Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Shout (1978) A Film by Jerzy Skolimowski

Roman Polanski has invariably been deemed the Polish Master of Paranoia, or some such variation on the term, and as a result the hypnotizing skills for suspense offered by his countryman Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-wrote Polanski's debut Knife in the Water) have often been unjustly neglected. In fact, for me, The Shout, Skolimowski's 1978 horror film, matches even Polanski's Repulsion in its mounting feelings of dread and mental collapse, and does so with an even greater degree of friction in its dynamic sound/image relationship. I place sound first because this is a film, like Coppola's The Conversation and De Palma's Blow Out, that emphasizes the role of sound in perception, directing so much attention to the vulnerability of its sonic landscape that visuals, if not quite an afterthought, feel as if they are primarily servicing what is heard.

The Shout is set largely in and around a remote ocean cottage nestled between mountains and sand dunes, and it entails the arrival of a mysterious vagabond named Crossley (Alan Bates) to the home of experimental noise musician Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) and his wife Rachel (Susannah York). Because of Skolimowski's oblique storytelling style, it's not clear at first that what ensues at this cottage is framed as a flashback, reminisced upon by Crossley as he relaxes in the verdant landscape behind an insane asylum where inmates and staff are playing a game of cricket. Crossley relates this story to an arbitrary character (Tim Curry at a time when he was a dead ringer for Chris Martin) from inside a small bunkhouse, where he is allowed a rectangular window view of the action on the lawn. That his perspective is reminiscent of a movie screen, and that his story is being directed at a passive listener (an audience surrogate?), makes it possible to read the entire film as a metaphor for the limits of storytelling, filmmaking, and art creation in general. Emerging from this unstable, cryptic source (Crossley is a patient in the asylum), the narrative proper of The Shout is entirely subject to the warped perspective of this strange man, and quite possibly partially or wholly "false."

Skolimowski materializes this shaky, unsettled world through a succession of visual and aural fragments, miniaturized snippets of experience that express a portion of what's being focused on and only rarely the complete picture. When Crossley is telling his story at the asylum, Skolimowski intercuts his chilling drone with heightened close-ups of the action on the field, so brief as to nearly be abstract – a pitcher winding up for delivery, a bat striking a ball, a patient's excited face. Later, when Anthony is introduced, there are evocative shots of his recording process, an ongoing experiment of placing microphones in close proximity to a wide variety of sonic happenings (a bee buzzing in a glass jar, the ticking of a metronome, the flicking of a piece of metal, the ringing of an alarm clock). The sounds produced are de-familiarized through heavy audio filters, just as Skolimowski's representation of physical reality is chopped up, chromatically muted, and ultimately rendered alien and remote.

In the flashback that comprises the majority of the film, Anthony and Rachel York are a comfortable, modest couple who enjoy their peace in the English countryside. They have a single guest room, but they don't seek company. If their existence is somewhat routinized and passionless, Crossley quickly represents an active force that shakes them out of their complacency, giving shape to the flaws in their lifestyles and in their relationship. After a calm morning mass (where Anthony makes extra money as the church organist), Crossley casually approaches his target draped in a long black trench coat and directs some of the out-there jargon he absorbed from experience in an Aboriginal tribe at him: "I've always found it hard to believe that the soul is imprisoned in the body until death liberates it." In this moment, Skolimowski unsettles the air around Crossley with a slow zoom, immediately establishing him – with his atypical spiritual views and shaggy look – as an outcast in this environment. Yet even before this, Skolimowski offers a shot of an arm, presumably Crossley's, reaching from behind a wall to let air out of Anthony's bicycle tires, lending the sense of a cold, premeditated attack. Sure enough, that evening Crossley effectively invites himself in for dinner, which Anthony reluctantly accepts. Over a primitive meal of boiled potato and pork chops, Crossley dryly admits to marrying an Aboriginal woman and subsequently murdering their children, claiming it the only "natural" death in Aboriginal society. It's merely the beginning of his drawn-out, invasive stay in the York home.

Despite Anthony's anxieties, however, he's also oddly envious towards Crossley's mystical purity. Anthony is, after all, a man seeking to glean larger meaning from the world through experimentation with sound, and the priest's nihilistic proclamations at church ("The foundations of our society are not firm...we're like a rudderless ship, no direction....") seem to echo the spiritual and artistic rut Anthony finds himself in. In this light, the film's titular shout – an ear-piercing guttural scream perfected by Crossley from Aboriginal teachings with the alleged ability (soon proved) to harm and even kill any living thing nearby – represents a human sound so lucid and authentic that it puts to shame Anthony's aimless quibbling. There are two moments in the film that explicitly include the shout, but only one that faces its hair-raising, speaker-bursting intensity head on: a stunning scene when Crossley escorts a hesitant Anthony to the middle of the sand dunes to demonstrate his ability and prove to him its violent powers. Crossley leans back like the Big Bad Wolf to gather his energy in an extended shot framing him against the sky before lurching forward to bellow to the heavens. After the silence that precedes it, the sheer volume and harshness of the sound is beyond startling, and it effectively makes the rest of this otherwise quiet, restrained movie vibrate with the tense expectation of sound. Skolimowski's manipulation of the audience is so powerful that at one point, when Crossley is taking Anthony's wife to bed, his body forms roughly the same orientation that precedes the shout, rendering a moment that could very well be just a harmless contortion of the body during sex unbearably frightening.

Were it not for the earplugs he fearfully inserted beforehand, Anthony would have fallen dead upon hearing the shout just like the nearby sheep Skolimowski shows meeting their demise in slow-motion shots reminiscent of Kubrick's images of dying animals in the Dawn of Man sequence. Instead, Anthony merely stumbles down the side of the dune in painful recoil, while Skolimowski's hurried backwards zoom lends iconic weight to the moment. (There's a strange plot point that grows out of the end of this scene – Anthony's discovery of a sacred rock that is to Crossley what a Horcrux is to Voldemort in Harry Potter – but it's one of the curiosities of the film rather than an essential element.) This first instance of the shout marks the moment Crossley gains complete control over Anthony, and his manipulation of the meek village musician only escalates rapidly from there; by the end of the flashback, Crossley has driven Anthony from his own home, possessing the sexual desire of his wife and insulting his "empty" music in the process.

Or, at least that's how Crossley tells the story. But it's not all megalomania. Strangely, the flashback concludes with Crossley being slowly killed by the sacred rocks right as policemen infiltrate the York home to arrest him for child murder. Simultaneously, a thunderstorm erupts back at the asylum (visualized in gloriously retro cheapie fashion), driving Crossley to madness and ultimately killing him. The dreadful shout, which Crossley uses in an attempt to fend off the police, seems to have as much of a destructive impact on its user as its audience. The powers of manipulation therefore run their course, and it's perhaps no mistake that at the moment Crossley loses control, so too does the film, its coiled energy imploding into anarchic chaos as soaked and half-naked inmates (one of which is first-time actor Jim Broadbent) scurry wildly in the rain. At the peak of the madness, the film promptly returns to its quiet opening scene featuring Rachel attending a morgue to locate Crossley's dead body. There is nowhere to go from here but back, Skolimowski seems to be saying.

The Shout is a chilling, uneasy slow-burner of a horror film that is as much about how easily life, as well as art, can be manipulated through perspective and approach as it is about the limits of control. Neither Crossley nor Anthony find the proper outlets for their spiritual searches, spreading violence and confusion at one extreme and fiddling vainly in obscurity at the other. Crossley possesses Anthony and Rachel's quiet, autopilot lifestyle, but his fear-mongering collapses in on itself. Anthony aims to give shape to the mysteries of life through his sonic experimentation, but he drifts further away from the palpable world the more he noodles. It's a perfect formula for character suspense, and Skolimowski rings every ounce of it.

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