Monthly Archives: November 2012

Shock Corridor (1963): Trapped Film Series No. 5


This is the fourth of my notes about my ongoing series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.

‘My name is Johnny Barratt. I’m a reporter on the Daily Globe. This is my story, as far as it went.’ So begins Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller’s 1963 film. Fuller was a newspaper man himself, starting as a cub crime reporter in the 1920s in Boston. That much explains the high-seriousness with which the task of reportage is held in the film: Johnny Barratt is on a self-sacrificing mission for The Truth. The Truth he hopes to uncover is the real story behind the murder of an inmate at a mental institution. Obviously the only thing to do is sham insanity, convincing the authorities he is an incestuous fetishist, and to canvass witnesses in the asylum as a patient. But murder is not the only evil going on in the institution and Johnny finds the mental institution a Mexican finger trap once he is inside.

Fuller was a man who disdained subtlety (‘If your first scene doesn’t give you a hard on, throw the god-damned thing away,’ Fuller once advised his protege Jim Jarmusch). Originally titled The Long Corridor, its immediately apparent that the electro-shock therapy is only half of the title’s ramifications. The confrontational style on display in this film later turned sour against Fuller.  Despite a history of support for the civil rights movement, his lack of equivocation in his portrayal of racism in White Dog barred him from the studio system for the latter portion of his life. It was only in his twilight years that a new generation of filmmakers – Tarantino, Jarmusch and cinema’s greatest defender Martin Scorsese – recognising the same commercially successful but direct and controversial mode of filmmaking, sought to draw him in from the wilderness. 


Shock Corridor was made outside the major studio system, which lends it both its enduring merits and distinct faults. The film shows prescience about the then-bubbling countercultural anti-psychiatry movement. By 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was an Oscar-sweeping smash. Forman’s film uses the same narrative strategy as Shock Corridor: use an ostensibly sane man to highlight the brutalising effects of mental health ‘treatment’, at the same time using the mental institution as a heightened microcosm of the insanity of conformist society. The rage of Forman’s film is evident over a decade earlier in this film, at a time when A Child is Waiting – John Cassavetes’ manipulative and tasteful take on a child’s mental institution – was Hollywood’s idea of hard hitting, socially conscienced filmmaking.

Barratt’s investigation of the three witnesses of the murder of Sloane gives Fuller the opportunity to unveil three casualties of the schism in American culture of the time. The repeated question of Pagliacci – ‘What are you in for Barratt?’ – hints at the ‘undiagnosed madness’ of ostensibly ‘sane’ society. All of  madnesses suggest that the mental institution is a gallery of sinners not unlike The Divine Comedy, with punishments becoming a brutally ironic take on the ‘crime’. Stuart, a soldier vilified for his communist sympathies, is forced to endlessly relive the divided America of the Civil War. Trent, having cracked under the vilification of being the only black student at a Southern university, becomes his arch-nemesis: the Klu Klux Klansman. The overreaching intelligence that allowed Dr Boden to create the atom bomb now consigns him to a state of the infancy (perhaps an echo of Omar Bradley’s barb of living in an age of ‘nuclear giants and ethical infants’?) Would Fuller have been able to make so unpatriotic an attack on the all pervasive paranoia of American life if this had been a studio picture? Certainly it would be many years before the studios felt comfortable enough in the saleability of this message before they would handle it themselves.

Fuller’s film does however suffer from a lack of the smooth narrative that gives a Hollywood picture its easy digestibility. The portraits of the inmates dominate the film in a way that throws undue stress on them. In these depictions, one is reminded of Foucault’s notion of the difficulty of capturing the nature of madness: there is something too stagey about the performances, too neatly drawn. Recently watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I was struck by how close Joaquin Phoenix had come to capturing the unpredictability, the uncertain emotional affect, the volatility that can make mental disorder a troubling presence.


Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Shock Corridor’s probing of insanity suggests that a man’s mind is just another MacGuffin: a puzzle that can be finally ‘solved’. Each witness that Barratt attempts to receive testimony from eventually surfaces into lucidity. To highlight this psychological shift, these scenes are shot in subjective colour and prove to be one of the film’s most memorable visual decisions (Fuller recycled footage from his aborted Amazonian film Tigrero for Trent’s surrealistic hallucinations). Yet this binary – colour/black and white; sanity/insanity – is at the heart of why the film seems dated today. Fuller’s Manichean view of the universe and its inhabitants might well be a corollary of his time in the newspaper business: ‘I learned early it’s not the headline that counts but how hard you shout it,’ he said of his narrative apprenticeship. If Shock Corridor seems loudly shouted, it is only the brutal shouting of a pioneer like Fuller that other filmmakers could whisper of shades of grey.


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Time for a chat: Scum and Hunger

Given all viewing of prison films I’ve been doing in preparation for the trapped series, the connection between these two scenes – one from Alan Clarke’s Scum and the other from Steve McQueen’s Hunger – really jumped out at me. Prison is an incredibly masculine space in most films, yet it gives a rare chance for men not given to outpouring to give you their two cents. The films and their characters brew and brood, and then you get an escape from the taciturn monotony of prison life.

[Skip to scene @ 57:12 here]

[Skip to scene @ 42:47 here]


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Woman of the Dunes/Woman in the Dunes (1963): Trapped Film Series No. 3

Woman of the Dunes 1

This is the third of my notes about my ongoing series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.

‘You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine…’
William Blake, ‘Mock On, Mock On, Rousseau, Voltaire’ 

A man, seeking to enter the annals of entomological taxonomy, spend his holiday attempting to capture new species of insect in the dunes in a remote coastal community. Looking for a night’s sleep so that he need not interrupt his quest, he finds himself (and so too the viewer) consigned to the depths of a pit where he must help an unnamed woman shovel sand, on the threat of attack by the villagers and, more abstractly, being engulfed by the sand.

Woman of the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film, seems at times to be a cross-pollination between an imported French existentialism with the native Japanese notion of wabi sabi. While the French nouvelle vague had only recently added an airless self-consciousness and gloom to the generic tropes of Hollywood cinema, Japanese art had been committed to dismantling the idea of definitive or permanent art for centuries. The dunes themselves are exemplary of the transient, fragile appreciation of beauty. This concept would have been especially resonant for Teshigahara, whose father put pressure on him to apprentice to become a master ikebana (flower arrangement) practitioner. Rejecting this path to become a filmmaker, there is a sense that the process of shovelling of sand becomes a polluted, morbid version of the flower arranging discipline: controlling nature, contemplating the fragility of beauty.

Far-flung interpretations like these multiply while watching the film, given the valency of sand as a metaphor and its omnipresence and variety of depictions. Through varying montage, shot distance and time of day, the sand can appear by turns lunar, aquatic, sensual, toxic, hallucinogenic; at times it seems to be a granular Rorschach test. Yet the overriding impression, especially given how inescapable the sand is, of the sands of time, of the morbid futile passing of time. The idea of sand as a memento mori haunts the film (‘The sand does not wait for us,’ says the Woman). From one side, the shovelling of the sand becomes a brutally direct metaphor for the irrelevance of all human endeavour: ‘Do we live to shovel, or shovel to live?’  On a more culturally specific level, there is a hint of the monstrous transformation of matter to dust during the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly struck by the encroaching nature of the sand, Niki terrifies himself, ‘It could swallow a city, a country even.’ Released just three years prior to Woman of the Dunes, Hiroshima Mon Amour more directly approaches this idea in its opening scene. Two bodies writhing, covered in sand, two corpses copulating.

Yet, re-watching the film I was struck by how much these interpretations are a product of the vacuity and duration of the film: one is always trying to find something in the deliberate nothingness that spreads over two hours. There are hints of wider social issues (‘Our young people won’t stay here,’ says the Woman, hinting at the problem of urban migration) but these seem insignificant in the face of a cloying pursuit of the theme of the ennui of life.

The misery of the pit is never mitigated by an understanding of the character’s inner lives, especially the woman herself. This can make the film an arid watch. There are no transformative moments, no real progression in the plot. This is surely intentional, though not rewarding. On the level of parable, we understand Niki Jumpei’s decision to remain in the pit: most people accept the meagreness and irrelevance of their existence because of its familiarity. The ‘Woman’ character is perhaps meant as a metonymic representation of the whole of womanhood (‘People like me are treated very well,’ she naively says). But after nearly two and a half hours, its operation as parable does not serve to mitigate the frustration of the experience. Most pieces of great literature have a very basic, tacitly known core message, but their intimate navigation of the given theme offer it the shine of novelty. By contrast, Woman of the Dunes forces us to acknowledge its moral prima facae rather than allowing us to inhabit the choice Niki makes, the situation that the Woman finds herself in. The consequential arbitrary nature of the film undermines the aesthetic subtlety of the sand. Only rewatching the film was I struck by how successfully it wrings aesthetic sense from its environment, and how flatly it treats the characters themselves. Infinite apologias for this void could be made, but ultimately they prove incapable of surmounting the dissatisfaction that attends so much of actually watching the film.


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My Brother’s Wedding (1983/2007): Trapped Film Series No 2

This is the second of my notes about my ongoing series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.

NB: These notes make the outcome of the plot explicit

My Brother’s Wedding was Charles Burnett’s second film, released over a decade after his first film was conceived and shoot over weekends in 1972 and ‘73. That film, The Killer of Sheep, would have been Burnett’s breakthrough film, more than the calling card one might expect for a picture completed as a Master’s thesis. Instead music rights issues kept it trapped in the archive, until a 2007 reissue confirmed the rumour of its greatness that had attended it in its sporadic and shadowy showings in the thirty years since its release. Shooting on My Brother’s Wedding could only begin when he had sold television rights to his debut (the music licensing costs one imagines being significantly smaller for the small screen), giving him enough budget to begin work on his second film chronicling the lives of the inhabitants of the predominantly black Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts.

The Watts tower sits like a sentinel over the neighbourhood, looking like a junk metal version of Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, vibrant and utterly distinct  from the largely residential housing that surrounds it. A quixotic piece of outsider art, its creator Simon Rodia began the work without plan and eventually sold the plot of land to his neighbours and vanished. More distinct a practitioner from Charles Burnett one could not find: Burnett’s art is superficially loose but dense with symbolic meaning. Deeply rooted in the world and its contradictions and injustices, he has a rare, sympathetic eye to the economic, emotional and spiritual snares that his characters are caught in.

Pierce works in his parents’ dry cleaners, a cramped space that seems to mirror his limited aspirations. Contemptuous of his lawyer brother’s upwardly-mobile marriage, he ministers to the needs of his elderly relatives (ill-tempered though he may be about it) and receives the great unwashed (at least, their clothes) into the store. The choice of the dry cleaners as the hub of the story is a resonant and ambivalent one: not only is its centrality in the community a register of the absence of home washing machines (that potent signifier of post-war affluence) it is also offers the opportunity to contemplate the pride that the inhabitants of Watts still retain (‘These are my church-going pants!’). Pierce’s mother, constantly mislaying her hymnal, is anxious to avoid the moral taint of her lessers: in her telling words, their ‘mess’ and ‘dirt’.

Two of the dry cleaner’s clientele

Compared to the loose sketches of The Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding expresses the bleak prospects of  its protagonist through a more focused narrative dilemma. The film mines similar territory as comedies such as Coming to America, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, reflecting the diverging paths in black America during the 1980s – between middle-class suburban assimilation and remaining faithful to one’s ‘roots’. The intergenerational nature of the film allows for a survey of the rapid changes witnessed in black life over their lifetimes. The neighbourhood of Watts is especially prescient in this regard, twice becoming a flashpoint in racial disputes (the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 LA Riots). Pierce’s father complains that the young would do better under the labour of the cotton fields, until his wife contradicts him, his false nostalgia for a time he never experienced. Pierce himself is uncertain of the generation beneath him: ‘Soldier’s never done anything evil or vicious. He’s never sold dope. He’s nothing like these kids today.’

Pierce is either absolutely still or sprinting from place to place. Like the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike, this movement and stillness becomes, by accretion, a powerful metaphor for his unsettled position, between remaining where he is and moving quickly ahead, between boyhood and manhood. A constant presence in the laundrette is Angela, a prepubescent girl who is fixated on Pierce. It’s a neat comment on his extended childhood that an eleven year old marks him out as a potential date. Ironically, she herself is premature in pursuit of adulthood (‘In a couple of years I’ll have my prom, and I was thinking if you weren’t busy… that is if I don’t have stomach cramps…’)

‘I got tickets to see Smokey Robinson tonight.’

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

The central dinner party at the future in-laws proves to be the flashpoint between Pierce’s rejection of respectability and his sister-in-law’s self-satisfaction. It’s a wonderful culture clash, made all the more dense in racial and social politics by the presence of the family’s hispanic maid. As Pierce’s mother politely asks what is in the salad, their host relays the question to the maid. While she simply reels off  the ingredients in Spanish, the lady of the house patronises her guest, ‘I think what she’s saying is that what you think is an apple is a potato.’ Hilariously, Pierce’s attempt to express class solidarity is also spurned by the maid.

Remaining faithful to one’s roots comes at a cost, and the downwardly mobile trajectory is played out in the return from prison of his childhood friend Soldier. Clearly supplanting the brother he can no longer relate to, the ebullience and warmth between the two as they run and roughhouse, croon and caper in the streets of the city is one of the film’s highlights. That they are two fragments of a past age (‘Where is everybody?’ asks Soldier. ‘It’s just you and me,’ returns Pierce after a pregnant pause) means that Pierce feels duty bound to accept all his friend’s misdemeanours as much, as he unilaterally rejects his actual brother’s pretentions. One troubling scene sees Soldier coerce a woman into sex at Pierce’s place of business. In a blunt piece of symbolism, Pierce’s mother is distraught to find her hymnal underneath the two lovers.

Paradise by the wire hangers

The dilemma between the life choices of the two brothers, surrogate and actual, becomes concrete when Pierce is forced to decide between the titular wedding and the funeral of his friend, now a victim of a car crash. Apparently based on a similar situation experienced by Burnett himself, the prosperity and progress promised in the marriage ceremony is intercut with scenes from the funeral home: a low-ceilinged space that looks close to a converted garage with fake wood-panelling.

A young man’s acapella hymn eulogises Soldier. Shot with proscenium-like frame, the significance of the song’s lament seems to be expand beyond than the life of one man. When Pierce misses both the funeral and the wedding, the camera zooms in on his hands, toying with the wedding ring, poignantly enclosing on him like the possibilities of life itself.

The film’s devastating, but enigmatic, final shot

IMDB; Wiki; Charles Burnett

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