Friday, October 23, 2015

The Changeling (1980)

The Changeling (1980)
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The Changeling is one of those movies that would have a hard time getting made today, at least by a major studio. The cast is full of old people, the scary scenes in the movie rely far less on "jump-scares" than most, there's no real hook to hang this film on, like the "found footage" format, for instance, and it's far too quiet!

It just so happens that it's not an American movie at all, but a Canadian one, and it cleaned up big time at the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, the Genies, winning eight awards including Best Motion Picture. Not that I knew any of this the first time I saw it, back at the ol' video store job a lifetime ago. This always made for a good early afternoon video, before the school kids came into the store and before the calls for pick-ups starting piling up.

George C. Scott stars in this one, and if you go into this expecting General Ripper, be prepared for a shock: he gives a very subdued performance as a music professor and a widower, who moves into an old house with a ghost inside. His investigation into who it is and what it wants leads him to an old and unsolved mystery.

One of the things about this movie that fascinated me occurs during the seance scene, when a medium tries to contact the ghost using a concept known as "automatic writing," which is writing without using the conscious mind, as if the hand writes whatever it writes without the will of the brain. In the movie, the medium sits at a table with Scott and other people involved in the seance, and as she asks questions of the ghost, she writes in a trance-like state. It looks like scribbles at first, and she uses a lot of paper in the process, but the ghost "uses" her to communicate, and words appear without her knowledge.

This isn't too far removed from a trick we were taught during NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know, it's an annual writing event where the goal is to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in thirty days, so speed is more important than quality. To get you writing, and more to the point, to get you unstuck from writer's block, one common trick is to take thirty seconds, or a minute or two, and just write - free associate without thinking about whatever it is you're writing, even if it's gibberish. 

The technique definitely freed me up on more than one occasion - and now I find it even helps a little bit in my writing group. When we spend the first hour writing, I'll often write whatever comes to mind, even if - especially if - it's not on my conscious mind at the time, and it has led to some unexpected bits of prose. I have yet to encounter any messages from the Great Beyond this way.

The confluence of ghosts, automatic writing and Scott's musician character also remind me of one of, if not, the scariest nightmares I ever had. In college, I knew this girl named Jolanta. Very sweet girl; very friendly. I wasn't what you might call close with her, but she was someone I cared about. We all cared about her. Anyway, I had a nightmare that she was murdered. She was pushed down a flight of stairs by this other girl in my freshman class. I remember arriving too late to stop her and seeing Jolanta's broken body at the bottom of the stairs and the other girl laughing. She wasn't someone I hated, so why I'd dream of her doing this is beyond me. I don't even remember her name.

I remember waking up convinced that Jolanta was totally and completely dead and I was so grateful when I saw her in school, alive and well. This was also back when I attempted to try my hand at music, and weeks later, I ended up composing an instrumental song inspired by that dream. Jolanta even offered a suggestion or two for it when I told her what I was doing, not that she was a musician. She just thought I should add a coda at the end representing her soul ascending into heaven, and I did. She took the whole nightmare thing pretty well, all things considered - better than me. I really did think she was dead!

Hungarian director Peter Medak has stuck to mostly American television throughout most of his career since The Changeling, though he did do such films as The Krays, Romeo is Bleeding and, um, Species II. Among the Genie wins for his movie include Sound and Sound Editing, and while it was difficult to appreciate the sound, listening as I was through my tiny little headphones, I can imagine how important it is to a film about things that go bump in the night, so to speak. This one's worth checking out if you've never seen it before.

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