Sunday, 31 January 2016

A Day or a Lifetime - Charlie Calls #2

Charlie: How about family, Barton?  How're you fixed in that department?

Barton: My folks live in Brooklyn with my uncle.

Charlie: Mine have passed on. It's just the three of us now...what's the expression?, myself and I.

Barton: Sure, that's tough, but in a sense we're all alone in the world, aren't we Charlie?  I'm often surrounded by family and friends, but...

Charlie: You're no stranger to loneliness, then?

Barton's second encounter with Charlie occurs after his initial meeting with Mayhew and, even more crucially, Mayhew's secretary Audrey, with whom Barton has attempted, unsuccessfully, to strike up a more intimate relationship.  If his first encounter with Charlie served largely to establish what Barton, for all of his pretensions, really thinks of the common man that he purports to represent, here the emphasis leans more upon the extent to which Barton and Charlie are kindred spirits, connected by a mutual loneliness and both harrowed by their festering sexual frustrations.  To say nothing of their shared compulsion to explore the inner workings of the human mind - in one case figuratively, the other much more literally.

Barton is very much an outsider to the world of sexual activity, but it fascinates him, as evidenced by his response when confronted with yet another of Hotel Earle's auditory disturbances, this time in the form of a couple who are apparently making love in the room next door.  Overly-rambunctious neighbours are, like poor air conditioning and hungry mosquitos, another example of the kind of perfectly familiar intrusion one might expect to encounter on the most intensely mundane of vacations or business excursions.  And yet there is immediately sinister quality to these noises, being as they are the only genuine evidence we get throughout the entirety of the film that the hotel has any tenants at all besides Charlie and Barton (and no, the numerous pairs of shoes we see lined up in the corridor to be shined by Chet are not in themselves "proof" that there are actually occupants in the adjacent rooms).  The love-making couple feel somewhat out of place within the deadening, uncomfortably barten world of the Earle, but their intrusion comes as a welcome one to Barton, who obligingly presses his head against the wall for a further listen.  A link between Barton's sexual energies, however vicariously satisfied, and his creative energies is heavily implied when he is suddenly compelled to head back toward his typewriter - now, tellingly, surrounded by crumpled up pieces of paper from various false starts and abandoned efforts.  At this point, we see the camera zoom across the keys of the typewriter and into the blankness of the typing paper - as it does so, the screen is filled with a blinding light, which could be taken to signify the creative enlightenment that will finally enable Barton to move past his writer's block, only for Charlie to enter into the room and bring the process to an abrupt halt.

Ostensibly, Charlie's arrival represents a disruption - arguably, he has snapped Barton back into reality just as he was about to find escapism and creative expression in a fictional world of his own construction.  Alternatively, the exact opposite is transpiring, and that preceding movement into a bright, empty space signifies Barton's "breaking through" into an altogether different reality, one in which Charlie is ready and waiting to greet him (a reading which could be taken to support the popular interpretation that Charlie does not actually exist, but is in fact a figment of Barton's own imagination).  Either way, Barton does not seem at all put out to be interrupted by Charlie, whom he greets cordially as a friend.  No longer the threatening stranger he appeared to be back when he and Barton first locked eyes, Charlie now wanders into Barton's room, sits himself upon the bed and converses with him freely.

It is during this encounter that we get our very first reference to Charlie's chronic ear infection, which will later develop into one of the film's most significant and unsettling motifs, although having acknowledged, forebodingly, that he cannot trade his head in for a new one, Charlie very quickly shifts matters on to inquiring about Barton's marital status.  Barton establishes that he is neither married or in a relationship, which he attributes to his writing and to his tendency to "get so worked up over it", meaning that he doesn't have a lot of attention left over to spare.  In other words, he is too self-absorbed to be capable of giving adequate consideration to the needs and desires of another individual - a point Barton duly demonstrates when, unable to resist going off on another of his egocentric little tangents, he immediately cuts Charlie off as he is about to bore him with the details of his own professional life.  Barton's attention is what Charlie ultimately wants - he makes this clear at the end of the film when he berates Barton for his failure to listen - for he too is a lonely individual and, in spite of his playful heterosexual posturing (the reveal that the underside of his tie is adorned with the illustration of a near-naked female, his claim that he gets "opportunities galore" in his line of work as an insurance salesman) intimacy with Barton is what he seeks.  Charlie informs Barton that, since the death of his parents, he is left with "just the three of us, myself and I" (a nod toward Charlie's multiple conflicting identities), prompting Barton to imply that, despite often being surrounded by family and friends, he is seldom able to shake his own feelings of intense isolation.  As Charlie deduces that Barton is "no stranger to loneliness", we witness a fleeting moment of genuine empathy between the two.

Charlie then presents Barton with a picture of himself on the job - like Charlie's ear infection, this will have relevance later on in the film, where particularly attentive viewers may notice that it comes to function as a sort of counterpoint to the picture of the sunbathing beauty (Barton places it in the corner of the same frame).  Charlie is keen to establish himself as Barton's muse (we get our first real inkling of this at the end of this meeting when Charlie invites Barton to make use of his own expertise as a former wrestler by engaging with him in a bout of wrestling - see below).  The picture he gives Barton, which depicts a smiling and well-presented Charlie in a white business suit, allegedly plying his trade as a traveling insurance salesman in Kansas City, comes with a story about one of Charlie's policy holders (one who was carrying fire and life, whose hubby was out of town and whose third quarter payment was way past due) although Barton declines to hear it, choosing instead to make his own typically condescending assumptions about the details of Charlie's life, largely as a means of overselling the importance of his own.  Barton's assumptions about Charlie are of course false, but then so is the impression of Charlie's life given within the picture.  At the very least it does not reveal the full story.  Later in the film, when Barton runs into Mastrionatti and Deutsch, who present him with a picture of their own offering a very different representation of Charlie (or Karl Mundt, as they refer to him), they infer that Charlie's claims of being a traveling insurance salesman are a lie, calling into question the authenticity not only of the picture, but of just about anything that he may have disclosed to Barton about his work and his life.  According to Mastrionatti and Deutsch, Charlie's mention of having been in Kansas City is at least true, although his interactions with the housewives he encountered there were none too savoury.  (How does his anecdote about the female policy holder even end?  Did she try to barter her way out of the third quarter payment by propositioning Charlie, as seems to be the implication, or did her husband being out of town leave her open to attack from Charlie's unique brand of chaos?)

Barton informs Charlie that he envies him for his daily routine, far removed from the pains and responsibilities of having to "plumb the depths" and "dredge something up from inside" that his own job as a writer entails.  He does not realise just how closely he and Charlie are actually connected in this sense, for Charlie makes a habit of dredging things up from the inside on a more literal basis, and he is well-acquainted with the horrors that come with exploring the torturous territory of the human head.  As Barton speaks of the kind of pain he experiences as a writer, a pain that he anticipates that anyone else would know little about, Charlie is seen pressing his fingers against his infected ear and wincing, signalling that pain is an all-too familiar aspect of his daily routine.

In a show of false modesty, Barton reveals that the screenplay he is working on is for a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery, a detail which immediately piques Charlie's interest, for it turns out that he was an amateur wrestler back in school and is also a huge fan of Beery (although he prefers Jack Oakie).  Barton admits that he himself knows little about wrestling and that he is actually not very interested in "the act itself" (a clear indication that he may be severely out of his depth in this particular assignment), but Charlie manages to persuade him, briefly, to participate in a demonstration of the wrestling basics, resulting in Charlie easily overpowering Barton and leaving him in a dazed and crumpled heap on the hotel room floor.  Obviously, Barton is no match for this so-called Common Man when it comes to hands-on experience, but this scene has deeper significance, as many (including the Coens themselves, reportedly) perceive the act of wrestling between the two as having sexual undertones, an interpretation reinforced by Charlie's jovial comments about waking up the downstairs neighbours (if indeed there are any downstairs neighbours to be woken up within the Earle) and the obvious innuendo in his observation that there is "usually a lot more grunting and squirming before the pin".  (This interpretation also shows up later within the context of the film during the final confrontation with Mastrionatti and Deutsch, who deduce that Charlie and Barton have engaged in some form of sexual activity, to which Barton naively responds, "He's a man.  We wrestled.")

Before being persuaded by Charlie to get down on his hands and knees and wrestle, Barton signals his initial decline by swiveling his chair back in the direction of his desk and of the picture of the sunbathing beauty above it, only for Charlie to promptly and forcibly swivel him back.  Once again, there is the suggestion of a rivalry between Charlie/the Earle and the picture of the bikini-clad woman - as with the previous encounter, when Charlie leaves the room, Barton's attentions once more return to that image of alluring beauty, only for his moment of peace to be cut short by a disturbance from elsewhere in the room.  We saw this happen previously with the wallpaper peeling, but on this occasion the source of the disturbance is in the bathroom, in which Charlie had briefly entered before departing.  Curiously, this particular moment is cut from the finished film (unfortunately so, because it disrupts an obvious pattern in Barton's three initial encounters with Charlie and how each of them concludes), but can be found among the deleted scenes on the DVD release, and will be explored in greater detail in the upcoming entry.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Dreamer

Scarface and Lady Blue had a litter of cubs around the same time as Fox and Vixen – a nameless female cub who stops appearing after only a couple of episodes, and a male cub named Ranger, who goes on to play an important role in the latter half of the series.  Although Scarface initially declares them “better than anything that other lot could produce” and believes that Ranger will be of invaluable use in his ongoing vendetta against the red foxes, he changes his mind when he actually sees the red fox cubs.  Ranger is turning out to be a disappointment to him, which Scarface puts down to the contaminating presence of Lady Blue’s “lily-livered blood,” and he now firmly believes that Fox and Vixen’s genes are the superior combination.

Episode 7 opens with one of the red fox cubs being found dead, and it comes as no surprise that it should be Dreamer, a female cub with a very short attention span and a penchant for wandering off on her own.  Scarface had spent much of the previous episode skulking about in the bushes near the cubs, and his intentions seemed none too good.  Coincidence?  Probably not, although nobody actually saw what happened.  Dreamer’s death remains the series’ greatest mystery non-mystery.

HORROR FACTOR: 10. We’re used to youngsters being fair game by now, and Dreamer’s carelessness in the prior episode had marked her out as an obvious candidate for misfortune.  Still, the sheer eeriness of this death, coupled with it being the episode’s opening image, make it one of the more spine-chilling that the series has to offer.  The score of perfect 10 reflects not so much shock or brutality, but the quiet, understated sense of unease that surrounds it.  Dreamer's death may not be outright horrific (although the extensive focus upon her dead body might upset some of the more squeamish viewers), but it is very, very unsettling.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 1. We technically don’t know the exact circumstances of this one, although it’s very much a death for a death’s sake.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 8. Ugh, those damned violin strings again.  Dreamer had only been around for two episodes, but I think that's still sufficient time for us to have garnered some attachment to her as a character.  The tender manner in which Vixen is seen nuzzling her body, and then glancing back before she leaves her forever, are also very affecting.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisted: Series 2 - Mole

I noted that the last three Farthing Wood deaths I covered back in November all involved extremely minor characters - that is, animals who were trotted on screen purely for the purpose of having them die less than two seconds later.  This death, however, was right at the opposite end of the spectrum, as it marked the very first time that a major character had been killed off in the show.  Series 1 initially had eight characters whom I would regard as being "major" players - Fox, Badger, Owl, Weasel, Mole, Toad, Adder and Kestrel - with Vixen and Whistler joining that list toward the end.  Deaths in Series 1 were reserved strictly for members of the supporting cast, but here's where that particular barrier came down and the original eight lost one of their ranks.

In fairness, Mole's prominence in the series had already been on the wane since Series 2 - he'd had a decent-sized role in an earlier arc involving Badger's disappearance, but following that he was barely seen at all.  He largely kept his nose out of the poacher arc, but what little we did see of him revealed that he'd shacked up with a female mole of half his age (it's implied).

Badger, who had been very close to Mole in Series 1, becomes very concerned when the thaw arrives and Mole remains unaccounted for.  Fox begins to suspect that Mole perhaps didn't make it through the harsh winter, but is reluctant to raise this possibility with Badger.  Come the spring, when Fox and Vixen's attentions have turned to bringing up their own litter of cubs, they are visited by the female mole, who delivers the sad news - Mole died in his sleep during the winter.  He didn't depart without spreading his seed a little though - the female mole (her official name is Mateless, but I personally think that's a bit cruel) is accompanied by two youngsters, one of whom will never be seen again (making me wonder why they even bothered to include her here), the other of whom, Mossy, is the spitting image of his father, and all primed to succeed him as Farthing Land's resident mole.  So yes, despite killing Mole off, he wasn't truly being axed from the series, as his son, who looked and sounded exactly like him, would shortly be filling the void.  Mossy doesn't quite have the same personality as his father (whereas Mole was very sensitive and soft-hearted, Mossy had a tendency to show annoyance more frequently) but he served much the same purpose.

Readers of the original Colin Dann novels may have anticipated this death at some point, but odds are that it would still have caught them off-guard, as Mole's literary counterpart died a lot later on in the Farthing Wood timeline (after the Scarface arc had concluded).  I suspect that his death was shuffled forward in anticipation of another major character death that would be happening quite shortly down the road, one which had no basis in any of Dann's novels and represented rather a bold liberty on the part of the TV series.  But ah, we're getting ahead of ourselves there.

HORROR FACTOR: 5. An off-screen death and implied to be one of the more peaceful in the Farthing Wood canon.  The "horror" here relates to the pure shock of learning that one of the major characters had died, which, despite some foreshadowing in the previous episode, still packs quite a heavy blow.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 10. It was cold and Mole was old.  His time had simply come.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 10.  You know what makes this death particularly heart-breaking?  Badger's reaction.  He isn't around when Mateless makes her formal announcement about his old friend's passing, but when he later shows up and Vixen tries to break the news to him, he retreats sharply into denial.  When, subsequently, he encounters Mossy, he takes him for Mole and refuses to hear otherwise, to the extent that Vixen must convince the reluctant Mossy to play along in order to spare Badger's feelings.  As a kid, I recall being rather frustrated with Badger's behaviour here, as his obstinacy/stupidity on this matter seemed very out-of-character, but now that I'm older I have a different perspective.  It's evident that Badger knew along that Mossy wasn't really Mole, he just wasn't prepared to look the matter straight in the face.  He may also have been getting a little senile - much like Mole, Badger was getting on in years.


Thursday, 7 January 2016

Audio Oddities - Final Relaxation (The Golding Institute)

Billed as "your ticket to death through hypnotic suggestion", Final Relaxation is not an audio oddity for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  A quick glance at the album cover - an image of a decomposing dolphin carcass washed up on an otherwise serene-looking beach - should be indication enough of that.  Final Relaxation proclaims itself to be "the most unusual recording ever sold", an audacious claim for sure, although I would certainly be hard-pressed to name a novelty record founded upon a more deliciously warped concept than this one.  Released by Ipecac Recordings in 2006, Final Relaxation was the fourth (and, to date, final) in a series of releases attributed to the mysterious "Golding Institute".  The three previous installments, Sounds of the American Fast Food Restaurants (1996), Sounds of the San Francisco Adult Bookstores (1997) and Sounds of the International Airport Restrooms (1998), were all released on 7" by Planet Pimp Records, and served as pastiches of the field recording/sound effects record (with Folkways Records' "Science Series" being a particularly obvious target), deliberately picking out some of the most simultaneously mundane and unappealing subject matter imaginable.

Final Relaxation, released on compact disc, has its sights upon a slightly different target - the relaxation record, a recording purporting to benefit the listener by offering techniques in stress management.  Such recordings had been in existence for decades - indeed, Folkways Records had taken their own stab at the genre in 1959 with Lee B. Steiner's Sounds of Self-Hypnosis Through Relaxation - and were going strong well into the 2000s, a more contemporary example being Paul McKenna's Deep Relaxation, released in 2003.  These weren't just limited to instructional recordings from noted psychiatrists and hypnotists - anybody could create a "relaxation record" by whipping together a bit of new age-style music sprinkled with natural sound effects of some variety, and throughout the 1990s trendy gift shops were rife with discs and cassettes with names such as "Ocean Dreams" or "Songs of The Coyote", promising peace, tranquility and re-connection with nature, their covers typically adorned with calming imagery of clouds, waves or bottlenose dolphins.  The dolphin was certainly a persuasive animal where relaxation records were concerned, with one such recording, Dolphin Touch by Ilizabeth Fortune and Dr. Jeffrey D. Thompson, utilising modified dolphin noises "to induce the production of alpha, theta and delta brain-wave patterns in the human cerebral cortex for the purpose of deep relaxation, inspiration and meditation."  It's here that we might appreciate the playful subversion embedded in Final Relaxation's rather unpleasant choice of cover image - it gives us a dolphin alright, but a dead, decomposing one, evoking the decay and mortality that permeate every corner of the natural world.  Mortality is very much the primary occupation of Final Relaxation, although the recording itself never flat-out admits it.  Make no mistake - this is a relaxation record looking to make you relax to the point of no return.

Final Relaxation does have something of a vague narrative surrounding it - the press release information explicitly identifies the Golding Institute as "a radical cult-group masquerading as an educational organisation", while the CD inlay takes the form of a mock will, bequeathing the owner's estate to The Golding Institute, "so that they may continue their work for the benefit of all mankind", and declaring that "The Golding Institute is in no way responsible for my passing, and that I died solely through weakness of character and intellect."  While there are a few hints within the recording itself indicating that Final Relaxation may indeed be the work of a radical cult seeking to harvest multiple victims and their money - notably when it instructs the listener to first leave a note letting whoever finds their "body vehicle" know of the benefits of their programme and setting out instructions for the disposal of their financial assets - for the most part it's the undercurrent of sheer misery and malevolence that makes it so fantastically sinister.  For Final Relaxation is intent not merely upon making you die, but upon ensuring that your final thirty-two minutes will be as painful and uncomfortable as humanly possible.

Final Relaxation, unsurprisingly, makes for one hell of a freaky listen, and much of its success in that regard rests upon the performance of "medical adviser" Christoph Heemann, our guide to the final relaxation process.  Final Relaxation takes the (not unreasonable) assumption that nobody will be entering into it blind and from the start makes no attempt to pass itself off as a genuine relaxation record, with Heemann's narration hitting an immediately unsettling note - an exemplary combination of skin-crawling monotony, uneasy pauses and sudden, peculiar emphasis upon particular words and syllables (the manner in which he occasionally hisses the "x" in "relax", for example, is a real tension-spiker).  Heemann begins by citing a few examples of famous people who have successfully used the "Final Relaxation" technique: "Jan Berry of Jan & Dean,  actor Richard Harris, top chart maker Robert Palmer, entertainer Bob Hope and England's beloved Queen Mother".  At this point alarm bells should already be ringing - these are all celebrities who have passed on and, more specifically, celebrities who had passed on in the early 00s, making them recently deceased at the time of Final Relaxation's release.  Heemann never explicitly states that the final relaxation technique means death, emphasising merely that is a "sleep so deep that it could only take place in a graveyard or an urn", that all of our worldly troubles will permanently cease once the technique has been successfully applied, and the benefits of having a body that is beyond all sensation, to the extent that "ten men can put their cigarettes out on your naked chest."

Heemann himself is evidently not a happy man.  As the recording continues, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between instructions to the listener and personal outbursts revealing his bitterness, disappointment and general disgust at life, although on occasion he will slip unabashedly into the latter ("Last year alone I paid 14,000 dollars in taxes, yet the road leading to my home is riddled with potholes...").  He makes his sexual frustrations plain when he instructs his female listeners to "remove your clothing, starting with any skirts or dresses, continuing to the undergarments, such as a brassiere, or any sorts of lacy sorts of underwear that may restrict your ability to take part in the final relaxation."  Most troubling of all, Heemann hints that he may be deriving some form of twisted gratification from the suffering of the listener - read this particular sample of dialogue out of context and tell me that it doesn't just drip with malice:

"I hope it's hot in your room right now.  I hope you're sweating and choking.  Is blood trickling out of your mouth and onto the pillow?  Good.  How do you feel?  Relaxed?  Not relaxed enough?  Oh, you will soon, for in approximately five minutes, you will embark on the final relaxation."

Heemann's performance ensures that this is all brilliantly understated, however, conveying our adviser as someone weighed down by an overwhelming sense of pain and weariness, increasingly manifesting itself as spite.

As noted, Heemann isn't quite as interested in soothing your troubles as he is in deepening your agitation, his "relaxation" technique consisting of little more than having the listener imagine themselves in all manner of gruesome and grotesque situations.  The frequency with which these scenarios flicker between stomach-churning horror and laugh-out-loud hilarity is a great part of what makes Final Relaxation such an uneasy, but also rewarding listening experience.  Some of the imagery Heemann evokes is outright bizarre (one of the more benign examples being a totally left of field reference to Gene Krupa's final concert), at other times he piles on the horrific details to the point of absurdity ("rats on your stomach, eating their way through to get an apple!", "the eyes are stinging, as if they've been urinated into, or as if a box jellyfish has taken up residence on your face"), and at others Heemann's blatant underlying malevolence is what really sells it ("are you allergic to hay?").  And then there are a few select moments that stand out as genuinely, unreservedly disturbing, the pinnacle undoubtedly being when Heemann advises the listener to snap their front teeth off, which, if carried out correctly, should leave the taste of the saline in their mouth.

The intensity of the recording really kicks into gear within the last five minutes, as Heemann assures us that we are drawing nearer to the final relaxation, and his own vitality undergoes a notable deterioration.  It would no doubt be unsporting of me to reveal the full details of the ending, but I will say that it concludes on an appropriately (and chillingly) abrupt note.

Ultimately, Final Relaxation is best recommended to those who like their humour particularly dark or those who are gluttons for punishment.  Its macabre concept and decidedly gruesome content mean that it is awfully difficult listening at times - however much you may laugh, you'll find yourself wincing and retching all the more more - and yet the sheer strangeness of the recording, coupled with Christoph Heemann's hilariously repulsive performance, make it a must-have for all hoarders of audio oddities.  I can only hope that, over time, a robust and richly-deserved cult following will develop.  "I Survived The Final Relaxation" bumper stickers, anyone?