The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

March 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

CM Capture 14See 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.

Picture 2

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.)

16mm3

The aging Snow White in the land of studio moguls.

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”).

Picture 3

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.

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