Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur Whisper in the Dark

The opening line of H.P. Lovecraft's story, "The Whisperer in Darkness," tells us most of what we need to know about that Anglo-American Gothic xenophobe's approach, and all about Jacques Tourneur's: "Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end." Many years ago an astute friend observed that Steven Spielberg's Jaws shared an essential characteristic with Tod Browning's Dracula: the suggestion of horror coupled with the tension of suspense. Even as a kid, I had noticed that Lugosi didn't have fangs, but he still looked like he could--and would--bite. It is the space just around the dark corner, not in front of one's nose, that makes one hesitate to move forward. Like anyone who is attracted to horror fiction and films, I have tossed around these ideas, as well as read others, such as Poe, Lovecraft, and King, on the art of composition of the unbearable. Sooner or later, they all get around to that moment at the edge of darkness, as they stand above the dank hole, on the threshold of the old dark house, at the bottom of the silent stairs, and know they will go on, or that Something will come to them.

Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton understood the power of the whisper in the dark. In three tidy pictures--Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943)--they called to us in notes whose spell on later horror films has never been completely broken. Even Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is mostly about suggestion: the shower scene is famous for being not nearly as explicit as the eye insists. But this is not quite the best example of the Lewton/Tourneur approach. Better yet are those moments when we stand outside the Bates Motel looking up at the house, seeing silhouettes, hearing troubling arguments, waiting for Norman's mother to fly at us once more; such is the effect of terror by implication. It is a kind of horreur film noir, in which the sardonic grin of expressionism combines with the panic followed by weary submission of the great 1940s-1950s crime films--one of which Tourneur directed, Out of the Past (1947)--to produce a dreamworld in whose making we participate. In discussing the special effects of the pre-CGI world, Roger Ebert has often noted that contemporary effects simply show us the monster, but older films show us the filmmakers' imaginations at work. And I think this applies not only to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion skeletons but also to Lewton/Tourneur's incessant fades to black just when we assumed our questions would be answered.

The 1970s saw a ferocious insistence on gore--as, I think, John Carpenter says, all that bad karma (the assassinations of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate) had to go somewhere--and the grindhouse crunch and splatter has never left us; still, the Lewton/Tourneur shadow still stretches across this necrotic landscape. Consider the recent trends in Asian films such as Ringu (1998), Dark Water (2002), Phone (2002), and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). While they depend heavily on jump-cuts and shock effect, they also understand the power of intimated horror, with their images of long-haired figures hovering over sleeping forms or lurking in hallways, vague childlike shapes glimpsed through elevator windows, low sounds from the next room. And their plots are more dream-structures than storylines, fraught with uncertain fumbling toward an only partially revealed truth.

For me, nowhere in the Lewton/Tourneur films is this whisper in the dark more sustained than in The Leopard Man. I haven't seen it in a few years, but to tell the truth my fading memory of its details actually enhances the film for me. The Internet Movie Database reminds us it deals with a series of murders by an escaped leopard--or a man who assumes the shape of one (shades of Cat People). It is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, one of the architects of noir suspense fiction; he also wrote the short story, "Rear Window." A particular sequence--or is it two incidents in the film? I cannot quite recall--stays with me. A woman walks along a deserted, tree-lined street. Something is pursuing her. She looks upward, and we wonder with her if the branches sway because of a slight wind or a stalking shape. She eventually makes it to her doorstep, only to have her pursuer catch up with her. Two images rise up in my memory: a tree branch bouncing as though a weight had suddenly been lifted from it; and, in the movie's closest thing to a shock moment, the woman's death, shot from inside her house, as her terrified family hesitates at the door, her entreaties to be let in abruptly ending, and they look down at a simple pool of blood that seeps under the door--and of course it is blood filmed in black and white, so that it takes on the color of the Lovecraftian ichor that seems always to drip from the walls of his subterranean netherworld.

The lasting impression of this technique is the terror of uncertainty. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur understood with H. P. Lovecraft that, as Lovecraft's narrator says in "The Statement of Randolph Carter," everything must be "told with perfect candour," and nothing can be "distorted or concealed." But in the telling a "dark cloud" comes over Carter's mind precisely because of "the nebulous nature of the horrors." Carter is trying to relate to the police what happened to his friend who descends into a particulary nasty tomb and suffers an unseen death at the hands of something with a voice that is "deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote." He remains above and can only guess at the exact nature of his friend's fatal experience. My memory of The Leopard Man's best moments is of such a descent into the dark, where a disembodied voice whispers and is gone, and leaves us wondering exactly what has happened, and how much of it was of our own making.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Pee Wee, Danny, Nino and Me: Things You Shouldn't Understand

Early on in Tim Burton's feature-length debut, Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Madame Ruby the fortune-teller informs Pee Wee, "You're here because you ... want something!" Of course, of course. But what? For Pee Wee, the answer is simple: his bike, the gleaming MacGuffin of this voyage north by northwest--actually, more of a goofy Rosebud, with its elusive allure, its promise of perfection captured in a snowglobe--or, in Pee Wee's case, "a cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting ... ."

What, though, did I want in 1985, a year from thirty, that this movie would so strike me as hilarious and true? A friend of mine used to say that Pee Wee's Big Adventure was funny only when watching it with me, because I thought it was so funny. And I admit it was, and is: completely irresistible to some obsessive part of my brain that feels perfection just enough out of reach that it may as well be at the other end of the universe, or of life; exciting with the shivery frisson of recognition of some half-buried desire; completely innocent in its exploration of the loss of innocence, its post-something wink at everything I'd forgotten about the solitary moments of childhood, in which I held the world I'd invented close to my face so that the other one could fade away; and of course exploding with the joy of self, in which the tiniest bite of cereal is savored, because you can hold your own spoon now.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure fed me well, and I could spend all day--as I have too often--going over favorite moments and lines. But, lucky you, I'm not going to do so. Instead, let's consider the aural mise-en-scene, if I can call it that, sustained by Danny Elfman's remarkable score--another debut, by the way, like Bernard Herrmann in the above-referenced Citizen Kane. Elfman has cheerfully admitted his inspiration: Nino Rota, especially his circus music for Federico Felinni. I've never watched Pee Wee alongside La Strada or 8 1/2 or even Amarcord, even though the last deserves pairing with Pee Wee, in that both invent a reality from memories of childhood that is slyly subversive and heartfelt and satirical all at once. In any case, Elfman's music for Pee Wee generates a kind of safe hysteria/delirium, in which Pee Wee's complete disassociation from reality has the force to transform the world around him. It is a kind of light-hearted expressionism that externalizes the Id to reveal it as a kitschy Merry Prankster whose free pass gets you on all the rides. Elfman not merely underlines this, but helps create the carnival--and not a Dark One, as in Ray Bradbury, but a homemade backyard fair, built by the children of indulgent parents who don't mind a lot of junk cluttering up the back yard.

Danny Elfman's music urges me to remember that feeling of freedom; I'm reminded of the kids in Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts, who always seemed to have ready access to vacant lots, spare parts, and the occasional mule or goat to hand-build a world separate from any lasting harm. Elfman's music combines with Tim Burton's reckless enthusiasm to actualize Paul Reubens' monomaniacal insistence that all of us are loners, rebels, who may not remember much (except, naturally, the Alamo), and who may all have big but's; but, under the guise of the Bicycle Quest, still can run away and join the circus.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On Hearing The Fly Buzz

I had the great good luck--and horrible misfortune--to grow up near one of the first modern indoor malls in South Jersey. It had a movie theater--which in the 1960s meant one screen, and that of course colossal--and on Saturday afternoons they ran a bargain matinee, showing a few cartoons followed by a science fiction or horror movie from the 1950s. My mother would take my sister and me to see Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Deadly Mantis and Invasion of the Saucer Men and too many more, all on the big screen, all at once absolutely irresistible and dismayingly horrifying.

I completely understood the Bill Cosby routine that begins, "When I was a kid I had pictures of monsters all over my walls, but I never looked at them. I was too afraid." I too indulged in such masochism, decorating my room with the unwholesome, the unholy, the unknown. Directly above my bed, the last thing I saw every evening as I lay straight (like a soldier at attention, as my mother observed, while my father more insightfully muttered, "He looks like a corpse"), my posture a defense against ax-murderers (I figured any limbs akimbo would be easy targets for a wildly swinging instrument of dismemberment), my eyes able to scan every increasingly menacing corner of my room--again, the last thing I saw was a poster of King Kong, Fay Wray clutched with proprietary insistence, his eyes locked on my vulnerable, supine form, flimsy as Fay's dress, as easy to rend as the tinfoil decks of the spaceship in It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Oh, those halcyon days of childhood.

Many of those afternoons of air-conditioned terror at the movies stay with me, but I particularly remember seeing The Fly, and being completely stricken by the helplessness of everyone--the scientist, his son, his wife, his friend--in the face of a life-sized Kafka nightmare, drowning them all in a maelstrom of mutation, repulsion, and literally crushing defeat. Even if you have never seen the movie, you probably know the sound, so endlessly parodied and misappropriated, of that tiny man-headed fly, caught in a spider web and squealing, "Help me! Help me!" That moment has never lost its power over me. It is the recurring fear of immobility, in which one's Doom inches ever closer. Indeed, many years later, as an adult in my 40s, I dreamed I was asleep on the couch and awoke, convinced that, as I told myself with absolute certainty, "It had caught up with me after all these years." And I couldn't move, as It crept nearer from behind me, as It actually got me, and I awoke once again, as breathless and goggled-eyed as I had been fourty years ago in the theater, watching the man-fly confronted and trapped by everything he had wrought, until Vincent Price mercifully crushed the whole mess with a rock.

Later that day, my father joined us at the mall and suggested we go to the movies. I stood there once again immobile, and in my panicked head ran the mantra, "Not The Fly, not The Fly, not The Fly." And it worked: we went to see McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force. Pretty horrifying in its own way, but a cooling balm after watching David Hedison twisted and crushed--twice.

Still, that night, alone in my room, like Emily Dickinson "I heard a Fly buzz." I really did, a sly whisper at my ear, and "The Stillness in the Room/Was like the Stillness in the Air--/Between the Heaves of Storm." Smart woman. She goes on to tell us that when "the Windows failed ... I could not see to see." Here is a truth you can take with you all the way, up or down, wriggling in your hands with dry and pulsing muscles.

It's funny, though: I didn't notice Dickinson at the Cherry Hill Cinema back there in 1965; but then again, I was only nine, and besides, poets are hard to spot when you're living inside the poem itself.

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