Wednesday, September 30, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Crazy in that good way.

Well, Screamers and Screamettes, we've come to the very last installment of this year's Silent Scream Series: The House of Silent Scream. Before getting to the last anniversary post, I just want to thank everybody who participated and everybody who followed along. I've had a great three years doing this blog and that's due in no small part to the readers and writers I've met online. Thank you all.

But enough of that, on to the guest blogger.

Hey, that's no guest blogger! That's my wife!

Booknerd - aka Jessica - runs the much loved Written Nerd lit blog and is co-owner of the soon to open Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene.

And she married me. 'Cause she's nuts.

Ladies and germs, Booknerd . . .

Truth be told, I’m not much of a fan of the horror genre as a whole. I possess one of those imaginations the Victorians worried about when they advised women not to read too many novels. While I love the fantastic in art, and I usually enjoy the emotional rollercoaster a good story puts me through, I’m too prone to post-viewing nightmares to enjoy most films that are particularly grisly, psychologically tortuous, or uncanny – which rules out most of what CRwM writes about here.

The one counterintuitive exception: I kinda love zombie movies. Sean of the Dead viewings in our house are in the multiple dozens, and I even saw Land of the Dead in theaters. Maybe it’s that the violence tends to be pretty cartoony; maybe it’s the seeming manageability of the supernatural threat (especially with slow zombies). Partly, I think, it’s that zombies are kind of like a natural disaster: they don’t have any particular beef with you, they’re not even really malicious, they’re just hungry, and there are lots of them. Fighting them takes more wilderness survival skills (axes, barricades, traps, etc.) than mystic knowledge or sheer screamy stamina.

Really, what I think I love is the idea of what happens after the apocalypse. I’m one of those delusional, na├»ve people who thinks I’d be one of the survivors, and that the world wiped clean of civilization would offer all kinds of opportunities. No laws, no systems, a small community of people learning how to live all over again. The untended shopping malls full of loot are as delicious as the chance to re-learn how to grow food and protect oneself from predators. The riches of culture free of charge, plus the prospect of a more authentic engagement with the manual-labor stuff of life: it’s a big part of the appeal of films like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and even Mad Max (which I’ve recently discovered I also kinda love). This is way bigger than zombies: it’s a postmodern yearning for authenticity combined with a consumerist desire for all this stuff. Or just a child’s fantasy of running amuck when authority is gone. The downside is all that death and stuff, but the adventure is worth the ickiness.

The Rene Clair short film The Crazy Ray (alternately titled Paris qui Dort or, my preference, At 3:25) presages the whole post-apocalyptic genre – but does it without the icky consequences, making it possibly the perfect non-horrific horror film. In this end-of-the-world created in a more innocent era, everything turns out okay in the end, but our heroes have in the meantime gotten to enjoy all the heightened dramatic experience and freedom from societal strictures that the apocalypse can offer. It’s an eerie, lovely, funny, original film, and one that I feel must have had some kind of subconscious impact on the imagery of later post-apocalypse films, though none have ever pulled it off so elegantly.

The film, set in the gorgeous Paris of the 1920s, opens with a handsome young guard in the Eiffel Tower. On ending his shift around dawn, he descends to the street to find – everyone is gone. The scenes of an empty Paris are as striking as the empty modern London in the first scenes of 28 Days Later, and must have been just as challenging to film (though in retrospect, it doesn’t quite make sense that there are no vehicles in the street – more on that later.) The young man, increasingly distraught at the lack of Parisians, finally comes across a few folks (a pickpocket, a cop, etc.), but they seem to be in an unusual state of suspended animation (whether asleep, or frozen in time, the film never makes entirely clear, but it’s a Sleeping Beauty’s castle kind of situation).

Finally the young man comes across some other folks in a state of full consciousness. Turns out they just arrived in Paris on the plane from Marseilles, leading them all to conclude that their altitude somehow protected them from the sleeping sickness that has afflicted the city, if not the world. The company includes a cop escorting a bad guy, a “butter and eg man” (a great old slang term for a rich but unsophisticated businessman, the “bridge and tunnel crowd” of his day), and the requisite lovely young lady, among others. They wrack their brains to figure out what has happened, but of course they can’t. So they do what every small band of survivors does in the wake of the apocalypse: they go out to dinner.

In one of the most hilarious and charming set pieces of the film – all the more so because it’s done entirely with body language and gesture – the characters sit down in a restaurant and, with the influx of free champagne from the untended kitchen, become increasingly aware that all rules are off. They dance on tables, they insult the aristocrats sleeping nearby, they dance with the sleeping girls, they pick pockets and take clothes off others’ backs, they laugh and weep. It’s like the mall madness in Romero’s movies, but with a rather Parisian elegance to the debauchery. Finally they stagger out, with the butter-and-egg man attempting to stuff some bills in the pockets of the comatose maitre’d.

When the band of survivors decides to hole up in the Eiffel Tower, just in case the unexplained incident returns, another part of the post-apocalypse story kicks in. There’s only one girl, remember? The male members of our band of outsiders begin to feel unkindly toward each other, as the title cards remind us “The last woman on earth!” But unlike the unpleasant misogyny of the “save the breeders” mentality of 28 Days, or the genuinely uncomfortable sexual tension of other last-girl films I can think of, Rene Clair plays it as a largely comical love octagon. There are moments of real drama when the two youngest suitors grapple on the edge of the tower, with terrifying panoramas of Paris below them, but somehow it all still seems in good fun – the naughty glamour of the weird post-nuclear Ann-Margret lounge number about “thirteen men and I’m the only gal in town”, with a St. Germaine stylishness.

More delightfully transgressive incidents occur; the robber with his skill at lockpicking becomes a valued member of the company, for example, and the butter-and-egg man finds his comatose Paris tart in the arms of another eggman. Eventually, a telephone call leads the company to the source of the apocalypse: a crotchety but not particularly scary scientist, who seems to have produced the eponymous Crazy Ray as an experiment in putting the world to sleep and then forgotten to check on the results. With the help of his daughter, the company manage to convince the old gent that he has to put it right, and some very scientific equations on chalkboards ensue. But fix it he does, and in such a way that the world starts up again at 3:25 AM, just the moment when it went to sleep, so that presumably, no one is the wiser. The film ends with the cop chasing the robber again – all’s right with the world.

I find it interesting that the same scenes and tropes that inform world’s end sagas now are present in Rene Clair’s film, but also that they’re so rarely infused with this amount of cheeky fun. Presumably all the heroes are worried and terrified about the lack of other conscious humans, but in reality it all seems like a bit of a lark. It almost feel s like cheating to get all the post-apocalypse fun without the actual apocalypse – and of course it is cheating. Where were the crashed cars on the streets if everyone fell asleep simultaneously? How could the scientist possibly fail to notice that he’d caused the end of the world? Why didn’t the sleeping people starve to death after sleeping for weeks? But of course, those kinds of logical problems are present in the most deadly serious horror films as well, with results that are often far less enjoyable.

The Crazy Ray is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, but also seems to inform so many. I’d highly recommend it for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, for a look at how the world might have ended at 3:25 – not with a bang or a whimper, but with a champagne toast.


zoe said...

fantastic, i look forward to seeing it. great post!

Sasquatchan said...

Saved the Mrs until the end I see. New werk has made keeping up to date on ANTSS hard. Also, writer nerd link isn't right ;)

CRwM said...


You can find it on the Image Entertainment edition of "The Bells." It's a special feature add-on.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I wouldn't say "saved." I posted articles in the order they were received. In her case, she was so busy that I was actually writing up a "so long, thanks for hanging out" series capper when the post popped into my Inbox. Glad we could include her though.

Thanks for the heads up. The link works now.