"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Night Gallery -- "Silent Snow, Secret Snow"

For a period of about four years of my life, Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. found me in a rut.  I was always doing the same thing – watching The Night Gallery. Oh,  I missed a few here and there, particularly when I was in labor and delivery, but always managed to catch up with re-runs. Night Gallery ran on NBC from 1969 to 1973, and it seemed to be famous for three things: (1) many episodes that ran the gamut from outstanding to adequate; (2) many episodes that ran the gamut from tolerable to totally lame; and (3) constant comparison to Serling’s groundbreaking and masterful classic TV series The Twilight Zone.

I never thought comparison to Twilight Zone gave a fair shake to Night Gallery. Such a horror anthology series can only be original once, and Zone had that claim to fame. Zone was, in my mind, consistently better in story and filmmaking. I could name ten times the number of Zone stories that were unforgettable than I could Gallery episodes of the same category. However, out of both of these series, there is one episode I believe to be the best and most beautiful. It has haunted me since the first time I saw it.

October 20, 1971 -- I had returned from my honeymoon and was "making my nest,” as my Mom used to call it. The nest still needed some work, but it was Wednesday, and Night Gallery was on. I missed much of the show, but was on the couch with my husband, the lights off and a candle burning, when a commercial ended and Rod Serling walked into the gallery to introduce this exceptional story.

"For our last offering in the Night Gallery...a painting that brings
to life a legendary classic from the pen of Conrad Aiken.  Fragile,
lovely, haunting.  It's titled Silent Snow, Secret Snow."  (Rod Serling)

Although I usually like to discuss the makers of a film, history behind it and trivia, it is not my intention to do so with this story.  As Serling described, it is a fragile story, and I do not believe will bear too much discussion.  It is significant in three aspects:  the brilliant writing by American poet and novelist Conrad Aiken; the poignant and spine-chilling music by Paul Glass and Oliver Nelson, absolutely essential in creating the mood of this unusual story;  and the mesmerizing narration by Orson Welles.  The protagonist of the story, Paul, is played by young actor Radames Pera, who must also be mentioned for his fine portrayal of a boy descending into madness.

The music sets the stage for the truly hypnotic narration by Welles.  Only a few lines are spoken by characters -- otherwise, the story is told by Welles, the music and the snow. Without these, this fragile story of a young boy's disturbing fate could have been just a typical pedestrian episode of a TV series. With Welles’ narration and the marvelous music, the quietly horrifying journey of young Paul is presented with delicacy and beauty.

Aiken’s story is seen solely from the perspective of Paul. Teacher, parents, doctor, the world itself are seen only through his eyes. Paul is a boy who is becoming obsessed with snow, its pure white beauty, the scouring cold winds that blow in winter, the sparkle of ice. Paul dreams of snow, sees snowy landscapes of great beauty, made more lovely by the music, and he wakes in the morning surprised to find only green grass and trees outside of his window. In a truly inspired technique of storytelling, Paul’s obsession is first revealed in the footsteps of the postman and the double knock he gives on each door as the mail is delivered. At first, as he wakes in the morning, Paul hears the postman’s heavy boots on the sidewalk from far down the street. As the days go on, the postman’s footsteps become muffled, and Paul’s snow dream truly begins.

Soon, Paul’s world begins to shrink.  He lives more and more within himself.  Even parents whom he once loved seem only strange and hostile.  They are strangers who want to separate him from his desire, his fearful yet desperate need for the only thing he sees, the only thing he wants -- the snow:  (Welles) “The snow was waiting. Out of sight, with a voice that said, "Wait, Paul. Just wait till we're alone together. I will tell you something new, something cold, something sleepy, something of cease and peace, and the long bright curve of space…I will be waiting for you.”

I can say no more than I have without spoiling the sense of disquiet and oncoming dread. The story’s ending is as poetic as it is horrifying. For me, quiet horror is the most frightening, and that kind of fright gives me the nightmares that I cannot forget. That Wednesday night in 1971, I was very glad that I did not live alone. It was not only that I was glad for the comforting presence of another person, but also that I was not alone to think and really take in the reality of the fate of the young boy.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow is available to view for free on Hulu. Look up Night Gallery, go to the show page, and find Season 2, Episode 5. It is the last piece for that show’s episode, and is approximately 20 minutes long. (Youtube also has the show, but the clip is blurry and thus loses the artistry – I do not recommend it.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

West Side Story and the New York Skyline...

Today, New York City is in all of our thoughts.  New York in my mind will always look and feel like two separate cities.  The first is the city of the 1930's and 40's, with beautiful brownstone homes, tenements, news kiosks and coffee shops, the Empire State Building (with King Kong on top) -- all in atmospheric, shadowy, beautiful black and white.  The second is the New York of the movie West Side Story.  The opening prologue of West Side Story begins with a representation of the New York skyline in vertical pencil lines, highlighted by shifting colors, while the glorious music plays.  At the end of the prologue music, the pencil lines are replaced by an unforgettable picture of the city from high above.

The World Trade Center was not yet built when West Side Story was made, so it is not in that picture of the skyline.  Now the skyline once again is void of the World Trade Center.  I watched this scene from West Side Story this morning, thinking of the same thing we are all remembering today.  Once those fabulous buildings did not exist.  They stood for a time.  Now they exist no longer.  For all of the people who suffered and died there on this day 10 years ago, for all of us who watched helplessly, for our country which was changed forever after that day -- I am offering the opening prologue of West Side Story, for the music, for the haunting pencilled representation, and for the final glorious birds-eye view of the skyline.  This link will take you to the prologue -- I hope you will go there to experience what I felt this morning, pausing on the picture at the end and thinking of our mortality and our eternal spirit:


God be with us all...