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Two diabolical redheads: Part One of Two

posted by Mickey on 7/25/02

Two diabolical redheads, part 1. Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in "Carrie".

Just before I begin writing this two part article, I might mention that I don't intend to relate the plots of these movies as such, but I am going to proceed on the presumption that people have either seen them or have definitely decided not to see them. Anyone who wants to experience for themselves the various turns of the screw these films offer is forewarned not to come crying to me saying that I spoiled it for them.


Chill out, Sissy. You are about to get a good review

All other things being equal, if I am standing with friends in a cinema queue, discussing what movie we ought to see, given a choice between a goofy romantic comedy or a horror movie, I will vote for the goofy romantic comedy, even if it stars Meg Ryan. Or, in the case of a toss-up between a shoot-em-up action flick and a horror movie, I will generally urge the cause of the shoot-em-up action flick. In terms of body-count, I can't really claim any high moral ground here, but it is the case. Similarly, if a debate occurs about the entertainment prospects of a kid's movie about talking dogs or a horror movie, I will be fondly reminiscing about how many great movies there have been with wisecracking canines. Since this will involve lying through my teeth, I can't really claim the ethical high ground here, either. Now, I often lose these arguments, so I have seen my fair share of horror movies (for instance, I saw "Blade 2" last night, and enjoyed it for what it was), but generally speaking I find the conventions of the genre pretty unsympathetic.

Having said that, the two best cinematic experiences I have had over the last 12 months or so have been with movies that have both probably already wound up in the horror shelves at Blockbuster. I speak of Brian de Palma's "Carrie," (re-released onto the big screen to celebrate its 25th anniversary) and Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others" (which I wouldn't have seen at all, if it hadn't so happened that the movie I wanted to see was sold-out on a night I had made a big effort to get to the cinema, a day or two after an incident playing soccer had left the big toe on my right foot hideously swollen. I suppose, strictly, speaking you didn't need to know about the infected big toe I had back then, but for a while there, Hollywood could have made a horror movie called "Godzilla vs von Hangman's Big Toe" and you wouldn't necessarily have put your money on Godzilla).

Now, on their own, I probably wouldn't want to write about either "Carrie" or "The Others" as I have discovered that it is much more of a chore for me to post here about stuff I really like than when I am considering the sort of second-rate garbage I seem to spend half my life consuming. I decided it would be a worthwhile exercise, because it seems to me there are a couple of similarities between the movies that people may not have noticed. There is the red-haired thing, for a start, and for another there is the fact that both movies, in their own ways, are period pieces. If there are not as many rib-tickling jokes in this post as in the standard von Hangman roll-about-the-floor-clutching-your-sides-a-thon, then just ask for your money back from the guys at the door.

NICOLE KIDMAN. So, you mean that usually when you write these things, there is meant to be some comic intent?

VON HANGMAN. Yeah. That is the general idea.

NICOLE KIDMAN. I see. That is very interesting. I shall have to re-read what you have written, bearing that in mind. Hold on. You aren't being droll with me right now, are you? I don't really understand your sense of humour sometimes.

VON HANGMAN. That's OK, Nicole. Count your blessings. How would you like waking up in the middle of the night to find me laughing into my pillow at something nobody else would find funny?

NICOLE KIDMAN. I think I would like that very much indeed.

I once heard Stephen King interviewed on the radio, talking about how one day his father went out to buy a packet of cigarettes, but they must not have had the brand he liked at the shop, because that was the last they ever saw of Dad. I can almost hear Johnny Cash singing a song made out of that anecdote. I hope it was Stephen King, because if it turns out it wasn't, I'll be left looking like a prize idiot. I have not read much of the Kingster, but if writing the source material from which a whole lot of good films have been made is anything to go by, he is a lot better writer than Jane Austen or Henry James or E.M. Forster. "The Shining", "The Shawshank Redemption", "The Green Mile" and "Misery," for instance, are all good films, and there was a television adaptation of "It" that I thought was as spooky as hell, but for my money "Carrie" is the best of the lot. I read somewhere that the novel, which was King's first published work, initially became a best seller on the back of a movie-tie-in paperback print run which didn't even feature the author's name on the cover. Without being an expert on King, I will venture a theory that he is such a successful author not because his beasts and demons are particularly memorable creations, but because they trouble a surface that is very recognisable. "Carrie" is the story of the girl at school whom nobody likes; and since there is a girl (or boy) like that in every classroom that has ever answered a rollcall, the character has a universal recognition factor. The school scenes in "Carrie" are not far removed from a good episode of "Degrassi High" (which by the way, is a high compliment). In an episode of "Degrassi," however, if, say, Heather, was to have her affections played with by, say, B.L.T., she wouldn't respond by murdering everyone in the school (although she might want to).

Sissy Spacek's performance as Carrie White is surely one of the greatest performances in 1970s cinema. Orson Welles once said that his profoundest conviction in the whole business of moviemaking was that the cinema camera registers "something that is only vaguely, suppositionally detectable to the naked eye, registers it clear and strong: thought. Every time an actor thinks, it goes right on the film." Spacek must have been thinking along some pretty spooky lines, because she registers the inner-hell that every poor child who has been the target of the cruelty of other children experiences with a genuinely frightening intensity; and all the more so because for the greater part of the performance, her feelings are peeking out from behind the blank exterior all adolescents put up to try to disguise the turmoil of their feelings. Her Carrie White is a poor freckly pasty timid creature. And yet, her pain at every fresh humiliation she suffers, and, even worse, her shy little hope that she is going to break out of her creepmouse existence into popularity, are translated directly onto the screen with such power that the movie, if anything, ends up being too sympathetic towards her; so that, when she wreaks her revenge, instead of being properly appalled by it, the audience welcomes it, and is cheering her on, as dozens of people who are guilty of nothing worse (although nothing less) than insensitivity, meet a fiery death.


The eyes of Texas are upon you

Sissy Spacek is an actress who has never exactly traded on her looks. The way the ghosts of electricity howl about the bones of her face make her a natural to play characters who are troubled by questions of a more elemental nature than the quickest way to get into an ingenue's trousers, but I would also hazard a guess that over the span of her career she has not exactly had every good script in Hollywood landing on her agent's desk. Frankly, I think she is about 10 times more attractive than, say, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michelle Preiffer has never played a role Sissy Spacek couldn't have played better (note to self: check this out on IMDB before posting) but their different career trajectories reflect a lot about what Hollywood has been like over the past 25 years. During most of this time, the token "good" actress, ie. the actress who can play leading roles other than sexpots, has been Meryl Streep. I am happy to admit, all other things being equal, I would rather stump up money to see Michelle Pfeiffer wearing a catsuit than Meryl Streep putting on a Lancasterian accent, or a Tasmanian accent, or a Rastafarian accent, or some damn thing, but it is also a shame that, all too often, this has pretty much seemed to be the sum of available choices.

Trivial fact: Sissy Spacek was originally slated to play Princess Leia in "A New Hope," while Carrie Fisher was considered for the role of her namesake in "Carrie" but ended up declining the role because of the nudity involved. If the repercussions of this little vice-versa episode were confined to the two movies in question, you would have to say that no great harm was done. Carrie Fisher would have made a hopeless Carrie White, although she was a perfectly adequate Princess Leia. Unfortunately, Hollywood being what it is, and if the films she has actually been in are in any judge, Sissy Spacek has spent the last 25 years looking for scripts that come within the length of a football field of being worthy of her gifts. If she had been able to capitalise on her existing reputation as a dramatic actress (which nobody who has ever seen "Badlands" would be able to dispute) by appearing in a blockbuster series like the original Star Wars trilogy, I like to think there would have been no stopping her. Instead, she has been confined to some brilliant performances in mostly shitty films. (She won an Oscar, deservedly, for "A Coal Miner's Daughter"; and has been nominated six times in all but almost inevitably for films that would not have been worth watching if they had not featured Spacek).


The King and Queen of Senior Prom

The school at which "Carrie" is set is called Bates High School, which is only one of a number of different hommages within the film to Hitchcock's "Psycho." There is a direct quotation from the famous "Psycho" music at two climatic points on the soundtrack; and the shots of Carrie's mother attacking her daughter are framed as another direct tribute to "Psycho"; and, surely, if less directly, so is the shower scene at the beginning of the movie with its shots of (menstrual) blood going down the drain. The casting of Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother is another nod to Hitchcock (she was one of the actresses considered for the Janet Leigh role in "Psycho"); and Piper Laurie benefits from this by delivering probably the best lines in the film. The lines about how Carrie should take off the dress she intends to wear to the prom because everybody will be able to see her "dirty pillows" are, I guess, pretty well known, and the re-iteration of her line "They're all going to laugh at you, Carrie," means that it will be burned into the brain of anyone who has seen the movie, but my favourite moment, in the whole film, occurs when Carrie and her mother are seated at dinner, in a darkened room, with an electrical storm raging outside.

CARRIE. I've been invited to the prom.

MARGARET. Prom?

There is a pause of one beat, and then lighting forks in the window behind her, illuminating half of her appalled and stricken face. It is a moment of brilliant cinema. So, it is one thing spotting a lot of nods to "Psycho," but what are they all about? (I would argue that the greatest similarity between the two films is that they are sympathetic portraits of gentle souls who kill their mothers and a lot of other people, and where a lot of the blame for all those homicides is directed towards the respective Mums. In "The Others," Mum herself turns out to be the murderess. Cherchez la femme? Cherchez la Mum, mon ami).

As much as "Carrie" is an acting tour-de-force by Sissy Spacek, who is well backed up by a good supporting cast (including John Travolta in his first movie role), Brian de Palma himself and his film-making bundle of tricks are always going to be a significance presence in any Brian de Palma movie. "Carrie" is full of bravura shots. Perhaps the most famous individual shot in the film is the image of Carrie dancing with her Robert Plant look-a-like partner at the prom, where the couple spin around one way, while the camera swings around them the opposite way, with both the centrifugal dancers and the centripetal camera getting quicker and quicker. It is a giddy moment, and for more than one reason, for while Carrie is giddy with happiness, the audience is sick with foreboding on her behalf. Just after this justly famous shot, however, comes one I think is even better, with the camera tracking from the business of the bitchy girl rigging the votes to decide which couple will be crowned the King and Queen of the prom, to a rope leading to the rafters, and up and up the rope to the bucket of pig's blood swaying on the brink of a beam, from where the camera's gaze zooms down to the table where Carrie and Robert Plant are sitting, just in time to register their reaction to the announcement they have been elected the most popular couple. There is a similar shot in "Panic Room" where the camera follows a telephone wire, that got a lot of critics excited, but which didn't half-so neatly set up a dramatic situation. The sequence where the bucket is released, and the immediate aftermath are presented in slow motion, and from multiple viewpoints (I mean psychologically- we go into Carrie's mind to see people laughing at her, who, in fact, were not laughing at her); and then the screen splits in two for the red-drenched cathartic prom massacre. As previously mentioned, it is very difficult not to identify with Carrie as she dispatches her senior year.

Which brings me to the question of the accusations of misogyny that are often thrown at Brian de Palma. Give or take a few seconds of volleyball, the opening shots of the movie, of a lot of young naked volleyballers taking off and putting on towels and generally reclining around the locker room so many slow-motion refugees from "Bilitis," gave me the impression that I was about to watch one of the most exploitative movie ever made. In fact, these shots are anything but gratuitous, since they lead up to our confrontation with a young woman who is at the very opposite of ease with her body i.e. Carrie's hysterical discovery that it is her time of the month. More trivia: the word "hysteria" derives from the Greek word for womb. I hate using the phrase "hysterical woman" because I know there is a sexual slur buried in the meaning of the words, but in this case, it seems to be appropriate. Because Carrie has not been warned by anyone that there is such a thing as a time of the month, instead of humming "I'm Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)" Carrie reacts pretty badly, while the eye-candy from a few minutes before pelt her with tampons. In the aftermath of this, poor Carrie has to overhear the assessment of her teacher, Ms Collins (the most likeable character in the film) that even she could understand why the other girls had picked on her. Poor Carrie. Just the scenes of her in the school library, looking up books to try to understand the changes she is experiencing (with telekinesis standing in here for puberty) and then having to deal with the advances of Robert Plant, create a character that I just wanted to give a big hug, and protect, as if the experience of watching this film had turned me into Holden Caufield.

So how did this movie, with its tender evocation of a delicate soul, ever get the reputation of being a prime exhibit in a misogynistic canon. Well, probably the fact that it features a woman (Piper Laurie) appearing to moan her way through a multiple orgasm while being penetrated by knives, didn't help. But apart from that, how come? Well, some eggheaded dude named Dmetri Kakmi (whose article I have linked here) argues, "The film's overarching concern shows a mythic view of woman as Force of Nature, a Furie whose destructive capacity is unleashed by primitive rites of passage brought on by the flow of menstrual blood." And, having mulled over that for a good five minutes, that seems to me to be a pretty good analysis (although parts of the rest of his argument strike me as over-ingenious). If you want to disagree, I am certainly more than happy to hear what you have to say, so send me an email. That is not my view of women, but it is a view of women, and as peddled by a myth-monger as potent as Stephen King, and expressed by a film maker as good as Brian de Palma, it makes for a powerful, disturbing, film.


It's all right, Ma, I'm only bleeding


Apparently there is a sequel to "Carrie" called "The Rage: Carrie 2," starring Emily Bergl who looks pretty hot on the video cover (well, she is standing in front of a sheet of flame) but I haven't bothered to see it because 1). Emily Bergl is demonstrably not a redhead and 2). it wasn't at my local video store when I looked for it the other night. I am willing to believe it is not the worst horror movie ever made, but it was not made by the creative team that produced the original, so my suggestion is that maybe Stephen King and Brian de Palma could get back together to collaborate on a sequel called "Mariah Carrie" about a girl in questionable psychiatric health, who, when a cruel practical joke is played on her, responds by singing such high notes that soon everybody's ears are bleeding.

Continue to part two...

Mickey
mickey@whatever-dude.com




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