Monday, 08 March 2010

Erika in the Painting

My collection of stories, in both cinematic and novel form, is extensive. And numbered among them are many films and books that I dislike in their entirety, for whatever the reason. Yet I would not pass up the chance to buy them if I could rewind time, and that's because there's a very particular reason behind my acquisition of every book and DVD I've ever bought.

I process stories in fragments, in terms of the individual frames of a film, or passages in a book. I also judge stories in terms of their wholeness, but very few have passed on that score. Most frequently, I find myself arrested by one scene where beauty, eloquence, and transcendent vision converge in a two-hour film that is otherwise pure crap. I would never pass up the opportunity to acquire such a film. That one scene may be the key to the conception of something beyond the banality of the story in which it is trapped.

The movie that has inspired this tirade is not to be ranked with such overwhelmingly sullied gems, however. The 1990 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The Witches", starring Anjelica Huston, has always been one of my favourite fantasy pictures of all time. While the opening sequence possesses the true thrust of the movie's captivating mystique, the second half is mostly saved by the elegant evil of Anjelica Huston's exotic performance.

Yet there is one scene in this movie that has stayed with me since the first time I ever watched it, and has remained as haunting as ever as I watch it now with the jaded, penetrating eyes of the literary scholar: Luke's grandmother is telling the story of how her friend Erika was stolen by witches. Not long after her friend's disappearance, she recalls coming to Erika's house:

The return to the time of a grandmother's childhood in Norway is both locked within the frame of a lost time and evocatively embodied before us. The tense specter of a child's unexplained disappearance is unstated and in every detail present. Then comes that moment of chilling strangeness when our tense separateness from fantasy dissolves in the full apprehension of a fairy-tale evil. Luke's grandmother relates the scene in the voice that is key to the enchantment at work:

"Then that day, while Erika's mother was pouring the coffee, her father came walking towards us. It was as though he had seen a ghost...His face was all twisted up as he walked towards the painting behind me. if it always had been there...was Erika...locked in the painting...gazing at us..."

The scene as described is not overtly penetrating. But experienced in its form - something to do with the captured face of a child that could never exist anywhere but in the suffering of the eerie torment of being locked in a painting, in the composition of the figures, and the lulling chill of the voice of the grandmother and the spare chimes of a sweetly insistent score - few cinematic moments have struck me like this one.

In my book, Erika in the Painting is one of the few truly perfect accomplishments of cinematic story-telling. It will stay with me always as a reminder of the essence of fairy-tale...the apprehension of pure a melody at the shrill edges of the dark side of music.


Waseem said...

Awesome post. I don't collect as you do but momentous scenes always live in memory, like in Jurassic Park when you first see the dinosaur, and that shocking scene in Pet Semetary when the mother sees her ill sister. I can't think of any more at the moment.

I loved Witches too, but my favorite Roald Dahl adaptation was Matilda.

Have you seen Alice yet? Did you like it? It wasn't very Lewis Carolly but I liked the spin on it and Helena Bonham Carter was amazing. She is fast becoming my favorite actress.

p.s. you should consider putting word verification to get rid of spammers.

Libra said...

Thanks for the suggestion:-)