Review : Weird scenes inside the goldmine

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The Independent Culture
Let me tell you a strange story. One day Jason Pegler, an AA man, was walking down an unfamiliar street when he heard a public phone ringing. He picked it up, slightly reluctantly, and was startled to hear the voice of a colleague, apologising for disturbing him on his day off and asking for advice about how to work the office fax machine. He had great difficulty in persuading her of what had happened - until she looked down at her desk and realised that she had dialled his staff number by mistak e. It just happened to be the number of the call box he just happened to be walking past.

You might use this little tale as a sort of litmus paper, a diagnostic test. If you think it is simply enjoyable, a delightful demonstration of the oddities of chance, then you are probably immune to the contagions of the weird. But if you think it is significant, evidence of arcane machinery at work, then you may be in trouble. You test positive for inflamed credulity and if you watched BBC2's "Weird Night", an entire evening of programmes devoted to the bizarre, you may be on your way to a padded roomby now.

Jason Pegler's experience was part of Strange Days, a set of elegantly composed interludes in which ordinary people recounted their own strange anecdotes. The coincidences were most fun, because you didn't feel obliged to get on your high horse and ride the crazy galoots out of town, but they were nearly all distinguished by their narrative purity - talking heads by Saki or M R James. The promise of a single voice making its solitary way to an unsettling destination reminded you of the sharp human appetite for the out-of-the-ordinary, whether we believe it to be fictional or not.

The narrative impulse was also important in WSH - an acronym for Weird Shit Happens and the title of an odd little fable about urban folk-tales. At first this seemed to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of fantasy for film-makers - the way it can cover up incompetence like no other genre (this isn't clumsy, it's kinda dislocating and spooky). But it tautened as it proceeded and turned out to belong to an older tradition - the cautionary tale about the arrogance of scientific rationalism.

Professor Charles Pulling, (an imaginary academic) takes the view that urban myths are that and nothing more - his line is that they issue from the dispossessed and disturbed, an argument which powerfully endears him to the food conglomerate struggling against a rumour that a disgruntled worker with Aids has been ejaculating into their brand-leading banana cream pie (sorry about this, but urban myths aren't decorous or politically correct).

He is up against Professor Bill Ellis (a genuine academic) who has factual evidence that some people have taken to making urban myths come true ("Pets have been cooked in microwaves").

As it happens, Charles Pulling has been dabbling with such fulfilment himself, having indulged in a specialised type of sushi involving live fish. Throughout the film he is fighting down his knowledge that an urban myth (octopuses in the tummy) is about

to come true, a battle he loses in spectacular fashion.

What had been infuriatingly loose and mystifying ended with a tight little thriller twist - as all good urban myths do.

All of "Weird Night" tested my sense of propriety - should the BBC really be encouraging our headlong rush into reckless gullibility like this?- but no part of it quite as much as The Last American Freak Show. There was always going to be a let out for Mike Barker's film; he could say he was "putting on record" an element of America social history, which is so much more elevating than gawping at freaks. But his film didn't require this evasion - it was distinguished by the way in which it looked its subjects in the face and allowed them to tell their own stories.