Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Twilight Zone - The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine

The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine was the fourth episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone and it’s always been one of my favourites. It was directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Rod Serling and first went to air on October 23, 1959.

Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) was, briefly, a major movie star. But that was many years ago. Her career took off quickly and crashed just as quickly. She is now a middle-aged recluse. She spends her time watching her own old movies on 16mm in a private projection room in her mansion.

While Barbara Jean Trenton, the character played by Ida Lupino, clearly has a kinship with Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and while the initial setup resembles that of Billy Wilder’s film it is quite wrong to see The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine as merely a television rip-off of Sunset Boulevard. The story does not follow the same trajectory, and there are differences in emphasis. And while it isn’t immediately obvious at first by the end of the story it has become very definitely a Twilight Zone story.

It has the essential Twilight Zone feel - everything seems just like everyday reality until suddenly it’s not everyday reality any more.

In The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine there’s quite a bit of focus on the essential voyeurism of cinema. The twist here is that it’s self-voyeurism. Barbara Jean Trenton has no interest in other people’s lives. She has no curiosity about other people. The subject of her voyeurism is Barbara Jean Trenton. Not Barbara Jean Trenton the woman, but Barbara Jean Trenton the movie star. She watches herself obsessively on the screen. A further twist is that Barbara Jean Trenton the movie star no longer exists. This is voyeurism focused on the past.

And of course the viewer is watching Barbara Jean watching herself.

The twist at the end was later borrowed (or homaged if you prefer) by a certain very famous film director but to say any more would constitute a spoiler. It goes without saying that the film director in question was hailed as a genius for this ending, but The Twilight Zone did it first.

This is Rod Serling’s writing at its best. It packs an emotional punch but without sentimentality and without the viewer feeling manipulated. Serling could be guilty of sentimentality and manipulation but when he avoided those pitfalls he could come up with some top-notch scripts. And this is a wonderfully subtle script.

Martin Balsam is excellent as Barbara Jean’s loyal long-suffering friend and agent Danny Weiss.

But the success of this episode depends entirely on Lupino’s performance. She’s superb. She wisely avoids self-pity. Barbara Jean has isolated herself entirely from the contemporary world but we don’t despise or pity her. She has made a choice. She is happier living in the past. She knows that the modern world would destroy her. Lupino gives her a certain dignity.

While Sunset Boulevard was a rather scathing look at Hollywood and what it does to people The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine has a different tone. It certainly acknowledges that Hollywood uses people, makes them stars and then discards them but Serling’s story lacks Sunset Boulevard’s venom. Barbara Jean’s fate is sad, and yet there’s no question that for a brief moment Hollywood really did give her everything she wanted. It gave her complete happiness. Would she have been better off never having experienced her brief moment of fame and fulfilment? If happiness is fleeting would we really be better off without it? Would we really be better off living safe predictable conventional lives with no insane highs and no insane lows?

Barbara Jean would undoubtedly say that the highs are worth the price one has to pay. She knows that she was a star, and no-one can ever take that away from her.

So rather than the bleakness and venom of Sunset Boulevard we get a bitter-sweet tone here, and the combination of Serling’s writing and Lupino’s acting makes it work.

I’ve now seen The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine four times and it remains one of my favourite Twilight Zone moments. Very highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment