Corpses from the dream factory: “Pennies from Heaven” and spatial horror

Going to the cinema results in an immobilization of the body. Not much gets in the way of one’s perception. All one can do is look and listen. One forgets where one is sitting. The luminous screen spreads a murky light through-out the darkness. Making a film is one thing, viewing a film another. Impassive, mute, still the viewer sits. The outside world fades as the eyes probe the screen.

- Robert Smithson, “A Cinematic Atopia”

At thirteen, my first viewing of Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven was a dissonant and unnerving experience. I loved the film for reasons I didn’t understand, and I was unprepared for the disquiet which lingered after watching it; the film left me with impressions of images which didn’t fit with their expected context and the narrative took turns I wasn’t used to assimilating from my movie-watching experiences. On that first viewing I barely understood the point of the film, but it was still surprising the degree of resonance and visceral revulsion the film inspired in my ill-informed adolescent mind. I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it; vintage pop songs and spectacular dance numbers were used to underscore a terrifying universe full of failure, broken aspirations, spiritual impotence and rotten luck. After twenty-six years and some reflection, Pennies strikes me as a horror film, as unsettling and nihilistic in its treatment of film genre, spectatorship and visual space as a work by Stanley Kubrick or Michael Haneke.
Packaged as a big-studio Steve Martin film and advertised as a happy, honey-drenched look at happier times, the film is remarkable for its sly critique of nostalgia and the dangers of spectatorship as escapism. For its characters, acts of dreaming were dangerous propositions, their aspirations dashed under the oppressive weight of a moribund economic reality despite the delusions of happiness offered by popular culture. For the film’s audience the experience is nearly as risky as their expectations of genre, content, and conventional cinematic pleasures are subverted by an acidulous hand-slapping from the filmmakers. The audience’s only assurance is that this will be a tuneful descent into Hell.
Pennies from Heaven

Disembodied perceptions: Pennies from Heaven

Dennis Potter’s 1978 BBC teleplay which inspired Herbert Ross’s 1981 film was, like Potter’s The Singing Detective, a critique of pop-cultural diversions and the ironies of popular music contrasted with the dreary and occasionally tragic lives of its characters. Pennies From Heaven‘s Depression-era setting struck an even sadder note than The Singing Detective. Detective leavened its ironies through a plot device of a hospital patient who drifted in and out of the fictive creations in his head and he was completely aware of the contextual dichotomies of his situation, unlike the poor schmucks in Pennies who weren’t nearly as in control of their fates. I didn’t become acquainted with the BBC series until 2004, when it became available on DVD some sixteen years after the original broadcast (it was actually unseen between 1981 and 1990 due to legal disputes amongst MGM, Dennis Potter and the BBC). Ross’s film shared the basic plot points of the original television series, and retained the basic paradigm of the musical form (characters bursting into song), a device employed with self-referential artificiality: the original vintage music tracks were used so that the actors would clearly lip-sync to the songs performed by other vocalists, which created an odd displacement of traditional character-and-music correlations.
Deco settings, dismal lives

Deco settings, dismal lives

It isn’t so much a process of watching the characters express themselves through song so much as watching the characters imagining themselves expressing their thoughts through song which distinguishes this film’s use of classic film musical vernacular. Ross’s film also took the visual component of the story further through extraordinary production values—whereas the original show’s characters would go into their musical numbers with no change in the visual space, Pennies ’81 employed lavish sets and extreme theatricality and stylization to illustrate an even greater contrast between the glamor of the cinematic universe and the grim reality of the characters’ lives in the moments in between their musical reveries.
My baby says Yes, Yes...

My baby says Yes, Yes...

As a critique of genre, Pennies expresses a harsh ambivalence towards the escapist pleasures of the film musical; in every such interlude the joy expressed by the characters’ musical reverie is ultimately exposed as a self-indulgent trap, a method of escapism and psychic self-preservation which nonetheless fails at resolving or even ameliorating the dereliction of said characters’ lives. Insofar as its function as a musical, Pennies employs its musical numbers not as extensions of emotional exposition (as in almost every classic Hollywood musical) but to a large degree as instruments of failure, tuneful Grim Reapers undercutting the fragile aspirations of the Depression-wracked sad sacks who populate the narrative.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Gold Diggers of 1933

Arthur fails at getting a business loan at the uncaring, cold financial institution, so the musical number which immediately follows (Yes, Yes) is a fantasy of monetary profusion. Arthur’s wife Joan suspects Arthur of infidelity, and the subsequent musical interlude (It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie) is accompanied by her fantasy of stabbing him with scissors; jolted back into the “real” world, she passively accepts his sexual rejection of her. Eileen (Arthur’s mistress) interrupts her workday as a schoolteacher with a splashy MGM-infused number co-starring her pupils, a reverie interrupted by the news that she is about to lose her job over her illegitimate pregnancy. The Accordian Man’s dance in the rain (Pennies From Heaven) expressing a joy of abundance is quickly contradicted by a return to reality of his circumstances; poverty, destitution and madness.

Pennies From Heaven, singing in the rain

Pennies From Heaven, singing in the rain

The isolation experienced by the characters in Pennies From Heaven was expressed not only in the characters’ inability to connect emotionally with one another, but also in the visual space created in the musical sequences; the musical numbers expatiated by their individual subconscious also functioned as visual sequestration of the individual characters’ consciousness from the larger narrative. As a result, these musical interludes often bore a contradictory relationship to the actual events of the larger narrative. Arthur’s fantasy of Eileen as a vision of beauty offering him a kiss in the sheet-music store serves to illustrate his degree of sexual desperation and idealization of her as an untouchable paragon of purity, but narratively his eventual coupling with Eileen results in a series of tawdry gropings far removed from his musical-fantasy meeting with her.
Arthur and Eileen

Arthur and Eileen

This narrative dissonance is one of the more disturbing and perfectly calibrated aspects of Pennies, as the film reveals itself as a series of paradoxes which highlight the brutality of the characters’ situation with a pronounced lack of sentimentality; fantasy and actuality, light and dark, fulfillment and desperation, imagination and substance. The device of tableaux is deliberately referential to specific American artists like Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh, artists whose work examined social and spiritual displacement of characters in relation to their environments.

Dislocation and ambivalence course through the film as each successive narrative strand creates a greater separation between the characters’ musical imaginings and corporeal actuality; the validity of the musical number as a “true” demarcation of spatial existence for the characters grows stronger as the film progresses the need for escapism mounts, even as that realm of musical fantasy grows less logical and connected to the narrative proper. The end of the film is a rousing Busby Berkeley-style number in the grimy streets where Arthur has just been hauled away and executed for a murder he hasn’t committed; from the shadows Arthur and Eileen appear, reassuring the audience that they wouldn’t let them leave the theater on such a sad note and that life is wonderful. The joy and exhuberance in this glossy dénouement, coming immediately after the tragic execution of the central character, seem grotesque and nightmarishly disengaged from what has just happened to the characters. But all musicals must have happy endings, right?

Chicago (2002)

Chicago (2002)

Rob Marshall’s musical adaptation Chicago (2002) owes no small debt to Pennies in its use of this same device, as nearly all the film’s musical numbers are staged as interior fantasies of the film’s anti-heroine Roxie Hart. Chicago is a caustic and keen critique of a hypocritical society which spouts sanctimonious notions of puritanical morality while concurrently profiteering from the publics’ salacious preoccupation with sex and scandal. Although very effective as an extrapolation of classic musical theater structure and as an expression of moral ambivalence, Chicago‘s employment of the musical number as subconscious narrative device follows a much more linear dialectic than Pennies From Heaven. While the earlier film employs this same device as a means to implode the traditional relationship between musical sequence and narrative to devastatingly grim effect, Chicago bafflingly sidesteps its possibilities, employing its musical numbers simply as illustrations or indicators of the primary narrative. The musical scenes function not for the purpose of narrative deconstruction (which would have been completely in line with the nature of this story,) but seemingly to ease a 2002 audience into accepting the characters bursting into song—the notion of musical numbers in a dramatic film as justifiable if they are sequestered into an alternate, or hyper-reality for an audience no longer accustomed to traditional musical theater as a form of mass entertainment. The musical sequences in Chicago, while entertaining, are reduced to a tautological device no more threatening or illuminating than a conventional dream sequence or interior fantasy and which are compartmentalized into a rather jejune function in the narrative. This detracts from what is otherwise a good film musical and a comparison to Herbert Ross’s film only underscores the mordant resplendency of Pennies From Heaven; the 1981 film is truly ahead of its time in its narrative complexity and astringent exegesis of film genres.

Steppin' Out into Hell...

Steppin' Out into Hell...

Pennies From Heaven is a horror film, in which expectations of genre are cleanly subverted like a straight razor running through soft flesh. It’s a cruel narrative trope designed for disruption of expectations and displacement of narrative convention, where dreams and fantasies are eviscerated instead of bodies and disappointment and tragedy await after that big happy dance number. In that sense it’s just as painful, and horrifying to watch, as that other kind of scary movie.

***** ***** *****

Well, it’s time for pie.

Mock Apple Pie“, one of the standard bearers of “mock” or substitute foods, was not actually invented in the Thirties. It originated from American Pioneer days when soda crackers were used to make pies in times when apples were scarce. Nabisco introduced it as a Ritz Cracker recipe in 1935 and it was a huge hit. Since this post is all about delusions, escapism and sustaining our psyches with chicanery and lies, Mock Apple Pie seems like a perfect Depression-era complement.

Mock Apple Pie

1 3⁄4 cups flour, plus more as needed
1 tbsp. plus 2 cups sugar
1 tsp. fine salt
12 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
and chilled
2 tsp. cream of tartar
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 cups coarsely broken Ritz, saltine,
or soda crackers (about 36 crackers)
1 egg, beaten

1. Combine flour, 1 tbsp. sugar, and salt in a food processor; pulse to combine. Add 12 tbsp. butter; pulse until pea-size pieces have formed. Drizzle in 3–4 tbsp. ice water; continue pulsing until dough just comes together. Turn dough onto a floured surface; knead briefly into a ball. Divide dough in half, form into 2 disks, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.

2. Put remaining sugar, cream of tartar, and 1 3⁄4 cups water into a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat; add lemon juice, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Let syrup cool to room temperature.

3. Heat oven to 400°. On a floured surface, roll 1 dough disk into a 12″ circle, transfer to a 9″ pie pan, fill with crackers, and pour syrup over top. Dot mixture with remaining butter. Roll out remaining dough into an 11″ circle and place on top of pie; trim dough, leaving a 1⁄2″ overhang. Fold edges up over rim; press to seal. Decorate edge of the pie dough with the tines of a fork. Cut 6 slits in the top of the pie, brush with the egg, and bake until crust is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let pie cool completely before slicing.

~ by bluenosekitty on July 7, 2008.

One Response to “Corpses from the dream factory: “Pennies from Heaven” and spatial horror”

  1. […] en el mundo de Dennis Potter nada es tan fácil, ni nada está tan claro, así que incluso ese final rompecorazones tiene trampa y cartón, porque no debemos olvidar que […]

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