Sunday 18 July 2010

Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, UK, 2010)

Arriving like the hit men from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (with a nice line in digressive, tangential conversation) the activities of Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are soon discovered to be both far more prosaic and – subsequently – outlandish. They are company men, representatives of an enterprise which specialises in disinterring the past. Their clients are middle class, heterosexual, countryside dwelling couples… seemingly caught up in a fad they only half believe in. After attempting to ensure their clients fully understand the process they are about to open themselves up to (through a number of forms and verbal statements which must be corroborated according to a strict series of rules) Mr Davis and Mr Bennett begin…

The film initially presents itself as a comedy, and the sparing between Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are no doubt in the comedic mode. But the film has a dark underbelly. It is somehow oddly disturbing. Set amongst the English countryside, in well presented bourgeois homes with chalk white walls, comfy sofas, and tea and cake… the film integrates elements of the gothic, or as Gail Ashurst has specified, the green Gothic. No doubt this is a function of the wonderful music which pervades the action… mystical English mediaeval chanting and non-synthetic instrumentation. Yet it is not this alone. Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are revealed to be esoteric practitioners, there to scratch the surface, to unearth secrets, treacheries, lies. Using an unspecified technological device that locates psychic energies, they identify a wardrobe (or closet… wait for it) then, through the use of two strange stones, explore the past lives of the couples. Hence the ‘skeletons’ of the title! Once discovered, they reveal all: her secrets to him, and his to her.

It is these trips back to moments of past lives that structure the film, give it power, make it uncanny and provide is central themes. Upon entering the wardrobe, Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are able to walk invisibly through the mise-en-scène of the past… to replace the characters they are investigating, to live out their actions, feel their feelings and think their thoughts. Crucially, these past events are already written, they cannot be changed, only experienced from either a subjective or objective viewpoint. As Mr Davis says, at one point, these past events are like ‘tape loops’.

And it is Mr Davis who feels the lure of the past himself… as senior partner he is custodian of the stones. During a week’s leave he spends his time in elicit ‘glow chasing’, reliving a moment from his boyhood, cuddled up on the sofa with his dad and mum, being told a particularly strange story, a fairytale. This event is accessed through an old photograph and on continual repeat. These repetitions become hypnotic, swamp like, and ultimately debilitating… but for all this, give him a sense of security…

It is in this way – between these two uses of the stones to revisit the past – that the film reveals its central themes. First, there is the positioning of the past as a secret place… second there is the need to have those secrets revealed… yet we can’t have it both ways. So, there is a fundamental resistance, a tension at play with regards to the past. It is this tension between secrecy and revelation that, according to Whitfield, we must overcome. For the tendency will be to keep secrets. And here the danger lies, for the future can become entrapped by the past. The past can bear down on the present, overwhelm it. It is a maze you can get lost in. The true power of memories is, in this way, malign, if taken in-and-of-themselves. Rather, memories should be overcome… the first step in this process is sharing them. In this way their destructive power is diminished, they become benign. As we have seen, the couples are having revealed secrets they already know, as they occurred in their own pasts. Thus the activities of Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are interventions into silences…

This theme is made explicit in the events that occur at the home of Jane. Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are informed they are up for promotion. To secure this advancement they are given a job in which the complexities far outstrip the domestic jobs they have so far been involved in. They must investigate what happened to a husband and father who disappeared some ten years previous. The mother Jane is locked in the past, digging up the woods around her house in search of his body… and her daughter Rebecca is physically locked in silence, having not spoken in a number of years. The arrival of Mr Davis and Mr Bennett will not only unlock the secrets behind the husband’s disappearance, but also Mr Davis’ own secrets. These unlockings occur, needless to say, through a number of trips back into the past, through a number of interventions which see Rebecca become involved in the use of the stones.

This idea of intervention becomes a skeleton key to the film through the way in which Whitfield constructs these journeys into the past. These excursions are essentially flashbacks. However, in that anyone can visit another’s past, these are flashbacks of a very strange kind. Someone can explore someone else’s past as flashback… and that person can not only observe the scene, but become that other person. These are, in other words, cinematic flashbacks.

Gilles Deleuze, in his taxonomy of cinematic images, describes films which operate through flashbacks as recollection-images. For Deleuze flashbacks are the instrument of ‘psychological causality,’ a ‘closed circuit which goes from the present to the past, then leads us back to the present’ (C2:47; 49). Deleuze calls this destiny, and when unambiguous is a strong destiny indeed… it is the past which leads inexorably to the present and will dictate our futures. This may, initially, sound as if Deleuze is saying that we cannot escape our pasts. Yet what Whitfield reveals is this, that in calling up a flashback this destiny with regards to the future is not fixed. The journey from the present to the past need not lead to endless future repetitions. Rather, the flashback can lead to us overcoming our pasts… this too can be our destiny and in no way contradicts the laws of psychological causality. For Whitfield, for this to happen, we need only let another in… and isn’t that the point of cinematic flashbacks? To share a subjective, psychological moment, to explain the past, and in sharing give the character strength to prepare for a different future, a future which can escape the lure and debilitating security of repetition.

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