Monday, June 4, 2007

On the Misapprehension of Fuller's Shock Corridor

If a recent screening of Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor at the Museum of the Moving Image (June 2, 2007) is any indication, the misapprehension of the director's work continues unabated ten years after his death. An irony-schooled contingent of young viewers seemed content to treat Fuller's masterpiece as little more than a camp classic. Rather than focus on the elements in the picture that were most relevant to contemporary life, the audience seemed to single out those that were most dated and to shower these elements with ironic laughter. It is indeed a natural reaction to cover discomfort with laughter and there is much in Fuller's picture to shake the modern viewer, but the audience seemed to respond more to the hard-boiled dialogue and the medical inaccuracies, as if Fuller's picture was a misguided attempt to realistically portray life in a mental institution. In Susan Sontag's famous essay "Notes on 'Camp'", she suggests that an important aspect of camp is an exaggerated seriousness that results in failure. Certainly Fuller's film can be seen as extravagant in its ambition, but to view his work as a failure is to misconstrue the director's purpose, which is not to create a realistic portrait of mental illness, but to make impressionistic use of the setting to expose the prevailing rotteness at the core of American life. Fuller treats his material seriously and he demands that the audience do the same.

Shock Corridor details the efforts of an ambitious journalist, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), to solve a murder by going undercover in a mental institution where one of the inmates was killed. In order to root out the murderer, he must talk with the three witnesses who, despite their insanity, have occasional moments of lucidity during which Johnny has a short period to question them. Fuller uses these interview episodes to address some of the corrosive realities of 1960s America. Almost alone in 1963, Fuller was willing to tackle these issues in blunt and unsparing fashion and his efforts still resonate powerfully today and represent the brutal core of the picture. The first witness he addresses is a young man (James Best) who was captured by the enemy during the Korean War and defected to the Communists. When he returned to his small farming community following a dishonorable discharge, he was disowned by his family. In response to this trauma, he has come to believe that he is a loyal soldier for the Confederacy in the Civil War, a paradoxical reaction to his dishonoring of traditional patriotic notions, notions which remain unquestioned in much of the country. In order to win his confidence, Johnny pretends to be General Nathan Bedford Forrest. When the young man finally has a lucid moment, he narrates his life history to Johnny, but returns to his insane state before the reporter can obtain the name of the murderer. The film's portrayal of mental illness, which tends to lump all mental afflictions together and suggests that all insane people have occasional moments of perfect clarity, may seem laughable to today's audiences, but to treat Fuller's approach so cavalierly misses the point. Fuller uses these lapses into sanity as a blunt instrument to assault the very real problems afflicting contemporary society in both 1963 and 2007.

Johnny's interview of the second witness (a scene that brought the audience's hilarity to a temporary halt) provides the film's most emotionally charged moments. The witness, Trent (Hari Rhodes), a black man selected as a guinea pig to integrate an all-white school, has cracked under the pressure and now, believing himself to be white, preaches the venomous racial rhetoric formerly directed against him. The sight of a black man walking down the hallway of a mental hospital with a sign reading, "Democracy and integration don't mix. Go home nigger" is one the most bizarre and provocative in all of cinema. The fact that Fuller was confronting the consequences of the country's racism in such unsparing fashion in 1963 is astonishing, especially when compared with the tame and irrelevant treatments of the subject in such near-contemporary films (films inexplicably regarded as classic explorations of racism) as 1962 's To Kill a Mockingbird and 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Trent's moment of lucidity occurs as both he and Johnny are strapped to a bed, following a "race riot" instigated by Trent's attempt to assault another black inmate. The haunting black and white photography which fixes the two constrained men side-by-side as Trent relates his experiences creates an image so potent as to render any camp interpretation impossible. Interestingly, the mental hospital serves as one place where racial boundaries are broken down and white and black inmates are granted equal rights. Even here, though, the effects of the world's racism creep into the integrated world of the institution.

One scene that created a big stir among the audience finds Johnny under attack from a group of nymphomaniacs. As Johnny opens a door, he finds himself in a room surrounded by a group of women who leer suggestively at him and close around him in an ever tightening circle. "Great," he thinks. "The nympho ward." As he delivered this voiceover, the audience erupted into laughter, a laughter that only increased as the scene progressed. Fuller's depiction of the nympho ward, a room where dangerously lascivious women stand around awaiting the entrance of an unsuspecting man they can attack, may seem somewhat ludicrous, but it serves to create a potent nightmare vision that has few equivalents in the cinema, and suggests contemporary visions such as those found in the films of David Lynch. As the women close in and begin tearing off Johnny's clothes and biting him, the nightmare of debased, animalistic sexuality becomes complete. Rather than amusement, terror would seem a more appropriate response.

It is unfortunate that for a certain generation, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, dismissive irony has become a natural reaction against anything deviating from the media-sanctioned norm. Accustomed to watching the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, audiences are trained to instantly view such material as ironic. This approach may be suited to those filmmakers who deliberately court such a response, but it makes a nonsense of Fuller's achievement. By treating his work as camp, the audience ignores the important things the film has to say to us about racism, war, and blind patriotism, concerns as relevant today as in 1963. The films of the aforementioned directors tell us nothing about ourselves but plenty about their creators' cleverness. The ironic approach that these directors encourage is by no means a universally acceptable one when viewing cinema outside the confines of the ordinary. True, Fuller's vision is so far from realistic that it often borders on the ridiculous, but audiences have become far too dependent on so-called realistic settings, which often aren't realistic at all, but are made to seem so because of the gloss Hollywood attaches to them. Between the Hollywood mainstream and ironic "independents" there is very little room for an approach like Fuller's. His film is so startling, so different from anything audiences are used to seeing, that it tends to baffle unsuspecting viewers. Unfortunately, most of those viewers are content to respond with dismissive laughter instead of actively engaging the work.

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