A VISUALLY INCLINED SCRIBE TELLS HIS TALE OF POPPED CORN AND SUBTLE MADNESS
Despite all my wild dreams and fervent imaginings I never thought such things could happen to me. I must recount my story, here and now, before the ephemeral truth of it passes from my memory and I, under sceptical questioning, come to see it all as nothing but dissipant fantasy. I can but hope you are able to believe what I am compelled to tell you, and whether you comprehend the conspiracies that pervade the cinematic existence of our everyday is beyond my control. Pray, heed what I tell you! The audio-visual experience is just a veil for that hidden truth which can turn your critical sensibilities inside out, that which is all around us and within us, that which can unhinge you from the cine-fabric like the spilling of stale popcorn behind the back-stalls of existence. Indeed, I fear my madness will be a testament to it!
My story begins where I spend many a sordid hour of my miserable life: A pseudo-Italian cafe buried in the city's central backwater; a seedy little joint that needs a fresh coat of paint, its heavily scratched windows replaced and its tiredly "comfortable" booths re-upholstered. If they were, of course, I'd never come back; the dump suits my temperament - not really moody, but energetically faking it - a pretend hole for me to pretend to hide in. The only thing that could make it better would be a pall of soft smoke, a shaft of pale blue from directional lighting at the rear and an end to the omnipresent musical wall-paper ("Inoffensive Classic Hits, all day, every day", until ambivalence claims consciousness in desperation). Of course, the coffee could be cheaper, but that's just idle fancy.
It was a particularly painful piece of musical obscurity that prevented me from hearing her take the seat across from me; that and the conversational hubbub of the sallow, black and purple costumed art-students discussing inner-city real-estate prices and the Armanified yip-Suits contemplating recent British involvement in the US comics scene (at least I think I've got that right). I didn't hear her sit, I didn't see her sit. I'm perpetually face-down as I write about the fallacies of modern cinema and its deplorable objectification of women (when I'm not surreptitiously observing the curvaceous denim beyond the cafe window). Occasionally, however, I'm forced to look up and forward to order fresh coffee, and that's when I noticed her there in front of me.
Perhaps "notice" isn't quite the word. She was wearing an obviously expensive and rather formal three-piece business suit patterned in large black and white stripes. Her skin was bone-china white while her lips, eyes and pristinely plucked eyebrows were as deep a black as her hair; tied back tight in that WWII style perpetuated by the likes of Carol Landis, Betty Grable and The Andrew Sisters. She reminded me of a Western business geisha preparing to sing the corporate boys home after an especially boisterous pillaging of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange; enough to bring a tear to your fiscally-sensible eye.
No, I did more than just notice her; I looked at her - rather obviously I imagine. Imagine a crash-test dummy who achieves self-awareness five feet before the Volvo hits the wall. I think you get the picture - I looked. She smiled politely while I attempted basic verbal communication, but my best efforts felt like I was juggling marbles with my tongue. And when she spoke it was with the kind of smooth American accent that launched a thousand ad campaigns.
Distortions of a Derivative Nature: Part One
Prospero's Books is reminiscent of 1935's A Mid-Summer Night's Dream, lushly colourised and drastically reworked into a psycho-sexual pantomime (a U.S. Christian Film Guide described Prospero's Books as "Evil", warning God-fearing souls to stay indoors and smear their windowsills with hog-grease and chicory oil if it ever came to their town). The film is rich (like a fruit-cake) and occasionally glorious in its visuals, but it suffers from a distinctive artificiality - that Greenaway-by-the-numbers approach - which creates a lack of empathic cohesion, ultimately making Prospero's Books a rather dry version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. But then, if this film was meant to be a "faithful" adaption of The Tempest, that's probably what Greenaway would have titled it.
The film opens with the following lines:
"Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnished me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom."
And thus we're shown the centre-point around which The Tempest has been reshaped - reshaped and distorted like iron filings 'round a magnet; reshaped and metamorphosed into another entity entirely; namely, Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books.
And Prospero's Books is very much meant to be a fruitcake tour de force. Ultimately its intricate mesh of classical symbols brimming with meaning and portent end up signifying nothing; it becomes merely a clever piece of self-indulgent entertainment splashing about immodestly in the tidal pools of an oceanic mythology. At times Prospero's Books can be intellectually engaging and visually attractive, but only superficially; it is never absorbing. It's a film to be puzzled over, treated as a semiotic exercise. It's best enjoyed with ice-cream and an ever-alert sense of being entertained. Watch the harlequin dance - that's your role here. The Chinese say we live in a world of ten thousand things, each of which signifies precisely nothing. Prospero's Books does the same, yet perhaps it's not such an ignoble cause.
"You're a Robin aren't you?"
A past-master of the proverbial gift, I responded with aplomb.
"A Robin?" (I thought that's what she'd said.) "Gee, well yeh, I guess there are lots of people with that name. Uh, look at Robin Hood for instance. He . . ."
"No, no . . ." Her face wrinkled ever so delicately. "You're a Robin, a Robin Pen?"
"Well, um, I suppose there must be other people named Robin Pen besides me . . . so, ah . . ."
"No, not other people. You." She looked straight at me and said, slowly and carefully, "You are a Robin Pen." But I was staring at my reflection in her eyes.
"You've lost me."
"Look," she said. "We've got off to a bad start. Let's begin again, shall we?"
"Let's," I said, not quite sure what it was we were beginning.
"Is your name Robin Pen?"
"Yes, it is."
"Good, then you must accompany me."
"I must?" I was having difficulty with complex concepts at this stage. It was a good twenty minutes since my last coffee.
"Yes, you must."
"Okay," I blinked. You know me; an easy, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. "Where?"
Now, I might well have thought that a bizarre thing to say, if I hadn't been too busy wondering when everything had gone monochrome, including me. And not just black 'n' white either; it was grainy and scratched. No, there weren't tears and furrows in the furniture or the walls, but large, white, hair-like scratches were randomly appearing and disappearing all 'round the cafe. And it definitely was not the cafe I'd been in a few moments before. It was now a bar of some type, full of well-dressed people, atmospheric smoke, a band playing laid-back, sultry jazz, and simply excellent back-lighting. Half of my brain - the intellectual left - was doing back flips, while the other half - the artistic right - stayed calm and quiet, kinda' like Karen Quinlan. Somewhere, a voice not unlike my own was telling me to "hang loose, be cool, relax, and enjoy the show." Sooner or later voices like that start talking about messianic missions, ancient Peruvian architecture and the secret, missing frames in the Zapruder film, but heck, you've got to trust someone.
Distortions of a Derivative Nature: Part Two
Does Barton Fink work? What exactly is it about? Does it come together? Is it a whole film? Questions for a film that seems to be nuthin' much ta do with nuthin' but questions. Is it enjoyable? Well, I thought so. But then I don't think everyone will. Unless they're into questions. There's one question that is easy to answer: Is Barton Fink an act of self-indulgence by Joel and Ethan Coen? I think it is, and I think it's a self-indulgence that I indulge in myself. You see, I'm a style junkie. Gimme style and I'll be as happy as a fly on a turd. Which is what a lotta people will think this is - a turd. Unless they're into style. And questions.
Barton Fink is all style or, more accurately, all design; design of the sets, the lighting, the framing, the pace, the characters, the dialogue, the sound, the music, the story, the movement, everything. The whole film is a piece of slick, formal and aesthetic design; the slickness and formality is something to hang on to when everything is askew, and the aesthetic design is there to let the audience see clearly what's going on in this Escher's nightmare of a film.
Heavily influenced visually by Leone and Fellini, in its sense of place, time and character by F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. Somerset Maugham, and in its conception by contemporary writers of the absurd, Barton Fink is a beautifully realised merging of distinctive arts. It stands as a supreme example of fantasy, not as a genre but as a mode, an attitude, a way of perceiving what constitutes our reality and showing how those perceptions can so easily be turned up-side-down by playing on assumptions and narrowed visions where escapism has become reality and reality fantasy.
Barton Fink is a film about madness, senselessness and synchronicity. Behind the apparent coolness of the events portrayed, the filmmakers are working feverishly to generate an illusion of purpose. Every seemingly pointless event is deliberately chosen to show the "reasonable" to be ridiculous. Everything, every character, every line of dialogue, every seemingly random activity exists for the express purpose of externalising, materialising, and physically manifesting the madness that, to the Coen brothers, is the natural state of mind.
Barton Fink portrays Los Angeles and Hollywood as a type of Hell: Contradiction as Hell - a Hell rich with appropriate symbols and sub-texts while actually quite empty of real meaning (after all, what isn't?) built instead of "attitude", an original angle on perception. After all, everything we see is coloured by the attitude with which we perceive it - isn't it? Well, at least that seems to be the question around which Barton Fink turns. And what an existential thing it is to contemplate such a question in a movie; after all, a movie is essentially nothing more than colour, sound and movement. Why should you get anything more from a film than that?
The corporate geisha was still seated in front of me, but now she didn't look out of place at all. And her contrast had been turned down - she had greyed out a bit in sympathy with the environment. And I was starting to relax. Maybe, I thought, this was the sort of place my soul could find a home. I just wished I was wearing one of those neat suits all the other guys had on. It was then I noticed that some of the people in the bar looked very familiar.
"Hey," I asked. "Isn't that the back of Edmund O'Brien?"
"Yes," she nodded, distractedly. "But don't worry about it."
"Any chance of James Cagney?"
"Not in a B-picture." Don't be ridiculous, said her eyes.
"A what?" I gasped.
"Look, I must be going." She stood up and straightened her dress. I hadn't noticed until then that her shoulder-pads could land Harriers. I hadn't noticed until then that she looked exactly like a young Lauren Bacall.
"It was a pleasure meeting you," she said, "but I have other things to do."
"What do I do?"
"Nothing. Just stay here. Someone wants to talk to you."
"What about you?" I had to ask.
"What about me?"
"I thought you were a manifestation of my unconscious fantasies."
"That's, uh, very sweet."
"And I thought this place was an aspect of my sub-conscious I've escaped to in order to avoid acknowledging deeply repressed feelings of sexual inadequacy."
"Has anyone ever told you that you should see a doctor?"
"Has anyone ever told you that you often speak in clichés?"
"That's all I speak, honey. That's all we ever speak."
She leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek, and then she was gone, along with everything else. What replaced her and the bar is something rather difficult to describe. How do you describe a junction point between multi-universes? At least, that's what the game show host called it.
Distortions of a Derivative Nature: Part Three
I had to see Cape Fear again to make sure I'd seen it right the first time. I'm pretty sure I did. And what did I see? I saw a finger painting. Maybe I'd better explain myself. Imagine a picture made up of concentric circles of thick, wet paint in earthy, natural, colours. Now imagine a big blob of alabaster, splat! in the centre. Well, that's not Cape Fear. But now imagine someone sticking big, callused fingers in that alabaster and swirling it around the painting, disrupting the borders of the circles, drawing their colours along in its path; making a big mess of it all. The alabaster is Robert DeNiro's Max Cady, and the big mess is Cape Fear. Except it's not a mess at all.
Martin Scorcese's Cape Fear is a fantasy film; not in the story it tells, but in the way in which it tells that story. The emotional impact of a psychopath terrorising a family suffering from a breakdown in communication becomes the vehicle for an act of cinematic expressionism. The use of tinted negatives, washes of reds and yellows, opticals of thunderstorms and fireworks, contradictory images, illusions, anachronisms, distortions, rippled reflections, irrational sound: What is all this, but the attempt to merge absurdity and heightened reality in order to create a powerfully emotive picture? Through the use of surrealism Scorcese tries to turn something which has been done to death in cinema into a totally fresh experience. In my experience it was a success; the surreal element homed in on my aberrant psyche and a connection was made. I was seduced.
This act of seduction is the great strength of Cape Fear. It is a film out to seduce its audience more than once; it wants to seduce over and over again. When you experience a film, you are seduced by the filmmaker; he persuades you to "fall into" the film. Speed is experienced through acceleration, not velocity, so those moments of seduction are when the "experience" wells up inside you - like the internal pull of an elevator speeding up and slowing down. Of course, in order to be repeatedly seduced you must be regularly repelled.
The most obvious attempts at repelling the audience out of its immersion in Cape Fear's seductive depths are those deliberate reminders that this film is a remake. Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam make notable and deliberately ironic appearances (all featured in the original 1962 version), as if to make a big in-joke of much of it. Scorcese's use of Bernard Herman's original score (with minor adaptations) - a score that could well be considered "over the top" by today's standards - gives a dated, nostalgic feel to large chunks of the film. And then there's the conscious adaption of the cinematic techniques of a bygone Hollywood, like the split focus shots, the tight zooms, and the noir-ish technique of extreme close-up. All of these contribute to Cape Fear's '50s/'60s feel with an '80s/'90s tone.
In a bizarre sense, Cape Fear is a comedy. Certainly it's not a terribly funny one, but it does play within the theatre of the absurd and the ridiculous. It deliberately prods and pokes the boundaries of acceptability; near slapstick in a large pool of blood, half the side of a face burnt away, the character of Cady himself. For some this has proven to be too much and the result has been total switch-off. But the film's real message lies beyond this ridiculous element, and it's about the fallacy of how we perceive the world. And if we're to believe it then all we're ever seeing is distortion and surrealism anyway.
Did I mention the game show host? I never actually caught his name, but he must have been a game show host; nothing else looks quite like that. He was one of the sixteen trillion things that replaced the Black 'n' White Bar. Everything else was a whirl of technicolour, Todd-AO, Vistavision, Panavision, Eastman and CinemaScope; the anamorphic lens in all its multi-dimensional glory. Shit, if you ever get the chance to visit a junction point between multi-universes, jump at it!
The game show host smiled at me (which was scary in itself) and said, "Walk this way and don't lose your step, because there's no way you'll ever find it again around here." I followed him. Or tried. Actually, I think we stayed in the same spot while everything else moved along around us, like a triple zoom through a wide-angle lens, or so it seemed. What I saw was pretty neat - bits and pieces of movies I had never seen; Shirley Temple as Dorothy, Bette Davis as Scarlett, Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, Mel Gibson dying at the end of Lethal Weapon 2, a scene from Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind (Roy Neary in a glitzy Games Show Host outfit holding a bunch of Marigolds - gamma-rayed of course - and shouting, "Hi Hon, I'm home"). That's when I realised that the guy I was with was the spitting image of Richard Dreyfus in slicked-back hair and a truly shocking wardrobe. Naturally, I said "You're Richard Dreyfus."
"No. I look like Richard Dreyfus, but he never got the role. A couple of nosefulls too many, if you know what I mean."
"Which, the role of Roy in C.E.4.K?"
"C.E.4 . . . ? No, that never made the planning stage, but there was so much speculation about it that it turned up here, between boxes."
"Don't worry, you'll explain what that means shortly."
While I puzzled that one, I watched a crusty old gentleman in a stil-suit chasing a great white worm from the bow of a beautiful, baroque sail-barge (a juxtaposition of classic literature or a failed movie adaptation, I imagine) before it was all, quite suddenly, replaced. By a boring room. With me in it. Twice.
Distortions of a Derivative Nature: Part Four
Life is full of unanswered questions. (Questions like "Why do hackneyed cliches pop up endlessly in even the finest critical writing?") For instance, there is a particular question that has tickled my trivial mind for some time now. It's a rather silly question; more a fancy, really. I ask myself "If Albert Camus was a modern film critic, what questions might trouble him?"
Now, that might seem a damn silly thing to lie awake at night over, but I've given it some thought; humour me! What would he ask? What about: "If sentimentality and schmaltz are legitimate surrealist techniques, does that mean that Hook is symbolically rich and full of portent?" Or: "Is looking like Warren Beatty a positive advantage to a charismatic young gangster with a dream (given that the Ben Siegel of Bugsy is indistinguishable from the actor who plays him)?" How about: "Can cheap futurism like having Mick Jagger dressed in leather and riding a bright red ARV be a valid, even hip, dialectic tool?", or "Does re-making Total Recall for 25% of the budget and sans the stupid ending make Freejack five times as good a film?" Then there's: "Does ignoring little details like simple logic in an abseiling scene mean that Medicine Man is set in another world, or just that it uses a surrealist technique to get to the next bit quicker?", "Must encountering oneself in a time-distortion mirror always lead to the tragic consequences it does in The Comfort Of Strangers?", "Does it constitute surrealism if the characters in The People Under the Stairs, or indeed in The Hairdresser's Husband act in an unexplainably odd manner?", "Because the audience in JFK are asked to sort the truth from the embellishments in the film's confusing mix of heightened realism, fictional and documentary footage, well known actors in key roles and wild conjecture, can we call it a mosaic (if not prosaic) fantasy?", "Does whether it's for real or 'all in the mind' make a hoot of a difference when a lover comes back from the dead in Truly, Madly, Deeply or when the dead come back as a lover in Dead Again?", and "Is Star Trek VI simply a whodunit masquerading as contemporary myth behind a facade of popular and palatable SF iconography?" And finally: "Is Delicatessen's compressed and twisted vision of everyday life, which forces irrationality and humour out of every drab little nook and cranny, 'Theatre of the Absurd' in all its glory?" Sure, there's a lot more that could be said about the fantastic nature of all these films but, as Camus would probably insist, beyond the colour, sound and movement, the rest is your own problem. However, problems can often be a lot of fun to solve.
"Good. I'm here," I (he) said. "Find the trip amusing?"
"Mildly," I (me) replied.
"Well anyway, let me introduce myself," I (he) said.
"If you like," I (me) said.
"Hi. I'm you," I (he) said.
"And I'm you?" I (me) asked.
"No. You're you, and I'm you too," I (he) answered.
"Ah. So it's that sort of trip. When do I come down?"
I smiled, shook my head sadly, and explained it all to myself. It was all quite simple really, and I explained it so well that I won't try to paraphrase.
"A movie is projected onto a screen," I (he) began. "That screen is a window to a world which is, basically, an alternative to the world of the audience. Actually there is no real world; all worlds are just alternatives to one another. Makes things much simpler, don't you think?"
Hmm. Maybe it would be better if I paraphrased.
Understanding Filmic Reality In Four Simple Lessons
Lesson 1: A dramatic film is a projection on a screen. That screen is generally rectangular with a distinct edge or border. So, in a sense, the screen is a window through which the audience watch the story unfold.
Lesson 2: The story of a dramatic film has to be set someplace and sometime, though the place can be anyplace and the time can be anytime; even a fictional place, a fictional time. In any case, this place and time must be part of a larger place - a longer time. Even though the audience can see only part of this large place and time - the "world" of the story - a whole "universe" can be extrapolated from what is visible.
Lesson 3: Everything that comprises a dramatic film is ultimately derived from the reality of the audience watching it; a cinematic world is created by taking elements of the audience's world and distorting them appropriately to fit the film. Thus, all film worlds are distorted realities (some mildly distorted to fit, for example, a cop thriller and some significantly distorted to encompass, say, a spacey sci-fi flick).
Lesson 4: If every film world is a distortion of the reality of the audience, then it stands to reason that someplace, sometime within that distorted reality is a version of the audience itself, distorted appropriately. So, for every dramatic film, for every alternative reality, there is a variation of you; there is an alternate you trapped within that "box" containing the alternate universe which you can just glimpse through the window that is the screen on which the film is projected.
"See; all very simple," I (he) concluded.
"Yeah, for you and your mother," I (me) replied.
"Our mother. Well, our respective, equivalently distorted analog mothers -"
"For Christ's sake, shut up!" I was getting pretty tired of this. "Why the hell am I here?"
"We have caused a problem. Actually, a particular we has caused a problem, and another we - you - are here to correct it."
"Go on," I said. It sounded perfectly reasonable to me, but then I've seen both Total Recall and Terminator II.
"As you now understand, there are a large number of variations of ourselves within the quasi-universe of filmic "boxes" that make up the cine-fabric. Some of us are pretty strange people (Ur-Regent R' Byn-Penn of Wezurstral and the discontinued Pen R4-NL Series spring to mind), but most of us are ever-so-slight variations on the basic we."
"No, like you. Anyway, most of the possible variations are of a Robin Pen who's keen on film and is eager to extend his passion to as wide an audience as possible, if you get my drift. Well, I'm afraid that one of us got or will get - a "box" encapsulates all time - a bit too eager, and has developed or will develop a new theory of film that has had or will have so huge and widespread an impact that it will, quite literally, cause a rift in the cinema world - a tear in the cine-fabric that could potentially result in the collapse of all the separate "boxes" or universes to a single flux-point. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Anyway, that theory you formulated is known as the Theory of Post-Brechtian Contra-Dynamics."
"And I, that's me, am the one who formulates this theory? That's my crowning achievement; a theory so incredibly important and all-pervasive that it rocks the very fabric of the cineverse, sweeps opposing theories into the gutters of ignominy and knocks the gibbering hordes of counter-critics to their philistinous patellae?" (As you can imagine, I was getting a little excited at this stage, and my language tends to get colourful when that happens.)
"Oh no," I (he) replied. "You don't get anywhere near that. I'm afraid your lifetime achievement will be a discourse which postulates that Godzilla's appeal is principally due to the sexually carnivorous look in his down-turned eyes, and that both he and Spock are sex icons and universal animus figures because they are super-human, sexually unobtainable and regularly misunderstood. In the end Godzilla is forced to wear mirrorshades in all his later movies and you are almost smothered to death in a very ugly incident with an enormous and outraged Trekkie, a cramped Convention toilet stall, an inflatable Vulcan and a goat."
"So why the fuck am I here?" (See what I mean about colourful language?)
"To be in the same universe as the Robin who did develop the theory of Post-Brechtian Contra-Dynamics."
"For God's sake why?"
"Well, when two mutually exclusive but nevertheless entirely correct theories are brought together in a single filmic "box", both theories, and their respective consequences, are nullified. It's a pretty Greg Bear kind of a thing."
"So you're saying that my theory about Godzilla as a sex demon will destroy this Post-Brechtian whatsit?"
"No, no, no. What's important here is another of your theories - one you develop in your abortive attempt to launch the CinePunkTM Movement. A crucial sub-construction of the Theory of Post-Brechtian Contra-Dynamics is the fact that the artificiality of special effects in film tend to detract significantly from the filmic experience by providing proof to the audience that the film-world isn't real, and thereby causing a breakdown of suspension-of-disbelief. In contrast, your half-baked CinePunkTM conception contends that SPFX actually enhance the cinematic experience by requiring that audiences further suspend their disbelief in order to maintain an emotional intimacy with the story in progress."
"One point for me. So, now that I have the weapon to combat this Contra-Dynamics thing, what do I do?"
"Actually, you do nothing at all. It's been done. All you had to do was to be in the same filmic "box" as you . . . ah, him."
"Oh, is that all?"
"No whoosh, pow, or anything wildly exciting like that?"
"Nope. I'm afraid not."
"Sort of anti-climactic really."
"I thought so."
"Well, that's it then?"
"Gee, I'd like to have met this Post-Brechtian theorist," I said, sort of wistfully.
"Maybe you have," he replied, and before you could say "Surrender Dorothy!" I was home: Back in my seedy little coffee hole with a Brazilian flat-white steaming at my elbow and not so much as a lobby card or a ticket stub for proof.
But that's my story: Believe it . . . or simply award me 'Best Male in a Supporting Role'. I'm beginning to think I may have imagined it, though I can't help feeling that the large, scratched cafe window is really a big projection screen, and that I'm watching a movie; a movie of ordinary people walking along an ordinary city street. Yet, why do I assume they're ordinary people? Maybe from another window I'd see them differently; as heroes and villains, antagonists and protagonists. All I can say is that, inside or outside the window, everything's both real and fantasy. Depending on your point of view, of course.
Still, it would've been nice to hang around that black 'n' white bar and share a drink with Lauren Bacall and Edmond O'Brien. The drink would probably have tasted of monochrome but, gee it would have been worth it, don't you think?
Originally appeared pp. 44-52, Eidolon 8, April 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.