Seance On A Wet Afternoon

seancewetnoonIn my view, genre films are almost always preferable to those that can’t be in some way pigeonholed, because a genre has history and weight beyond any individual example. A crime film is not just about crime. When I watch a thriller, it has extra weight due to the precedents in that genre: if a filmmaker is bright enough to play off of them, Vertigo and Rear Window give other thrillers resonance.

History is not vitally important to all movies, but it lends credence to good ones. I appreciate a modern western like Unforgiven in a different light because I know Red River and The Searchers. A good genre movie is about the genre as well as its own particulars. Ringu‘s echoes of The Changeling play off similar horrors in different ways, commenting not only on the specific situation, but on horror itself. The use or disuse of genre tropes makes up the film experience as much as individual plot points.

In plain terms, good genre movies present the familiar and alter it in ways that are satisfying, edifying, and illuminating. The “postmodern” idea of art commenting on itself is nothing new – postmodernism merely put it out in the open, thus robbing it of any power except for irony. Bad genre films are regurgitation (and no points are scored for acknowledging it). If they don’t bring new things to the table, good genre films show us old things in new ways.

Seance On A Wet Afternoon is a disappointment because it doesn’t belong to any genre. Nor is it a genre-straddling masterpiece. This is one of those films that believes the strength of its characters is enough to propel the situation – then the movie craps out on itself. The plot is that of a caper, the title promises a supernatural horror film/ghost story, and the film is not much more than a conventional drama.

Richard Attenborough is Billy Savage, the emasculated husband of Myra (Kim Stanley, wildly overacting), a delusional psychic who decides that, to get her due measure of fame and success, she will kidnap a child, then find another one with her ‘psychic’ powers. Of course, complications ensue, and Myra decides that perhaps the kidnapped girl would be happier if she joined her stillborn son Arthur, with whom Myra is in contact.

This set-up for a scary ghost story has an opening sequence where the leads talk about their great plan without alluding to it (thus mistaking confusion for suspense), two good suspense sequences that are out of place, one creepy seance, and a second, uncreepy seance where Myra talks to herself in different voices, none of them convincing.

Had it been from the perspective of the kidnapped girl or her parents, the film would have been taut. Had Arthur manifested himself in a more concrete way than Myra’s warblings, the film would have been spooky. However, the film decides to be a movie-of-the-week, where Myra and Billy’s marriage falls apart, and they think this one thing will make everything right. So it’s a melodrama.

Unless they are comments on the melodrama, sequences of suspense have no place in a melodrama. The suspense sequences in Seance are right out of a movie like The Taking Of Pelham 123, but that’s a mistake – they drain the film of emotional content. Here, we’re wrapped up in a tension that will be resolved, and rather than ratchet the level of suspense, the film relaxes us.

Let me be more specific. Notorious, one of the finest films ever1, has innumerable suspense situations that are built on one question: how will Ingrid Bergman escape detection as a spy? Everything leads to her discovery as a spy, and all subsequent action is borne from it. There is nothing extraneous, and the film has one of cinema’s great romances because it is integral to the emotional context of the suspense.

The tries at suspense can’t help but submerge Attenborough’s terrific and subtle performance, because, though they are out of his character, he pulls them off without a hitch. The reality of his scenes as a mealymouthed, weak little man whose whims are owned by an unloving wife are interrupted. There are moments of truth in his acting, but they are gut-punched by the unreality of the surrounding sequences.

It is ironic that a less realistic plot would have made the film more believable. The existence of ghosts would have been a counterpoint to the lack of life in Billy and his wife – in some ways they were so wedded to the past that not having a ghost there is a cheat. The ghost is there, but since it never manifests itself it can have no meaning in the film, either textual or subtextual. We have to believe that the wife is crazy, and thus nothing she sees or believes has any credibility. Were she dealing with the real spirit of her stillborn son, her madness would be poignant. Without that anchor to some sort of transcendence, she’s just a nut.

Seance On A Wet Afternoon (wonderful title, by the way) is only useful, then, as a bolster to the value of genre. By trying too many things (even when it does some of them well on their own terms), the film loses its meaning since it hasn’t developed context. It is a suspense story without tension, a melodrama without focus, and a ghost story without a ghost.

1This isn’t one where there is a great deal of debate – like Beethoven’s 9th or Michelangelo’s David, disliking Notorious reflects more on you than on the film. Have I offended everyone yet?

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