Saturday, October 18, 2008

Follow the Bouncing Ball

Steve Bissette writes beautifully, and meaningfully, about Fellini's SPIRITS OF THE DEAD segment "Toby Dammit" today at his S.R. Bissette blog. Check it out here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Delirium Tremendous

At the time of its release in 1949, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's THE SMALL BACK ROOM was praised as a welcome return to the postwar realism that audiences had come to expect of "The Archers" after their Technicolorful, fantasmagorical THE RED SHOES. The respectful but compact reputation enjoyed by this intimate wartime drama overlooks one of its most startling achievements, a sequence in which aging munitions expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar) -- tin-legged, alcoholic, self-loathing and lovesick -- finds himself alone in a room with an unopened bottle of whiskey as every tick of the clock suggests that his lover Susan (Kathleen Byron) has stood him up on their usual Wednesday night together.

The sequence, designed by Hein Heckroth, uses a stunning photograph of Byron to nudge Sammy's feelings of being teased. (There are hints of the mad siren that Byron becomes in the finale of BLACK NARCISSSUS in the way her eyes are lighted here.) Cinematographer Christopher Challis, working with Powell, ensures that, as Sammy paces impatiently about his apartment on his hurting leg, that the bottle of whisky set aside by the couple to celebrate the eventual end of the war is positioned threateningly in the foreground -- as it is in Sammy's consciousness -- whenever Susan's taunting portrait isn't. It's helpful to know that Sammy can't handle whiskey and the local publican (Sidney James) refuses to serve it to him, no matter how much his leg pains him.

Suddenly, this "realistic" minor masterpiece jolts into expressionism with a remarkable series of composed images that find Sammy more ogreishly dominated by the ticking clock -- a device conveying a double meaning in a scenario about British officers striving to learn how to dismantle unexploded "Jerry" bombs without incurring new casualties. The mise en scène suggests that Sammy is now himself a ticking time bomb.

Criterion's DVD of the film (the subject of Ramsey Campbell's column in VIDEO WATCHDOG #146, now in preparation) includes a new video interview with cinematographer Challis, who recalls how shots such as these were filmed with split diopters and other means of keeping the two disproportionate sides of the screen in equal focus.


Note the wallpaper in Sammy's flat in this Dutch angled set-up, because it's going to change.

There is something about this profile shot of Farrar that strongly evokes compositions in religious art, emphasizing his test of spirit.
Now the bottle begins to multiply within the patterns of the wallpaper.

Then the wallpaper explodes into panels of ticking clocks.

Sammy finds himself crucified within their multiplicity.

Sammy is literally pinned to the wall by the looming bottle of temptation, now grown to enormous proportions as it bullies him.

As he squeezes himself free, he edges along the wallpaper -- note that the bottles integrated into the design have here assumed a more three-dimensional presence and tactility.

As he emerges from the pinch, Sammy is rendered into a complete coward by temptation, confirming his worst fears about himself -- which also show the way to his only salvation. Namely, he's nothing without Susan.
The hallucination sequence continues for quite a bit longer, but I don't want to spoil it for newcomers. What I will say is that the resolution of the sequence and the situation confirms, in its unexpected elements of irony, humanity and humor, why Michael Powell was one of cinema's most singular talents.

After an excruciatingly suspenseful bomb defusion sequence, THE SMALL BACK ROOM grants Sammy and Susan a happy ending. Exhausted but triumphant, Sammy finds the strength and self-respect to demand and receive the authority that's rightfully his, which Susan has been unsuccessfully goading him toward for the balance of the picture. He returns to his smashed-up apartment, where his homecoming is made magical by his discovery that everything broken -- including the picture frame that held Susan's taunting portrait -- has been fixed, replaced or put back in its proper place by his lover's caring hands. I've seen scenes in religious films of people ascending into Heaven itself that weren't filmed with half of this scene's payload of emotion and fulfillment.
Twice in the many years we've been together -- or, rather, as we've been reunited after the rare times we've been apart -- Donna has surprised me by imposing order on rooms that I've left in complete disarray (as I tend to do). Both times, I was extraordinarily moved by what she accomplished with this thoughtful gesture: not just a reordering of my environment, it was like being given a sense of restored well-being, the gift of a fresh outlook. For this reason, the finale of THE SMALL BACK ROOM held a special resonance for me, but the movie as a whole took me completely by surprise as one of Powell and Pressburger's most note-perfect studies of the human heart.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Swallowing TRUEBLOOD

Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) hit the slay bars in HBO's TRUEBLOOD.


As an admirer of Alan Ball's previous HBO series SIX FEET UNDER, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the September 7 debut episode of his new vampire-themed series TRUEBLOOD on that same network. The initial promotional use of imaginary commercials for vampire-related products didn't help, weakly echoing SIX FEET UNDER's own initial (and thankfully abandoned) use of tongue-in-cheek TV commercials for undertaker accessories. However, partly because it has such a great timeslot, I've stuck with the show -- based on Charlaine Harris's "Sookie Stackhouse" novels -- and have enthusiastically warmed to its well-thought-out imagining of a near-future world in which vampires and the living attempt to coexist.

With last night's episode "Cold Ground," TRUEBLOOD reached a climax of sorts with its most effective episode to date, full of genuine panic, pathos (at its most multi-leveled as Sookie cries while eating the remains of the last pecan pie made by her murdered grandmother) and passion (as she consecrates her advent into unsupervised adulthood by donning a nightgown any Hammer heroine would envy and racing to an intuited rendezvous with Vampire Bill, whom she finally allows to penetrate her orally with the vulnerable words "I want you to"). This episode, directed by Nick Gomez, achieved a level of greatness within its genre that made the sometimes awkward path it took to reach this high point seem more special and interesting in retrospect.

I've never been a particular fan of the Anne Rice approach to vampire fiction, or the rock star/leather duster-wearer variety of vampire that has cluttered the movies in their wake. I haven't read anything by Charlaine Harris either, but I'm beginning to think that TRUEBLOOD may be the most important addition to vampire cinema -- if television can be termed cinema -- since Count Yorga laughed at the crucifix wielded by his adversary. As the author of two vampire novels myself, I have my own ideas of what the subgenre should and should not be, and it pleases me to no end that another body of work has finally come forward that seems to share my ideals and wants to move the genre in a more correct direction.

TRUEBLOOD functions as social satire and metaphor, with the introduction of a Japanese brand of bottled synthetic blood called Trueblood allowing vampires to "mainstream" by nurturing themselves from product rather than victims, and the outsider nature of the bloodsuckers serving dual purpose as an illustration of antiquated biases against gays. In an especially clever subplot, vampire blood is being sold as an underground street drug called V, which is doled out on blotters and expands the consciousness and physical powers of the user like a combined hit of acid and Viagra. (Note: Kim Newman informs me that this same idea was explored in his novella ANDY WARHOL'S DRACULA, published two years before the first Sookie Stackhouse novel.) But what I find most consistently intriguing about the show is Stephen Moyer's nuanced portrayal of the 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton, a non-survivor of the Civil War, who speaks with a dead-accurate sense of Southern manners that convincingly embodies the sense of a character who has lived entire lifetimes and who, despite the obscenity of his condition, is struggling to preserve within his own demeanor a sense of values that make his pained existence somehow liveable. He may be the best vampire character to come along since Barnabas Collins, and the way he seems to speak from another era recalls the chills raised by Chris Sarandon in the 1992 Lovecraft adaptation, THE RESURRECTED. Bill's sometimes unbearably tense romantic link with the plucky and so-far-inexplicably-telepathic heroine Sookie (consistently good work by Anna Paquin) makes sense because, as damned as their relationship would seem to be, it's underscored by a mutual and specifically regional moral rigor that gives Sookie the peace of mind she craves (the thoughts of vampires cannot be overheard), and Bill the mirror he is otherwise denied in undeath.

The executive story editor on TRUEBLOOD is Chris Offutt, whom I credit -- rightly or wrongly -- with some of the brushstrokes I'm appreciating so much in Moyer's rich characterization. In his bourbon-voiced courtliness and subdued volatility, Vampire Bill Compton reminds me a lot of Chris's dad, the sci-fi/sword & sorcery/pulp porn scribe Andrew J. Offutt. Andy was the first professional writer I ever met, and very kind to me when I was a youngster; in fact, he contributed an amusing article surveying the then-current horror movie scene to the second issue of a film-related fanzine that I published in the early 1970s. I remember meeting Chris when he was just a kid at various Midwestcons as the eldest in a procession of youngsters that fandom knew as the "Offuttspring," trailing their pretty mom Jody like so many quail. He has since gone on to enviable success and respect as a literary (as opposed to genre) novelist and short story writer, and I was pleased and surprised to find someone with his credentials and knowledge of the South affiliated with this program. I don't know if this perceived nod to his dad is deliberate or subconscious or just a natural emanation of Chris's life experience, but there's a lot of the Andy Offutt I remember in Vampire Bill.

This is a show rich in characterization, inventiveness and incident, and I hope it can stay on track after so powerfully forking the road of Sookie's humanity. Even if it stumbles after this, these early episodes of TRUEBLOOD will continue to represent vampire cinema at its most clever and progressive.