Wednesday, May 24, 2006

88. Recovered Memories

Since its 1998 release, I think I've watched Dark City three or four times, usually after something happens to me as I'm watching another movie--a certain dim fumbling in my mind, a shape like the victim-in-a-sack of Miike's Audition that suddenly lurches, and I feel the urge to see Dark City once more.

It is so often compared--favorably and unfavorably--to Fritz Lang's Metropolis that I won't trouble myself. I am pleased it echoes that movie's silly plot and humanist sensibility, but Dark City exerts its own pull, draws me like gravity. I will in passing point out that it also joins the short but vital list of films (Total Recall, eXistenZ, Seconds) that deals with the Matrix's who's-zoomin'-who preoccupations, but with more satisfying results. And its debt to a dizzy cavalcade of sources--from Twilight Zone to Philip K. Dick, from Nosferatu to E.C. horror comics, and onward through film noir and the many odd corners of half-remembered SF short stories that swim in and out of my enfeebling ken--is not merely great, but ably repaid. Again, though, Dark City is its own self for me, a particular moment when its director, Alex Proyas, allowed himself to indulge in excesses of magnificent fertility. In other words, this is one ripe piece of fruit, pendant from the branch like a black pomegranate, bitter but irresistible.

Can you turn away from Kiefer Sutherland's Peter Lorre-esque mad scientist, stricken and impish, pathetic and horrible? I almost wish he were the protagonist. But that would involve the loss of Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, tuning the tuners, his beautiful eyes swimming in their blue, up and out of the multiple blank lives the Strangers have given him. And I had forgotten about William Hurt as Inspector Bumstead--and isn't that the finest, most dangerous compliment one can give Hurt, a man who disappears so easily into his modulated performances, pitch-perfectly subsumed by the role at hand. Watch how brief an appearance he makes in A History of Violence--and how impossible it is to deny he deserved an Oscar nomination. His Bumstead is a man struggling to rise from sleep, too much of a--well, Inspector--to give in to the temptation to live in a dream. Even Jennifer Connolly--my favorite non-screaming scream queen--knows how to tilt her head downward like Bacall and look up at you so that she doesn't have to insist, you're in love with her anyway. And maybe most of all the Strangers themselves, animated corpses with spiders in their brains, slouch hats and derbies atop bald and leathery pates, the absolute definition of a monster that just sort of comes at you: my favorite kind.

And beyond that the visual hysterics, splashing around in the film's bravely muddy colors, the simple plot almost incidental to the evocation of a shifting city that should live inside your head, but instead makes you live inside its. With Dark City I am dreaming again: in that automat, startlingly narrow--and all lit up; notice that there is a bright moment in this film before its dawn-cometh finale; but be careful what you wish for, because the joint's a sick green neon coffin--and in the tumbling furnished (and re-furnished) apartments, everyone's stuff fingered and filched by the spider-corpses; and at the edge of the city, a brick-walled back room where scrapwood leans and the dust settles. It's as if Kafka had written The Trial as SF, and led us to an offworld storage closet where punishment is inexplicably meted out in alien bondage and despair.

But not quite. And I don't mean that triumph-of-the-heart ending--at least not entirely. Because in its performances--and Trevor Jones' insistent, unhinged score--Dark City finds its light, sometimes fitful and lurid, sometimes garish and stark, but never quite flickering out. When John visits his uncle's small-time aquarium, the tanks along the dark walls, the dusty mounted fish tacked up, forlorn, I felt, soft on the liquid surface of my eyes, the light of a dream, one I had actually had, of such a place, lost in the dim silence as the shapes moved in the water, one room to the next. And then I realized that I had, perhaps, actually visited such a place, in Atlantic City, I think, at the Steel Pier, where you paid one price and got to see all the attractions, including a small assortment of sea creatures listless behind the scratched glass. At least I think it was there, on a rainy day when we couldn't go on the beach. I must admit, then, that this is where the movie leads me, into "shadowy recollections," and the mingled discomfort and relief as they recede. Dark City's promise of "a swift sunrise" leads to a satisfying height, but what remains with me afterward is the play of slanting light in those dark streets and rooms, drawing me into a past I can't quite forget--or is that "recall"?

1 comment:

Craig said...

Your last paragraph here is strikingly poetic and quite powerful! Very beautifully written!

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