Monday, 5 May 2014

A Warning...


Notes on a film and its prologue: A Warning to the Curious


The title and prologue both play, self-reflexively, to the natural inquisitiveness of the viewing audience; that unstated appetite for the forbidden; the impulse to experience the unknown; to look behind the curtain and see how things work; to go where we're not supposed to; to venture out and explore.  In the context of the genre - in this instance, the supernatural - the title becomes more than just a label of identification; it's like a challenge to the individual; acknowledging our curiosity and using it to entice us, to lure us in.  The outcome might be nasty, even unpleasant, but already the title is challenging that spirit of adventure and inquisitiveness; that compulsion to open the previously locked door into the great unknown, as a provocation, or as a test of will.

From the very beginning, director Lawrence Gordon Clark establishes the location as a central character and uses the filmmaking to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and isolation that will intensify as the drama unfolds.

Effectively, the film itself begins with two continuous panning shots.  The first starts on a bleached-out, almost desaturated image of the pallid sand dunes stretching out to meet the shining sea.  Already, the implication of the shot is obvious: we're at the end of the world.  The camera pans to the right, following the coastline until it reaches a far-away copse of trees that wind-back, creating a borderline between earth and sand.  The next shot places us inside the woodland.  We're still outside, in the midst of nature, but the cut feels like a transition between an exterior-space to an interior one.  This time the camera pans to the left, across the wall of trees that appear like a perimeter encircling or imprisoning us; again, creating the impression that there's no place left to run.

The shot comes to rest on an image of a silhouetted figure in the distance.  Glimpsed between the greying trees that stand guard atop skewed hills that give the image the feeling of something from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - all distorted expressionism; a natural location that seems as stylised and otherworldly as a studio set - we watch the distant figure digging in the dirt.  Subsequent insert shots clarify the action, as the shovel penetrates the mound of earth and the man, now in close-up, exhales exhaustedly, until abruptly... he stops.  We're not sure why (to be exact), but it's almost as if the man has suddenly sensed something unsettling; a hidden presence, perhaps lurking within the periphery...


A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

Throughout this sequence, Clark uses images of the surrounding woodland as a form of visual punctuation; accentuating the scene but also adding to the growing tension; that implicit impression that something terrible is about to occur.  Automatically the stylisation creates an eerie feeling; a sense of someone (or something) being present, observing from behind the trees.  There's no one there, physically (for the time being, at least), but even so, the character has the sensation that he's being watched and the audience, knowing instinctively the insinuations of the genre, share these paranoid thoughts.

The isolation of the location and these images of the forest - all ashen trees stripped of greenery; taking on the appearance of horned creatures silhouetted by an almost colourless sky - feed into the underling fear that causes the character to react.  Already I was beginning to question the possibility of an actual danger awaiting this character - trapped within a strange and slightly distorted environment with no easy escape - or if his actions (unstated, but no less suspicious) were in some way fuelling his discomfort (his guilt?), if not genuine fear.

As an approach to technique, the use of these cut-away shots reminded me very much of another film released during the same year; The Wold Shadow (1972) by Stan Brakhage.  Unlikely to have been an influence on Clark, the Brakhage film nonetheless begins with a similar image of trees framed within a woodland environment.  Like the shots here, it's a benign image - just trees, not necessarily something unnerving or unnatural in any immediate way - but one that the audience might interpret as sinister or even threatening if forced to look at for longer than seems necessary...


The Wold Shadow [Stan Brakhage, 1972]:

As the viewer observes The Wold Shadow, the image is transformed.  The transformation is created first through an unconventional manipulation of the aperture and later by shooting the image through an obscured pane of glass (onto which the filmmaker has gradually daubed paint to create an unnatural distortion of the original frame).  While the effect of this transformation on the viewer is intended as purely sensory (a visual metamorphosis), the actual result is far more psychological.

By studying the image, our mind is free to wander.  Even before Brakhage begins his manipulation of the form there is a need to contemplate and make sense of these images.  This "need" forces the viewer to project their own thoughts and fears onto its blank canvas; inventing a narrative where no real narrative exists and, in a sense, bringing the images to life.  In doing so, we start to see things that aren't actually there; we're spooked by what we perceive as shapes between the trees; the illusion of movement created by shadow and light.

It's the impression of nature itself as somehow "possessive", or able to possess, that is the most starting idea communicated by these shared images.  The conception of nature as something, if not genuinely "evil", then as a kind of conduit for something more primitive; an elemental spirit, representing its own energy, or primordial force.  The longer we're forced to stare at these images, the more significant they seem.  To make sense of them, we invent our own nightmares through superstition and attach them to these otherwise normal scenes, so that the images become a kind of black mirror; a deep (Freudian) abyss...


The Wold Shadow [Stan Brakhage, 1972]:

The sequence by Clark works on a similar if more conventional level.  Unlike the Brakhage film, the images remain part of a clear and identifiable narrative.  They work to tell the story, as illustrations, but the presentation of the images and the atmosphere that they evoke are no less charged with that same elemental spirit; where the forest space once again becomes a genuine force, and where the act of seeing (with one's own eyes) transforms a natural and benign image into an unnatural one, loaded as it is with a genuine "supernatural" threat.


A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

Convincing himself (like the audience) that it's only his mind playing tricks on him - the superstitions of local lore or the natural isolation of the location getting his imagination spinning off in strange and ridiculous directions - the character gets back to his digging.  Returning to the wide-shot, Clark reminds us that the man is still alone...


A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

However, after another one of those "Wold Shadow-like" insert-shots that make us question the safety of this place and its isolation we cut back to the man, now confronted by the sight of a tall, dishevelled figure, dressed almost entirely in black...


A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

The figure startles both the character and the audience by appearing, as if from nowhere.  Here I asked myself: where did he come from?  Is he a supernatural presence or a local person angry at the man's intrusion?  It's never openly explained but we can draw our own conclusions from the subsequent scenes.  Even so, the unmitigated fear is clearly defined on the countenance of the digging character; a surprised shock or indignation that soon turns to insolence, as the man's upper-class arrogance kicks in.

There is a hint of class-based commentary here consistent with Clark's later film, the previously discussed Stigma (1977), where the digger (a man of some inferred privilege and reputation) believes that he has the right to bend nature to his will and to disturb these sites of sacred interest, while the local man - earnest, possibly simple-minded and with an air of agitated lower-class physicality - is unsurprisingly appalled by the lack of respect for the land and its traditions.

A scuffle breaks out but the man is able to subdue the menacing figure, knocking him to the ground.  At this point, the more rational mind of the audience will be telling the character to flee; to use this advantage to get away.  However, as horror movie law dictates, the man's arrogance and greed has already sealed his fate.  As he returns to his digging, safe in the supercilious belief that he's bested this shabby and cadaverous intruder, the black-clad figure spies a large axe-like implement left idle among the kindling.


A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

The blade seems to have appeared as mysteriously as the figure himself, but already Clark is using these metaphysical manifestations to establish, in the collective mind of the viewer, the threat of an actual, physical violence.

While hampered by awkward editorial transitions (no doubt a result of the film's limited budget), the following sequence is no less impressive in its staging; the structure of the shots and the growing momentum of dread and desperation showing an obvious debt of influence to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and in particular the infamous Bates' Motel shower sequence from the filmmaker's late masterpiece, Psycho (1960).


Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960]:

Here, as in Hitchcock's film, it is the way the rhythmical cutting between shots suggests the brutality of the violence (as opposed to the violence itself) that makes the greatest impression.  Rather than depicting the attack in explicit detail, the scene instead implies violence through montage and movement and through the facial expressions of the characters on-screen.

As the camera slowly zooms from a mid-shot to a close-up and beyond into an extreme-close-up of the back of the character's neck, we're already certain of what's about to take place.  We're being led to connect the shots in our own imagination; the man, the close-up on the back of his head, the figure with the blade, the blade itself, etc, all combined in the mind's eye of the viewer to suggest something unspeakable, but in a manner that is brilliantly done...


A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

As an introductory sequence, the above scene is an attention-grabber.  It establishes, sufficiently and with much atmosphere, the key themes of the film - from greed and curiosity, to the isolation of the countryside and the almost primal preservation of tradition as a genuine supernatural force - as well as introducing the greater practicalities of the subsequent narrative.  Here a man driven by what we assume is greed finds himself isolated in a landscape that takes on a near-paranormal tenor when threatened by external forces.  This, as a distillation of the film in miniature, is like a prelude to everything that we're about to see; a forewarning, of history about to be repeated.

More importantly however, the scene also communicates a level of "meta" commentary that is in keeping with the here-jettisoned narrative structure of the original story by M.R. James.  There, the warning of the title was recounted by the central character, in-hindsight.  He was talking about something that had already occurred, so the character's recollection became a warning to his companions (the listeners to his tale).  As an alternative, Clark structures the film so that this opening sequence, in its entirety, can itself be considered a "warning to the curious."  The curious, in this instance, being the viewing audience (those of us watching the film), but also the soon to be introduced central character, Mr. Paxton, as played by Peter Vaughan.