Nat: Mister Birnam, this is the mornin'...
Don: That's when you need it most, in the morning. Haven't you learned that yet? At night this stuff's just a drink... but in the morning it's medicine!
--Lost Weekend (1945)
You need to be mad holy and pure to live with X-ray eyes. Why do you think our perceptions have blinders in the first place? And you need to know that I didn't even have to look up the above quote from LOST WEEKEND, because I know those lines by heart, by my drunken black X-ray heart. Like Don Birnim, and Dr. Xavier in X, I see too much, feel too deeply; anything to numb the mind, to shrink the aperture, is welcome, and never works enough.
Science has proven our sensory organs and neurons capable of far more than the limited strata and spectra we know as reality; we're radios tuned to one station our whole lives. Why shouldn't we be able to surf the channels without having to drown in the torrent of too much information? To paraphrase William Blake, if the doors of perception were cleansed the world would appear as it really is, infinite... and then after the beauty wore off, you'd wind up strapped to a gurney, screaming your eyes out for a sweet, sweet Xanax.
1963's X (AKA- THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES) prefigures the psychedelic explosion of 1966-68 by a good four years, putting it way ahead of its time. It still is. The tale of Dr. Xavier, a scientist (Ray Milland, as grumpy as Don Birnam on Yom Kippur)--whose experimental eye drops enable him to see through everything from women's skirts to, eventually, the chewy tootsie roll center of the universe--still blows the mind with its psychedelic metaphors, but is so cheap-looking under Roger Corman's economic hand that it can be hard to tell whether it's a nouvelle vague deconstruction (the French flag colored lightbulb/balloons in the photo atop would fit right at home in Made in U.S.A.) or a brilliant metaphysical inquiry into the 'gaze' buffeted by waves of Brechtian distancing cheapness. Then again, there's hot chicks scattered all over, so hey -- just dig that crazy looking girl in the photo below, with that awesome Cyd Charisse-style black gown! Note the swingin' way Milland has with a martini! Oh, he knows his way around a cocktail party.
Attractive Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van Der Vlis, below) is Xavier's love interest, though he doesn't pay her much attention. In fact he tries to hide from her once he's wanted for murder, but she follows him around like that girl with the leopard coat, Gloria, trailing Don through all the neighborhood bars in THE LOST WEEKEND. But hey, give him a break, Nat. Poor Xavier is so busy seeing through things that he can't even sleep! He can see through his own eyelids! It is never dark for such a man. Have you ever woke up and not known whether it's six at night or six in the morning? That's the devil of it, Nat! Without a bottle of Nyquil you're finished! And Nyquil hasn't been invented yet! Why, Why Nat?!
Luckily for every wanted-by-the-cops freak like the now-loco Dr. X there's a sleazy sideshow barker who'll hide him in a fortune teller costume in exchange for a bottle a day and a place to sleep it off in: Don Rickles (below). As with past Corman carnival films (remember CARNIVAL ROCK!?), there's very little attempt to convince that the interior threadbare soundstage sets are anything but sketches meant to conjure carnivals only in the very imaginative viewer, but Don Rickles--an AIP regular over on the Beach Party films, is a natural impresario of see-throughitiveness. He makes it work.
Diane and Xavier later have to split for the glitzy neon exteriors and one threadbare casino-set interior of Las Vegas, where his see-through card abilities parlay into a small fortune, but 'crowds' are attracted leading to casino scrutiny, and Xavier's a surly sod who doesn't take his huge sunglasses off even in the dark of the casino, and ere long a police helicopter is chasing our hero through the desert. He crashes because he can see through the road; he runs around the desert, and well... I shan't spoil the shock ending... I will say that the low-key, moody Les Baxter score sees it all through passing window of an evening train.
Milland's career was off the rails a bit due to his own penchant for mood-altering substances... he was taking whatever he could get, even if it meant his head had to be sewn on the the ample frame of sensitive linebacker Rosie Greer (THE THING WITH TWO HEADS) for a post-op recovery shot of Demerol. But even straining to appear less hungover than he was, Milland is never less than compelling and Dr. X as a character benefits from his peevishness.
The film's Richard Matheson-like script was penned by Ray Russell, whose credits are not otherwise impressive (MR. SARDONICUS? Yeeesh!) and Robert Dillon (FRENCH CONNECTION II). But it's so Matheson-like it compares well with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in its gutsy exploration of the yawning abyss of the fourth dimensional existence, or going beyond the illusory atomic structures of our life - leaving sanity behind and having a cameraman brave and cheap enough to keep you in the center frame at all times, and let the subjective universe prove its inherent flimsiness.
|"I just do eyes!"|
1) I once had a huge electro-magnetic freakstorm crown chakra lightning strike which enabled me--albeit briefly-- to see the same image with my eyes closed or open (the electric bands behind my eyelids had come into perfect alignment with the 'real' world before me). It was a moment both terrifying, exhilarating, liberating and mercifully brief.
2) I once misdiagnosed and found myself walking down the middle of the street, clutching my hair and screaming and laughing at my own terror at the same time, hoping a car would run me over and free my twisted soul from its melting shell. I saw through everything and I saw the skin cells flaking off all the bodies of the world; I felt the breathing of every living thing; my breath was the murderous exhaust of cars and my thoughts the howling jackal-like yelps of playing children cutting through the once sacred cake of my mind with their chainsaw joy; everyone's ape faces dissolving and aging in spiral movements and savage crosscutting.
But in both these instances I came down, it took a long time, but I got back to normal's soft gray field of blandness..... so I can feel Dr. X's pain at never being able to. It's the inability to turn it off that makes the schizophrenic seek the shelter of madness, and cigarettes. You can try to get drunk, but your senses are so heightened that even water is makes you throw up if you drink too fast, when water tastes too strong for your senses, you know you've made it, man! It's Roderick Usher sensory acuteness!
When I first saw X-RAY it was as a child far too young to 'get' it. It was in the early 1970s, with one of my first babysitters, 'Toots,' a blue jean-jacket and straight blonde hair 16-year old runaway from the shelter where my mom volunteered. Ten minutes after mom left, Toots's boyfriend was over, the TV was on, and between the three of us, THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES became mythic, intense. They explained the best they could what was going on. It stuck with me. It seemed strange, savage, like an episode of BATMAN beamed in from a much more inhospitable, terrifying adult reality.
All fine, all good, until we wake up at Bellevue, surrounded by little turkeys in straw hats, and Bim. You can call him Bim.