Monday, 20 September 2010

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead


To properly appreciate just how disturbing Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit" is, you need to burn all your furniture, daub luminous graffiti on the walls of your house, and crank up the hi-fi to a volume that could liquefy human bone. That’s the scene Michael Douglas comes home to in David Fincher’s The Game. His life is being taken to pieces and it’s going to take more than the King’s men to put it back together again.

What makes Grace Slick’s original version of the song so much more unsettling than most of the "White Rabbit" covers is the way she delivers it so plainly. The tone is hectoring, not haunting; fanatical, not febrile. And that’s what makes it powerful. The stark, shouty simplicity of the presentation. The whole nightmare otherworldliness is right there in the lyrics, and Ms Slick delivers them in a relentless martial rhythm that has its own unstoppable momentum. You are dropping down a rabbit hole and there's no parachute. Dressing it all up in a self-consciously “weird” melody would only weaken it.

Are there other examples of that in other media? Here’s one from The Fearless Vampire Killers:

When Alfie Bass sits up on his bier (6 minutes in, but watch the whole thing, won't you - and don't forget to fullscreen it) there’s no showing-off in the photography. Polanski films it the scene as stark and shocking as a dream. It’s funny at the same time, of course, but that only makes it more unsettling.

Or how about the ghost stories of M R James? Unadorned prose and almost a humdrum narrative frame in which the supernatural pokes through like a mouse in the skirting board. I find that much more shuddery than Lovecraft’s florid prose, always so anxious to assure us this is all very, very frightening. Likewise, there are more scares in one minute of Let The Right One In than in all the last decade’s output of Hollywood horror movies, precisely because Tomas Alfredson plays it completely unplugged.

The best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is “The Body” where any attempt to dress up the drama with eerie music and clever-clever direction would insulate us from the raw emotion. Instead, Joss Whedon strips that all away and we’re left with no cosy refuge such as the usual fictional wrapper would provide. Result: forty-four minutes of intense drama that leave you genuinely shaken.

Can you think of other examples from prose, movies, music or comics where simplicity delivers a punch that could not have been achieved through showmanship?

1 comment:

  1. Most of M. R. James.

    "...there is evidently little if anything of first-rate interest to be seen (in the town of Steinfeld): except, perhaps, one thing, which I should not care to see." - 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas'.

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