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”
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.
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?
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.
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
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.