James D. Parriott | Misfits of Science | Nick Knight | Rag and Bone
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James D. Parriott is a writer-director, who has frequently made science fiction and fantasy films for television.
Parriott is a writer and producer whose TV series include Voyagers! (1982-83), Hawaiian Heat (1984-85) and Misfits of Science (1985-1986). None of these series was commercially successful, probably due to terrible time slots: the first was against 60 Minutes, the last two against Dallas. Misfits of Science, in fact was up against both Dallas and Miami Vice. Parriott got his start as a writer and producer on such Glen Larson productions as The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk, and most of his TV work has been in the science fiction category. His attempt at a non-fantasy, the cop show Hawaiian Heat, was fairly minor, although it had beautiful scenery shot in Hawaii's National Forests.
The two sf series, Voyagers! and Misfits of Science, were the two most enjoyable sf series on American network TV in the 1980's. Parriott produced them and contributed occasional scripts, as did many other writers. The best other writing for Voyagers! was done by Jill Sherman, who did episodes on Babe Ruth and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sherman is perhaps the same person as Jill Sherman Donner, who did the good script, "Pick a Hero, Any Hero", for the short-lived series Code Name: Foxfire.
Misfits of Science deals with a group of people who all have unusual powers (one can shoot lightening bolts, another can shrink to 3 inches tall). All are social outsiders and rejects who finally find friends when they are brought together at the foundation that is studying their talents. Misfits of Science is one of my favorite titles: I have often felt that I am a misfit of science.
Parriott's best work as writer for the series was the pilot, which he also directed. The Misfits pilot has our heroes destroying a new nuclear weapons system, a powerful idea one rarely sees on television. This anti-war and anti-arms film builds up an elemental force. It deals with a basic issue facing our civilization in a logically direct, intelligent manner. In this it is similar to the plays of Aeschylus, my favorite of all the Greek dramatists, and is like them as well in the emotional excitement it eventually generates over its basic themes.
After this, Parriott wrote and produced a pilot, Nick Knight (1989). Nick Knight is a little film about an L.A. cop who is also a vampire. It is a minor film, but it shows plenty of the charm and humor with which Parriott laces his work. It logically constructs a whole world of modern vampires in L.A. and the attempt of some of them to become "normal people", who can stand sunlight and normal food. There is a clear metaphor of people trying to conquer drugs or other addictions. Like Misfits, it deals with a group of people who are rejects of modern society, and who form a subculture separate from the "conventional" world.
Rag and Bone (1998) is a combination ghost story and police thriller. It is unusual in that it is not a horror movie. Rather, the ghost story is played to create an eerie atmosphere. Parriott has made much science fiction, and the story is constructed like an sf tale, with the ghosts woven into a logical framework used to tell an interesting, coherent story.
The opening scenes often focus on lines of posts. These posts can be bars on a window or door, rails of a fence, rows of lamp posts, or other regularly repeating vertical structures. The lines often stretch out on a diagonal across the screen. Often times, there are two rows of such lines, with a path of some sort between them - a road, a bridge, a staircase. Such bar imagery often suggests a prison.
After the opening, the colors of the film start getting really rich. We see acid greens, deep brick reds, bright yellows and glowing blues. The colors are richest during a long story arc, in which the supernatural elements are emphasized. They seem to take us to an eerie, heightened reality, on in which the appearance of the ghost seems natural.
One late shot combines both the grids of the opening, and the rich colors of subsequent sections. This shows the hero and his boss (Stan Shaw), talking down by the water. The background consists of a series of vertical sections, each defined by a gray steel pillar. Inside many of these sections, we see other brightly colored metal objects from the industrial infrastructure: brilliant red posts in one section, bright greens in others. The colors are richest in a series of rectangular regions near the center of the frame. This center overlaps and gives balance to the repeated vertical strips of the image.
The image echoes an earlier still life, showing the bar behind the hero and his aunt. The ancient bottles and glasses on the shelf are arranged against a series of vertical strips.
Towards the end of the picture, the colors become more subdued again. The explanation of the fate of Danny Ryan is shot in a largely desaturated color scheme. It winds up in a tunnel-like basement, with an arched roof. This scene is soon echoed by shots inside a city hall, with its curving roof soaring in the background over the characters. The roof echoes the earlier scene, and seems to derive a tomb-like feel from it, as well. Since the city hall scenes are full of anguish, this seems appropriate.
Mirrors are everywhere in the film. These include actual mirrors, including an oval wall mirror that seems straight out of Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Jacques Rivette, 1974). And like that film, Rag and Bone is partly a tale in which ordinary people start wandering among the events of a ghostly earlier story. The scenes in Rag and Bone can shift between at least four levels of reality: 1) the real world, with no ghosts; 2) the ghost seen in a mirror; 3) the ghost seen directly, standing there in front of the hero; 4) flashbacks to previous history, and the life of the dead man during the 1950's in the same locale.
In addition to true mirrors, many other reflective surfaces are used. We see reflections in shop windows, in street car windows, and the reflections of city lights at night from the hood of a car. These hood shots are especially beautiful, with different colored lights plus lit up buildings part of the image. Most of these mirror shots involve camera movement, which adds to their richness.
The first shot, showing the hero moving into his new home, is a complex camera movement. It starts out overhead on the street, showing a colonnade running down the road. The repeated pillars form one of the film's grids. The inside walls of the colonnade, and the series of windows and doors of the buildings, forms a second series of vertical lines. As is often the case in Rag and Bone, the outside pillars and inside windows form two parallels grids, with the sidewalk under the portico serving as the path between them. The camera swoops down, and moves in closer. Soon we can see details of the reflections in the windows. They form a crystal clear mirror of the other side of the street. These reflections eventually fill up the image. The facade on the street's other side also consists of a series of vertical lines: doors and windows. And now that we are close to the window giving the reflection, we can see the grilled bars across it. The bars masking the reflection of the windows across the street once again form two parallel grids, this time with the street as the path between them. The progress of the moving camera from one set of paired vertical grids to a second set is most dramatic. The gracefulness of the camera movement underscores the transition from one grid to the next, a smooth development of one view into the next.
The bar is called The Harp. This ties in with the Irish background of the hero, his family, and the ghost. A harp is also an instrument with repeated vertical lines, formed by the strings - another grid image. The next shot shows the interior staircase of the bar. Wind-chimes are hanging from the ceiling. They too form a series of vertical grids.
When the hero first enters the apartment upstairs over the bar, he is wearing a dark green tee shirt. This color forms a contrast to the dazzling red room we first see. This room's walls are painted in a series of swirling red brush strokes, over a yellow ground. The intense red almost suggests the room is on fire. The wall is in fact an abstract painting. It is disguised in the story as a decaying room of a trashy old apartment. But it is actually a complex painting, full of curving broad brushstrokes. It recalls Abstract Expressionist works. The swirling, heavy brush strokes somewhat recall Franz Kline, whereas the bright red is more typical of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. Several red objects in the room echo the wall, and there are also bits of yellow and green making a harmony.
The hero walks into a second room. The walls of this are a bland yellowish white, much plainer. But the windows are a series of square panes. Many are covered over with paper rectangles of various colors. The windows too form a work of abstract art. Their rectilinear grid is more in the tradition of Mondrian and De Stijl. A series of cardboard boxes on the floor extends the rectilinear patter.
When the hero hears quiet noises from downstairs, he goes back out in the hallway. The walls here are both brick red, like the first room, and a dark green that matches his tee shirt. The shot, essentially the hero standing against three color fields, red, green and red, is a striking work of pure color.
Downstairs, he sees a woman in a nun's habit standing in the bar. Her entrance is formally similar to that of the ghost: like him, she is seen standing quietly, in a decaying corner of the universe. For all we know, the hero is seeing another ghostly apparition. It turns out the nun is very real, and the hero's aunt. Still, her entrance correctly suggests that she occupies a special place in the spiritual world of the film.
The hero is first shot against a wall, which is red brick to the left of him, and two shades of light green wood to the right. This will be the first of a series of images suggesting the hero's divided nature. Throughout much of the rest of the scene in the bar, the hero is shot against the windows at the front of the room. These have shades, partly pulled down to various depths, that echo the colored papers covering the windows upstairs. The various bars on the windows also add to the rectilinear grids occupying these bar windows.
The final shot of the bar scene is a camera movement, that gradually converges on the shelves behind the bar. These are full of a complex series of objects, making a still life. Behind this, mirrors reflects the windows of the bar. The different mirror planes, reflecting the vertical series of varied windows with grills and blinds, form a remarkably complex series of vertical panels. This is one of the most elaborate shots in the film. It also forms an emotional climax to the discussion in the bar - an eerie piece of mise-en-scène.
The night scenes that follow are bathed in blue light. This is a cinematic convention that dates back to the silent period, when night scenes were often filmed during the day, then printed on blue-tinted stock. Here, such scenes serve a dual role, in that they continue the film's use of intense colors. The hero soon finds himself alone in a church at night. The church is full of canopied side aisles whose posts echo the pillared colonnade of the sidewalk earlier. Blue stained glass windows match the blue light, with red church votive candles used as a contrast. The hero is suddenly swept back into past scenes, through which he wanders magically as an observer. These are in a startlingly different yellow color scheme, with green light coming in through the church windows, as well as a red aisle carpet. The transition is indicated by a circular camera movement - a figure of style that often heralds the ghost or ghostly happenings.
When the hero is talking to his father, he is standing in front of a door pillar. On one side, is a flat expanse of light green wall. On the other side, is a deep focus shot of a hallway going back, painted in both a dark, purplish red, with a band of yellowish area above. The contrast between the two parts of the screen is striking. One section is flat, the other involves perspective. One is a light green, the other is a completely clashing red. It is like trying to keep two totally contradictory ideas in view at once. The perspective view can also be seen as a series of triangular sections, each radiating from the hero: a small yellow triangle at top, a big red wedge in the middle, and medium size yellowing triangle below. This effect is a bit echoed by a small lamp on the far left, hiding a little of the green wall. Its lampshade pleats, too, can be considered as a radiating series of small yellowish triangles.
This effect is striking enough. But the hero's father soon finds an old chasuble, a scarf made by his mother, and used by the hero when he was a priest. Such chasubles are symbols of the priesthood. The father delivers a line of dialogue about the hero being divided between being a priest and a cop. And lays the chasuble on the hero's shoulder. The chasuble is red, with yellow bands along the edges, and is an exact visual duplicate of the red and yellow deep perspective behind the hero. Now the hero is seen as a literally divided man. His left side is showing his light blue shirt, and standing in front of a green flat wall: the cop side. His right side shows only the chasuble, red and yellow against the red and yellow deep perspective: the priest side. It is a remarkable visual pun.
When the hero goes to the house of the victim's parents, two next door houses are painted blue and gold. The painting is not in any sort of standard arrangement for houses, which makes it look unusual on screen. The left hand house is gold in its upper sections, and blue in its lower. The right hand house is all gold. One never sees a two-tone house like the left hand one; and one equally never sees two neighboring houses sharing a bright color such as the gold here. The color scheme is extended. The left hand door is blue, the right hand door is gold. In addition, the hero's gold-ish car drives up along the right hand side of the screen, . The blue door top, the lower wall of blue, and the space below the low gold car in the foreground all make up a blue triangular region, which stands out against the bright gold of the rest of the houses. It is deeply asymmetric. Soon a pedestrian all in blue comes walking along, to repeat the color harmonies. The hero is also dressed in blue, and he walks up to the blue door on the far left of the house and screen.
The reverse angle shots of the hero, taken from the point of view of the victim's parents in the doorways, shows the hero standing, with a bright red car behind him in the street. This too makes a striking color contrast to the blue and gold shots.
The screen door is a fine rectangular mesh. This is another of the grids seen in the opening. It is superimposed on a series of repeated wooden ornaments on the door, making another double row of grids effect. We see both the hero and the parents through the rectangular mesh during their conversation, giving an eerie effect to the scene.
After this, the hero goes back to the docks. There is a shock cut to a wall, which is covered with broad swirls of red paint, like the wall in the hero's apartment. The hero is soon walking down a staircase, whose slatted steps provide another set of parallel grids. After the hero reaches the bottom, and does a bit of looking around, an extended long-take shot begins. This is one of the most complex camera movements in the picture. It begins with the hero hopping twice over rails, a nice sense of repeated rhythms. The slow camera movements here gradually explore the area. There is a surprising plot development, followed by a whip-like pan. The screen bursts into brilliant reds and yellows.