Consider the Fugue: Jacob's Ladder

James King

28 Aug 2013
For the final blog in our ICA Cinematheque season Consider the Fugue, Film & Cinema Co-ordinator James King looks at Jacob's Ladder (1990).

For the final blog in our ICA Cinematheque season Consider the Fugue, Film & Cinema Co-ordinator James King looks at Jacob's Ladder (1990). Both screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin and director Adrian Lyne cited the French short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Robert Enrico, 1962 - above) as a major influence on their 1990 collaboration Jacob’s Ladder.

Based on the Ambrose Bierce story, Enrico’s short film won prizes at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards, gaining the attention of American TV producer William Froug who eventually bought the broadcast rights to the film so that it could be aired as a one-off special episode of his television series The Twilight Zone in 1964.

The short film opens on a misty rural bridge during the American Civil War, where Union soldiers prepare to hang a civilian prisoner -- a pocket watch ticks ominously over the soundtrack. As the soldiers wrap a noose around the condemned man’s neck, he closes his eyes and we are presented with a brief vision: a flash of his wife and two children lounging on the lawn of their family home, the camera tracks sideways as the prisoner’s wife rises from her wicker chair to greet him in eerie slow motion. As the prisoner is dropped, the rope snaps and he plummets down into the creek below. Thrashing about underwater, the convict manages to escape his bindings and swim away, eluding the Union soldiers who give chase firing their rifles into the water as the current sweeps him downstream. Eventually the prisoner washes up on a sandy riverbank; he laughs at his good fortune and smells a fresh flower. Then a cannonball explodes on the bank next to him and he is back on the run - sprinting now through dense woodland, fleeing unseen enemies as drums bang deafeningly over the soundtrack. Exhausted, delirious, the prisoner staggers down an uncanny avenue of trees. An iron-clad gate swings open and he stumbles through, finds himself back at the family home. His wife rises from her seat in the garden, extends her arms to greet him, smiling radiantly; he sprints across the lawn towards her, she dashes towards him, the footage looped to prolong this reunion. But just at the moment where the escaped man is about to reach his wife’s embrace, his neck jerks back, face twisted in agony, and he falls to his knees. The film cuts back to a shot of Owl Creek Bridge, where we see the prisoner’s corpse bouncing at the end of the rope. It transpires that the heroic escape back to his family home was an elaborate fantasy conjured at the moment of his execution, a rare instance of screen-time exceeding ‘real-time’ – the majority of the film’s twenty-five-minute duration actually occurring in the brief seconds between the gallows drop and the convict’s neck breaking. With Jacob’s Ladder, Rubin and Lyne took the bleak structural technique employed by Enrico and transposed it to their post-Vietnam War thriller, expanding its use beyond merely being a neat narrative trick to depict the fugue-fantasy as a state of philosophical hell that their protagonist Jacob Singer must escape in order to reach a place of enlightenment.

In a crucial scene, Jacob’s angelic chiropractor Louis Denardo rescues him from a nightmarish mental hospital and tends to his injuries. Seeing that Jacob has been plagued by visions of demons, he offers the troubled war veteran sage advice, referencing the 14th-century Christian mysticMeister Eckhart:

The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.

This scene offers perhaps one of the most succinct insights into the therapeutic function of the fugue: by restaging trauma within a fictional narrative, one is able to process a loss that seemed utterly unbearable in life. The subject is able to impose meaning onto the seemingly senseless tragedies they have suffered, to realign their perspective and finally let go.

What the fugue narrative has ultimately offered filmmakers over the past century is the opportunity to build aesthetically rich and complex fantasy worlds, limited only by the imaginations of their protagonists, and then to abruptly tear these worlds down and reveal their artifice. The parallels between the formulation of a fugue-fantasy and the creative process are unavoidable - the act of conjuring a world, a story, a character or even just an image out of the mind’s eye remains crucial to the artistic process. The fugue-fantasy is an act of pure imaginative creation, uninhibited by social or economic restrictions, hence the lasting allure for filmmakers to depict such unfettered moments of inspiration on screen.

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