Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Film: Some Thoughts on Mirrors & Movies

I love the horror genre and when I see a film that’s succeeded in frightening me - since it so rarely happens these days - I do a little celebratory dance.

Ok, I don't really do a dance but I do feel like I've found a little bit of treasure and feel the need to celebrate, as I did recently after watching Mirrors (2008). Not that I didn't see that coming because, as with haunted houses, evil children, bodily mutations and clowns, mirrors freak the hell out me out.

But, I wondered, why do mirrors freak me out?

I suppose it stems from being taught about a mirror’s cursed other worldliness from an early age; what other everyday household object can bring bad luck?

Aside from this pervasive superstition art, myths, literature and film also contribute to imbuing mirrors with a sinister side.

From Perseus’ mirrored shield fatally casting Medusa’s reflection back on herself, to the magical mirror in the Brothers Grimm's Little Snow-White (1812) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871) where the mirror acts a portal into another world (the imagination); mirrors transcend being just reflective to something altogether more powerful, holding infinite possibilities.

For some reason I’ve always found the convex mirror which lies in the background between the married couple in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) eerie. Even though it reflects the two people in front of the couple (possibly the artist, or witnesses), when it's viewed from a normal distance the reflected people could be perceived to be the viewer, bringing the painting creepily to life.

Surrealist painters M. C Escher and Salvador Dali have both painted themselves caught in a mirror’s reflection. And Escher painted a self-portrait in which he’s framed in a mirror, as if he’s standing behind the mirror, peering out at the viewer.

In films, mirrors are widely used to the point of becoming a cliché: how many times have you seen a protagonist looking into a shattered mirror to symbolise split personality; or the reflections of two people caught in two separate mirrors to symbolise distance in a relationship.

But it’s specifically in the horror genre that mirrors come into the fore, and where better to start than on another mirror cliché: the bathroom mirror shock-cut. You've probably seen it many times before but it still can work, playing on a knowing anticipation.

Mirrors can sometimes lead to other worlds, as in Carroll’s Alice. Jean Cocteau played with mirrors and in Blood of a Poet (1932) and Orphee (1950) they lead to a different dimension where simple camera trickery (reverse photography and slow motion) help . And with Evil Dead I & II (1981/87) Sam Rami followed suit with mirrors that have watery surfaces and get up to malevolent tricks - at one point nearly causing the lead protagonist to strangle himself.

Malevolent mirrors are not unusual, capitalising on the power they have to lie and corrupt those that stand in front as in the portmanteau films Dead of Night (1945) and From Beyond the Grave (1973) where the mirrors cause their owners to, respectively, attempt suicide or commit murder in order to feed the mirror.

It’s scary when mirrors don't do their job and choose instead to lie like in Dolores Claiborne (1995) where a character looks at herself in a mirror only to confronted by her back; a conceit which may have been lifted from Rene Magritte’s Portrait of Edward James (1937).

Mirrors are also used as fetishistic objects as the Tooth Fairy killer in Manhunter (1986) does, putting shards of mirror in his victim’s eyes, or in Peeping Tom (1960) whose psychopath records his victims watching their own death distorting reflected in a mirror.

For me, the most audacious mirror scene in a horror film has to be in Deep Red (1975) where the killer can be spotted in a mirror 90 minutes before identity of the murderer is unveiled.

And finally, on a lighter note, my favourite mirror scene is the reflection dupe in Duck Soup (1933) where Groucho and Harpo battle it out, mimicking their increasingly bizarre routines to maintain the illusion of passing a mirror to great, classic, comedy effect.

On Writing: To Be Feared or Revered? Who's Occam and what's the Deal with the Razor?

In a previous blog (9/03/10) I used an Esther Freud quote to suggest that good writing is achieved through good editing, and it's with this lancing of unnecessary words that Occam’s Razor comes in.

In a literary sense, the rule of Occam's Razor is essentially: prune all inessential words. There are many variants but I’ve often wondered: who's Occam? And what’s this razor? Was Occam Sweeney Todd’s predecessor? Was he a murderer or a philosopher?

A dichotomy like this is important to resolve, so I decided to put a face to the name.

It turns out that the name Occam refers to British born William of Ockham (1288-1348), an intelligent, multi faceted Franciscan Friar who was a logician and theologian, and is known as the pioneer of nominolism as well as the father of epistemology and one of the major figures of scholasticism; all that despite never completing his Masters at Oxford University and being charged with accounts of heresy. Not bad for a University drop-out and possible heretic!

At least the image I now have of Occam/Ockham is less malevolent than before.

Monday, 19 April 2010

A Random Story (in less than 500 words)

The Hound of Consequence

The phone rang. Al dropped the potato he was peeling and rushed to the hall.
“If that’s Brenda and Gary, we’re not visiting them,” Sara said catching the potato as it rolled off the work surface.
“What! Why?”
“I can’t explain it. I’ve just got a bad feeling about tonight, so say no, ok?”
Al answered the call. “Hello. Yes I know it’s you Brenda. Well, I’m afraid we can’t make it, we have ummm…”
Sara opened up a newspaper and thrust the cinema listings at Al.
“We’re going to the cinema tonight to seeeeee,” Al followed Sara’s finger. “Final Destination… Is it? Well, we’ll be the judge of that. I’ll pass that on, bye.”
Al hung up.
“You angel,” Sara said and kissed Al on the cheek.

Later, Al and Sara were driving to the cinema.
“What are we going to see?” Al said.
“We could see The Final Destination.”
“Seen it.”
“You haven’t. This is The Final Destination. You’ve seen Final Destination - the first one - and its two sequels. This is the new one.”
“Final Destination 4?”
“Yes, but it’s called The Final Destination because it is, at the moment, the final Final Destination. The ‘the’ is very important.”
“The ‘the’ is very confusing.”

At Brenda and Gary’s house Brenda was in the kitchen arranging her guests’ drinks on a floral tray. She lifted the tray, felt its weight and considered asking Gary for help, then shrugged the idea off, approached the kitchen door - which was only open a smidgen - and expertly opened it with her knee. She was about to alert her guests when the edge of the rug nearest her right foot inexplicably lifted, causing her to fall forward, releasing the tray. A deluge of glass, liquid and Brenda fell onto the rug. Gary ran to her aid.

The next morning, after wondering around the house, mug of coffee in hand, following Sara’s fragrant trail from the bathroom, down the stairs, to the front door, Al was preparing for another job-hunting day. He sat in the conservatory, placed the mug on a table and looked out into the garden. A bullfinch sat on the fence; its chirps were the only sound breaking absolute peace.
Al turned his laptop on and supped his coffee. He looked back into the garden, the bullfinch had gone – absolute peace.
Until the nearest window’s handle moved down by itself. The window slowly opened. A howling wind squeezed through the gap and snaked around Al who was buffeted by the roaring force.
The howling stopped.
Silence returned.
Al caught his breath then gasped: his mug inched forward then balanced on its side before completely tipping over, spilling his coffee.
The howling wind returned, snaked Al and exiting through the window.
Al's crotch grew warm from the coffee spilling off the table. Stunned, he looked into the garden; a bullfinch sat on the fence.
Then the phone rang. It was Sara.