February 28, 2011

In Search of Christopher Maclaine 16: The THE END Tour - A Work in Progress 14: CLIMAX A

This is the sixteenth in a multipart series unofficially conjoined to the publication of Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, and the accompanying film series currently being presented by the Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco Cinematheque (in partnership with SFMOMA).

With my friend Brian Darr, proprietor of the great Bay Area cinephilia blog Hell on Frisco Bay, I’ve been scouting out the San Francisco locations used in Christopher Maclaine’s Masterpiece, THE END. What began as an attempt to identify and document what physically remains of the often mysterious places at which THE END was shot has evolved into a larger project to also analyze the film, and to identify all its many actors and extras, all of whom appear uncredited. To read the full version of these preliminary remarks, including info on how YOU can participate in this project, click here. For further information on Maclaine, check out the intro, which serves as this series’s hub. For the previous post of this Tour, click here.

NEW FEATURE: a YouTube of the CLIMAX A episode is viewable here.

NOTE: This post’s images, for the most part, are stills documenting many (but by no means all) of this portion of THE END‘s shots. Those unfamiliar with the film will probably want to watch the video clip found immediately above first, before making their way through the (hopefully enjoyable) notes and explication.

1) First off, let me just say: locals who have been following this Tour, please click on the appropriate link to read about the exciting S.F. Cinematheque show Radical Light: In Search of Christopher Maclaine: Man, Artist, Legend,  to be presented by yours truly and Brian at SFMOMA on March 31st! Now, on to our regularly scheduled post: At the end of the last post, CHRIS C, I referred to the dilemma of our artist-hero Maclaine, at this point of THE END, as a “Gordian knot.” The cumulative effect of his Voice-Over monologues, including the one which ended CHRIS C, was to paint the human species circa 1953 into a nuclear bomb-bordered corner from which there could be no escape. Even if the fiery Apocalypse were not to occur, the very existence of The Bomb implicated Man as a suicidal creature hell-bent on mayhem, unable to hew to the “better angels of his nature.” Like for Alexander the Great, the only solution to an insoluble conundrum for Chris is ignoring the terms in which it is framed (even though these are provided by the filmmaker himself), and cutting through his dilemma by harking back to the Vision seen by Chris/”A Character” towards the end of CHRIS B, and through most of CHRIS C.

For THE END‘s remaining not-quite-four minutes, we will be presented with a continuation of Chris’s/”A Character’s” Vision, which, now shorn of Voice-Over words, will truly be a Vision of  “ecstatic connection to the universe found in romance and/or the pursuit of orgasm” (as I anticipated in the previous post). THE END‘s final moments unspool in pure mindscreen form: a Vision seen by its maker/narrator/protagonist (“A Character” played by Chris himself). The film takes full flight into poetic consciousness, and, to employ the phrase by MINDSCREEN author Bruce F. Kawin, “dreams itself.”

This post, as well as the next in this Tour (which will be our last), are both labeled “CLIMAX”, though THE END‘s climax from a dramaturgical perspective was, strictly speaking, found towards the end of CHRIS B. I believe the reader will soon find these designations apropos, however, for Maclaine’s mystical solution to the riddle of The Bomb is Tantric. Baldly put, Maclaine’s advice to modern Man is to make hey-hey in the hay while the sun shines.

To render his hanky-panky Cosmic, Maclaine can’t do better than to score it by Bach: from about a second before we see the above “6”, therefore, we hear the fourth movement of Johann Sebastian‘s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, BVW 1046. Maclaine clearly conceived this sequence in relationship to Bach’s music: it is directed and edited in time to the concerto in the manner of a musical, or perhaps ballet.

2) In the enchanted environs of China Beach, in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood, the innocent maiden-seeming figure of PIPEGIRL walks by the sea, lost in apparent poetic reverie. This unidentified actress was previously encountered in the film’s introductory montage.

3) She is startled by something off-screen.

4) Immediately beguiled, she draws closer like a child in a fairy tail captivated by the sight of jewels or a candy-house happened upon while traveling down a forest path.

5) My! She has found two delightful wooden pipes on a stone ledge, one red, and one yellow. Selecting the red one, Pipegirl brings it excitedly and tenderly to her lips.

6) After an extremely well-crafted (and therefore smooth) jump cut, Pipegirl suddenly discovers her pipe has changed its color to blue! This is most upsetting! She tosses it away in anger and mild disgust.

7) There is another, more noticeable jump cut, then — Ah! She catches sight of the yellow one…

8 ) …which now becomes her tender choice.

9) She brings its stem to her lips in a mood of full-on erotic languor. Now, this is the ONE.

10) After another seamlessly executed jump cut, Pipegirl realizes that now her yellow pipe has been transformed: it has become gold. GOLD?! Hey! That wasn’t what she’d selected to put between her lips! It, too, is discarded.

We are presented here with archetypally feminine symbolic behavior. In the Analytical Psychology of C. G. Jung, the theories of which this Tour is grounded, the feminine implies the masculine and vice versa. The spirit or soul in men, considered literally or metaphorically, is the feminine anima, and conversely, the spirit or soul in women is the masculine animus. While there are biologically-determined human behaviors which are rooted in gender (like for any animal), these can be thought of as very general tendencies rather than rules: all of our psyches contain an infinite interplay of “feminine” and “masculine” archetypal forces, and we are all prone to variations of “masculine” and “feminine” behavior.

Pipegirl’s behavior is a metaphor for an archetypally “feminine” syndrome: the taking up of  occupations, causes, or lovers, say, in full expectation that these choices will reliably sate every need and desire. When the chosen — a lover, for example — reveals unexpected characteristics, and natural human fallibility, she feels deceived. That wasn’t the one. She thought she’d been in love, but could she have really? With him?…  On to the next!

11) Maclaine cuts to another angle from slightly above the seated Pipegirl, with the tide in the background. This perspective draws out her beauty as she toys with the gold pipe, reconsidering. It is gold, after all — the alchemical goal, the universal symbol of spiritual perfection (and the metal itself, of course, figuratively and literally represents worldly wealth).

12) Maclaine  jump cuts to a shot of Pipegirl rising to look off in the distance. Has the play with the gold pipe reminded her of something?

Let me say in passing I find Maclaine’s cinematic treatment of Pipegirl very moving: at times she is not so beautiful, and at others she’s ravishing. This unidentified actress has an unmistakably charismatic inner-glow. For her brief moments in THE END, Maclaine makes of her a movie star: the artist finds the resplendent in the everyday. On another note, Pipegirl’s fetching womanly voluptuousness in this shot gives the lie to the name with which I have designated her: surely she should be called “PIPEWOMAN”. I have to admit I’m tremendously attached to “Pipegirl”, nonetheless — however mature her figure is, the character she plays in “6” behaves with charming girlish silliness, and my longtime fascination with her dates from a period in which I was more naturally attracted by “girls” than “women”, so whatever charges of sexism it shall entail, “Pipegirl” for me she will remain.

13) Are the activities of these somewhat masculine hands and forearms what Pipegirl had been viewing from an unknown distance in the previous shot? They light a birthday candle stuck upright in rock-covered sand, then hover about to protect its flame from the wind.

14) In comes the tide! The candle is extinguished in a split-second. This would-be flame nurturer must be some sort of pocket-Quixote inclined to all manner of Romantic foolishness.

15) HEY!…  He certainly seems surprised. Didn’t he consider that the tide’s path was a poor place to effect his shenanigans for the long term? Maclaine’s technique here registers MATCHMAN’s goofy shock: by violating the 180° rule to cut across the axis for this reverse shot of the character’s response to the foiling of his scheme, the filmmaker disorients his audience’s sense of space with an edit that would have felt in 1953 every bit as “amateur” as our wannabe pyromaniac’s attempted methodology. After the camera follows Matchman reeling back and up from the tide-covered sand, Maclaine compounds his absurd effect by cutting to a repeat of Matchman’s action from what would have been the “correct” angle to cut to from the shot seen in #14, immediately above.

Matchman (actor unidentified), like Pipegirl, had previously been seen in THE END‘s introductory montage. His haircut, attire, self-conscious grins and overall delicately daffy performance style are reminiscent of Jerry Lewis, who, in his comedy partnership with Dean Martin, had become a huge star circa ’53.

16) Matchman sticks the candle back in the sand and begins to attempt lighting it again, then throws his matchbook down in evident frustration. Jordan Belson’s camera swings up to make the shot a Close-Up of Matchman’s bummed countenance.

This character’s peculiar, Quixotic candle-and-match routine is a metaphor for an archetypally masculine complex. How many aspiring Romantic visionaries have attempted to keep their tiny flames lit against the on-rushing waves! What I said in #10, above, regarding “very general tendencies”, and how we are all “prone to variations of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ behavior” applies here too. No doubt there have been vast numbers of idealistic young women, as well as men, who have found themselves in Matchman’s situation. What I’m trying to get at here is that I believe Maclaine is trying, via these characters’ absurd behavior, to isolate sex-based archetypal tendencies he found in the world around him. He likely identified with Matchman’s predicament — from all reports, the Bay Area arts scene of the Beat-era was far more idealistic than that of the current day, and was no doubt chock-full of what I described above as “pocket-Quixotes”.

17) Maclaine cuts to a wide-angle shot of Matchman and Pipegirl puttering about their respective turfs. For the first time, we see their two figures in relation to each other. Pipegirl had indeed been looking in Matchman’s direction in the shot seen in #12, but they are much farther apart than we might have imagined. Now, these two brooding zombies lurch about the Waste Land.

18) Matchman moves screen right, the camera panning to follow as he drifts to an even more Waste-Land-y terrain. Suddenly struck by a notion, his head jerks in the direction of Pipegirl, and he spreads his arms in a gesture of openness.

19) But that isn’t enough — he calls out to her as well!

20) Pipegirl hears his call. This shot is clearly a continuation of the one we saw in #12, therefore providing another example of Maclaine’s pioneering efforts in what I described in CHRIS B as the “complex poetic/dreamscape-laden/time-shifting manner that would become a major cinematic mode with such later works as Resnais’s HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959) and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)”. Was #12 a flash-forward, or have all of Matchman’s activities been a flashback? To answer these questions for certain one way or the other is impossible, but we are definitely given the sense here of different modes of consciousness and perception of time. I believe that Maclaine is expressing the sense of how both members of a couple (for we are about to find that Pipegirl and Matchman are, indeed, a couple) can exist separately within their respective realities, and yet simultaneously share a third reality of commingled understanding. Perhaps stimulated by her play with the gold pipe, which possibly suggested the “gold” of their relationship, Pipegirl anticipated Matchman’s call before he’d even thought to make it.

21) Had you noticed the whistle on a chain around Matchman’s neck? Not content with previous forms of signaling, he sees fit to let rip. The Waste Land in which he’d been trapped in 17-19 is here rendered an island paradise.

22) A recent photo from a bit to the left of the angle seen in #21, immediately above, and with a more wide-angle lens. Despite these differences, it’s clear from this image that China Beach can still double as Paradise.

23) Yes! indicates Pipegirl by throwing up her arms in ecstatic affirmation.

24) They may be separated by dozens of feet, but their “embrace” indicates mental/emotional union. They move towards each other.

25) A recent photo. Displaying his fierce determination to stand in for as many of THE END‘s characters as necessary, Brian crosses the gender line to play “Pipegirl”.

26) Pipegirl sticks out her tongue seductively as she makes her way towards Matchman.

27) Maclaine cuts to another angle: Pipegirl rushes towards Matchman mouthing unheard words which appear to me to be “oh, yes!”

28) Matchman and Pipegirl rush towards, then collapse onto a slightly raised mound in the sand. They begin to claw at the air suggestively.

29) Maclaine goes in for a Close-Up. Our couple continues their suggestive air clawing — in the process, Matchman reveals a juvenile sexuality very much along the lines of Jerry Lewis’s onscreen sexual persona at this time, while Pipegirl unveils a ferocious jungle-cat who might be moonlighting from a Russ Meyer movie. I knew you were “all woman”, Pipegirl!

After all of the harsh alienation running rampant through most of THE END, we are presented in the Pipegirl-Matchman sequence with the first in the film that can be described as “tender”. Pipegirl and Matchman’s emotional openness, and concomitant embracing of the silliness and goofiness which characterized Chris/”A Character”‘s playful behavior in CHRIS C, allow them to be jarred out of their respective complexes and consequent lethargy by the mating impulse. Is Pipegirl and Matchman’s “story” personal for Maclaine? Was he describing himself to some extent, and one or more women with whom he’d been (and/or perhaps still was) involved? Like so many other speculations regarding Maclaine and his film, these questions are impossible to answer. Nonetheless, the behavior of Chris/”A Character”, as well as that of Pipegirl and Matchman to me feels reflective of a personally arrived-at solution to an individual psychological dynamic. While ultimately his film would hit an (admittedly tiny, but profoundly influential) collective nerve, the response of surrender to childlike playfulness and Dionysian ecstasy in the face of possible total human annihilation could only have been conceived by a “Madman” (as Maclaine’s stand-in character would be called in his next film, THE MAN WHO INVENTED GOLD). The very playfulness of these performances by “Pipegirl” and “Matchman” is another element of THE END personal to the point of “madness”. The actors playing these characters don’t attempt to inhabit them in the manner of Stanislavski, say (the Great Russian director and acting theorist’s system was having a profound impact on the American stage and screen of 1953), but rather gaily perform them in a manner somewhat analogous to children playing grown-up while wearing their parents’ clothing. While Maclaine achieved a similarly semi-Brechtian effect with all of the performances in THE END, the sweet spirits of “Pipegirl” and “Matchman” shine through in their sequence. Their embracing of absurdity relates to Hollywood comedy of the period, but is uniquely moving as a consequence of the open fragility of their performances.

Though the psychological symbolism of the Pipegirl-Matchman episode is arguably more sophisticated than that of the idiom of Hollywood comedies of THE END‘s day (or at least presented in more concentrated form, in its play with matches and pipes), the union of a man and woman in love before “THE END” flashed on the screen was (and of course still is) a profoundly potent symbolic cocktail by which a viewer of a movie romance could (and can) achieve an alchemical fusion of his or her masculine and feminine psychic components. Naturally, there’s the outer-shell version of sexual/romantic wish-fulfillment projected onto the characters on the screen with which everyone is familiar, but the symbolically resonant aspects of the form are profoundly rich. Philosopher Stanley Cavell, for instance, in his brilliant book PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, explores a cycle of films in the period from 1934 to 1949, such as Howard Hawks’ BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and Leo McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), as works of Emersonian perfectionism, in which “the achievement of happiness requires not the… satisfaction of our needs… but [rather] the examination and transformation of those needs.” Pipegirl and Matchman’s playfulness has its similarities to Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn’s hjinks in Hawks’ film, while the sexual symbolism of their dumbshow echoes Grant and Irene Dunne’s in McCarey’s. Like these earlier works variously do, Maclaine proposes play, romance and sex as a means of transforming one’s gestalt. In keeping with his “Madman”/outsider/Bomb-era perspective, Maclaine will, however, in the visual sexual metaphors of THE END‘s concluding montage go far beyond anything a Hollywood filmmaker would have seriously contemplated in his, or any day, at least up ’til the era of 90’s gross-out comedy.

30) Did you suspect that with China Beach we were on familiar terrain? On the same day Brian and I photographed #s 22 and 25, we also snapped this image (previously seen in JOHN B) of China Beach’s seawall, and its remaining “PRAY”. Maclaine would seem to have made extremely efficient use of his locations! If all goes according to plan, there will be a later post devoted exclusively to this charmed seawall.

The THE END Tour ends not with a whimper, but a bang! Click here for CLIMAX B.

Click as indicated for the previous post of this Tour. Click as indicated for the intro to this series.

Click as indicated for information on the San Francisco Cinematheque show Radical Light: In Search of Christopher Maclaine: Man, Artist, Legend, to be presented at SFMOMA on March 31st.

Click here for an interview with Stan Brakhage concerning Maclaine, circa 1986.

If you have any information or (nonpublic) feedback to contribute to the Tour, please click here.


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