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Coffee? I Like Coffee!:
The Metaphysical Cinema of Coleman Francis, Part Two

Coleman Francis starring as Griffin in his self-directed Red Zone Cuba

8,212 words

Part 2 of 3 (Part 1 here)

B refers to The Beast of Yucca Flats; S for The Skydivers; and R for Red Zone Cuba.

No Dialogue Necessary: The Vision of Coleman Francis

“Coleman Francis had a vision. A dark vision. With cars.”[1]

It’s always the same place;
It’s always the same time;[2]
It’s always the same people;
It’s always the same “actions”[3];

Obviously the three films instantiate this vision in different ways and to different extents.

B is the shortest, crudest – but for all that, not the ugliest – version.[4] But what else would we expect from a first-time director’s first outing? As Tom Servo ironically observes of B:

“Typical of young directors: too many good ideas. Or in this case, no ideas.”

And yet the vision is already complete. As B-filmmaker and historian Larry Blamire notes:

“If you took out the MST3K jokes, and removed the music, which is just re-cycled, it would be an incredibly deadening experience.”[5]

One almost cliché problem is that rather than embracing the lack of available sound and going full silent movie, Coleman instead set up shots to avoid the actors’ mouths and wrote and dubbed the extensive and infamous narration himself.[6]

“I thought I was listening to Spoon River Anthology performed by atomic mutants.”[7]

Yes, it’s the dreaded “telling not showing.”[8] Yet arguably, B gives us a key visual clue: the atomic blast that precedes Tor, the deputies, and the family all wandering in the desert.[9]As we take in, compulsively, the extraordinarily bleak black-and-white photography, here and in the following two films, we may realize that we’ve seen this before: the famous footage of atomic tests blowing apart mock buildings.[10]

Although ex-industrial film cameraman Lee Strosnider provided the cinematography, he recalls balking at Coleman’s idea of depicting the atomic blast by simply opening up the camera iris; yet he admits, it worked.[11]

B was originally titled, at the start of production, The Angry Sun, which of course suggests The Angry Son: the Savior in his second coming, bringing his righteous wrath. I suggest that, fundamentally, all three films take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland: the film merely records the “footprints on the wasteland” left by the wandering survivors.

That our post-Cold War experience tells us retrospectively that no such holocaust “actually” occurred is irrelevant; it is the existential landscape of the post-Atomic Age, where the worst has already happened, long ago,[12] and cannot be prevented or repaired; where only a god can save us.[13]

This disjunction between powerful visual symbol and wordy message would be corrected, ironically enough, in his next outing, Skydivers, his first with synchronized sound, where – although neither he nor we are interested in the conventional romantic plot – Coleman digs into his own, small bag of personal interests and drags out . . . sport parachuting.[14]

It’s an absolutely brilliant metaphor for the human condition: the parachutists go up, then come down, and then repeat the process, until death intervenes.[15] Moreover, during the cycle, the eponymous skydivers are hanging from the various tethers attaching them to the chute, an obvious allusion to the “puppet” metaphor of total determinism as revealed by mystical experience brought about by enthogenic substances.[16]

Southern pater familias (Coleman): “When are those fools going to jump?”
Joe the Coffee Guy: “Who? Oh, the fools.”

This is especially brought out by Coleman’s primitive method of splicing aerial shots of the skydivers with inserts of the actors’ faces, apparently shot while hanging in a studio or warehouse.[17]

He’ll fly his astral plane.
He’ll take you trips around the bay.[18]
He’ll bring you back the same day.

He’ll take you up, he’ll bring you down,
He’ll plant your feet back firmly on the ground.
He flies so high, he swoops so low,
He knows exactly which way he’s gonna go.[19]

Coleman did know which way: Cuba; and Red Zone Cuba (also known by the better, and more profound title Night Train to Mundo Fine) would prove to be his fine-st achievement. And appropriately enough, Coleman would drop the narrating – “until the end,” as the theme song says[20] – and little bit parts, and instead take center stage: “Full Metal [Coleman],” as Crow T. Robot intones.[21]

Like sport parachuting, Coleman has found another objective correlative: the Bay of Pigs invasion,[22] where official history seems to have been written by Coleman himself:[23]

But we didn’t have to invade Cuba, because it was already ours. You don’t need to invade an island where you already have a large military base. The story couldn’t be any stupider if it included clowns on tricycles.[24]

Stupid, and futilely repetitive.[25] But even in R, the Bay of Pigs is only an irrelevant epicycle.[26]

Excursus Diagnostic

“Someone with Attention Deficit Disorder edited this film.” – Crow T. Robot, S

We have to ask, what’s eating Coleman Francis? By all accounts, such as they are, he was a good guy, a nice chap. He drank, but no more than anyone else in this Mad Man era, and though he began drinking heavily as he went into a sudden, steep decline in his last years, there’s no reason to think one was any more the cause than the other.

Yet what accounts for the unique vision projected by his films?[27]

“A kind of dark lyricism.”[28]

“The shots of the mother looking for her children are so bleak . . . If you took away the Mystery Science Theater comments, and the music, which is just library music, it would be an incredibly deadening experience.”[29]

“There was no such thing as clinical depression until this film.”[30]

I suggest that autism would explain much; yes, our auteur was an autiste.[31]

Now of course, I’m no kind of doctor,[32] and I even if I were, I would not try to diagnose a long-dead man on the basis of some movies. But contrariwise, perhaps the diagnosis can help us understand the movies themselves.

To aid our man in the street idea of autism, let’s look at some recent research, helpfully summarized by a recent article from the Right On blog:[33]

Cambridge university autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, the cousin of comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen, advances the idea that Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) including Asperger’s syndrome can be at least partially explained as being the expression of an “extreme male brain” (EMB) that results from unusually high concentrations of testosterone during fetal development.

This would certainly seem to fit Coleman, with his large, hulking presence, and evident ease with portraying murderous brutes.[34]

Although in the past, autists were often assumed to have low IQs, this is like a case of selection bias (those with low IQs are more likely to be subjected to testing). In fact:

It is well-known that some autists, despite having social problems and difficulty functioning independently, often display some remarkable intellectual talents; especially when it comes to detailed memory of their favorite topic. The subset of autists with uncanny intellectual abilities used to be widely referred to as idiot savants to indicate both their lower level of overall functioning and their above average excellence in a particular narrow domain.

Again, we can well imagine Coleman as a highly talented individual whose “difficulty functioning independently” easily explains his attraction to filmmaking, the collaborative art par excellence.

The precise nature of Coleman’s cinematic vision becomes recognizable when we look at the two dimensions of intelligence that Baron-Cohen postulates:

The first dimension, empathizing reasoning, involves interpreting the goals of conscious agents and general theory of mind. Empathizing reasoning allows efficient inference of mental and emotional states in others and promotes the drive to respond with appropriate emotion and physical actions to those states . . . The major thrust of this form of reasoning is understanding the emotional states of others and responding to those states well; whether this knowledge is used to sympathize with others or pursue raw self interest is secondary.

The second dimension, systemizing reasoning, is defined as the drive and ability to analyze and construct rules for a particular system that can produce consistently predictable outputs from given inputs as a result of operational rules. It is especially effective at interpretation of non-agentative lawful systems such as are common in the natural world. Lawful systems are characterized by being highly predictable. Given a specific input, a lawful system can be expected to repeatedly have a consistent output after some operation takes place. Examples of highly lawful systems, approaching 100% lawfulness, would be things such as mathematical formulas, the functioning of engines, and the movement of celestial bodies. Given a perturbation of such systems, the resulting change or output can be predicted with the real-world results varying minimally from predication. Moderately lawful systems, such as meteorology, are also amenable to systemizing reasoning.

The functioning of engines, now keep that in mind. Basically, we can see that the autist will be relative lousy at understanding human interaction, based as it is on agency, and will compensate by a fixation on rule-based systems:

Autists can be thought of as hyper-systemizers who attempt to interpret all sensory input, including agentative action, through systemizing. Interpreting agents and high variance systems in terms of input-operation-output isn’t feasible and as a result social situations tend to cause a lot of consternation for autists. To cope with the inability to successfully systemize unlawful environments or situations, autistic people develop preference for stable, unchanging environments or at least environments which change predictably. Unexpected change or a break from routine can commonly cause autists immense discomfort since it breaks the systemizing mental schemas on which they are reliant. As a result, they tend to form interests in topics and hobbies which are amenable to systemizing and also attempt to force the environment around them to conform to some rule set. For example, systematically recording the weather, repetitively watching certain TV shows or specific episodes, developing encyclopedic knowledge of important dates or train schedules, repetitively rocking or other stereotypical behaviors are all examples of hobbies with lawful properties taken up by autists. In the case of TV shows, even though a TV show has agents, the events, script and other aspects of the story never change from one viewing to another and thus it is highly lawful.

Repetition, eh? As we’ve seen, this is exactly the Coleman vision, a world of endless, futile repetition, extended even to human interaction, never changing from film to film, from actor to actor.

These elements can help us to understand both the sources of Coleman’s cinematic vision, and its nature.

First, the inability to understand, and thus to portray, human motivation and psychological processes. This is most on display in S, where Coleman, in his sophomore outing, unwisely attempts to portray an intense love triangle (or quadrilateral, actually[35]) leading to murder. While Kevin (yes, Kevin) Casey seems to struggle heroically to get some emotion going between her and the other actors, the latter, along with the script, defeat her every time.[36] It’s possible Tony Cardoza was cast precisely to play a stereotypically stoic, inexpressive “real guy” who resists and resents his wife as she tries to get them to “talk about our problems,” but more likely he’s here, as in all of Coleman’s films, because he’s the producer.[37]

And here is where coffee, “a Coleman Francis motif” (R), makes its first appearance, to be continued in R. Coffee – making, offering, accepting, enjoying – is Coleman’s universal social lubricant, the chief means of getting his actors to interact, or even to get up and move or do something with their hands.

Thus, we have this moment, a key plot point[38] and a pivotal scene in the Coleman oeuvre, like Eisenstein’s baby carriage, as described here by the indefatigable reviewer at The Agony Booth:

Here we get some truly terrible stage business as Suitcase Guy walks up, stops, looks at Beth, obtrusively puts down his suitcase, stands back up, stares at Beth a while longer, then speaks. (I promise you, it’s even more stilted than how I described it.) He says, “I know you. Beth, you’re prettier than your picture.” Beth continues to look at the guy in shock and horror, until it finally dawns on her this is Harry’s war buddy, Joe Moss. Remember, Beth? The guy you said they should send for, and who therefore you should have been expecting? You really don’t get a lot of customers, do you, Beth?

She grabs his hand and tells him it’s great to finally meet him. As she gushes, she realizes she’s held his hand a little too long, so she offers him coffee. Coleman Francis Rule #1: When in doubt, coffee out. This leads to Joe’s immortal line, “Coffee? I like coffee!” For a Coleman Francis movie, that’s the equivalent of a guy in a Western saying, “I like six-shooters!” Beth makes this elaborate and dorky right this way gesture, like she’s revealing a speedboat in the Showcase Showdown. They leave the now suffocating confines of the Parachute Room for the bright, clean outdoors.

The two walk around. They look the place over by walking about a yard or two and tilting their heads like birds listening for worms. Joe then passes judgment: “I like this place.” But do you like it as much as you like coffee?

Beth agrees, but says she’d like it better if it were paid for. Joe smiles and says, “Well?” Which sounds like he means, “Well, why isn’t it paid for?” Frankly, I don’t think that’s any of your business, Joe. Beth’s stymied for a reply, so she asks Joe to rephrase that in the form of an actual question.

Joe asks, “Where’s the general?” This also stumps Beth. Geez. What is this, Obtuse Day? Finally, she realizes he’s asking about Harry (who’s a corporal, if there ever was one). This leads to her making the incredibly lame reply, “Oh! He had to go into the village and check the troops!” Hmm. Is that what he calls Suzy’s butt? She says this very seriously at first, but then smiles. I’m guessing this is what passes for “deadpan humor” when you’re Coleman Francis.

Joe totally blows off her stupid reply and asks, “Uhhh, weren’t you saying something about some coffee?” Geez, no kidding. What a lousy hostess. Don’t dangle the prospect of coffee before us and then just leave us hanging, woman! You know what? I’ll bet the coffee’s not paid for, either.

As they walk along, General Harry arrives in his land boat Cadillac and – rarest of rare sights! Tony Cardoza just smiled! I don’t believe it. And the whole time he’s greeting Joe he maintains this smile. Amazing stuff here!

They all decide nothing would cap this moment off better than a cup of that mythical coffee, so they head inside. Joe immediately makes trouble by joking about a native girl who tried to get Harry to marry her during the war. How is this guy a chick magnet? This movie makes no sense.

Was that tedious and puzzling? Well, imagine watching it slowly, painfully enacted on a screen in front of you.

But it would be wrong to leave the suggestion that Coleman was just inept.[39] There’s an important second piece of the puzzle: he’s really good, or at least interested, in one thing: flying small planes.

Beast opens with Jaworski landing in a small plane,[40] and the central “action” is that, for no reason at all, the “desert patrol” gets in a plane and parachutes on top of a mesa, after shooting down an innocent civilian (another Coleman motif, as we’ll see).

Skydivers is entirely set at a “sport parachute” facility, and excels in shots of planes taking off and landing, and the eponymous skydivers jumping out, sailing down, and landing. It’s no surprise that most people consider this to be his “best” film.[41] Here the human element again fails Coleman; it’s not clear who did the quite convincing shots of the skydivers in the air,[42] but Coleman then inter-cuts shots of the actors in close-up, presumably hanging in a warehouse somewhere against a blank background; it’s as convincing as it sounds. And once more, the “climax” is a guy – Coleman himself this time – getting in a small (again, civilian) plane and shooting down some supposed bad guys.

Red Zone again reverts to Beast to give us a central episode where a civilian plane takes Coleman and pals to a CIA training camp; then, later, they steal another plane – again, a civilian plane, though on a supposed Cuban military base – to fly back,[43] an entirely unnecessary detour.[44] And again, the climax is reached when an (FBI?) man gets in a – civilian, sigh – plane and this time shoots down Coleman.

A bad filmmaker who, like the Hedgehog, knows just one thing: this is what prevents Coleman’s films from being entirely bad and thus slipping out of existence entirely. As a useful comparison, consider Bill Rebane, a truly bad, that is, simply untalented director. His Monster A Go Go[45] is infamous for having been shelved halfway through when financing fell through — like Orson Welles! Unlike Welles, he gave up. Unfortunately for us, it was bought and then “completed” by sleaze tycoon Hershel Gordon Lewis, to serve as the bottom of a double bill – if one can imagine something on the bottom of a bill featuring a “film” by the Wizard of Gore. The willingness of both Lewis and Rebane to treat his film as raw material for a cinematic sausage is almost refreshingly honest, and quite accurate in its evaluation of the material.[46]

But the main difference is that while Rebane is utterly incompetent, like an inverted Fox,[47] Francis, like the Hedgehog, knows one big thing: flying planes. As we’ve seen, they play key roles in all his films, and his most conventionally successful, S, is entirely devoted to planes. There, Coleman can relax and present some cool, mechanical competence. Everywhere else, from setting up synchronized (or not) sound to depicting real human emotions and speech – Coleman, like Rebane, is entirely, pervasively incompetent.

“Coffee? I like coffee!” (S)

“I’m Cherokee Jack!”[48] (R)

“A corpse . . . a woman’s handbag . . . and footprints on the wasteland.” (B)

But then, have we not seen an alarming increase in the diagnosis of autism in our post-Apocalyptic society?

Excursus: Mr Arkadin (aka Confidential Report)

And speaking of Welles: if there is any “mainstream” cinema masterpiece that approaches the Coleman Trilogy, it would be Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) by Orson Welles. Made (mostly) in 1955, it slightly predates the Trilogy; is it possible Coleman was attempting an homage?[49]

Anyway, the parallels are striking. They start right at the beginning: what’s this? A murky aerial shot of . . . a single engine plane! Look out below! Over the drone of the engine, we suddenly hear a deep, sonorous voice – narration, by our auteur himself.[50]

And among the pomposities, he predicts the plane will be involved in a murder. Now, having seen the film, we know that it’s a suicide; bit of a difference, eh, Mr. Welles? However, Harry in S will indeed be murdered when an acid-sabotaged chute sends him plummeting to Earth. But no matter: the inaccuracy – itself a Colemanism – hides a deeper truth, as we’ve seen: the end of Griffin, the Cotton King of the South, just as Arkadin is a global financier – is really a suicide (suicide by cop). Welles hammers this home by having Arkadin essentially just disappear magically from the plane, no doubt due to budget constraints; yet if he had had Coleman’s audacity, would he have bought some skydiving footage and supplemented it with close-ups of his actors hanging from hooks in a warehouse? Welles himself is, of course, Coleman – actor turned director, down on his luck, and rather fond of vino and carbohydrates, it would appear; and it indeed would have been a sight to see either one plunging from a plane.

We also have Robert Arden in the Tony Cardoza role of a non-acting, non-charismatic “romantic lead,” involved in a romantic triangle (if we count Arkadin’s love of his daughter). There’s the long shooting schedule, interspersed by the repeated drying up of funds and the search for new donors, the bad dubbing,[51]the cast of weirdos and hopeful “guest stars,” the “real” locations shot in a way that somehow seems entirely fake.

Is it any wonder it exists under two titles (like R) and in three versions (paralleling the Trilogy)?

All this makes the fictional encounter of Welles and Wood in Ed Wood even more ironically inappropriate. Coleman is Welles’ true doppelganger.[52]

Is Griffin Enlightened?

Coleman Francis was found in his car, dead. His films were forgotten until rediscovered by MST3K. What is his legacy? What accounts for their terrible fascination?

I will suggest this: that a likely unique combination of ambition, autism, and amateurism created a perfect storm that produced the most intense cinematic vision of the nature of samsara and the path to nirvana.

Once again, Schopenhauer is our guide:

Our life is like a journey on which, as we advance, the landscape takes a different view from that which it presented at first, and changes again, as we come nearer. This is just what happens – especially with our wishes. We often find something else, nay, something better than what we are looking for; and what we look for, we often find on a very different path from that on which we began a vain search. Instead of finding, as we expected, pleasure, happiness, joy, we get experience, insight, knowledge – a real and permanent blessing, instead of a fleeting and illusory one.

This is the thought that runs through Wilhelm Meister, like the bass in a piece of music. In this work of Goethe’s, we have a novel of the intellectual kind, and, therefore, superior to all others, even to Sir Walter Scott’s, which are, one and all, ethical; in other words, they treat of human nature only from the side of the will. So, too, in the Zauberflöte – that grotesque, but still significant, and even hieroglyphic – the same thought is symbolized, but in great, coarse lines, much in the way in which scenery is painted. Here the symbol would be complete if Tamino were in the end to be cured of his desire to possess Tainina, and received, in her stead, initiation into the mysteries of the Temple of Wisdom. It is quite right for Papageno, his necessary contrast, to succeed in getting his Papagena. [cf. Bailey and Ruby]

Men of any worth or value soon come to see that they are in the hands of Fate, and gratefully submit to be moulded by its teachings. They recognize that the fruit of life is experience, and not happiness; they become accustomed and content to exchange hope for insight; . . .

It may even be that they to some extent still follow their old wishes and aims, trifling with them, as it were, for the sake of appearances; all the while really and seriously looking for nothing but instruction; a process which lends them an air of genius, a trait of something contemplative and sublime.

In their search for gold, the alchemists discovered other things – gunpowder, china, medicines, the laws of nature. There is a sense in which we are all alchemists.[53]

Evola expands on the “journey” metaphor in a way that is extremely important for our considerations here:

An Eastern saying puts it as follows: “Life on earth is a journey in the night hours.” One can explain its positive content by referring to the sensation of a “before” (with respect to human existence) and “after” (with respect to the same). In metaphysical terms, birth is a change of state and so is death; the human condition of earthly existence is only a restricted section in a continuum, in a current that traverses many other states.

In general, but particularly in a chaotic epoch in dissolution like the present one, it can be difficult to grasp the sense of this apparition of the being that one is, in the guise of a certain person, who lives in a given time and in a given place, who goes through these experiences, of whom this will be the end: it is like the confused sensation of a region traversed in a night journey where only a few scattered lights reveal some glimpses of the landscape. Nevertheless, one should maintain the sentiment, or presentiment, of one who when getting on a train knows he will get off it, and that when he gets off he will also see the entire course traveled, and will go further. This sentiment favors an immanent firmness and security, distinctly different from the state that arises in the soul facing death within the framework of a creationist theistic religion, in which whatever part of the being is superior and anterior to life, thus also metaphysically surviving the death that ends it, remains effectively hidden.[54]

We need only recall at this point that the original, now occluded title of R is Night Train to Mundo Fine. Suppressing the title, replacing it with the puzzling and irrelevant Red Zone Cuba,[55]is a masterstroke of subtle genius. The film is Griffin’s night journey to the end of the world; “end” meaning both the end of his entanglement in worldly desires and the end, or axis point of the world, from which escape is accomplished.[56]

But the title still hides in plain sight, in the opening prologue where “guest star” John Carradine makes his brief appearance as “the engineer on the train that night” when “it was dark” and Griffin “ran all the way to Hell.”

And then immediately follows the theme song, sung (!) by Carradine himself. I’ve alluded to a few lines already, but now is the time to lay the whole thing out.

“Night Train to Mundo Fine”
Written by: Ray Gregory
Music played by: Ray Gregory and the Melmen
Sung by: John Carradine

Night train to Mundo Fine
Night train to the end
Running hard and running fast
To meet my future and away from my past
Taking that gamble that cannot last
Night train to the eeeeeend!

Hell’s ride to Mundo Fine
Hell’s ride to the end
Sold my soul to the devil’s men
He draws me hard with a merciless hand
And all I bought is a handful of sand
Night train to the eeeeeeend!

I’m on this ride ’cause I have no pride
In myself or in man or in God
Now if you want to share in the price of my fare
Then fill your mind with greed that is blind
And wander in its evil fog[57]

Night train to Mundo Fine
Night train to the end
Running hard and running fast
To meet my future and away from my past
Taking the gamble that cannot last
Night train to the eeeeeend!

Thus, it is inaccurate, to say the least, to characterize this prologue sequence as gratuitous or “never referred to again.”[58] In fact, is a clear leitmotiv; no sooner does Griffin settle in the hobos than he mutters contentedly, “I’m gonna grab me a long freight train.” At the CIA camp, he again mutters that, “There must be a highway or railroad somewhere around here.” And, of course, they eventually do hop the night train out of Albuquerque,[59] though from that point on cars – driven by Landis – are the preferred mode of transport.[60]

What emerges from the para-competent and depressing vision of R (and to a lesser extent S) is a narrative that is true and compelling, because it is the narrative of all our lives, the metaphysical Truth behind the boring, depressing round of existence that can only be escaped by abandoning its attractions and heading straight up.

Pete: “I feel real free up there in that high blue sky. Nobody to tell you what to do, you just have to please yourself up there.”[61]

In the final sequence, Griffin has come to the end of the line.

Griffin: “No one’s going back.”

Not just cheated of his “thousand bucks when you join, and a thousand bucks when it’s over” – another splendid metaphor for samsara — and the perhaps mythical uranium mine, he has been stripped of all possessions, still wearing some stolen clothes and carrying only, as we’ll soon be told, “a penny[62] and a broken cigarette.”

He’s abandoned everyone (running from Cook and Landis and shooting Ruby) and run across a field (the Field of material existence). We switch to an aerial perspective on the Field as a whole as the helicopter closes in on him. We see Griffin standing, stock-still, as he is shot and falls over, horizontally across the ground.

Is Griffin done for now, only to return to the endless round? No: unlike Rico in Little Caesar, this is not “the end.”

We cut to Ruby, who also lies on the ground. An unknown man in a pickup truck stops by and, well, picks her up, shoving her onto the flatbed.[63] Ruby is returned to her house, where her husband, presumed dead, also shows up.[64] None of this is explained or even sensible. However, it shows that by shooting Ruby Griffin, his karma has been transferred to her, a process we’ve called “passing the buck.”[65] Griffin is now free.

Griffin has followed as ascetic path; prison, breakout, old clothes, sharing food with hoboes, military training, combat, capture and escape, begging hospitality of Chastain’s wife. Like a monk or priest, he has nothing, owns nothing.

“A once powerful, humble man . . . reduced to . . . nothing.” (B)

As the posse searches Griffin’s pockets, a narrator suddenly speaks up,[66] informing us that “Griffin ran all the way to Hell . . . with a penny . . . and a broken cigarette.” Of course, we can see the penny and the cigarette; the narrator is needed to add the running to Hell part, thus linking this final shot to the prologue speech.

This time, however, the voice is not Carradine. Was he unavailable? If so, why not overdub his previous line-reading – certainly not a technique Coleman was afraid to use.

No, this time the voice is Coleman’s, as in B; the line circles back to the prologue, but the voice circles back to the narration of B. More deeply, it tells us Coleman has in some sense survived, his body is discarded on the Ground of Existence not in defeat but in triumph, in transcendence. The voice is disembodied, and the next shot returns to the aerial view. It must be Coleman’s new, transcendent POV.

“Timothy Leary’s dead / No, no, no, no he’s outside looking in” – “Legend of a Mind”

“The Kingdom of Heaven is for none but the thoroughly dead.” – Meister Eckhart[67]

Meeting his final end, his is “arrested,” he “gives up” the ghost, is “finished.”[68] Missa est. The Knower withdraws up and circles around the Pole at the center of the Spiral.[69]

Dead . . . but in Hell? Well, of course, all symbols are inverted on the material plane; what deluded mortals call Hell may very well be the transcendent realm. After all, Judeo-Christianity, the sworn enemy of “prideful” search for gnosis,[70] condemns those who would strive for such knowledge to eternal punishment.[71] And as we’ve seen, death is only birth at another level of the spiral.[72]

 

Notes

1. MST3K, B.

2. “The mythical narrative is of timeless and placeless validity.” Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1943), p. 6.

3. Or, as the ‘bots suggest, the Beckett-like “action . . . less . . . ness.”

4. Even Tor Johnson covered in “wrinkled toilet tissue” can’t match Coleman’s Griffin for sheer ugliness, at least of spirit. “Where does his face end and his pillow begin?” – Tom Servo.

5. Larry Blamire, “No Dialogue Necessary.”

6. Lee Strosnider – who should know, being the cameraman and sometime editor – said he hired “some radio announcer” for the job, but I and most listeners assume it’s Coleman himself.

7. Larry Blamire, loc. cit.

8. As Tom Servo exclaims during an especially talky scene in the wholly abominable The Dead Talk Back (Gould, 1957; released 1996): “We could use a flashback here, this is a motion picture.”

9. The father eventually stumbles across a “Test Site” warning sign, but seems to take it with a shrug, and neither he nor anyone else mentions it again.

10. Here, for example.

11. Interview, “No Dialogue Necessary.”

12. In the title essay of The Eldritch Evola I suggested that both Evola and Lovecraft share the same concept of horror: the worst that can happen – the primal Fall – has already happened.

13. Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (May 1976), pp. 193-219. Trans. by W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (1981), ed. T. Sheehan, pp. 45-67; online here.

14. “Coleman Francis evidently thought plotless skydiving segments were much more important than story, so skydiving is to this film what refueling was to The Starfighters.” Jim Vorel, “The 10 Most Unwatchable Films Featured on MST3K,” in Paste Magazine, November 15, 2013, here.

15. In this context, even the ill-fated romance plotline could be defended: “Reinhold Merkelbach suggested that the Hellenistic romance novels were secularizations of the ancient Mystery myths (the novels perhaps still being understood by the initiated as religious allegories). The separation of the lovers, their arduous search and final reunion reflect the death of Attis, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, the pursuit into the underworld by Cybele, Ishtar, Aphro­dite, Isis, and their glorious reunion after the resurrection of the beloved.” Robert H. Price, “The Christ Myth and the Christian Goddess,” here.

16. See the research gathered by Michael Hoffman at his egodeath.com site; for more on the puppet in film, see my review of A Dandy in Aspic, “Passing the Buck: Spy, Dandy, Übermensch,” here.

17. The ever-present danger of becoming entangled in puppet strings or parachute ropes recalls the repeated (of course) reference to being “caught in the wheels of progress” in B.

18. According to Wikipedia, “The Skydivers is also known as Fiend from Half Moon Bay and Panic at Half Moon Bay,” and IMDB agrees, but unlike R, I’ve have never seen it referred to by either title, and won’t start here. Presumably, it alludes to Eddie Andreini Sr. Airfield (formerly Half Moon Bay Airport), which Wikipedia says “is a public airport in San Mateo County, six miles (9 km) northwest of Half Moon Bay, California. The airport is on the Pacific Coast, south of San Francisco.” Freezing the film at 10:07 shows that Joe’s letter to Harry is being delivered to RRI, Half Moon [Something]; the futility of shooting a whole scene, addressing the envelope, and zooming in on it, but not allowing the viewer to clearly make it out will be echoed in R, when Cherokee Jack’s sign is carefully written out, illiteracies and all, but flashed only for a split-second; the Agony Booth review transcribes it here. The bay referred to in the lyric is obviously San Francisco Bay, since “he” is Timothy Leary. According to IMDB as well, the movie was shot at several California locations, including several airports, but not Half Moon Bay or airport.

19. “’Legend of a Mind’ is a song by the British progressive rock band The Moody Blues, and was written by the band’s flautist Ray Thomas, who provides the lead vocals. “Legend of a Mind” was recorded in January 1968 and was first released on the Moody Blues’ album In Search of the Lost Chord.” Wikipedia, here. Suzy’s bizarre plan to kill Harry involves dumping acid into his parachute back, an idea that is discussed at length with special emphasis on the world “acid.” The connection to Leary is obvious.

20. Which also suggests another, darker ‘60s hit, Jim Morrison’s “The End,” in whose chorus Jim Morrison repeatedly intones “until the end.”

21. An online reviewer notes that “Red Zone Cuba dispenses with any clear narration. In fact, it doesn’t bother to show or tell how the characters get from one place to another. Half of the time, the viewer isn’t sure where the characters in the story are,” then adding, “Coleman Francis is possibly the worst, ugliest, stupidest, most violent piece of shit director ever to walk this earth and I hope he burns in some very hot place for producing this rubbish.”

22. “Bay of Pigs,” mutters Coleman as Griffin, and Mike Nelson gruffly adds, “That’s what they say when I get in the pool.”

23. As the narrator of B drones, “Coyotes. Once a menace to travelers. Missile bases run them off their hunting grounds,” Mike takes on Coleman’s voice and concludes, “That’s another script I’m working on.”

24. Miles Mathis, “Just Chillin’ on History: FIDEL CASTRO, CIA AGENT, BAY OF PIGS=HOAX,” here.

25. Tri-cycles indeed; the Coleman Francis trilogy of repetition.

26. “Did they even have to go to Cuba?” rants Mike Nelson.

27. “Coleman Francis had a vision. A dark vision. With cars.” – Mike Nelson, B.

28. TV’s Frank, “No Dialogue Necessary.” Frank adds that “Some people on the staff would disagree.” For example, Mike Nelson: “I had to go to him and say, ‘The Coleman Francis movies are actually crushing me and destroying my health.” Kate Ward, “Mystery Science Theater 3000 turns 20,” at EW.com, November 21, 2008, here. Even Frank admits that B “was a particularly painful experience . . . I think B would fall under the category of, ‘Well, we have to fill our order . . . ‘”

29. Larry Blamire, ibid.

30. Tom Servo, B.

31. “Our auteur, ladies and gentlemen!” – Mike Nelson as Coleman sits on the ground and spreads his legs wide in R.

32. I do, however, have a Master’s degree . . . in Science! See TVTropes on “Not that kind of doctor.” For example, “Dr. Charles B. Pierce from Boggy Creek 2: The Legend Continues is mistaken for a medical doctor when asked to treat the mountain man Crenshaw’s captive baby Boggy Creek Creature. Turns out, Dr. Pierce only has a doctorate in Boggy Creek Studies.” Crenshaw muses, “Ah, thought all doctors wuz good at fixin’ up folks.” See MST3K, Episode 1006.

33. Roderick Kaine, “Autism and the Extreme Male Brain” Right On, December 22, 2016, here.

34. Most notably Griffin, of course, but in S he portrays the government official (the FAA?) who jumps in a plane and tries to shoot down the fleeing Frankie and Suzy, and earlier a buffoonish pater familias who orders around his family and even bystanders. In B he’s a lazy gas jockey and an early morning drunk buying a newspaper (a part all too close to home). A comparison of Coleman with the chap in the photo illustrating the article is engaging; the later could be his son, Paul (seen in S as the doomed Beat diver “Pete”), cleaned up and with a degree from DeVry.

35. One reviewer at IMBD.com explains the “sexual algebra” involved: “Just try and keep this straight: Harry is married to Beth (with whom he runs an airport/parachuting school), but catting around with Suzy, who also has a thing going with Frankie, who used to work for Harry. Frankie’s place as mechanic has been taken by Harry’s war buddy Joe, who would probably like to take Harry’s place as Beth’s husband as well. But when Harry leaves Suzy and calls her a “broad” in the bargain, well, she just has no other choice but to Do The Nasty with the local pharmacist in exchange for a little acid to pour all over Harry’s parachute, which she does with the help(?) of Frankie (actually, she does the driving, the planning, gets the acid, and actually applies it to said parachute–while he stands and/or sits around looking stupid and/or nervous).” The over-ambitious plot is itself an indication of an unawareness of how complicated human interactions are. “It’s a typical mistake of new filmmakers. Too many good ideas. Or, in this case, no ideas.” Tom Servo, B.

36. After one typically stuttering encounter with Cardoza, she turns to the camera with a puzzled look and Crow muses, “Now what did he mean by that?” The Agony Booth (ibid.) describes another marital stalemate thus: “Harry chews on his lips and looks in Beth’s general vicinity as she says, ‘Harry, I’m scared.’ But she insists it’s not the FAA man that scares her. Harry looks at her and angrily asks, ‘Well, what does scare you?’ Coleman Francis nude scenes? She looks him in the eye, then shakes her head and walks out of the scene, making it look like it would have been just as natural for her to turn straight to the camera and go, ‘Line?’”

37. The MST3K cast discusses how “Tony Cardoza really gets into his role. Yeah, he gets right in and just sits.” When his name appears in the credits of R, Crow exclaims, “Oh, he’s good in everything!”

38. As the ‘bots summarize the film at the end, “A stranger comes to town, touches nobody’s life, and leaves.”

39. “Coleman was extremely well-prepared for someone who didn’t know what he was doing.” – Lee Strossnider, “No Dialogue Necessary.”

40. Why a civilian plane? Cover, I suppose. But of course, Tor Johnson looks absurd in the tiny cockpit; the door isn’t even fully closed, presumably due to his bulk, and cameraman Strossnider said that they had to “cheat” (i.e., cut away from) his exit, which must have been as inept as his exit from his grave in Plan Nine from Outer Space.

41. “Skydivers, however, is the forgotten, neglected gem of the Coleman Francis trilogy. Perhaps that’s because it’s actually the best of the three, and almost verges on watchable. Is that saying a lot? No.” Agony Booth, here.

42. At least some of it is not stock footage, since some minor actors are there: “Did the actors do their own skydiving? No, the skydivers did their own acting.” – MST3K.

43. As a Chekhov’s gun, on the flight down Coleman grunts out to the pilot that, “If you need help, my friend here [Tony Cardoza] can fly;” an unlikely skill for a hobo, but it sure comes in handy when escaping Castro’s clutches!

44. “Did they even have to go to Cuba?” demands Mike Nelson.

45. Also MST’d, as Episode 421, as is his later Giant Spider Invasion (Episode 810); as a kind of trademark of stupidity, the latter uses the same still shot of a galaxy for the opening background, but this time in color.

46. “Nearly the entire cast of the show and Best Brains stated this was officially the worst movie they have ever seen up to this point.” MST3K Wiki, here.

47. His mistake, like Coleman’s autism, is to try and make “science” fiction films without any concept of how actual science is conducted; not only are the explanations typical B-movie “science,” his” scientists” and “laboratories” show that he’s never seen an actual one. “What do you expect from me?” shouts one of them. “I don’t have your precision mind.” Yeah, he’s only a scientist. This kind of “implied expertise” (suggested by, say, wearing a lab coat) occurs in R when we are told that Griffin (Coleman) was “The Cotton King of the South”; TVTropes points out that it’s hard to imaging Griffin as having been any kind of financial magnate, and Coleman wisely doesn’t offer any financial advice or attempt anything more than robberies by brute force rather than Ocean’s 11-style “capers.”

48. “In context, the character is a bit of fifth business, an okie who convinces the gang to fly to Cuba. M&TB are bowled over by his pie-eyed delivery of this introductory line. The riff is often repeated when a new character appears unannounced or says something unexpected.” – MST3k Wiki, here.

49. The only obvious homage in the Trilogy is the aerial chase in Beast, where some shots clearly mimic the cornfield chase in Hitchcock’s recent North by Northwest (1959). Mike: “Coleman only steals from the best.”

50. Critic Gary Giddens actually calls it “worthy of Criswell in Plan Nine.”

51. After one bad sound effect, Mike Nelson comments dryly, “Coleman Francis solves the problem of sound sync.”

52. I’ve previously discussed Welles, Coleman, and Traditional symbolism in “Breaking Badge”: “Conventional movie grammar has these kinds of shots symbolizing the defeat of the Bad Guy, his ‘fall’ if you will. As I’ve suggested many times, this can also be given a positive meaning, at least esoterically. The body falls horizontally, resolved into the elements, (with Quinlan, water) while the spirit is released, upwards, freed from the burden of karma. The finest example of this I know of is the last scene of the last movie of supposedly ‘bad’ director Coleman Francis. Here, in Red Zone Cuba, Francis, like Welles, stars as the (literal) heavy. He runs across a field (the warp and woof of the material universe) and is shot down from a helicopter (a Francis trademark, replacing the crane shot and allied to shamanistic themes of flight); as he falls, he spins around (the whirl of manifestation, symbolized by the polar symbol of the swastika). Is this ‘the end of Rico’ (as in the iconic end of Little Caesar)? No! A narrator suddenly appears for the first time, and it is Coleman Francis himself, his character obviously delivering the epitaph: ‘Griffin. He ran all the way to Hell’ – from a higher realm.”

53. Counsels and Maxims (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.., 1891), Chapter One, Section 3.

54. Ride the Tiger (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003), pp. 220-21.

55. What is a “red zone” and how does it relate to Cuba? And as Mike Nelson says, “Did they even have to go to Cuba?”

56. “Mundo fine” (accent on the “e” as sung) seems to mean “end of the world,” but also suggests the “fine” world of samsaric attractions. It also appears to be a cocktail, likewise unknown, at least to me. All this reminds me that Anthony Kerrigan said somewhere that the name “Unamuno” (the Spanish existentialist) seems like it must mean “one world,” but doesn’t in any known language (it’s actually Basque).

57. This verse is sung during a sequence cut from the MST3K print, leading to a rather unfair joke about how poor editing (not Coleman’s!) seems to have Griffin being chased twice over the same terrain; even so, from our point of view, it only adumbrates the Futile Repetition theme.

58. “Hilariously, an ominous blare of horns is heard, as if this statement was somehow shocking or involving or intriguing or anything. The reporter looks up in shock, also for no reason. Mr. Wilson, having dropped this bombshell, takes a moment to suck on his cancer stick again and blow smoke, presumably right into the reporter’s face. And that, my friends, is the extent of John Carradine’s cameo in this movie. Sadly, you could almost call this the quintessential John Carradine cameo.” The Agony Booth, here.

59. Walter White’s stomping grounds, of course.

60. There may be a symbolism here, but after all, it’s hard to travel everywhere by train.

61. The words of “Pete,” portrayed by Paul Francis (Coleman’s son?) in S.

62. Some have pointed out that Coleman could have at least had Griffin carrying the quarter that we were shown is all that’s in the café cash register; but that kind of “mistake” actually just drives home the point about how ephemeral and interchangeable things are in samsara.

63. “Why is Phil Silvers [whom the actor resembles] rounding up corpses?” – Crow.

64. “Do not reveal the incredible secret of Red Zone Cuba!” – Tom Servo.

65. See my review of A Dandy in Aspic, “Passing the Buck: Spy, Dandy, Übermensch,” here. To see this, we need to recall that in “real life” Coleman was found dead, inexplicably, in the back of a station wagon.

66. Larry Blamire said of B, where the narration is constant, that due to the lack of sync’d sound “it’s like someone next to you in the theatre started talking.” Interview in “No Dialogue Necessary.”

67. Cited in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Door in the Sky: Coomaraswamy on Myth and Meaning (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 41.

68. Beckett was present once at a rehearsal of one of his plays at an American university. At the end, the puppet-like sole protagonist is lifted up off the stage and away. A student timidly asked if this meant he had been “saved”. Beckett chuckled and say “No, he’s finished.”

69. See the world-wide symbolism explicated by Coomaraswamy in The Door in the Sky. For a survey of the primary Indo-European symbol of The Center, and the Charkrvartin (the Turner of the Wheels), see Boris Nad, “The Idea of the Center” in Aristokratia IV, ed. K. Deva (Manticore Press, 2017). “Today’s uranian individual is alone, ‘lost in the midst of hostility of the ‘chthonic’ mass. Novels such as . . . On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger [and, I would add, the films of Coleman Francis] can be read as a testimony to the passage of such heroes through the hell of the modern world, through the very centre of the vortex of modern nihilism, in its most extreme and destructive form. Their stay there, in a world that has become truly monstrous, and which is the exact opposite to celestial order, is akin to actually staying in hell. Such a hero endures life as if it were a war. He lives in constant war, in the midst of a hostile environment, under siege. [‘Griffiniszing,’ in short] But the experience of nihilism is necessary. At the end of the road the light must be found; the light of Order, and the sacred principles of the cosmos.”

70. Griffin, of course, is “on this ride because I have no pride / in myself, or in men, or in God.”

71. See Evola’s The Hermetic Tradition (Inner Traditions, 1995), especially “Introduction to Part One: the Tree, the Serpent, and the Titans.”

72. “In either case death of the victim is also its birth, in accordance with the infallible rule that every birth must have been preceded by a death.” Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, p. 12.

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7 Comments

  1. thuleson
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I have to say your scholarly exposition of mere ‘movies’ is a wonderment. I have never seen majority of the works you describe and probably never will but the detail is dare I say almost obsessively autistic.Absolutely wonderful writing.

    In theses days of lonesome internet surfing with three minute Youtube clips it is a reminder to me how important films on tv used to be (has anyone ever seen these films other than on tv?)

    I gave up TV nearly two decades ago as the constant tribal message was driving me to comic levels of impotent fury, just as intended no doubt. Reading your essays has made me realise more than anything what a lost portal to art and indeed understanding the haunted fishtank was and just how thoroughly subverted it has become.

    Bravo to you sir.

  2. Gunnar von Cowtown
    Posted January 28, 2017 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    James,

    As a long time MST3K junkie, I think your analysis of this trilogy is phenomenal. I rarely comment on your posts, as there’s just nothing left to say other than, “Yup. He nailed it.” However, I remember you putting forth a theory about B-movies serving as a sort of occult initiation ritual, but I can’t find the original post. Is that something you wrote about, or did I imagine it whilst liquored up?

    • James O'Meara
      Posted January 30, 2017 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your constant readership. I can’t quite think of any one essay on bad movie initiation, I’m tempted to say it crops up in every one. You could look at the review of A Dandy in Aspic and work backwards from the notes there. Maybe I was the one liquored up.

      • Gunnar von Cowtown
        Posted January 30, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

        Will do. Thanks.

  3. Petronius
    Posted January 26, 2017 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    While I am not immune for the occasional appeal of “bad cinema” and Z-movies, why waste so much time, foot-noting and scholarly energy on this boring crap? There are TONS of movies out there, especially European ones, that scream for a metapolitical analysis. This site here is unique in that respect:
    http://www.soiledsinema.com/

    • James O'Meara
      Posted January 26, 2017 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      It seems as if you missed or skimmed over Part One, where I lay out the difference btw simply bad, even awful, films and films that despite or because of their lack of Hollywood prettiness remain compulsively watchable. This is a fact which deserves study. I adduce Schopenhauer’s distinction btw the merely interesting (i.e., a Hollywood “prestige” film released to critical hosannas and big box office) and films that disdain crowd-pleasing and deliver the more profound satisfaction of contemplating truths about existence.

      That said, Soiled Sinema is an excellent site that I peruse frequently. Their approach is indeed quite different but many films there would belong in category two as well.

      • Petronius
        Posted January 26, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        I did read that distinction. However, I don’t see how why this should deserve so much meticulous study. But don’t let me stop you, I enjoy much of your stuff, though I don’t really get this Coleman Francis obsession.

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