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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 4

In the previous incarnations of this line of thought, I've been writing about the many ways in which authors might "finagle" the "focal presence" of their works, so as to leave critics like myself (all right, just me alone) puzzled about what object or character serves as the expression of the authorial "will" behind the work. Over the years I've honed my skill at trying to suss which object or character is most important to the author of a given work. However, some recent meditations revealed to me that I went in the wrong direction concerning the 1964 historical-horror film, THE BLACK TORMENT, reviewed back in 2012.

I revisited the film's narrative again in 2015 for FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 2. The common theme in this essay was about works that focused upon "phantasmal figurations," wherein some eerie figure is revealed to be the creation of a living person's imposture for one reason or another. In this essay I wanted to make the point that, although the weird phantasm wasn't what it appeared to be, the idea of the phantasm was still the expression of the author's will; the axis around which the narrative revolved.

In THE BLACK TORMENT, Richard Fordyke, a nobleman living in 17th-century England, remarries after the death of his first wife, and brings Wife Number Two back to his castle as its new mistress. I generally praised the film, though not without pointing out the script's immediate indebtedness to Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel REBECCA and its film adaptation, which were both in their turn indebted to Chartlotte Bronte's 1847 JANE EYRE.

All three works shared one basic narrative concern: that of a female character trying to make herself fit into an estate owned by an eccentric man. In the case of JANE EYRE, the title character's relation to the estate's owner Rochester is at first professional-- she's been hired as a governess-- but the two of them develop a romantic entanglement. This relationship is complicated by the fact that Rochester is actually still married, though his wife has gone insane and has to be confined to an attic-room, thus giving rise to the story-trope of "the madwoman in the attic." Eventually the first wife perishes and Jane takes her place.

In REBECCA, Du Maurier's feminine protagonist-- deliberately given no name by the author-- becomes the second wife of wealthy Maxim de Winter. However, as she comes to his estate of Manderley to take her position as Maxim's wife, she finds that everywhere she looks, she finds evidence that her husband's deceased first wife Rebecca still rules the house, kept "alive" by both Maxim and Manderley's dictatorial housekeeper.

BLACK TORMENT, as I noted, takes from both sources and possibly Stevenson's DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE as well. Lord Fordyke is accused of living a double life as a serial murderer. In FINAGLING PT. 2 I argued that, even though this was proven not to be true, and that the murderer was part of a scheme to destroy Fordyke's new bride, the "phantasm" of Fordyke's "evil twin" provided TORMENT's focal presence.

But recently I found myself meditating on how much TORMENT has in common with the works that most probably influenced it. Elizabeth Fordyke, a.k.a. Wife Number Two, is more than a little unsettled by the accusations of her husband's insanity. However, in the final analysis, she's not a spineless weeper like Du Maurier's Rebecca, but is closer in spirit to Bronte's Jane Eyre. Elizabeth, not Richard, uncovers the scheme to frame her husband, and even shoots Richard's "mad twin brother," who is the culprit in the slayings. Her action, not those of frenzied Richard, expose the plot, much as Jane Eyre's determination serves her in uncovering the mystery of the attic-madwoman.

None of the characters in BLACK TORMENT are as well-developed as those of Bronte, admittedly. Still, simple though Lady Elizabeth is, she is more significant to the story than the phantasm whose existence she disproves. So she, the phantasm's potential victim, is the star of the show, much in the way that Sherlock Holmes is always the focus on THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, no matter how much time is devoted to the Hound's mystery.

Ironically, a few months before I wrote FINAGLING PT. 2, I testified to my own tendency to consider the "monster-figure" of any horror-film to be the focal presence, in my April essay
SON OF THE BRIDE OF THE NON-MONSTROUS DEMIHERO. I wrote this to report my finding that the closest thing to a "monster" in 1944's THE CLIMAX was not the star of that particular show:

In horror-films that are centered-- as most are-- upon the figure of the monster, the monster's victims-- almost always demiheroes-- are usually not given much depth. But THE CLIMAX is interesting for inverting the pattern, though there isn't much of an increase in character-depth. That is, the real star is not top-billed Boris Karloff as the malefic Doctor Hohner, but singer Susanna Foster's character Angela..

That said, Elizabeth's actions only signal her status as a focal presence if they prove to be an expression of the authorial will, which as I wrote here, is either endothelic or exothelic. In BLACK TORMENT, the most important "will" is that of the woman who solves the mystery, rather than the mysterious presence threatening her, so it is endothelic. However, it's easy to imagine a narrative that showed some viewpoint-character doing almost the same type of investigatory actions-- and monster-slaying-- that Elizabeth performs, but that narrative would still have its imaginative center in the monster being destroyed. A fitting parallel would be the character of Frank in 1943's SON OF DRACULA. Frank is forced to destroy the two monsters in his life, both the reborn Count Dracula and his former fiancee-turned-vampire. But this story is exothelic, because it's more concerned with what the monsters do than how a hard-pressed demihero manages to thwart them.


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