Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Frame of Mind

The professor was a dominant contrast amidst the tanned, firm student body at Fairwinds College. You would often see him trotting among the pines at this small north Florida fine arts school. He wore old jogging suits, usually the same one all week, and supported a giant sea sponge of thick, white muff atop his wasted shoulders. So striking was this feature, he was referred to as "The Mind" by his students.

Monday morning, across the street from campus, Ulanova walked into Video Right Now! for coffee. His spine ached from sleep deprivation. He blamed the armadillos that rustled outside his bedroom window. Dreading physical confrontation with these strange creatures though, he let them rustle.

While waiting on the scabby-ankled bohemian behind the counter, he checked his mail. His Walkman serenaded him with Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

"Let's see," he said, "American Cinematographer, a letter from my publisher and what's this?" Ulanova pulled off his headphones and read an unstamped postcard:

Hitler's flimsy whimsy was whimsied on a dime.
Phoned his foe Marcel Marceau - whimsy Nazi mime.
"My possum's up a 'simmon tree. Your monkey's on the ground,
pantomiming gleefully, 'Shake them 'simmons down!'"
Marcel Marceau would whisper low his monkey murder word.
His tongue broke free, but hung on T, and U came out absurd.
"T-U, turkey! T-U, tie! T-U, turkey! Buzzard's eye!
Monkey hoard the possum's blossoms! Drip the Nazis dry!"
Adolf coughed, teed off at golf, with monkey, mime and friend,
but yearned to have them burned, when possum walked in wind.
You are invited to see a special screening of Whimsy Nazi Mime
immediately following the 20th Annual Fairwinds Film Festival Awards
Friday, 11 p.m., October 31
Includes Additional Footage Never Before Seen

Below this was a kiddy style cartoon of a German soldier, a gondolier, a turkey, a monkey and a possum. They had their arms around one another and had no heads. Using a buzzard as a camera, a photographer, wearing a jogging suit, hid his head up the bird's behind and held a flash in his hand. "Say Cheese," a caption read.

He laughed uneasily, paid for his coffee and headed for Burlington Hall.

He first went into the film department's main office to get some blank teacher evaluations. He walked in, got the forms from the secretary and saw one of his neophytes from class, Marla, Carla...something like that. She came out of Dean Vaughn's office and stiffly walked past him.

"Toby, get in here," the dean said. "I was just coming to find you. Hey, evaluation time, eh? You're lucky we don't go by a thumbs up or thumbs down around here."

"No thumbs?" Ulanova asked, flicking his friend the bird. "How about this finger?"

"Go easy there, partner, my daughter just gave you a roasting."

"Your daughter?"

"Barbra. She said you acted like a total jerk last Friday when she came to you for help. Now we both know about your little people skills problem. How about earning your money for a change?"

His daughter? Ouch. Ulanova hadn't made that connection. He ignored the dean, smiled and pointed to a film poster of Take This Job and Shove It. Other than this 1981 turkey, the dean's office was festooned with posters for Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, Lynch's Eraserhead, Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - not the usual tastes of a college administrator, but Vaughn, after all, was a product of the '60s underground film scene.

Changing the subject, the professor reached into his pocket and pulled out the weird postcard. "We have a mad filmmaker in our midst," Ulanova said, tossing it on the desk. "I found this nonsense in my mailbox this morning."

"Gaultier?" the dean asked. "Not mad, a little eccentric perhaps." He reached into his desk and grabbed an identical invitation. "I should have ran it by you, but we accepted the entry into the festival without you. I've seen parts of it, and it looks like a real shocker - groundbreaking stuff."

"What's it about?" Ulanova asked.

"It's avant-garde. It combines elements of animation and hand-held camera work. It's filmed from the point of view of a deranged stalker, but it goes deeper than any slasher-type stuff - very cerebral. Word around here is that it's a contender for Best of Show."

"Deranged stalker, huh?" Ulanova asked and held up the strange postcard. "Now who do you think the guy in the jogging suit is supposed to be? I think Goiter is dangerous, and not just to reputation of our film festival."

"That's Gaultier, Toby, and you're losing it," Vaughn said. "So you got a personalized invitation? I would be flattered. You don't realize how influential your old books are to these kids. They were to me, you know that. Men of Vision changed my life. That's why I hired you. "

Ulanova inwardly objected but held his tongue. He made an acquiescent motion with his hands and walked out.

Growing up during the Cold War, Ulanova had seen flicks like Them and It Came From Beneath the Sea like every other kid. Then in college he discovered Luis Bunuel's and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou. One of the first shots of their surreal 1928 masterwork - a razor blade slicing an eyeball - left a permanent mark on his psyche. After such visceral imagery, Ray Harryhausen's tentacles were no longer menacing. He changed his major from classical literature to photography, and his quest to become a man of vision had begun.

Ulanova shifted his thoughts to today's film theory lecture, which contained concepts fundamental to passing his course. There was no test and students had only one written assignment - their logbook. The log had to incorporate synopses of 10 films, Bazin's "What is Cinema?," Kael's "I Lost It at the Movies" and Ulanova's own book, "Story Time with Rods and Cones."

He walked to his classroom and saw 20 or so students. Paul, his teaching assistant, looked up at Ulanova and did a drinky-drink pantomime. He pointed to the lectern. Good, the professor thought, he got me coffee. A greasy kid, Paul was quiet, but managed to procure films from the library OK and fielded the brunt of his pupil's questions.

Ulanova offered his class no greeting, avoided eye contact and began his rant mid-thought:

"...visual language pioneered with the man of vision, like Griffith or Eisenstein, bucking the conventional structures founded by the Greeks - the rational man. The second golden age of film of the late '60s and '70s saw a new visual syntax personify micro-cultures - Coppola and Scorsese, the Italian, Gordon Parks Jr., the negro, and the Jew, Kubrick. Kubrick explored the destruction of rational man's ultimate accomplishment - the machine - when HAL is systematically executed in the brilliant 2001. Do you get me?"

The professor was on a roll. Only the man of vision among them would "get" it, he thought. Some students sat dumbfounded. Some wrote feverishly. Some made futile attempts for clarification, arms locked in an upright position, their fingers now numb. Oblivious, he continued.

"Then we saw in the final moments of last week's film, the Coen's Barton Fink, the burning hotel as metaphor for the hallways of man's subconscious. We surmise a head occupied Barton's parcel. Now, let's move to Scorsese's picture - the retelling of Cape Fear. At its conclusion, Nolte's lawyer devolves into ape, becoming a real man of vision when he loses his eyeglasses - symbol of the short-sighted rational man. Di Nero's villain, in the river with only his head exposed, speaks in tongues, a byproduct of rational man's religion. Raging water rebirth overcomes him. Thus we arrive, as it's referred to in your readings, at 'Death of the Mind.' Paul get the lights."

The lights went out, and the movie started. It was an old Chaplin silent comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance. Ulanova spoke through the entire picture, and his pupils strained to comprehend.

"Here, the tramp kicks the cop in the bum," he said. "He fights a crusade to topple the rational man. And here, Chaplin falls off the picket fence into pig slop, surpassing traditional Greek narrative and entering the realm of the modern man of vision."

The film ended, and he left without fielding questions. Walking to his office, one of his students ran after him calling out his name. He kept going, and they snagged his dirty, maroon jogging jacket. Persistent little bugger, he thought. He turned and stared at the dean's daughter, Wanda. She had the loveliest almond-shaped, brown eyes he had ever seen. Swimming in her perfume, he asked, "Yes, my good woman of vision?"

"I'm reading your book," she said, "and got stuck on Chapter 3." Her nerves caught up with her, and she paused to fill her sails with courage.

"Yes, Wanda, go ahead," Ulanova said.

"Barbra," she said. "In your chapter on chase scenes, you say, '...the popularity and abundant use of the chase, be it Keystone Cops or Friedkin's French Connection-"

"I wrote the book. What is your point?"

She donned a wounded Bambi-like expression: "Sorry. Anyway, what do you mean by 'Chase scenes tap our unused reserves of fight or flight?'"

"Ah, yes," he said. "Today's civilized and rational man - or woman, Marla-"

"Barbra," she corrected.

"-no longer employs the very primal instincts which were so crucial to his evolution. From his ancient origins as little fish escaping big fish, to fleeing lions on an African plain, he had to evolve or perish. Today, we must not loiter. We can trigger our fight or flight mechanism through the artificial stimulation of film. We must experience the dangers of pursuit - the chase - or we shall simply cease to grow as a species."

"You mean movies keep us from being soft and lazy?" she asked.

"Only if we engage in active passivity. Yes, good visual narratives that incorporate elements of chase - like dogfighting Darth Vadar's Tie Fighter, for instance - can inspire, and I believe, at least slow the modern man's brain from its natural descent into a state of humus."

"Oh, you like hummus, professor? I know this little place that's got great tabouleh and falafels. My treat, huh?"

"Oh, I, uh..." Ulanova stammered, stifling an urge to flee. He summoned up Philip Marlowe and found the words. "Look, I know what you're trying to do, see. I know dames don't exactly find me easy on the eyes. Butter me up and get a good grade, huh?"

Barbra's face turned red: "It's not like that at all. I'm just hungry. Once again, you're out of line, you irrational old coot."

She sped away toward the department office. Ulanova shrugged and decided to check out the film festival. He put a note on his office door: "...gone fishin' to topple the rational man and enter the realm of the modern man of vision."

He spent the rest of the day darting around town, catching some shorts and features that he had personally requested for the committee. He was especially interested in a documentary called, Our Gang Bang, a controversial film from Chicago that claims most of the Little Rascals were illegitimate offspring from illicit Fatty Arbuckle orgies. In effect, it suggested Hollywood had its own hatchery. Despite an overall lack of participation from any survivors though, Ulanova found it most persuasive.

Around suppertime the small crowd at the Ruby theater dwindled until he alone sat in the theater. With tired eyes, the professor struggled to read the subtitles for a Japanese production that explored lesbianism in Afghanistan. He heard flip flops clacking behind him and watched a person wearing a red-hooded sweatshirt walk past his aisle on the left and sit near the screen. He thought of Elliot from E.T. and felt uneasy. A few minutes passed, and Creepy Red Riding Hood got up, walked to the right side of the theater and sat down.

Hiding in a closet, the heroine of the film watched as her secret love removed her burka to reveal that she actually...was a man. Shades of Jordan's The Crying Game, Ulanova thought.

His red-hooded companion again rose, walked up the aisle and sat in the row behind him. "Is this some kind of mating dance?" Ulanova said to himself. Were they coming on to him, or what?

"Forget it, you're not my type," Ulanova loudly said to the screen. They said nothing and stayed put. The film became increasingly harder to understand, as the action moved to Norway and the heroine became involved with a large bosom-ed, blond psychiatrist - more subtitles. The professor dozed off.

Some time later, an usher nudged him awake: "Sorry, but if you want to see the next movie, you'll have to buy another ticket." Ulanova turned on his Walkman and ran home singing to himself, "...it's just a sprinkling by the May Queen."

On Wednesday morning, Ulanova woke up late. He grabbed his cell phone and called his teaching assistant: "Go ahead and start the movie, Paul."

"I forgot to reserve Nanook of the North," Paul said. "But I'm going to play The Great Gaultier's movie for class."

"Who? Is this a mutiny, Mr. Christian?" the professor asked imitating Charles Laughton.

There was a long pause. The professor new Paul was timid and probably felt intimidated. "Spit it out!" Ulanova screamed.

"Gaultier's only the greatest director of the third golden age of film, professor - director of the hottest picture at the festival, Whimsy Nazi Mime. It makes Carrie look like Heidi."

"What is the deal with that one?" Ulanova asked. "What's it about anyway? Concentration camps full of mimes?" Not a bad idea, he thought.

Paul started mumbling something about Dadaism, but the professor grew impatient. "Whatever, Paul. I'll be in at ten," he said. "Get me some coffee, OK?" He hung up and rolled back over in bed.

He began to dream of a red-hooded figure standing at the foot of his bed. They did that stuck-in-a-box thing that mimes do. Opening their sweatshirt, they pulled a box cutter from the pocket of a Nazi uniform. They cut a hole in the air and reached through, wagging the blade. With their other hand, they peeled back the hood revealing the head of a possum. "T.U. - Turkey," it said, "T.U. - DIE!" The possum disappeared, and the dean's daughter, Carla, emerged from the bedsheets and sliced his eyeball with the box cutter. Ulanova awoke and through his fog of fatigue, thought he heard flip flops smacking down his hallway. He fell back asleep. At 9:45 his alarm went off, and he hobbled into the shower. His spirits rising, he began to gaily shriek Bernard Herrmann's famous violin allegro from Pyscho.

Later at Burlington Hall, Paul caught him in the hallway and handed him a cup of coffee. Ulanova waved him off. "Get away from me, kid," he said as W.C. Fields, "ya, bahhh-tha me."

Full of pluck, Paul was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when he first took Ulanova's course, but the only thing he "got" was the "D" on his logbook. Other faculty claimed he was an excellent production artist, though, and upon his acceptance into grad school, Paul asked to be his assistant. After two semesters Ulanova still thought he showed as much promise as the banjo boy from Deliverance. Yes, Paul needed self confidence, but Ulanova had resigned his Mr. Miagi commission years ago.

He went to his small office and closed the door. A stack of ungraded papers from his film criticism course beckoned. He tasted his coffee - acrid even for vending machine brew - and dove into his work. Somewhere near the thirty-third review of Apocalypse Now, he mumbled, "...the horror," put his head down and slept.

He woke with a start. He was in the dark, and his door was open. The fourth floor corridors of Burlington Hall were meagerly illuminated by flickering emergency lights. He pulled the chain on his desk lamp and looked at his watch. Nine-thirty, holy cow, he thought. One of his students would later wonder why their Apocalypse Now paper - Ulanova's pillow - had a large water stain on it. He felt groggy and hungover, but knew he just needed the rest, if not at home, then here.

Locking his office he realized what had startled him - the slam of the stairwell door. Must have been a security guard, he thought, and wondered why they hadn't roused him.

He made his way down the dark steps and emerged into the lighted breezeway. It was cool for a Florida October, rather pleasant for jogging, he thought. He was hungry but didn't feel like cooking, so he got a snack cake from the machine. Inserting his coins, he heard a plop over by the entrance to the breezeway. He looked over and saw a dead armadillo. Its head was missing.

"Hello," he called into the darkness. No reply. A still from Un Chien Andalou, a dead donkey lying on a piano, flashed into his mind's eye. The week of Halloween always got weird around campus. He said a silent prayer for today's twisted youth, grabbed his dinner and trotted home. Armadillos rustled in his dreams that night.

Friday was a long day for the professor with three lectures, and twenty or so one-on-ones with kids from his film criticism class. They talked of the beef motif and the cigarette symbolism in Apocalypse Now. He imagined he heard Morrison singing, "...this is the end, dum-dum-dum, beautiful friend, the end..." By the time the awards ceremony rolled around that night, Ulanova was exhausted, but he knew the dean was counting on him to make an appearance.

He arrived at the T. Horace Chalmers Student Union and walked down a red carpet they had laid out. "Hey, it's 'The Mind'!" someone shouted. "Who are you wearing? Where is the jogging suit?" There's safety in numbers Ulanova thought. Later, he wiggled in his houndstooth jacket and picked at his chicken. Various faculty presenters droned on and on about the benevolence of the festival's sponsors, and like some Presidential State of the Union Address, there were innumerable, mind-numbing rounds of applause. Besides the Arbuckle orgy documentary, he really hadn't seen anything that caught his eye.

At last they came to Best of Show, and his ears pricked up. A B-movie actor who had done a slew of truck driving films in the '70s walked to center stage. He lived in a neighboring town, did the occasional Burt Reynolds Theater gig in Jupiter and had a chair on the film festival advisory board.

"And the nominees," he said, "for the 20th Annual Fairwinds Film Festival Best of Show are: Uncle Peanut Meets the Oxford Bobby, director Julia Campbell (applause), Taco Night, director Sylvester Dong (applause), Non Copos Mentis, director Louis Lipps (applause), Boi-yoy-yoing!, director J. Franklin (applause) and Whimsy Nazi Mime, director Gaultier (loud applause)."

Dean Vaughn winked at Ulanova over the table's centerpiece - an old director's megaphone filled with rosebuds.

"And the winner is (drumroll, cymbal): Whimsy Nazi Mime, director Gaultier."

The audience went wild.

"Gaultier was unable to attend tonight," the has-been said. "I'd like to accept this award on their behalf. That does it for the Fairwinds Film Festival. Those attending the special screening of Whimsy Nazi Mime should go to the third floor Starlight Auditorium. Thank you sponsors and participants. This was by far the best festival ever. Good night, film fans. Happy Halloween! We'll see you next year."

Ulanova went upstairs and saw the dean's daughter hovering outside. "Good evening, Professor Ulanova," she said. "No hard feelings, OK? We reserved a special seat for you."

"Really?" he asked suspiciously. "I'd rather find my own seat, thank you."

The old auditorium was small, maybe only five hundred seats, and smelled of fabric cleaner. He didn't like seeing films here because they often used the video projection system, which was, of course, of inferior quality to the traditional projection film. He took a seat on the aisle, three or four rows from the top. He had to admit that he was curious. The hype had infected him after all. The theater filled. The lights dimmed, and the show began.

Ominous music accompanied a strange process he had never seen before. Through some kind of post-production, the shaky hand-held footage acquired a filtered quality that made it appear like animation, kind of like the night-vision goggle scenes in Demme's Silence of the Lambs, but more impressionistic.

The opening credits roll as the camera lurches down a tree-lined street in a suburban neighborhood. A free-swinging right hand pops in and out of the right bottom frame. The camera moves a few more feet and stops. A machete creeps into view on the bottom left frame. The right hand reenters, revealing more and more of itself, until we see the elbow, the bicep, then another hand holding the severed arm at the shoulder. The arm falls into the street, and the machete rises horizontally to eye level, revealing the words, "WHIMSY NAZI MIME" stenciled on the blade.

A computer-distorted voice, impossibly low and too loud for this theater, recites the poem that was on Ulanova's invitation. Chilling, he thought, but nothing "groundbreaking" as Dean Vaughn had said.

The professor showed perseverance, however, and watched on for the next hour. Amidst several admittedly innovative and disturbing surrealistic touches, it basically showed the villain's deranged exploits, as they stalk and hack off their victims' heads. However, like so many "art" films, one can go only so long before craving the continuity of a traditional narrative. Take Fellini, Bergman, or Adam Sandler...please, he thought.

Perhaps the buzz was ill-formed from an ignorant generation that had been starved of anything that remotely scraped at the surface of man's unconsciousness. Ulanova decided to add Un Chien Andalou to his syllabus next semester and allowed his mind to wander.

"This is where the original cut ended," someone whispered behind him. "I guess these are the additional scenes coming up."

"Oh boy," Ulanova said, quickly being shushed. Perhaps we would get to see a speargun being fired into someone's hockey mask now, he thought. The title poem floated back into his head, playing with his nerves with its jarring combination of Mother Goose and gore.

The "additional footage" dropped the stylized post-production effect. The villain now roams the dark hallways of an office building. They come to a door and open it. Inside a man naps at his desk, bushy white hair illuminated in the glow of a desk lamp. The villain reaches out and pulls the lamp's chain leaving them both in the dark.

Ulanova began to squirm.

In the next scene, the villain creeps along the side of a house, scurrying after a small animal in some bushes. The animal, an armadillo, is caught and given what appears to be chloroform. Cut to the villain standing on a roof. Cut to a closeup of the villain cutting off the creature's head. Cut to the villain grabbing a red-hooded sweatshirt from a closet. Cut to the villain in a movie theater, sitting down here, then here, then there, panning in for a blurry closeup of another man in the theater. There are sounds of snoring. Cut to the villain peering into a window of a house. The man squirms on his bed. Cut to the villain running down a dark hallway, the sounds of sandals clacking in a hasty retreat.

Ulanova broke out in a cold sweat and felt frozen in his seat. The words "LIVE FEED" now appeared at the bottom of the screen.

Once again, the villain enters a movie theater. This time it is packed to the rafters. The villain's machete enters the bottom left of the frame and reaches out to the blurry image of a bushy-headed man

Ulanova felt a bustle in his hedgerow. He jumped to his feet and screamed a primal, girlish noise that sent chills through everyone in the theater. Scrambling over the people in front of him, he landed in the aisle and began to roll. He felt a massive blow at the bottom of his neck.

There was complete darkness, then he was floating above his own body, moving over the audience and peering into a bright tunnel of light - the fabled abyss. He saw the dean and his daughter, Carla, and there was that guy...and what's her name...and the bohemian chick from Video Right Now! They all regaled themselves with fits of laughter and wild applause.

Now, he knew he hadn't exactly been adorable, but come on! He had just been beheaded. Couldn't they at least show the common decency to hold their bloodlust until they got to their car? He heard Schwarzeneggar say, "I'll be back," and decided to enroll in the haunting department when he got to Limbo.

His path to infinity was lined with the twisted youth of America, numb from over-stimulation, and he summoned his final movie quote from Hooper's Poltergeist: "All are welcome. Go into the light. There is beauty in the light."

The words "USE ALTERNATE LIGHT SOURCE" now appeared in his field of vision. What a fitting sentiment, he thought. The supreme being has a sense of humor after all. Then, to the right of the tunnel, he noticed the silhouette of an angel. It appeared as if the angel were carrying a camera on its shoulder

He felt a gooey sensation on his fingertips (ectoplasm?), and unconsciously raised his hand to his nose smelling Dr. Pepper. Realizing these were sensations of the terra firma, he felt a discombobulation metamorphose into aching pain along his spine. His wits slowly returned, and he knew he was not dying. He found himself crumpled on the floor at the foot of the auditorium, gazing up into the screen at yet another scene from Whimsy Nazi Mime.

The lights came up, he rolled his body over and gazed up into the audience. Rigging and pulleys from the ceiling were suspending a person wearing a red hooded sweatshirt. They were pointing a video camera straight into the light of the rear projector. The light was now pointed to the right of the theater and cast the person's shadow on the side wall. Apparently the final moments of Whimsy Nazi Mime had emanated from the video projection system. The angel swiveled around and pulled back its red hood.

"You're T. U., turkey!" Paul Gaultier screamed at Ulanova. Then to the audience: "...thus we arrive at death of The Mind!" The greasy teaching assistant blew a kiss to his professor before basking in the sweet afterglow of one-upsmanship. The audience rose and gave the promising young director a standing ovation. Their pent up reserves of fight or flight had been spent. Their brains had been spared from humus for one more day. But at what cost, the professor wondered.

Later, Ulanova had considered legal action, but dreading physical confrontation with these strange creatures, he let them rustle. However, in time his thoughts would change on the subject of retribution, and he would devise an alternate course of action.

"I considered myself a man of vision," the professor told Dean Vaughn, "and I never saw this coming."

The dean spoke of their attempt to give Ulanova a much-needed jump start. Vaughn said he was sorry Ulanova had fallen and banged himself up on a chair like that. He rambled a frail apology for his participation in the ill-conceived prank. Drowning him out though, the words of Whimsy Nazi Mime danced in the professor's head.

He identified with possum's pride and made the possum friend. He knew his life was filled with strife, like possum's walk in wind. When chase leaped off the screen to prey on possum's life, his playing possum time was through...now, he'd get a life.

To find inspiration in this great universe, some people twirl. Some eat peyote, and some find it on top of Mount Baldy. The professor had believed his truth would lie in a frame of film. However, after staring into the light of buzzard's eye, he could no longer engage this "active passivity." Ulanova would finance his new-found inspiration with Gaultier's blood. For the following words would spill from the podium at the 21st Annual Fairwinds Film Festival: Whimsy Nazi Mime, Part II: Possum Boogaloo, director Toby Ulanova (drum-roll, cymbal, scream).

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