Berlin Diary 3: Bury Me in Black

Sean Witzke

I went to screenings of Mandy four times over the 22 days I spent in Berlin. All midnights.

Midnight movies are special to me, for no particular reason I can articulate. I saw Bram Stoker’s Dracula premiere at the Stroud Mall at midnight when I was 7, and saw it again at midnight a few weeks ago at a Brooklyn theater. I think midnight movies feel special to me because I associate them with extreme viewing experiences, the movie ends up always being far better or far worse when you see it late. Colors are deeper. Soundtracks are louder. Audiences are wilder.

The other movie I’ve seen more than once at midnight was Dario Argento’s Deep Red. That one felt more like I needed a mulligan. I saw Deep Red on my birthday in Philadelphia in 2016 under the worst conditions. The guy emceeing that night (a bad sign already) showed his own horrible fake exploitation trailers for a good 30 minutes before the movie. No one told him ironic misogyny was already shopworn by Feb 2016. Then the audience, which I assume were all his loser friends, didn’t particularly enjoy the pounding euro-gothic-psychedelic-gore Antonioni riff they were served up. The second time I saw it, after moving to New York, it felt affirming of my choice to move. This says more about me than the place but, seeing a slow pan up to Daria Nicolodi’s face illuminated by a burning building in a crowded room. In a room full of people who understood the power of images… it was a rare night I had no regrets about any of my life choices.

Mandy opens up with King Crimson’s ballad “Starless”, the last song on their last album — Red. It is the heaviest and best of their releases. Bill Bruford, formerly the drummer of Yes, said he was handed a reading list of occult and satanic texts to read once he joined Crimson. They already knew he could play.

Bandleader Robert Fripp is now probably best known for his work with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and (most important to the whole “tangentially about to Berlin” bit of this thing that isn’t a diary) he played the guitar on David Bowie’s “Heroes”. In recent years, he’s been described by collaborators as eccentric to the point of self parody — Nick Cave said he speaks of himself in the third person as “the guitarist”. Fripp is like Alan Moore if he grew up looking like Buck Henry.

On record, “Starless” is a ballad sung by John Wetton that leads into a monstrous free jazz section that would be the band’s last statement on record for the decade. In the film, the ballad half plays out and then is quickly cut off by Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad. The film that follows reflects the bifurcated structure of the song; following heartfelt tension with extreme chaos, but also the disruption itself. The album as a whole feels like it’s dug its roots into the film.

The spirit of a certain kind of imaginative mass media that defined the 70s was about to be beheaded and left in a ditch by the 80s. A (very white) overeducated hangover to hippie academia, the way folk music and electronic music independently mutated into progressive rock. The art the character Mandy enjoys and embodies — fantasy novels, prog, shitty monster movies, Frazetta-style fantasy painting, Heavy Metal Magazine — those were dead. The idea that you could do what you love and move to the woods and be alone with someone — that’s dead too. Stoner shit. They are replaced by different fantasies, more suited to the culture. Red and Mandy live in a cabin on Crystal Lake, for fuck’s sake.

The 80s were a more prurient, savage time. Jason Vorhees and Rambo and Pinhead’s world. Ursula K Leguin didn’t publish any science fiction or fantasy novels over the course of the decade. Ozzy left Sabbath in 79. We are still in a phase between 70s and 80s nostalgia where we have accepted aspects but maybe not the original versions. Prog and punk and metal are styles now, not battling ideologies (though they never really were for the people making them). Heady science fiction and slasher gore and action schlock are tones to be mined. We don’t think of them as supplanting, movements at odds with one another. There is still something deeply uncool about taking this stuff seriously. Right before legendary french comics artist Moebius died, a roundtable of famous respected American underground cartoonists made a point to disregard his work and all of his peers as “stoner stuff they never paid attention to” in a group interview. The sneering assholes.

Prog was verboten for the longest time. Before Thurston Moore said he loved Yes and Trent Reznor said he loved The Wall. Now it’s whatever. There was a Gen X thing about defending your taste or being overly ironic about it that no one does in the same way anymore. Probably because we start conversations threatening one another with murder for not stanning our fav (I think sometimes it’s still better than irony). The narrative of what good music and bad music is always fails to take in that musicians don’t have any taste. Eno and Fripp worked with anyone who paid them. Eno is the middle step between anything cool and uncool, having Jaki Liebzeit and Phil Collins play drums on the same record, recording Lydia Lunch and Genesis while on the same trip to New York.

Mandy gets spotted by the cluster of evil mansonoid christians while wearing a Black Sabbath NEVER SAY DIE shirt. Sabbath are often invoked as a fundamental force when discussing metal. It’s in the DNA of the genre. Mandy’s score, the final score composed by Johan Johansson, features guitar by Stephen O’Malley of the band Sunn O))). Their music is drumless, abstract compositions of guitar feedback that has more in common with Terry Riley than “Into the Void”. It still somehow sounds like Black Sabbath. The score is the single best thing about the movie. My decision to see it on the big screen was the music and the color (like most people, I saw Mandy on a streaming service on a laptop, to the film’s detriment).

Nic Cage, when approached for the role, saw himself as the lead but Cosmatos wanted him for the villain, saying it was a story about age vs. youth. Cage does such a great job with the tenderness and rage of the part that he doesn’t feel miscast, even though he’s sporting hairplugs. The opening Blade Runner text crawl of this movie isn’t an expurgation of the world but a quote from a man about to be executed for murder: ““When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock ’n’ roll me when I’m dead.” It’s a strange way to open a film let alone to accompany the movie that follows. The music that follows makes the quote make sense, context working backwards. The way impenetrable religious quotes are teleologically explored in a Tarkovsky film.

I went to see Mandy in Berlin, that first night, because I wanted to hear Johan Johansson’s doom und synth out of theater quality speakers. It was the first time I took my car anywhere into the city center after that first week. I had been locked in a room for 2 or 3 days. I was terrified of little things like parking. I was still at an elevated emotional pitch, after leaving my living situation in Pennsylvania. I was taking everything with me when I left a building. I didn’t feel safe leaving anything anywhere. This meant: my passport, the medications I was on, all my money, etc. Very stupid. I kept this behavior up until that first midnight show. I felt a lot more comfortable after making that first trip out at midnight, trusting GPS that I could find the weird bar that the film was playing at. I think that first night was when I finally caved and walked into a fast food restaurant. At something like 2 in the morning, wolfing down a chicken sandwich at a Burger King off the highway. My paranoia finally stopped shrieking and I started to behave a little more like a human being. Arriving in Germany, that first day getting lost and injured and living more and more in my head… those weren’t the real issue, they were symptoms. I think I was experiencing culture shock.

What was happening by the time I finally got on a plane out of Pennsylvania… I wasn’t a person. I had been terrorized by my family, my surroundings, and my own health into a jumpy, isolated wreck. I would drive around all day. Never listening to music. Only podcasts, so I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts.

I had been physically attacked multiple times by my father. I had a therapist call the cops on me when I was suicidal. I had a medical tech bluntly tell me I had gained a hundred pounds the previous August, due to an allergic reaction to an antidepressant. I had changed my doctors twice and my medication three times before 2018 was over. I took a gym bag full of essentials with me everywhere, without a clear destination. I never slept. I packed everything I owned up in the fall and sat in a room full of boxes for months and months searching for work/apartments/solutions… I wasn’t okay.

The bar/theater/video store I saw Mandy at over and over again was my favorite place in Berlin (note: I barely saw any of Berlin outside of a car, I don’t think they’d have let me in at Berghain anyway). They had a life size Nick Cave with an umbrella grinning behind the bar, a picture of Freddy Krueger on the soda machine saying “no popcorn no credit cards no nazis”, a gorgeous poster for Belladonna of Sadness in the lobby, an original ad for Elvira hung in the doorway to the screening room. They even had a complete Argento section (Stendhal Syndrome!) in their four shelf video store.

While I was in PA I frequently quoted the Sean Connery line at the book burnings from Last Crusade — “We are pilgrims in an unholy land”. I kept joking I had to go to Berlin to get away from nazis. I took a picture of Elvira and sent it to a friend, saying that it was like finding a religious symbol scratched into a wall during a pogrom. It was proof the world wasn’t just my experience.

I loved this theater — I don’t think I had a beer the first night because I just pointed at something that turned out to be coconut water. I was like, shaking? Turns out you need to eat food and sleep. I paid for parking even though I didn’t need to. Some old german man yelled at me for it. I didn’t want my rental — with all my most exploitable belongings shoved under the passenger seat — to be towed. As I said, beyond paranoid. The theater was in Kreuzberg, and ran Mandy and Climax back to back (both played off dvds long after their theatrical runs) for the first two weeks I was there. I wouldn’t see Climax for another couple months… that movie is amazing and I wish I had made the leap to see both. Again, for the soundtrack alone.

I didn’t like Mandy the first time I saw it. I didn’t dislike it, I felt like there were two great performances in a movie that amounted largely to stylization. I think Mandy is aesthetically about certain kinds of art being consumed by people it wasn’t necessarily made for and finding power in it. The character of Mandy probably would bristle at anything in the 70s or early 80s catering to a female audience, the way she immediately rejects the hippie bullshit of the Children of the New Dawn. It’s also about misogyny, and romance; and the tragedy of those things colliding. I think while the movie is versed in trash it is structurally more like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist than anything genre.

Bifurcated along male/female perspective lines, joined together by extreme violence. Both movies are about the destruction of a person by a society built on misogyny — one internal, the other external. Mandy is like Von Trier’s film, a trash Tarkovsky riff that builds to its own cosmology. Antichrist is extreme and gorgeous, but it also features multiple visual references to Evil Dead and The Exorcist. The book of atrocities against women Charlotte Gainsbourg is compiling in Antichrist is named after a feminist critique of pornography that indicted Brian De Palma by name, “Gynocide”. Later De Palma asked to be interviewed by one of its authors while promoting Body Double. “Nature is Satan’s church” is the antithesis of Mandy, which takes place in an inherently godless universe, but Cosmatos returns to visuals of his lead actress walking through the forest as an image of great portent.

It should be noted that Lars Von Trier makes incredibly rich and beautiful movies about women and has been accused multiple times of misconduct with his lead actresses. Nicolas Cage is a convicted domestic abuser… it is an ugly side effect of this art form that men who benefit the most from misogyny sometimes make great art about it. That’s why I think Argento, Polanski, Von Trier, etc. are the most difficult but interesting figures to talk about now. They made these movies in spite of being those people. How can they live inside of such contradictory behavior and live with themselves? How can they make art that feels like it accuses them most of all? I couldn’t do it. Or I would have to hate myself in a very complex and ugly way. Woody Allen at least seems like a sociopath. And there’s so much art made by people that didn’t rape anyone. So why stay stuck on these men?

The richness of little bits of dialog in Mandy — “I feel the Reaper fast approaching” is a line in the middle of a psychedelic sequence where Mandy and Sand’s faces meld as he gives a rehearsed svengali speech that signals not only she’s aware of her death, but aware that Red is going to kill these people. In the Commando/Rambo sequence where Red picks up his special forces gear from Bill Duke in a camper in the woods, he refers to his crossbow as the Reaper. This is a couple that has very little dialog together onscreen — two, three exchanges, a lot of time they’re just sitting comfortably together — but the effect is one of a whirlwind romance. These are people completely on the same wavelength and know they have each other to count on, even in death. Her death destroys him. I didn’t realize until the third time I saw the film that Red is sober until Mandy dies, and the first thing he does after he death is dig a bottle out he had hidden in the bathroom. He’s deciding on never going back in this moment. He’s killing himself. As John Milius described Conan “He didn’t care. Life and death the same.”

Andrea Riseborough joins Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut and Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway in the canon of women who laugh at men in their weakest moment on film. Mandy laughs at Jeremiah Sand so cruel and long that it gets her killed, in such a horrible way that we feel it even though not a frame is shown to the audience. Like Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, we just watch the reflections of light on Nicolas Cage’s face as she burns to death in her own backyard.

In the special features of Mandy, director Panos Cosmatos mentions a quote from Ridley Scott: that when making Blade Runner his greatest allies were “rain, smoke and darkness”. Visually, it’s all here. Thematically… the films couldn’t be further apart. The ceno-bikers who are first presented as the villains of the piece — homoerotic s&m imagery of the Road Warrior and Hellraiser writ large across the next two decades, linked directly to the biker movies of the 70s that started with Kenneth Anger’s 1963 queer classic Scorpio Rising. They’re dealt with quick, with Red fighting them in conventional ways. They’re not mystical figures. They’re reptilian men and women doing coke with porn playing in the background, dead bodies in the hallway and dishes piled high in the sink. The extreme violence is saved for the true believers. The odd thing about Panos quoting Ridley on Blade Runner is that Mandy seems to be a universe without punk. This is an 80s of hippies and heavy metal and Reagan, but there are no punks here. A 1983 where punk never happened.

The villains of the piece are the hippies — and the twisted variation of both america and christianity that they live by. This is the movie’s real target, and it saves all the rage — the kind of rage Henry Rollins described Black Sabbath as “a man slow to anger finally balling up his fists” — for them. Cosmatos has the same rage against religion that a lot of teenage boys who just discovered heavy metal have, but few stage whole films around churches burned to their foundations, with the hero finally smiling when all the believers are dead. The traditional narrative of masculine revenge, wherein violence which destroys a man or heals him, is turned here into a narrative about romantic strength and masculine weakness. Mandy isn’t an excuse for Red to kill people. Her death isn’t a prop.

We live in Jeremiah Sand’s world. The limpdicked “Califonia Klaus Kinski” Manson stand-in who sings songs about himself, begs to suck dick for his life, commands got to his feet, and rages that Red and Mandy have no souls (a recurring, disturbing phrase recalled in the Heavy Metal-influenced animated dream sequences). Maybe Mandy just hit different after six additional months of the Trump presidency and post-Me Too allegations really doing nothing to take the power away from anyone but the most cartoonishly evil. Sand says that whatever God places in front of him is his. There is no purer statement at the way America, religion, capitalism, and masculinity turn everything into a prison cafeteria fight. Mandy is very specifically set in Reagan’s first term, but is one of the rare movies that feel like it’s about present day.

I still don’t know why I kept going back… a large part of it had to be the theater itself, which felt like a comfortable place to me. That isn’t to say I ever felt 100% given over to the experience there. I was, and am still, very weird and uncomfortable in new situations. I did feel better. I felt less wound up. I felt, by the third or fourth time, that I could just show up and see the movie and enjoy it without being an emotional wreck held hostage behind my eyes.

The movie was almost incidental, which is interesting because I’ve always placed so much on my relationship with objects of art. I think about film in a very personal way, often the experience of seeing something is inextricable to my emotional state while viewing it. The truth is, often I’m using the movie to reinforce how I feel. This is a case where I don’t think of Mandy as a “healing” film, which is maybe how I would have described until I finally understood how to write this. I don’t think that is what happened. I think engaging with this film the way I did, meditatively, was a positive for me. The film having purchase enough to be engaged with as entertainment and something to invest in made that possible.

It’s a dangerous thing to build an association with a work of art that is personal. I say that because I don’t know if I want to return to Mandy in a few years and find out I just watched it at the right time. It makes everything into a teenage feeling, an embarrassing notion that the art was for you in some way. Or that you stumbled onto a piece of mass media in a fated way. It is about the emotional reaction to the work but it’s also about how a beautiful, kinda smart revenge film can work in concert with an emotional recovery from trauma. I was allowing myself to see this movie as a way out of myself. I needed something. I ran to the other side of the planet, shaking with anxiety, and picked a movie I had seen before. I love this movie, and how this movie made me feel… I am still wary of ascribing it more power over me than it has. The final scene, where Red sees Mandy walk into in his life, then again riding with him as he has avenged her. Finally they’re together in defiance of the rules of life and death. That’s never going to leave me.

Next one: part four is likely the finale, on Paul Verhoeven and the Bowie/Iggy/Eno Berlin records (maybe?) and how I finally left Pennsylvania.

— Sean Witzke, September 3rd, 2019

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