Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hedgehogs: A Rebuttal

Recently, I happened to come across an article on the A.V. Club that struck something of a nerve with me, it being an exploration of five incidents in popular culture which thrived upon the abuse of hedgehogs.  I was genuinely surprised to see that episode 10 of The Animals of Farthing Wood ("Between Two Evils") had made the list (in part because, ubiquitous as the show was in my childhood, I very rarely see it brought up these days in discussions about pop culture).  As you may recall, I recently covered the shocking events of this episode as part of my retrospective upon the series' many gruesome and disturbing character demises - here, I awarded it a rating of 29 out of 30 and concluded that it stood out as easily one of the most painful and upsetting of the entire series.  No question that it was brutal, although I feel that the A.V. Club article in question took quite a lot out of context and consequently gave rather a dubious representation of both of the events of the episode and of the series as a whole.  So consider this my (respectful) rebuttal.

"But let’s be honest, no one seems to give a fuck about the two hedgehogs in the British animated series. Although none of the other animals bat them around, or wear them as a slipper, they certainly don’t lift a finger to save the hedgehog couple before they’re run over by a semi."

Presumably because there was nothing that they actually could have done, given the circumstances.  Any animal who chose to rush out there in an effort to help them would only have gotten themselves killed in the process.  It was also established earlier on in the episode that the birds would have been unable to carry the hedgehogs, as they did some of the other smaller creatures, owing to their spiny physiques.

As I've previously stated, the only death from Series 1 which truly irritates me, in terms of how easily and obviously avoided it could have been, is that of Mr. Pheasant.  There, a really poor leadership decision by Fox did result in the death of one of the party (Fox knowingly allowed the incompetent Pheasant to return to a location that was of particular danger to him - at least with the newts the danger in question could not have been foreseen).  The hedgehogs were a sad loss, but I've certainly never begrudged the other animals for it, as it's quite clear that they did everything within their power here.

"Later, some bullfrog drops some bullshit about instinct getting the better of them, and the rest of the animals shed a tear or two. But then they charge ahead and an ass of an owl says, “Those cowering hedgehogs just curled up and died.” Harsh. Way harsh."

Owl's rather callous comment aside (I've stated myself that this line has always irked me), this was certainly nothing unusual in terms of how the animals generally responded to the deaths of comrades within the series.  In fact, compared to some of the other animals who died en route to White Deer Park, the hedgehogs received a full-blown outpouring of grief.  The only tears shed when Mrs. Pheasant died came from Mr. Pheasant, and when he died in the following episode, only Mrs. Hare, who felt guilty for having snapped at Pheasant earlier, expressed any kind of sorrow.  The baby rabbit's death prompted a heartfelt exchange between his grief-stricken parents and a sombre observation from Badger, but the animals largely seemed to shrug it off and he was never mentioned again.  And, besides Badger and Mole, nobody within the party seemed particularly concerned about the fate of the Newts.  It was extremely common for the animals to have a brief "well, that's unfortunate" moment, and then to move on and typically never reference the events in question again.  The only real exceptions in Series 1 were the baby field-mice, in that their parents were shown to still be in mourning for them a couple of episodes later.  Badger mentions the newts when debating whether or not to let the mice and voles stay behind, and Mrs. Hare does bring up the pheasants a little later down the road, but on the whole the animals were very accepting of loss.  This is understandable, in a way - the task at hand was to make it to White Deer Park as quickly as possible (before the winter set in), and they didn't exactly have time to sit around and mourn for the departed.

I'll concede that Owl's remark to Adder was still highly unpleasant.  But even then, it's hardly the last that the animals have to say about the hedgehogs.  At the very end of the episode, Fox expresses regret about their fate, indicating that he feels responsible for having put them up to it in the first place, to which Owl responds that the hedgehogs certainly would not have survived if they had remained in Farthing Wood.  Additionally, in the final episode of Series 1, Fox's very last lines are in remembrance of the animals who didn't make it to White Deer Park (even if he doesn't reference any of them individually).  So I think it's inaccurate to suggest that the animals basically didn't care.

Finally, if you still feel that the series had it in for the hedgehogs, then you'd have to take it up with the original Farthing Wood author, Colin Dann.  Because their deaths were lifted directly from his novel.

A handful of additional points:

  • Toad is a toad (appropriately enough), and not a bullfrog (the series is set in the UK, which has no native species of bullfrog).  I'm also not sure why the A.V. Club article thinks that his comments about the hedgehogs' instincts getting the better of them were "bullshit", because that's exactly what happened.
  • It would probably be more accurate to describe The Animals of Farthing Wood as a European animated series rather than a British one (even if it was based upon a series of British novels), as multiple countries had a hand in its production.  (Fun fact - there's actually some inconsistency across the series as to which side of the road the humans drive upon.)
  • An omission from the list as a whole that truly surprised me would have to be the "I Like Truckin'" sequence from the 1980s BBC sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News.  Hedgehog abuse in popular culture seldom gets more appallingly, notoriously gruesome than that.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

A Day or a Lifetime - Bare Runied Choirs and Foreshadowing

For this entry, I'm going right to the beginning of Barton Fink, to where we initially find Barton, watching a performance of his play Bare Ruined Choirs from backstage at a Broadway theatre (note: the title Bare Ruined Choirs is both a direct reference to Shakespeare's Sonnet LXXIII and a sly nod to Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets, the playwright-turned-screenwriter who served as the primary inspiration for Barton's character - see previous entry: Some notes on context).  A more conventional opening might have focused upon the on-stage action, but here the emphasis is entirely upon Barton, to the extent that the cast and stage are not actually seen until the curtain call.  He watches intently, he mouths the dialogue, he appears agitated when a stagehand temporarily obstructs his view, and, most revealingly, the protagonist can be overheard speaking with his own voice - a strategy which immediately calls into question where the objectivity of this scene ends and subjectivity begins, a problem that will remain persistent throughout the entirety of the film.  Barton is apparently projecting himself out into the centre of the stage, and for good reason - the play is really about him.  Where he has come from, where he is now, and where he will soon be headed.

Consider the dialogue overheard from the ending to Bare Ruined Choirs:

 "I'm blowin' out of here, I'm blowin' out for good.  I'm kissin' it all goodbye, these four stinkin' walls, the six flights up, the El that roars by at three a.m. like a cast-iron wind.  Kiss 'em goodbye for me, Maury.  I'll miss 'em - like hell I will."

"Dreamin' again!"

"Not this time, Lil!  I'm awake now, awake for the first time in years!  Uncle Dave said it - daylight is a dream if you live with your eyes closed.  Well, my eyes are open now.  I see the choir and I know they're dressed in rags, but we're part of that choir, yeah, both of us.  You, Maury and Uncle Dave too."

"The sun's comin' up, kid.  They'll be hawking the fish down on Fulton Street."

"Let 'em hawk, let 'em sing their hearts out."

"That's it, kid.  Take that ruined choir.  Make it sing."

"So long, Maury."

"So long. (Pause) We'll hear from that kid.  And I don't mean a postcard."

"Fish! Fresh Fish!"

"Let's spit on our hands and get to work.  It's late, Maury."

"Not any more, Lil.  It's early."

From the little we can discern, the hero of Bare Ruined Choirs is a naive youngster who, much like Barton himself, is about to leave behind his established life (in the hero's case, among fishmongers) in pursuit of some lofty ambition.  Ironically, when we are introduced to Barton we find him at the very peak of his success, and he will shortly be headed for something altogether more squalid and desolate, not unlike the environs described by his play's protagonist - in fact, there is a striking amount of foreshadowing within this snippet of overheard dialogue.  The "four stinkin' walls" foreshadow the sickly, decrepit condition of the walls awaiting him in Room 621, which also happens to be located upon the sixth floor.  There, it is a mosquito and not an El that Barton has to contend with in the early hours of the morning, but its presence proves to be no less intrusive.  He even throws in a "hell" for good measure, one of Charlie's favourite words next to "head", and a popular interpretation for the possible symbolism of the Earle.  This is the world that Barton's protagonist claims to be leaving but that Barton himself will soon be consigned to - although, by the end of the film, Barton too will find release from the Earle (if not from Hollywood as a whole), prompting the question as to whether the film can be interpreted as having a kind of cyclical narrative structure.

Sharp-eared viewers may also pick up on the fact that other characters in the play are named Lil and Maury, and that they reside on Fulton Street.  This is significant as, later on in the film, Barton will impart to Charlie that these are also the names of his own family members (his mother is named Lillian, and his uncle Maury) and that they can be found on Fulton Street, Brooklyn.  Although we learn very little about the content of Bare Ruined Choirs beyond the overheard closing dialogue and the brief synopsis given in the review read aloud by Derek, this small but crucial piece of information provides us with insight into Barton's mind-set as a writer - namely, that he has put himself at the centre, and that the play, purportedly a celebration of the life of the common man, has been filtered through his own perspective.  Barton is effectively trapped within his own head, and, as his subsequent interactions with Charlie will demonstrate, not entirely unwillingly on his part.  This proves to be the source of much of his woe in Hollywood - Barton struggles to write a formula wrestling picture for Wallace Beery because neither Hollywood films or the act of wrestling are subjects in which he has sufficient interest or experience.  Geisler and Mayhew do little to help Barton in this regard (Geisler's solution, to have Barton watch the dailies from Devil On The Canvas, merely deepens his confusion), but when Charlie, a self-proclaimed former wrestler and fan of Beery, offers to broaden his horizon, Barton declines, stating that he isn't interested.

One interpretation of the Earle is that it actually is Barton's head, and that all of the scenes therein are a representation of the life of the mind (or his mind at any rate). On the one hand, Barton feels the isolation and frustrations that come with his entrapment and desperately wants to escape, but at the same time he is much too fixated with himself, and with his own perceived potential for greatness to be truly capable of doing so.  The postcard line from Bare Ruined Choirs is echoed at the climax of the film, where Barton finds Mastrionatti and Deutsch reading his newly-written script for The Burlyman.  We learn even less about the precise content of The Burlyman than we do about Bare Ruined Choirs, but the inclusion of pointedly similar closing dialogue implies that Barton has effectively re-written the play, modified slightly for his new subject matter - in this sense, he has made his perspective the formula.  Following the final confrontation with Charlie, Barton's departure from the Earle similarly modifies the departure of his Bare Ruined Choirs counterpart from their accommodations (already hinted to be a modification of Barton's own departure from his family home), here in a dramatic fashion more befitting of a Hollywood film, with emphasis on spectacle as the Earle goes up in flames.  Barton, captive to his own solipsism, is thus trapped within a loop that he is doomed to keep on repeating - a cycle of confinement and apparent escape that merely leads him right back to where he started.  Having finally fled the Earle, he finds that his continuing entrapment merely assumes a new guise through his contract with Capitol Pictures, and the film leaves him once again transfixed with the image of a sea-gazing beauty, now apparently in the flesh (or perhaps Barton is merely retreating into another escapist fantasy).

Saturday, 5 September 2015

A Day or a Lifetime - False Windows

Garland: I'm only asking that your decision be informed by a little realism - if I can use that word and Hollywood in the same breath. (deleted dialogue)

So far in my ongoing analysis of Barton Fink I've mainly been focussing upon the Hotel Earle and the various motifs and happenings therein.  Truthfully, Barton Fink is a film about two seemingly very distinctive worlds - the dank nocturnal world of the Earle and the diurnal Hollywood exterior that Barton must navigate in trying to locate his bearings as a screenwriter - and what goes on beyond the Earle's sickly dripping walls is every bit as significant as what happens within.  A deliberate contrast exists between the two during the first half of the film, much of which is conveyed through use of light, colour and sound - the Earle is dark, decrepit and deserted, as external Hollywood is bright, garish and populated.  Despite these distinctions, neither world seems any less alienating or discomforting than the other, and the feverishness that pervades the Earle is every bit as prevalent in the world outside.  Within the Earle it is the soft whines of a mosquito that fill the painful silences and appear threatening, while elsewhere in Hollywood the monotonous tapping of a secretary upon a typewriter fulfils the same purpose.  Amid the disorientation, each world offers one figure who provides Barton with a form of emotional anchor - Charlie with his intermittent bursts of companionship, and Audrey with her immense tolerance and emphasis upon understanding and compassion.  And yet these two worlds do not mix - it is when Barton, midway through the film, oversteps his bound and brings the two together, in having Audrey spend the night with him at the Earle, that the experience explodes into an absolute nightmare.

The Earle is such an odd and alienating place that it's tempting to interpret it as a kind of "dream" world that Barton retreats to on a nightly basis.  The theory that at least part of the film represents Barton's dreams/fantasies is a popular one, and we see Barton lying down upon his bed at multiple points, prompting the question as to whether Barton is actually awake for the entirety of the film.  This is arguably foreshadowed in dialogue overheard from Barton's play, Bare Ruined Choirs, at the start of the film, in which one character (speaking, tellingly, with John Turturro's voice) denies that he is dreaming, insisting that, "I'm awake for the first time in years."  It would be naïve, however, to assume that the outer Hollywood should be inherently more grounded in reality than the Earle.  In a deleted piece of dialogue from the scene in which Barton discusses his prospective move to Hollywood with his agent, Garland Stanford (David Warrilow), Garland warns the viewer, indirectly, to be on their guard by suggesting that the words "Hollywood" and "realism" do not readily mesh within the same sentence.  Barton likewise anticipates a lack of reality in Hollywood, in the sense that the perpetual glamour and hedonism of meeting big shots and attending parties will inevitably distance him from the "reality" in which his work is supposedly grounded - that is, the life and mind of the common man.  This notion of Hollywood of course is pure fantasy, at least for the likes of Barton, who gets absolutely no whiff of glamour once he's out there.  If the scenes at the Earle play out like a nightmare, albeit an eerily mundane one in the early stages, then Barton's "waking" life in the daylight of Hollywood offers no refuge, instead assuming a dislocating, nightmarish quality all of its own.

A sense that the two worlds are not so dissimilar occurs during the scene in which Barton has lunch with Geisler.  Barton, who spends much of the film in isolation, here finds himself in an unusually crowded venue (the only other occasions in which he is seen in the presence of numerous people are in the Broadway scenes at the start of the film and later on at the USO dance) but the sense of alienation is still rampant, with the conversations of the adjacent diners translating into a sea of unintelligible babble.  Strikingly, the backdrop of the restaurant is dominated by a mural depicting a painting of a New York street scene, with the letters of "New York Café" painted on backwards in order to evoke the sensation that one is gazing from their table into an authentic view of the world outside (ironically, it is a recreation of the world that Barton has left behind).  In other words, it is a false window and, while larger and grander than the picture of the bikini-clad woman in Barton's room at the Earle, there is an obvious connection between the two images in providing a view into a world that is not actually there.  Throughout much of the film, the picture in Barton's room has little relevance to the Hollywood that Barton actually encounters, either inside the Earle or out (the closest that it arguably comes is in Barton's fascination with the picture mirroring his longing for Audrey), and its primary function for Barton is escapism.  This is signified in the sounds of waves and gulls (sounds that are otherwise out of place within the walls of the Earle) that are heard whenever Barton's gaze falls upon it, indicating that it is transporting him out of his squalid surroundings and into the realm of fantasy.  The mural in the restaurant conveys a similar lack of reality, and suggests that the world outside of the Earle is just as susceptible to escapism, and every bit as consigned to living in a state of fantasy. 

The most dangerous aspect of a false window is that it obscures what is actually lurking outside.  Much as we never see the real view of the world that exists outside of the restaurant, Barton never really gets a sense of where he stands in Hollywood and how he is expected to function in it. Garland's words are borne out, in part, by the utter phoniness of the figures that Barton encounters there, with Lipnick being a notable example (no viewer can surely believe Lipnick when he tells Barton, in their first meeting, that the writer is king at Capitol Pictures, no matter what claims he makes about the size of their paycheck).  We later learn that W.P. Mayhew's screenwriting career is also a sham - Mayhew has long been consumed by alcoholism and it has fallen upon the long-suffering Audrey to ghost write his more recent work.  It is the confusing, superficial and contradictory nature of much of the talk in external Hollywood that makes Charlie, for all of his eccentricities, seem all the more affable and down-to-earth in his nightly conversations with Barton.  And yet he too is not all that he seems.