Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The COBRA WOMAN Codices: Drafting a Psychic Map of Cobra Island

The Door

A soft blue rectangle beyond a door in High Priestess Naja's orange chambers indicates the sky outside. The door leads to a balcony, and perhaps is only a window when seen from the opposite side. The balcony overhangs a courtyard in the palace. The courtyard is sometimes open to the public throngs, but impossible to access once inside the building. Outside, sometimes it is night, sometimes day, but in the orange room the sky remains perpetually powder blue. The menacing environs of the jungle island outside and the dangerous royal intrigues within are separated and/or united by the irrational, impossible space between, leaving nowhere in the geography of Cobra Woman as safe ground.

Set in a thick forest of matte paintings, projected ocean waves and secondary-color keyed slabs of curlicue set dressing, loomed over by a tiny-huge volcano that exists in eternal midday, the terrain of Cobra Woman is seared by dream-fever, coast to coast. Native Indian sidekick Kado (Sabu) feigns sleepwalking to eavesdrop on his pal Ramu (John Hall)'s plans to visit Cobra Island, but a day later indicates he was really in thrall of a visionary dream. Has he ever truly awoken? Has the spectator?

The Somnambulist

A small rocky hill is, in the eyes of Kado, a great black wall enclosing a lost world — the same he encountered in his dream — but it grows between shots to a pointed yellow mountain. As Kado and Ramu scale the peak, the rock bends like rubber to leave Kado dangling precariously, though strong Ramu is able to suspend his companion's weight while bent at the waist and without tumbling down the precipice. Where these yellow-black wall-mountains are located cannot be surmised. Though they render the island inaccessible in the unreliable dialogue, travellers during the film and in its unseen backstory go to and fro with little difficulty. Fire Mountain, omnipresent punishing god/volcano, is visible at the same angle from every window of the palace. Ramu is advised not to voyage to Cobra Island by his future father-in-law MacDonald (Moroni Olsen) but in the same conversation MacDonald shows him exactly where the lost world is located on a map, in close up.

The twisted DNA-bound saga of separated twins Tollea and Naja (Maria Montez, Maria Montez) locked in power struggle over the title of High Priestess of Cobra Island has infected the land, the sea, the air, the people and animals, the celluloid itself; the sparks between the sisters fly off, creating new aberrant twins wherever the fire lights. This is the logic of the double-traced map of Cobra Woman: everything has its twin, identical but reversed, sharing space with itself. Every character, prop, setting, line of dialogue, event, operates while cooled in the shadow of its opposite; often these twins are created by throwing all gears in reverse, negating their own existence. Hava (Lon Chaney, Jr.), mute flunky of the Cobra Island queen, feigns blindness as he travels to Tollea's village though his plan does not require it, and the blind-Hava that should not exist on seeing-Hava's mission tips off Kado that something is amiss. Hava's task is to abduct Tollea, but is in more properly to re-abduct her to her forgotten birthplace, Cobra Island; in effect to remove her from her home that he may bring her home. By the climax, Fire Mountain erupts, only to be declared permanently dormant seconds later.

The Sisters

If Tollea/Naja embody splits between unwitting savior and gleeful murderer, between skeptic and religious zealot, between, simply, nice and mean, they are also divided by strength and weakness, for nothing Tollea specifically does, short of show up on Cobra Island against her will, actually contributes to Naja's downfall. Theirs is not simple a dichotomy of good and evil, but of will and circumstance, too. The high priestess even causes her own death as she backs over the unlikely balcony wielding a spear in Tollea's direction, a blurred defensive/offensive posture. To complete the proper opposition of forces, Naja's bloody dictatorship does not give way to benevolent rule by her twin, but dissolves into off-screen anarchy: in the coda, Tollea flees the throne to return to her man, leaving Cobra Island with no leadership.

Like the omnipresent Fire Mountain, the pliable rock walls, and the mutable courtyard space, which all bend to the necessity of situation, the populace of Cobra Woman's world find themselves shuttled from location to location by means none can explain. Kado arrives with much effort and swinging from ledges at precisely the correct dungeon window where Ramu is being imprisoned, though there is no way to identify the chamber from outside the palace. The entire plot hinges on the backstory conceit that infant Tollea was smuggled off Cobra Island aboard MacDonald's boat, when he chanced to visit the island at the same time the baby was supposed to be put to death. But the tale goes that MacDonald was knocked unconscious and woke up on his vessel with the Cobranian stowaway. Who placed her there, when, and why are subjects never broached. Ramu steals the robes of High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier), and walks undetected past palace guards, but how he locates Naja's quarters in the vast building cannot be known. Friendly chimp Koko materializes inexplicably on Cobra Island, but the tale of her journey from India by separate means from the Hava/Tollea and Ramu/Kado boats is never to be told. Duty calls, and so: there they are, just as one may look up anywhere on Cobra Island, and see Fire Mountain, smoldering against the blue sky. There it is.

The Mountain

Here then is Cobra Woman as the genre theorist's perfect text, in which characters' movements, the shape of the universe, and order of events to not stem from internal motivation of free-willed characters, but are at the mercy of the unyielding dictates of external story, diamond hard, immobile in place, before the players took the stage. Why do they keep coming? How can so many continue to arrive on the rocky shores of this forbidden, secret home to a lost civilization? Cobra Island draws all fish into its golden net. There is no resisting its irrational pull.


Kimberly Lindbergs said...

One of the best reviews ever! You had me laughing and clapping all at once.

Anonymous said...


Did you watch this via TCM or did you pick up the Region 2 DVD?

Chris Stangl said...

I've seen COBRA WOMAN on video and on TCM; the R2 DVD is making its way to me now. My screencaps at present are all taken from a DVD-R of a TCM broadcast.

Jordan said...

Hey Chris I'm sorry to make this off-topic, but I must know (if you have heard it) what you think of the new TMBG album?


Chris Stangl said...

IF I've heard it? Who do you think you're talking to? THE ELSE is blowing me away. A small mound of other albums are just sitting there in plastic wrap while I fail to take THE ELSE off repeat. If the bass won't get you, the treble will get you.

There's been a constant stream of new Giants material since they became the first band to truly digital delivery; between download-collections, TMBGUnlimited, Radio TMBG, podcasts and monthly mp3 presents, life has been like Dial-a-Song times 1000. It's nigh impossible to keep up sometimes (and I dunno how he makes any money off it, but then he's a nut, right?). With that deluge of songs - podcasts basically delivering entire new albums for free - the downsides are 1) decline in "specialness" of new projects (ie - if you don't have to wait, you don't appreciate), 2) increase in release of marginalia. I love demos, scraps, joke songs, junk and rough sketches, but we can now assemble TMBG esoterica compilations as large as the catalog proper. And the kids' albums are great, but they're not exactly in heavy rotation. Basically: with all the effort thrown into producing a constant stream of podcast material, Venue Songs, etc, does the band have time to do it For Real?

If Flansburgh's documentation of the work process is true - that they took a year to write, record and produce - that extra care and attention paid huge dividends. I've got pos/neg about the production of everything since APOLLO 18, but the songwriting and musicianship has never faultered; it just seems that on THE ELSE everyone's playing to their strengths, as they stand now. I don't think Flansburgh is going to stop heading down the throwback bubblegum pop road to return to those experimental Residents/Beefheart roots. I don't think they'll fire their band, or pull out the 4-track. It's a natural extension (or one of a million possible extensions) of the direction indicated by THE SPINE. And that is a gradual siphoning off of overt silliness, of cute toy instrumentation, and genre pastiche/parody. It's pretty bleak and thick-sounding in its aural homogeneity (even if the production makes it "thin" sounding - uh? Right).

All that stuff is on THE SPINE, of course, but it's all gone for THE ELSE. And THE ELSE is really scary. Nearly every one of these songs begins with a complex logic puzzle and devolves into a man going insane, bodies revolting, and emotions locking, rusting, worlds buckling. The more carefully everyone maps out routes, problems, theories, feelings, spacial relationships so minutely that their brains get crushed under the weight. I was going to get specific here, but looking at the tracklist, yes: every song is like that. Men with brain injuries trying to describe their brain injuries, animals so preposterous to begin with that they warp all other life-forms and nature around them as they pass, lovers filled with rage explaining why their rictus grin is not what it seems, the record is about the power of Jabberwock to deform, to render your mind unsafe. It's not just dadaist nonsense, it's the un-sense, anti-sense assault that can only come from a mathematician. Even the most straightforward lyric, Flans' advice-to-girl-wronged "Take Out the Trash" even devolves into the screamy logic-loop: "I'm not sayin all the boys are the same/ but some boys are the same/ and it's Thursday now..." I can only imagine that Linnell's bizarre Monkees' theme/ Paul Is Dead riff "The Mesopotamians" is inspiring misguided arguments about if it's about a rock band or real mytho-historical rulers, delusional or reliable, as if it could be sorted out.

Thematically, they've been circling the same islands for 21 years: not-love, death, drunk, coffee, uncanny valley and synapse-failure. Linnell's always obsessively written for unreliable narrators at those moments when their aphasia kicks in. "Sullen Moon", "Where Your Eyes Don't Go", "Montana", "Till My Head Falls Off", "My Man", "Wearing a Raincoat" - he's like a one-man industry of crazy-person songs! "Contrecoup" stands with those. "Climbing the Walls" stands with those. What's new about THE ELSE songs is that it's like you can see a M.C. Escher barfing these strings of geometry formula out of his head, until it fills the room, and he drowns or his skull splits. Advancing themes prior but in specifically despairing and autistic fashion, hammering the signature sound into a cold black encircling wall, if THE SPINE was TMBG's STATION TO STATION, THE ELSE is their LOW.

The immediate Flansburgh standouts are the chaos-worship battle cry "With the Dark", and crack-souled countercounterculture "Shadow Government". Immediate Linnell standouts are, as per usual, everything, but if we're playing faves: the Death Drive conceding a schoolyard crush on the Life Drive, the spiritual dimension of all awe-inspiring experience, terrible or wonderful, finds voice in "I'm Impressed". And speaking of, I'm in awe of "Bee of the Bird of the Moth", a superhuman lyrical feat at the level of "I Palindrome I" and "Thunderbird". I will assume fan discussion extends no further than "it's about hawk-moths"; I don't wanna know.

I do know The Sleep of Reason Corporation is as ass-kicking a name for a film company as possible, and there's only one rock band in the universe that would fuse a Goya reference, entomology, stock car racing, and particle physics into one song.
Oops. This got really long; I've been kind of bottled up re: They Might Be Giants lately. Earlier this year I submitted a proposal to the 33 1/3 book series, outlining a volume about LINCOLN. It was, obviously, rejected. I certainly know why, so no sour grapes whatsoever; film historian Tim Lucas went so far as to write an entire 33 1/3 book before being turned down! I had however, done a lot of advance work on my LINCOLN book, for a variety of (arrogant) reasons. That project is more-or-less scrapped, but it was frustrating enough to make me steer away from TMBG Studies for a few months. THE ELSE was more than enough to renew the faith.

Jordan said...

Wow. Thanks so much, that's pretty much exactly what I wanted.

I fully support your TMBG writing. One of those 33 1/3rd books would be perfect, sorry to hear about that. I'd suggest a TMBG (or music) blog but I suspect it may be thankless and fill up too much of your time.

My favorites are I'm Impressed, Cap'm, Climbing the Walls, Bee of the Bird. Careful What You Pack has also started blowing me away.
Basically the whole middle of the album from Walls--->Withered Hope amazes me, the surrounding songs (Impressed excluded) not as much (but I still like them.)

Feign Amnesia fascinates me because I swear Flansburgh is talking about the Sidewalk Cafe here in NYC. ("We were standing outside of Sidewalk, with that crazy guy dancing behind us, the forced smiles and all of the laughter"..) This is undeniably the Sidewalk Cafe experience. It's a place I've had many gigs at. I've also seen a lot of terrible music there. I think that's what Flans may be talking about, at least in that verse. Maybe I'm just projecting...

I can't get into Take Out the Trash. I just can't. Actually that refrain you mentioned is my favorite part of the song. I listen to it but I just wish the lyrics had a bit more meat to them. I don't even mind the subject matter but there's a plainness to the lyrics that leave me unsatisfied ("once you get him out tell him not to come back agaaain..") I feel sort of similarly about Upside Down Frown but gosh darn it Linnell's singing is just so cute and wins me over anyway.

Me and my friends were saying how With the Dark is great but we wish it was longer and even more ambitious. If you're gonna make an "epic" sprawling crazy song it should go all out. I wish it was like 10 or 15 minutes!

I wish the whole album was longer! When Mesopotamians ends I want more so badly. It doesn't feel like an ending song to me. Linnell called it "poetic" on a recent radio show, which led me to re-examine the lyrics a bit. My friend hates the song and warned me of it before I heard the album.
I'm still absorbing it all.

Did you hear the bonus disc stuff (mainly podcast material.) My favorite song is the unreleased-until-now track, "Brain Problem Situation." I can't stop singing this damn thing. And it's about all the themes you mentioned too!