Monday, May 27, 2013

The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning

If I were a 127 year old reanimated corpse, a physician no less, who needed an ambient room temperature of less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, I would likely not live in Malibu, California.    I would do better somewhere in my own home state, much further north, where this temperature is more readily found throughout the year.  Or I might prefer New York, the original setting of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air”, though not in summer.  And I would certainly avoid living on the third or fourth floor, in an apartment that faces south.  I think I would be most comfortable in the basement. 

That said, the film Cool Air (2012), is a pleasure to watch, and contains a number of creative adaptations that enhance the underlying themes of darkness, decay, death and the unwholesome clinging to life.  Lovecraft purists will appreciate that the film does follow the original story fairly closely despite some modernizations.

As with the 1967 film The Shuttered Room reviewed above, a female character, the doomed Dr. Shockner, is the focus of much of the movie.  (This is one area where modern adaptations of Lovecraft’s work depart from the originals, which are often devoid of women in any significant roles.)  Her relationship with the male narrator, chronicled and described through numerous extended voiceovers, drives much of what happens. Viewers more accustomed to visual action and intense dialogue in a horror film will find these voiceovers tiresome at times.  But they are very much in the style of a typical Lovecraft story, and definitely develop the mood and themes of the tale.

As in the original Lovecraft story, Charlie Baxter, a struggling writer, locates an inexpensive place to live, and soon becomes aware of the idiosyncrasies of his housemates, in particular, of the reclusive Dr. Shockner, who lives upstairs.  Soon after arriving, there is an ominous spill upstairs, a strange smell, and the leaking of fluid onto the ceiling of Baxter’s apartment.  Dr. Shockner must live in a refrigerated apartment due to an unusual chronic illness, which she also treats with various ancient concoctions.  

Baxter is later stricken with a heart attack and stroke, and struggles up the stairs for help from the doctor.  This is how the two principal characters meet.  She restores him, and as he recovers, their relationship deepens.  This is no ordinary doctor-patient relationship, however.  Dr. Shockner is alternately maternal and seductive throughout their bedside conversations.  Her unfolding intent is to initiate him into the secret knowledge that was passed down to her from her physician.  (He is briefly mentioned as a Dr. Torres of Valencia, who was also the mentor of Dr. Muñoz, the doctor’s name in the original story.)

Played by Crystal Laws Green, Dr. Shockner is a mesmerizing figure.  Her hoarse, breathy voice and sardonic, sepulchral smile convey intelligence, arrogance, willfulness and passion, but also world weariness and ultimately, resignation.  As Lovecraft puts it, her methodology, described in the original story, involves understanding that “the will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself.”

One of the characters, a young autistic woman named Estella, is used sensitively and not exploitively in the plot.  She is the daughter of the conniving landlady, and knows but cannot express the awful truth of Dr. Shockner’s work.  She is also a patient of doctor’s, and her mother insists that her “treatments” continue.  Baxter approaches her gently and respectfully.  With effort, she answers some of his questions but leaves him with many new ones; her halting conversation of the unfolding horror amplifies its effect.  Indeed, much is left unsaid.  There are not many details offered about the doctor’s methodology or paraphernalia.  As in the original story, this is left to the viewer’s imagination.

There is a subplot involving a fellow tenant, whose wife is kept in a freezer in the basement, (she does not get many lines). This does not add appreciably to the overall story, and might have been the focus of its own film, perhaps a sequel to this one—“Cool Air II”.  Happily, by the end of the film, the tenant and his wife are reunited in a relationship that will remain new and fresh as long as the power stays on.

There is an interesting role reversal involving Charlie Baxter and Dr. Shockner toward the climax of the film.  They have switched places at the bedside—now he is ministering to her, and has become the stronger of the two.  Her impending doom forces her to rethink her method and theory of preserving life at all costs.  For his part, Baxter continues into his future forever changed by his relationship with Shockner.  The film’s score, and a mix of interesting sound and visual effects, augment the mood of darkness and despair.

Some readers will recall the early 70s television show Night Gallery, hosted by Rod Serling.  A second season episode shown in December of 1971 contained a segment entitled “Cool Air”, written by Rod Serling himself.  Unlike the 2012 film or the original, this version is a love story.  A woman, played by Barbara Rush, narrates a tragic tale of her friendship with the doomed Juan Muñoz, a brilliant physician and another protégé of Dr. Torres of Valencia. 

The woman, Agatha Howard, has found some letters of Dr. Muñoz’ among the papers of her recently deceased father.  Muñoz and her father had been friends, fellow physicians, both committed to the battle against death, though Muñoz was by far the less conventional of the two.  Ms. Howard would like to discuss these letters with Dr. Muñoz and learn more about his work.  He cannot leave the confines of his chilly apartment, so they agree to have dinner at his place.  As with Charlie Baxter above, much of the story is told by Agatha Howard in mournful voiceovers.    
She visits often, their relationship intensifies, and she frequently sits enthralled in his discussion of Goya, history, and other aspects of Spanish culture.  She appreciates the tragedy of his life, his lonely confinement, his persevering spirit.  Over dinner, Muñoz tells his guest that he is a now a widower; the awful reason for his wife’s suicide becomes grimly understandable later in the episode.

Inevitably there are mechanical and power failures that threaten the doctor’s existence.  There are desperate searches for ice and repairmen.  A loud storm seems to announce that this travesty of nature must come to an end.  The doctor’s tissues reach a point of dissolution that cannot be reversed.  Along with his colleague Dr. Shockner, in the film described above, he concludes that his theory that the human will is able to sustain the outer shell despite organ death is ultimately inadequate, even with technological assistance.  At this point, Serling cannot resist inserting the line “Physician, heal thyself.”

In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, the unnamed narrator is also a frustrated writer, who first encounters the doctor just as Charlie Baxter does in the 2012 film.  He has a heart attack and immediately seeks his aid.  Unlike Charlie Baxter’s experience, he does not actually die.  After Dr. Muñoz revives him, he becomes a devotee and disciple.  There is mention of mediaevalist incantations, ancient volumes and unorthodox treatment.  Dr. Muñoz half jokingly suggests that he can teach the narrator to live, or at least have some conscious existence, without any heart at all.  Inevitably, the doctor’s hubris cannot save him from decay and death; even his precious, life prolonging willpower falters at the end.  Unlike Charlie Baxter, the narrator of Lovecraft’s original story does not preserve the work of Dr. Muñoz, but destroys it.

What is interesting in all three versions of this tale is the near complete absence of any reference to an afterlife or a power higher than the individual human will—which dies in the end along with physical existence.  (There is brief mention of reincarnation as an option in Serling’s version, but this is dismissed.)  It would be interesting to determine why Lovecraft left this aspect out, and what led him to this perspective.  So much of what fascinates me about Lovecraft’s work is what is not there, and elements that are added or emphasized by later interpreters of his material.

As an aside, the modulation of attitudes toward Spanish culture is noteworthy as one proceeds from the original story to the 2012 film.  In Lovecraft’s story, consistent with his generally negative view of foreigners and members of other ethnic groups, he disparages the characters of Spanish descent and contrasts them with the purer, nobler protagonist and the cultured physician, Dr. Muñoz, who possesses “a physiognomy otherwise dominantly Celtiberian…the whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding”.  He describes the landlady, Mrs. Herrero as “a slatternly, almost bearded Spanish woman” and his fellow tenants as “Spaniards a little above the coarsest and crudest grade.”

In contrast to this, Serling’s adaptation glorifies Spanish culture in dialogue about history and art, against a musical score of passionate classical guitar.  Agatha Howard at one point attempts to surprise Dr. Muñoz with a gift of imported Spanish olive oil.  Finally, in the 2012 film, the ethnicity of the landlady and her daughter is implied, but is otherwise completely unremarkable in the milieu of Southern California.    

Besides Death, all three versions of “Cool Air” include a preoccupation with a loss of wealth and status, of better days long since gone.  The doctor has lost everything despite his or her brilliance and accomplishments.  The writers who narrate the physician’s demise, in both Lovecraft’s original and the 2012 film have seen better days themselves.  In this tale, even the architecture has declined along with the social class of its inhabitants.

“There is,” Lovecraft has his narrator say “…an infinite deal of pathos in the state of an eminent person who has come down in the world.”  Perhaps this is a painful autobiographical note.     Death is not the only preoccupation of the author.  The human will is no more able to sustain physical health indefinitely than it is to sustain its socioeconomic status.  Is this why the physician in each version insists on living at the top of the stairs?

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