Monday, March 16, 2015

Like a Hollowed-Out Tombstone

I feel like I'd better confess to you that the thought of reading literature aimed at children now, today, does not especially appeal to me unless it falls under the umbrella formed by the following two non-negotiable parameters: it's old, and it's British. "Old" is relative, I suppose, but for example as some of you know I recently read Watership Down by Richard Adams. British? Without question. Old? Over forty years at the time I read it. I'd say I was on safe ground with that one. "But why do you require these very specific exceptions?" I hear you asking. Hey listen, shut up. For the time being, I'd say this attitude is just open-minded enough to get YA loons off my back, and one writer it does allow within my purview is Robert Westall, a name I believe I remember vaguely from my far-ago days as a library page. Both British and dead, which is pretty old, Westall wrote a lot of fiction for children, most of which, from what I've gathered, revolved around either ghosts or World War II, which meets two other criteria I didn't even know I required. Recently I ordered three of his children's books (for those interested, they are The Scarecrows, The Machine Gunners, and Blitzcat. Yes, Blitzcat) because frankly I'm curious. That curiosity was stoked, ironically enough, by the one book of fiction for adults that Westall wrote, a collection of horror stories called Antique Dust.

First published in 1989 and recently reprinted by Valancourt Books, Antique Dust is dedicated to M.R. James, the post-Poe horror writer whose influence on British horror fiction has been almost as great as H.P. Lovecraft's has been in America. But Westall's stories aren't simply a collection of Jamesian retreads, though his presence is certainly felt. In fact, Antique Dust is something that as far as I can recall is unique in horror fiction. Or actually...okay, before I think myself in circles, what it is, is a collection of stories that all feature Geoff Ashden, an antique dealer in what my cursory research indicates is a fictional collection of towns, but which certain clues (such as "Muncaster") would seem to locate them in the North. Anyway, Ashden is in every story; sometimes he's a narrator with some fringe connection to the action, sometimes he's central to it, sometimes he's simply relating something he heard. As a structure, it's not unlike a series of short detective stories, or, more to the point, those stories about paranormal investigators by writers like Algernon Blackwood and W.H. Hodgson.

However, the resulting book is not so much a collection of tales of ghostly mystery solved by a heroic eccentric, but rather Antique Dust is a mix of horror and domestic drama. It's a very odd thing, really. In the first story, "The Devil and Clocky Watson," Ashden finds what appears to be a hugely valuable clock going for a song in a nearby antiques shop. The clock is covered with obscene designs and, Ashden learns, both from the seller and Ashden's own wife, that the thing is likely cursed. Unable to bring it home, due to his wife's unambiguous ultimatums, and certain to never be able to sell it for a profit, he instead vengefully gives it to Clocky Watson, an immoral dealer who specializes in clocks. Things go badly for Watson after that, but what's important to the book as a whole is that Ashden is depicted as someone who is not in possession of the purest of hearts, and the fact that he is married. Married to whom? Well, as you read the next story, "The Doll," which features a sinister ambulatory doll and which occasionally, though briefly and somewhat incidentally, recalls the Zuni Fetish Doll segment of Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror, you might assume Ashden married Ursula, the stunning doll expert with whom he shares that story's danger. "The Doll" takes place before "The Devil and Clocky Watson," and the introduction of Ursula would seem to solve the mystery of why Westall ordered the stories in this way, but no. Ashden meets his wife in another story entirely -- and I actually feel like I should say which one -- and their relationship forms an almost novelistic undercurrent to the remainder of the collection.

Because it's not a great one. The relationship, I mean. In "Portland Bill," one of the best stories in Antique Dust, Ashden falls under the spell of supernatural horror precisely because his wife's controlling, condescending ways have driven his heart, if not the rest of him (although who knows), to wander. This isn't merely a plot detail, but is in fact the story's resolution. Said resolution being both interesting for being what it is and a bit thin on excitement, coming as it does in the form of exposition, a problem that tends to run thick in the supernatural mystery subgenre. "The Doll" has that problem, as does "The Devil and Clocky Watson," to some degree, as well as "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux," which at least incorporates the "what happened was this" aspect somewhat more elegantly, and which, in any case, is one of the creepiest stories in the book. It's all about a sinister church and an eerie face that appears in photographs -- good stuff, although it does also briefly feature an example of Westall's very occasionally awkward phrasing. The story also features schoolchildren, and at one point Ashden is developing a photograph taken during a field trip to the disturbing church. He sees the face in the picture and thinks:

It wasn't my face, and it certainly wasn't Dorinda's. Far too ugly. And as it had a bald head, it certainly wasn't one of the children's.

This implies that not only is Ashden bald, but the lovely Dorinda Molyneaux is, as well. Which she isn't, otherwise we'd have been told that. Elsewhere, Westall writes "my bowels moved with lust for her," which is an alarming place to feel such a thing. Maybe writing so much for kids messed with his head when it came to this sort of thing.

My two favorite stories in the book are "The Woolworth Spectacles" and "The Ugly House," this last one coming close to being a novella at just under fifty pages. Both feature Ashden almost not at all, save a few "I heard this story" introductory remarks. In these cases, Antique Dust comes to resemble what I thought it was going to be in the first place, a sort of Amicus Productions horror anthology in book form (it would by no means be first such book), and I wonder if it means anything regarding the quality of these two that they go off-book in this way. The question of who's safe and who isn't certainly means more when the cast of characters are self-contained. Both stories are a bit nastier than what had come before -- these two bookend "Portland Bill," and together these are the last three stories, and I think comprise by far the strongest section of Antique Dust. "The Ugly House" strikes me as the most similar to M.R. James because it bears hints of James's classic "Casting the Runes," but just hints, just enough to complete the nod without trying to bask in reflected glory. I felt the most unnerved by this one, probably because even more than the Ashden stories there's something Earthly about it, even though the supernatural is all through it (the same goes for "The Woolworth Spectacles," about a shy young woman being forced by dark forces into a perverse version of "adulthood"; the story is nasty enough to be almost mean).

All of this brings me to a final point of interest with this book, one that stems from a natural question: doesn't Ashden find it surprising that A) the supernatural is evidently real, and B) that he keeps coming face to face with it? Well, the answer to B) is probably "Yes, a bit," but A) is probably a "No." Encountering the supernatural is not considered desirable by the characters in Antique Dust, but as you go along in the book you get the sense that they do accept it as the norm -- even "The Dumbledore," a non-supernatural story, for a while gives the impression that it could go either way on that count, and Ashden is prepared for anything. All of this is made explicit late in the book, a move which by that time merely confirmed my sense of things. But it's interesting, and it's interesting that Antique Dust isn't "about" that. It just is. It makes the book a little bit comfortable, if you get my meaning -- the body count in the stories is not very high, you see. Although there are still some moments that might make you wince, and one story ends with an implication so awful, if I'm reading it correctly, that I'm still wrestling with it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Real Mess of Things

Would there be a French New Wave without Joseph H. Lewis? Film noir was such a heavy influence in the early stages of that movement, and one crime subgenre, the one that deals with doomed criminal lovers on the road, in particular that it's difficult to imagine things spooling out quite the same without Gun Crazy, Lewis's indispensable noir from 1950. It features John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a man and a woman who had to meet each other so that, essentially, they could die and go to Hell. Before Gun Crazy there was of course Detour, Edgar Ulmer's ode to rotten luck which is the stumbling, drunken haymaker version of the same idea, but before Detour was "Gun Crazy," the 1940 short story by Mackinlay Kantor on which Lewis's Gun Crazy was based. So would there be a French New Wave without Mackinklay Kantor? Chew on that one for a while, why don't you.

Of course, a big difference between Detour and Gun Crazy is the moral question. It's certainly there in Detour, but Tom Neal's Al is almost beaten by the gods into making his terrible choices, whereas Annie and Bart in Gun Crazy face a clearly marked fork in the road, and they take the one they take. Of course, it was then in the best interest of the French filmmakers -- who, let's be honest, appreciated this sort of thing more than the Americans of the day did -- to take all this and turn it inside out. Godard's take on this subgenre, Breathless from 1960, therefore, pretty much dispenses with the moral question entirely, at least in any way that is immediately recognizable as morality. The idea there is more to distill the genre to its essence. Breathless is playfully grim. Grimly playful, on the other hand, is Francois Truffaut's second film Shoot the Piano Player, also from 1960 (Truffaut also wrote the original treatment for Breathless with Claude Chabrol), ending as it does in pure American noir form, yet also including the much-referenced moment when one untrustworthy character swears on his mother's life, and Truffaut cuts to a quick shot of said mother keeling over dead.

Eventually, things settled down with the French and the crime genre. This might in part have to do with the influence Jean-Pierre Melville had on the New Wave, and in my experience, which is not complete but also not insignificant, Melville had a Hitchcockian fascination with the people and the technique, or the fact that Chabrol himself, my favorite New Wave director, became so married to his version of the crime film, a version that could encompass something as stripped down and unironic as Le Boucher as well the utter sleazy madness of La Rupture, that the need to forever be knowing about it became boring. Truffaut would again take genre and wink at it uncontrollably, with 1972'a Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me, and to my mind that's his worst film (it should be noted that there's a handful I still haven't seen). But otherwise, or rather, not even "otherwise," because of this, as well as the fact that his spreading out of the crime films among a variety of other, often more gentle works, Truffaut is to me the most interesting crime filmmaker of the French New Wave. Not my favorite, that's Chabrol, but the most interesting, and in his leaving of and then return to it, which happened more than once, perhaps the most haunted by it.

Look at Jules and Jim. Not a crime film, certainly, but it sure as hell ends like one -- specifically Angel Face. A new viewer could not watch the first half of Jules and Jim and then be able to predict the last half hour; the tonal madness of that film is the kind of experimentation that invigorates me, more so than the kind on display in Breathless. Anyhow, you might notice how that ending lays the groundwork for Truffaut's post-Shoot the Piano Player crime films. This is of course "crime film" in the "not necessarily about bank robbers and such" variety at which Chabrol excelled, the James M. Cain/Cornell Woolrich sort, and he began immediately after Jules and Jim, in 1964 with The Soft Skin, which has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion. Ah, so, the point.

Of course, and please bear with me here, I'm getting to it, I promise, what Gun Crazy is, is Kantor's "Gun Crazy" and Detour merged into one thing. I'd like to say that Cornell Woolrich's 1947 novel Waltz into Darkness was an evolutionary step along that path, but I simply haven't read it yet, but Mississippi Mermaid, Truffaut's 1969 adaptation of that novel, certainly suggests it might well be, depending on how faithful Truffaut was (somebody out there reading this can probably fill in this gap for me, but my gut tells me that if anyone is going to rival Kantor and/or Joseph H. Lewis in my exaggerating-to-make-a-point about the French New Wave from earlier, it's Woolrich), the thumbnail of Mississippi Mermaid being, roughly, Breathless played straight. The upshot of all of this is that if you're a man and you find yourself in this kind of story, that is, a crime story, than you tend to be one of two things: gun crazy or girl crazy (or occasionally both, obviously). In Mississippi Mermaid, Jean-Paul Belmondo's rich factory owner is so girl crazy that eventually he picks up a gun. Meanwhile, circling back, in The Soft Skin Pierre (Jean Desailly), as a famous, married literary critic and expert on Balzac, becomes so girl crazy that, well...

There are some -- perhaps, I suppose, many -- who would balk at the notion that The Soft Skin is a crime film. I, however, am of the opinion that genre definitions should be expanded, and anyway I don't think such an expansion would have to be very extreme to cover this film. This is because the way the morality is dealt with, and the stark way it's presentation, is the same as it would be in a film noir. While travelling to give a lecture on Balzac, Pierre, a married man, meets and falls in love with a stewardess. One of the many brilliant things about this film is how Truffaut and his co-writer Jean-Louis Richard, don't tell us if Pierre was routinely unfaithful to his wife, or had ever been even once. All we know is that when he meets Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), he's not conflicted by the affair he immediately pursues with her. Neither is Nicole, for that matter. Much of the film consists of the two of them arranging meetings, orchestrated around his lecture tour, but it's not simply mercenary sex between them. Pierre, maybe shockingly, actually loves Nicole. At one point, believing he's missed her at the airport, he writes a note in which he confesses this love, but then when Nicole shows up he hides it from her, embarrassed to reveal his feelings in person. Though he's betraying his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti), not to mention his young daughter, Pierre at least doesn't appear to be a sleaze.

But pretty clearly, The Soft Skin is never going to be a romance that challenges society's views on love and romance, which even Jules and Jim, as chilling as that film eventually becomes, by and large is (but it's too interesting and smart to be just that, of course). Both shot in black and white by Raoul Coutard, Jules and Jim looks soft, feels warm, whereas The Soft Skin looks sharp, and feels cold. And as the film progresses, Pierre is revealed to be more thoughtless, selfish, even cruel. A key sequence involves a botched getaway to Reims, where, again, Pierre is giving a lecture. But his poor planning leaves Nicole stuck in the hotel, or outside watching him socializing with his lecture hosts, where she's approached as though she was a prostitute. By the end of all this, Pierre thinks he's taken care of the problem by stringing along his host (Daniel Ceccaldi) with the promise to give him a ride back to Paris before cruelly abandoning him.

So, by now, Pierre's true self has been revealed to us, if not to him. And ultimately he's punished -- rather alarmingly -- for his sins. In this way, The Soft Skin is a classic crime story, even including the Hays Code rule about not getting away with it. Early on, as I've said, the New Wave took noir and twisted it, turned it upside down, hurled it against a wall. Eventually, Truffaut, at least, returned to the genre's, and his, roots, although it's perhaps inevitable that his adopting of those earlier, less radical techniques, as well as his use of the more artificial elements of melodrama from time to time (though definitely not in The Soft Skin) take on, perhaps deliberately, a bit of a self-conscious air, so that finally you can't really escape the New Wave's idea that the point of cinema is cinema. But in The Soft Skin Truffaut is as stripped down as he ever would be, and his particular view of Romance -- that's the big "R" one, not merely the "two souls in love" sidecar of it -- which is a despairing one (it occurred to me today that in this way, whatever you think of his Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut and Ray Bradbury were a natural pairing) enfolds, of course, movies, and so Film is a despairing romance, and a despairing romance is what noir is. All you need is a girl and a gun, I'm pretty sure someone once said.

The kind of crime film that The Soft Skin is would later be perfected by Truffaut with his penultimate film, 1981's The Woman Next Door. That film feels to me like his masterpiece. It's the ultimate expression of the merciless streak that appears often enough in Truffaut's career to make his work still feel dangerous, and, for all his formal elegance, very viscerally unsettling. Jules and Jim is such a pillar of the canon that I feel like people forget, or take for granted, how terrifyingly bonkers it is relative to most other films. The Soft Skin isn't bonkers. In fact, it makes perfect sense. How we arrive at the ending of the film, as with anything that is fated to happen, can be traced easily back through a very logical set of events that could start in only one place and end in only one place. Pierre was doomed the day he was born.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Heart Has Joined the Thousand for My Friend Stopped Running Today

In his essay included in the booklet that accompanies the new Criterion home video release of Watership Down, Martin Rosen's 1978 animated film adaptation of Richard Adams' classic novel, animator Gerard Jones begins by noting that when the film was given to the censors in England for classification, the British Board of Film Classification gave it a "universal" rating, explaining that while Watership Down "may move children emotionally during the film's duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story was broken." Jones then points out that he's been troubled by the film since he first saw it, at the age of twenty-one.

I do apologize to Mr. Jones for lifting so heavily from his opening paragraph, but as he well knows he's getting at one of the central facts of Watership Down's legacy. In my experience, when someone wants to defend a work of art aimed at children that has been condemned for being too extreme in its violence or dark subject matter, they will point out that this sort of extremity has been aimed at children for centuries, have you ever read the original Grimm's fairy tales? and so on, but often when presented with a work of art that really does push a child's buttons, that really does disturb and frighten them, to the extent in some cases that they actually never shake it, the defender usually, in fairness, won't actually turn hypocrite, but might find themselves genuinely shocked. And I don't think it's an overreaction to be genuinely shocked by Watership Down.

The story, about a small group of rabbits led by Hazel (the voice of John Hurt) who flee their warren when the doomsaying prophecies of Fiver (Richard Briers) go unheeded by the chief rabbit and encounter many terrifying dangers on their way to finding a place where they can build their own warren, is a classic in many ways, not only because it is knowingly and brilliantly archetypal, but also because Adams' original novel (his first, published when he was in his early fifties) from 1972 was so good and such a massive success that it helped shape those archetypes for the modern world. It was also about rabbits, which, speaking for myself, made the young me view it as something wholly unique. No people anywhere! Almost!

I'm speaking of course about the film here, which I loved as a kid and watched it God alone knows how many times -- I didn't read the novel until about a month ago, and until this past weekend hadn't seen the film in over twenty years. I'd long wanted to revisit it, but over the years I've shed most of whatever nostalgic instincts I might once have had; this has had the side effect of making me very distrustful of those things I loved in my youth, or distrustful of my taste, is I guess the more exact way of saying it. Then again, I also think culturally things are worse now than they used to be, a combination of attitudes which if nothing else makes room for more disappointment in one's life. But enough about me. Suspicion of nostalgia aside, like Gerard Jones and pretty much everybody I've ever discussed the movie with, I've always felt haunted by Watership Down. It's not merely that rabbits are violently killed in the film -- more than in the novel, which, somewhat counter-intuitively, is rather more gentle that Rosen's adaptation -- but that, like the book, while the story is certainly about courage, tyranny, adventure, community, and so forth, it's also not-so-secretly about death. Not as in violence, but as in dying, that thing we all do.

As a piece of animation, Watership Down shuttles mostly between a kind of realism and, if you'll pardon me for saying perhaps the most obvious thing imaginable, cartoonishness.  For the latter, see the simplicity of the rabbits' back paws, or look at this image of a climactic scene involving Bigwig, the badass rabbit:

"Is his skin dripping off?" I remember thinking when I first saw the film, and if you know the scene I think you'll understand why that crossed my mind. But anyway, I think the occasional crudeness is noticeable here. This will bother you as much as it's going to bother you, I guess, and you'll see it most when the main group of rabbits are in between danger. On the other hand, Watership Down begins with a story about El-ahrairah, the primary rabbit folk hero, that looks like this:

And the transition to "real" rabbits looks like this:

That folktale, which is the first few minutes of the film, introduces the concepts of death and the general struggles of every life. So gather 'round, kids! The rabbit god, Frith (Michael Hordern) creates, rather Biblically, enemies for El-ahrairah, and all rabbits -- these enemies are The Thousand. At the same time he bestows rabbits with their gifts of speed and strong hearing:

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning.

This is transplanted by Rosen directly from Adams, and it's the whole thing, right there. It is, in essence, literally everything. What I'm stumbling around trying to get at is that if Watership Down occasionally seems pedestrian, and I would argue that it does, in these moments Rosen, for whom this was a dream project (he would make one other film, The Plague Dogs, another animated adaptation of a Richard Adams novel) was simply being practical because, resources being what they tend to be for dream projects, he had to marshal his forces. Soon he will introduce the wonderfully designed character Cowslip (Denholm Elliott, being typically excellent), the funny, eerie rabbit who will show Hazel and the others what a poorly chosen warren can lead to, or Kehaar (a manic Zero Mostel) their bird ally, and later, finally, the great villain, General Woundwort (Harry Andrews), as malevolent and frightening a creature as I think it's possible to create while still making it look like a rabbit.

But the highlight of Rosen's Watership Down is a sequence that follows the wounding of Hazel by a farmer. Perhaps he's dead, the rabbits who had to leave him aren't sure, but they don't believe his chances are great. When Blackberry tells Fiver about Hazel, he presents it in a way designed to remove as much fear and sadness as it's possible to remove. "The Black Rabbit serves Lord Frith," Blackberry (Simon Cadell) tells him, "but he does no more than his appointed task." The title for this post, "My heart has joined the Thousand for my friend stopped running today," is the phrase the rabbits say over a fallen comrade; notice that the enemy becomes one's heart, because of the pain of loss. Not death. Death, in other words, is not the enemy. It's merely terrible.

Fiver, though, who has special powers, knows -- or does he simply believe? -- that Hazel isn't dead, and he goes looking for his friend. This leads to a kind of sweetly moving phantasmagorical montage set to Mike Batt's song "Bright Eyes," sung by Art Garfunkel, in which Fiver sees Hazel's wounding as something painful but beautiful, and the possibility of death -- Hazel's, or Fiver's own, as he searches -- almost as a somber frolic with their Grim Reaper, the Black Rabbit of Inle:

And none of this is just a nod towards artistry. It's not a self-contained idea that Rosen will discard for standard images of heroism (though they're here too, and they're great). We're being set up, as in reality we are constantly being set up, for the inevitable. Adams' novel is a great one, but in the final pages I could almost sense him thinking "Don't screw this up." The very ending of the novel displays the finest writing in its 500 pages, and Rosen was man enough to hold onto what Adams gave him. If Watership Down occasionally has a clumsy, jittery aesthetic as the pieces are being moved around, it's so that when it counts Rosen can build it up to be one of the great movies about death. It's okay if you're left seriously troubled by it.