Found at Last: The Return of Irene Dobson
Following the Penwicken incident in which she was veritably hounded from the town, Dobson moved to Warwick in 1991 where she read for a BA in Film Studies at the University. Her scholarship can be felt in the new amplitude of her writing voice. Couched in an assured grasp of prose language and film form, the following extracts also elaborate the characteristically Dobsonian theme of the woman alone and the plight of the outsider with her usual grave and singular honesty. These pieces were written between 1997 and 2000.
— Richard Armstrong
Dance with a Stranger
In the early scene in which Ruth dances with David, she is wearing a satin band around her pale throat. Later on, she sits on a beach with Desmond Cussen. She is holding her head back to catch the sun and is wearing a scarf around her throat. These moments sound ominous knells of the hangman’s rope.
Like the classical Woman’s Picture, Dance with a Stranger records the biography of a heroine not only scorned in love but scorned by society too. The scene in which Ruth stands in the road outside the house in which David and his upper crust friends enjoy themselves looks back to the climax of Stella Dallas in which Stella gazes through the window at her daughter marrying well. Finally, the rope severs Ruth from the world around her as surely as it will rip one vertebra from another.
Far from Heaven
Todd Haynes reads the crippling mores of 1950s America as a series of symptoms seen through Kathy’s eyes. Her little girl is rejected at the dance class by the other girls and their mothers when it is rumored that Kathy consorts with a black man. After the little boy is chastised for going in the segregated pool in Miami the pool is seen empty as the white parents pull their children free of the ‘contaminated’ water. We are back in the disease zone of Safe.
The Age of Innocence
The “country” in which concepts such as “friends” and “trust” don’t matter and to which Newland and Ellen wish to escape exists out of sight between the lines of the discourses of letter, telegram and even Scorsese’s credits, which bind them socially. And in this ‘hieroglyphic’ society the love between Newland and Ellen must also remain hieroglyphic. The log slips in the fire grate when he visits her. The hand he extends her is tacitly rejected. It recalls the moment when they first met and she boldly extended her hand which he didn’t know what to do with!
Like the artist in Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie, Newland comes away from Ellen at the end unsure whether any of what he had with her was real or whether it was dreamt.
The arbitrariness of the scene at Dorothy’s in which men ceaselessly pursue Alice shows how we women find it absurd and oppressive to be pursued by unwanted men. That it happens here because of something the men ate makes it even less to do with anything Alice has done!
The scene in which the little boy has executed a finger painting which is radically different from the other children’s is definitely chilling. We’ve all at school been petrified of appearing to be different.
Cybill is ethereal. Her disembodied head in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab has her seeming to float above the action.
Dance with a Spectre
“Something separates me from other people,” says Mary in Carnival of Souls. It is the editing with its unconventional splitting of an action. When Mary dashes around the streets and the bus station, an action seems incomplete, say her walking towards a car seeking help or walking around the station. Only when Mary goes back to the disused fairground do the takes become more fluid, even if there is causal disjunction between her and the space she is in as gongs sound for no reason, a mattress glides down a slide.
Carnival of Souls has a New Wavey look to it. It must be the improvised tone of the acting, the sudden shifts of perspective from high angle long shot to close-up in Mary’s first job, or those shots of places to which she feels she must go, zooms suggesting that the fairground pavilion and the mountains are landscapes of Mary’s unconscious perceived by her in innocuous places like the car wash. This would all seem to make sense as Carnival of Souls was released in 1962 when the French influence on low budget filmmaking must have been pronounced.
Even more unusual is the debt Herk Harvey’s little film owed the experimental films of Maya Deren. Carnival of Souls is, like Deren’s At Land, exploring a woman’s odd odyssey like Mary’s from water to land. In At Land Deren’s beautiful amphibian makes her progress from sea to land and back again, exploring her soul in a topographical way as Captain Ahab does in Moby Dick. Like in Carnival of Souls, the woman is the only unifying principle in At Land. We never see the landscape in its entirety and never when Deren is not there. The film is in thrall to Deren’s looks, where she looks and how she looks, and her curiosity, her own compulsion to reveal the strange universe of the film. As in all of At Land, Mary’s odyssey is without sound, and she too determines how we negotiate the funfair, and how we feel desire and curiosity before the image. She makes me feel like her, for her. As in At Land, I always want to be somewhere where I am not. Both films invite me to travel into, as well as over, the landscape, rather like the free association I find in my sleep. Deren herself said that At Land deals with the “inability to achieve a stable, adjusted relationship to (the world’s) elements.” Carnival of Souls too is about a woman who isn’t really there. Yet while the slippage can be felt in Mary negotiating the dilapidated and decaying pavilion, there are also moments, shots smuggled in, when something looks at her. Finally, we see her dancing with her suitor at the carousel. Maya Deren’s girl chases a chess pawn from place to place. Mary is the pawn, found at last.
— Irene Dobson