In Magnolia, abusers are forgiven their crimes by frogs falling from the sky. This means that it answers its own question about the coincidence or not of events with a resounding dollop of ‘everything is chaos’. Or it must be a sort of redemption story, having this Christian vibe. But who is redeemed? We are given reasons for some of the abusers’ behaviour, but that doesn’t constitute a redemption. Breaking down in tears is not a redemption, nor is a phone call. Dying is not a redemption, nor is admitting to wrongdoing. Redemption is the hard work that comes after the realisation of wrongdoing, and the apology.
What happens one night? Well, Cary Grant’s lead decides to stalk a lady on the night bus. His intentions are pure, of course, because in this universe, sex only exists under very specific conditions.
She’s just too stupid to get along! He carries her across the country, and in the process, she falls in love with him. He isn’t sure whether to reciprocate at first, but then he decides to make a 3 hour drive to New York, write an article of several pages, and then return to the motel in another epic 3 hour drive, before she wakes up, to accept her love. And would you know it, he doesn’t quite make it in time!
In a famous scene, it is implied Claudette Colbert’s lead can stop a car with her stockinged leg, although the driver actually stops to pick them up with the aim of stealing their things. Really, they were both as useless as each other at hitching a ride. In order to get around the censors, they had to hang up a sheet in-between the two beds, just to air the room of the scent of sex enough, so that any taste of it is left til the last scenes, where they order a trumpet and blow it in an admittedly quite clever reference, and strong commitment to the bit. It’s a seven degrees of separation from sex scene.
There’s this thing about the black and white 4:3 format. It’s cute, and harmless, largely due to the vast machinery of censorship that hovers over it like an gargantuan pair of invisible scissors. From time to time this mechanism becomes very visible, as the lead actors disappear from the screen for the last 10 mins of the film, largely due to the fact that they’re going to fuck. As a result, I always feel safe when i’m watching these films. Not that i’m afraid of sex, in fact 4:3 films censored for violence etc. but not sex, would probably be the most amazingly comforting genre. I couldn’t speculate as to what form the sex would take – it’s hard to imagine the specifics.
It’s just that the 16:9 aspect ratio in colour opens onto a world where dangerous things could happen at any time. In black and white, 4:3, you’re always safe. No one’s going to get their face torn off, no one’s going to try and destroy the foundations to a world. Or at least, any such intentions have long lost their bite, that world has already fallen to pieces in war after war, and been restructured and sold off. We have become ‘desensitised’. Or rather, the work of sensitisation has relaxed. Along with it went much of the legislative frameworks enforcing morals in the movies.
Or is it the phenomenology of the fissure between our world and the black and white world? Because Le Chien Andalusian wants to disturb us, of course. But the lack of colour and general frame rate and world of the early films, but also their distance from us historically, helps place them in categories away from the threatening.
The other day I watched Alien Covenant. They called them ‘Grand Guignol’ elements, faces getting torn off etc. Aliens popping out of unexpected places, backs, throats… Relating covenant even back to Alien (1979) it seems there is a loss of heart. Maybe that is specific to Ridley Scott’s trajectory. Or maybe it’s how the realistic depiction of gore relates to its time. My dad couldn’t bear the chest popping scene in that original film, but I find it a bit squeamish though not disturbing. But events in Covenant disturbed me, through their disinterest in the people they were happening to. John Hurt always seemed human, throughout everything that was happening to him.
But I wasn’t interested in that, as such. Covenant felt without hope, at least not human hope. Whereas in the 1979 film, there is always the hope that Ripley survives, and lives a safe life, regardless of what happens in those later films. There is even an element of this in Prometheus (2012) which has this kind of hopeful ending, which is then betrayed in an ahuman fashion in Covenant, without even allowing Elizabeth Shaw to have her say on screen in the latter. But apparently Scott has decided that those films are about robots from now on.
Frank Capra’s 1934 film gave me nothing to worry about, and that’s partly down to the fact that it’s a ‘screwball comedy’, but it’s also down to the fact that I knew I didn’t have to worry about anything. Everything would be okay. The censors ensured it. Who plays this role in our time? Our friends who recommend us films, and reassure us. But it’s better that it’s now a choice, a choice to let possibilities and their danger in. A choice watch an old film.
The night stretches out ahead like
an endless action scene. With duds
the faceless attackers scream, wait
their turn and then run straight at me
so I can deck them with a punch.
But there are so many of them
waving their arms and raising guns
just in time to be knocked back down.
It seems there are infinite shapes
that falling onto the floor takes.
I toss and turn in bed and breath
comes shorter. “Loneliness! You fool!
You should not have approached me. Now
I will teach you the meaning of
pain! Take *that*! and *that*! Now you see,
you should have brought reinforcements!
*hi-YA*! *hi-YA*! Why don’t you speak!
Get up, loneliness, I’m not done
with you yet *KAPOW*. Ah, greetings,
pain, I knew you would crawl in soon
Our dark past ends here! Pathetic!
You don’t stand a chance against my
FIST! *WHACK* Stop smiling, how dare you”
and on until I fall asleep
Material queue sieved for death by death
each waiting – these
things – for ease let’s call them people;
candles of corpses, yes, yes
don’t follow them
we follow them and
The sea’s gelatinous foam tells
them just how welcome (with surface
clinging to surface and the wind, by tension
dreary and wearisome this forsaken country.
was the scum of livid weed on the dark
greasy surfaces of the sullen waters.
Dead grasses and rotting reed loomed up in the mists
like ragged shadows
most welcome in this swelling tide
for there is no evil here –
there is only this mercurial life
You and me, and also
world-endings, chance gifts of death,
to bevel slowly a sound to a knife edge
where one of them (of us) stands alone
on the iron-fold brink
come to the very midst of the dead
marshes, and it was dark
grit from the serration drag
Alone on the sunk-sending
are dead things
dead faces in the water
A fell light
all hope painstakingly lost
human stories are practically
always about one thing,
Then, a suddenness on the sea-wind
brings with it a breath, one breath
a long, wailing cry
high and thin and cruel
a deep unending breath
And elgar swings his legs
to the side of the sweat-ridden sheets
reaches, grasps the rough curtains
to open a sliver of blinding sunlight and a piercing
light to blind him
pierces, morning-sun made midday
by the darkness of the nest-depression –
Anything obscene is blessed in this world and has a reward –
I ask for no reward –
only to live, Jaeger
thus – scribbles a new moon, haltingly
to arc and draw the tide
one more inhumanity to blast us
No more dragging the mass
embarrased behind –
Nothing else has changed
but the sea now runs forward,
salted tears in its eyes.
rubbing their eyes,
like children wakened from an evil dream
to find the familiar night
still over the
And now the in breath ends
now – hear companion-cries
to send us
Wraiths! he wailed.
Agonised listening, myth-carving
as grandparents become myths
even as remembered.
Wraiths on wings!
westering far away beyond Tol-Brandir
and a vast fire-storm in the east
with a rush the wind came upon them
hissing and snarling over the marshes
for a moment
the night became less dark
light enough for them to see
shapeless drifts of fog
for ease lets call them people
looking up they saw the clouds breaking and shredding
and then high in the south the moon glimmered
* * *
leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machine are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move? – Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien