The pleasures and terrors of Old Hollywood from a master manipulator
Movies have so much in common with dreams that one of Hollywood’s most enduring nicknames has been “the dream factory.” Of course, there’s a downside to every dream, and something closer to the nightmare evolved alongside the safe thrills and romantic fantasies of cinema from the beginning. While some audiences were mesmerized by the novelty of early filmmaking, others are said to have screamed at the size and proximity of objects they were used to seeing in real life but not projected to gargantuan proportions. And this trend never really let up. In the ’70s, stoic theater managers had to spread kitty litter in the aisles at screenings of The Exorcist to catch patrons’ vomit as they stormed out of the theater. Even supposedly seasoned audiences can still be frightened by the power of 24 frames per second: witness the queer stampede from Todd Verow’s grim Frisk at the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival a few years ago, or war vets’ tales of grisly flashbacks at screenings of Saving Private Ryan.
Filmmaker Martin Arnold, born in Vienna in 1959, takes this trend in bizarre new directions in a series of short black-and-white experimental films that restore much of the novelty, terror, and surprisingly, humor, of early cinema. Using elaborate optical and aural manipulations, he turns scenes from old Hollywood movies starring the likes of Judy Garland and Gregory Peck into hilariously weird, black-comic nightmares. The footage he quotes is in itself unremarkable – a man walking into a room where a woman is reading, a middle-class meal, a romantic interlude between Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney – but he does ultra-precise (frame-by-frame) edits that endlessly repeat the characters’ tiniest movements, so they’re constantly, frustratingly on the verge of something that never seems to materialize. For some viewers, these “compulsive repetitions” will have the effect The Exorcist did on some terrified Catholics; others will find Arnold’s sleight-of-hand hypnotic and rewarding.
Piece touchee (1989) is a brief exegesis of a woman reading and a man coming to visit her. This footage comes from an unidentified movie from the 1940s, and opens innocently enough with the woman sitting in a chair enjoying her book. There’s no movement at first, but this is deceptive; an almost imperceptible motion starts to happen with her hand moving slightly up and down, a sign of the slight agitation that eventually explodes as something attempts to open the door. Suddenly this homely scene takes on the feel of a horror film, with what may be a monster repeatedly, terrifyingly straining at the door. Arnold builds on this arid atmosphere of entrapment and incipient chaos to the point where a kind of vertigo sets in. In a literally dizzying sequence, Arnold introduces maniacal flash-cuts and repeatedly replays and interrupts a scene in which the camera pans across the woman rising and the man walking; this will have some viewers holding their chairs.
Passage a l’acte (1993) makes a simple breakfast scene from To Kill a Mockingbird look like a surrealist nightmare. The 1950s family is the target here. Those who know the film will recognize the characters as a father, his two kids, and a neighbor woman, but the film transforms them into a crazed version of the postwar family. While “Mother” sits with a frozen smile and Father (Gregory Peck) reads the paper, sonny boy gets up from the table and opens and closes the screen door repeatedly. The slamming of the door sounds like gunfire, hinting at an unnamed aggression occurring somewhere just outside this sacred space of the ’50s home and perhaps at disturbing forces at work within this family. Arnold’s exploitation of these characters is pitiless; like an evil puppeteer he repeats a shot of Gregory Peck screaming words and parts of words to stultifying effect, while the son twitches back and forth with some unknowable frustration and the daughter makes gutteral noises that attain a kind of robot rhythm.
Arnold’s most recent work, Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), stitches together a strange sexual scenario from three of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney vehicles. In the opening scenes, Andy embraces his aging mother, but subtle repetitions give this homespun scene an unexpected erotic charge. Arnold brazenly rechoreographs Andy’s movements to make it appear he’s humping the old gal from behind. Meanwhile Judy is singing in another room, but it’s no ordinary song. She’s made to emit disturbing “peeping” noises, sing backwards, and lingers on phrases like a stuck record: “There must be someone waiting … waiting … waiting … waiting …” The effect is both comic and chilling, as she stands pathetically with outstretched arms waiting for Mickey, who, perhaps because he’s just left his mother’s bed, never quite connects with poor, frustrated Judy.