The Fall of the House of Usher
James Watson and Melville Webber were pioneers in avant-garde film. Despite their importance as leading figures in the film world, Watson and Webber's work is often overlooked and not given sufficient credit. Sitney manages to leave them out of his book, Visionary Film, which is considered the avant-garde film textbook. Watson and Webber worked on many films, but they are most well-known for The Fall of the House of Usher and Lot in Sodom. The filmmakers worked closely with the poet e.e. cummings, who provided shooting scripts on The Fall of the House of Usher. Watson and Webber were not fans of modernism and did not like their work to be described as modernist. They preferred to have their films described as amateur. Watson and Webber are highly esteemed figures in the gay community for their work on Lot in Sodom, a film which explores the topic of gay male desire. The Fall of the House of Usher is perhaps their most well-known piece. The literary film hardly follows a narrative, but is valued for its creative use of repetition and variation and for the films' dramatic lighting.
Watson and Webber's films may have been overlooked because they were usually literary extensions. Lisa Cartwright continues, "Watson and Webber's two completed avant-garde films exhibit a literary bias not so much because they originated in literary texts, but because they correspond structurally and aesthetically with theories of literary production with which the two were associated". In addition, the filmmakers worked closely with e.e. cummings. cummings was able to visualize his literary work, and Watson was a gifted verbalist. Watson also had experience in the realm of literature because he ran The Dial, a popular literary magazine known for being experimental. Webber was a gifted public speaker and teacher.
Watson and Webber's The Fall of the House of Usher is a film extension of Edgar Allan Poe's short story. Watson was quoted as saying that the pair chose to make a film about Poe's story because "they had not read it in a while and would be free of its influence". This seems like a rather ironic statement. However, it is always interesting to see what may unconsciously develop out of ideas that have laid dormant for a length of time.
Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is a story about a man, Roderick, who buried his sister alive. The narrator, a man who comes to comfort Roderick in his mental disorder, is run out of the house when Roderick's sister, Madeline, escapes from her tomb and seeks revenge on Roderick and the house. Poe describes the house in creepy and gloomy language. Poe describes the walls as "bleak", the windows as "eye-like" and calls the house "a mansion of gloom". At the end of the story the mansion falls apart, perhaps as a metaphor for Madeline's wrath.
The mansion's visitor is played by Webber himself. He has a rather bewildered expression throughout the film. Webber's expression indicates both fear and confusion. The dramatic face makeup makes Webber look rather dream-like.
The windows are one of the most striking features of the film. They stress the atmosphere of optical distortions. The windows look almost as if they have been smashed to pieces and put back together. It is as if one cannot get a clear view either in or out of these windows, again stressing the feeling of being trapped inside the house which is so prevalent throughout the film.
The strange movements of the staircase also suggest being trapped inside the house. They move in disordered and dream-like patterns; it is as if they never end. The staircase continues moving upward for some time leaving the visitor bewildered and in a frantic state of discontentment.
The sledgehammer that Roderick used to nail Madeline into her tomb is a repeated image in the film. The hammer moves at different speeds. The sequence of repetition and variation of the hammer suggests a narrative, but the film as a whole really does not follow a coherent narrative. It is helpful to read Poe's story before watching the film.
Like many avant-garde films after it, The Fall of the House of Usher is very dream-like. Madeline looks like a ghost, as does Webber in his pale face makeup. The figures move strangely throughout the film. At one point, we see a series of letter floating around. The letters suggest spelling SCREAM. The letters are probably a metaphor for the importance of the stack of books, another dream-like image in the film. It is in picking up one of these books that the visitor begins reading to Roderick to calm him down. However, it is at this time that they begin to hear Madeline's threatening wails echoing throughout the house. At the end, Madeline falls on her brother, perhaps smothering him while the visitor runs out of the house. The house then falls apart with Madeline and Roderick in it.
Critics suggest that Watson and Webber were influenced by expressionism because Webber is made up to look like the faces of the Tavant fresco. Webber was writing, and teaching about medieval art during the production of the film which may have also influenced him. Lucy Fischer comments, "Watson and Webber's use of a combination of techniques including disjunctive narrative, psychological complexity and ambiguity graphically expressed, unusual architectural angles, dramatic lighting, anamorphic lens shots and multiple exposure suggests that they were informed by a wide range of European and Soviet modernist conventions". This is interesting because Watson spoke out against modernism and wished for a return to more classical conventions.
The music in the film pulls the viewer into the intensity of the plot. The music changes form a calm melody to a nightmarish tick-tocking when Madeline falls into her possessed state and walks away from the table. It sounds almost like a fast heartbeat that is about to explode. In addition, the scene where we see just the hammer moving up and down on what is presumed to be Madeline's tomb, the music switches tempo with the speed of the hammer. When the hammer begins to fall on top of the tomb at an inhuman speed, again suggestive of a nightmare, the music begins to get faster and faster. Watson and Webber's choice of music really adds to the dream-like quality of the film.
In closing, although Watson and Webber have been overlooked by the film community, their influence on avant-garde film is extreme. The pair is highly respected for their experimental work. The teamwork between the two, as well as with e.e. cummings, produced some of the most influential of the early avant-garde films. They were a modest pair and viewed their work as amateur. Watson and Webber's work will continue to influence experimental filmmakers in the future.
--Tara Travisano, 2003
Watson & Weber