Show Pieces (2014)

Does mastery of one particular art form ever guarantee success in another? There are numerous instances of literary figures moving over to film, some very successfully (say, Clive Barker), some a bit less so (say, Stephen King); but for a frame of reference more specific to the subject of Show Pieces, we might consider the great comics writers – or, if you’re that way inclined, graphic novelists – of the 1980s. Neil Gaiman seemed to move with relative ease from master of comics to one of the most justly acclaimed fantasy novelists of our time, plus some modest success as a screenwriter (Beowulf, Mirrormask), whilst Frank Miller got off to a roaring start on the big screen with Sin City, even if he fudged the landing on The Spirit. Ah, but then there’s that undisputed titan of the field, Alan Moore, as renowned for his groundbreaking masterworks in the comics arena as he is for his unabashed contempt for Hollywood and its appropriation of his creations (not unreasonable when you look at From Hell, Watchmen or most pointedly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although I daresay the V For Vendetta movie isn’t half bad). Given his outspoken contempt for most mainstream media, the idea of Moore getting into film at all had long seemed unlikely, so it’s little surprise that when he chose to do so it would be very much in an independent capacity, on a trio of short films with director Mitch Jenkins. The question is, what would the mighty imagination of Moore bring to the screen, and how well could this be realised on a microbudget?

Assembled here as a single feature, but best approached in the knowledge that they’re in fact three distinct short films (the first two made in 2012, the closer in 2014), Show Pieces is essentially an abstract, stylised take on the process of death, and what might be waiting as we pass on to the supposed other side. Don’t go expecting any ethereal visions straight out of William Blake or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, however; this is very much the product of a 20th century imagination, filtered via era-appropriate imagery, heavy in urban decadence, hard liquor, stockings and high heels. Think Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, if he’d set it in Northampton instead of New Orleans.

The scene is set by opening short Act of Faith, starring Siobhan Hewlett as a woman – yes, named Faith – whose after dark exploits take an unforeseen turn. This is followed by Jimmy’s End, in which Darrell D’Silva plays suit-clad, booze-addled man about town James, who stumbles into a mysterious, hitherto unseen night spot which appears to be some kind of grimy burlesque house, but which he gradually realises is something else entirely. Closing chapter His Heavy Heart continues this story directly, with James taken into a dark back room by two of the characters he met in the club – a clown (Andrew Buckley) and a stripper (Khandi Khisses) – who are poised to decide his eternal fate.

Again, it’s important not to consider this a fully-fledged movie in its own right, or you’re liable to be left feeling much the same way the less-informed were once the credits rolled on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: that sudden, indignant rush of, “is that it? Things were just getting interesting!” Indeed, it seems the plan is that Show Pieces will act as a prelude for a fully-fledged feature, The Show, which will continue Jimmy’s misadventures in the afterlife. This having been said, I’ve no clue as to the current status of that project; Moore apparently completed the screenplay three years ago. And of course, the prospect of a feature length continuation invariably raises the question of whether this trio of shorts will necessarily leave the viewer clamouring for more (more Moore, as she’s known to cry in the midnight hour). For myself, the answer is a tentative yes, although I can easily imagine that not all viewers will feel similarly; yet it’s clear throughout that this was never a venture in which blanket mass appeal was ever on the agenda. As anyone familiar with Moore’s writing will be aware, he likes to take his time and really set the scene, and as such these films – short though they may be – move at a pretty slow pace, often weighed down with verbose dialogue, and as such they definitely test the viewer’s patience.

Let’s not forget, also, Show Pieces is not the work of Alan Moore alone. Mitch Jenkins, a director with no other credits to his name, takes on the tricky task of bringing Moore’s words to life, and on a clearly limited budget. Visually, it’s fair to say the films feel a wee bit pedestrian; handsomely shot for certain, but lacking a certain panache. One suspects this might be a deliberate move, intended to keep the dialogue the centre of attention, in the foreknowledge that Moore’s name, and words, are the key selling point. Still, as we’ve seen from many past screen adaptations of novels (many of the Stephen King movies come to mind), dialogue which works fine on the page doesn’t always quite work when delivered aloud by actors, so it’s not entirely unexpected that, while the performances are strong all around, there is somewhat stilted quality to it all which can be a bit off-putting. Particularly in Jimmy’s End and His Heavy Heart there’s a bit of a Glengarry Glen Ross feel, the sense that we’re watching something which is perhaps more naturally suited to the stage, for which a camera just happened to be in the vicinity.

Inevitably, readings of Show Pieces are going to vary according to how familiar the viewer is with Alan Moore. As is perhaps evident, I’ve come to it as a firm admirer of the writer, but I can easily imagine that, were I less well-versed in his work, I would be quicker to dismiss Show Pieces as a long-winded treatment of well-trod subject matter, built on largely familiar iconography, much of it feeling little more than an excuse to present lots of women in saucy undies. As it stands, I’m happy to say I very much enjoy both Moore’s long-winded prose and saucy-undie-clad women, and as such I found Show Pieces a largely enjoyable affair, despite being a bit taken aback by what seemed to be a fairly conventional, Christian morality underlying proceedings. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too quick to judge there, as there’s no mistaking a sense of it all being a preamble for something bigger, and despite my misgivings I hope that conclusion does indeed arrive somewhere down the line.

Show Pieces is available now on Shudder.