The Twilight Zone is proving to be a more interesting place than I expected. I have seen a good deal of the episodes in the past, but this is the first time I’m tackling them in order and all the way through. I have a distinct memory of sorrow and misery punctuating each episode but I’m being proven wrong about that. (Think about how many end on a bad note. Burgess Meredith anyone? We’ll get there…) In The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine, Barbara Jean Trenton straddles the line between happy and sad, but in the end, like her predecessors of the last few episodes, she has another happy ending.
I say she straddles the line because most of the episode is a bit of a heartbreaking affair. Barbara Jean is stuck in the past; the world around her has left her behind. She lives in memories of her own personal golden age when she was the queen of the screen and she desperately wants that era back. She hurts those who love her because they’ve accepted that time has moved on even hurting an old on-screen love interest, Jerry Hearndan, because Jerry is no longer the leading me. In that regard, this is a very sad and difficult episode to watch. I can relate only too well to the idea of growing older and longing for the glory days of our past. Not a day goes by where I don’t mourn the loss of having friends over my house every single day. But one has to accept that this is what happens, it’s reality. Our friends move on, they get big jobs and have families and before long, playing with other friends fades into the past. It’s the natural order. It’s also natural to miss those days of fun and laughter but we find joy in other things: writing a blog, joining zoom calls with friends around the world, watching a series with the wife or playing some single player video games. When the opportunity arises to be with friends, we jump at it, but we accept that it’s no longer the daily routine we had before. Which is all part of what makes Barbara’s journey so sad. We’re seeing the slow death of a woman who can’t accept that she’s aging and life changes. Her delusion is both frustrating and heartbreaking for her, and we are along for the ride.
While she may be the focal point of the story, we can’t ignore what happens to Danny. Danny tries to get her involved in things, tries to bring friends around to see her. It seems pretty clear that Danny loves Barbara. When he takes her to an interview to see studio exec Marty Sall, Marty brutally puts her in her place. The message he’s relaying isn’t wrong, she is difficult to work with, but it’s the brutal way he relays that message that hurts Barbara and in so doing, Danny reacts. He tells Marty in no uncertain terms that when the day comes that he’s down, Danny will be there to give him a “swift kick in the teeth.” There’s no doubt that Danny loves Barbara as she is, but she doesn’t love herself any more and she’s desperate to find that version of herself again. So we suffer with Danny through this story. Danny says it best, “you keep wishing for things that are dead.” In a way, this entire episode can be summed up by Barbara’s refusal to accept that things change.
So at this point, I start to question if this is a view of mental health as 1959 could portray it. This is a story about an obsessive, delusional woman. It’s painful, it’s sad, and it’s … unexpectedly happy?! “If I wish hard enough…” If we presume for a moment that the Twilight Zone is a real place within which we could all find ourselves, maybe there’s a guiding force that makes decisions. (Sure, in the real world, that’s the writer making a decision, but for the purpose of staying “in universe” let’s consider the power that drives the decisions.) Something made Barbara’s wish come true. The ending is a beautiful, poignant piece as she is caught on film with her old friends, once again the star of the show. As she walks off, a heartbroken Danny calls out to her and she hears him and throws her scarf at him. When he finally can walk out of the room, he finds her scarf exactly where it landed in the movie.
I imagine in the context of the universe, a story was crafted to explain what happened to Barbara Jean Trenton. Maybe she went off to do a movie in another part of the world. Whatever the public is told, we know the truth. Barbara Jean is consigned to the memories of the past where she goes on living, preserved forever, never aging, on a film reel in some back corner of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
I am sure everyone reading this will identify with the following sentiment: there are times in our lives when we need to escape into comfort viewing, whether that be film or television, or perhaps comfort reading instead. Something familiar. Something safe, and cosy. For me that has always been Doctor Who, most recently when my first child was born. Having a newborn baby for the first time is one of the most stressful things anyone can do, and a Doctor Who viewing marathon helped get me through those sleepless nights. I think to a certain extent having those safe forms of escapism is a healthy thing to do, as long as it’s not because there’s a problem in your life that needs addressing, sorting out, or facing up to.
This is where Barbara Jean Trenton comes in, because she does have a problem, and her means of escapism is probably not very healthy either. Her problem is that she will not face up to the ageing process. She longs for the romance of the 1930s, when she was a young actress performing lead roles opposite dashing leading men. She is hankering after the kinds of roles she played in her youth, and that’s not going to happen. It’s a cruel fact of the acting profession that it holds up a mirror to the ageing process through life. At some point you stop getting offered teenage roles. At some point you stop getting offered romantic leads and start getting offered mothers. At some point the casting directors want you to play grandmothers instead. At some point, and this must surely be the more horrible one to face up to and demand the greatest strength of character not to throw in the towel and retire, you are asked to play dying old people in hospital beds. To be clear, I’m not an actor, but it’s possible to chart these kinds of changes across the life of a favourite star of television or film.
Certain aspects of this don’t have to be negative, of course. In a way, it’s the opposite of typecasting. When Barbara is offered a mother role by Marty Sall, this is actually a golden opportunity that many washed up actresses never get, a chance to reignite her career and redefine herself in the eyes of potential casting directors, but she isn’t having any of it.
“I don’t play mothers Mr Sall.”
This scene in particular is one of several moments in the episode where it is very hard to warm to the character. As much as it’s easy to sympathise with her misery about the loss of her youth, you just want her to snap out of it and accept the lifeline she has been given. She comes across as stubborn, petulant, and just a little bit selfish. She obviously means a lot to Danny, as he perseveres where many people would have long since given up, but never for a moment does she consider his feelings, nor the feelings of the old friend who shows up, cruelly rejected because he doesn’t look the same as he did in the 1930s. There is also a lot of ego wrapped up in her misery, trying to recapture what it was to be a big star, and clearly not a very pleasant one to deal with behind the scenes. Everything is about what she wants, and that carries right through to the conclusion.
Despite that, the twist ending somehow manages to be quite positive. Yes, we get the horror first. Like most Twilight Zone episodes there is a frisson of the macabre, something unnatural and perhaps dangerous that defies the natural laws that we trust. In giving Barbara her comfort blanket, the episode steals ours away from us, undermining what we know to be scientifically possible. The positive aspect is that she gets exactly what she wants, and Danny seems to understand that. He raises a smile at the end. But we’re never quite allowed to share in Barbara’s happiness and we are left with the nagging suspicion that terror lurks behind those smiling eyes of Danny’s. There are too many unanswered questions, and they are ones that speak of worries and fears. Chief among them: where exactly did Barbara go? Has she found a shortcut to the afterlife, and if so, what happens when the tape runs out and Danny switches off the projector?
So this might be a story about comfort viewing, but I doubt it is comfort viewing for many people. We might have a fond respect for this amazing series, but Rod Serling’s stock-in-trade was unease. The Twilight Zone is one of the all-time great sci-fi series, but when I need my comfort viewing I’ll always look for help from a madman in a blue box. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Walking Distance