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.

Remembering Reading Ray Bradbury

June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’d begun to convince myself that Ray Bradbury was going to live forever, I guess.  Why else would I feel so gut-punched this morning?  I can remember thinking that he would probably be gone soon back in the 199os; he continued to live and write until he was 91.

The New Yorker‘s current (first-ever) Science Fiction issue contains a remembrance by him, entitled “Take Me Home.” And now he’s gone.

Ray Bradbury’s books mean as much to me as anything I’ve read.  This is something you can hear from many thousands of readers: he was a gateway drug, and he was a molder of minds and lives and space programs.  I came to him at the perfect time, when I was twelve or so.  If you were a certain type of kid who was getting tired of kid stuff like the Oz books and Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, but were finding the literature you really wanted to comprehend a little over your head, Bradbury showed you the way, led you into the world of adult reading for serious pleasure, made it obvious that you would want to read all of those classics, as well as all of the great fantastic stories out there.  (I can remember checking out the Inferno, and The Waste Land, and even The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and returning them all unread, in the couple of years before I found Bradbury.  After him, anything seemed possible.)

It was the giant Stories of Ray Bradbury collection, checked out from my small town’s public library.  It was summer.

That book is the Proustian madeleine of my reading life: no other book, to this day, so conjures up a total sense memory of my reading it, where and when and how the reading happened.  Most of the others that are close are Bradbury, too: Dandelion Wine, The October Country, and The Martian Chronicles especially.  And, oh God, Something Wicked This Way Comes.  This is ironic, considering that he’s one of the writers most closely associated with fantasy and imagination, not sensory detail.  But it’s also fitting, for our laureate of nostalgia.  (The very best kind of nostalgia, by the way: the kind that redeems the word itself.  Ray Bradbury loves the best parts of the past like he loves the best parts of the future.  He was one of our most loving writers, wasn’t he?)

I read “The Small Assassin” on a boat on a small lake on the Nebraska-South Dakota border.  And “A Sound of Thunder” on our couch at home, with an afternoon thunderstorm outside. And “I Sing the Body Electric!” (the titular Whitman allusion of which I did not get) in the backseat of our station wagon. And “The Veldt” on a barstool, the book open before me on the bar, with that yellow summer light coming in through the windows.  And, oh, “Mars Is Heaven” in bed, late at night, crickets outside…

Dandelion Wine remains, for me, the best book ever about what childhood should be like — which is the book’s subject — and one of the most beautiful works of lyricism in 20th-century America.  The Elliott family stories like “Homecoming,” “Uncle Einar,” and the late novel From the Dust Returned remain some of my favorite weird fiction.  Something Wicked remains the perfect horror folktale, and, along with The October Country, one of the best books to read in the week before Halloween.

It’s impossible now to imagine Fahrenheit 451 not having been written — it was a thing that just had to happen — but it’s Bradbury that did it.  And it’s impossible now to imagine who I would have become without Bradbury, without him opening up the world to me and showing me all this amazing stuff. Here we all are, without him now.  He should outlive us all, but damned if we don’t need to make sure it happens.  Give a 12-year-old you know a Bradbury book. They’ll thank you later.

Poor Little Nell! Poor Little Paul!

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Here’s a nice 21st-century take on Dickens: Dickens the Assassin with a Heart of Gold.  In his outline for this book, in his notes for the very first part, Dickens wrote: “Boy born, to die.”  And so he is, at the book’s beginning; and so he does, not even a quarter of the way through the work.

Dickens makes sure we know he feels bad about it: in his Preface to a later edition (sorry, this crappy Oxford edition doesn’t tell me which edition this prefaces — Dickens wrote many prefaces for new editions — but I know it’s not to the first), he writes in reference to Paul’s death, “…when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris — as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I had parted company.”

Fiction writers write things like this fairly often, trying to convince their readers of the reality they feel in the characters they create, until it becomes inconvenient and they condescendingly remind some dolt or critic, who has made the mistake of acting as though the world they’ve created is real, that fiction is make-believe.  No one wants to believe that writers, writers of the kind of social-pseudo-realist fiction that Dickens wrote, create characters out of convenience, out of something so unseemly as a profit motive, much less kill them off for same.  And yet the fact remains: the death of little Nell in the last part of The Old Curiosity Shop had been an absolute sensation, readers in both Britain and America feeling terrible suspense about her fate, and then expressing deep emotion at her death and Dickens’s artistry in presenting it.  And Martin Chuzzlewit, after that book, had flopped.  And Dickens, needing a hit, crafted a story around a boy born to die.  It feels more than a little unseemly.  Killing, hobbling, and imperiling saintly children was good business, in Victorian England.  It sold books, and still does.

That Dickens gets away with it, for this reader at least — not only gets away with it, but actually achieves a genuine artistic breakthrough, and makes you cry in the process — is a kind of miracle of humanity.  Little Paul is so much more a character than little Nell.  Little Nell is one of those typical boring Victorian selfless females, with all the personality of a Precious Moments figurine.  Little Paul is something of a saint, too, I suppose; but he’s a weird little saint, and we get to know him from the inside out.  Shouldn’t this make it worse, Dickens killing him off?  Why should this make me believe that Dickens really did suffer, in writing his premeditated death?

But it doesn’t: Paul becomes a real little boy, like Pinocchio.  He dies because he’s young and sickly and, to speculate on Dickens’s medical beliefs, because he never had his mother’s milk and was weaned from his first nurse far too soon — not because Dickens needs him to die for the plot to work.  I am afraid that, even if Dickens came up with the idea for Paul out of a profit motive, he wrote him into existence.  And it must have pained him to see him die.

Part of the difference between Paul and Nell is surely the Victorian obsession with angelic femininity.  Another part, I’d guess, is the stronger autobiographical impulse Dickens felt towards Paul as a boy whom he’d put into a situation very similar to one he’d been put into as a boy, and the way this connection allowed him to write his way into Paul’s childish point of view.  To Paul, Doctor Blimber’s house is a strange and magical place, where the clock’s working says to him, “‘how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?’ over and over again,” and the patterns in the rugs and wallpaper come to life.  These are the sorts of details we never got for little Nell, who remains boringly angelic.

Beyond that, Paul’s main eccentricity is said to be that he is “old-fashioned,” in a mysterious way that those who call him such cannot quite identify.  He is very polite, and kind, but also very honest — to the point of being rude, such as when Mrs. Pipchin wonders what he’s thinking and he answers, “I’m thinking how old you must be.” In the end, it is implied that people sense that Paul is old-fashioned as a function of his being doomed to death; and yes, child mortality was still a giant problem in the nineteenth century, and was one of the old-fashioned problems Victorian society was most concerned with eradicating.

The way he will stare at Mrs. Pipchin for hours in front of the fire, wondering how old she is, seems to me to be a key to Dickens’s creation of Paul.  Paul knows he is not well; knows he cannot be long for the world; is fascinated by age, by people who have lived ten times as long as he has and seem to get no enjoyment from it; is always asking questions about death, about the voices that seem to live in those waves of life and death.  I think Paul’s old-fashionedness is actually a matter of his being nostalgic for the present, always seeing his own life as if it is already ended; he is always rolling the few scenes and incidents of his short life over and over in his mind, savoring or longing for them, asking to hear about his mother whom he never knew.  Dickens imbues him with an implied, but never stated, self-awareness of his own condition, and he looks upon the world with a ghost’s eyes.  You could dismiss all this as corny Victorian spirituality, I suppose, but I think that reaction is basically a product of years of ham-fisted attempts to replicate the kinds of effects Dickens achieves when he expresses his mysticism.

He definitely does have this mystical streak, and when it works, it seems to produce some of the most beautiful language in literary history.  Chapter 16, the aforementioned “What the Waves were always saying,” really does seem to me to be a point at which Dickens reached a new artistic plateau.  From the beginning of D&S he feels more in control, more sure of his plot, his characters, and his language, than in previous books.  And then comes this, which I know you can read for yourself at that link above, but which I want to write in full just for the glory of it; this must be one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the English language:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

After the first half of this chapter, I will forgive Dickens nearly anything.   The second half of the chapter, at Paul’s deathbed, can be somewhat maudlin in the little Nell style, but even though Nell’s death came very near the end of a very long book, this scene seems to me so much more moving, simply because we’ve seen through the eyes of the sick little boy.  Even at the very end, Paul is “old-fashioned,” using his last words to his father to encourage him to “Remember Walter,” a kid that Paul barely knew but who had helped Florence once — nostalgic for things that happened once upon a time, before he escapes from time forever.

Time’s Malcontents

December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one.  The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.

None of this really makes much sense to me.  If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop.  Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum.  The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby.  (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby.  Little Paul Dombey.)  It’s not really gripping stuff.  But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality.  (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.)  I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.

Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life.  Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing.  But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work.  That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire.  We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury.  In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great.  And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography.  In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”

The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air.  Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house.  Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post.  The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.

There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life.  The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:

Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed.  More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.

Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition.  He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years.  In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.

As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme.  Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet).  This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words.  This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.

Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand.  Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here?  When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?

Dead Cat Tales

April 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton.

Reading next: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.

Here’s a koan for ya: is a story about a dead cat told in 2008 the same story it would’ve been in 1950?

I ask because there’s a story about a dead cat in The Bible Salesman — a very funny story, or more to the point, a tale, or a yarn.  Without giving too much away, it involves the young protagonist, the Bible-selling naif Henry Dampier, finding himself trying to bury a soft-hearted housewife’s cat without her seeing the gruesome end to which it came.  It is, at least so far, the most memorable scene in the book.

One way of answering this dead-cat-tale question is to ask whether you think a book set in 1950 but written in the 2000s could be the same as a book set in 1950 and written in 1950.  I think most of us would agree that it could not: the context and the audience have changed drastically.

I wonder what this means for Southern humor, and for this book specifically.  Comic writing is my favorite subgenre of the Southern tradition: Twain (if you consider him Southern), Portis, J. K. Toole, Flannery O’Connor, more recently Jack Pendarvis.  Comedians of character, situation, and tone, usually in that order, with the exception of Pendarvis, who’s mostly a comedian of wordplay and surrealism.

(Wait: did I just call Flannery O’Connor a comic writer?  I’m going to talk about O’Connor in my next post, since her works are the wellspring for this one — but yes, her works do have their own idiosyncratic humor.)

However, we associate the Southern school of humor most with the homespun yarn — the porch-rocking-chair story.  The dead-cat story fits in very well in this tradition.  I appreciate Edgerton maintaining that tradition in this book, which displays fascinating streaks of light (or at least light-seeming) comedy mingled with darker passages of religious and social thought.  But I wonder if it is something of a museum piece — is it telling that the book is set in the 1930s to 1950s, and not in the present day?  Is it possible for a work of dead-cat tales to be set in the present-day South?  Is it, in a word, nostalgic?

I think there is something sweetly nostalgic about this book, although it’s too serious (and too well written) to dismiss it as nostalgia through and through.  (Of course, there’s also something decidedly unsweet about works that look back and laugh on the Jim Crow era, although in Edgerton’s defense, it’s hardly fair to force every Southern book to be about racial discord, especially in books about the poor, white, rural South.)   In interesting ways, the work discusses the encroachment of mass media, “progress,” and homogenized culture on the rural South — some of the same things that are very interesting undertones in O’Connor’s best stories.  I wonder about “preservation” of regional culture in a region that has undergone such massive and ongoing development, has taken in so many new ethnic groups, has cultivated so many new industries.

Last week I attended the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, and many of these same thoughts went through my head.  Everyone seems to be wondering whether there is a there in the South anymore: whether the designation “Southern” is still necessary to signify distinctive literary, popular, and social cultures.  I guess I am just trying to figure out if there’s anything distinctively Southern in a writer like Pendarvis, with his gonzo narratives and sense of the humor of wacky narration — or whether “Southern” humor is now relegated to looking backward, to telling tales about a culture that used to be.

Hieroglyphics and Nostalgia

April 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection.

A couple of brief notes here:

I read “Postcards from Costa Rica” right after my last post, which is too bad, since it fits so well there.  It’s a really well done piece: short sections focusing on a movement or vector, primarily of animals (ants, an iguana, a sea turtle, etc.)  There’s a focus on the hieroglyphics formed or left behind by these movements which linger in the memory.  In the final section, Tevis makes explicit the comparison of these tracks and the marks of language on a page.  Language as word-pictures, as an art of memory.

The next piece, “The Rain Follows the Plow,” is the longest in the book, and seems in many ways its core.  (I keep calling them “pieces” because they often blend elements of essay, story, and poem.  Belles lettres would probably be the closest designation, but it’s hard to drop that into a sentence.)  It threads together the story of a homesteading woman in the Oregon high desert and the author’s experiences as a ranger at the state park that’s been formed on that land by the damming of three rivers.

There’s a deep vein of nostalgia in this story, for me, and in some unexpected ways.  It’s very good on the wistful joy of new love kept at a distance and savored in a half-chosen solitude.  That’s part of it, the most obvious part, and the sweetest.  But there’s a bigger picture nostalgia here.  There’s a spur-of-the-moment cross-country car trip that would give anyone over sixteen a pang for a time when a trip from Texas to Oregon wouldn’t cost you approximately three gajillion dollars.  There’s mentions of folks in speedboats, RVs, campers.  Maybe it’s just me (actually, I’m pretty sure it is), but it already feels like a memo from a lost era.  How will teenagers be reading road-trip novels thirty years from now?

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