A quick break from LIFEFORCE WEEK for the opening scene of NIGHT TERRORS - an exhibition of towering concept, exactly devised and satisfactorily, with elegance, carried out.
#2 - Towering Concept - "Such enthusiasm! I commend you."
A medley of tortures begins Night Terrors as a sort of symphonic overture. Western classical music and its ecstatic bourgeois climaxes are equated to institutionalized corporal punishment and the ecstatic climaxes of torture.
Ignore the less-than-ideal elements of production and limitations to credibility and what you've got here is a brilliant, cerebral concept, one executed with the care and sense of control over formal nuance that makes such an idea as eloquent and communicative as it ought to be.
One such limitation to credibility is the layman movie-world use of Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie" overture, the most music-ignorant-chic classical cue to use perversely ever since Kubrick manifested postmodern testicular murder alongside the Rossini piece's pompous trills and self-aggrandizing crescendos. But its royalty-free triteness does not diminish the nature and point of its use: as a ghostly, lilting echo of European aristocratic taste playing in direct melodious counterpoint to the spectacle of torture.
The series of tortures all connect across confident fades, creating a complete fluid musical piece. First, the title appears over a camera self-consciously descending, feet to head, over an abject, upside-down Marquis de Sade.
"The Thieving Magpie" reaches a swelling rhapsodic section, leading to a dissolve that unveils the Marquis splayed out on a rack, a symmetrical portrait of suffering between two caged prisoners (presenting a dialectic of class, which occurs throughout this sequence). He is being whipped, and, alongside the rhapsodic strings, the camera rhapsodizes pain.
This musical juxtaposition is a towering dialectic, a bold commentary convening and evoking complex interrelated social constructs: class and society of the early modern era, the high culture of the era, the punitive practices of the era, and the moral conflict and social hypocrisy revealed in showing implicit systemic interrelation (between culture and capital, status and law, etc.).
Inlaid deep within the careful sound design, in which the "Thieving Magpie" samples flutter dissociatively in and out alongside Dov Seltzer's grim synthesizer score, sonically residing within the dungeon walls, is the full nuance of the concept: bourgeoisie culture is conflated with all levels of broken civilization, such that the complacent popular music of the time resounds within a prison squalor of social and moral inequality. All that the Marquis represents is found in the juxtaposition of pain with ecstasy - humiliation mixed with entitlement, "moral justice" subverted by the righteous libertine but simultaneously embodied by the degraded nobleman.
Another immense, climactic orchestral flurry in the Rossini piece mockingly accompanies an immense pull-back from an eye doused in lye, ironically making grandiose what is actually the most internal experience (the experience of great pain).
The overture of tortures concludes, but the Marquis de Sade's total mortification proceeds to his march to his cell, past crowds of poorer prison mates who heckle and throw righteous slurs at a symbol of their socioeconomic subjugation.
Hooper's camera creates a morphing line of movement. Sade begins the scene moving towards, or perpendicular to, the camera. After he has reached a certain point along the perpendicular axis, he performs a little half-twirl to address an inmate behind him. Finishing the twirl, he now faces left in the direction of his continued path, and, in a fantastically nimble bit of choreography and staged design, this finished twirl cues a movement forward of both Sade and the camera, which now tracks alongside him and to which he now moves parallel. Sade in the foreground and descending a short stairs, the camera takes on a high-angle view, revealing a pit below him filled with more wretched, thrown-together, lesser privileged prisoners.
This expressive but somewhat obvious shot (the revealing of the rotten lot below him and in relation to the haughty Marquis, and also an animated, elegant bit of camera movement) is just what leads to the most extraordinary moment in this scene. First, as Sade walks away from the camera - returned to the perpendicular axis by Hooper's restrained and observant subjective camera - we hear the recurrence of the "Thieving Magpie" tune in the soundtrack.
He then leans against a wall in the distance as the Rossini music grows in volume...
The ghostly music gets even louder when a guard places his hand on Sade's shoulder, provoking the swinging of the Marquis's hand straight into the air as he screams: "Silence!" And, in conjunction with his peeved cry for silence, the classical music cuts out with a sharply-cleaved residual echo. Diegesis and non-diegesis becomes an abstract ambiguity, the materialism of popular music becoming flotsam in the altogether other realm of life in a prison. It is a striking bit of meta-construction that further equates the fallen nobleman with the European art music that is inextricable from the lifestyle of those with such social status, a part of their complacent, entitled existence, and a class weapon, even as he has been sent to rot away that status in a prison.
These opening credits already make a promise of a film that will at times work at a mode of airless presentation of form and theory, rather than a traditional entertainment of narrative and emotional involvement.