Friday, July 27, 2012


In an essay titled "Higher Ground: Moral Transgressions, Transcendent Fantasies," Stephen R. Bissette characterizes FLATLINERS, JACOB'S LADDER and GHOST (all Hollywood films, released by major studios in 1990) as "a triad that indicated a significant shift in the winds of the pop culture," harbingers of a new wave of fantasy horror that would stand in "marked contrast to the nihilism of the modern horror film."

Of course it's easier to talk in broad terms about "horror films of the 1980s" and "horror films of the 1990s," as if a stylistic change took place overnight (I'm completely guilty of this oversimplification, as I usually mark the dawn of 1990s psychological horror shortly after the release of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), but there's no question that a subtler shift is illustrated by these three films.  One could suggest that the change started as early as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1985), Wes Craven's monumental foray into "fantasy terror," and lasted until the postmodern slasher SCREAM (1996).  A number of films made in between these genre landmarks seem to revolve around the yuppie culture's fear of karmic comeuppance.  One could expand the scope further to suggest that the "new wave" coincided with a return of the transformative values in American pop culture during the late 1960s -- values that were largely repressed during the "greed is good" decade and the Reagan era.  Or, in a truly reductive manner, one could say that these films were reaching back even further, to the essential warnings of the old Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff "mad doctor" morality tales of the 1930s and early 1940s (FRANKENSTEIN, THE DEVIL COMMANDS, etc).

Bissette dances around these ideas rather than delving deeply into an examination of the triad that prompted his astute observation, and I can't really blame him.  It's difficult for a critic to get too serious about Hollywood's misguided efforts to visualize a metaphysical philosophy that will please all mainstream moviegoers, regardless of their religious bent.

To put things in perspective: All three of the films in question are about characters coming to terms with death.  In FLATLINERS, a group of ambitious med school students carry out a series of experiments whereby each of them (except for Oliver Platt, who's a big sissy) gets to have a near-death experience, or NDE.  Their experiences are all deeply personal, related to past "sins" that they re-live in hyperreal flashbacks.  By repenting these sins, they are able to beat death -- or, at least, their fear of death.  GHOST is a more conventional ghost story, in which an earthbound spirit seeks justice (and a bit of righteous revenge) from beyond the grave.  Angels and demons, Heaven and Hell are vaguely depicted here in simple terms of light and dark.  Once justice has been served, the earthbound spirit can "go the light."  There's no real theology at work.  What matters is that, in both of these films, death is an occasion for karmic reckoning.  JACOB'S LADDER is more complicated, because it at aims at presenting a more specific (and more esoteric, at least for American moviegoers) philosophy.

As it happens, both GHOST and JACOB'S LADDER originated in the mind of the same man.  Bruce Joel Rubin got his start in Hollywood by writing the script for BRAINSTORM (1983).  Rubin says that his original story was "about exploration into the human mind rather than exploration mechanically into outer space," so it would seem to be a natural fit for filmmaker Douglas Trumbull, the  special effects visionary responsible for Dave's journey through inner-space at the end of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  In the end, however, Rubin was disappointed with Trumbull's BRAINSTORM, feeling that it emphasized spectacle over story.   In the following years, he moved his hopes to JACOB'S LADDER, a script that gradually became something of a Hollywood legend.  Everybody read it.  Everybody loved it.  Nobody wanted to make it. 

Rubin says that the story originated with dream.  He describes it as follows: "A subway late at night; I am traveling through the bowels of New York City.  There are very few people on the train.  A terrible loneliness grips me.  The train pulls inot the station and I get off.  The platform is deserted.  I walk to the nearest exit, and discover the gate is locked.  A feeling of terrible despair begins to pulse through me as I hike to the other end of the platform.  To my horror, that exit is chained, too.  I am totally trapped and overwhelmed by a sense of doom.  I know with perfect certainty that I will never see daylight again.  My only hope is to jump onto the tracks and enter the tunnel, the darkness.  The only direction from there is down.  I know the next stop on my journey is hell.”

Over the course of three days he wrote the bulk of the story in which Jacob wrestles with demons in the everyday world around him... then stumbled when it came time to end the story.  He simply didn't know how to end it, because he didn't fully understand Jacob's struggle.  Rubin didn't think of himself as a modern horror writer, so nihilism (leaving Jacob stranded in hell) didn't seem like the right ending.  Nor did he want to craft a narrative in which Jacob simply fights off the demons, and lives happily ever after.  Just as BRAINSTORM was meant to be an "exploration into the human mind rather than exploration mechanically into outer space," so JACOB'S LADDER had to be an exploration of the human spirit rather than an effects-driven descent into hell.   In short, Rubin wanted to create a modern myth.

One day he realized that what he was really writing was a variation on AN OCCURENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE (Robert Enrico's 1962 short film, which originally aired as an episode of Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE).  He figured he could essentially update that Revolutionary War-era story for the Vietnam generation, and thereby establish a Maguffin (the "ladder" experiment) that would distract the audience from the third-act revelation that Jacob is already dead.  In the same moment, the writer realized that everything he had already written was taking place in Jacob's dying mind.  This is where things get complicated.  Unlike FLATLINERS or GHOST, JACOB'S LADDER is not based on a simple, conventional Western worldview.   Most of the action in the film takes place when the main character, Jacob Singer, is in what Tibetan Buddhists refer to as "the painful bardo of dying."

Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says that this phase of existence lasts from the beginning of the process of physical death until the end of what is known as "inner respiration," then culminates in the dawning of the "Grand Luminosity."  The entire process can be as long as twenty minutes or as short as a few seconds, depending on how the dying mind reacts.  Rinpoche explains: "At the moment of death, there are two things that count: Whatever we have done in our lives, and what state of mind we are in at that moment."  So, in addition to the basic principle of karma, the bardo experience depends on the individual's perception and awareness of the process of death.  The lone angel of JACOB'S LADDER, played by Danny Aiello, explains this by paraphrasing the German mystic Meister Eckhart: "If you're frightened of dying, you'll see devils tearing your life away.  But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth."  Jacob's inward journey is (like Nancy's journey in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) about overcoming fear and embracing death.  That's the only way he can truly beat the demons. 

Now that he had his story, Rubin had to find someone who could interpret it visually.  Early contenders included Ridley Scott, but the job eventually went to Adrian Lyne (FATAL ATTRACTION, LOLITA).  Lyne, like Rubin, interpreted the prospective myth through the filter of his own personal beliefs.  Whereas Rubin had conceived the demons or devils of Jacob's hell in traditional Judeo-Christian terms, drawing inspiration from famous images by Hieronymous Bosch and William Blake, Lyne wanted something more abstract.

Hieronymous Bosch - from "The Garden of Earthly Delights"
William Blake - "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun"
Rubin explains: "[Lyne] felt that people are too familiar with the classical renderings of the demonic soul.  We see demons in their classical costumes and poses, and we classify them instantly.  They are familiar to use and, therefore, not threatening.  They are easy to dismiss, and therefore, not demonic."  The director focused instead on the paintings of Francis Bacon and the photography of Joel Peter Witkin.

Francis Bacon - "Self Portrait"

Joel Peter Witkin - "Mother and Child"

 Stephen R. Bissette makes much of this transfer of sensibilities: "Had Lyne embraced the clearly Christian iconography of Rubin's script, JACOB'S LADDER would have stood regressively apart from its contemporaries [...] JACOB'S LADDER worked best when daring the tightwire walk over the abyss between the polar extremities of [Luis] Buñuel and [David] Lynch: its horror lay in the dread of the plunge, its beauty in the yearning for and attaining of redemption."  I absolutely agree that Lyne's demons are one of the main secrets of the film's success.  They make Jacob's struggle genuinely mysterious and frightening instead of simply allegorical.  The switch also makes good story sense, because Jacob Singer is not a Christian.  In an unshot scene from the script, Jacob's philosophy professor says that Jacob's "visions" are particularly disturbing because Jacob has "no context for it."  He's "a renegade Existentialist suffering demons a hundred years after Freud."  Lyne logically opts for a kind of "demons" that post-Freudians can understand.

Joel Peter Witkin - "Man with No Legs"
Legless demon in JACOB'S LADDER
"Mad doctor" demon in JACOB'S LADDER
Drive-by demon in JACOB'S LADDER
JACOB'S LADDER depicts its demons as organic "freaks," the type whose grotesque beauty we can't help studying with morbid fascination.  Bissette's comparison to Luis Buñuel and David Lynch is instructive (Salvador Dali and David Cronenberg might have been even more apt), because it serves as a reminder that the effectiveness of surreal imagery is often related to the close proximity between beauty and horror.

Salvador Dali - "Women forming a Skull"
Porn star Marilyn Chambers (before Cronenberg)
Marilyn Chambers (after Cronenberg)
Only one of Lyne's demons is beautiful in the most conventional sense.  The sensuality of Elizabeth Peña's character reinforces the idea that Jacob's "hell" is as alluring and addictive as it is horrifying.  If Jacob weren't so lustful over Elizabeth Peña, he might not have such a hard time rejecting his false reality.... but of course carnal desire promises its own version of transcendence.  I think that one of the truly sublime achievements of the film is the party scene in which Peña's character, Jezzie, orgasmically submits her entire body to the penetrating thrusts of some kind of giant thalidomide monster.  This is a pornographic frenzy worthy of Cronenberg's "new flesh"... though it also reminds me of Raoul Duke's line in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: "I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo, and somebody was giving booze to these goddamn things!"
Joel Peter Witkin - "Ars Moriendi"
Jezzie in light

Jezzie in dark
Peña's Jezzie character is the pivotal character in Rubin's shooting script for JACOB'S LADDER.  The story reaches its climax when Jacob realizes that she is merely a projection of his earthly desires, and that he is no longer "of the earth."  By realizing that, Jacob comes to understand that the life he's holding onto isn't real.  He lets go of his fears and desires and moves forward, into the bardo of becoming.  

This revelation is preempted by a scene in which Jacob takes a drug (the anti-"ladder," delivered to him by the Michael Newman character) that allows him to see things clearly for the first time.  The scene reminds me a bit of the red pill / blue pill scene in THE MATRIX, in that its entire purpose is to illustrate Jacob's willingness to surrender.   I imagine this was a significant scene for Rubin, because it parallels his own transformative experience on LSD (which you can read about here)... but, after seeing the excised scene on the special edition DVD, I'm not convinced that it's necessary.   

Once Jacob trips through the doors of perception and sees the world as it truly is (to quote Blake: infinite), Rubin's original script had him rising up what the writer describes as a "Spielbergian" stairway to heaven, inspired by Gustave Doré's engravings of Dante's Paradiso...

Gustave Doré's "Paradiso"
Apparently put off by these deeply intellectual and visually grandiose qualities, Lyne chose to eliminate all three of Rubin's climactic scenes, focusing instead on a resolution drawn from his own personal experience.  The character of Gabe (Jacob's dead son, played by Macauley Culkin) is entirely Lyne's addition to the story -- his counterpoint to all the faceless demons in Jacob's hell.  Rubin notes that the director always wanted to give the resolution, Jacob's ascent into heaven, a "human face."  That's why he ultimately chose to end the film on the image of Gabe leading Jacob up the staircase in his own house.  This obviously goes against the Buddhist philosophy of freeing oneself from all earthly attachements... but when he saw the finished product, Rubin agreed with the decision.  "The image of heaven as hearth and home had been Adrian's aim all along, and now that he delivered that ending, it fit.  It was in truth the only possible satisfying culmination to the film that he had made."  

Adrian Lyne's stairway to heaven
On the other hand, one senses a bit more disappointment in the writer's claim that JACOB'S LADDER "was no longer the movie I had originally conceived, but in a sense it was the film it needed to become."  What it became is a film that, shorn of the specifics of Judeo-Christian imagery and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, resonated with a large (American) audience.  By stimulating feelings of hope and fear through captivating depicitions of beauty and horror -- even though it doesn't present a particularly coherent worldview -- it is a more visceral and affecting film than it might have been had Rubin made the film himself.   Still, like the writer, I have to wonder what those initial ideas might have evolved into under different circumstances.  For example, just try to visualize this definitively non-Hollywood ending (described in Rubin's notes on the published shooting script)...

"By finally 'letting go,' Jacob frees himself from the entire struggle and accepts the inevitability of his death, of death itself.  At that moment his body is engulfed in flames and, like a Buddhist monk, he sits down and allows himself to be consumed by them.  The screen goes dark.  Gradually there is a sense of dawn.  A charred mass becomes visible before us: the remains of Jacob Singer.  It is a grotesque sight that grows stranger as we notice that in the area of his eyes there is movement, life.  At that moment, Michael Newman appears as if from heaven and approaches Jacob, instructing him to get up.  Jacob's flesh, Michael says, can't hold him any more.  He reaches for Jacob's blackened body and pulls at the dead skin.  A beam of light shoots out.  Michael tells Jacob that he is free, he has won the battle.  Full of light.  Jacob emerges from his lifeless flesh a new being.  By accepting death, Jacob is born into a new triumphant life.  His soul is free."

That too is a movie I'd like to see.

1 comment:

  1. Kudos for this, Joe. I daresay, Jacob's Ladder (among all of the films you mention) was the most haunting from this particular year. I don't think its power has diminished one iota in the two decades plus that have turned over since. Well done.