Saturday, November 03, 2012

An idea 'stolen'

I omitted one of my favourites from amongst Wednesday's collection of thumbnail outlines of my horror stories, because... well, for a number of reasons. One is that I wrote it as a young boy, 36 or so years ago, and thus no longer have a very detailed recollection of it. Further, it was very short, and I suspect not very good. But I suppressed it chiefly because I had discovered to my chagrin a few years after writing it that the idea was not original.

Well, what is? There is no new thing under the sun, as the prophet says.

Of course, at such a tender age, it is very disheartening to learn this truth so bluntly. I had thought my little story was a terribly brilliant idea that no-one else could ever possibly have come up with. Just as well I got over that when I was 13 or 14, I suppose. 

My story, The Telephone Box, was inspired by many unpleasant experiences with the old-fashioned British telephone boxes, which were uniquely claustrophic (entirely enclosed, narrow dimensions, stout metal construction, tiny window panes), and had very heavy doors which could be a real struggle to open and close. Plus, of course, they were very often out of order.

There wasn't very much to the story, except that a man's car broke down on a remote country road. He was in the middle of nowhere, and thought himself very lucky to find a telephone box nearby (no mobile phones in those far-off days, of course). He was not so lucky when he entered it: he found himself trapped, the door jammed shut, and the phone not working. Nobody passed by to discover his plight, and after several days he succumbed to despair and strangled himself with the phone cord. (I probably didn't know at that point in my life that lack of water will kill you sooner than lack of food, or what the timeframe of survival is.) Eventually a workman comes along, apparently from the phone company. He removes the dead body, but does nothing to fix the jam-prone door. *

Now watch this - La Cabina, a classic 35-minute short by Spanish director Antonio Mercero. For a little while I fancied that he may have somehow ripped off my idea, and I fantasised about suing him to get a credit on the movie. I eventually discovered that he had made it for Spanish TV in 1972, a few years before I wrote my story; but I'm pretty sure I could have had no knowledge of it at that time. I don't think it was shown on British TV (a Saturday night on BBC2, if I recall correctly) until around the late '70s - and was repeated about a decade later, when I managed to videotape it (but that tape is now long lost). I have been trying for twenty years or more to unearth this film again, but it has only recently turned up on Youtube.

Mercero's story far surpasses my own effort, particularly in exploiting his hapless protagonist's interactions with people outside the booth (something I'd completely excluded - because my prosaic imagination couldn't conceive of how he wouldn't be rescued if someone found him!) and, in the later stages, with elaborating the suggestion of a sinister conspiracy by the phone company (the final scene is just jaw-dropping). I really like the way this film starts with a fairly light tone, a kind of Tati-esque social comedy on voyeurism, but becomes steadily darker and darker. [It's essentially dialogue-free, so the absence of subtitles is not a problem.]

I don't know why we haven't heard more from Snr Mercero. It seems he's been working pretty regularly in Spain, mostly in television, for over 40 years now; but nothing else has had the impact of this devastating little masterpiece of the surreal and the macabre.

*  Thank heavens they don't have telephone boxes in China!


Froog said...

Well, we don't have phone booths here, but... the new breed of ATMs are uncannily phone booth-like.

Froog said...

This is a very resonant concept. On one level, it's just an extreme representation of the vexation that public utilities companies so often visit upon us, especially when they are state-run monopolies. But on another, it becomes a Kafkaesque metaphor for the pervasive - and often perverse - influence of the state in our daily lives... or for our powerlessness in the grip of a malign Fate.

I find its message particularly applicable to China, where the influence of the Party - and of the major organs of state such as the PLA and the giant state-owned enterprises - really does intrude into every corner of society... and often does seem to unleash horrors on people for irrational, inexplicable reasons.

There are lots of other intriguing, disturbing themes in this as well, of course, such as the reluctance of most bystanders to intervene in a problem situation, and the misplaced trust most of us have in 'the authorities' - or in our modern technology - to ultimately take care of problems like this.