August 17, 2013 § 2 Comments
Just finished: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell.
Reading next: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.
Right near the beginning of the first story in Karen Russell’s first book, there’s a short sentence like a litmus test:
The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker.
How’s that grab you? Out of context, at the basic level of language, I would say that it’s lovely: rhythm, assonance, the particular sound and sense of place and time that it evokes, the spice of unusual word choice and the use of the adjective “gentle” as a verb. Beautiful.
There are complicating factors, however. There’s that “has.” We’re in present-perfect tense, and the story as a whole is in the present tense. And there’s the fact that the story is narrated by a twelve-year-old. The twelve-year-old is not, apparently, any kind of savant, or genius, or literature aficionado. The twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old, in a swamp.
So whether or how you can justify to yourself a twelve-year-old’s usage of the sentence “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” will go a long way to determining whether you can appreciate, or even tolerate, the stories in this collection. Many of them are concerned with and narrated by twelve-year-olds and others on the verge of adolescence, in the present tense. The situations in which they find themselves are brilliantly imagined and otherworldly, partaking of the “new weird” or new fabulist blending of genres. There are underwater ghosts and a sleepaway camp for those with unusual sleep disorders and a minotaur on something like the Oregon Trail and the titular home for the children of werewolves. And yet it’s hard to focus on any of that when the stories are perversely in the present tense, and narrated by twelve-year-olds who compose thoughts and/or sentences such as “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” but who are not, by all accounts, graduates of well-regarded MFA programs.
April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve mentioned before that Serling had two daughters who were growing up as The Twilight Zone had its initial run on CBS. This seems to be one of the main influences on some of the female-protagonists episodes which he wrote for the series, and none more so than “The After Hours” (viewable online on YouTube).
A few months before The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959, Barbie was introduced to the American marketplace. Whether or not Serling and/or his wife bought the dolls for their daughters, it’s pretty obvious he noticed her appearance. Because look: Marsha White, our protagonist in “The After Hours,” is Barbie.
This becomes explicit late in the episode, but the resemblance is there from the very beginning.
Many of the themes that Serling and his collaborators examine through these five episodes — the increasing mobility and independence of women in post-war America; women seeing their own, anxious images in mirrors, doppelgangers, and filmed selves; a pervasive sense of loneliness; a subtext, perhaps unintentional, of sexual violence — many of these themes are wrapped up here in the image of the Barbie-mannequin come to life. They are accompanied by other themes that we now think of as integral to an understanding of the 1950s: consumerism, the understanding of Americans primarily as customers, purchasers, consumers, and the blossoming of advertising and marketing to encourage such an understanding.
Marsha White, in this episode, is the desirable image, the advertisement, brought to life. She is, in a way, her own doppelganger, her own uncanny second self. This episode is ahead of its time in the way in which it points out how often such images encourage women to pursue an impossible body, an impossible image of perfection. One of the ways in which this is foregrounded is in repeated shots of Marsha’s legs. After her attempt to purchase a gift — a thimble, for which she has seen an advertisement — ends in an odd trip to an empty floor of the department store, she finds herself locked into the store, alone, after hours. And in her desperation, she tries to run in her heels; the shots of these attempts are painful, showing the way in which a real women’s legs are made to look like a doll’s when any physical exertion is attempted in the shoes they are encouraged to wear.
In one particularly effective sequence, Marsha cries for help with mounting panic through a frosted-glass window: “Somebody? Please, I’m locked in here… Anyone? I — I — I — I need some help… Anyone? Please?” The smearing and blurring of the perfect image through this bubbled glass is powerful, in ways that are hard to define. It’s a view through a non-window of one who begins to realize, or believe, or remember, that she is a non-person.
Welcomed back to the fold of mannequins at the end of the episode, Marsha says it was “ever so much fun” to be a person, an “Outsider.” And yet she is relieved to be back in the store, among her fellow mannequins, with no decisions to make, frozen, displaying the store’s wares.
There’s a bizarre touch in this scene of exposition, when Marsha remembers what she is and the nature of the mannequins’ agreement — each gets one month as a human, then returns to let the other one leave. In the background are three skiers, each wearing his own ski mask. It’s an odd choice, to say the least. In 2013, it reminds one equally of a hostage situation and of the Russian feminist activists of Pussy Riot. And perhaps that’s as good a note as any on which to sum up this series of posts.
April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon.
Finished: The Angel Esmeralda, by Don DeLillo; The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.
It was Patriots’ Day (Observed) in Boston. It was also tax day. And two pressure-cooked bombs went off.
The past two days have been very strange for everyone. The strangeness in my case is due to spending the last two days in transit. I was in an airplane when the bombs went off. When I arrived at my destination in Alabama, I was told the news. I packed what I needed to pack into the U-Haul and drove, out of Alabama and into Georgia, flipping the dial through static to find snippets, details, all the sifting of information that occurs in the hours after Something Happens. And then stopped at my cheap motel room, sad but somehow not surprised. And then, unable to sleep, drove through the day until mid-afternoon.
So yes, I had basically turned into a Don DeLillo character in a Don DeLillo story for a couple of days.
Mostly I was unsurprised not due to any DeLilloesque philosophical exploration of terror and the contemporary American condition, but because I’d been reading about bombs for weeks. In The Lazarus Project, anarchism in early 1900s Chicago is one of the main subjects; the Haymarket bombing lurks behind everything. When I was driving, I thought, “When is this going to happen to Chicago?” before I remembered that it happened 127 years ago. (Not that it can’t happen again.)
And on the plane yesterday I read Novels in Three Lines, a truly amazing compilation of very short, very stylish news briefs filed in a Paris newspaper by the critic, anarchist, and clerk Felix Feneon in 1906. Many of his columns reported at least one bombing or (more often) failed bombing. They were everywhere, in 1906.
As prose it’s an incredible book, each three-line snippet full of character and complexity. It its litany of stabbings, beatings, shootings, accidents, strike-related police brutality, and (yes) terrorist bombings, it’s surely one of the most violent books, line for line, in history. And yet there’s something comforting about it, too. As I implied above, there’s non- or anti-news here as well as news: “bombs” that turn out to be nothing but sandbags, accidents averted, fires contained and suppressed quickly and efficiently, shots fired and missed. These terrible things happen over and over, in 1906 as today as 2000 years ago. It is part of human life, and human life goes on. And the lines often make clear that it is our response to such awful occurrences (or the fear of awful occurrences) that makes us human or less-than-human.
This particular awful occurrence hurt a lot. Though I’ve never lived there, I love Boston. I consider it one of “my” places. But I turn to David Foster Wallace’s piece on 9/11, “Just Asking,” after such events. Whoever did this, for whatever reason, let’s remember and honor the fallen they struck as Patriots, as heroes of life in an open democratic society.
The playing of “Sweet Caroline” tonight, at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere, is an excellent start. Congregate. Dance. Play ball.
April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out. It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.
Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham. The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door. She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.
But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.
1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery. The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue. (It starts at 19:00.)
The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business. Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately. It gives you chills. It’s a stroke of genius. And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director. Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?
2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.
The best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham. Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power. It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode. However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children. Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.
We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality. We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger. Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode. It disturbs and disorients Helen.
Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind. He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone. This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”
And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.
The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?” One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror. The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day. She does not think of the past. She does not even recognize herself as a child. She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.
Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable. “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says. “And you look so like your mother.” Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed. The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.
We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now. I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.
Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.” He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement. But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here? Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?
Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of. Its very existence could be denied. Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.” The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.
March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Mirror Image” (available online, at least for now, on YouTube) is the episode that Serling felt compelled to introduce the week before as a fine example of his ability to write meaty roles for women. Its star is Vera Miles, its director John Brahm; both have interesting backgrounds that blend to make this episode what it is.
Vera Miles starred as Lila Crane in Psycho, released a few months after this episode aired in February 1960. She had caught Hitchcock’s eye in the mid-’50s. The role that Kim Novak would make famous in Vertigo had been meant for Miles; but she was pregnant, and would wait a couple more years until she had her own chance at a doppelganger tale. She had a lovely, plain, open face, a kind of Everywoman quality, that makes her very effective in this episode.
John Brahm was a theatrical actor and director in Weimar Germany who fled to the U.S. with the rise of Hitler. There’s something very much like a stage play about this episode, and something of an Expressionist influence, as well. I love, for instance, the very simple set of the bus station, which is bracketed like the set for a modernist morality play by twin neon signs, bold, declarative, and emblematic of the content of the episode:
Yes: a lady, or ladies, with baggage. This would be a fine title for the next episode of the five, “Nightmare As a Child,” as well.
“Mirror Image” is a fine example of a TZ episode that takes a fairly simple premise — woman fears she’s been replaced by her evil doppelganger — and makes it memorable thanks to visual style, good writing, and a slow build of tension that keeps the viewer interested. The visual reveal of the doppelganger is especially effective.
As in “The Hitch-Hiker,” doom arrives in the mirror. More interestingly, there’s a gorgeous frame-within-frame composition here that calls back to “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” That earlier film also featured a woman looking at an image of her own self — with a very similar gesture, actually, though the roles are reversed: here the “real” self (in the process of being made fictive) is the horrified one, where earlier it was the “fictive” self (whose place would be taken by the real self by episode’s end). The sign above the doppelganger makes explicit a theme throughout these episodes: the baggage that these women carry is, at least in part, the image of the self, which threatens to overwhelm and usurp the life of the person, the individual.
This is also another episode about a single woman, Millicent Barnes, traveling on her own, and as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” one can see a not-so-subtle subtext that such independence leads only to trouble, or to madness. “Offhand, mister,” says the washroom attendant to her supposed knight-in-shining-armor, Paul, “I’d say she needed some looking after… if you know what I mean.” She means psychological help, or institutionalization, but she could mean so many other things, as well.
But as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” the tone and structure of the episode at least partly undercut that idea. Oddly, both of the episodes are split in two between light and dark halves. After Millicent sees her doppelganger on the bus and faints, the station manager turns off the lights. When Millicent recovers, she heads for the ladies’ room again, hoping against hope to catch her double again: in the mirror, in a stall, somewhere. She’s connected the neon “Ladies” sign with the idea of multiples of herself, just as we viewers have.
The ladies’ room, especially in its darkened state, seems a realm of the Freudian unconscious, a place from which bizarre symbol has irrupted into reality. And so Millicent is carted off by the police to the nut house.
But in the reality of “Mirror Image,” Millicent was right, not insane, and the same thing happens to Paul — his double flees to take over his life, leaving him in the dust, a truly wonderful smirk on his face. The shadows and rain-slicked streets of this sequence are beautiful, and obviously artificial, in the mode of expressionist cinema. And as in much expressionist cinema, the episode can be seen as a societal indictment as much as a comforting horror that reinforces norms.
March 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
The backstory of “The Hitch-Hiker” (viewable online at Vimeo): it begins as a short story by Lucille Fletcher, who then adapted it as a radio play in the early 1940s (available for your listening pleasure here). Serling, nearly twenty years later, adapts it for TZ. The major difference? Serling made the main character a woman. The role was made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, and it was also a man in the original short story. (As a weird aside: the famous radio thriller series in which the radio play appeared, Suspense, featured music by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the TZ theme and so many other thriller scores. And Herrmann was Fletcher’s husband for ten years.)
Serling opens by telling us that Nan Adams is driving cross-country on vacation. She’s a buyer for a department store. She has a flat tire. SPOILER ALERT (though I mean, come on, it’s fifty years old): she’s already dead, though she doesn’t know it yet. As the mechanic fixing her tire says, in a great dual meaning, she “must be on the side of the angels.” As she drives away, she spots for the first time a mysterious hitchhiker who she’ll see all across the country, begging a ride just from her.
Nan, the independent working woman driving across country for nothing more than fun, is given no backstory, no man she’s chasing down or fleeing from, no tortured or angelic past. She shares her name with one of Serling’s daughters, and maybe this has something to do with the refreshing absence of the typical moralistic or misogynistic structure of a story of a woman alone on the road. Nan’s internal monologue, in the voiceover of actress Inger Stevens, carries the episode along, as it would in a radio play. However, this is accompanied by abundant shots from within the car of America flying by — unusual at a time when so many driving scenes were done in studios with stock footage playing in the background — and Nan’s face registering her anxiety about the hitch-hiker’s reappearances.
The episode, overall, has a wonderful lightness and gentleness, especially within the parameters of the “thriller.” Nan describes her sense of “disquiet” (not even fear) and the hitchhiker himself as “vague”; it’s not a bad term for the feel of the episode. The director, Alvin Ganzer, and Serling knew that they had a fine, natural actress in Stevens, and Ganzer uses a great deal of natural light, also unusual for the period; this, too, adds to the vague or hard-to-define tone of the episode. There are a number of terrific closeups of Steven’s face that exhibit the kind of subtlety that was never the trademark of TZ overall, ranging from perplexity to an occasional, unexpected, eerie calm and peace.
The episode is almost perfectly divided between sunlight (natural light!) and darkness. The turn to darkness is accompanied by a return of flickering lights — neon, this time, but still reminiscent of the strobe of the projector in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.”
Nan, out of gas after midnight, runs through the dark to a gas station. It’s closed, of course, and the proprietor is in no mood to get out of bed and pump. At this point Nan is startled by a sailor: after he’s grabbed her shoulder and she’s recovered a bit from the shock, he asks, “Lady?”
She delivers the following reply: “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”
The blend of relief, simple recognition, despair, and desire here is breathtaking.
Desperate, she begs the sailor to ride along with her, and he accepts, persuading the station owner to sell them some gas. While the sailor makes some mild comments about her looks and, after she veers wildly in an attempt to hit the hitchhiker, she tries to get him to stay with intimations that she wanted him to “take her out,” the encounter is of a piece with the gentle, humane tone of the entire episode: there’s the threat of sexual violence that comes with the fictional presentation of any encounter between a woman and a stranger at night, but in the end, it’s the sailor that flees, scared off by Nan’s intensity and confusion.
Nan learns, via cross-country call in a phone booth by the flickering neon light, that her mother has had a breakdown due to Nan’s death. So yes: women going mad, women dying who dare to live and travel unaccompanied. But that’s not what one takes away from a viewing. This was such a popular story at the time that many viewers would have known that it originally featured a man. And the ending makes clear that Nan’s death is not a punishment; it’s just the way of us all, a fact that must be accepted eventually.
The final appearance of the hitchhiker is in Nan’s rear-view mirror. Mirrors will come up again in the next post. Here, the counterpoint of Nan’s look of exhausted acceptance and the hitchhiker’s wry smile is exquisite. Stevens’s performance in this episode is likely my favorite of the entire first season, especially that look into the rear-view mirror.
March 18, 2013 § 4 Comments
See the first post in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one for background.
“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (viewable online at Vimeo) is a quintessential TZ episode, and Rod Serling script, in the way that it teeters between indulgence in nostalgia and examination of nostalgia as a force in American life. It was directed by Mitchell Leisen, an art director and costume designer who broke through and became a director of some important films in the 1930s and ’40s. It makes perfect sense that he worked with Billy Wilder and other heavy hitters of the studio golden age; this episode would be a great entr’acte or palate cleanser for a double feature of Sunset Blvd. and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, between which it fits chronologically.
Leisen’s emphasis on costumes and design shows through in the episode, which features an aging actress (Ida Lupino) who, rather than seeking out new roles, prefers to sit in her darkened study watching her past performances, alone, wearing terrific dress after terrific dress, with a glass of something strong. It looks great, and the flickering light of the projector is used evocatively and beautifully as a visual motif. (You’ll have to take a look at the episode online; I’m too lazy to gif or video clip examples of these sequences at the moment.)
Early on, the episode features a gorgeous sequence in which Barbara Jean, the actress, startles her maid by emerging from behind the screen on which her younger self, playing a nurse in a golden-age war romance, is being projected.
The episode had begun, in Serling’s narration, with a “Picture of a woman looking at a picture.” The reflexivity of this construction, the near-mirroring of Barbara Jean’s younger (ostensibly fictive) and older (ostensibly real) gestures, and the horror on that supposedly fictive self’s face, are the first glimpses of the theme that Serling, the episodes’ directors, and the talented actresses would carry through these five season one episodes: women mirrored, glimpsing their own objectification, their troubled place within both the episodes’ contemporary America and the frame of the viewer’s television screen, their supposed need and desire for the attention and protection of others.
Leisen does wonderful work with these frame-within-frame structures throughout the episode. But Lupino adds her own strokes of genius (I presume, not having seen the script, not having been on the set): the way, in the sequence shown above, her hand begins and stays at her neck, while her younger self’s hand begins at the mouth and works its troubled way down to her neck, exposes her self-consciousness about aging, and about, well, her neck. (Lupino, incidentally, would later become the only woman to direct an episode of the original TZ series.)
Barbara Jean’s agent encourages her to “get [her] war paint on” and come to her studio to hear about a new part being offered to her. Dressed like a young starlet, she is told that the part would be that of a mother. Horrified that she is no longer expected to play the young romantic lead, she leaves in a huff, retreating to the screening room.
Seeing her leading man, now an happily aged businessman, is the last straw: Barbara Jean manages to will herself into the screen, living inside the projector in Hollywood’s idealized past, a half-person half-projection. Now, there is more than a little of the typical 1950s plot element of a woman needing her man above all in this episode (more than in the others under discussion here). But in the end, Barbara Jean makes her own choice, and that choice has as much to do with “the pictures getting small,” to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. The questions remain more or less the same today: Who wants to play a second-fiddle mother when they’ve been the lead? And why can’t the romantic lead ever be older than 25?
This escape into film is set up beautifully by the episode’s beginning, in which the viewer’s television screen is filled with the film being projected onto Barbara Jean’s screen, making the fictive “real” until the camera cuts to her watching that screen. It is somewhat interesting to speculate on how obvious it was to contemporary viewers that they were watching a pastiche of an old Hollywood film: the treacly lighting and music tend to make me think that they were partly let in on the joke, but it’s not as though material so far removed from this were uncommon on television in 1959.
Hearing the cries of her agent from within the screen to come back and live in the present, “Barbie” (as he calls her — and yes, the Barbie doll was launched earlier in 1959, and yes, this will come up again) turns back to the “camera” and camera, gazes out at him, kisses and throws her scarf toward him (or at least, toward the fictive “camera”).
Leisen’s background really comes together here: in this shot and others, the layering of interior set on interior set, the inclusion of frames within frames, the desire to wear elaborate, cumbersome, gorgeous costumes always, leads to a conclusion of remarkable beauty. (It’s also possible, as an aside, to see the episode, and especially this ending, through the lens of camp and the gay embrace of glamour, especially in light of Leisen’s oeuvre.)
Barbara Jean’s decision can be seen as a choice to become an image, an object: she is blowing a kiss and throwing a scarf to messy reality, to her declining prospects for celebrity or employment, to a woman’s natural aging. But of course she is performing as a subject, too, choosing to “live” on her own terms rather than “age gracefully.” It’s probably my least favorite of the five episodes under discussion here, but it contains riches, and it fills me with questions about its production and how (or whether) it fits with the other episodes in Serling’s writing.