

Belladonna of Sadness and the Animators’ Hand of God

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Not Safe for Work images ahead.

“I felt it was almost as if Tezuka had a few little drawers, which he opened, pulled out some things that he had used long ago, and though, Wow, look at this! before reassembling them into some sort of work…There’s a scene in [Takes of a Street Corner] where posters of a ballerina and a violinist or some such things are trampled…I remember when I saw this, I was so disgusted that chills ran down my spine…

There is a well-known rakugo comedy routine in which the owner of a tenement is learning gidayū ballads, and gets all his tenants together and forces them to listen to him. Well, Tezuka’s animation was just like that.”¹

–Hayao Miyazaki

Tezuka did not direct Belladonna of Sadness, but it ended up being the self-inflicted death blow for his animation company, Mushi Productions. Part of a trilogy of animated films intended for adults––1001 Nights and Cleopatra being its less experimental siblings––the movie is currently on a revival tour. I recently saw the 4K digital restoration of this occult rape fantasia at a local theatre and had to work through my impressions very carefully. It embodies in its radiant mix of impeccable taste and lurid sexuality the profound contradictions at the heart of attempts to bring animation to the adult counterculture.

It dovetails well with my Bakshi Retrospective, in other words.

Originally released in Japan in the summer of 1973, the film did so badly that it killed Mushi Productions, one of the historic titans of early Japanese film animation. Its avant-garde tendency contributed to its commercial failure but also ensured its longterm historical significance. Produced in watercolours with limited and stylized animation, with some scenes being just pans across huge, elaborate paintings, it tells the story of a woman who makes a deal with the devil to get the power to make her family prosper.

Director and co-writer Eiichi Yamamoto’s basis for the story was La Sorcière, called Satanism and Witchcraft in English. I’m not familiar with the book, but it has a reputation for being one of the first largely sympathetic accounts of European witchcraft, framing it as a protest against the repression of feudalism and the Catholic Church. Considering the 19th century’s obsessive fascination with the occult, it’s hardly surprising that the book came from the 1860s.

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And, judging by these 1911 illustrations by Martin van Maële, the book looks about as scientific and accurate as one would expect.

The book’s author, Jules Michelet, was not some gumshoe amateur, either. He was a Huguenot (French Calvinist) historian whose crowning achievement was a 19-volume history of France that exposed his scathing hatred of the Middle Ages. He even wrote and worked energetically during the Paris Commune, being unyieldingly hostile to French empire and feudalism in general. A thoroughly Romantic individual, his sensibility definitely informs the iconoclasm and mysticism of Belladonna.

Films that touch on witchcraft and the early modern European witch scares in particular are dealing with some fairly complex history. The definitive Marxist work on the with hunts is Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, who weaves this period of repressive violence against women together with the birth of the capitalist system and its destructive assaults on both peasant communities and women’s traditional knowledge. Many of its insights are summarized and well-presented in the zine Burning Witcheswhich is an excellent piece of work in its own right.

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Indeed, the film does have a critical edge to it and has some marginal material in it that could accord with Federici’s analysis, though presented in a warped and often patriarchal manner (on which more later). For instance, the entire plot of the film, such as it is, pivots around acts of violence against women. Entities political, supernatural, and human all take part either in the literal rape of the protagonist, Jeanne, or violently repress her in some way. Our heroine is ritually raped by the lord of the land on her wedding knight, and later gains occult powers through being raped by Satan himself, who appears in the form of a grotesque phallic being. People begin to suspect that she wields sinful power when she and her family carry on a successful artisan practice during a period of hardship. She and her husband prosper while the rest of the town is suffering from famine and excessive taxation. Because he is the only one who can pay his taxes (due to his wife’s labour) Jeanne’s husband Jean is appointed tax collector by the same lord who raped his wife.

Jeanne thus breaks out of the subsistence agricultural economy at an early point in the film, though that’s portrayed to be part of their dream at the beginning. Eventually, Jeanne becomes a usurer, using her position to exceed even in the lord in terms of wealth and power. At this point, she is a person to be reckoned with, and the king stirs up a mob to chase her out of the town and into a local forest for being a witch. Belladonna specifically frames the witch hunt as a result of a woman’s empowerment and the fear it produced within the population and particularly in the lord and his loyal Catholic bishop.

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Once chased to the periphery of civilization, Jeanne creates a phantasmic world and slowly wins the town to her favour with her power to heal the Black Plague and––no less––because of her ability to host orgies that would put the Summer of Love to shame. Here Michelet’s anti-Catholicism nestles right up to a crude approximation of the 60s sexual revolution. Just as the hippie isolationists of the 1960s arguably reconfigured Romantic ideas to suit their separatist retreats and communes, the film looks beyond the confines of the civilized space and the community that produces it for liberation, looking for escape in physical indulgence and mental expansion through substance use.

Deciphering the exact “view” the film might have about the historical witch burnings is not entirely possible. It’s easy to see that it sees the burnings in a negative light, and even sees witches as figures of revolt and counter-hegemonic power, but it’s obviously only using this period of history as a prop for its own agenda: to free animation from the tyranny of the “family” audience and canned subject matter. The animators are in some sense telling their own story through Jeanne: she is the instrument through which they will liberate their art.

Though the film is commendable in glorifying Jeanne’s power and even positioning her as a revolutionary figure in some ways, its depiction of her reminds one of the ways in which Surrealists would appropriate women’s bodies as props to celebrate their own liberation from the superego. Within the plot of the film, Jeanne transcends her victimhood to become an avatar of freedom and free love. In fact, at a certain point, her personality almost completely transforms from confident but often harrowed and “damaged” to serene and detached.

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Her body becomes a vessel for the fulfillment of the filmmakers’ fantasies, as well as those of the audience. These fantasies are cast as aesthetic and erotic, of course (given her constant nudity), but also, given what I’ve said above, deeply political as well. She is an embodiment of the film’s ideal woman and ideal world. The way the film eventually links her to French republican representations of Liberty and Nation is telling; like in Bakshi’s Coonskin, the sexualized woman serves as an attention magnet, drawing attention to what the filmmakers are doing and trying to tell the audience. Her power to heal and fulfill dreams is ultimately tied to that of the filmmakers to satisfy our (and their own) desires with the power of animation. Belladonna is masturbatory (what Miyazaki alluded to as the Hand of God in the article cited above) to the degree that it takes pleasure in a one-sided fantasy of animation’s Promethean power to satisfy the audience’s lust for women’s bodies objectified on screen. Jeanne is the birth of a thousand dreams, the climax of many others.

Notably, the filmmakers give us a parallel character, a feudal double for Jeanne. She is the wife of the lord, the lady of the land. Her own story is that of jealousy, repression, a gradual loss of power and respect. She, too, is taken and raped by a servant, who gets help committing this deed with Jeanne. The lord’s wife eventually dies by her husband’s sword as she climaxes, another instance where the film locates the source of patriarchal power in its control over women’s sexuality. There are certain ironies to that, given how the film’s celebration of sex and women’s bodies is more than a little manipulative and self-serving.

I mentioned Surrealism, but that movement, and its pop 60s counterpart Psychedelia, are only two of the reference points for Belladonna. We also have a whole sheaf of late 19th century European art, as well as earlier “decadent” movements like Mannerism. Eiichi Yamamoto, the director, specifically mentions the influence of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt as well as the Japanese illustrator Masakane Yonekura, who worked on the film. Yamamoto mentions that he wanted to capture the decadence of the fin-de-siècle, which serves as a mirror for the decadence of the early 1970s.² Klimt is certainly the most obvious reference, as his Symbolist art weaves together extravagant use of gold leaf with stylized, erotic subjects. While Belladonna is not as opulent, it takes from Klimt a fascination with characters who are largely abstract and ill-defined, standing in for universal concepts more than psychologically realistic characters. They’re fixed enough to serve as stand-ins for Men, Rulers, Priests, Women, the Mob, but are flexible enough (especially Jeanne, whose body is put through a gauntlet of usually-painful transformations and distortions in the film) to accommodate the experimental animator’s need to reconfigure, twist, and poke.

Viewing Belladonna of Sadness on a large screen is an arresting spectacle, featuring a number of captivating sequences. My personal favourite is the way the Black Death is portrayed as a great dark water dissolving away the great structures of civilization, leaving withered skeletons and spectral human beings in its wake. Another riotous sequence is the final sexual encounter between the Devil and Jeanne, which culminates in a pounding psychedelic soundtrack that rushes along a series of pop-art images that are individually witty or ironic but in their sum convey a sense of world-historical shaking and tearing. They’re also silly, but the overall effect is quite strong.

After seeing so many animated films from the 1970s, I think I can come to a preliminary conclusion about the typical way that Woman is portrayed in these kinds of adult animation experiments. They are never either the sharp-tongued Hollywood women of the Golden Age nor the ascetic badasses typical of action fare starring women today. Instead, they are both outspoken and powerful and the inevitable victims of male sexual power. Sexuality is the dominant theme, though, and whether the film in questions frames this violence fetishistically (the 70s B movie is one of the great repositories of rape in cinema after all) or more antagonistically––and this film does a bit of both––it is often the only thing that matters. I find this somewhat difficult to comprehend so far removed from the so-called Sexual Revolution, but the singular fascination with sex in this film is as graphic a reminder as I would want of this tendency in 70s filmmaking. Everything is sex––violence, personal autonomy, and politics––and sex is everything.

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Masakane Yonekura illustration.

What Miyazaki says in his article about Tezuka, that the man and his company were often obsessed with their own power of presentation and that they were desperate to impress, certainly rings true for Belladonna of Sadness. Some of the images in the film are indeed of the sort that would send a chill skittering up your spine. And not always in a good way. Yet I think that time, and the coalescence of animation as an art form around CGI and the “family audience” has been kind to this movie. Take out of its troubled time, and it shows up the current crop of commercial animated pictures for the diluted and formulaic works they are. It’s a piece well worth digesting and discussing, for despite its flaws it contains a spark of what popular art should be.

P.S. I left an enormous amount of content unwritten for the sake of taming an already lengthy piece. I could wax essayistic on what its relationship to anime is, its relationship to 19th century European japonisme, its soundtrack, its relationship to Tezuka’s other work, and on and on. I probably won’t come back to this film again, at least for awhile, but I encourage others who see it to write about these topics if they’re of interest.

Notes:

  1. Hayao Miyazaki, “I Parted Wayes With Osamu Tezuka,” in Starting Point, trans. Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt (San Francisco: Viz Media, 2009), 194-196.
  2. Interview with Eiichi Yamamoto: http://www.style.fm/as/13_special/mini_060118.shtml

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories

Daft Punk Cover

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

I have to confess that I stole this manuscript off of Alexius’ desk. I told him that there was a wasp behind his back. He had just been at some allergy seminar for cats, and was paranoid about insects of all kinds. This I knew, and used to great effect. He turned his back and I snatched this right up, rushing out of there before he could pounce. I confess I may have slammed the door on his paws. I do not regret this, because only an aging rock star in league with the devil is qualified to pass judgment on an album so invested in performing unironic nostalgia for the 1970s. I lived through those times, those trends, and those troubles, and what does some simpleton cat know about that?

***

I went through my first burst of musical obsession, like many of us do, in my late teens. Feeling oppressed by an unknown but potent Man and undergoing my own pupal stage of adolescence, I was attracted to music that allowed me to ignore this awkward body, thank you much. Progressive rock became a constant companion, or as constant as it could be in an age before portable music players and relatively cheap audio equipment. Remembering it now, I can see that the bedazzlement I felt for instrumental prowess and high-culture allusions was more than a little aspirational. I had a mind to study literature and music theory, to remake myself into the next Jon/Ian Anderson or Robert Fripp or Greg Lake.

From what I can gather, the title of the album has a kind of codebreaker built into it. For those baffled by Random Access Memories’ menagerie of guest appearances, musical references, and elaborate, sometimes operatic disco, I would pay attention to the third word in the title. This is an album of musical memories, of pre-made past experiences. Working with my band on our own last album, we began to use sampling and digital manipulation techniques to a much greater extent that we had before, and I began to realize something: while the technique of sampling is certainly a forward-looking (perhaps not so much anymore) and technically-advanced one, it is on the flip side inherently backward-looking. It is taking what already exists and remaking it. All music builds on traditions and preexisting influences, but sampling reminds you of that in a more direct way.

Daft Punk’s members might wear robotic suits, which point toward the future. However, their specific aesthetics remind one of earlier visions of the future. The group’s ambition on RAM is, therefore, not innovation but revivalism. Consider that the opening song is a clarion call to “Bring Life Back to Music.” Even with the trademark robotic voices, the song still sounds sincere, even tender. Recalling Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, it serves as a memorialization and revitalization (paradoxical but true) of a more organic time in music. The duo’s decision to use mostly organic instrumentation on the album is indicative of their approach this time around. While some songs are classic retro-infused dance material, like hit single “Get Lucky” and another collaboration with Pharrell Williams, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” many of the songs are more showcases for an eclectic, sometimes grandiose evocation of the 1970s.

One such example is the Paul Williams collaboration “Touch,” which directly references  my favourite film–Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise–to cement the album’s 70s credentials. It’s also Daft Punk’s favourite film, and it somewhat mirrors the appeal of this French disco-electronic dance robot duo. “Touch,” itself, is an expansive song, running through eight minutes of sweeping strings, glistening synthesizers, and unabashedly schmaltzy singing from Paul Williams. There’s even a children’s choir. All of this could be incredibly annoying and incoherent if it weren’t so cohesive. Random Access Memories recaptures our popular-culture-tinted memories of the 1970s so well that its fantastical nostalgia seems earned rather than a cheap trick to pull our heartstrings.

In a world of sampling, everything is fair game, whether that be intellectualized cult camp like Phantom or the electrifying grooves of late 70s disco. Or the slightly less invigorating sounds of soft rock from the same era. What matters to Random Access Memories isn’t the coolness or respectability of what it is sampling and reviving but their authenticity, using these signifiers to push us back to life and better times. It’s a grand architectural attempt to bring the spirit of the 70s, the most fertile time for grand albums statements like this one, into the present. Luckily a Frankenstein’s monster is not the result. That makes it, oddly, rather optimistic and forward-looking. By returning to a more hopeful period of the past, it is able to revivify the progressive outlook of that decade’s music as well, and make it its own.