Friday, November 16, 2007

Up for Review -- A Twilight Zone Flashback: Insanity Escaped

It's National Blog Posting Month, and my little well of creativity is running dry, along with my little well of time. So for today's post, I give you this week's writing class assignment for your review and feedback. It's a review of a great little flick, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

A Twilight Zone Flashback: Insanity Escaped

Once mental illness was feared and hidden in darkness, its stigma so strong its revelation could be shocking, even dangerous. Insanity manifested was as scary a monster as any movie maker could conjure.

In the 1963 "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," directed by Richard Donner, mental illness was still scary, scary enough to be the focus of this episode of "The Twilight Zone." With light and shadow, silence and perception, Donner illuminates one man's struggle with insanity and his fear of its revelation to the world. The episode has a bumpy take-off with overacting and long dramatic pauses which are almost laughable until they prove to be part of the point of the story, highlighting perceptions of mental illness.

As the story begins, Bob Wilson and his wife Julia are flying home after his release from a mental institution. They and other passengers board the plane through a dimly lit entry, but once Bob and Julia are seated, the light on them is stark and bright. As they wait for take-off, his fear of a relapse shines through. He fumbles with a cigarette while eyeing the illuminated "No Smoking" sign.

Repeated close-ups reemphasize his facial expressions in response to anything that might cause him the slightest risk of cracking up, from not being able to smoke a cigarette, to taking off, to the announcement of a coming storm. Then, as if the fear is manifesting itself in physical form, a figure appears on the airplane wing. Shadowy and obscure at first, Bob struggles to see it. It vanishes then reappears, vanishes again, then suddenly appears, faced pressed against Bob's window in full revelatory light.

Is it Bob's insanity personified, or is it real? The question arises again and again, each time with more urgency, as the creature he dubs a "gremlin" begins to open the wing and rip out wires.

It's here that Donner's use of tight shots, long pauses and overacting finally make sense. It's all about perception, and that's what he showcases by refusing to rely on wide shots, dialogue or even great acting.

Bob's struggle is both internal and external. He knows that telling the crew may undermine a sanity that even he cannot be sure of, yet not telling may put them all in danger. So, he tells his wife and eventually the flight engineer and stewardess.
They contort their faces in such extreme reactions to his claims he sees a gremlin on the airplane wing that it's almost laughable. Bright light reveals every curve and line of their exaggerated expressions, though they say little. Initially it all seems overblown, but it proves to speak as much or more in the story as the actors.

They all know he is insane, and their over the top expressions in harsh black and white reveal what that means. His insanity is dangerous, much more dangerous than any gremlin. So they give him a sleeping pill to soothe his mind, and go about their business.

Despite their dismissal of his urgent pleas, Bob eventually finds the danger so overwhelming that he is forced to confront it. He does so in a way that puts his life and others in danger, but he sees no other choice. Does he rid himself of the gremlin? Does he conquer it? Was it real or a living embodiment of his fear of insanity? As always in “The Twilight Zone,” the final determination is left up to you. The story is presented in whole, laying out the facts, and you are invited to think, to examine, to decide.


Janet said...

Wow. Great post. When I run out of blog ideas I end up with drivel. I always loved the Twilight Zone (and the original episode with Shatner was much better than the movie version with Lithgow, sorry Spielberg). One of the most heartbreaking episodes to me was the one with Burgess Meredith as a henpecked bookworm in a dead-end job who is the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust. I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it. The one with Robert Redford as a soldier who visits an old lady is good too.

Lynn said...

I remember this episode. I was terrified watching it...Your post about it got my heart rate up. Nice job. p.s. I agree with Janet about the Burgess Meredith episode.

Shannon said...

Thanks. Watching it in class was a lot of fun. It took me a while to appreciate the directors approach, but then it became really interesting.