Point Blank (1967)
The Antlers, Hospice (2009)
Film is typically a third-person medium, which can make its depictions of memory curious. When you encounter a recollection in a film, editing makes you aware that this occurs in the mind of a given character. Yet what you see is almost always not the character’s actual viewpoint, for the third-person perspective remains. Thus when a film shows a memory, the viewer, for a time, is encountering both the work and the perspective of a character embedded within that work.
Films don’t necessarily need to address the implications of this; if left alone, the viewer reads the scene as straightforward exposition. Yet the potential is there for a more inspired treatment, and Point Blank makes every use of it.
Images recur over and over for Walker (Lee Marvin) and the viewer both: a betrayal, a woman sprawled across a bed, the moment of violent impact. This looping series of vividly rendered moments provides a great stylistic gloss, yet it also has a crucial role to play in the film.
These memories are there, first of all, as a reminder. None of what’s seen is necessary exposition: the understanding of the events does not evolve, so once a moment takes place, it has provided all the information it has to give. As the number of vivid instants grows over the course of the film, however, they come to reinforce, as a group, just how much has occurred amid the furious rush of Walker’s activity. This has a cumulative impact on the viewer and Walker, who both grow more and more aware of the toll of events as he moves forward.
Beyond mere reinforcement, these images also serve a more valuable purpose: they provide the only real window available into Walker, who is portrayed with the utmost restraint by Marvin. While his actual perspective, what he saw with his eyes, isn’t at hand, the moments he returns to tell us what he dwells on and suggest what he feels. What we can infer from these memories tells us most of what we come to learn about the character. His persistent return to these moments gives the best indication that Walker feels what he does and sees as vividly as the viewer.
These scraps of understanding are important because Marvin buries this sense as best he can when we see Walker in the here and now. The Walker encountered outside of his ruminations is almost unknowable, experienced only as grim, stalking intention. The viewer has no grip on him. The film’s most arresting sequence lays this all out: as he sets out on his path and his search for satisfaction begins in earnest, his footsteps take over, more expressive than anything we can find within his face. And that unknowability of his character makes the impact of his actions, and the revelation of his intentions, all the more startling.
By making our subjective sense of Walker come mostly through the recurring use of punctuating images offered at unpredictable times, Point Blank achieves a tremendous volatility. The film churns, and there’s a sense that, as in the sequence above, events can strike out in any direction at any time. This is a kind of tension more accurately described as dread, the feeling of a variety possible bad outcomes with no choice better than the other. There’s never, for the viewer and Walker alike, a clear sense of what’s to come. The transition between mundane conversation and a knock-down brawl can, as in the magnificent scene in the nightclub, transpire before your eyes, and the music won’t miss a beat.
In all this, Walker is no comfort to the viewer. He can’t even articulate what he wants, beyond the money stolen from him, which seems a wholly inadequate motivation. All we can see is that this man is profoundly hurt and incredibly capable, and we lack access to anything to make his inscrutable aspects cohere. In this manner the film suggests but does not actually depict its own through-line. One gets the sense that all of this, everything, is about something, and it’s precisely that which we aren’t allowed to see, as it is Walker’s alone—if anyone’s. The stakes don’t falter, but the solace and comfort of knowing how to make sense of their import gradually departs, if it was ever there at all.
Voiced by Peter Silberman, the narrator of Hospice shares the same unmistakable hurt as Marvin’s Walker. His emotional approach to this pain is precisely the opposite: the record is an open, raw, assault of emotion and confession, directed outward and often made quite literal, whether in constant reference to the activities of the hospital or in precise description of what he feels.
Yet for this markedly different method, the spaces outside of our sight are as vast as those in Point Blank, closed off to us by the relationship of the character’s perspective to the form we encounter him in. The album is relentlessly in the second person, in the form of an address to an ailing, or dying, or dead woman. (We hear from her, too, briefly, but she likewise speaks to an audience of one.) It is strangely intimate to encounter such emotional starkness without any attempt at the listener’s inclusion. And of all the many, many beautiful aspects of the album, this sense that there are things known and inaccessible to us that we’re getting the edges of but can’t fully understand may be the most poignant.
This lack of overt exposition, this coming by what we know of the story in incidental ways, also gives an emotional punch to the often-unexpected instrumental flourishes on the album. Hospice is rarely musically unpredictable—the first chords in the closer, “Epilogue,” for instance, provide a clear map on how the song will progress—but the specific forms that these rises in the music take, their timing, the odd assortment of peaks and valleys, suggest multitudes that we can’t access from the words. Just as obsessive as Walker and Point Blank in its return to a small set of increasingly resonant images—beds, and hospitals, and the woman fading to nothing within them—it is in the end no less elusive. When the narrator says “your face is up against mine and I’m too terrified to speak,” near the album’s close, the possible meanings are evocative almost without bound. Yet in this and many other lines the invitation is not so much to interpretation, though like Point Blank, Hospice readily allows for such analysis. Its purpose is rather to depict intimacy without ever becoming intimate, the real meaning of events locked away in a mind not ours. “We” is a rare word on this album, and when it shows up on “Bear” or “Wake” it is far from inclusive, an invitation to one person alone.
It’s haunting, more haunting than art normally gets, to travel through and encounter this level of hurt and loss and to come out of the experience with so little that you can keep for yourself. Yet the most unsettling aspect of both works is how, while they may subvert expectations, they do not distort the familiar. The basic forms of the mediums aren’t fracturing in line with the emotional pain of the characters; what you encounter is instead the precise, brutal alignment of particular pain with fundamental means of expression. The works aren’t making use of trap doors; this level of rawness has been waiting there all along, and they’ve decided to show you, by being as open and clear in their structure as they are closed off in their comforts.
It’s a rare thing to be made so aware, and it lingers.