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

March 18, 2013 § 5 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.)

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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.

Life Stories

October 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Life is a matter of listening as much as doing; a matter of stories as much as events.  Is this a message (a moral?) I’m imposing on the work, or is it intentionally buried in its structure?  I suspect it’s the former, but Potocki seems to have been so sensitive to his eccentric work’s effects on his readers that I’m not entirely sure.

One reason I suggest this is the recurring theme of stories that reflect upon and/or interpret the events in one or more of their framing narratives.  A straightforward example is “The Story of Thibaud de la Jacquiére,” on the tenth day.  Van Worden, wondering whether his “adorable and adoring” cousins might actually be “sprites,” “witches,” or “vampires” who are playing tricks on him, reads the story in a 17th-century collection of German tales.  A kind of erotic prodigal-son story, it involves a young man seducing a beautiful stranger, only to find her transformed into Beelzebub as they have sex.  He wakes up on top of a corpse in a garbage dump, then repents with his last breath.

This kind of correspondence between levels of narrative makes you think something’s up: is the whole thing going to end up being a dream, or some kind of farfetched plot to teach van Worden a lesson, or are there actual supernatural forces at work, or what?  In fact, even van Worden seems to sense that something’s up, since after reading he only “almost” comes to believe that his cousins are demons.  This might be a poor example for the point I set out to make, actually, since it’s a little too pat; there are other stories which seem to comment on van Worden’s couching of all virtue in honor, or on the plot developments with the haunted (?) Venta Quemada.  In fact, there’s a possible counter to the story of Thibaud: the Gypsy Chief’s adventures with the Knight of Toledo, a libertine who repents after an apparent supernatural experience, only to find it was actually an extraordinary set of coincidences that scared him so; he leaves his excessively monastic penance, instead doing good and revealing his virtuous character.

The story of Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, was what brought this possible moral to mind for me.  This one story is actually the bulk of the book: appearing, frequently interrupted, from the twelfth to the 62nd day, containing many further layers of story.  Pandesowna’s life story contains many incidents, to be sure, but much of it is composed of the stories of others: Pandesowna listening, in other words.  What moves his own story forward is his and others’ reactions to narratives, the stories of others and  the emotions they provoke.  And this infects the top level of the narrative’s reality: van Worden and the others await the continuation of the chief’s story just as he awaits the stories of those he hears, and many days pass in which nothing happens but the group waiting for Pandesowna to continue his tale.  (There’s more than a little of the Thousand and One Nights in this day-to-day interruption and continuation of the narrative.)  Is the work actually a moral progress whereby van Worden comes to see that virtue is not only a matter of honor, but of empathy, as well?

I think perhaps I’m not doing this aspect of the work justice: it’s a rather beautiful effect, the way it points out (in its plot- and genre-besotted way) how much it matters to think and care about the stories you read and hear, the people you meet, to weigh them judiciously without rashly judging (after all, I don’t know yet whether or not Emina and Zubeida actually are demons, and neither does van Worden).  One of the great meta-themes and justifications of literature, as many people have said, is this vicarious living of many lives, fictional or not.  But I digress.  I hope I can work this in some more in my subsequent posts on the book.

Stories Above, Stories Within, Stories Beside

May 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: Atmospheric Disturbances.

Just finished: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link.

Reading next: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop.

So I’m very behind, which is a shame, because Atmospheric Disturbances is a really interesting novel, and I unabashedly adore Kelly Link’s stories.  Allow me to point out just a few of the many fascinating things in these books.

First, the Galchen.  I had read before, but completely forgotten, that the author’s father is used as a character in this book; the knowledge that Tzvi Gal-Chen was a real person, a real meteorologist, and not just a clever metafictional author-reference, makes the book come alive in surprising ways.  The book would be orders of magnitude less touching, compelling, and human were it not for its metafictional tricks, its games with narration and a blend of truth and fiction: a convincing and damn near conclusive refutation of those who decry metafiction and all experimental tactics as cold, unfeeling, antagonistic to the reader.  The combination of the story of Leo — Galchen portrays his monomania brilliantly while never quite eliminating the possibility that he’s on to something in thinking his wife “disappeared” and replaced by a simulacrum — the story of our reading of Leo — is this an allegory of marriage, a new fabulist mystery, a fictional memoir of madness? — and the story of Galchen eulogizing Gal-Chen, weaving her memories of her father into this fabulous tale — is quite magical.

And the way that Leo takes these crazy leaps of faith based on cryptic readings of dry scientific papers and Rorschachian interpretations of a meteorological graph!  And the droll, sometimes clinical, sometimes mystical chapter titles!  And the trip to Patagonia, the Jungian unconscious of Argentina!

Then there’s Kelly Link, who is awesome in completely irrefutable and empirically proven ways. Pretty Monsters is a short story collection for a major publisher, Viking, and as such reprints some of the stories from her earlier small-press collections, including what might very well be my favorite short story of this decade, “Magic for Beginners.”  (Or is it a novella?  Aah, whatever it is, it’s the best of that.)  Seriously, if you don’t love this story I can’t have anything to do with you: you will not like me, I will not like you, I will argue with you constantly in unpleasant and unfriendly ways.

Link’s a master at the ambiguously nested narrative.  In “Magic for Beginners,” we’re told right off the bat about the pirate-TV show The Library, and told that the story we’re being told is itself an episode of The Library.  This episode ends up being largely concerned with a group of teenage friends obsessed with the pirate-TV show The Library.  One of the very many brilliant things about this story is how it is a story about a TV show which does things that can only be done in literature, with the written word: if one were to actually try to adapt The Library for the screen, it would be impossibly confusing, expensive, and unsuccessful.  And yet it is irresistable in its ekphrastic descriptions in this story.  It’s the best thing about literature, the most underrated thing: it is utterly unrestrained by the million restraints of performed art, by casting, effects budgets, production companies.  It can do anything, given the right combination of reader and writer.  It can create impossible works of whatsoever form of art and describe them in whatever words, at whatever level of tantalizing detail, it chooses.  (Link, by the way, is great at this variation of detail, of the “granularity,” if you will, of her descriptions: the monster in the excellent story “Monster” is a good example of a terrifyingly sparse description.)

So we care a lot about Jeremy and his friends, and his mother and eccentric Stephen-King-ish father, in ways we wouldn’t if they were framing devices in an episode of The Library.  While you often forget while you reading that it’s framed as an episode, it is fascinating to read this whole story as an episode: a strange new episode of your favorite cult show, in which the fantastic world and characters you’ve become fans of are suddenly thrust into contact with the “real” world, in which the “death” or “life” of those other characters is in agonizing doubt (in multiple ways) but you are asked to pay attention to new characters, characters like you.  A little slice of reality TV.  So, yes: a realistic, naturalistic story about our filmed world, our fictionalized reality.

Link does stories-within-stories very well, but there are also stories side by side: sibling stories, like “Pretty Monsters.”  You can argue for this as another nested narrative, but it seemed to me that as you read it, the stories are on the same plane, even when it becomes clear that a character in one of the narratives is reading the other story.  (But she’s also not: the story here is far too short to be a book; we either have a synopsis of the book, or excerpts from it, or an alternate version of it.)  I am still wrapping my mind around this story, which I loved.  And yet the ending bothered me.  Stories shift their shapes; a story is a kind of pretty monster, utterly true, utterly false, attractive and terrifying; and when the fictional girl “L” acknowledges that there is “no stupid girl named Lee” in the story she was just reading, this is a matter of irony — we affirm the reality of the fictional Lee, Clementine, L and C, just as Jeremy tried to confirm the reality of the fictional Fox in “Magic for Beginners.”  But dammit, the metanarrative here did not deepen or complicate my understanding of the work; I cared too much about the twin narratives for it to work as a frame or conclusion.

Basically, what I am saying is that I really want Kelly Link to stretch out, to restrain or at least delay her ambiguity reflex, and to write a novel.  I’d love to see what happens in a Kelly Link novel.  Things could get wild.

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