09 September 2011

Moral Standards Have to Go, Too.

...By which I mean that sometimes, the fear of them produces crap.

I've got some ire here, and let me tell you why:  Last night I watched Night of the Hunter, the pretty seminal Robert Mitchum/Shelley Winters picture. The story -- Robert Mitchum's preacherman Harry Powell gets out of prison and attempts to discover the location of his cellmate's stolen loot from said cellmater's kids -- is pretty well-known, so I'm going to leave it at what's between those em-dashes. And before I start to rant, let me say that the acting was pretty great, and the cinematography was downright haunting. The dream-like landscape, which always seems to terminate in a claustrophobia-inducing high horizons, and long shots of cut-away sets are simply to die for.

But come on, writers! What is this?

Because with all this great material, the movie ends up being... really, really annoying. The first 45 minutes are genius:  Mitchum is terrifying and strangely seductive, and the weirdly sacerdotal nature of the shot composition makes this even more disturbing. Billy Chapin's performance as John Harper, the only person who knows where his father's ill-gotten gains are hidden, is truly surprising in its emotional depth, and Shelley Winters is, as usual, sexually frustrated and crazy (just how we like her!). Preacher Powell's ability to waltz in and charm the hell out of pretty much anyone is convincing and creepy, and the way the entire town is enchanted with him is quite subtly horrifying.

So, writers of this film, I ask you:  What the hell?

Because the second 45 minutes makes absolutely no sense. The kids escape on a boat, are taken in by a crazy woman (Lillian Gish) who retells Bible stories badly and thrashes the children in her care at the drop of a hat (though, in fairness, she ends up being pretty badass). Mitchum somehow shows up in town, and, in a scene that goes on forever and vacillates wildly between awesome and completely nonsensical, is trapped in the barn by the woman with whom the children have taken shelter. When the State Troopers show up, John -- in a very convincing and quite heartwrenching scene -- snaps and begins to cry for the first time in the film. There follows a nonsensical court case... and then a bizarrely cute Christmas scene. Basically, the back half of the movie, while still containing good characters, pretty good writing and gorgeously surreal sets and setpieces, collapses on itself. (Also, Sally Jane Bruce, as John's younger sister, is completely wooden and seriously takes away from some of the best scenes throughout the movie. Especially in contrast with Billy Chapin's mature and starkly realistic performance, her glassy cuteness is either creepier than creepy or just the weakest non-writing-related part of the film.)

How does this happen? Well, in my opinion -- and here comes a completely unsourced rant characteristic of the blogosphere -- the moral strictures of the time prevent the film's aesthetic and narrative demands from being followed to their logical conclusions. The aesthetic established at the film's beginning demands a horrific end for either Mitchum or the children; the narrative, up until the children climb into the boat, would seem to demand the same. The scenes of the children fleeing across that (really, really striking and completely unreal) landscape, while effective on their own, are at odds with the more detailed settings of the town the children came from and the place they end up, and could have come from a completely different movie. The infuriating and anodyne ending for Mitchum's character leaves the viewer frustrated, as does the lack of resolution for Billy Chapin's character, post-meltdown. The last time we saw him before the Christmas scene, he wouldn't speak for love or money, and even in the Christmas morning scene, we have absolutely no reason to hope that he will have a happier life. His random, smiling exit from Lillian Gish's kitchen strikes one of the (many) jarring notes at the end of the film -- but it had to happen that way, because the "morals" of the time prevent the kind of grievous horror we need -- not want, not desire, by which we are not titillated but the presence of which is an aesthetic imperative -- at the end of a film with such a richly established aesthetic. If you're telling a fairytale, someone has to die. That's just how they work. And not only does someone have to die, whoever it is (and Shelley Winters, like Red Riding Hood's grandma, doesn't count) has to die horribly and right there. Hot irons on the feet. Thrown to the dogs. Hung in front of us. Whatever. It's got to happen.

Urgh. A frustrating, frustrating film viewing experience. Ah well.


In an entirely unrelated note, a very, very brief piece of mine is now posted (under my real name -- horrors!) at James Maxey's blog, The Prophet and the Dragon. Also, in April next year, one of my short stories will be appearing in Lacuna, Megan Arkenberg's historical fiction 'zine. Go check them out!

02 September 2011

The Institute.

So, the other day I finished Jakob Von Gunten by the magnificent Robert Walser. It was quite a strange little book -- but then again, since the Brothers Quay did a movie of it, I suppose that could be easily guessed.

I had intended to read this book long before I actually got around to it -- I've been stalking it, after a fashion, since I was fifteen, but have always been short of money or memory and have been unable to purchase a copy of my own. But perhaps that's fitting. It seems like it might be, though it's often hard to tell.

Anyway, the book followed the titular Jakob, who arrives at a school for servants. According to the introduction of the edition I read, this is something Walser himself got up to at one point, even going so far as to find employment as a butler for a short time. However, the school is less a school than a holding place -- the lessons are short, the teachers are dead or sleeping (so saith narrator) and most of the boys' time is spent lying around and waiting, though for what, we don't know. The school is run by the Benjamenta siblings, whose first names are never given. Fraulein Benjamenta functions as the "instructress," guiding the boys through the one textbook, entitled "How Should a Boy Behave?" She is a nervous, fluttering creature, whose mental instability and ill health become more pronounced as the novel progresses. Her brother, on the other hand, is a passionate creature, removed from the day-to-day functions of the school, yet very interested in the prospects of the main character.

In short, nothing much happens and no one goes anywhere.

And yet, as a novel, it's completely successful. Walser's often digressive style is here perfectly appropriate, as the longer form allows him to indulge his digressions for a little longer than his short stories would typically permit. The translation has also captured the man's odd style, which seems to be entirely composed of ejaculatory sentence fragments, stitched together with commas and subjects. The strangely breathless narration gives the wonderful impression of a person who has just climbed a long flight of stairs and great speed, and now can't remember what it was he was going upstairs to get. It's quite a feat, on the parts of both Walser and his translator, that this is not annoying.

In short, the book is a strange creature, but serves as kind of a distillation of the best qualities of Walser's short fiction, without any of its problems. I highly recommend dear Jakob, and I hope that he will find a place in your service.