"EVERY WORD I'M going to tell you is true," begins Charles Crossley, a patient in an English mental institution. "It's always the same story, but I vary the climaxes because I need to keep it alive. You see, I need to keep it alive."
So begins Jerry Skolimowski's The Shout, a tedious, fabricated "sojourn" into the world of mental illness, the realm between fantasy and reality, and the hinterland of primitive magical heeby-jeebies. This film has been widely praised and heartily recommended for "serious moviegoers" (always beware of this one) and has won for itself a slew of awards. Its style has been praised as the cinematic equivalent of James Joyce, which it may well be, but then again, when was the last time you picked up Finnegan's Wake for a couple hours of enlightenment?
The story which Crossley (Alan Bates) tells a young companion as they watch a cricket match being played on the grounds of the institution, is one of the primitive past, unseen forces, Aborigine magic and mysterious powers. The story unwittingly involves an electronic musician named Anthony (John Hurt), his wife Rachel (Sussanah York) and Crossley, the mysterious visitor who descends upon them. In the opening scene of Crossley's narrative, we see Anthony making highly-amplified recordings of marbles rolling in tin pans, insects, and various animals being brushed. We see Rachel preparing dinner in their picturesque kitchen on some tiny English seaside village. We see Anthony bicycle into church to play the organ and to meet a mysterious other woman (whom we will never know anything about).
The obvious question which sustains you through this very heavily crafted and self-conscious opening (every angle feels weighty) is, who is this couple and why are they here? Unfortunately, this question is never answered because the two are about to be flung headlong into a terrible adventure from which they will never return.
The reason this whole adventure begins is that Crossley introduces himself to Anthony after church services with one of the great opening lines of the year, specifically, "Don't you agree that in times of moral starvation, a soul might want to take refuge in a tree, or in a rock?"
Not the breeziest introduction, but an interesting question. Yet before we can begin to ponder it, Crossley has invited himself to lunch where he proceeds to shatter glasses, describe how he killed his children during his 18 years in Aboriginal Australia, and provide compelling conversation about the methods medicine men have for killing people. (They remove your kidneys while you sleep.)
Oddly enough, he ends up staying for a few days. Admittedly, Crossley is interesting, his stare, sort of an amused-psychotic beacon, gives the film some of its extraordinary visual power. It keeps promising that this film is about to take off and explode.
Unfortunately, Skolimowski's stodgy, symbolically obsessive style continuously undermines Bates' intensity as he tries to shove this unwilling film into the realm of the magical. There are endless shots of people walking and walking and walking the dunes, people stroking and stroking and stroking ancient magical rocks, and bicycle wheels spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning. There's also a male peacock in there every once in a while for reasons which the director has evidently sealed in a bottle and thrown into the Mediterranean. The problem with all this is that the form of the film consistently interrupts any possibility of emotional connection with a character.
It is reasonable to assume that the Crossley character would be deliberately obfuscated. It is even possible that the couple should be a bit onto the symbolic side. But the characters refuse to give any indication that they relate to each other naturally, removing the audience from any kind of closeness to their humanity, and hence their horror. Skolimowski stopes just short of delivering believable characters, and hence just short of a satisfying film.
AS THE MOVIE continues to delve into the abstract, we learn that Anthony's reason and civility are no match for Crossley's magic, pointed bones, and his shout, a killer shout he learned in Aborigine country which can kill anything within range. In fact, Anthony ends up losing his patience, his wife, and ultimately his mind to Crossley's vicious, primitive personality.
At which point Skolimowski asks the question, "Is any of this true?" and the complimentary "What is reality?"
Other directors have gotten into trouble with movies involving Aborigine magic and the dreamworld versus the real world. Invariably, as happened with Peter Weir's The Last Wave, the characters are sacrificed in order to explore the realm of the imagination. Yet however fascinating this theme might be to a director, it must be remembered that the "normal" characters in the film are the springboard into this mystical world. If such characters are one-dimensional, the audience is left with no horizon line against which to judge the increasingly strange happenings.
This tends to be a problem with an awful lot of films which purport to take us on a journey into mental illness and unusual perception--and it is really a problem inherent in mental illness itself. Despite the fact that magic, hallucinations and illusions are strange to most of us, within their own syntax, these symbols are reality. The odd, insane effects are normal and real within their own context, which is what makes it so terribly frightening.
And yet in movies, these effects are constantly shown through funny photography, strange sound effects and bizarre syntax--they are easy to recognize, easy to label "insane," and hence easy to ignore and dismiss. One wonders why it is that schizophrenics are so often shown on split screens, or with funny echo-chambered voices whispering on the soundtrack. And what does this have to do with the genuine condition, which is abnormal precisely because it is not occurring in the realm of special effects?
And finally, Skolimowski's film is frustrating because he attempts to duplicate the stream-of-consciousness style of the Robert Graves story from which this screenplay was adapted. In a literary context, steam of consciousness can be effective often because it can be reviewed. If indeed Finnegan's Wake is a masterpiece, it is rarely recognized as such on the first reading. It takes many re-readings in order to follow the elusive psychological themes. Indeed, in film, the only way to give an audience this "review" is to leave signposts, cinematic Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs in an attempt to give a frame of reference. And this is the killing blow to a film which already takes place within the world of magic and symbol. It completely removes the film from life, takes it out of the realm of emotion, out of the realm of possibility, and hence of out of the realm of genuine horror.