A man and a woman encounter each other on a mattress and engage in heated coital action until reaching mutual satisfaction. With the exception of an equality emphasized in the pleasure principle, the scene is hardly more remarkable than any countless number of filmed vignettes which exist for no other reason than to stimulate the libido. That this sex scene can be reasonably identified as the sole reason for the existence of the film as a whole is not without significance in the debate between Art and populism, eroticism and pornography.
Directed by self-professed “feminist pornographer” (as opposed to the normal brand of porn director who objectifies a woman by filming her naked having sex?) Jennifer Lyon Bell, “Matinée” is a short vignette which professes to address the matter of the legitimacy of live sexual performance as an enhancement to a greater artistic enterprise. That this is a central area of discussion in the greater conflict between the “legitimate” arts and pornography gives the film an appearance of an underlying intellectual purpose. However, the actual threadbare scenario, after an introductory dialogue suggesting a situation in which a move into graphic sexual performance can be construed as the only possible course in displaying a dedication to artistic purpose, exposes any declaration of higher ambitions to be disingenuous and firmly fixes the film in the unsavory arena of pornographic vignettes, to which the “adult” film industry has willingly surrendered a once promised attempt to elevate into a merging with commercial and artistic legitimacy.
The stars of a theatrical production, Mariah (Alicia Whitsover) and Daniel (Steven McAlistair) meet before a matinée performance, which is to be attended by a talent agent interested in furthering Daniel’s career beyond his soap opera appearances and into the American market. The actors exchange shared doubts about the credibility of their love scene, but come to a major disagreement when Daniel insists they improvise a new version of the scene, to “change it to serve our art”, whereas the tentative Mariah is resistant to changes, obviously feeling that Daniel’s suggestions blurs the line professional performance and a more personal intimacy. Only in the dressing room in conversation with fellow actresses- who remind Mariah that a successful performance might benefit Mariah more with the agent than Daniel -does she concede to a spontaneous, extended onstage coupling complete with teasing, foreplay, oral sex and intercourse.
The question of unsimulated sexual performance in the context “legitimate” commercial project was given a prominent voice five years later on the New York stage in Neil LaBute’s play “The Money Shot”, which presented a fading pair of box-office film stars given the opportunity for a career boost in a major new action film by a European directorial hotshot, with the caveat that the film will contain, for some reason never convincingly addressed, explicit sexual action to be performed by the pair. Consistent with LaBute’s canon, the play is caustically derisive of it’s own characters, but the playwright’s signature barbs fail to address the central conceit of the play, instead dancing around the issue with repetitious, lames jokes about internet searching and worn confrontations about attempted pregnancies, as if the subject the melding of art and sex is too intellectually insoluble, even for a practiced social misanthrope to unravel. If a seasoned provocateur fails to address the subject with confidence, what chance does even a “feminist” pornographer have?
The problem with taking the intentions of the film seriously are plentiful. Bell intends that “Matinée” demonstrates an aversion of current vacuous pornographic vignettes by providing a genuine dramatic context in which the sex is a natural expressive outcropping of the narrative construct. However, as amply demonstrated in the limitations of the set-up, there is little in the way of an attempt to achieve a convincing basis for the depiction of extended sexual play except for its own sake. Even with the limitations of the set-up, there is no attempt to embellish the scenario with the most basic of details. For instance, except for the bedroom scene, there is no other point in the play dramatized, a contextual omission which makes the protracted sex scene resemble nothing more than a live sex show; the logic of enticing a major talent agent with such a carnal exhibition makes little sense unless the desired career move is one in the sex trade. (Is it possible that the mentality in the porn industry is so insular that any cultural reference is naturally restricted within that very specialized industry bubble? That the practitioners within the industry have become victims of professional delusion; subject to the same fantasy-fed seduction that is their stock-in- trade?) With a lack of sufficient exposition, the theater piece is merely an encounter on a bed with subsequent coital intimacy, and since there is no inclusion of prior performances, beyond brief self-deprecating mentions, there is no reference with which to gauge the difference in performance; a by which the entire film claims its raison d’ etre. Nor are we privy to a reaction of the talent agent to what has transpired save for a few randomly inserted shots during the performance. What is the purpose of Mariah and Daniel’s exposure if the results of the performance are rendered irrelevant? If Bell sincerely wished to create a piece of eroticism which transcends a vacant excuse for exhibitionism, then why not take the effort to, at least, include even a minimum of expository information that would develop, reinforce and bring an intelligent conclusion, rather than using the flimsiest of framing devices merely as an excuse to sneak by a pornographic sequence past the critical watchdogs. That Bell’s sole conclusive point seems to be that a dedicated commitment to a romantic dramatization is demonstrable only by a express lane to orgasm is as ridiculous a notion as an actor showing their dedication in portraying a killer by indulging in an act of homicide.
Bell’s does impart a less than generic method of filming sex, with a concentration on the physicality of the act that has less to do with the standard gynecological positioning and stressing facial responses to stimulative sensations. If Steven McAlistair lacks the sufficient romantic weight as Daniel, Alicia Whitsover reaches impressive emotional complexity in a performance so nakedly genuine, watching it feels like an invasion of privacy.
“DAY OF THE FIGHT” (1951)
Stanley Kubrick’s first attempt at motion picture movie making is this short film inspired by his own photo essay on middleweight boxer Walter Cartier published when he was a young staff photographer at Look magazine. It may be unfair to judge a basically homemade inaugural effort of a film maker by the same standards of sophistication through which his later filmography might be appraised, especially a director as artistically esteemed as Kubrick, however, what one can do is to note any seeds of thematic or visual content which may find expansion or reoccurrence in his later works; both of which can be found in “Day of the Fight”, especially in certain elements which find significant revisitation in Kubrick’s second feature “Killer’s Kiss”. It is also quite obvious, that of his initial trio of short films, including the 1951 RKO Pathé Screenliner short subject “Flying Padre” and the 1953 short documentary “The Seafarers”, “Day of the Fight” is by far the most interesting, acting less as a strictly informational documentary than as a psychologically ingrained docudrama, attempting to elicit a particularly intimate point of view within the larger- more familiar -framework of following a fighter’s training for his match; eschewing the usual intensity of physical seasoning by concentrating on the more meditative- almost spiritual -end of a fighter’s preparatory process: the agonizing waiting game.
Kubrick emphasizes the specificity of the film’s perspective by skimming over the broader arena of the boxing world in a rapid opening sequence which (in a voiceover narration written by Robert Rein and spoken by newscaster Douglas Edwards that contains more than a hint of the colorfully hyperbole as moralizing observation which later became standard practice in Ed Wood films) touches on the world of prizefighting from a spectator and fighter’s point of view, though quickly focusing on the latter, and then becoming specific to the perspective of Walter Cartier to the point that the film ungenerously excludes any consideration that his opponent, Bobby James, might be experiencing similar gnawing feelings of anticipatory anxieties, thus Kubrick mentally isolates his subject (despite the close proximity of sincere moral support from both his eerily identical twin brother Vincent and Walter’s dog, the latter focused on with lingering cuteness attempting a heartfelt sentimentality at odds with the brooding- almost noirish -nature in which Kubrick expresses his story, and a quality at this formative stage of his career already seems alien to his emerging artistic sensibility) from a broader fraternity of like-minded modern-day gladiators, into a Sisyphean figure condemned to anguish over the absurdist task of perpetually seeking to win matches which will elevate his professional career standing while each match brings a harrowing repetition of the agonizing waiting process through which he must suffer. (Is it any wonder that during a scene of pre-bout communion, Kubrick attaches a distorted Dutch tilt to a shot of a witnessing statue of the Madonna and Christ, as if to italicize the idea of Cartier, by way of a martyrdom that sates the appetites of the boxing fanatics, enters a consecrated state of sanctity?)
The film’s length opening expository section, cheaply philosophizing about the world of boxing, betrays the impatient excitement of the first-time film maker, ambitiously attempting to cover far too widespread a range of concerns, by raising far too many points than his film is capable of adequately addressing; asking interesting questions which are then dismissed, or worse yet, contradicted by explanations undermining the script’s initial assertions: Edwards’ narration informs us that the reason men drop their livelihoods to enter the ring is economic yet immediately details the depressingly minute numbers of men who actually make a living salary from the profession. In an earlier series of observations, the attractive nature of the sport to the fan (rather openly designated as “fanatics” as if the matches feed a primal bloodlust) by “hammering each other with upholstered fists” to satisfy “the primitive, vicarious, visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another” in an arena “where matched pairs of men will get up on a canvas covered platform and commit legal assault and lawful battery” is a subject which merits intense exploration, yet once the unbridled violent psychopathy inherent in the sport of boxing is delineated, the subject is abruptly abandoned as if the director is assuming the awarding of brownie points merely for the acknowledgement of the possibility of a more profound exploration that his film is willing to fulfill. Clearly with the rich dichotomy between the solemnity with which Cartier is shown to approach his task (remembering that Kubrick deliberately chooses to narrow the film’s attention to the quietude inherent in a relentless waiting game rather than the more kinetic atmosphere of physical preparation) and the unreasoned ferocity which rules the boxing audience’s behavior, there appears to be an initially richer vein of thematic ambition intended to be mined, though in conceding to the limitations of both format and resources, Kubrick’s skill with.the necessary discipline of conceptual blue penciling is not yet matured. The opening salvo (approximately the first four minutes) of the film seems constructed of mostly stock footage, and is briskly edited with the staccato rhythms associated with newsreels, but when the film shifts from a general overview of boxing to the story of Walter Cartier, the film immediately changes visual and editing styles and transmogrifies from informational document to sedate, faux arty docudrama. Kubrick’s attempts to capture the artistry of the still frame into that of the motion picture are waylaid by a lack of consideration that the aesthetics of each art form differs. Yet there is a psychological inquisitiveness about the subject which extends its intentions beyond the mere recording of the background of a sports event into a thumbnail portrait with literary pretensions. It is here where the seeds of the young filmmaker’s career long thematic interests begin to find first legitimate expression. In “Day of the Fight”, Kubrick is less interested in the process of the physical training (thus the rather perfunctory overview characterizing the preparatory portion of the film) than in the psychological, in the tensions between thought and action- there is no real interest in the physical toll of the profession -and in a bold move for a first-time film maker, Kubrick subverts the visceral excitement of his subject into an almost placid waiting game-it’s certainly the most serene boxing film you’re likely to see. It is the anticipation of action which becomes the subject at hand. Kubrick cannily undercuts the anticipation of his audience from the traditions of boxing films with their hyperbolic drive toward violent climax; the finishing punch actually comes so quickly it virtually escapes notice. The film ends without an exultant fanfare, but only the realization that the end is but another beginning, a finale which might suggest existential leanings but actually addresses earlier notations concerning the numbers game in boxing; that only one out of a hundred aspirants may make a living in the profession, and thus admitting the field of prolonged competitive competition as a general exercise in futility.
This is a subject which reoccurs in different forms throughout Kubrick’s career, though as his became less intimate with the psychological particulars of his characters in favor of matters of distancing formalism. There are few if any characters in Kubrick’s later films who make psychological sense; a fault disguised by the hokum of visually expressed ambiguity as long as his scenarios are removed from a greater interaction with “normal” socialization. Kubrick’s films have the inescapable feel of unfolding within a bell jar, alterations of representative social situations in miniature whose rules of behavior exist only within the narrow confines of his character’s isolation. (Even “Full Metal Jacket” gives the feeling of a chamber piece in the midst of an event of grandiose design. The ultimate failure of that particular film- among many -is that particular sense of isolation which diminishes the film into a not particularly fresh anti-war- it is instead dishearteningly transparent in the limitations of its lack of emboldened ideological conception -instead of having the artistic courage display an intuitive intelligence which might impart ideas specific to the moral quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Kubrick’s platoon could be dogfaces in any war, even one of his own invention. Indeed, his view of Vietnam is simply yet another sterile Kubickian exercise on Man’s inhuman nature than an artistic expression specific to the nature of that particular conflict.)
If there is a major flaw in “Day of the Fight” it is that is succumbs to the coldness of Kubrick’s overall design; there is a feeling of a lack of spontaneity; peculiar in what is passed as a non-fiction piece. In the end, Walter Cartier is merely the first of a succession of men-as-chess-pieces in which his full humanity is subsumed by the director’s need for his appropriate visual effect. Still, there are some interesting touches, exhibiting Kubrick’s experience as a skilled photo journalist in capturing a dramatic moment: a shot of Cartier as seen through the legs of his opponent’s stool in the ring, the deliberate tightness of framing in the pre-bout waiting room, suggesting the previously mentioned claustrophobic atmosphere (including one powerful shot of Walter’s bandaged hand in the foreground flexing in the foreground, his brother sitting in the distance, the hand seeming to be reaching for salvation) and a quiet but moving moment of Walter studying his face in the mirror in wonderment as to what his damaged face might resemble the next day; though one wonders whether or not each of these are not deliberately staged as a calculated dramatic directorial effects rather than recorded by a fortunate and observant photographic eye, (the peculiar shot of Cartier and James exchanging punches from ground level is a particularly artificial moment unless one entertains the possibility of Kubrick laying on his back in the middle of the ring during the fight!) not an inconsequential question as it goes straight to the heart of the director’s integrity insofar as his willingness to eclipse reality to fit his own variant vision of that reality. It is not insignificant that despite his obsessive career-long desire to film non-fictional subjects, most importantly Napoleon, all but his earliest films were sourced from published novels and one short story. This exploiting of the psychodramatic tools of literature into an embellished documentary form is what separates “Day of the Fight” from Kubrick’s two other short subjects; blurring the dividing barrier between truth and an interpretive suggestion of that truth (interestingly, the scripting, Kubrick’s despairing tone and the scoring all reveal the heavy influence of film noir). Hints of the later, more mature director’s footprints are in stark evidence.
WARNING: The following review contains plot revealing spoilers, and so it is advised that you first watch the film (available to view at: ) before proceeding further. It is a mere twenty three minutes in length and well worth the journey.
The Irish love their ghosts and that affection for the mysteriously spectral is in evidence in Hilton Edwards’ slight but satisfying short film “Return to Glennascaul”, sometimes known as “Orson Welles’ Ghost Story” referring to the actor/director who was filming “Othello” on the Emerald Isle and agreed to appear in and act as the titular host and narrator of the film’s flashback framing device. Its an old-fashioned tale of the supernatural in the very best sense of the term- not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination -unfolding with a gentility of a storied recollection in front of a wintery fireplace armed with a warm mug of cocoa. The Welles connection is a comfortable fit, as the story is more than slightly reminiscent of Lucille Fletcher’s “The Hitch Hiker” which made its radio premiere on the Orson Welles Show in 1941, a play in which he would perform in three additional broadcasts.
The story is structured as a haunted remembrance, the film itself begins rather ostentatiously with an extended introduction of Orson Welles which not only is a blatant commercial for his film production of “Othello”, but suspiciously bears the visual signatures of Welles the director whose influence (if not outright commandeering of the camera) is readily apparent: seldom, if ever, has there been so disproportionate an introduction to a film’s most minor participant, fully befitting an exercise in ego unneeded in such a modestly told tale, especially when the remainder of the film’s greatest asset is its elegant but innocent simplicity: a rather lovely throwback to a time when it was possible to be moved by supernatural elements without the shameless manipulation of THX enhanced volume levels and rapid shock cuts which has become de rigueur to elicit a cattle prod reaction from the audience: before the fantastique became an endurance test rather than a natural outlet for cathartic emotional response.
The story properly begins with Welles driving back to Dublin after an day of studio shooting, on the way encountering a stranded motorist at a crossroads, Sean Merriman (Michael Laurence), who the director convinces to accept a ride, during which Merriman relates an incident at the same crossroads a month before, in which he similarly offers a ride to two women, a Mrs. Campbell (Shelah Richards) and her grown daughter Lucy (Helena Hughes). Driving the pair to their home at Glennascaul House, Merriman reluctantly accepts the mother’s offer of “a cup of tea or something stronger”, charmed by the quiet Lucy’s shy invitation. Though the house is finely appointed though unremarkable, distinct clues hinting at paranormal circumstances are subtly engaged (the very name Glennascaul means “Glen of the Shadows” in Irish): the style of the women’s clothing appears out of character with the time period (it is a contemporary tale, occurring in the same time frame of the film’s production), Merriman’s casual compliment of his whiskey, questioning its vintage as “pre-War”, is met by Mrs. Cooper with barely concealed confusion as if she doesn’t fathom the reference, and there strangely coincidental information revealed concerning both a Chinese tapestry given by “an old friend” who “lived in the East” and an engraved cigarette case (from a ‘Lucy’) Sean has inherited from his late uncle, who he recollects “went to China- in fact he died there.” These and other key references should dispel any doubts as to a meaningful connection between the three characters, even to the most densely unskilled solvers of puzzles.
However, it is upon leaving the premises and Merriman’s discovery that he has left the cigarette case at Glennascaul, that the sprinkled clues key to the supernatural elements of the story are firmly cemented; the film, up to this point- relating a quaint but not extraordinary meeting of companionable strangers, except for the warning to Welles that the recollection might appear unbelievable -has been founded in the temporal, containing no overt evidence that the proceedings were alien to the material world. However, upon an immediate return to the house, Merriman discovers the gates suddenly closed and rusted, the driveway filled with brush and debris, and the house itself a seemingly hollow, darkened shell of its previously pristine condition. Only with a visit to the posted realty agent do the actual facts surrounding the house’s “occupants” begin to surface, and with a subsequent visit to the interior of the dilapidated manse, reality is further shrouded by mystery as Merriman finds only his cigarette case on the fireplace mantle and his own footprints on the thickly dusty floorboards.
Ghost stories are certainly nothing new, but “Return to Glennascaul” conjures to the forefront a central issue present in the realm of the otherworldly, and that is: by what rules are the film makers playing? What are the definitions of the boundaries with the introduction of the immaterial world into the normal? Of all of the film genres, horror (or, in this case, a film with elements of the horror film) depends on the consistency of the conditions it sets up in its own realm combining the real and the supernal; in other words, the story must live by the rules it itself sets into motion. While there may be little novelty in the manifestation of ghosts in a story for which their existence is the basis of the film, just what are the specific parameters of that earthly manifestation? In “Return to Glennascaul”, their appearance is clearly not limited to the confines of their home, as demonstrated by their initial appearance at the highway crossroads, and the question also arises about the house itself. How is that the Campbell women are able to cast the illusion of a resuscitated home to an unsuspecting Merriman: is the house itself imbued with a mysterious regenerative power, or was the entire episode an elaborate hallucination on the part of Merriman? In any case, might we assume the obvious connective lineage between Merriman and Lucy’s past inamorto is the reason he was “chosen” for contact by the Campbells? Clearly there is no coincidence involved, but a deliberate design in mind by the immaterial powers-that-be; and this being the case, does this connection ultimately extend to encounter Welles himself?
Cannily, the film attempts no rationalization of the events, a decision which serves the story well, for within the arena of the fantastique it may be plausible to offer explanations to all manner of manifestations, phenomena and monstrosities which inhabit the films, especially those with origins steeped in superstition, folklore or previously defined mythos, but to travel a torturous path of overtly distracting explanations into undefinable realms- the nature of death and conditions (if any) after -might disrupt the poetically ethereal fabric with which the film is constructed and makes such supernal constructs credible. Ironically, in the film’s seemingly elemental but genuinely complex construction, the spiritual aspects of the film feed on the same requirements as would a film of more religiously grounded spirituality: a need to tap into the viewer’s faith.
If the film is ultimately dependent on any one element for its sustained level of believability (the only damaging feature of the film is the unfortunate harp heavy score by Hans Gunther Stumpf which insists on telegraphing every supernatural element), it is in the sincerity of the skillfully underplayed commitment of the performances; this production meant as a showcase for the talents of the company at the Gate Theatre in Dublin by its co-founder Hilton Edwards (who impresses here in both directorial and screenwriting capacities), the film presents devastatingly nuanced performances by Michael Laurence, Shelah Richards and Helena Hughes, so intricately wrought that Welles suffers by comparison, often coming across a self-satisfied ham, distracted by his own sense of sarcastic mirth rather than comfortably settling into the film’s more contemplative rhythm.
On this note, the film does end on a note of unexpected whimsy, an entirely eleventh hour mood shift that is not only cannily appropriate but reignites an earlier reference by Welles in which he describes the film as “a story story, straight from the haunted land of Ireland, haunted I say because there’s no place in the world so crowded with the raw material of tall tales; that’s what this is- a tall tale”, a notation put to the test with the film’s sudden final developments: that Merriman himself may be of a spectral nature, a possibility by the mirroring of Mrs. Campbell’s earlier invitation as, upon arriving at his destination, the Irishman offers Welles “a cup of tea or something stronger”, leading to a conclusion with two women rebuked from obtaining a ride from the panicked Welles, and a concluding, witty final line which not only offers the possibility that the entire affair might be best approached with a wink, but a reminder that in the nocturnal atmosphere of the related “tall tale”, the preoccupation with one’s own fears of unknown mysteries born of the dark might well yield to a fruitful enjoyment to be found in a bit o’ old-fashioned Irish blarney.
The title says it all. This unlikely meeting of two anthropomorphized cinema icons is one of the great jests of the late 1960’s American Cinema, a period not known for its ebullient humor, but instead a period of grimly cynical anti-establishment disenchantment, paranoiac cultural dislocation, gritty decay of traditional moral structures. and the rise of hollow yet profoundly self-important faux artistry. Within that humorless landscape where bitter sarcasm began its apparently permanent substitution for genuine movie wit, Marv Newland’s flaky no-budget, ninety second film is a bracing tonic of culturally juxtpositional absurdity which bridges the innocence of Disneyesque sentimentality with the kaiju-based nihilism of Toho’s answer to the atomic nightmare.
The transition from Production Code-controlled studio Hollywood of veteran filmmaker to a film schooled breed of film mavericks working in an atmosphere where the director supplanted the producer as the traditional creative power control marked a division between the enforced assumption of innocence triumphant and the cynical abandonment of the concept of innocence. It is useful to look at both of the players in the piece- each a figment of cinema fantasy, though strikingly different in their seeds of cultural origins -and note how the very antithetical backgrounds which define the public conception of each character makes the comic dichotomy of the film possible.
Despite its genesis in Felix Salter’s 1926 novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods, the character of Bambi is solely identified by the general public as a product of Walt Disney, and with the exception of the infamously traumatic death of the mother deer, the story and characters have been generally homogenized to accommodate the simplistic tastes of juvenilia (in contrast, the novel is written for adults), thus the intercession of traditional Disney ‘sidekick’ characters (Flower and Thumper) who provide what is perceived as a necessary amount of comic hijinks to offset the troubling necessity of advancing the plot saddled with a straightforward and rather dull main character. (Only a possession of preproduction creative insecurity can explain the continuously elevating status of secondary comic roles used to outshine, and often eclipse, the main characters- often to disastrously degrading effect.)
Godzilla, first introduced in Ishiro Honda’s 1955 “Gojira” is a fusion of several genres, including film noir, and finding more direct influence from the success of Eugène Lourié’s 1953 “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” (itself inspired by the later retitled Ray Bradbury short story “The Foghorn”), creating a hybrid of the noir aesthetic and the elements of the fantastique in what would come to be known as kaiju cinema, to disguise a greater political message condemning the development of Atomic weapons (and in effect sending a particularly anti-American message, deleted in the U.S. domestically altered version), firmly grounding the fantasy elements, cribbed from the American film, in a grim social context. This is in direct conflict with the homogenization of the popular conception of Bambi, which despite the incidents of maternal loss and a climactic raging forest fire (the sober roots of environmentalism are certainly present in the Salter original), the intentions of Disney is not to find a novel means of sociopolitical editorializing under the guise of directly commercial entertainment, but to lessen the intensity of the novel’s more grimly “provocative” child unfriendly material: in essence, taking the “wild” out of wildlife.
Thus in the fateful confluence of a representative of purified Hollywood values and one of a world cinema expressing a more realism-based thematic negativism (as much as a radioactive giant reptile can be regarded as reality based), there is bound to exist a fundamental disharmony which will resulting in a violent collision of temperament, the figure representing the triumph of the anarchic eradicating the very existence of the pretense of innocence. (Even the soundtrack of the film is reflective of this dichotomy, using both Rossini’s Ranz des Vaches from “William Tell”- reminiscent of Carl Stalling’s signature quotations of classical music -and The Beatles, with the final chord of “A Day in the Life” altered as a post-modern echo of Dies Irae.)
In the end, “Bambi Meets Godzilla” is both a bracing statement on an American film industry in flux, emerging from creatively stunted period of counterfeit naivete masquerading as extropianism, while celebrating the individual artist emerging from the shadows of the puppeteering manipulations of the fading studio moguls. Its at once a bit of counterculture sass against an industry fearing the natural and healthy artistic chaos that emerges with violently shifting cultural change and one giant step forward, marking an eruption of both the idea of iconoclastic creative design (Newland’s “extensive” personal credits are a testament to this, and an additional bit of sharp whimsy, berating unmerited creative credentials and the continuous desperate struggle for top-billed celebrity.) and of a truly unique language that would briefly define the independently spirited American cinema.
Poe in the Cinema: “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1953)
Notoriously unlucky in the myriad of film translations of his work, Edgar Allan Poe finds an unlikely ally with the techniques of a minimalist animation style from U.P.A. Studios, a happy meeting of the literary and the graphic arts to produce one of the finest cinematic interpretations of the author.
The U.P.A. style, which rejects the attempts at mimicking realism, championed by the Disney studio, allows for the advancement of a film to find a uniquely individual visual voice, produced with a stylized design specific to subject of the film. Employing a technique which came to be known as “limited” animation, eschewing the need for the quantity of individual painted cels necessary to recreate the fluidity of live action, the animators at U.P.A. were able to ingeniously use the mixture of vivid narration (void of the visuals, the soundtrack alone would make for satisfying radio drama) and a suggestive, rather than overt, visual transitioning, resulting in a greater abstraction of reality and therefore a more faithful translation of the narrative through the eyes (literally) of a madman: a creative approach, for once, refreshingly commensurate with the needs of the story rather than formatting the story to fit the techniques of the filmmaker.
The brevity of Poe’s story (a mere three or four pages, depending on type size) suggests a challenge to film translation, especially where the celebrity of the author and his more famous works (of which this is certainly one) generally encourage a filmed production to be stretched to feature length, often retaining only meager tracings of the original literary compositions. Wisely, this brief tale has found filmization with an equally concise format in which there is no attempt to flesh out the story unnecessarily, but actually trimming the text even further to it’s most skeletal foundation, eliminating a great deal of prose while remaining subservient to evocative power of Poe’s language. What remains of the original text- mainly translated in narration, with a few incidental bits of dialogue invented for the police in the concluding moments -retains a respectful fidelity to the text with only microscopic alterations, beginning with the one misstep the short film makes and that is in the introductory statement which overtly states the story is told by a madman, disregarding the intensely stubborn pathological denial in the original opening line of the story, which from the opening moment draws a definition of the narrator’s unbalanced psychology. Interestingly, this momentary error in editorial judgment is later effectively countered by moving the original opening statement to the finale, where the film is sensibly revealed to be a remembrance from prison, so as to dramatically justify the first-person perspective in which the film is unveiled, not only consistent with Poe’s narrative, but in the touchstone first-person P.O.V. in which the film is told, putting the audience behind the morally disassociative gaze of a killer: a precursor to the antipathetic perspective of countless serial murderers in giallo films in Italy and subsequent slasher films worldwide, though in this film, the psychopathic perspective isn’t intended as a mechanism of sympathy but of horror.
The story is an almost anecdotal recounting of psychotic obsession run unchecked into an act of homicide colored by an absurdly excessive meticulousness that mirrors the paranoia- significantly, consciously unrecognized by the protagonist -which will ultimately unravel his actions, manifesting as the accusing beating of his victim’s heart, an aural hallcination which the film quite wisely suggests is the rhythm of his own beat pounding in his ears that becomes the key to his undoing; a story element that predates a similar panicked psychological degeneration in the unfinished Kafka short story “Der Bau”. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” posits a claim to sanity, unaffected by either the his increased sense of hypersensitivity (a thematic connection to Poe’s prior “The Fall of the House of Usher”) or his nervousness (despite his contradictory claims of a calm demeanor), an unhinged personality whose claim for love of “the old man” does not intrude from killing him and disassembling his body in preparation to be buried under the floorboards. The paring of all extraneous fat from the story- a task of judiciously selective editing -considering it is one of Poe’s most sparsely constructed works, the economy with which the situation is realized, forcing a preeminence of the isolated delusional perspective of a mind diseased with an inability to differentiate reality from his illusionary mutation of normalcy. The text, though potent, is neither obscured by nor eclipses its visual accompaniment. There is a true artistic symbiosis at work, in which each medium’s contribution flows in harmonious cohesion with the other: the intelligently refinement of the screen adaptation by (more often than not, harmonious excision can prove a greater burden than embellishment- just see any Shakespeare adaptation) Bill Scott and Fred Gable is complimented by the surreal graphic renderings of Paul Julian, whose resumé in background design serves him well by using the story’s physical location as a corporeal manifestation of the protagonist’s increasing dissolution with rational thought; the setting becomes as much an instrument of abstract psychosomatic influence as that of the unfortunate Roderick Usher.
To access the animation style of the film, devoid of it’s adaptive intentions, reveals a far cruder methodology than the majority of the studios of the day; when, in fact, the techniques involved in the film speak more from creative inspiration that a poverty of resources. (U.P.A. limited animation techniques were later bastardized for widespread use by Hanna-Barbera and others in television animation, strictly as a measure of cost cutting and speed of production, rather than as a alternative method of artistic expression.) When viewed, it is apparent that there is relatively little actual animation in the traditional sense, even taking into consideration the jerky movement to which is attributed to the limited animation techniques in the aforementioned television output. Movement is suggested more by camera movement- pans and zooms -and shifting shafts of light on the rendered backdrops than on the individual characters in the story, who exist primarily as illusionary constructs rather than as corporeal figures based in a graphically represented reality. The very fabric of the surroundings appears to snake about the characters, conjuring an atmosphere in which the darkness continually creeps upon and intrudes on the thoughts of the narrator. It is a both a literal and metaphorical extension of the irrational mind at war with itself. That the narrator is never seen, except in one shot as an elongated shadow- a premonition of menace -since, as previously stated, the film strictly employs a protagonist point-of-view, the method in which the old man and the police are visually represented reveals a genuine design intelligence behind the production. The old man is the only human form clearly rendered, with the focal emphasis on his offending filmy eye- the object of the narrator’s obsessive impulses -which creates an additional layer of irony when it is this character who is callously dismembered and torn from his natural physical form. Through the killer’s perspective, the old man is the only recognizable human being, yet he reduces him to a loose assemblage of tissue. The police, on the other hand, are represented as menacing shadowy forms- clearly a manifestation of the killer’s unspken guilt -who, interestingly, are detailed only by their eyes, which gaze upon the protagonist in unblinking, accusatory glares. The discordant personality of the narrator is expertly realized by the visualization of a shadowy, impressionistic landscape which often suggests a theatrical artificiality that compounds the killer’s descent into a state in which his perceptions are increasingly at odds with reality: his professed love for a victim who is dispatched with indescribable inhumanity, police investigators castigated as “villains” while assuring himself of his own sanity, and finally, the uncontrolled beating of his own heart- inconsistent with his own self-assured calm -in which his own physical being betrays the moral dislocation of his demented psyche, accusing his conscious mind of the horrors it has committed and continues to rationalize.
Though “The Tell-Tale Heart” is an uncommonly accomplished animated film, a triumph of the creative team at U.P.A. at the height of their artistic ambitions, no mention of the film is complete without consideration of the invaluable contribution of James Mason in his capacity as the narrator/representative protagonist; his sinuous, silky vocal tones engaging the viewer in act of sensorial enticement: an aural seduction that welcomes the audience closer to the interior of a damaged mind. Mason’s signature air of cosmopolitan erudition, an almost smugly- though wittily -content sophistication, is a musical invitation into the mouth of madness.