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

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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. 

‘Nymphos!’

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.

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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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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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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Citizen Kane

Kane spoiled by the adoring critics

One of the fantastic things about education is that it forces you to do a lot of things you wouldn’t ever dream of doing without the spectre of obligation upon you. I would have sincerely doubted anyone who told me that I would find myself deeply, embarrassingly in love with Citizen Kane. Yet so it is.

Personally speaking, I think the reason that I didn’t appreciate Kane on first viewing was that I first watched it as a literature student. While it wasn’t a film that I disliked enough – or was arrogant enough – to dismiss (though there are plenty of those), I remember being distinctly underwhelmed. Rewatching it now, I can see that the reason its revered by filmmakers and film writers is for its use of specifically filmic techniques. Kane is rife with cinematic tricks. Non-genre films are rarely noticed for their special effects (most likely this is because they are in the service of an unshowmanlike verisimilitude rather than self-conscious spectacle), but according to Pauline Kael eighty percent of Kane’s stock was treated to add multiple exposures and impossible compositions. It’s a treat that’s only half-baked (or worse, given Orson Welles’ famous dismissal of the McGuffin of Rosebud as ‘dime store Freudianism’) for the literature student because of all these ‘distracting’ stunts and visual gimmicks.

That said, it’s also a film that you kid yourself you know better than you do. It’s been often parodied to the extent that the shorthand of Kane=Rosebud is known to those who have never seen the film (if Family Guy were less relentlessly shallow and anti-art, it might realise that its maelstrom of reference and inserts is at least in part in debt to Kane. As in all areas, the more recent Fox animation pales in comparison with the original and best’s take on Kane). It’s also contains multitudes – scenes from multiple viewpoints, achronological structure and a sketch-like approach that leaves whole scenes floating free from a digestible narrative context – and these multitudes are conveyed in such a frenzied, hyperstilized fashion that it is hard to encompass them in recollection.

Furthermore, the film can feel like listening to someone playing two different songs, in quicktime, simultaneously. The Screwball speed of the dialogue – just one way in which The Social Network plunders from Kane’s storehouse – is constantly competing with the density of imagery before you.

Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle

And most critically, its status as shibboleth rest heavily upon it. If the critics who vote in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound ‘best film ever’ poll were truly keen to offer it tribute, they would refrain from elevating it the heights of isolating greatness it has so consistently maintained. It’s humiliating to want to turn to people and say, ‘You know what’s a really good film? Citizen Kane.’

 It’s a great shame, because if it held non-classic status, people would be able to be personally seduced by its greatness.  Discussion and division amongst respectful – and healthily disrespectful – peers is what makes for a worthwhile critical community. I certainly felt betrayed by Shakespeare when I finally turned to Hamlet, and I think as a play it’s a victim of its unimpeachable reputation. It has been some time since the tides of critical debate have lapped against Kane’s greatness. Without the thudding consensus, audiences would take it to heart as a cult item and allow it to breathe and be reconsidered. I think those who dislike it should take the time to make an impassioned and brattish call against it (it’s a far from perfect film). Unfortunately, I’m not the one to hack it down so that others can rise to its defence: I loved it.

'Did you hear about that Citizen Kane? What a stinker!'

And I loved it for its small moments. Citizen Kane continually offers you the compliment of getting the hint yourself, especially in its most minor touches. There’s one shot I’d like to say a brief word about that stands in for any number of others with such plangency.

It’s a short shot in which Jim Gettes watches over Kane as he makes his demagogic and presumptuous speech to the masses. The comparison to The Triumph of the Will is obvious (its imagery was well-known in Hollywood at the time; apparently, there was a constant petty struggle to borrow MOMA’s copy of Riefenstahl’s film), but the fashion in which Kane’s failure to rise to political office is preempted in this scene is nothing short of genius. At the height of his grandstanding, the action cuts to a high window showing Jim Gettes – though we don’t know him yet, even though we’ve heard his name decried endlessly in Kane’s speech – surveying Kane’s peroration.

This new viewpoint has a sense of fatalism about it, with Kane’s laughably hubristic campaign poster dwarfed and his ambitions brought to a footnote in history; there’s something funereal about the fashion in which Gettes dons his bowler, and, at this height, the stage has a hint of the scaffold about it. Obviously, this position above Kane has a sense of omnipotence and puppetry (we see it pay off in the next scene as Gettes’ machinations come to a head), but there is a deeper visual meaning that is specific to this film in particular at play here.

In Kane, there’s a visual scheme that links memory with miniaturisation (we shrink into the snowbound scene through Thatcher’s diary, but more importantly the snowglobe allows this thought to be held in the palm of his hand). With this shot, we see Gettes and the camera simultaneously bury Kane in history, reducing his ambition to the same frustrated, painful past as the snowglobe scene.

It’s a piece of filmmaking of incredible economy, that only becomes more so in trying to capture it in mere leaden words. It’s ironic that a film about a man whose biography cannot be told because of his elevation, is itself obscured from view by critics who prevent us from truly seeing it for its high esteem. But I can’t really fault anyone for voting for it as best film ever: like the gimmick of Rosebud itself, the secret of Citizen Kane’s genius are forever out of grasp and therefore forever compelling.

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New Film Screening Series: Magnificent Obsessions

Yes, that's a real squid
Birkbeck College have once again been kind enough to allow me to host a series of screenings this Autumn term. The theme this time is Magnificent Obsessions: Films in thrall to mania, compulsions, fixations and addictions. The films are shown every Wednesday until Christmas and start at 6:30. There’s a brief introduction to each film and I produce programme notes to accompany each screening. I’m really proud to say Laura Mulvey, one of the most interesting and well-regarded interpreters of film,  will be introducing two of the films in the series. Leave a comment if you’d like any more information about the programme. This film screening series is free to attend and for educational purposes only. 

Wednesday 12th October
Black Orpheus
 (Marcel Camus/1959/Brazil/107 minutes)

Wednesday 19th October
Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieślowski/1979/Poland/117 minutes)

Wednesday 26th October 
The White Diamond
 (Werner Herzog/2004/Germany-Japan-UK/94 minutes)

Wednesday 2nd November
Special Screening in alliance with Laura Mulvey’s Avant-Garde Cinema Course
Wavelength (Michael Snow/1967/Canada/45 minutes)

Wednesday 9th November
Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl/1945/USA/110 minutes)

Wednesday 16th November 
The King of Comedy 
(Martin Scorsese/1982/USA/109 minutes)

Wednesday 23rd November
Special Screening in alliance with Laura Mulvey’s Avant-Garde Cinema Course

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai De Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(Chantal Akerman/1975/Belgium/201 minutes
)

Wednesday 30th November
Tropical Malady (
Apitchatpong Weerasethakul/2004/Thailand/118 minutes)

Wednesday 7th December
Double feature:
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg/2010/USA/83 minutes
Vernon, Florida (Erroll Morris/1981/USA/55 minutes)

Wednesday 14th December
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski/1981/Germany/127 minutes)

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