Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Robert Aickman Double Feature: "The Cicerones" (2002) & "The Swords" (1997) dirs. Jeremy Dyson; Tony Scott

Robert Aickman (1914-1981) is the master of a sort of fiction that remains nameless. You could brand his collected stories as 'horror,' but beyond the rare tale or two (like the prosaic vampire yarn "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal" (1973)) you'd be far off the mark. His fiction lacks the visceral blood and guts, the outright breathless terror, and the classifiable supernatural presences of his contemporaries' work. Some of his tales first saw American publication during the early 1970s in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but neither of those genre labels feels somehow complete either. (Or do they? In a sense, Aickman's stories probe the boundary between mundane reality and horrific fantasy. And there's also no denying that his plots and fictional contrivances often disregard the laws of physics, of space and time.) Aickman himself termed his work "strange stories," and that appellation-- as oblique and indeterminate as it may be-- is the one that fits best. What else to call his quietly surreal tales but strange

The majority of Aickman's collected fiction (nearly 50 stories and two novels, published from 1951 until his death at the dawn of the 1980s) explores the modern human psyche through routes obscure in origin and destination, producing personal insights for and about its characters that are paradoxically ambiguous and trenchant. During this slow, queer process of narrative intensification, the reader of Aickman's strange stories is left in a state of inexplicable anxiety and mounting unease. What, precisely, is awry in the fictional world or what dilemma begs to be resolved remains unclear: all the reader knows is that escape (if one can call it that) will come only with the placement of the final period on the page. Reading one of Aickman's stories is to invite equal parts mystification and inarticulate understanding of the revelations held in store. The many narrative breadcrumbs he leaves for the reader ushers one into a forest vast and dark and nearly impossible to conceive of as a rational, coherent object. But only nearly so: blind as we may be, we catch the scent in the air of a candied house of horrors somewhere near the forest's center and know instinctively that all paths, no matter how labyrinthine, lead there.

Undeniably consequent of their elusive nature, Aickman's fiction has seldom been adapted for the screen. Though Aickman's prose is often clean and direct (in contrast to his story's themes and events), they almost entirely lack the sort of action that would render them so obviously enticing for a visual storyteller. His stories beg adaptations as cinematically complex as they are on the page, and a less talented artist runs the certain risk of  obliterating the singular subtleties inherent within them during the transition. Thus, Aickman's IMDb page remains sparsely populated. But those few courageous stabs at adaptation deserve examination, if for nothing else than their ability to help express in whatever small, circuitous way the unique quality of Aickman's perhaps unadaptable fictions.

"The Cicerones"
dir. Jeremy Dyson

One of the briefest tales in Aickman's oeuvre, "The Cicerones" is nevertheless ripe with the sort of mind-bending suggestion and delirious ambiguity that defines his best longer work. First published in 1967, the story has since cropped up in numerous anthologies devoted to ghostly tales of the supernatural (including one edited by Aickman himself, The Seventh Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1971)). But, as is often the case with Aickman's fiction, such an easy paranormal explanation for the tale's strangeness is woefully insufficient. An initially straightforward account of a man taking a walking tour of an ancient Belgian cathedral after hours quickly devolves into an oppressive trip through another dimension, a plane of existence where silence reigns and time runs backwards or not at all, where the sacred and the demonic are one in the same, and where pagan saints are made and preserved in life and in art. Whatever it ultimately may be, "The Cicerones" is far from a simple Dickensian or Jamesian ghost story.

The tale's otherworldliness is preserved and expanded upon in a 2002 short film adaptation by The League of Gentlemen's Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss for BBC Channel 4. Both Dyson and Gatiss are avowed fans of Aickman, and their appreciation and understanding of his peculiar sensibilities is evident throughout the short's chilling thirteen minute running time. Gatiss assumes the role of Trant, an English tourist in a foreign land eager to gawk at the pieces of religious art written about in his guidebook. However, when he arrives at the Cathedral of St. Bavon he finds his printed guide superseded by a set of progressively younger human guides (or 'cicerones') who are eager to set Trant on a path of their own devising. Dyson and Gatiss's short is faithful to the letter, rendering many minute details of the original story with visual aplomb. The aesthetic palette on display places the film in line with the BBC's classic A Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations, but the inexplicable foreignness of Trant's surroundings (cobbled together from the interiors and exteriors of several monstrously Gothic English churches) and the inscrutable demeanor of his guides unsettle any sure footing we might try to find for the film in the common cinematic lore of the British supernatural.

The film, like the story, is wide open to one's most devious or sinister interpretations. However, a deliberate intensification of one of the story's elements through the addition of an original prologue does serve to tip our worst thoughts in one particular direction. The added opening finds Trant travelling on a train through central Europe to his destination at St. Bavon. He has a brief but significant encounter with an old woman and her two young, to-be married companions sitting across from him. He reveals his nationality and status as a bachelor to the woman before asking her for any info she might have about the cathedral. She quickly snaps at him that the cathedral is "a holy place" and then beckons him to say a prayer for the young couple on the eve of their wedding. Why would she desire Trant's particular blessing when he's a foreigner possessing a different belief system? In the corridors and secret galleries of St. Bavon we learn of the dark mixture of Christianity and pagan superstition worshiped within, of the virgin saints and martyrs dragged to hell by demons and venerated through transcendent portraiture, and we begin to suspect that the blessing of a sacrificial saint to-be is a valuable thing to have.

"The Swords"
dir. Tony Scott

An earlier adaptation of Aickman's work is "The Swords" (1997), directed by the late Tony Scott as the inaugural episode of a British/Canadian anthology TV series loosely derived from the themes of and bearing the same name as his 1983 Whitley Strieber adaptation The Hunger. Its source material is the lead story in Aickman's 1975 collection Cold Hand in Mine, and it's among the author's most subtly repulsive. As written, "The Swords" concerns a young travelling salesman who is as-of-yet unacquainted with carnal activity. Attending a carnival in a small town, the young man witnesses a bizarre stage show in which a man in a seaman's outfit invites men from the audience on stage  for the chance to pierce with a ceremonial sword, for a small fee, the abdomen of a beautiful but silently obedient woman named Madonna, leaving her unhurt and the men perversely stimulated. The young salesman, refusing (out of bashfulness?) to participate in the communal act, is later approached alone by the woman's handler, who offers her total services and a private show to him for a reasonable price.

Aickman's protagonist acquiesces, and what follows-- his first sexual encounter, occuring in a cheap lodging house-- is punctuated by a peculiar bit of nastiness: his violent thrust for a greedy kiss wrenches the woman's arm right out of its socket and from her body, again without causing her any pain or bloodshed. Madonna, perhaps used to such an occurrence, merely snatches up her discarded arm from the floor and flees, leaving the seaman to return and collect her (or is it his?) fee. Through its morbid surrealism, "The Swords" acts as a melancholy but pointed social criticism of the way men use and violate women as if they were bloodless, fleshy objects. It illustrates how this attitude is enculturated through communal forces, and also how such an attitude's grim results-- loveless, violent, queasy, and crushingly lonely-- may dispirit or shame a young male like the story's protagonist, but only for a brief beginner's moment: "After the first six women, say, or seven, or eight," the narrator tells us, "the rest come much of a muchness."

Scott's adaptation of "The Swords" takes the basic skeleton of its source story and seals it into a flesh of its own devising. Aesthetically (and sonically, as evidenced by the tropical island score, despite a metropolitan English setting), Scott is working in his True Romance (1993) mode: all the bad boys and bad girls are dressed in candy colors and waxing purple poesy. And yet this half hour short would be better thought of as an antidote to True Romance's Love Conquers All (Even, If Not Especially, Death) mentality. The love (or whatever you'd call it) between James Chandler (Balthazar Getty) and Musidora (Amanda Ryan) ends in a tragedy bred not of too much affection but of too little, hinting at (though never quite achieving) Aickman's grasp of the cold detachment we sometimes feel towards other living bodies. Balthazar Getty's Chandler is a too-cool-for-anything recovering addict (of women and other substances) who floats into town to take a job selling cosmetics (for his boss, played by the great Timothy Spall, who comes off like an alternate dimension version of Alec Baldwin's Blake who quotes Naked Lunch during his sales pep talks). He encounters Musidora's stage show at a garish night club he attends with a couple of co-workers, and soon after his first viewing of her act he finds himself courted by her handler, Dean (Jamie Foreman), for a private show. 

It's at this point that Scott's film departs from the ghastly trajectory of Aickman's story and instead angles for overblown romantic tragedy. Chandler and Musidora have their hotel date, and-- one supposes because no limbs were lost the first time out-- proceed to go one several more dates. Musidora admits to falling in love with Chandler the first moment she spied him in the club; Chandler stares blankly ahead. She tells him that her growing affection puts her protective spell-- the one that keeps her from being skewered by the lusty swords of men-- at risk of being broken; he remains mute. Chandler's refusal to reciprocate emotional passion leads to an obvious rift between the lovers. However, he of course happily reciprocates physical passion until the bitter end, culminating in an aggressive, emotionless sexual encounter mirrored by the show-stopping stage stabbing she receives in the next scene, leaving her bloodied and (finally) wounded. Scott's thesis is plain: nothing spurs a man's crisis of masculinity quite like the notion of vowing commitment. Filmed in Scott's quick-cutting, whirling dutch-angled, operatic style, the sentiment appears a bit pat, but in truth it's not wholly removed from Aickman's own. Musidora, unlike her resigned and objectified literary counterpart, hungers for a connection deeper than the random, impersonal, and violent encounters with men that she's used to, and-- being disappointed by her one grasp outside of those confines of male-female relationships-- falls upon her sword. Chandler, precisely like his literary counterpart, takes only a moment to mope and weep crocodile tears before the numbness returns, coming much of a muchness.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Tractate Middoth (2013) dir. Mark Gatiss

Logline: A library assistant, William Garrett (Sacha Dhawan), has a frightful supernatural encounter in the stacks while attempting to locate an old Hebrew text for the cagey John Eldred (John Castle). While on leave to recover from his attack, Garrett makes a new acquaintance and soon thereafter becomes embroiled in a mysterious and possibly diabolical inheritance treasure hunt that will leave cold corpses in its wake.

M. R. James or his editor was wise in sequencing "The Tractate Middoth" immediately before one of James's most famous stories, "Casting the Runes," in his 1911 collection More Ghost Stories: read after one had read "Runes," the former would feel a pale imitation. Read in the desired sequence, "The Tractate Middoth" instead feels like a sketchy, if furtively satisfying, trial run for "Runes," with James taking his favorite ghost story elements (musty libraries, antiquarian research, undefined demonic or supernatural curses) and wrapping them in the trappings of an adventure story (or at least as much of an adventure story as his mannered Edwardian sensibilities could bear). Consequently, the tale seems a bit slight when compared to the bulk of James's prior body of work, leaving behind as it does much of its author's signature slow-burn dread to revel in time-pressed puzzle-solving, breathless chases, and ironic twists of fate. The story even has a happy ending, which is an occurrence in the James oeuvre as rare as being introduced to a character who doesn't spend his weekends hunkered down in church libraries. All of these deviations from the supernatural norm result in "The Tractate Middoth" existing as an atypical James ghost story, though perhaps not a particularly uncinematic one.

The uniquely adaptable quality of the tale can be evidenced through the fact that as of 2013 it has now been adapted three times for television-- once in 1951, again in 1966, and lastly in 2013-- and so boasts the most adaptations of any of James's tales. Its simple, pacey plot and minimal production demands give "The Tractate Middoth" a certain televisual appeal, bolstered by the possibility that it might catch the interest of a general audience seeking easily digestible thrills (even if, again, James's sense of adventure consists only of someone searching tirelessly for a missing library book). Yet, unlike most of the James ghost stories that have been adapted for the screen over the decades, "The Tractate Middoth" is, along with "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," one of the few tales with the potential to be improved upon by an adaptation that colors in the frustrating, slipshod blanks of character motivation and supernatural manifestation left by the text. In this light, the quiet and moody 2013 adaptation of the story for the BBC, written and directed by Sherlock and Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss, is an obvious success, if one that remains somewhat tempered by its lackluster textual origins.

Unlike Lawrence Gordon Clark's liberal adaptation of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," Gatiss decided that he need not change much of the story's fundamental details or plot progression in order to craft it into a more successful supernatural treat than its progenitor. Instead, he presents a rather literal adaptation of the tale, often adopting the exact dialogue of the source text for long stretches of the short film's running time. What Gatiss does to advance his film beyond the original story is to make clear or prescribe those details that are only loosely implied within the text. That he manages to do this without over-explaining the supernatural elements-- and thus eradicating its Jamesian quality of undefinable unease-- is to its credit. Problems inherent in the source text-- such as how the mysterious clergyman John Rant became capable of placing a curse on his hidden will or why Rant then sends his heirs off to discover it-- are disposed of with a quick image or line of dialogue. (With regard to those aforementioned queries, we glean from a quick glance of a religious-themed stained glass window in Rant's mansion, proudly featuring the images of several menacing spiders, that he serves a very different deity than the one you'd expect, and we then learn from Rant's deathbed cackling that his manufactured treasure hunt is merely a cruel man's dying joke, dangling a false carrot over the heads of abhorred heirs.)

In this vein of addressing the story's unresolved issues, Gatiss's adaptation departs the most from its source material in its denouement, which alters the text's original happy ending (featuring a marriage and the acquirement of vast wealth) into a sinister and ambiguous question mark (featuring a marriage, the acquirement of vast wealth, and the implication that all involved will soon be scared to death by a spiteful ghost). This downer of an alteration feels quite appropriate to the tale. The most glaring problem with the original text's conclusion is the uncertainty as to why Rant's curse seeks only to punish one of his heirs, when it's made clear that he has a profound dislike for them both. If Rant honestly wished to bequeath his estate to his niece Mary Simpson (Louise Jameson) and deprive his nephew John Eldred, why arrange for his bizarre and counter-intuitive treasure hunt for the hidden will? Why not simply give her everything and forgo all the cryptic effort? 

The curse's punishment of Eldred alone feels undeserved in the text (after all, he "wins" the inheritance game that Rant has set up), and so Gatiss's film seeks to solve this error of resolution by deciding that Rant's intention was to destroy both of his heirs out of spite. The adaptation's Rant is, as his housemaid warns Mary Simpson, not to be trusted in life or in death: "Others have a soul. He had a corkscrew," the maid informs her. We surmise in this adaptation that Rant presented his heirs with his goose chase in the hope that their greed would compel them both to participate in it, and thus spell their mutually assured dooms by activating the ghostly vicar curse against them. Though because even one of the two discovering the will would inevitably set the curse against both named within it (as they would both have to then come in contact with the cursed will), it becomes obvious that Rant made certain that the likelihood of declining to participate in (and thus surviving) his game was quite nonexistent. Gatiss's adaptation's denial of Mary Simpson's happy ending (or at least its unsubtle hint that it will deny that happiness) forms a cynical, ironic dimension of the story that's absent from the source text. The story feels, for once, downright Jamesian.

As the pre-title card informs the viewer, Mark Gatiss's "Tractate Middoth" continues the BBC's classic A Ghost Story for Christmas tradition. A revival of the occasional series was last attempted in earnest back in 2005 and 2006, with disappointing results. "The Tractate Middoth" is a great lunge in the direction of rectifying those errors and revitalizing the series. Gatiss has long demonstrated his passion for classic supernatural fiction-- see his 2008 mini-series Crooked House, or his starring turn in a short film adaptation of Robert Aickman's "The Cicerones" (2002), or his new documentary special on James himself-- and his handling of James's tale as both screenwriter and director shows that the series (were it to continue) is being shepherded by the right fellow. While the production design and general glossy look of "The Tractate Middoth" recalls the earlier 2000s adaptations of James's work, Gatiss's adaptation nonetheless retains the subtlety of the more successful 1970s films, and with a keen directorial hand also captures something particular to James's fiction itself: the slow, soundless, agonizing haunting, in which the ghosts do not rush their victims' ends, but take the time to embrace them and laugh.