Friday, June 3, 2011

Essential Phoniness


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)/ Jacques Tourneur
It is only by the time one may reach the half-way point of a Tourneur film, trying, up till then, to ‘follow’ the narrative (narrative as the sermon, as in a Wilder film), or to coalesce various fragments of a supposed ‘story’ together (narrative as debris, as in a Tarantino film); that one realizes that there is no narrative at all, but only a fa├žade of it – a vague notion that something absolutely relevant is happening. But actually, if anything is at all relevant in a Tourneur film, it is in its assortment of fleeting sensations. Tourneur’s ability was invested best not in the direction of a grander narrative, but in transient moments of cathartic drama – grotesque moments of singular scandal. Such moments were as effective as they were affected, particularly because they were placed aptly at points when the audience’s interest in the presumed ‘story’ was at its peak – and therefore, they would become easy victims to the Tourneur-absurdity. In I Walked with a Zombie, set in West Indies, the first half an hour is devoted to Betsy’s (the new-nurse-in-town) discovery of the underlying conflict between two brothers, one of whose comatose wife she is there to attend to, as well as that of a secret familial past (the ‘past’ is Tourneur’s muse; it is always an element without being a force.) It is an interesting enough premise, with enough suspense (how did the wife become comatose?, what is the family secret?), and horror (the wife is a ghoul) to keep one going for its short 68 minute duration, and yet, as the second half of the film reveals, Tourneur could not be less interested in the pursuit of such interrogation. Instead, the film attends to these questions only sparingly, and though there are answers to all of them – they are answered not in the manner of revelations, but in the form of ‘givens’ with bored sighs from all the characters who give them. Tourneur’s major interest in lieu of the narrative, of course, is the setting itself – West Indies, and the various exotic oddities that he could employ in concocting his own brand of tourist-paranoia and voodoo-speculation. 

As a result, the second half of I Walked with a Zombie is perhaps the most potent instance of Tourneur’s cinema – formless, but replete with moments of outrage – there is an infamous extra-bug-eyed zombie, occult ceremonies, voodoo chanting and an atmosphere saturated with ceremonial drums used by the occultists to summon the comatose wife – none of it makes much sense, and there is no greater debate at hand; Tourneur’s only interest is immediate impression.   

The larger guise of a ‘fictional’ film, or a ‘tale’, and its utilization as a hook to lure unsuspecting audiences in what is essentially a world devoid of any coherent pattern is emulated perfectly by David Lynch in his films – who offers a ‘story’ only so that he can remain assured of an audience for repulsive shots of fried chicken bleeding in plates they are meant to be eaten in. And yet, this method is not as callous as Hitchcock’s, who, unlike Tourneur or Lynch, does not pull the carpet of a narrative from his audience’s feet unknowingly and often, helplessly – but only for cheap thrills.

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