Into the Wayback Machine
with Ray Young
An Unbearable Likeness of Being
The Secret Memories of Flickhead!
By Ray Young
Where the Shadows Run from Themselves
Did it have four eyes, or only three? Over forty years have slipped by, but the image remains tucked away in the mind's attic. A prune-skinned dude in baggy plaid bathing trunks, diving mask, and aqualung retrieves a suitcase from a pond. Its contents: the cadaver of a mutant multi-eyed kitty cat from another dimension. Girls screamed! (And girls did scream.) Boys bolted for the exits! (Ditto.) Me? I'd simply be cursed with total recall of a Saturday matinee concoction called Terror from the Year 5000, a late-'50s cheapie done up in Ozzie Nelson tweed.
It was not without merit, for playing the “terror” was Salome Jens. Awakening — nay! setting afire!
— one's slumbering libido, she possessed a face tailor-made for the wide-angle lens: stately cheekbones nearly as epic as Faye Dunaway’s, almond-shaped eyes slanted toward depression. Her voice quivering with Nordic ancestry and a suggestion of neurosis, Salome arrived from Y5K in a black leotard aglitter with sequins, twirling hypnotic talons at the poor fool scientists responsible for unleashing this thing
(Salome put the whammy on me a few years later, in Seconds
, playing a pod variant of Holly Golightly. Stomping grapes in its orgasmic centerpiece, my nude Venus gave James Wong Howe some of his finest images. After that, it was the gradual descent of guest spots in forgotten episodes of obsolete TV shows.)
Terror from the Year 5000
was written, produced, and directed by Robert Gurney, Jr., whose script involves superficial characters in stock situations, in a scenario derivative of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine
. His lack of editing prowess makes scenes drag on like an unwanted conversation. A recent screening became so wearing that the film's 80-odd-minutes needed to be parceled out over two evenings.
(Gurney bought a one-way ticket to Palookaville. What does one do after Terror from the Year 5000
? Sell real estate? Insurance? Used cars? Is there a touch of madness to make one yell, “Action!” to those about to test-drive a previously-owned Ford?)
Objectivity takes a hike when reminiscing past Edens. My intangible attraction to Terror from the Year 5000
claims a corner in a personal, private Xanadu, where images ebb and flow with the exuberance of a Busby Berkeley dance number. It’s a garden rooted in the medulla oblongata, overrun with Rosebuds and black and blue dahlias. Where Kipling's cynical serpent prods, "It's pretty, but is it art?"
For a while, my life was an eternal Saturday. Trimmed hedges framed walkways to humble downtowns, with their five-and-dimes and sweet shoppes and theatres, single screens barely wide enough to accommodate the panoramic splendor of Vista-Vision. Pockets were jammed with trading cards and bubble gum, rolled-up magazines and comic books, chocolate bars and hard round suckers in bright primary colors.
You got a whiff of stale popcorn as you fumbled for dimes and nickels to make the fifty-cent admission. Waiting on line, checking out the latest Bazooka Joe, his miniscule universe caught in two or three tiny panels. Hunkered down in that darkened theatre, you become a vampire draining nourishment from bargain kiddie matinees.
Having little awareness of cinema, and even less regard for quality, you embrace horror and science fiction, genres as graceless as adolescence itself.
“Horror charted a geography of inexperience, a map requiring almost no knowledge of the outside world,” wrote Geoffrey O'Brien in The Phantom Empire
. “A child could make such a map, and it was the ritualistic and repetitive moves of childish thought that horror movies enacted with such precision. The movie lived in that part of the mind where magical thinking continued to flourish, and in its refusal to impart any information whatsoever about the real world had a curiously consolatory quality.”
Every flivver, be it Terror from the Year 5000
or Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory
or Atom Age Vampire
, wheezed its way to “the end,” each an empty Eden fading out in dreary cast rosters and corporate logos, obituaries for another dead Saturday.
But then, in a cyclic plot deviation out of Dead of Night
or Groundhog Day
or Run, Lola, Run
, the narcotic kicks in again a week later. You become an addict running for Friday's newspaper, its leisure section a gallery of custom typography and kitschy clip art dressing up things “all new.” Half-faced Frank zapping hairy, boorish Mul, cartooned on a distant planet in a scene not to be found in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster
. Or Raquel, looking quite randy to me, in her rawhide one-piece and furry pumps, lo those One Million Years B.C.
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Carefully lifting the corner of a drawn window shade, I eyed her approach from the northern end of my block. Perfectly animated, shoulders rolling with each extension of the thigh, her passive stare nailed dead center. How did Jobim put it?: "When she walks, she's like a samba, that swings so cool and sways so gently."
Sweet Susan D'Accotta . . . a mere four or five years earlier she enrolled in our elementary school, all smiles and pigtails. We gushed an overbearing welcome, some twenty-four hours after administration briefed us on incoming Negroes to our upscale Caucasian oasis. (Yet the yahoos still
spray-painted derogatory racial epithets on the side of the D'Accotta residence.)
But race relations were furthest from my mind now as a dollop of saliva protruded from my lower lip. The pigtails a memory of some distant prototype, Susan's hair was brushed out horizontally, defying gravity. A naughty little pout underlined eyes of Asian descent. The soft brown skin with no visible blemish softly contrasted the men's white dress shirt she wore. Was that her sole article of clothing? Below the waist two splendid legs found their way down to a pair of dainty, perfectly curved bare feet.
As careful an examination one can muster from fifteen yards spied a faint jiggle at the inner thigh. Is she wearing underwear? Ankle to sole, the gradation of skintone — that soft, white underside!
An inviting swing of the chest, parted lips and a line of teeth . . . my skin growing too tight to blink!
At the hand, an index finger brushes the thumb, inviting . . . my spunky little cherub, beet-red and about to erupt!
That ear-splitting, insufferable ring blasted through my afternoon delight. Fumbling for tissues, the phone receiver, panting, "Hello?"
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah . . . yes . . . ok -- what's going on? Huh?"
"Have you been jerking off again
???" Bruce always managed to figure the 411 on me.
"That guy's weird," they said. "He has long, greasy hair, and he smells!
By now those words had evaporated as we walked for miles under a yellow moon in an October sky. I figured the guy got a bum rap: in the days before Springsteen, carrying the name "Bruce" was tantamount to labeling yourself "faggot."
Commie? Hippie? Homo? The locals sure couldn't figure this threat to their Aryan wetdream. Hats twirled on the heads of manicured commuter dads, sneers soured the faces of Gold Star Mothers.
There was a dusky chill from the humid air. It spirited down collars and up sleeves — you could feel the remnants of night on your skin the next morning. A gazillion thoughts puffed out on miniature clouds from our mouths, bursting, hemming, hawing, getting facts straight, making it up as we went along.
Bruce looked like an ugly little girl cursed with John Cazale's forehead, and he lived in the weirdo house. You know — the one with a lawn overrun with weeds; dirty, cracked shingles; dark windows; and a deteriorating walkway to a most uninviting front door. Only a select few were allowed in to maneuver their way around stacks of old newspapers and magazines, crusty dishes and dusty furniture. In the kitchen you met Orville, a mannequin in suit-and-tie, an all-purpose guest for imaginary occasions.
"Can you believe they added a canned laugh-track to The Flintstones
???" His intense glare began collapsing under the pressure of a furrowed brow. "I wonder just how many assholes
think there's a little cartoon audience
watching it in a little cartoon theatre
My only comeback was a trio of short exhales, a la Bradford Dillman in 99 and 44/100% Dead
We beat feet from town to village and back again. Haunting one decayed Bijou after another, ancient ruins from the Cinemascope age. Stains and rips defaced screens that once held the Vista-Vision wonders of Run for Cover
and To Catch a Thief
. Squeaky seats exposed their foamy guts in an odorous environment suffering a wave of white trash Americana: White Line Fever, Aloha Bobby & Rose, The Last American Hero, Ode to Billy Jo, Macon County Line, Baby Blue Marine
. . .
A juvenile forecast of Max von Sydow's character in Hannah and Her Sisters
, Bruce stood flamingo-style, one foot resting on the opposite knee, wagging a bony index finger as he dropped names of some supposed significance: Paul Krassner, John Korty, Crawdaddy
, Lenny Bruce, an entity referred to as "the Great White Wonder."
All coming down on me, his pupil, carrying the baggage of a James Bond infatuation, an inexplicable Don Knotts jones, and quite possibly the only one ever to recognize the space alien in Attack of the 50ft. Woman
as a dead ringer for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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The Hallucination Generation
Like pages flying off a calendar in a Ross Hunter movie, days passed with hours of telephoned indulgence in incessant pop culture lust. A pox on Bruce for getting to the candy store first and grabbing the latest issue of Castle of Frankenstein
magazine! I was forced to humble myself as he read aloud Joe Dante's giggling comments on Plan 9 from Outer Space
. . . I simply had to get my own copy, toot sweet!
We mined for obscurities, excavating the likes of Carnival of Souls
and Devil's Angels
on late-night tv, while witnessing the burgeoning of midnight shows in theatres hip to our needs. Before VCR's, before "Golden Turkey" awards, when Ed Wood was still relatively unheard of, we walked five miles to a neighboring Bijou's witching-hour presentation of Invasion of the Blood Farmers
, passing a realty office along the way. "Hey!
" Bruce called over as he checked their business hours, "reality closes
It often evaporated entirely. Especially after fumbling for the rolling papers, sloppily pinching together an awkward joint. Marijuana came with Blazing Saddles
, when another of my expanding coterie, Jack, assumed me "experienced" and lit a 'doob en route to the theatre. That first generous toke housed in my lungs for a minor eternity, as I suppressed the dry hack indigenous to non-smokers. The magic of boo evaded me that initial run, however; I sat in the land of Mel Brooks arrow-straight, feigning a stoner's demeanor.
Done up in denim, wide belt, work shirt, a brown fringe jacket, Jack's beard and shoulder-length hair invited comparison with the Bangladesh-era George Harrison — an affect undone by Jack's auburn Celtic coloring, suggesting George had weathered a blizzard of paprika. Nearly a decade older than us, his hippiehood masked a hankering for golden-age Warners melodramas and Astaire & Rogers musicals, all the while carrying a torch for Ann Sheridan. He could recite her saucy lines from They Drive by Night
well into the wee hours.
Reeking of patchouli, Jack's VW Beetle made frequent jaunts to Manhattan's Theatre 80 St. Marks, the '70s emporium of Depression-era escapism and war-time noir. Once there, you could get down and dig the nuances separating George Stevens's Swing Time
from Mark Sandrich's Astaire/Rogers oeuvre. Jack assured us Carefree
was the very best of the lot. Or was it Follow the Fleet
? At times, even he
His zeal was occasionally more palpable than one would care for. As if possessed, Jack's mind and body were overtaken in the throes of a private bliss. Leaning forward in his seat, folding his arms atop the backrest of the one in front, Jack gazed up at the screen in wonder. As we flanked him in the third row of the Carnegie Hall Cinema, Jack was hit by the punch line of a Howard Hawks whammie in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
and shot his fists back, bull's-eyeing the unsuspecting
crotches of both Bruce and myself. Way surprised, we could only sit there quietly shocked as Jack's upper-decibel guffaw ascended to the rafters.
The homogenous structure blended well in its banal suburban environment, offering no hint of the Saturnalia within. The Uniondale Mini Cinema sat at the foot of an otherwise vacant strip mall on the west end of Long Island. With the spiraling economy of the seventies, the town was decaying in an era of gas lines and inflation, polyester threads and bad hair.
In proximity to where we lived, the "Mini," as we came to call it, was closer than the screens in Manhattan. Besides, Bruce and I began avoiding most movie theatres on Fridays and Saturdays during prime-time, when the amateurs came out: kids on dates, noisy boneheads, pushy parents. Their aggression and anger blossomed during Slap Shot
. It seemed only a matter of time until they began shooting each other during intermission -- a prophecy foretold in Little Murders
When Jack introduced me to the Mini in 1972, they were showing Bogart in To Have and Have Not
plus Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?
. From the parking lot a sea of faded denim, peasant skirts, corduroy jackets, earth shoes, and tangles of hair cascaded into the Mini's unassuming lobby adorned with posters for the latest Bergman and Fellini films.
Some would call it a bohemian clientele — freaks and dweebs; bourgeois adolescents and academicians; kamikaze intellectuals squeezing acne trouble spots between chapters of Siddhartha
and On the Road
Our banter subsided with a block of coming attractions. A bleached image of Stacey Keach moaning, "My mucus membrane is but a memory," instigating chuckles of identification as his nostrils ejaculate over a pile of cocaine in Watched
. A burst of applause for "Jimmy Cliff, existential hero," in The Harder They Come
, drowned out by a nearby drunk yelling, "Existential!!!
The coat I sported for these odysseys was military-issue, a hand-me-down from an ex-betrothed in my sister's succession of soured relationships. After illegally procuring alcoholic refreshment, the coat came in handy. Its deceptively long pockets held a few bottles of Boone's Farm or Ripple wine, or could accommodate a case of beer in twelve-ounce cans, twelve cans per pocket.
Lest one imagine the Mini discouraged smuggling in such contraband, consider that, some fifteen minutes into the first feature, the sweet air encapsulating the auditorium. Hands swayed from side to side with the passing of hash pipes, joints, even an occasional bong, a plethora of psychedelic smokewear to fortify our collective mindset. Resembling R. Crumb caricatures, the Mini staff were always wont to bum a toke.
Not that the place was constantly a haven of peace, love and understanding. In the wake of Pink Flamingos'
success, the John Waters oeuvre was resuscitated, oftentimes attracting some particularly unsavory characters.
As Bruce and I sat like a pair of pinkboys for the premiere of Mondo Trasho
, our nonchalance was slapped into submission by the sight of about two dozen bikers kicking back for a night at the flicks. Marlboros ablaze, beer can pop-tops cracking like a choir of metallic crickets, this collage of sunglasses, beards, leather, raspy laughs, and tattoos could be a fun group to hang with, we thought. Until Mondo Trasho
ran for about twenty minutes.
"This thing sucks shit!
"Dog shit, man! I wanna see some fuckin' dog shit!
"Yeah, that's it! Where's that dancing asshole?
Did Andre Bazin ever consider this crowd? Our few witticisms were kept at low volume, as when one of us muttered, "They must've just come from a Bachman-Turner Overdrive concert." We'd seen this element in Gimme Shelter
To the chagrin of our beefy cineastes, Mondo Trasho
degenerated with each passing frame. How long would it be until boredom released the floodgates for apocalypse? Scared, nervous, fidgeting like the pansies we truly were, Bruce gnawing his fingernails to the quick. Our decision to flee was executed quickly and quietly. Over the next few days we saw no mention in the newspaper of the Mini getting trashed. And I've still to see Mondo Trasho
in its entirety.
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Where the Shadows Run from Themselves
White dope on punk
Five or six dark figures walked quietly along the path by the small stream. Reflecting the luminous hole of the moon, its meditative trickle surrounded us with a calming background drone. Branches and leaves crackled underfoot to add to this four-dimensional soundscape as the path veered easterly.
Gently pushing aside brittle limbs, we stepped into the wooded den of the one they called Van Epps. A small, blond, troll-like figure, his mad swirl of hair framed mischievous eyes. Ecstatic over our arrival, Van Epps began pointing wildly, though at what I'm not sure. Soon tipped off of my situation, his grin nearly swallowed his face whole. Taking his right hand, he made a perpendicular sweep slowly before my eyes, its vibrating trail of skin evaporating into the dark. "Pretty soon," he said with a giggle, "he'll be visible only at twilight!"
The others laughed, but I found his prophecy disturbing and lit a cigarette. Its dense charcoal hit my throat with a bitter thud. In fear that my discarding it would set the world ablaze, it became a smoldering prop between my fingers until burning out some fifteen years later.
Lights in the distance confirmed our direction, and we emerged near an old train station, displaced miles from the tracks. It had been renovated into a museum celebrating the glories of a suburban farming village of yore. Circling this portal into the past were sects of teenagers, quietly cool, meandering about and sitting by fires, reminiscent of the pagans wandering the medieval forests of Andrei Rublev
. Nods passed from head to head, the anger and humiliation of adolescence momentarily tamed. Our schedule, unfortunately, left little time to stop and socialize.
Back into the woods, down another path, over a little wooden bridge, the trek a miniaturized forecast of Herzog's mountaineering conquistadors in Aquirre, Wrath of God
. Without question, it would have been a fine touch to hear the sounds of Popol Vuh humming from the heavens.
Minutes flashed by, but the lethargic hands on the clock slogged on without duty. Dali's "Persistence of Memory," anyone? And there, creeping around the cranial inner sanctum, a dash of Syd Barrett lyrics from a Pink Floyd relic becomes my mantra: "Across the stream ~ in wooden shoes ~ bells to tell ~ the king the news ~ A thousand misty riders climb up ~ higher once upon a time."
The doors of the woods swung out to an open field. The December chill was barely noticeable, even as we sat upon the frozen, icy ground.
" Herbert cried as he touched down.
Their hands swept to scale the gooey turf, and some pushed in for the impression. Eyes darted below to see whatever damage was had by pants and shoes, until someone shouted, "NO! It's grass!
The feeling rearranged in an instant, and what had been mud was now blades of grass bending below our palms. Flash!
A twist of the mind and it all formed into mud once more. Flash!
And back to grass.
"Lysergic acid diethylamide," Herbert would explain to me later, "will put the wee'sbow
in your weetwah.
" I replied while offering a pull from my creme de cacao. "Want some cream de cow cow?"
"Cream de COW COW?
Bow wow!" said he with raised brow, and stormed off for the other side of this schizophrenic rec room we had mysteriously landed in.
Flickhead and cohorts, c. 1974
Jeffrey's glassy brown eyes pierced through whichever persona you wore, and, when hit by the light, they transformed into bottomless wells of dank intimidation. Their expression never changed. Only his jaw altered with every passing syllable.
I could identify with his enthusiasm. Jeffrey had just seen Psych-Out.
"Jack Nicholson has a pony tail and plays in a rock band," he explained, "but the most in-tense
scene is when this other guy completely freaks out on acid, and has these absolutely amazing hallucinations. It nearly fried my brain
when Jack Nicholson became a zombie! It was un-fucking-believable!
While he was one to ponder areas far weightier than my abbreviated attention span could comprehend, Jeffrey also knew where and how to parcel his pontifications. Herbert or David would surely bore to tears from a rant on Psych-Out
, so he came to me.
My maniacal grimace competed with the one twisting the lower half of Charles Manson's face on the cover of Life
magazine; my eyes enlarged into two large black trembling saucers prepared to hover away. Looking around to see who was chortling that annoying giggle — was Peter Lorre in the house?
— I laughed uncontrollably when I realized the perpetrator was me.
Acid, indeed. Some ingested it to unravel whatever it was they were going to find inside themselves. We never imagined that, between the ears, it could be about as vacant as the Bates Motel.
Straining to focus, my optic malady was unquestionably rooted in this room. The place was concocted by someone with a jones for chess. Strike that.
This was no mere hobby — this was the decor of one obsessed.
Black and white squares ran from checkerboard carpeting, continuing up padded checker walls, to a ceiling left liquid white. The black end tables scattered hither and thither held chess boards burned into them, while the coffee table served two side-by-side. Three or four ostentatious chess-related sculptures dotted the floor. And the easy chair in which I sat followed suit in its black and white checker pattern.
I clutched the arms of this furniture, bracing for lift-off. As Jeffrey went on about melting body parts and acid delirium, I was experiencing some of my own, my jaw clenched with the first slamming jerk. I rocked as the environment began to pincushion and expand. The floor rolled up from under where we sat, clicking smartly before my eyes, offering its expanse for inspection. An instant later the floor shifted upward again, passing into the next cycle, black and white squares rotating in concentrated precision, and what had become the floor mere moments earlier now stood directly ahead.
Oblivious to the architectural drama unfolding around us, Jeffrey continued on about geographic hazards: "There are three places
go while tripping on acid," he explained adamantly, "bathrooms, supermarkets, and movie theatres." A curt sweep of the hand, a brief nod of the head with pursed lips, and his pontificating was finalized. Politely excusing himself, his footing was assured as he glided across the rotating room to the others.
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To be continued . . .
Copyright © 2004 by Ray Young