March 18, 2013 § 5 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.
July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.
Last night I watched, voluntarily and even enthusiastically, a film called Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. It contains intentionally incompetent acting and action sequences, intentionally ridiculous characters and special effects, intentionally poorly dubbed dialogue, intentionally anachronistic music, editing, and cinematography. It is intentionally bad, an attempt to make a kitsch object, a work of art so horrible it is transformed into something great, through its purity of intention and earnestness of delivery. (I hadn’t really thought of it as a continuation of the alchemical tradition before, but it sure seems obvious when you put it that way.)
This is an entire genre now, a style with a tradition fertile enough and a fan base large enough to provide year-round fodder for art house theaters, if there were any so inclined. Heck, I just went to a William Castle double feature a couple of weeks ago, and he’s certainly one of the granddaddies in the field. The intention to make a bad film would seem to make such a work completely worthless — no purity of heart if you set out to make something bad — but the economics of the movie business and the absurdity of the billions of dollars devoted to worldwide promotion and distribution of “ideas” more ridiculous and pointless than JCVH (just off the top of my head: Transformers. The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks. Any “romantic comedy” starring Katharine Heigl) keep so-bad-it’s-good filmmakers on our side. It just seems so arbitrary: could Watchmen possibly have been as terrible made for $100K by some devoted fanboy as it ending up being for $130M by an army of studio hacks? If you decide to make a film so bad it’s good, either you really believe in a DIY/punk cinema and try to refine your craft with a stable of committed actors until your craft develops to the point where you’re no longer intentionally bad, scraping by on low/no budgets in the hopes of making something funny, inspiring, and genuine, or you are a truly cynical mofo and you’re just playing the odds: unless you’re interested in making social realism, there’s more hope in camping it up and hoping that something clicks at a festival so you can get an actual budget for your next ridiculous idea and can direct the fight sequences with better editing, effects, and stuntpeople. (JCVH seemed to fall more on the punk side to me, and its affection for and impressive tonal mimicry of low-budget ’60s and ’70s horror and exploitation films was enough to win me over.)
All of which leads me (twist!) to Mulligan Stew. It is much more difficult to write an intentionally bad novel or story while letting readers in on the joke than it is to make such a film; for one thing, there’s much less of an economic reason for such works to exist. Exaggerated pastiche has always been the easiest way, the recent literary monster mash-ups being an interesting example and perhaps the most popular attempt to introduce intentional kitsch into literature.
The other way is to combine such pastiche with another layer of story, embedding an intentionally bad work in a better one which allows the author to show that he knows and intends the inner work to be bad. Mulligan Stew is like that, but also kind of better than that: there’s no “higher” layer of an author or narrator showing us the bad work, but rather a lower layer of the characters themselves rebelling against the crap they’re forced to do (as told in one character’s journal), along with a mix of materials such as letters, journals, and scrapbooks to show us the author of the awful work in all his, well, awfulness. To make things better, the awful work here isn’t a potboiler or horror story: it’s an experimental novel, a pretentious metaphysical detective novel in which the narrator cannot remember whether he’s killed a man in the next room over.
A couple of cogent quotes from a great interview with Sorrentino published in the first issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, back in 1981 (two years after MS‘s publication).
…I think all writers create characters so that they can manipulate them, do what they want with them. But it’s very easy to assault people who, let’s say, read the wrong books and listen to the wrong music and have the wrong ideas about what films are hip and fashionable…. The really dangerous people are the ones who know everything, the people who know everything worthwhile to know; they do everything right. Those are the people who must be watched every minute of the time…. It’s the people who have the marvelous fronts who should be assaulted…. [There] are people who write because they think writing is a tool, it’s a way of changing the environment. That’s an odd way of looking at writing, which has always seemed to me an end in itself. The world is filled with very intelligent, very bright, and even very talented people who think of art the way one thinks of a job, think of art as a way of being promoted…. And I don’t mean commercial writers. I mean writers who are “serious” people.
More succinctly, Sorrentino says elsewhere, “The Mask that covers all others is the mask of the wiseguy.” Even though Sorrentino wasn’t talking about MS here, that’s very much in line with Anthony Lamont, the author of the horrible novel-in-progress in question. Lamont talks of his commitment to the avant-garde when trying to convince (passive-aggressively, of course) a literature professor to use one of his books in a course on contemporary American fiction, his desperation to receive some sort of recognition and success much more blatant than any “commercial” author’s concern over sales figures. He also, hilariously, uses the avant-garde or “experimentation,” without apparently having much sense of what the terms mean to him, as a kind of blanket justification for any flaw in the design of his plot or the quality of his prose, allowing him to keep making his mess of a book while talking himself into believing its a kind of unclassifiable masterpiece.
This all relates, I think, to the prefatory material Sorrentino includes, comprised of rejection notes to “Gilbert Sorrentino” from various publishers regarding Mulligan Stew. Complicated as the “Etymology” and “Extracts” of Moby-Dick, I am fairly certain that these are fictional, though the few places that discuss them seem to vary on the perceived degree of fiction: whether they are fictionalized versions of the kinds of rejections he received, or outright fabrications, or just real letters with the names changed. Since Sorrentino himself does not assume a voice in the book, speaking only through documents, this could be a way to puncture that “wiseguy” mask, showing the arguments to be made against the book, against his writing, showing he doesn’t want to be seen as the smirking know-it-all laughing at the rubes in the book. It’s a kind of self-defeating structure. But it also could be seen as the author inviting the reader to wear the wiseguy mask, instead: to appreciate the book that so many publishers dared not. To be hip. To see how a book can be so bad it’s good.
Sorrentino discussed the intentional badness of Lamont’s book within the book in the same interview:
Bad prose is easily identifiable but you have to discover what the writer is up to before you can say this is bad prose. Mulligan Stew is a good example. You have to read a while to see what I’m up to. You have to read a while to see that “I” am not writing this; it’s the bad prose of somebody else. Also, it can be bad prose written in such a way that it can become good; for instance, mistakes made in order to make a line comic or ludicrous. Bad prose, however, that is intended to be serious is usually identifiable… it’s intent upon telling you something, it’s intent upon instructing you in the truths of life, it’s intent upon getting a story across to you so that you will be moved or warmed, it’s clearly rubbish.
Sorrentino wants you to enjoy, in other words. Laugh. Enter the world of the book. It is easy to do so: the layer of bad experimental fiction is enjoyably hilarious, and also heightens the “reality” of the layers of text about the writing of that fiction. Like Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter or what Tarantino calls “movie movies,” they are fictions whose referents are other fictions, not any “real” world. As such, they can be not only enjoyable, but also interesting for thinking about how narrative works; how our minds work; how the world gets constructed, many stories at a time.
April 8, 2008 § 2 Comments
Just finished (but need to keep thinking about for a little while): The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.
Reading next: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, and The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.
A boy, Loch Morrison, patrols the outskirts of a summer camp for Christian girls and orphans, blowing reveille and fishing. Two girls from town are bedazzled by a firebrand orphan named Easter. A black boy tickles Easter on a diving board, sending her plunging into the lake, and Loch revives her with great difficulty. Later, exhausted, he undresses in his tent and the girls from town see him naked.
Doesn’t it sound like some coming-of-age movie? Kind of tired and nostalgic? It’s not. That’s the nutshell plot of “Moon Lake,” one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read. Like everything else in this book, it’s mysterious and complicated and its plot is crucial but can’t tell you what’s great about it. Just for starters, Easter’s name seems to really be “Esther”: but she pronounces it “Easter,” and Welty approves the decision. Certainly seems appropriate, for a girl who plunges out of the sky like Icarus and is brought back from the dead like Christ by Loch, a knight-errant if there ever was one.
It has layer upon layer, this story. Most obviously, it’s about community: in the ways that Easter remains aloof from Nina and Jinny Love, the town girls, and from everyone to some extent; and the ways that Loch and Exum, the black boy, circle around the camp, outside of its protective circle. There’s the scene when the girls try to take a boat out on the lake but Nina can’t get free of the chain binding it to the shore: she wishes she had Easter’s knife to cut it loose. (But would a knife do any good on a chain?) And there’s a lot of sex simmering here: there’s the girls with each other, there’s Loch, there’s Miss Moody, their minder, sneaking away for dates. But hiding in plain sight, I suspect, is Welty’s story about Christianity: about Welty’s strange view of Christian legend blended with a pagan, Greek sensibility. There’s the fold-up drinking cup that acts as a Holy Grail; the Easter resurrection; the swims in Moon Lake, like an extended baptism.
None of that, to be honest, is what makes the story so great. It simply has such a magical tone: a feel for incident, language, word play that seems to carry Welty away along with all of us reading her words. The girls are always getting slathered with Sweet Dreams Mosquito Oil, and the story is very dreamy indeed. There’s something unforgettable about Loch, the Boy Scout/Galahad, out in the woods, blowing his bugle in the morning: you can feel how he somehow loves this duty, his sacrifice of summer alone in his tent. Something so interesting in this pubescent boy in the swamps. There’s such a mystery in his resuscitation of Easter, after her plunge into the lake: the way it takes forever to revive her, the way he’s imagined as “joining with” her under the lake when he dives in to find her, and then as riding her like a horse as he tries to get the water out of her lungs. And the language: there are these amazing passages:
Nina and Easter, dipping under a second, unexpected fence, went on, swaying and feeling their feet pulled down, reaching to the trees. Jinny Love was left behind in the heartless way people and incidents alike are thrown off in the course of a dream, like the gratuitous flowers scattered from a float — rather in celebration. The swamp was now all-enveloping, dark and at the same time vivid, alarming — it was like being inside the chest of something that breathed and might turn over.
Easter was lying rocked in the gentle motion of the boat, her head turned on its cheek. She had not said hello to Jinny Love anew. Did she see the drop of water clinging to her lifted finger? Did it make a rainbow? Not to Easter: her eyes were rolled back, Nina felt. Her own hand was writing in the sand. Nina, Nina, Nina. Writing, she could dream that her self might get away from her — that here in this faraway place she could tell her self, by name, to go or to stay. Jinny Love had begun building a sand castle over her foot. In the sky clouds moved no more perceptibly than grazing animals. Yet with a passing breeze, the boat gave a knock, lifted and fell.
And so much beautiful imagery, scenery, description. There’s also this passage early on:
As the three were winding around the lake, a bird flying above the opposite shore kept uttering a cry and then diving deep, plunging into the trees there, and soaring to cry again.
“Hear him?” one of the niggers said, fishing on the bank; it was Elberta’s sister Twosie, who spoke as if a long, long conversation had been going on, into which she would intrude only the mildest words. “Know why? Know why, in de sky, he say ‘Spirit? Spirit?’ And den he dive boom and say ‘GHOST’?”
Ghosts pop up in the book, or seem to, more or less always associated with or seen by the black population of the town; it’s another thing I haven’t figured out. But this passage, with its interesting juxtaposition of spirit/ghost (Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost?), is most mysterious.
One last rambling thing: at the very end of the story, Jinny Love says to Nina, “You and I will always be old maids.” In the very next story/chapter, we find that she married Ran MacLain, and has cheated on him. Something strangely both dark and sweet in this, it seems to me, this utterly incorrect prognostication at summer camp to a best friend — this utter lack of self-knowledge.