Thursday, May 10, 2007

5.22 "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

Season 5, Episode 22

Written & Directed by: Robert Enrico

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge makes for an unusual twenty five minutes of American television, given its sophisticated sense of visual poetry and near total lack of spoken dialogue. It uses long, lyrical passages to play with the nature of time, memory and imagination, as well as employs unconventional grammatical devices, such as surprising subjective shots, a protracted reverse tracking shot, and provocative jump cuts characteristic of the French New Wave.

That only seems appropriate, given that the short film, which won awards at both Cannes and the Oscars under the title La Rivière du Hibou, was originally an independent French production not intended for American television; it was sold to the producers of The Twilight Zone for $10,000—less than a sixth the cost of an average episode—under the stipulation that it could only be shown twice. Like The Encounter then, but for different reasons, it was subsequently dropped from future syndication; yet the film, based on a late nineteenth-century short story of the same name by Ambrose Bierce, has maintained a beloved popular and critical reputation—short and sweet, it's become a standard fixture in Middle Schools everywhere, a marvelous way for passive educators to kill half an hour.

Appearing to be set during the American Civil War, a man (Roger Jacquet) of curiously Gallic features is set to be hung off of the Owl Creek Bridge by a small group of soldiers. (His crime is only vaguely alluded to by a sign that begins the episode, declaring that anyone who attempts to block or destroy the bridge will be executed.) When the plank that suspends him is kicked out, however, the absurdly long rope, rather than snap his neck, plunges him into the river below; the man loosens his binds, surfaces to the water and swims to safety amid flying bullets and cannon fire. As forces continue to pursue him, he runs into the forest and attempts to make it home to his beloved.

There are some marvelous moments here, such as the unbearably tense sequence in which he races to remove his noose underwater, the prolonged opening sequence in which he nervously awaits his fate, and the idyllic flashback of his lover on a verdant, sun-soaked estate. Our protagonist rolls around in the sand, smells the flowers, and watches such trivial events as a spider construct its web, all gorgeously photographed to underscore how beautiful the world is, and what a gift it is to be alive. (This is also not so subtly underscored by a soulful ballad called "A Livin' Man" that plays throughout.) Even as he teeters above the water, when not daydreaming of his sweetheart or mustering courage he spends his time listening to the chirping birds and observing something as simple as a twig floating in a river (which also foreshadows his imminent fate), seemingly saying goodbye to the world with the clinging reluctance of a teenager at the airport, incessantly kissing her sweetheart as he pulls away, en route to Europe for study abroad.

But more to the point, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an artistic experiment that examines the credulous nature of the average spectator's relationship to his narrator, and it packs a wollop of an ending; even if I were spoil for you (which I won't), you would still leap with surprise. "My heart literally stopped beating," declares a poster on the IMDb message boards. It is a cruel, shocking and violently sudden finale to an impressive and elegant short, an episode of The Twilight Zone in name and spirit but in neither form nor style.

For Netflix purposes:
On Image Entertainment's "Treasures of the Twilight Zone, Vol. 1" DVD.


Clayton said...

I've actually never seen this version of Occurrence, although I have noticed that it's available on DVD (I've seen it on the shelf many times at the local library). It's kind of odd that it would be sold for the show to use, but anyone who knows this story knows that it makes a perfect companion to an of Serling's visions. I know the ending from reading the story, and it's the kind that Shyamalyan has been trying to reproduce for years.

H. Stewart said...

I think the original version and Serling's are pretty much the same, just a minute or two shorter and with an arguably unnecessary Serling narration to tie it all together at the end.

From what I hear the Twilight Zone was in its last season and running low on cash, so to get an episode that is rather Twilight Zoney, albeit in an artsy French way, for so cheap I guess was too good to pass up. Plus, it's pretty good!

Occurrence... shows, to me, a valuable lesson for contemporary filmmakers who depend on surprise twists--it's not so much the cleverness of the twist that counts, but the way in which you present it. (That old axiom, "it's not what a movie's about but how it's about it.") It's possible to figure out without much effort what's going on in Occurrence, but the ending is still an intense experience. Visuals are more viscerally effective than a trembly Haley Joel speech, at least in this case.

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