Girl Meets Context: November is going to be our Best of the 1990s Month, where we watch some of Sean’s personal favorites from one of horror cinema’s darkest decades. We continue with Adrian Lyne’s demonic mindfuck of a movie. Tim Robbins stars as Jacob Singer, a Vietnam vet struggling to make sense of life back in the States after the war. When we meet Jacob, he is living in a New York apartment with his strong-willed girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), working as a postal carrier. But Jacob soon begins to see nightmarish creatures populating the cityscape, and have vivid hallucinations of his life before the war, when he was married to a different woman with three kids, one of whom died in a tragic car accident. The line between memory, dream and nightmare begins to blur as Jacob finds himself drawn into a terrifying existential mystery that may or may not be connected to a government conspiracy involving the use of experimental hallucinogenic drugs on American soldiers during the war. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film and try out some theories. If you haven’t seen Jacob’s Ladder, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: I am really, really interested in the role that art history plays in Jacob’s Ladder.
Sean: Oh yeah? Please illuminate the connections for me. I didn’t even notice art world stuff in the movie.
Kristine: Well, here is the thing. I think this movie is pretty amazing and there are a billion different roads one could take in discussing it. So, other than my overall impression, I limited my thinking about the movie to the topic of art history, just in order to feel less overwhelmed. Like, for example, I know Jacob’s Ladder is absolutely overflowing with religious meaning (duh, it’s right there in the title) but that is not my area of expertise, so I didn’t bother trying to unpack all of it (other than simply noticing the most obvious things, like all the characters having biblical names).
Kristine: I couldn’t get over 1. How young Tim Robbins looked/was 2. How much young Tim Robbins looks like Harry Potter 3. How much I love him now.
Sean: OMG, Macaulay Culkin as his dead son? And they actually did look alike.
Kristine: I know! Here’s proof that Tim Robbins is Harry Potter.
Sean: Total Hairy Pooter.
Kristine: So, I presume you love this movie. Also, I am going to go out on a limb (not really at all) and guess that you love the character of Jezzie.
Sean: I love Jezzie. I have always loved Elizabeth Peña. She’s one of those actresses that always pops up in fair-to-bad movies (Blue Steel, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Lone Star, La Bamba, *batteries not included, et al) and every time I see her I think, ‘I love this actress – she should be a bigger star and get more leading/significant roles in things.’ But there she always is, languishing in the background while less interesting actors take center stage. Jacob’s Ladder is one of the few roles she’s had that will go down in history and, even still, it’s a cult movie with a limited audience. She did star in Lone Star but I don’t like that movie, and am lukewarm on John Sayles overall. But yes, I fucking adore Jezzie and wish she was the star of the movie.
Kristine: I knew it!
Sean: I think she’s really beautiful and charismatic.
Kristine: You know, I didn’t love Jezzie, myself, but I loved that she existed. This movie made me feel pissy towards current day Hollywood. Why can’t we have more female characters like Jezzie? Seriously, is Jennifer Lawrence really is the best example of an edgy, badass female lead? Please! This movie was truly scary, too. In today’s Hollywood, we get a Tiny Tim-listening-to, cloven-hoof-having red cartoon demon (Insidious). That’s child’s play compared to the demons in Jacob’s Ladder!
Sean: Hmmm… I have things to say. But maybe you should make your art world points first? Just so we don’t get sidetracked?
Sean: But, in brief, my thoughts about Jacob’s Ladder are: This was my first time watching the movie in like 20 years and I was…. not loving it so much this time around. I had remembered it as being really great.
Kristine: Wow. I was very impressed and frightened and upset by it.
Sean: Oh wow! Good! That’s great! I have some things about it that I want to make fun of. But first, the art world stuff. I’m really interested in this.
Kristine: Ok first, this movie is a striking reminder that film is a visual medium. It’s one of those movies that takes full advantage of the pure aesthetic possibilities of cinema. The art direction and all the creative choices made about how the world (which is a kind of Hell) is going to look are truly top-notch. Because frankly, the story in Jacob’s Ladder is just okay and not that original. What’s real/what’s not real and the Vietnam conspiracy theory stuff are definitely not what make the movie compelling. For me, what’s amazing is the choice to make the movie’s urban Hell and the demons that populate it a sickening distortion of reality, as opposed to a fantastical depiction, and to contrast that with idealized imagery lifted right from art history. So, I did some research and was reading that, in the original screenplay, the demons were traditional pitchfork-wielding winged creatures with red skin, and then Lyne made the decision to make them more like regular humans, but warped. He was heavily influenced by the paintings of Frances Bacon (who I thought of immediately when the first demons appear in the subway windows) and the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin and Diane Arbus.
Sean: I just want to state that I agree that the aesthetics are pretty great.
Kristine: I especially noticed Lyne employing the imagery of Joel-Peter Witkin (who lives in New Mexico and is a total weirdo who gets all these body parts from the local university and lives on a freaky ranch that photography students make pilgrimages to and they bring him, like, body parts and taxidermied stuff as offerings). Check this out: This is a Witkin photograph called Man with No Legs and here is that same image re-contextualized by Lyne. In my opinion, this is one of the freakiest, scariest images from the movie.
Sean: So wait, that’s a photo of a real person?
Kristine: Yes. Etherton Gallery in Tucson represents Witkin, btw.
Sean: Would Lyne have had to pay him royalties for using this image in this way?
Kristine: I don’t know the legalities around proving that kind of appropriation, but I do know that Lyne acknowledged discovering Witkin when doing research for Jacob’s Ladder. The connection is pretty irrefutable, wouldn’t you say?
Sean: Uh yeah. Wonder how Witkin felt about the movie using his image.
Kristine: And of course, a lot of Witkin’s and Arbus’ stuff evokes real-life birth defects caused by exposure to chemicals and/or drugs… Lyne has said that the demons in Jacob’s Ladder are intended to resemble thalidomide victims. Which takes us full circle to whatever insane chemical testing was being performed on Jacob and his platoon. But I think the more important point is that Arbus’ and Witkin’s freaks/monsters are not imaginary. They are real people with real bodies.
Kristine: I don’t know how much you know about Frances Bacon, but he is considered by some to be the greatest portraitist of our time. And his subjects have these melted, distorted faces, but they are “real” portraits of real people. They’re not meant to be fantastical. One of my favorite scenes from Jacob’s Ladder is when Jezzie is making Jacob a sandwich and we see her through some glass windows in the kitchen. She is walking around, so we keep seeing her face first in focus and then distorted by the glass. So one minute, she is this disfigured demon lady, and the next moment she is lovely and normal again. Total Frances Bacon, right there. Bacon’s influence is also apparent with all the faces we see in the subway windows, car windows, etc.
Sean: Right, right.
Kristine: My last point is how the movie uses very classical images from art history as a foil to all the demonic stuff. Most strikingly, this one. This is Art History 101, taking Christ down from the cross, right?
Sean: OMG of course!
Kristine: I mean, the staging is gorgeous and classical and unmistakable.
Kristine: Also, all the shots of Jacob in the tub, on the stretcher, on the chiropractor’s table are images that mirror/suggest a crucified Christ. The bathtub scene is just the most obvious and beautiful.
Kristine: Using this kind of idealized, classical divinity alongside all the muddy, warped examples of perverted humanity served up by contemporary artists like Witkin, Arkins and Bacon is a deliberate and powerful choice that really resonated with me and made me feel… things. Okay, your Art History lesson is over!
Sean: I loved it!
Sean: This is definitely making me rethink the movie or, at least, appreciate it in a new way.
Kristine: Cool. Like I said, the story in Jacob’s Ladder is no big shakes. For me, anyway. It’s the way that Lyne uses and employs imagery that makes the movie special. And what makes it powerful.
Sean: I agree with that. My basic thoughts about the movie are that, yes, the aesthetics and the performances are amazing.
Sean: I just feel like the movie is downright racist and I am not into it. Watching this movie as a 15-year-old, it was easy to just get swept away in the visuals and in the cold, cauterized tone of the movie. But as someone in my late 30s, I was really grossed out by the movie’s racial politics. Like, a lot.
Kristine: You mean like how Jezzie is the carnal Latina, right? Please explain.
Sean: Yes, like that. Okay, here are my points. 1) Jezzie is the evil Latina, and White Wifey represents salvation.
Sean: 2) The “evil” party where the dance floor turns into a writhing demon orgy is very multi-ethnic and seems clearly not a white space. That is a space determined by non-whiteness, especially by the Labelle, James Brown and Marvin Gaye songs being played on the radio… I felt like blackness is being linked with the Satanic and animalistic in that party sequence. I mean, the scene literally presents James Brown as Sultan of Satan. And how dare Adrian Lyne equate “Lady Marmalade” with the Dark Arts?
Kristine: Heh heh. Yes, but I loved that scene.
Sean: 3) The Magical Negress palm reader character was ridiculous in conception and execution, and only saved by the charismatic and wonderful actress playing her. Talk about a talented actor outshining the material and showing how lousy it is just by the sheer force of their talent and personality.
Kristine: Um, that was S. Epatha Merkerson from Law & Order!
Sean: She looks hot as hell in her youth, let me add. She’s another actress that deserved a much higher profile career than she’s had.
Sean: She should have been a romantic lead in something – she clearly had the charisma, beauty and talent to do it. Couldn’t she have played some role that went to Michelle Pfeiffer or something?
Kristine: Agreed. I was cracking up at how all the sistahs want to get with Jacob in that party scene. I mean, Tim Robbins was a real cutie but… Unlikely!
Sean: Right? Okay, just a bit more evidence of the movie’s racial bias. The black girls on the street singing The Supremes was adorable, but I was turned off by how the movie ties them into one of its biggest – and most problematic – ideas: that urban spaces are fallen spaces, that the streets are full of lost souls, crawling with vermin, that cities are repositories for the unholy and fallen.
Sean: I don’t see how a movie can portray modern American cities as spiritual wastelands and have that not come off as a bit fucking racist. Oh, but the freezing white bedroom of suburbia is some holy land?
Kristine: Oh, I know!
Sean: And Jezzie is hot and life with her is way better than those disgusting mongoloidal children.
Kristine: They were some fat, awful children.
Sean: I was like, Why is white suburban home life divine and urban singlehood in the city a hellscape? There are so many gross and problematic assumptions and biases in that depiction that I cannot even. Also, sexism. This movie turns a woman going “You still love me?” and stroking her lover’s back into an uncanny, monstrous moment.
Kristine: I agree with you. I do have one question – is it possible that the movie is intended to merely be Jacob’s personal idea of hell? Or you think Lyne intends this as to be a universal Hell?
Sean: Um… I definitely think its all meant to be Jacob’s personal hell for sure, but that doesn’t excuse the movie for its weirdly racist ideas. If anything, its worse in that it confirms that the inner life of straight white men is structured around deeply racist and sexist mythologies.
Kristine: The demonization of Jezzie was pretty ridiculous, it’s true. Remember when she puts his paltry collection of old family photos and keepsakes in the apartment building incinerator? LOL!
Sean: Haahaha! I loved it! I was like, ‘Yeah, delete his MySpace photos Jezzie! Hack his Facebook account!’
Kristine: My boyfriend was horrified when she did that. And giving me the side eye.
Sean: Hahaaha! The whole worldview where a sexual woman is suspect, but a maternal woman is a holy Madonna-figure made me gag with a spoon.
Kristine: I agree with that 100%.
Sean: So, those were the things I was really not able to get past this time around. Can I add one thing?
Sean: Remember when Jacob is being wheeled down into the labyrinthine basements under the hospital and it gets bloodier and more hellish and it’s awesome?
Kristine: OMG, we need to discuss that!! Sean, I was… I was… I was…
Sean: Well, he’s looking up through the grating and all these freaks and dwarves and men in strait-jackets are pounding around on the grates above him?
Kristine: Umm, yes I think I remember that! I am worried I will never be able to forget it!
Sean: Well, one of the figures that Adrian Lyne placed there – to represent depravity and grotesqueness – is a young blonde woman breastfeeding a newborn????
Sean: And she’s got like, DDD breasts too. I was like, WTF Adrian Lyne? I mean, if he wanted to put something creepy related to breastfeeding in that sequence, how about an old crone breastfeeding a baby? That would be uncanny and unsettling. But like, some porn star squeezing her nipple into a baby mouth? No. Just no.
Kristine: I thought the “newborn” was either a stillborn or a doll or something, not a living baby. So, again, it was a distortion of what humanity is supposed to be…
Sean: You’re being very generous to the director with that interpretation. Very generous. Rant over.
Kristine: Brief sidebar: I was just Googling around for images from the movie, and found the home page for an assisted living home called “Jacob’s Ladder.” In Florida, no less.
Kristine: I can’t even handle it.
Sean: That is amazing.
Kristine: I am going to throw up.
Sean: That is straight out of a fucking Pynchon novel.
Kristine: Ha, good call.
Sean: So, the hospital of the damned upset you? Tell me all.
Kristine: It was amazing and horrible and I pulled my toes off and threw them against the wall and my cat batted them around. Sean, American Horror Story ain’t shit. Hostel ain’t shit. All of it pales in comparison to this. One of the reasons watching this made me mad is because so many other movies and shows now seem so milquetoast compared to this.
Sean: I love that you found Jacob’s Ladder to be so effective.
Kristine: I’m just… My mind was blown.
Kristine: I want to know if people lost it in the theatre when this originally came out.
Sean: The severed hands and feet all over the floor?
Kristine: OMG OMG OMG
Sean: Were you legitimately scared?
Kristine: I was legitimately horrified.
Sean: Did the eyeless anesthesiologist scare you? I thought that hospital of horrors was all very Hellraiser.
Kristine: Hellraiser wishes. The eyeless guy was a relief after all that misery. I was like, ‘Hello, handsome!’
Sean: So hot.
Kristine: Here are some strange and unusual bits of trivia I’d like you to react to. Fact 1: Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke both turned down the role of Jacob. Fact 2: Among the actresses considered for the role of Jezzie were Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Julia Roberts and Andie Macdowell. So, this could have been Jacob’s Ladder starring Don Johnson and Julia Roberts.
Sean: All that casting is dumb. A version starring Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg would be something.
Kristine: Hee hee! Maybe knowing these behind-the-scenes casting details makes me mildly less offended than you are about Jezzie being Latina, because maybe that is not integral to the character?
Sean: Maybe but… not really.
Kristine: You are not reacting as vehemently as I was hoping.
Sean: Sorry, boo. I am jaded to casting almosts. Been there/done that.
Kristine: That is not fun. You know what is fun?
Kristine: The freaky tail on the bum in the subway, one of the first “demon” visions Jacob has.
Sean: Oh so good. The mood of the movie is pitch perfect.
Kristine: I loved that gnarly tail.
Sean: So phallic and wrong and grotesque.
Kristine: So wrong.
Sean: The fact that there was a sweater over the guy’s face made it perfect.
Kristine: Also, the opening scene almost made me cry. When the soldiers are all attacking one another and you see Paul just sitting there catatonic and unable to process, his eyes all darting around? I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can handle this.’
Sean: Oh god, yeah. That Vietnam opener is really freaky and good.
Kristine: Did you care about cover up element to the plot, though? I thought it was the weakest link in the movie and I did not care.
Sean: I actually really like the stuff about “the Ladder” being a psychotropic drug. I thought the whole ‘Oh, so the whole movie happened in his mind as he fought for life’ was so dumb. I wish the movie had actually been a noir-ish conspiracy thriller about a Vietnam cover-up (with demons). No twist ending.
Kristine: Sean! When Dr. McJew was explaining The Ladder, I was like, ‘Ummm, 28 Days Later rage virus’!
Sean: Total 28 Days Later. Good call. Macaulay Culkin leading Jacob up the stairway to heaven was barf. This movie is so sentimental about family values! It is basically far right propaganda.
Kristine: I disagree. I thought the intrigue of ‘Did he come back? Did he die it Vietnam? Did he never make it out of Vietnam?’ was all cool. I thought the men in suits shoving him into a car and being all, “Ya got a big mouth, Singah” was dumb.
Sean: Hahaah! I am dying.
Kristine: It’s true. Dumb.
Sean: I liked all that.
Kristine: “Ya sing like a boyd, Singah!” Anyway. No thanks.
Sean: I’ll take silly hardboiled over silly Right to Life.
Kristine: I will say that it was classist how the one person who can uncover the (maybe) conspiracy is the white guy with the PhD…
Sean: Do you agree that the level of sentimentality over like ‘Bein’ a father, man’ and like, ‘Lovin’ a good woman, man’ and like, ‘My boys, man those are my sons, man!’ is just the worst?
Kristine: I do and Sarah is the worst.
Sean: Frumpy dumpy J.C. Penney catalogue model.
Kristine: Yes! Spot on.
Kristine: So, when you first saw Jacob’s Ladder in 1990 you j’adored it?
Sean: I did love it when I was like 15/16 and watched it a lot. But I also loved Hardware at that time, so…. My taste was questionable.
Kristine: Ha!!!!!! I want to hug you.
Sean: But no one would take me to see Jacob’s Ladder in the theater, so I had to wait for it to come out on VHS. I rented it and watched it late at night, alone, and it really freaked me out.
Kristine: God, I bet.
Sean: I think if they had cast anyone besides Tim Robbins as Jacob, this movie would be 70% stupider and more offensive. His sweetness is essential.
Kristine: He is really, really good in it. Absolutely.
Sean: Especially in the Jezebel/Jacob scenes. Robbins’ performance does a lot to cut against the more racist/sexist elements of the script.
Sean: Love him.
Kristine: This movie made me think about how Jacob’s ‘world of demons’ is what some real-life schizophrenics see all the time. That upsets me.
Sean: Right? I know, this movie is like a taste of true mental illness. It’s really sad.
Kristine: It really is. Especially with the Jezzie demon face shots.
Sean: So the closing text about the cover-up stuff? When it says, “It was reported that the hallucinogenic drug BZ was used in experiments on soldiers during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon denied the story”? That made me think Lyne was like, really into the conspiracy theory elements of the movie. He was like, ‘This movie’s blowin’ the lid off this whole thing!’
Kristine: I wanted to ask you where you stand on Vietnam conspiracy stuff. For the record, I believe… All of it! I really do. Well, like 98% of it.
Sean: I think it’s a great premise for a horror movie. Beyond that? It wouldn’t surprise me. Like you said, that opening sequence of the soldiers all going apeshit is horrible and one of the scariest things in the movie. Scenes of mangled bodies, bloody stumps, men convulsing, foaming at the mouth, vomiting, scenes of warfare with no clear combatant/enemy, just random explosions, sounds of gunfire… Which all mirrors the Hospital of the Damned later.
Kristine: Oh God that was fucking rough. Yes, good call. Especially with shaking/convulsing of Ving Rhames. Poor Ving!
Sean: So upsetting. What about when that car almost runs down Jacob and you glimpse that face inside the car as it drives by, but then the camera shows us a shot from INSIDE the car so we see Jacob getting smaller as they drive away and there’s like, a buzzy flyhead at the edge of the shot?
Kristine: Sean, what would you do if you woke up and you were strapped to a gurney going through the corridors of Hell’s Hospital?
Sean: I would rock my body weight from side to side as violently as possible so I could flip the cart over and then break free.
Kristine: Boring answer.
Sean: Well, its been a long time since you said a movie actually scared/upset you so I’m glad this did the trick. What was the last one before this?
Kristine: I think the last movie that truly upset me was Wake in Fright.
Sean: Right. Wow, that was way back in August.
Kristine: I am hardened.
The Girl’s Rating: This movie left me hollow and uncertain AND Stylistic triumph AND Poses great questions, fumbles the answers
The Freak’s Rating: I remembered this as being good but… AND Mucho racisto AND Stylistic triumph