© 2017 by James Clark
The paths to Surrealist love and decadence are many and varied. Although the phenomena were incubated in Paris, the long-standing kinship between France and the USA in repelling (particularly British) sensible calculation has provided reverberations streaming out to very recent times. There is a quite pervasive volatility about those two national enterprises for which there is scant interest in a place like Canada (despite its quasi-French ingredient).
That brings us to our now upping the ante toward the more dangerous sensibilities being brought to a showdown of sorts in the movies. Surrealism—coursing through the works of David Lynch, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, the Coens and Jim Jarmusch, to name a few—has always been our business here. But rather than put it into play as a historical, evolutionary going concern, we’re now pulling ourselves together (I hope) to consider its confinement to lives with no real purchase in sight upon a mainstream; but rather consisting of sensual momenta staging largely invisible, self-contradictory revolutions.
We’ll begin with a film by that master of minutiae, Brian De Palma, namely, Carrie (1976), who in this case has to deal with the footsteps of not only horror author, Stephen King, whose 1974 novel by the same name offers a point of departure, but also King’s wife, Tabitha, who (rescuing his unfinished and despised [by him] draft of this vehicle) saw fit to reach back to Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel, Les Enfants Terribles (The Terrible Children) and the subsequent movie incarnation, in 1950, by another filmmaker more about pores than portents, namely, Jean-Pierre Melville, with Cocteau looking over his shoulder and keeping the faith as far as his opium addiction allowed. Cocteau/ Melville lead off with a high school boy, Paul, being felled in a snowball fight by a good friend (though not so friendly as to desist from couching his missile with a rock). De Palma, no doubt delighted by the wit of the Kings, fires off in his film, to perfect effect, the early moment where Carrie, a high school girl hamstrung by a mother staging a religious war against menstruation and thereby exposing her to shock, begins to bleed, for the first time, in her school-gym-shower, and her panic elicits not only raunchy ridicule from her far more secular classmates but a snowball fusillade of tampons, accompanied by the far from helpful, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” She is not concussed like Paul; but her sense of this world not working for her is even more pronounced.
The two films we have in our sights today excel on many levels. But perhaps the way to best specify their textural affinities and thus their incremental possibilities is to begin by taking a look at how prevailing and dubious cliques establish for anyone on the outside a claustrophobic nightmare. In Carrie we go from the girl’s gym roundup (first glimpsing a series of insipient sirens casually nipping Carrie as a pack of wolves would toy with a fawn, if they could articulate, “You eat shit!”; and then having the same group as Seniors now homicidally intent on law-of-the-jungle ensuring that only slo-mo seductiveness like theirs should survive (as sustained by a smooth-as-silk 50’s country-club soundtrack). This thrum encompasses Carrie’s bathing, until the uncouth blood appears. The unity of their braying at her distress introduces to us as much dismay—if not more—than the blood-bath to come. The key-word of that chorus, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” lends a detail of domesticity to the hunt. This being California, the pronounced dimension of adolescent car-frolicking superimposes a more mechanical comprehensive and menacing bolt of that homogeneity being the real deal (or else). In face of the gym teacher, Miss Collins, instituting a ferocious push-back to her rabid charges (having pelted our protagonist with those white plugs whereby she cringes on the floor in a corner of the shower room), there is a jump-cut to the incorrigibles by night in the form of streets and sidewalks attaining to a mode of attitudinal distemper as hermetically exclusive as some flagrant version of Freemasonry. Many of the students own cars or take over one of their parents’ necessities, which they steer along lines of mobile headquarters for subverting every vestige of honesty. In the forefront of this compound of distemper are Chris—one of the more carnivorous attackers of Carrie and the most gangster-like opponent of Miss Collin’s ominously shrill promotion of honesty—and her chauffeur/ boyfriend, Billy, whom she routinely calls a “stupid shit’ and at this moment tears into him for quickly slowing down and ditching his beer when a leadenly tolerant squad car pulls up and goes through the motion of pointing a flashlight their hell-bent way, a bit of orchestration messing up her attentions to make-up. For her lurid maintenance of mutiny directed at Miss Collins’ protectiveness toward Carrie she gets a smash in the face—coming as both welcome to us but also confusing in its incredibility (its freakiness) within the public schooling realm—and loss of attending the Senior Prom. With widespread tectonic disturbances ripping through this self-styled new-world of repose, Chris and her henchman, Billy, after a round of felatio in the car and state-visits with other with-it motorists along the roads, cruise toward an overheated plan to make of Carrie, the perceived pet, a sacrificial lamb.
In Les Enfants Terribles virulent opposition to the thriving of an outsider consists of venerable, self-serving, self-impressed articulateness of French interpersonal gratifications. The snowball target may have been caught up in a (trivial) form of friction. But he soon gives us to understand that he is far from out of step from loving to immerse himself in the rigid vernacular of his language and its Cartesian workings to smash the undecided, placing him on the side of thwarting those few associates tentative about life. (A characteristic declamation is, “I hate anything that’s new!”) We do have Cocteau’s intermittently reproaching the cheapness of this babble and its motives; but the viewer is left to discover what has happened to the course of spontaneity.
Whereas in De Palma’s work we are immediately seized by the protagonist’s savage dilemma and sensual workings, in Melville’s white-knuckles mechanism the aristocratic sheen of the protagonists’ (Paul and his sister Elizabeth) insistence conveys membership in having the upper hand (however sterile) in their world. Though they feign vast disapproval of many people and things, and though they leverage Paul’s injury into largely isolating themselves in their flat—she moving into his bedroom to attend to his bed-ridden anxiety and something more—he had been a student of a prestigious Paris lycee affording close friendship with children of wealthy families (their own family consisting of an invalid mother, concerning which Elizabeth at one point demands [with typical aggressiveness], “Watch your accent! Father beat Mother!). Indicative of the contempt for those not quite white (chateau-proof) enough (Carrie’s last name perhaps ironically being “White”), is the remark of the perpetrator of the rock-toss when challenged by the Principal: “You’re a puny little ass!” (Chris’ parallel whack of anarchy occurs during the first of Miss Collins’ boot-camp detentions upon the rampagers against Carrie. The Senior comes to a point of sensing that the coach is in over her head, stops the running on the spot, and, when told there’s ten minutes of torture left, declares, “Stick them up your ass!” [on which the authority commits an assault far more significant as geography—as stress long a fault line—than schooling].
Whereas De Palma finds in gut-churning, self-destructive emotional dead-ends the apt medium to tell his tale (very different, in fact, from King’s tale), Melville imbeds Cocteau’s dialogue of declamatory gut-churning amidst triumphs of visual and musical beauty as a dimension of French culture in its capacity to embrace the world at large which the stunted siblings give short-shrift to. “He’s bleeding!” the solicitous patricians cry out as the snowball fight comes to an abrupt end. Another of Paul’s classmates, Gerard, takes the wounded boy home in his chauffeured limo, and there Cocteau, in voice over, opens a really serious wound playing over the shambles: “Dargelos [the violent and clique-approved superficial brat] was unable to imagine death.” This anathema readily spills over to the retreating protagonists and their abuse of Gerard. Their constant exchange of insult and demonstrative virtue— “Show some respect!”/ “Old maid!”/ “You dog, you’re dirty! Let me take off your shoes!”—with the real premium upon the delivery of verbal sound, puts into play a pressure not culminating in an earthquake but in a double-suicide, a catastrophe driven by disrespect for nature, impotent love, dishonesty. Their mother dies and that pair join a cortege along a Paris street the pace of which resembles the stilted, precious, rhythm-deficient plod of Paul’s (metaphorically salient) sleepwalking habit. That visual confinement (a close relation to the claustrophobic bedrooms they haunt throughout) poses a factor as virulently dysfunctional in its fanatical clannishness as the hyper-kinetic car-worship in Carrie. Gerard, palpably more balanced than they, invites them to his wealthy uncle’s domain on the Cote d’Azure and they barely bother to look out the window. The highlight of the excursion for them is forcing Gerard to steal a large watering can from an antique shop. (En route they were galvanized to conceal that this was their first train ride and first experience of sleeping and dining facilities. Their pinched zeal to look supreme activates a dreary loss of freshness, which could be likened to Miss Collins’ (in King’s novel it’s [thanks to Tabitha] Gallic Miss Desjardin) crushing the dynamic spark out of the gym class with her overkill.
Paul’s blonde hair is (even during that health glitch) immaculately coiffed. Melville and Cocteau regard him as interesting but lost road kill and an example of why they can’t jump up and down about being victors in the recent War. Tommy, the blonde, immaculately coiffed boyfriend of Sue who did enjoy torturing Carrie, but by the time of the detention would tell the hell-raiser, “Let it go, Chris,” becomes, like Gerard, the gently accommodating stand-in, the lynchpin of Sue’s new mission of bringing happiness to Carrie. The handsome, double letterman, in football and baseball, eventually gets onside as Carrie’s date; and therewith, though it’s too early to jump up and down, a leeway for some form of integrity has come to light. In English Class, some time before this, Carrie had uttered, “Beautiful!” on hearing the teacher recite a poem written by Tommy. The teacher had delivered it in a vaguely mocking tone and Tommy himself was not fully serious about it. “What are you going to leave for us/ You people in your big cars/ Feet trampling down the wilderness…If you will have peace enough to love each other…” Seeing more prospects of levity in teasing with the girl who always fails to get the ironies (the Principal always calls her “Cassie,’ not from malice but from close to total indifference), the poet coach with his presumably rakish bow-tie sneers, “Carrie… Why? Beeoo… Beeoo… Beeootiful!” (Tommy, seen in the foreground, utters quietly, “You suck!”)
Elizabeth, in an extension of her circuit within the powers of French exclusivity, takes a job (her motor-mouth brother blurts, “You’re only good for one job…”) as a haute couture fashion model; and there she meets a generous expert in the craft who advises her in terms we know she would be great at. “Look at the buyers and walk toward them as if you want to smash them…” The new model invites her new friend, Agathe, to come and live with them; and, on seeing that Paul is infatuated with her (played by the actress, Renee Cosima, who had also played the part of Dargelos the rock-thrower), she pushes Agathe in the direction of Gerard—the roundelay of partnering amongst these films being a means for De Palma to see from a special perspective what the energies of Sue, particularly, amount to. (Perhaps we have here a Surrealist precedent to Lost Highway’s double duty [Dargelos being more mature near the end].) After tip-toeing amongst a pack of self-serving lies, Elizabeth finds she has unwittingly induced Paul to take poison, on which she shoots herself. (Cocteau’s roundup of this truly lost highway pronounces, “Introspection demands discipline they lacked. They found only darkness, phantom emotions…”) A little earthquake on the chamber music scale, which leads us to De Palma’s tip-toe along the San Andreas Fault.
Miss Collins, in a continuation of her mission far from Carrie’s mom’s pressure cooker but a pressure cooker nevertheless, vets Sue and Tommy’s good deed project and elicits from the short-cut poet and his muse, “We don’t care how we look” [as to their eccentric Prom experience]. The cruel fate and world of stress lurking within that haven exerts only a wisp of trouble at that moment. But the jet stream (or tectonic fault) having been broached in the presence of the pressure-cooker life of Carrie commences to reach a lethal potential, precipitating a post-secondary glimpse of the introspective hardness of adult integrity. After convincing herself of Tommy’s goodwill, Carrie announces to her far from tolerant mom that the dance party will include her. What would have been scant days before prompt beheading of such a plan becomes a slam-dunk for the non-athlete due to Carrie’s putting together her fit, causing (by her own flailing hand) a mirror in her bedroom to crack, in the wake of the shower room Armageddon and her mother’s ascribing to her appalling sensuous behavior, capped off by a smack in the face by a bible. The intermittent shivers coming out from her cold showers deriving from a hostile surround draws her to a perfunctory private study, via the school library, about telekinesis (the supposed gift of moving objects by emotive force alone). We see her rifling through pages ranging from “cosmic consciousness” to “miracles.” Thus she declares, “If I concentrate hard I can move things!” Her mother, having never seen an instance of Gothic idiocy she doesn’t love, thrills to her kin’s being possessed by the Devil and makes plans to turn the screws even tighter on the girl. The downside from the supernaturalist’s point of view, is that now she’s scared shitless about that hitherto gentle soul, a situation Carrie could not resist. “I’m goin’, Momma. You can’t stop me. I won’t talk about it again…”Many scenes of the Senior Class galvanizing for an unforgettable moment, more or less, quietly bring to bear suspenseful pressure. For instance, our protagonist on a roll affording much food for thought overhears girls at the beauty parlor cackling when someone remarks, “What’s she gonna wear? A sackcloth?” Chris, having more venom to sell than a school of piranha, directs Bobby (who had blurted out during that tete-a-tete on the Elysian strip, “You’re a crazy son of a bitch!”) to break into an abattoir, smash to death some hapless pigs and load up on the blood to use on Carrie, the inflectedly upbeat born again, on the big night.
That night begins with one sweet moment after another for Carrie, including a visit to their table by Miss Collins who—with all her demons—would have been a far better mom than the one she drew (which only accentuates the emotional force). Tommy eases the non-dancer on to the floor and, with the camera angle accentuating love among the stars, they spin with a delight we all know would be a last dance with a vengeance. Chris’ gang sees to it that Carrie is crowned Prom Queen; and after a seeming eternity in having the blood container tipped from near the ceiling the red sea courses down and Carrie’s dismay carries her to a set of eyes and jaw close to that of a corpse. (Both Sue and Miss Collins see what’s coming; but the latter is so intent on running Sue out the door for not having a date that the opportunity is missed and the tension is through the roof—precisely! Close attention to Carrie’s funeral cortege from the palace of problematics indicates that the building is rocked not by her zapping it (as if De Palma were a Stephen King headbanger) but by more widespread, geological stresses as having made the area both a stream of shocks and a stream of terror. The fire hose is thereby popped from its moorings and the ensuing spray of water shorts the electrical system which jams the exit. Various miscreants and drifters die painfully in the subsequent conflagration, but the abdicating Queen hardly notices the furor while being shattered that she has no answer to the distemper of the world. (She recalls her mother’s warning, “They’re going to laugh at you!” and she imagines the whole school, staff and students, laughing at her.)
Split-screen cinematography discloses the horrible and ironic public mishaps as they are, as a natural disaster; and, in another screen, Carrie, for all intents and purposes, having departed planet Earth altogether, concluding there were no way to find equilibrium and love. (If the Melville/ Cocteau concoction largely gives us filmed surreal theatre, the De Palma mix, deftly dispensing with King’s ponderous literature, gives us surreal cinema at a very thrilling level.) Wending her way home like a sleepwalker—the front door swinging open for her in the same motif as her glacial tread circumventing the deadly agitation of the earthlings—she encounters Billy’s car bearing down on her (a back door serving some of the celebrants) with Chris no doubt having much to say; and though she “concentrates hard,” the swerve and multiple roll-over and fireball has much more to do with their frenzied distraction—a cut showing them in the midst of unusual solicitude and sobriety. (Ironically, De Palma’s eschewal of King’s loopy and lucrative zapporama has them—the evening’s blood-letting even getting to them—killing themselves within an effort of swerving to avoid hitting her.)
Now plodding homeward (in itself a destination speaking much more of mechanics than solace), Carrie, consumed not with murderous resentment but terminal depression, almost overshoots her house. On entry, there are hundreds of candles aglow in the service of her mother’s eventually mooting that night, “I should have given you to God when you were born,” in the wake of, “I should have killed myself at that first time [of coitus] after the marriage…” After building up another head of suspense in tiptoeing amongst the shadowy corridors, there is the theologian’s greeting Carrie’s capitulation— “Please hold me…”—with a knife in the back during a rancid caress; and then we have an aftershock of the incident spoiling the dance, which flings several of the melodramatist’s daggers into the would-be killer while the forever, alas, little girl cowers and plugs her ears.The building experiences massive structural damage which no hard concentration this side of Vegas could effect. With things thus going from bad to worse, Carrie pulls out knives pinning the seriously flawed mentor (in a movie buzzing with seriously flawed mentors) to the wall. When last we see her alive she’s engaged in an action not to be overlooked for its dogged care and its coinciding with a filmic treasure. She’s been stabbed and virtually murdered, but she tries to drag her mother’s body out of the decomposing shelter; and along the way she unwittingly brings back the far from chaste Velda and her boyfriend going nowhere smart but somewhere wise, in the noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which ends with a rendition of love among the stars, emanating from a building in the process of being consumed by an atomic explosion. (Mrs. White—you could call her a Soberin[solemn and insane like the latter’s socialist extremist]—has a house that ends in a spectacular conflagration.) A cut to Carrie, now dead in the rubble, finds her overseen by her mom’s statue of Saint Sebastian, as perforated as she was.
We find Sue trying to overcome the trauma, which included the death of Tommy. She has nightmares of Carrie being some kind of supernatural killer. She does not lack promising instincts; but in view of the juggernaut (an earthquake being a kind of juggernaut) devouring the salt of the earth, does she have the right stuff? (By the way, the posing of this task defeats De Palma himself, 8 years later, with his horrendously conceived and even more disastrously executed, Body Double.) The same question is posed for the protagonist of Dressed to Kill(1980)—De Palma knowing that the conflict he was able to distil from King’s abortion (only saved by Tabitha’s unprofitable side) is a very, very big and difficult consideration. Like De Palma, Melville is suffused with the nightmarish problematic of suffocation by malignant clans. Agathe, the unimpressive though sensitive survivor in Les Enfants Terribles, along with nice-guy pushover, Gerard (and his easily attained tough-guy front by way of his collection of exotic poisons), don’t die; but don’t bet on them coming to life. In homage to his love of America as a place where dated imperatives do not rule the way they do in France—try to sell that to Mrs. White—Melville inserts a brief (car-crash-curtailed) husband of Elizabeth, namely, Michael, a Jewish-American jazz pianist and singer. His untimely death merely allows his widow to don old-timey mourning garb. “Elizabeth [according to Cocteau] married Michael for his death…” What does that wisp of blues harmonics accomplish here? Melville spent the rest of his career (and, in that, very much a colleague of De Palma) trying to figure that out.