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Falling from Grace: Damnation
I wanted to back up. Stop! No go!…I ran in all directions. I shifted. I tried every form and shape so as not to be a murderer. Tried to be a dog, a cat, a horse, a tiger, a table, a stone! I even tried, me too, to be a rose!… People thought I had convulsions. I wanted to turn back the clock, to undo what I’d done, to live my life over until before the crime. It looks easy to go backwards—but my body couldn’t do it.
This quote, from Jean Genet’s Deathwatch, kept running through my head as I watched Damnation, a mesmerizing 16 minute dissection of the agonizing ecstasy of confessing to murder, created by Scott Stark.
The vehicle for Stark’s exploration is footage from old episodes of the TV crime drama Perry Mason, a show which followed an unvarying formula, in which the real criminal, at the climax of the trial (and just before the final commercial break), breaks down and confesses the crime. Stark uses an abstract, formal device to deconstruct these moments of breakdown: starting with the original footage (always seen in slow motion), he overlays the clip with a second clip from the same scene, usually from a few seconds earlier. The second clip appears in a pattern of horizontal bars which float over the original shot, appearing and disappearing over time. Sometimes, when the bars appear, they slowly open up from the center, like a curtain opening on stage. The film is accompanied by John Wynne’s score of undulating, ringing waves of sound, feeding into the sense that the criminals are entering a new, terrifying reality.
The result is a remarkable visual essay on the micro-moments of confession, as depicted in TV acting. Stark is able to use this device to reveal the inner workings of this life-altering experience. It’s akin to what filmmaker Martin Arnold achieved, using an entirely different technique, in such works as Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998).
Damnation opens with a wide shot of the sea in mist, a few birds flying by. This tranquil image begins the film with the peaceful feeling of a vast open space. Almost immediately, however, horizontal bars appear in the image. The bars are nearly impossible to see, since they reveal the same scene at a different moment in time. Only the slightly different arrangements of mist and water make the two interwoven images distinct from one another. We are already in a fractured world where, by definition, more than one level of reality is always subtly present.
Soon, the faces of the murderers appear. We can’t hear their words, but we can see the realization that they’ve said too much breaking gradually over their faces. They sometimes bring their hands to their mouths, as if desperately trying to stop the words from tumbling out. “My god,” they seem to be saying, “what have I just done?” The female criminals often fall into their own hands, dissolving in tears, literally falling into damnation. As the understanding that they’ve turned a corner and that there is no longer any way of dodging their punishment comes over them, their faces are gradually split apart by the bars, interweaving two slightly different moments from the same scene.
The softened edges of older, black and white analog television give the whole film a feeling of peering into a mythical realm, an appropriately ethereal space for symbolic dramas of cataclysm and doom. Seen in close-up and slow motion, it’s surprising how good the acting is in these early TV dramas. There’s a tremendous amount of control and real technique; not showy melodramatic posturing.
The horizontal bars gently suggest the form which the murderers’ damnation will take: a life behind bars, but Stark wisely refrains from the over-obvious comment of using vertical bars. Likewise, Wynne’s score, at times, vaguely suggests the wailing siren of a police car (or the ringing of funeral bells), without succumbing to literal imitation.
Often, in one of the shots, the camera is slowly dollying in for a closeup, gradually drawing the viewer into the heart of the moment, and this slow dolly shot is interposed with a mid-range shot, showing the criminal as he might be seen by a bystander in the courtroom. It’s as if the witness is simultaneously inside of their own suffering and trying to detach himself from the moment, to view it as if it were happening to someone else.
Other times, Stark chooses the silent moments from the scene, the moment when the witness is listening, reacting, simply thinking about the enormity of what is happening to them. Often, actors portray these moments with the highly internalized style of acting which camera close-ups require: only the tiniest motions of the head and face are needed to reveal the inner turmoil. Stark combines two moments from these sequences, seemingly only a few seconds apart, so that the character’s mouth, eyes, and nose seem to split in two, to drift in two different directions. They literally become misaligned with themselves; they fall apart. They are devastated.
The fractured, multiple faces also evoke the fragmentation of the personality experienced in Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder). When children suffer extreme abuse or trauma, they sometimes react by fracturing their identities, because they can no longer stand being the person who is suffering so much. Obviously, this moment of confession, depicted in the film, is highly traumatic and cathartic. The murderers seem to separate themselves into the person who impulsively blurts out the truth, no longer able to live with their terrible secret, and another part of themselves that watches from a distance, observing as they throw the rest of their lives away. It’s a TV formula, yes, but one with deep roots in the human psyche.
Towards the end of the film, as the anguished murderers are being dragged away by the court officers, the bars become disordered and twitchy, changing size and direction erratically, in the spreading drama of derangement. Hell, it seems, is dissociation, the inability to find wholeness and coherence.
Damnation produces a profound feeling of tragedy, of lives irrevocably torn. Stark’s editing, the skillful way in which the sequences flow together, gradually deepening their impact, always supported by Wynne’s music, has the same grand power of some of Bach’s musical depictions of the struggles of the soul. That Stark can find such poetry and depth of feeling within such a seemingly simple formal device is a testament to his artistic sensitivity and skill, his ability to reveal the sublime, even in old episodes of Perry Mason.
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