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 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.
February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.
“Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.”
Our narrator, Elvis, is a copy of sorts himself: named after Elvis Presley, and in love with dancing, he makes the logical choice to become an Elvis impersonator. He’s growing up in ’70s and ’80s Nigeria, in the slums of Lagos, having moved with his father from a smaller town after his father loses an election.
But there’s no such thing as an exact copy or a perfect impersonation, and therein lies the interest. Wearing a wig and “white shoes and trousers,” covering his face with talcum powder when he runs out of “sparkle spray” — but still aware that “this was not how white people looked” — he sings “Hound Dog” and dances for tourists at expensive hotels. Humiliatingly, in the encounter we witness at the beginning of the novel, the tourists try to get him to stop with chocolate, then pay him a pittance to go away. And when he goes back to the bus after this embarrassment, a woman getting off asks him, laughing, “Who do dis to you?”
If Elvis took it all as a joke, just bilking tourists out of their money with a minstrel show of one of their Western heroes, it would be one thing. But he grew up listening to Presley, his hero. His identity is intertwined with the white American’s. And he takes his act very seriously: it is what he loves to do. It is an act of art. Constrained by his inability to use makeup (so as not to be confused with a prostitute or homosexual), confused with a beggar or huckster, he is stuck with his existence like a cheap copy.
Abani weaves these threads of cultural cross-pollination, post-colonialism, and skewed facsimile through the beginning of his narrative quite skillfully: songs on the radio (American, Caribbean, African), the movies Elvis becomes addicted to (the cheapest old silents, the newer Bollywood films), the snacks he eats watching them (American soft drinks), many other subtle asides. It’s not simple symbol or allusion, though: there’s nothing forced or artificial about these references, just a portrait of lived life in Nigeria at the time. A cool example that made me laugh in delighted surprise: the girls and women of Elvis’s family plaiting their hair into elaborate patterns and shapes, as Al Green plays on the radio in 1976. “Aunt Felicia had invented a plait called Concorde, complete with a Concorde-shaped aircraft taxiing down the crown of the head to the nape.” Even the dialogue of Elvis’s grandmother Oye, who speaks with a kind of Scottish accent and idiom she picked up from missionaries, is utterly believable in a strange way.
Is Abani playing with one of the great themes of world (especially European) literature in the 20th century, the Double? Is Lagos a doppelganger of sorts for a western city, a kind of distorted mirror image, with its massive disparity between large numbers of millionaires in mansions and hotels and a huge impoverished population in swampy shanty-towns built on stilts? I think there’s more to this than that; I think Abani’s novel is shaping up to be rather distinctively its own thing, just as his Lagos seems like quite its own thing despite its “One Copy” of everything; but I also think he’s keenly aware of and interested in traditions, literary and cultural. Elvis reads a lot of western literature (which I hope to talk about in the next post), and before most of the chapters there are descriptions of Igbo rituals and recipes. This novel’s blazing a trail between canon and experiment.
Just for the hell of it, and because it’s pretty great and I’d never heard of it, here’s one of the greatest music hits from Nigeria in the ’70s, mentioned in the novel, “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga:
April 16, 2009 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.
There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.” Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich. He provides two common understandings of the term:
(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..
(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.
He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”
Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?
This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey. (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.) The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow. Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over. (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.) Both canny and uncanny. It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.
Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger. The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich. And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self. Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.
Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double. This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.” But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.
All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them). I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told. It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena. Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama. Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage? Or all of the above? (Well, it is definitely of Borges. That’s for sure.) Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?
(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot. It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential. It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)
June 13, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Decameron.
Where to begin with this day? Quite a bounty, these lovers’ happy endings.
I suppose we really must start with the fourth story, Filostrato’s. Abashed for bringing down the whole group with his demand for tales of woe and heartbreak, he tells the fifth day’s funniest and sunniest story. There are these young lovers, see, who hatch a plot to see each other at night: Caterina will convince her parents that her bed needs to be moved to the balcony because she is too hot to sleep in her room, and needs the song of the nightingale to soothe her. Ricciardo will climb up to be with her. It works, but they exhaust themselves to the point that they are not awoken by the dawn, and Caterina’s father comes to check on her. He finds her, asleep, holding… um… “that part of his person which in mixed company you ladies are too embarrassed to mention.” His nightingale, in the parlance of the story.
Boccaccio is remarkably consistent in his arguments that such sins of passion as premarital sex and adultery may be against God’s law, but they certainly don’t warrant the harsh punishments they are sometimes accorded. (However, Dioneo heaps scorn on the closeted homosexual in the final story of the day.) So in this story, the father accepts Ricciardo’s sin, provided he marry Caterina (which he gladly does). And, as Filostrato ends his tale, “he lived with her in peace and happiness, caging nightingales by the score, day and night, to his heart’s content.”
All of the day’s stories seem a reaction to the fourth day’s gloom, and represent a rumination on the relationship of Love and Fortune. Many of the stories are very similar in incident and character to the fourth day’s, but with a reversal of Fortune or a change of heart leading to a comedic rather than tragic ending. For instance, Emilia’s story, the second, reuses elements of Elissa’s story from the previous day (a Sicilian setting, a girl named Gostanza, piracy, the King of Tunis). But whereas in Elissa’s story the boy-pirate who’d fallen in love with Gostanza from afar saw her killed before they’d ever touched, in Emilia’s the girl is rescued by a stroke of wild luck and the boy-pirate is restored to her by Fortune, skill, and the generosity of the powerful.
Not that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. One of the book’s rare splashes of the truly supernatural comes in Filomena’s story, the eighth. It seems ancient and scary and somehow, strangely, Nabokovian, this story. A spurned lover, Nastagio, leaves the scene of his humiliation and goes wandering in the woods. Here he comes across an utterly terrified naked woman running from a “swarthy-looking knight, his face contorted with anger, who was riding a jet-black steed and brandishing a rapier…” When Nastagio interrupts the knight, he says his name is Guido degli Anastagi (Nastagio? Anastagi?); that he is dead, having killed himself in despair over the cruelty of the woman he is chasing, whom he loved; that she is also dead; that they are both in Hell; and that their punishment is to repeat this chase, over and over again, ending every Friday with Anastagi disembowelling his lover, feeding her heart to his hell-hounds, only to have her pop back up and start running again. This is kind of too brilliant for explication, the way so much of Dante is. (No one does the tortures of hell like fourteenth-century Italians!)
But here’s the kicker: Nastagio thinks it would be a swell idea to trick his beloved to coming out to the woods for a picnic, then forcing her to watch the weekly murder. Somehow this makes her change her ways and marry him. Filomena introduced the story to the “adorable ladies” as “an incentive for banishing all cruelty from your hearts.” Boccaccio definitely disapproves of those that try to stay out of love’s way altogether, but how much love does it show to force your beloved to see something like that?
These two love-days, the fourth and fifth, are fascinating on the idea of Love. I find myself wondering how much of my speculation on what Love means to Boccaccio is intentional on his part — is he self-consciously ruminating on its meaning? — and how much of it is my lack of knowledge of the world view of his time. I do think Boccaccio fashioned the stories of these two days to show us different facets of the concept of Love. But when he (and/or his translator) uses the word “love” the way we would commonly use “lust,” as he often does, referring to the satiation of purely physical desires, is he ironically indicating the lack of love in one’s selfish use of another human? Is he saying that he believes the physical and spiritual imperatives of love cannot be separated, or building a case for that argument? Is there really simply no division, in the Italian language of the time, between love and lust — no word to differentiate the two? And why does Boccaccio downplay the procreative aspect of sex so heavily? (There have been attempts to miscarry and panicky pregnant teens in the book, but fairly few, and mostly as convenient plot devices.) And there’s such a lack of religious fervor in this book: I don’t sense much interest on Boccaccio’s part in showing human love as an allegory of God’s love. Maybe it’s still coming, but it’s refreshing for a dilettante like me to see, in a medieval text, such a focus on how humans interact without the characters or the narrator always looking over their shoulder to see what Jesus would do.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m unsure of how unsure Boccaccio was about what Love is and what it means. Does he think he’s explaining or investigating? I wonder.