Friday, January 13, 2012

The Indelible Scenes, #2

The Indelible Scenes, a series of film scenes that have held the greatest impact on me.

I risk misrepresentation by giving another scene from the Val Lewton catalog as my 2nd "Indelible Scene" (that this blog has perhaps become the Tobe Hooper/The Birds/Val Lewton Appreciation Society), but I'll go ahead, as it would certainly not misrepresent the extent of sheer narrative poetry to which I feel these scenes are absolute zeniths of in all film works.

Another Val Lewton scene, another of musical conceit. I Walked With a Zombie tells a story of white gentry angst in a post-colonial island of their servants, where the Jane Eyre-inspired soap opera of family scandal and anguished romances amidst the descendents of a wealthy sugar cane plantation family are slyly backgrounded by the sway, impositions, and beliefs of the population that surrounds them. The film resolves with the reveal that the interests of all are in fact the same, and beautifully united are all parties - the slave descendents and believers of Vodou, the nurse heroine, the feuding plantation brothers - under the powers of such common denominators as love and suffering and death. More than any measure of superior rationalism (the white family's doctor matriarch decries the harmfulness of local superstitions) or superior religion (a servant woman confidently promotes the Vodou religion by insisting it provides the "better doctors"), the only true - or greatest - measure is that which unites all of us.

In this scene, the subservient population undermines their masters by appropriating what has now been made their menial service - singing at a busy port - but has actually been for ages a tool of expression and, of course, rebellion (I refer to song, or even yet, just words).

A calypso singer (played by Lewton stock player and Calypso musician Sir Lancelot) sings a subversive ballad, disseminating a suppressed history, forcing its clues upon the plantation family's new nurse.

In the previous scene, the singer sings this song - a derisive tell-all of the boss family's shameful history - in the presence of one boss himself, and feigns puppy apologies to his employer. This following scene gains its power from what it proves: the deception, intentional disobedience, and mischievous scheming of the servant singer, as he returns with all facades of preening subservience cast off.

#2 - I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE - A Sung Oral History

As the newly appointed nurse tries to wake up the drunken Holland brother (her employer), a calypso quietly begins in the background. We soon see that the singer is afar but is facing her, slowly walking towards her. Soon, he is openly approaching, provoking her reaction and confrontation. As he finally achieves the lock down of stares between them he desires and finishes his song, Mrs. Holland, the mother, walks in, and the singer, without fuss, slips away.

Like the 'Curse of the Cat People' Christmas caroling scene, it is another brilliant musical scene that gains its brilliance from the fact of its poetical narrative conceit. Both are conceptual masterstrokes that allegorize freely (the 'Cat People' scene serendipitously evokes a madrigal stand-off between two worlds, this scene manifests the functions of oral history and the return of the repressed, and their aggression, through the means at their disposal), and through visual and staging means; through a crystal clear, indelible and deliberate utilization of cinematic space and narrative time. The 'Cat People' scene was about separate spaces and the imposition of one over the other in a moment of magic and arrival, while this scene derives its power from the closing in of space between nurse and assailant, class and class, future and past, however you wish to see it, in a moment of menace and melancholy.

"The wife and the brother they want to go, /
But the Holland man, he tell them no, /
The wife fall down, and the evil came, /
And it burn her mind in the fever flame."

"Wes, we must get back to Fort Holland."

"Her eyes are empty and she cannot talk /
And the nurse has come to make her walk /
The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young /
And now you must see that my song is sung."

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