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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Film Fridays Spotlight: "Carnival of Souls" & "Yella"

Two films that ask: "Is this the real life or just fantasy?"

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality: Candace Hilligoss in “Carnival of Souls” and Nina Hoss in “Yella.”

Back in May, Pratt Library launched “Film Fridays,” a weekly virtual program hosted by librarians Tom Warner (Best & Next Dept.) and Gillian Waldo (Humanities Dept.) to discuss films available for patrons to watch for free using our digital streaming services Kanopy and Hoopla. For their first film talk, the pair selected two films that, like the lyrics in  Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” asked the question: “Is this the real life or is this just fantasy?” It seemed a fitting double-bill for these pandemic times when, in the midst of an unprecedented social lockdown, we’ve all had to adapt to a strange new reality. Just in case you missed that live film talk, following is a print review of the two films discussed, both of which are still available to stream on Kanopy: Carnival of Souls (1962) and Yella (2007).

Both films explore the eerie mutability of place and the purgatorial state of dreaming, offering a meditation on the popular folklore belief that the dead don’t know they are dead. And both can trace their roots to Robert Enrico’s Oscar-winning 1962 short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” as well as the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker,” with Yella further inspired by the plot and narrative structure of Carnival of Souls.

Click here to view the trailer for Carnival of Souls.

Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry

Made in just 3 weeks for $30,000, Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival of Souls (USA, 1962) is one of the most original and unsettling independent horror films in history, with striking black-and-white cinematography by Maurice Prather and a spooky organ soundtrack by Gene Moore that became a spectral character in the film itself. George A. Romero later confessed that the look and makeup of the film’s ghouls was a direct influence on his cult film Night of the Living Dead (1968).

After a woman mysteriously survives a car wreck ( or did she?), she moves to Utah where she takes on a job as a church organist and finds herself drawn to the dilapidated carnival (Salt Lake City’s long-abandoned Saltair amusement pavilion) on the outskirts of town. There the woman, Mary Henry (played by newcomer Candace Hilligoss in her film debut), finds herself dogged by a mysterious figure known only as “the man” (played by director Herk Harvey himself) as she deals with a seemingly hostile environment and her inability to connect with people. It isn't long before she discovers the terrifying secrets her new life holds.

Carnival of Souls has been cited as a pioneering example of the “purgatorial horror” subgenre, with its disorienting spatial logic and surreal images influencing everyone from George Romero to Lucrecia Martel and David Lynch (a connection made all the more plausible by the fact that Lynch’s longtime composer, Angelo Badalamenti, was once a songwriting partner with Carnival of Souls screenwriter John Clifford). As Criterion Collection critic Kier-La Janisse observes, the film challenges “the objective physical definition of ‘place’ itself, posing the question of how much of our experience unfolds solely within the confines of our own imaginations.” This is the plight Mary Henry finds herself in, as she physically flees the trauma of her past by trying to forge a new life in a new town, much like Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

Although Harold “Herk” Harvey made over 400 films for Centron Films, an educational/industrial film company based in Lawrence, Kansas (where most of Carnival of Souls was shot) this was his lone feature film. The script was co-written by Harvey with Centron staffer John Clifford, and filmed in Lawrence and Salt Lake City over the course of a three-week vacation the two took from their day jobs, where they worked on such comparatively mundane fare as Pork: The Meal That Squeals and the Monsanto landscape thriller Operation Grass Killer.

After making countless educational/commercial films for other people, the pair wanted to express themselves artistically, creating something with “the look of Bergman and the feel of Cocteau,” to cite two of their favorite European directors, Swedish arthouse auteur Ingmar Bergman and French poetic-realism director Jean Cocteau. Shooting guerilla-style with a low-budget and a mostly non-professional cast - star Candace Hilligoss, a Method actress who trained in the same Lee Strasbourg class as Marilyn Monroe and Roy Schneider, was the only professionally trained actor -  their efforts resulted in a film that has been called everything from  “Orpheus meets An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to “an episode of The Twilight Zone directed by Ed Wood and Antonioni.”

But Carnival of Souls wasn’t a success at the time of its release. Plagued initially by financial and distribution problems, the film entered the public domain due to a copyright not appearing on the theatrical prints and only became a cult classic with the advent of the video boom in the 1980s. Harvey didn’t recover the copyright until 1989, the same year horror master Wes Craven produced a remake that bore little resemblance to the original. And, ironically, another cult classic greatly influenced by Carnival of Souls - George A. Romero’s Night Of the Living Dead - also failed to register its copyright and also entered the public domain!

Despite a strong performance that carries the weight of the film on her shoulders, star Candace Hilligoss only made one other feature film in her career: a minor role in 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse. But her acclaimed debut continues to be one for the ages, one that rewards repeated viewing.

YELLA (Germany, 2007)
In German with English subtitles
Click here to watch Yella trailer.

Nina Hoss as Yella Fichte
In Christian Petzold’s Yella (Germany, 2007), the titular young woman, Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss) plans to flee her unhinged ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) and her economically-challenged hometown in former East Germany for a new life in the West. But as she departs, she accepts a lift from Ben and, as they drive across a bridge, he plunges their car into the Elbe. She miraculously survives (or does she?) and continues on to Hanover in West Germany, where she finds a promising job with Philipp (David Striesow), a handsome venture capitalist with whom an unlikely romance soon blossoms. But she soon finds herself haunted by buried truths that threaten to destroy her newfound happiness.

If that premise sounds familiar (especially the bridge accident), it’s because Yella is basically a retelling of Carnival of Souls, one colored by Petzold’s fascination with examining how Germans are adjusting to the "new" (post-unification) Germany, where the economically bleak post-socialist East clashes with the cut-throat capitalism of the affluent West. No doubt Petzold’s interest stems from the fact that, though he was born in the West, his parents were East German refugees, and this contrast remains a constant theme throughout his work. Through Petzold’s finely focused lens, the whole film is marked by an acute sensitivity to this concern with place and space, with recurring images of things that both connect and separate people - bridges, corridors, rivers, roads. Yella’s small, verdant hometown in the former East Germany is contrasted with the cold glass-and-steel hotels and generic office towers of the industrialized West, where she and Philipp conduct ruthless business deals rife with lies and illusions.

And viewers should note the multiple references throughout the film that question whether what we’re seeing is real or imagined, from recurring water sounds and  imagery - Philippe’s laptop screensaver depicts a tidal wave; Yella drops  glass of water and stares at the spill during a business meeting; countless scenes of rivers and bridges; a man drowning in a pond behind his house - to Ben (like “The Man” shadowing Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls) beckoning Yella to return to “home.”

And it is home that Yella yearns to return to when, near the end of the film, she makes a sobering discovery that brings the story full-circle. Is Yella a political ghost story? An allegory of German reunification? A young woman from the East’s dream of life in the West? In Petzold’s hands, it’s all of these and more.

While Herk Harvey and Carnival of Souls star Candace Hilligoss only worked together on one feature, Christian Petzold has called on his muse Nina Hoss a half-dozen times, most recently to critical acclaim in 2014’s Phoenix in which, once again, she played a tragic, tormented heroine. While American audiences may be familiar with Hoss for her portrayal of Astrid, a German intelligence agent on Homeland (2014-2017), Hoss has long been a leading star in German cinema. For her portrayal of Yella, Nina Hoss won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role at the 2008 German Film Awards.

To see more of Hoss, check out two more films she made with Petzold that are available through Kanopy: 2012's Barbara (another study of the East-West Germany divide) and 2009’s Jerichow (a reworking of the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice). Christian Petzold’s latest film Transit (2018), based on the novel by Anna Seghers, is also available to stream on Kanopy.

[This review originally appeared in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's PrattChat blog.]

In the Woods with Tana French's "Dublin Murder Squad" Mysteries

[The following review was written for the Enoch Pratt Free Library's PrattChat blog.]

There are two types of people in the world: those with an obsessive devotion to French’s books — and those who haven’t read them yet." - Anne Donahue (IndieWire, Nov 10, 2019)

Life under quarantine has given me the luxury of having the time to reread In the Woods, the first book in the bestselling and award-winning “Dublin Murder Squad” series, by my favorite contemporary mystery writer, Tana French. Though her latest book, 2019’s The Witch Elm, was an unrelated standalone novel, it is the six titles in the Dublin police series written between 2007 and 2016 that led to French’s critical acclaim and now to Dublin Murders, an eight-part Starz network television adaptation of the first two novels in the series, In the Woods (2007, winner of the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity award for Best First Novel) and The Likeness (2008). Starz is a commercial streaming platform (though you can sign up for a free seven-day trial subscription), so if you don’t want to pay to play, I recommend using your library card to check out the free eBook or eAudio versions of these titles.

Though French has gained renown as a crime writer, critic Laura Millar argues that her work shatters the distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction — “the notion that although crime novels might be better plotted and more readable, only literary fiction, supposedly blessed with superior writing, characterizations and intellectual firepower, deserves the respect of serious readers.” Tana French herself also rejects the distinction, saying “I’ve never seen why audiences should be expected to be satisfied with either gripping plots or good writing. Why shouldn’t they be offered both at once?”

French certainly offers more than mere whodunnits, and that’s why her fans are so devoted and, like me, are eagerly awaiting her newest book, The Searchers (set to be released in fall of 2020.) She presents her readers with a portrait of deeply detailed characters living in a contemporary Ireland that finds itself in the aftermath of an economic boom, one where, as Laura Millar observes, they are torn between “the desire to cling to history and the urge to jettison it for brighter horizons.” Thus, in her debut, the story is set on the edge of a historically-important archeological site soon to be paved over for a crass motorway, leading to tensions between the Knocknaree townies and outside interlopers.

Given her skill in depicting the intricacies of contemporary Irish society, you would assume French is a native of the Emerald Isle, but in truth she was born in Burlington, Vermont. She crossed the pond to attend school at Trinity College Dublin 30 years ago and has lived there ever since, soaking up the post-boom property bubble downturn that increased the gap between the rich and the poor, the mighty and the downtrodden. Her keen observations on the Irish state are always there, quietly coloring the police procedural narrative that anchors her stories.

And while on its surface In the Woods is about two homicide detectives, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, trying to solve the murder of a young girl, the search for the killer not only becomes a journey of self-discovery for Rob (with its possible connection to a traumatic incident in his secret past), it also comes to affect the close-knit relationship he has with Cassie - one that questions whether a man and a woman can truly be friends without romantic entanglements spoiling the harmony or trust being betrayed.

The relationship between these two, is what separates In the Woods from ordinary crime novels and adds another dimension. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, Rob and Cassie have a mental “alchemy,” a bond that finds them sharing a common “currency” of language or, as Rob puts it, “...we planted seeds without thinking, and woke up to our own private beanstalk.” He adds, “If it hadn’t been for Cassie, I think I might have ended up turning into that detective on Law and Order who has ulcers and thinks everything is a government conspiracy.” Their friendship, and its surprising denouement, will have you turning page after page, as eager to learn where it leads as, well, whodunnit.

In the Woods also features one of the best introductions to a mystery since Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), as the narrator sets the story’s template (and anticipates its outcome) with these frank words:
“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then we turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Moebius strip: But I only did it because I love you...What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”
That narrator is Rob Ryan and it’s this insight that will inform his attempt to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and the long-buried memories of his own shadowy past. For, far from being silent, the woods around his childhood home of Knocknaree speak volumes to him.

Every Dublin Murder Squad book follows a “passing the baton” model in which a secondary detective in one novel goes on to becomes the primary focus in the next. So while you yearn to continue following one protagonist, the author yearns to move on and create interest in a new one. Thus, while In the Woods is mainly about Rob, 2008’s The Likeness features Cassie, who teams up with undercover operations boss Frank Mackey. Then Cassie disappears and Mackey becomes the focus of 2010’s Faithful Place; that novel introduces detective Scorcher Kennedy, who becomes the protagonist of 2012’s Broken Harbor, working with squad rookie Stephen Moran. Moran then gets his moment in the spotlight working with abrasive detective Antoinette Conway in 2014’s The Secret Place; then Antoinette takes over in the final Dublin Murder novel, 2016’s The Trepasser.

Tana French’s main characters may come and go, but you’ll want to meet each new one she introduces. Still, the initial alchemy of Rob and Cassie in her debut is so winning that it’s worth revisiting time and again. You may even be tempted, like me, to break down and watch Starz’s Dublin Murders series to spend even more time with them.

All of Tana French’s books are available for download as digital eBooks or eAudio.