Saturday, 28 March 2009

Films of the Week

Well, last week’s movies actually. But why let the truth get in the way of a handy headline (see Medium Cool later). These are the films which have been setting the pixels a-spinning on the Winship telly in the late hours.

This 1979 Robert Altman film is one of his series of dream pictures; stories which did actually germinate from fragments of dream. These intimate, languid and mysterious films punctuate the sprawling ensemble-cast dissections of American myths for which he is better known. They may have sunk into relative obscurity, but they are one of the clearest reflections of the new Hollywood’s adoption of the thematic concerns and stylistic forms of the newly emergent European art cinema (this may not be unrelated to their unpopularity, of course). Other directors may have absorbed these influences, but they tended to adapt them to pre-existing Hollywood templates; the gangster film, the road movie, the melodrama. Altman showed a much greater affinity with the cinema of Bunuel and (particularly) Bergman in these films, which he seems to acknowledge in Quintet with the casting of Bibi Andersson and Fernando Rey.

Quintet is post-apocalyptic science-fiction. It’s world is effectively elucidated in the opening scene, in which the camera pans across an ice-bound wasteland until it comes across the grounded hulk of a passenger train, forever waiting beside a snow-engulfed platform. The main action takes place in an enclosed city-state in which Essex, Paul Newman’s character, becomes embroiled in a deadly board game, the Quintet of the title, whose moves are played out beyond the five-sided board. The losers pay with their lives. This places it within a tradition of science fiction films which posit a future in which games and sports have become murderous spectacles: The Tenth Victim, Death Race 2000 and Punishment Park amongst them.

Quintet is the endgame of a civilisation in terminal decline. It is played for no other reason than to remind its players that they are alive, to give meaning to an existence which, with its ice-white backdrop, has literally been drained of colour. It also serves to indicate how human relationships are contingent upon a world of sufficiency, of plentiful resources, the lack of which reduces all exchanges to an animalistic struggle for survival (like the dogs who roam the streets and feed off the dead and the weak).

The city of the future is realised in the rather schematic manner of those unused to the rigours of fictional world-building, who make do with a few pre-fabricated elements slotted into place. Everything is divided into numerically identified ‘sectors’ and people can apparently all be located by referring to the symbols on a series of rotating perspex sheets. The whole thing has the unlived-in air of a utopian plan mapped out on graph paper rather than a naturally evolved community. In fact it was filmed amongst the ready-made props of the Man and his World pavillion from the Expo 67 staged in Montreal. Some of these are very effective, but they never let the city escape its stage-bound atmosphere. The large blown-up pictures seem particularly out of place.

There is also a rather sketchily worked out religion, which invites people to revel in wretchedness and despair, using the pentagon of the Quintet board as a holy symbol of resigned fatalism. In the end, the unrelenting pessimism of the film becomes wearying. It lacks any real point and thus becomes mere easy nihilism. Essex’s ultimate rejection of the world of the game may be a refusal to give up hope, but by now we have been made fairly certain that his dogged search for some remnant of humanity and civilisation is a chimerical quest.

The atmosphere of a dying world is well created, however, with the use of a halo of unfocussed blur around the edge of the frame enhancing the somnambulant quality of the icy landscape. This is also underscored by the music, composed by Tom Pierson, which uses tinkling harp arpeggios (suggesting light glittering on ice) undermined by the odd deep bass rumbles. The plot, once the initial premise has been set up, doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and unwinds towards a rather predictable and perfunctorily executed denouement. Its a film which is worth watching, but would have to summed up with those damningly faint words of praise, an interesting failure.

Medium Cool.
This is a remarkable film from the frontline of the 1968 street agitations. It takes a critical look at the prevalance of the visual medium as a means of transmitting knowledge and information, and therefore implicitly interrogates itself along the way. The opening scene in which two news cameramen film the aftermath of a car crash, including its victim, before finally getting around to calling for help serves to present the film’s central theme of the image creating distance and disconnection rather than immediacy and engagement. The dispassionate remoteness of the camera eye reduces us all to passive spectators and vicarious voyeurs. This is a theme which has been explored repeatedly in cinema as writers and directors realise the metaphorical implications of the very act of watching films. Its lineage stretches from Rear Window to Peeping Tom to George Romero’s recent Diary of the Dead, which like Medium Cool approaches the theme from an overtly political standpoint. The opening scene of Medium Cool, with its cold concrete freeway landscape into which human beings seem to be intruders, could almost be taken from an adaptation of J.G.Ballard’s Crash, years before David Cronenberg brought his own particular sensibility to bear on it.

Robert Forster’s character John Cassellis was initially to be played by John Cassevetes, to whom the name is evidently a nod. Forster’s performance is very Cassevetes-like, and he even bears a certain physical resemblence to the actor-director. His news-cameraman is initially unlikeable insofar as he is representative of the prevailing ethos of the society around him. It is a throwaway consumer society in which commitment is discouraged. You simply move on from one instantly gratified impulse to the next, whether this be on the level of relationships, or in the absorption of packaged news items. The counter-culture is not depicted as being a valid alternative to this ethos, rather it is seen as just another part of it. Free love and drugs are just another form of consumption aimed at instant gratification. The use of Frank Zappa’s music for the Mothers of Invention is particularly suited to conveying this message, with much of it taken from We’re Only In It For The Money, the record in which he takes a blast at hippies and ‘straights’ alike. It is also prescient in its anticipation of police brutality, and thus provides a sad soundtrack to the kind of scenes which it predicted. Frank sounds uncharacteristically emotionally engaged in the song Mom and Dad, in which he sings ‘mama, mama, someone said they made some noise/the cops have shot some girls and boys’ and ‘they looked to weird – it served them right’.

Robert Forster is gradually drawn into a relationship through his encounter with Harold, a young urchin who leads him to his mother Eileen, as played by Verna Bloom. Verna was a teacher in West Virginia but her qualifications are considered invalid in Chicago. Harold is seen painstakingly reading from books at various points and complains that the teachers just switch on the TV at school and they don’ t learn anything. Eileen is a representative of an America far from the mainstream of 60s culture, counter or otherwise. But she is far from being a rural stereotype. She has a poster of Bobby Kennedy on her wall which indicate that she shares the hopes of progressive Americans for a better future. But she also represents a purer, less cynical American ideal, one which still has a code of moral rectitude rooted in the old time religions. The film takes pains to focus on the seldom seen aspects of America, turning the camera away from the obvious spectacle. Forster has an awkward encounter, an enforced debate, in the black ghettoes of Chicago. And when we hear Bobby Kennedy’s convention speech, the camera dwells on the kitchen workers as they clean up the remains of the banquet food.

The most celebrated scenes and those which give it such an incredible historical punch are those which are essentially reportage from the streets and parks outside the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968. Eileen wanders through the sea of protestors as they are confronted and marshalled by armed riot police, searching for her missing son. She is vividly identifiable in her yellow dress, which makes her stand out from the crowd. The fact that she is an outsider, seen as a representative from the non-radical heartland of working-class America, gives her increasing sense of numbed shock at the brutality meted out by the Chicago police the feel of authentic neutrality. Meanwhile, Forster’s cameraman films the official and carefully ordered spectacle of the convention in the city hall.

The ending of the film is of a piece with late 60s and early 70s independent film, but is no less dissatisfying for that. It is an all too convenient way of bringing things to a sudden halt, but evades any sense of continuity which would involve a sustained sense of commitment on either a personal or a political level. The final shot is of Haskell Wexler (I assume) behind his camera, which he turns to focus on us. It is an attempt to dissolve the barrier between viewer and image, to draw us in to the events we have just witnessed. To somehow transcend the dissociation and disconnection which the screen imposes (whether at the cinema, on tv, or now on your computer). A highly recommended film.

This is a complete piece of 60s nonsense. Its plot was clearly hastily scribbled on the back of a paper bag, possibly while the writer was drunk, and remained unrevised. It features the kind of shameless objectification which underlines the fact that the ‘liberations’ of the sixties had their limits. Jane Birkin, as the object of Jack MacGowran’s vicarious infatuation, never gets to speak one line. The far-out design of her flat is carried out by a ‘collective’ known as The Fool, who may be amongst the beaded and ponchoed hippies who play their flutes during the ‘happening’ party scene. It’s so sixties, it hurts. So dammit, why is it all so absurdly enjoyable.

Jack and Jane, the short answer would be. Oh, and George. George Harrison provides the music, a mixture of Indian classical, blues jams and concrete tape pieces. The use of Indian music unfortunately furthers the popular perception of this centuries old tradition as sounds for hippies to get off their heads to. Jack MacGowran’s performance as the absent-minded professor reprises his endearing turn in The Fearless Vampire Killers. He even gets to wear a dashingly vampiric cape at one stage. There are other links with Polanski, as the writer Gerard Brach penned both Dance of the Vampires and Cul de Sac, both of which featured MacGowran, as well as Iain Quarrier, who here plays Jane B’s feckless and vain boyfriend.
One of the charming things about the film is its clash of bohemian worlds. Jack MacGowran looks like he has inherited his flat from a member of William Morris’ arts and crafts circle. The hippies next door seem positively conformist in comparison, with their standard issue clobber and tastes. There’s a lovely scene when Iain Quarrier drops by to ask for some ice. Jack MacGowran, after some inevitable misunderstanding, opens his fridge to reveal that it is full of large, un-cut chunks of the stuff. Who’s weirder now? The scenes in which he climbs onto the roof in evening dress and cape resemble a British take on the French Fantomas/Judex tradition, too, with MacGowran once again appearing as an old-fashioned and chivalrous brand of dishevelled dandy. The scenes with MacGowran and Irene Handl are a joy, too, with Irene at her most Handl-ish.

There are some interesting London locations. Where is that beautiful Victorian paean to engineering in green and red wrought iron? Is it Crossness pumping station? I passed the flat which Jack and Jane live in on a recent trip to London to take advantage of the Open House days. It is just behind Holland Park tube station. Coincidentally, we were heading off to see the mews house where Blow Up was filmed at the time. Of course, one of the hopeful ingenues who called at David Hemmings’ photographer’s pad in that film was...Jane Birkin. There is also a dream sequence which seems to take in parts of Hampstead Heath as well as a bit of greenery besides the concrete curvature of the Westway.

So, there’s plenty to enjoy here, if you are prepared to overlook the limitations of the era. Perhaps one to place in my ever-expanding file of guilty pleasures

Music for Your Movies 2

Pram are another band who emerged from what appears to have been (and no doubt still is) a particularly vibrant scene in Birmingham in the 90s, which also included Broadcast, Plone, the 7-Inch Cinema club and more recently Seeland and The Modified Toy Orchestra (soon to be seen – and they have to be SEEN – at the Bristol Arnolfini gallery). Along with these fellow-spirits, they have an abiding fascination with the shadowy corners of the cinematic landscape. This can readily be discovered through a viewing of their recently released and wonderfully-titled dvd ‘Shadow Show of the Phantascope’.

The live footage reveals the variety of film clips which are effectively used in their back-projection. They have an obvious love of animation, particularly of east-European origin or influence. There are extracts from the Quay Brother’s Street of Crocodiles, with its trepanned dolls jerking about through dusty, box-like interiors where hardware seems to have a life of its own. There is also a clip from what looks like one of Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animations (also used in the video for song the Owl Service) in which a little girl in a cloak with a basket (Little Red Riding Hood, I presume) makes her way through a haunted, Arthur Rackham-esque forest, observed by an oversized owl which looks like it could swoop down and carry her up in her claws with minimal effort. The flight of Faust and the Devil from F.W. Murnau’s take on the tale creates a kinetic sense of vertiginous motion which perfectly compliments the music. There are shots of Candace Hilligoss from Carnival of Souls, either wandering across the deserted concourse of the haunted fairground or looking out into the audience with wide-eyed bewilderment. The corridor from La Belle et La Bete, with its slowly moving arms acting as brackets for flaming candelabras, provides an effective impression of receding space behind the band. There are extracts from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, its dream figures drifting through the harsh glare of the Californian sun. Then there is the final scene from Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, in which he pays tribute to Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires and its descendants such as George Franju’s Judex and Nuits Rouges. The clip shows Irma Vep slinking across the rooftops, the scratching and scoring of the film turning her into a creature of fearful yet timeworn power, shooting off magical rays of light and fire.

Pram’s own videos and the film-makers with whom they are associated further explore these influences. The short film which accompanies the recent single Beluga begins with a pastiche of the opening credits of The Avengers, although this version features a white-masked Emma Peel, who the credits refer to as Diana Scob. She is a combination of Diana Rigg and Edith Scobb, the star of Georges Franju’s Yeux Sans Visage. The video continues its Avengers pastiche with Diana/Edith driving along English country lanes before finding herself imprisoned in an op-art fun-house, observed by unseen watchers – a direct homage to a well-remembered episode. Also well-remembered is the finale of Yeux Sans Visage, which is reproduced here with uncanny accuracy. The actress in particular perfectly captures the extended arms and hesitant gestures of Edith Scob as she emerges from the catacombs into woods at night.

The group clearly have a love of masks, perhaps reflecting a desire to maintain a certain anonymity. Both Sleepy Sweet and The Owl Service see them donning various animal disguises. The former sees them enjoying a rural Edwardian picnic in a pastoral setting whose resident fauna are bright, colourful and plastic. Music is provided by a wind-up gramophone and a pump-organ. The whole (particularly with the sudden animal transformations) exudes an atmosphere redolent of Jonathan Miller’s Alice and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which it would be surprising if they hadn’t seen.

Beluga was directed by Scott Johnson, and Pram provide the music for several of his short films. They perform an unnerving, scratchy improv backing to his short Poe collage The Divine Edgar, which showed at the 7 Inch Cinema. This matches subliminal images from Poe adaptations to the slowly increasing beat of a heart, a la The Tell-Tale Heart. Corman’s AIP Poe adaptations are prevalant, particularly The Tomb of Ligeia, but there are also flashes of an animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart which was narrated by James Mason and also a subliminal glimpse of the devil-girl from Kill Baby Kill as replicated by Fellini in his section of the Poe anthology film Spirits of the Dead. Fellini’s segment ‘Toby Dammit’ is really the only part of that film worth watching, although Jane Fonda’s stab at a French accent (really not at all bad to my ears) in Roger Vadim’s otherwise excruciating piece of softcore indulgence Metzengerstein is probably worth sampling for a few minutes. Brother Peter simply doesn’t bother. Scott Johnson also directs a strangely affecting short, Kraft, the eponymous character of which chooses to burn his obsessively maintained collection of puppets when he is threatened with eviction. Again, the influence of East European animation is in evidence.

As it is in the film for Siniestro, a piece of stop-motion animation produced by the dancingdiablo group. This is like Jan Svankmajer at his most full-blooded, featuring vampiric figures, mutated forms from Victorian curiosity cabinets and battling wooden heads which could be taken directly from the Czech animator’s version of Faust. Keep In a Dry Place and Away From Children is made by the animation team of the Bolex Brothers, who also produced the excellent feature The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. This features a destructive baby who rivals the tot of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive for grotesqueness. His battered toys do the best to temper his worst excesses, but they are wearily fighting a battle which is unlikely to end in anything other than disaster.

Pram’s own music bears out the influences which are found in their films and those of their associates. The Owl Service, with its panicked chorus of ‘animals, darkness and trees/between me and where I live’ indicates an affinity with Alan Garner and probably also the 60s tv adaptation of his Welsh-set drama of recurrent myths. Carnival of Souls (from the EP Music for your Movies – you see where I get the title from) is a fairly straightforward evocation of the feelings of Candace Hilligoss’ haunted character from Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic. Singer Rosie Cuckston evokes her sense of dread with the words ‘they come in twos and threes/with painted faces turned towards me/all the ghosts of my past/they dance to music that I cannot hear/but I know haunts me’. The covers of Somniloquy and Dark Island have the atmosphere of Carnival of Souls about them, too, so this is clearly a very influential film for the group. El Topo from North Pole Radio Station could only really refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s renowned head movie (unless it’s about a Spanish mole). The Doors of Empty Cupboards from the same album has a very Svankmajer-ish sound to it too. The song Meshes In The Afternoon on the album Helium (and the EP Meshes) directly gives the nod to Maya Deren’s film of the same name and further points to their love of films which explore the haunted world of dreams. I’d like to think that the last track on the album, Shadows, refers to the John Cassavetes film, but it doesn’t. The recent EP The Prisoner of the 7 Pines features an ‘Aguirre Wrath of Godsy’ mix of the track The Silk Road which suggests a passing familiarity with the works of Werner Herzog, or at least his composer-in-residence Florian Fricke aka Popul Vuh.

So, a cinematic mix of the sinisterly sepulchral, the dreamily surreal and the playfully fantastic, which could also serve to describe up the sounds which Pram make.

The Memory of a Face

These were the notes for another double bill which we showed some time ago (I remember it was cold). A few further thoughts follow on.

THE FACE OF ANOTHER (TANIN NO KAO) – Hiroshi Teshigahara 1966

An ethereal figure robed in a white gown glides from the sepulchral corridors catacombing a chill French mansion to emerge into a night garden, savage hounds tamed at the touch of her hands, her wide eyes staring through the holes of an impassive mask as doves flutter up from the cages she opens to disappear into the surrounding darkness.
A lab-coated doctor and his mutely recriminating assistant, contemplating the metaphysical implications of their surgical experiments in recasting the face and thereby the personality of a desperate, disfigured patient, circle a laboratory resembling a Blue Peter set designed by Rene Magritte whilst a spectral female form, black hair wavering like waterweeds in invisible oceanic currents, floats past behind an open door which is framed by no wall.
Images which burn themselves into your subconscious and lead you to question whether you have drifted into some vivid dreamlike state. The above scenes may indeed be projected memories transformed in my private cinema of the imagination. Both you and I will have to watch to find out. Teshigahara and Franju, in their peculiarly Japanese and French ways, create surrealist poetry out of the collision of the everyday and the fantastic. In some ways they toy with the conventions of the horror genre, in others they wholly embrace them. Both films feature Frankensteinian doctors who, in the traditional manner, assume the godlike power to use whatever means necessary to achieve their ends. Both feature women whose scarred features ostracize them from a society whose values are skin-deep. In their concentration on the face, the most expressive part of the human body, these amazing films viscerally explore the nature of personality. If you have the face of another, will your character remain unchanged by the way people react to it? If the gaze reflected back at you in the mirror is from eyes without a face, are you doomed to remain a ghost haunting empty corridors. Are we nothing beyond the masks with which we confront the world? Music lovers will enjoy the scores by Toru Takemitsu and Maurice Jarre. Teshigahara went on to run the Ikebana, or Japanese flower-arranging, school originally set up by his father. What fascinating arrays of exotic blooms he must have created.

Afterthoughts: These notes were written some time after having seen the films, as their rather poetic vagueness might indicate. Some considerable time in the case of Yeux Sans Visage, which I remembered from a crackly print shown in the long since defunct Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, with its rather cavernous sound and immense dilapidated charm. It was interesting upon seeing the films again to note how memory had subtly altered and recast certain scenes, and how a second viewing had brought certain elements previously disregarded into clearer focus.

The music in Yeux Sans Visage immediately struck me. A haunted fairground waltz which wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim Burton film, or indeed in the haunted fairground of Carnival of Souls. The electronic shimmer of the hammond organ at the end of each phrase is the perfect aural accompaniement to the sweep of the 2CV’s headlights as they throw their cold illumination over the nightime country roads or cobbled Parisian streets. Toru Takemitsu’s score for Face of Another moves from modernist musique concrete to pastiche German cabaret music. Indeed Toru Takemitsu (and apparently the writer Kobo Abe, whom I didn’t recognise) can be seen merrily chatting away in the background in the bizarre setting of this ersatz German bierkellar – the kind of cultural replication which the Japanese seem able to make somehow more authentic than the original.

As for the films themselves, I was certainly not remiss in my recollection of peeking through narrowed and occasionally averted eyes at the surgical scene of Yeux Sans Visage, an experience I replicated on this viewing. As much as the physical removal of the face, it’s the effortful tension on Pierre Brasseur’s face, the sweat beading his forehead, which makes the operation, carried out in agonising, prolonged silence, so harrowing. The stills sequence which documents the progressive failure of Edith Scob’s face graft in a clinical series of photographs is particularly upsetting. Her face begins with a hint of a hopeful smile, contrasting markedly with the impassive set of her mask, before shifting through a deteriorating metamorphosis into a scarred, sagging look of downcast despair.

The complicity of Edith Scob’s character was something which startled me. When the final intended victim wakes up in the operating room, she is there patiently waiting on the sofa, as she presumably has on previous occasions. In this way she is co-opted into the schemes and kept under the controlling power of her monstrous father as much as Alida Valli’s cold companion in crime. These three form a twisted portrait of the respectable French family, bound in a suffocatingly destructive net of obligations and unspoken loyalties. The maze-like corridors and subterranean passages of their suburban chateau are a trap, a prison – much as the Overlook Hotel is for the Torrance family in The Shining. Edith Scob eventually rebels and breaks out, setting the dogs on her father and drifting into the night woods like a floating spectre. The animal symbolism here, the protective hounds and released doves, is carried through from and to other Franju films. Edith Scob is once more guarded by savage dogs in Judex, who threaten to tear apart all who would do her harm. The Birmingham group Pram pay homage to this finale in the video to their recent single Beluga, which also gives a nod to The Avengers and the visual style which it partly inherited from Judex.

Hiroshi Teshigahara was one of my great discoveries from the late-lamented rental shop Brazil, run with unfailing taste and erudition by my esteemed fellow blogger Neil. I’d seen his best known work Woman of the Dunes, but nothing more. Face of Another, together with Pitfall, comprise a series of remarkable collaborations with writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. You can read more about Takemitsu’s contribution in David Toop’s excellent musical volume Haunted Weather. Face of Another is an exemplary modernist film. Its action unfolds against the concrete and glass of modern architecture which has either been recently built or is under construction. This covering over of the scars of war with a hastily erected vision of a new world is reminiscent of the Rome and London of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and Blow Up. The clinic in which the rarely named Mr Okuyama receives his mask is a surreally antiseptic environment in which human features are rendered disembodied and alien.

The narrative fractures in a modernist style too. This occurs after the increasingly hostile Mr Okuyama has interrogated his wife about her visit to the cinema. The sudden shift to a wide screen ratio and into a completely disconnected narrative with a new set of characters place this as a film-within-a-film, possibly playing inside Mrs Okuyama’s head. I found this part of the film much more engaging second time around. The settings are more noticeably run-down and low-lying than the high-rise cityscapes and neat suburbs of Mr Okuyama’s world. The hospital where the mentally scarred war veterans go through their daily routines and act out their mad dramas is a concrete shell, an urban dumping ground where they have been shut away and forgotten. The girl who visits them is disfigured on one side of her face by a scar which could be a radiation burn or a relic of the fire-bombing of Tokyo. The girl’s affinity for these lost old men suggests a common grounding in the lingering traumas of a war which the rest of a rapidly developing Japan would prefer to bury. But the girl is rejected in the hospital, as she has been by the children in the streets, her kindnesses taken advantage of and abused due to her damaged face. Eventually, she is left with only her brother for comfort, perhaps representing the communion with the world which she is unable to find. After a night together in a beach house, she wonders out into the sea. Her brother witnesses this suicide through the window and his cry of anguish coincides with the explosion of the sky into a flash of atomic brilliance. The brother’s melodramatic prostration before the window is immediately undermined as his splayed figure is replaced by the similarly arrayed image of cooked chicken (spatchcocked is, I believe, the culinary term). It is a moment of startling surrealist dislocation worthy of the Bunuel of Un Chien Andalou or L’Age D’Or.

The scene which I recollected in the original notes above was somewhat expanded by my inner eye, which perhaps underlines the strange subliminal effect it exerts. The reedy wash of dark tresses recalls the use of long black concealing hair in recent Japanese horror films such as Ring and Audition, as well as its terrible disembodied animation in the first story of Kwaidan, the painterly anthology of the supernatural from 1964. This is a motif which evidently has a powerful subconscious resonance for the Japanese, for whom a lustrous length of black hair is a mark of beauty.

The laboratory or clinic is very much an interior landscape. It is very unlikely that any doctor or scientist would decorate their surgery in such a fashion. Its lack of windows or an identifiable physical location suggests that we are really placed inside Mr Okuyama’s head, just as the other narrative unfolded on Mrs Okuyama’s inner screen. The objects on the shelves, the etched outline of the human form on the glass wall, the chair which is a giant hand are all the symbol-charged props of the subconscious, the integuments of the dreaming mind. Thus, as the brother can be seen as the other half of a divided self in the film-within-a-film, so the doctor is the cajolling Hyde aspect of the repressed self. He is also a Frankenstein figure, coaxing his creation into existence and attempting to regulate its development. The final scenes are very striking, with Mr Okuyama the only ‘face’ in a crowd of literally featureless office workers against whose tide he struggles. I would be very interested to read Kobo Abe’s novel upon which the film is based.

Pitfall, the other film (aside from Woman of the Dunes) in the Teshigahara/Abe/Takemitsu ‘trilogy’ is also an interesting excursion into the fantastic, this time mixing ghost story and political allegory. It would make a good half of a future double bill, perhaps with the Hammer film Plague of Zombies, another film which mixes supernatural elements with a tale of the exploitation of a mining community. This time in Cornwall, though.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Herzog's Nosferatu Part 2...

There’s something about the light, the weather and the landscape in Herzog’s film that makes it very dear to me. Very close to my experience.

Because he shoots with natural light, because he uses real locations, we never doubt that these people and these places exist, and by extension, that these events are real. Inherently, consciously or subconsciously, I think we recognise reality – no matter how much we freely suspend belief when we want to, when it’s necessary – and it adds something. A weight of some kind. The lack of stylisation brings us closer to the film. Castle Dracula is not a Production Designers gothic wet dream, but something real. Something that has visible, tangible history. Something which resonates on a different level to a built set (no matter how well researched, or how well designed). It is something built brick by brick, weathered and aged by time, and somewhere deep inside an audience recognises that, and responds. We believe in it.

I certainly do. But then I think the film touches other specific things for me.

I was an only child that fell in love with Hammer films, because I couldn’t take contemporary set horror movies. I was a nervous, over imaginative child. American Werewolf scared the shit out of me – I didn’t see past him tearing the leg off that deer in the forest.

But I was interested in Monsters. I was interested in the Paranormal. I was interested by Vampires and Werewolves and Ghosts. But the Gothic trappings of Hammer, spoke more clearly to me. Resonated – not least because the period setting provided just a little distance – but also because they were beautiful to me. They were melodramatic and that’s what I responded to. People often complain that horror/gothic etc in novels and in film, lack character depth. But in horror – in fantasy in general – everything is character. The world is the character. The mood is the character. The way light plays on dead trees in necromantic forests, the way the purple Victorian wall paper sets off the light blue gown and pale skin of a woman awaiting the vampire at her window, everything is character in these films/books. Everything in those films (and the films of James Whale, Georges Franju, Val Lewton and many more) spoke to me. Moved me. Affected me. Meant something to me.

Now, later in my life I see Herzog’s Nosferatu and it moves me just the same. But why? It’s not creating quite the same baroque, heightened sensuality of look and feel of a Hammer film – nor the beautiful deep expressionist shadows of James Whale or Jacques Tourneur. But it resonates deeply. Why?

Perhaps because it is the same material, but filtered through an older eye. I’m not the same seething mass of hormones and emotion I was as a child (not quite the same anyway).

But the reality of the world Herzog creates for the film hits home harder now than I think it would have had I seen it as a child. And I think I know why.

I think it is because now, when I think of horror films and fantasy, I think about them in way I instinctively believed in them as a child. As a child I watched Hammer and Universal, and Val Lewton and so on. But I imagined their characters, their creatures, their monsters in MY world. I imagined them existing on the backstreets of the mining town in the North East of England where I grew up. I imagined them in the landscape that I knew, and grew up with, the mix of dying industrial and beautiful, if harsh, countryside that surrounded us. Reality and my imagination as a child mixed and mingled, were processed then, and are now in my memory, as one.

And the landscape I grew up in looks a lot like that in Herzog’s movie. The greens of the land, the low grey skies, the buffeting winds, there’s something dismal in the look of Herzog’s film though he finds the beauty – that is 100% my memory of the North East of England. The landscape has fantastic drama about it, great hills and rock outcrops. It is littered with ruins; castles and abbeys and the like. The Roman Wall runs across it from one coast to the other. It is bleak and it is beautiful, mysterious and dramatic. And when I watch Herzog’s film of Nosferatu, I see the world of my childhood onscreen... or at least a world that I recognize. A landscape that is imprinted on me. A dreary light that says ‘home’. (I won’t pretend it has mountains – it doesn’t, don’t get me wrong, although my childhood mind would have put them there).

It’s this aspect of Herzog’s film; the landscape and climate of Northern Europe that brings it particularly close to me I think, makes me love it even more...

It’s probably what I respond to most in Polanski’s Macbeth. Cul-De-Sac was shot up there too if you want to see more of how the North East looks on screen...

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

I've Just Finished Reading...

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand.

This is a collection of four longer stories and four shorter ones. The latter are gathered under the subheading The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations.
Hand is familiar to me from novels such as Waking the Moon, The Glimmering and Black Light. These tend to mix the heady atmospheres of the late nineteenth century decadent writers with plots which see the rites and mythic patterns of classical and other pre-Christian cults re-emerge in modern, usually American settings. The protagonists tend to be young people in artistic or bohemian milieux. The stories in this recent collection (it was published in 2006) don’t stray too far from these pre-occupations, but there are significant variations.

Cleopatra Brimstone, the opening story, features a young woman whose life revolves around the entomological studies which she is wholly absorbed by. She holds herself aloof from human relationships, partly because her beauty and the attentions which it draws are an unwanted distraction for her. She tries to ignore the strange growths which she finds above her eyebrows. One evening she suffers a rape and as a result retreats further from life, finally travelling to London, living in Camden by the canal and volunteering for work at the local zoo. Here she re-invents herself and takes on the name and attendant persona which gives the story its title. She picks up boys and finds out that by bringing them to orgasm she can transform them into insects, which she then takes to her killing jar and mounts on a personal display. It is a disturbing symbolic transferral of the self-disgust that comes from abuse, and the perpetuation of a cycle of destructive sexuality. An uncomfortable story to read, with deliberate echoes of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and John Fowles’ The Collector. The evocation of the Grand Union Canal around Camden as seen through an outsider’s perspective brought it vividly into my minds eye, as its a city byway which I have often walked.

Pavane for a Prince of the Air is a moving story of the wake and unorthodox death rites of Cal, an arch 60s hippy, a sort of Wavy Gravy figure. The telling details and very specificity of this tale of seeing someone towards a sudden and unanticipated death, and of the un-stated routines into which such a situation sees people swiftly falling, gives it the feeling of having been drawn from personal experience. Whether this is actually the case I don’t know. The narrator is clearly a writer, however, and there is a bit of self-effacing auto-criticism when she remembers Cal telling her of her books that ‘the last one was really good, Carrie. But it’s sort of the same, isn’t it? You have the plucky heroine and her cynical best friend sidekick and the blood sacrifice’. He also tells her that her characters are always so young and that she should write about grown ups. The proximity of death creates an atmosphere of strange enchantment and heightened emotion and means that the subsequent appearance of a bird which may or may not hold out the possibility of re-incarnation is less absurd than it might have been.

The Least Trumps features the daughter of two bohemian artistic women who isolates herself on an island in the middle of a lake which is itself on an island. Any attempt to stray too far from her retreat results in debilitating panic attacks. She picks up a deck of blank cards from a rummage sale (that’s a jumble sale to you and me – nice to see it’s a tradition that spans the Atlantic) and which appear to have been owned by a writer who has had a huge influence on her life. A picture appears one of the cards which seemingly links it to one of the writer’s books, and she decides one night to tattoo it onto her own skin (she is a tatoo artist). This brings about unforeseen consequences, with an old friend long thought dead returning, possibly resurrected. Further changes are affected, as her contained world is subtly redrawn, and the hope for rebirth is offered in the ambiguously transcendent denouement. It is a story which engages with the dangers of becoming too engaged in fantasies, whether fictional or romantic. As such, it bears certain resemblances to some of M.John Harrison’s short stories.

Wonderwall, which possibly refers more to the oddball sixties film of the same name than the busker’s Oasis favourite , is a story of youthful artistic aspirations, of the decadent’s dedication to following through on William Blake’s dictum that ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’. The young woman and her gay friend flatmate who determinedly pursue the derangement of the senses in the name of high art could be Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe or any number of other archetypically earnest bohemians. The wall of the title is the final barrier through which the narrator sees beyond the surfaces of things, and where she finds a sardonically ascerbic character who may be the spirit of Rimbaud. The story is ultimately about the need to grow up, to find your own self rather than retread paths already well-worn. The vision of maturity which shows you that ‘there were other ways to bring down a wall: that you could dismantle it, brick by brick, stone by stone, over years and years and years’. A lifetime’s project rather than the crash and burn assault of youth.

The final four stories are short vignettes of communication thwarted, relationships dislocated and truncated by time, distance and disaster. In an afterword, Hand explains how these were inspired by an epistolary friendship (which we can assume is with the collection’s dedicatee, the critic and author John Clute) which was interrupted by the events of 9/11, which made her temporarily fear for his life. The stories are elusive and shot through with an unlocated sense of unease. Their elliptical nature could place them with ease in the pages of the 60s New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship (incidentally one of the first homes of Clute’s criticism). The quote from Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a film composed almost entirely of still, is also an apposite reference point. This comes at the start of Kronia, the shortest of these stories, which appears to offer a shifting kaleidoscope of memories concerning a similarly fractured relationship. Calypso in Berlin features another artist who is also a near-immortal nymph. It is a strange fantasy on the influence, both good and bad, of muses and of the influence of place on creativity. Echo is narrated by a translator of the classics who is isolated on an island, the world outside possibly having been engulfed in some cataclysmic event. The Saffron Gatherers sees a tentative commitment to a relationship sundered by a vaguely apprehended catastrophe, whether natural or man-made is not made clear.

All of these stories are haunted by the awareness of the fragility of relationships, of the spectres of disaster waiting in the wings and of the temporality of all civilisations, of the knowledge that everything must pass. As such, they are evocative tales of our times, aware of the cyclical nature of stories and lives and empires. If there is a linking theme which draws the collection together into a whole, it is that of people emerging from isolation to reconnect with the world, with the past, with the continuum of life. They are fables of painful maturity.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Films of Val Lewton part 2

Cat People continued

Back at work in the Ship Builder’s Office, Alice and Ollie share a water cooler moment. Ollie confesses his unhappiness, a feeling which leaves him perplexed. He has never felt this way before, having had a happy childhood and generally been content to ‘let the rest of the world go by’. He admits his attraction to Irena, but it is a mystery to him. This is probably because he is a mystery to himself and doesn’t want to acknowledge the darker corners of his brightly-lit persona which his attraction to Irena directs him to. Just as America is sufficient a world for him, he has no desire to acknowledge that he wishes to look beyond the borders of his own familiar continent of everyday contentment. He seems genuinely confused by the idea that anyone might not have shared his own uncomplicated experience of the world thus far. His idea of love is a simple one – of companionship and friendliness, evidently the relationship he has with Alice. As she says, implicitly declaring her love, ‘we’ll never be strangers’. Irena remains a stranger to Oliver, but this has always been her appeal, the allure of the ‘other’ who offers new experiences. Her animal attraction, the sweet musk she exudes without the aid of perfume, communicates directly with Oliver’s subconscious desires, bypassing the rather dim surface cloud layer of his consciousness. This is not a country he has any desire to travel to, nor to even admit really exists. No wonder he’s confused.

From now on, Irena is largely seen on her own again. She notes the key left in the lock of the panther’s cage, the key to the unlocking of subconscious libidinal rage. Doctor Judd seeks her out, chiding her like a recalcitrant child for not coming to see him. Irena makes the observation that he talks of the mind but is unable to help the soul, an assertion of the limits of the modern rationalist mindset which is unable to minister to matters of the spirit. This is a theme which will recur in Lewton’s work, attaining particular thematic prominence in ‘The Body Snatcher’. Dr Judd makes explicit the panther’s symbolic embodiment of the death urge, and this theme, the attraction of death, is another which recurs throughout his work (and is very Old World) It particularly emerges from the underworld to see light in the Thanatos-obsessed Seventh Victim.’

Back in the apartment, Ollie awkwardly attempts to ‘have a talk’. He fumblingly suggests that they may be growing apart due to Irena’s inability to tell the truth. He immediately makes it obvious that she has become the object of discussions beyond the marital circle, suggesting that the burden of evasiveness lies on his soul. He has brought these matters up after talking to Dr Judd and then discussing her with Alice. It seems Irena is the last person to whom he reluctantly talks. He is unaware of how his casual aside ‘it was like I was saying to Alice’ might hurt Irena, and as soon as she shows her displeasure, he immediately shies away from confrontation and retreats to a café. Again, it is notable that this apartment is really Irena’s territory, into which he is seen as something of an interloping presence. His default response to any problem is to retreat to the office, which is where Irena thinks he has gone now. This is his territory, a realm of the comfortingly measurable, where everything can be quantified, calculated and charted before being constructed.

In the café, Ollie further reveals his blandly normal colours when he turns down the offer of a chicken gumbo from the Caribbean waitress and opts for a coffee and a slice of good ‘ol American apple pie. Alice is at this point in the office where she receives an anonymous phone call from Irena, who draws the obvious conclusion that she is there with Ollie. She bumps into Ollie in the café, where he was perhaps hoping to meet her, not wishing to admit his motivations by actually going into the office. She tells him to go home and make up with Irena, although her motives may be more calculating than they seem to the guileless Ollie. His lame, chummy homily ‘gee you’re swell’ (which is just short of being accompanied by a playful punch on the arm) is met by the response that he’d better watch out because ‘I’m the new type of other woman’.

Irena has witnessed Ollie and Alice’s intimate exchange from the window, and perhaps their body language has told her something which their words have elided. In any case, there follows the famous ‘bus’ sequence, which gave its name to the Lewton technique of introducing the sudden intrusion of an everyday noise or object to break a carefully paced mood of heightened tension and make the audience jump out of their skins. The sequence in which Irena stalks Alice creates the impression of New York as a place which contains its own wild, uncanny places. In this case it seems to be a version of Central Park, with its ill-lit underpasses and rocky walls. The New York walk of terror will be reproduced in The Seventh Victim, although here, the wilderness has spread out from these darkened corners to the open streets of the city itself. The waving of the trees from the movement of some night creature and the growl of the panther will also be reproduced in The Leopard Man (the titular beast is, given its lack of spots, fairly obviously not a leopard) although this time produced by human agency. The transformation of Irena’s footprints into those of a big cat leave us in little doubt as to the reality of her curse.

Irena returns distraught and dishevelled to the apartment, to be met by an apologetic Ollie. His attempts to explain things away, to provide an authoritative, explanatory ‘these things happen’ tone are accepted passively, but they are clearly on different wavelengths. Her distress has nothing to do with their earlier non-altercation. She retreats to the bath, where the camera focuses on one of the clawed, scaly feet on which it rests before slowly panning up to find Irena bent over, softly crying to herself. Her bestial nature has been inescapably revealed to her. Later that night, lying in bed, she dreams of cats padding unstoppably out of a dizzying vortex, with the voice of Dr Judd intoning his Freudian mantras about ‘the need to loose evil on the world’ and ‘the desire for death’. Dr Judd himself appears as King John, his sword held horizontally before him, a vision of bellicose rationality. His sword transforms into the key to the panther’s cage, the agency through which this ‘evil’ can be set free. Dr Judd’s language is very judgemental. Cats are morally neutral, driven to act out their animal instincts and needs. But it is his subconscious influence that has given Irena the link between the figurative beast within and its real, caged manifestation.

The following scene finds Ollie, Alice and Irena in the city museum. Irena is clearly excluded from this group, the odd one out, pushed to the margins. It is Ollie and Alice who lean close to each other and share each others enjoyment of the exhibits. Irena is once more treated like a child, the others suggesting she go and look at something else. Her plea ‘don’t send me away’ is met with a half-hearted rebuttal. This is obviously precisely what they are doing. And its a rejection which takes on a more sinister aspect given the later prospect of her being sent away to an asylum. This is Ollie’s part of the museum, anyway. Full of boats and the products of rationalist, post-Enlightenment western history, measured, constructed and fully explained. Ollie blandly notes that the picture of the Victory represents the last use of the lateen-sail, which demonstrates the nuts and bolts level on which his interest in history rests. Irena goes downstairs and pauses in front of a large black statue of Anubis.This is a darker, more ancient level of history, which is indivisible from the underground streams of myth and ritual through which it reaches the modern day. Whilst Ollie and Alice wander the well-lit upper rooms of the rational world, Irena belongs in the subconscious subterraenea of suggestive statuary.

The following scene is the second one in which Alice is menaced. It clearly follows the rejection of Irena, her reaction to having been pushed away. The sweet little black kitten petted by the receptionist (with her cat’s ear hair bow) at the hotel to which Alice goes to swim is a reflection of Ollie, Alice and Dr Judd’s view of Irena as a naively childlike soul, but the feline force which she unleashes is very far from harmless and domesticated. The celebrated swimming pool scene, which conveys so much through shadow and echo-distorted sound, is another example of a wilderness space found in the centre of a busy, bustling city. This urban watering hole also serves as a compelling externalisation of subconscious space, the ocean swells of the mind’s deeper currents. Here Irena recognises her murderous jealousies and Alice confronts her feelings of guilt. It is significant that it is in the following scene that she confesses to a sardonically interested Dr Judd that she is in love with Ollie. When the lights go on, Irena looks down at Alice, helplessly treading water, and relishes her position of power. Alice is vulnerable in only her swimming costume, whereas Irena is wrapped in her fur coat pelt. She gloats over her terrified victim like a cat toying with its prey. Again, the shredded remains of her bathrobe leave us and now Alice too in no doubt as to the tangibility of Irena’s transformations. This is no mental illness or neurotic fantasy.

Alice meets with Dr Judd and tells him of her belief in the genuine nature of Irena’s fears. Dr Judd immediately tells her that she also is a ‘victim of fear’ due to her feelings of guilt. He reveals his sword-stick, his discreet version of King John’s sword of rationalism and male power. He sees his relationship with Irena as a contest of wills, determined to force her to reveal her psychological secrets and thereby submit to his rational world-view. He is also clearly attracted to her, and there is a sense in which this less innocent, more louche and knowing individual might in some ways have been a better match for Irena. As it is, the closest he is able to get to an admission of his feelings is that it is ‘maybe because you interest me’ that he is prepared to go that little bit further in order to help her. As it is, their session threatens to get intimate as he asks her what she would do if her were to kiss her. ‘I only know that I should not like to be kissed by you’, she evasively replies. Doctor Judd asserts his authority in the face of this rejection by telling her that she could be ‘put away for observation’, and the threat of commitment to an asylum hangs over her for the rest of the film. Irena is now treated as a case, someone who has no power over the direction of her own life. It is an assertion of authority which is made over female characters in other Lewton films. Characters are manipulated and pushed to the margins, punished for their non-conformity or misunderstood compassion . In the case of Nell in Bedlam, her voicing of awkward and socially uncomfortable truths is silenced through her being declared insane and dumped into an asylum, the loony bin into which uncontrollable elements are swept.

Having come away from her meeting with Dr Judd with the determination to ‘lead a normal life’ Irena comes home in a mood of buoyant optimism, only to be confronted by a sombre Ollie. He tells her that it’s over and essentially admits that he has used her in order to discover what his true feelings were for Alice. It is an unashamed and once more blithely insensitive rejection, made more unbearable by his assertion that ‘it’s better this way’. ‘Better for whom’, Irena justifiable retorts. She tries to hold her feelings in check, her transformations held back beneath a suppression of emotional rage. As she declares ‘I love loneliness’, she seems to be trying to erase the hopes which their time together had fostered in her, rejecting the desire for companionship and a place in everyday society which had briefly appeared attainable. But it is too late to return to her former state. Ollie has got under her skin and has damaged her beyond repair. As she tells him to get out, presumably for his own good, her fingers slide down the back of the sofa, leaving the torn trails of claw scratches.

The conspirators, who now seem to be acting as a cabal, meet at the cafe again to decide Irena’s fate between them, much as the urban cultists decide the fate of Jacqueline (also fur-coated), another isolated and lonely character cast out of the golden circle, in The Seventh Victim. The characters’ menu choices are commensurate with their personalities. Dr Judd enjoys the pungent taste of roquefort, Alice goes for the Bavarian cream, which betokens a mild, cosmopolitanism in sugary dessert-form, whilst Ollie, as the waitress wearily concedes, gets the apple pie, the plain, unadventurous Americano choice. Irena’s choices seem to have been narrowed to a marriage annulment or a commitment to an asylum. Ollie opts for the latter, with Alice’s approval, on the grounds of a feeling of continued responsibility for her. What it does in effect is maintain the control of all three over her life. Her fate is theirs to determine, and they decide to enact it at her apartment. This casual, unthinking invasion of her territory merely serves to highlight the contempt which they now feel for her.

Reconvened at the apartment, Alice plays the record which had previously been ‘our song’ for Irena and Ollie. He asks her to take it off without it appearing to trigger any particular feeling for him. In fact, Ollie and Alice seem to be fed up with waiting, and decide that they have better things to do, work to catch up with at the office. Irena is effectively sidelined and forgotten already. She has served her useful function in Ollie and Alice’s life and her fate is now a tiresome inconvenience for them. Only Dr Judd seems to retain an interest in her, making sure that he has the means to regain entrance into her apartment.

In the office at night, Alice receives another anonymous call and realises that it is Irena. Again, there seems a trace of the guilty conscience behind her automatic conclusion. Irena’s appearance in the office, with its uplit drawing tables casting elongated, expressionist shadows, is her first appearance or invasion of Ollie’s rational territory. This is a domain in which she is the intruder, as she stalks the workspace in which plans are measured and drawn according to unambiguous calculi. She is driven off by the casting of a shadowed cross on the wall, but it is really the set square which creates this and the numbers painted behind it which repel her. The armoury of authoritative rationality beating back the instinctive and irrationally emotive. As they make a cautious exit from the building, Ollie and Alice see the doors close on an empty lift, and the doors revolve from an unseen force. Irena has already become a ghost, dissipated into invisibility, only her perfume left hanging in the air.

Retreating to her apartment, Irena finds that it has been invaded by Dr Judd. She now bears a fatalistic air of weary resignation. She submits to his embrace, a strange gleam in her eyes, as if she has already half left the world and is staring at somewhere beyond. Her inexpressiveness makes Dr Judd’s forced attentions seem even more of a violation. He definitely feels a perverse attraction to Irena; On one level he seeks to master her, to forcefully convert her to (and encage her in) his worldview. But there is perhaps also a secret and inadmissable desire for his rationalism to be overturned, an attraction to someone who may be strong enough to shatter the control which he exerts over his own and others’ relationship with quotidian reality. He longs for an irruption of the irrational into his life, even if this means going half way to meeting his own death. The look which they exchange as they are about to kiss suggests a certain implicit understanding of the implosion of energy which is about to be unleashed. Her transformation is swift and terrible.

Dr Judd loses his life in the struggle, the sword-stick which is the sharp edge of his rationality snapped in two. The duel of rationality and instinct is fatal for Irena too, however. She crawls outside the apartment, hiding unnoticed in the shadows as Ollie and Alice race upstairs to discover the chaos which she has wrought. Once more she has retreated into the background, a creature of the city’s dark interstices. She retreats to the zoo and finally uses the key to unlock the panther’s cage. Far from loosing evil upon the world, this merely provides the means for finalising her own destruction. The release of her animal soul ineluctably leads to her own death, and the fact that she deliberately looses it upon herself makes it a sacrifice. This is the fate that Ollie and Alice have been spared.

The inextricable connection between Irena and the panther, the sense that this is the shadow side of her divided soul, is underlined by the fact that the panther is knocked down and run over by a car as soon as it has leapt over the confining boundary of the zoo wall. Like Irena, its attempt to leave its closeted, shut-off pocket of a recreated environment long-since left behind and move out into the bright flux of the city proves fatal. We cut from the picture of its bloodied carcass to Irena’s prone form, her fur coat covering her body like an animal’s pelt. Oliver rushes onto the scene, returning to the place where he first met Irena and says, as if composing an epitaph, ‘she never lied to us’. Shifting the emphasis onto the ‘she’ and the ‘us’ would make this an admission of guilt, but it is not voiced that way. Ollie’s own vow to give her ‘all the time in the world’ was certainly soon spent, and the implication of these final words is that such honesty as Irena has displayed is a debased currency in this world.

So Cat People is the story of an outsider in the city who is temporarily offered the apparent chance to belong, to come out of the shadows into the light. This offer is withdrawn as it is made clear to her that her function all along has been to reveal Ollie’s true nature to himself, to allow him to take his place in the normal, daylit scheme of things. Irena is left trying to regain her former state of self-contained isolation, but that lonely Eden has been forever lost. Lewton shows how the marginalised, the different and strange, the ‘foreign’ are pushed into the shadows by groups who thereby shore up their own sense of normalcy, of being right in the world. What Lewton returns to is who defines this state of normalcy, and who determines the chosen who will be admitted to its confederacy.

We will see how the informal cabal of Ollie, Alice and Dr Judd become a corporatised coven in The Seventh Victim. Witness Irena becoming the patron saint of the abandoned and thereby win her own redemption in Curse of the Cat People. And find the discarded and awkwardly non-conformist organising and fighting back in Bedlam.

Coming next....I Walked With A Zombie

The Films of Val Lewton part 1

Cat People (1942)

Cat People was the first of Lewton’s literate horror films and the one which perhaps offers more of the traditional pleasures of the genre than any of the others. Its success encouraged him to tread other, more obscure paths through the generic materials placed before him, but many familiar themes are foreshadowed here. Irena and Alice are the first of many strong female characters to be found in Lewton’s work, perhaps reflecting the female environment in which he grew up. Irena is immediately identified with the caged panther in the zoo – there’s no hanging around in making the obvious allusion. Her casual disposal of her sketches before moving on to another indicates that, despite her protests, she is an artist struggling to express some instinctive vision. Artistic endeavour, often frustrated, will be another thread running through Lewton’s films. Oliver, lounging by the ice-cream van, a position which immediately suggests a certain childlike, immature quality to his character, makes the first move to introduce himself to Irena. He is gauche and conversationally clumsy. It is soon clear who is in control in this situation and it’s not him. Having been walked home, Irena boldy invites him up for tea. She openly confesses her loneliness and thus becomes the first of Lewton’s lonely and isolated characters. Her poignant admission that Oliver is ‘the first real friend I’ve had in America’ is perhaps an indication that what she is really looking for is companionship and friendship. It is a reflection of the immigrant feeling of lostness in a new land, which will crop again up in Lewton’s work and is maybe a reflection of his own or his family’s experience.

Inside her apartment, all is shadows and darkness, an ambience that she does nothing to lighten. ‘I like the darkness. It’s friendly’. She still carries the exoticism of deep history within her, an Old World cloak of mysterious night. Her room is kept sepulchral, noir to keep the bright, noisy lights of the modern, busy American city at a remove. On the wall hangs a reproduction of Goya’s painting Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga, an early indication of Lewton’s use of pictorial art as direct influence or quotation in many of his films. This picture hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and so would have been accessible to Lewton. The picture is particularly apposite for Cat People, with it’s juxtaposition of different ‘classes’ of pets; The wild songbirds in the cage, the tethered magpie with his weary, resentful eye looking out to the viewer, and the cats, staring at the magpie with gazes of naked greed. The boy who marshals these pets is a picture of innocence, but barely seems aware of the wild forces which are tenuously kept at bay around him. The child also prefigures the way in which Irena will be increasingly infantilised and treated as if she were an innocent who needs to be taken care of , to be put in a cage like the birds. Goya’s depiction of witches and their rites in other paintings and illustrations further makes him the ideal artist for Irena to turn to in order to remind her of the old days and the old ways.

At the centre of the room, Oliver’s attention is drawn to the statue of King John, a very male figure within the female space into which she has invited him. The centrality of this figure certainly draws attention and acts as a focal point. The king sits upon his charger, his sword thrust triumphantly upward, skewering the splayed form of a cat. It is an aggressively phallic symbol of male rationality and reason, cutting through the heart of the female symbol of the cat, through the shadows of superstition and intuitive power. Power drawn from the nature and the surrounding environment (reference is later made to Irena’s father having died mysteriously ‘in a wood’).

The premise of Cat People is essentially a feminisation of the werewolf story. Rather than the unleashing of the inner wolf, the wild beast in man, we have the more complex transformation of a woman into a wild cat. This brings up associations with the cat as a particularly female creature. It is domestic, or rather domesticated. It is often seen as the companion of women, particularly those who are isolated or alone, and therefore viewed as witchy or strange, not one of us. Whereas the werewolf might be seen as connecting to some inherent untamed wildness in the male persona, the transformation of woman into panther returns the wildness to a tamed archetype. It is a release of a socially conditioned and ironed-out nature, suddenly unbounded by decorum or the need to be ‘ladylike’. It is PJ Harvey or Patti Smith emerging from Connie Francis. The feminine becoming physically deadly rather than striking through ‘catty’ remarks.

Irena describes King John as a Serbian hero who drove out the Mamelukes, who had enslaved her people (although they themselves were originally descended from slaves). This locates him (and Irena’s ancestors) at another faultline between divergent histories and cultures. Now that faultline is between America, the New World, and the Old World of Europe. The suggestion is also made that the evil which she describes as having grown under the Mameluke occupation is one which has been imported from the east, from Turkish and Middle Eastern countries. King John thus acts as a Crusader, driving out heathen faiths and demonising them in the process.

Irena’s apartment overlooks the zoo, a corner of controlled wilderness contained and walled-in within the city. The cries of the animals carry up to her window over the night air, and she says that ‘the panther screams like a woman (and) I don’t like that.’ She doesn’t like to be reminded of the forces which she is repressing within herself. She remains in control of this encounter though, and is able to convey her desire for Oliver to leave with the slightest of gestures. She fully understands the innuendo of his comment that ‘boys who come to tea can’t expect to stay to dinner’, and leaves the possibility of future dates open. As it turns out, he probably won’t even get to his starter. Oliver is clearly intoxicated by this very un-American woman, but already we sense a fundamental disparity between their natures. Reference is made on several occasions to the heady scent which Irena trails around her, a sensuous pheromonal perfume which may have added to Oliver’s attraction.

Oliver’s wooing of Irena is carried out through the medium of pets. Pets and people’s relationships with them. Here, Oliver presents Irena with a cute kitten, which evidently doesn’t take to her at all. If the kitten represents Oliver’s view of how he hopes Irena will turn out to be, then he is clearly going to be disappointed. Irena harbours a much fiercer feline soul. The trip to the pet shop to buy an alternative pet causes mass panic amongst the caged birds, who evidently intuit Irena’s hidden animal anima. But it is one of these which is purchased for her, ‘a little lemon-coloured fellow’ who sounds more like a boiled sweet that Irena can snack on in-between meals. The use of a pet is also a way for Oliver to inveigle his presence into the very personal domain of Irena’s flat, of course. Pets are used in symbolic fashion throughout Lewton’s work, culminating in the interchangability of people and animals in Bedlam.

At work, we are introduced to Alice, and it is immediately apparent that Oliver (or Ollie as she calls him with familiar informality) is much more at ease with her than he is with Irena. She is a Hawksian companion, a work colleague and plain-talking compadre with whom he is on an equal footing. She is all-American and entirely unmysterious, although perhaps her friendly willingness to help and provide a sympathetic ear is not entirely without its unconsciously scheming aspect. It is her who finds the Serbian restaurant, The Belgrade café, where Irena and Oliver have their post-nuptial celebration feast. It is her, therefore, who re-emphasises Irena’s ‘un-Americanness’ and re-connects her with a past which she is trying to leave behind. Indeed, the presence of Alice as a confidante throughout the relationship suggests a certain manipulativeness, unconscious or otherwise. On Oliver’s part, he is either exhibiting a bluff refusal to acknowledge anything of his own nature beyond surface simplicities, or he really is a guileless dunderhead who lumbers through life unaware of the damage he does. This uncomplicated, untroubled outlook is seen as being some kind of American, clean-living ideal. After Irena has confessed to him that she has ‘fled the past’ (whether a collective or personal past is left ambiguous) he offers himself up as an embodiment of the New World which she can join. ‘A good, plain Americano’, someone who ‘grew up to be quite a nice fella.’

The Belgrade café, to which Alice has so considerately guided them, is a little bit of the old country in America. It is here that Irena is recognised by one of ‘her kind’. This woman, who sits alone, elicits whispered comments from the men present, one of whom dismisses her with the words ‘looks like a cat’, an appearance accentuated by the black bow in her hair. Her identification of a fellow spirit serves to isolate Irena from the jovial spirit and group bonhomie of the rest of the table, which is notably filled with Oliver’s work colleagues and family. They have been treating her as an intriguing outsider, charming for her foreignness, and this encounter, together with the choice of venue, merely serves to highlight her isolation. She is not ‘one of us’. At the end of the day, they draw up outside their apartment. This is still the apartment where Oliver first came to call upon Irena. It is interesting that for all his intimations that he can help her to become a proper American, it is to the shadowed spaces of her apartment, with its Old World relics and proximity to the wildness of the zoo, that they go to start their married life. Does this suggest a certain economic superiority on her part, or does this space really represent the qualities for which Oliver has married her in the first place. She pleads for understanding and he offers all his patience and kindness, with ‘all the time in the world’ to wait if need be. In fact, he seems to last barely a few weeks before he is once more confiding in Alice.

It is at Alice’s suggestion that Irena goes to (or rather is sent to) the psychiatrist Dr Judd, although of course Oliver (Ollie) doesn’t admit this to her. Dr Judd’s dark office offers a parallel with Irena’s apartment, but his is a space in which the spirit of King John is dominant, not reduced to a small tabletop gewgaw. Irena lies on the couch, under Doctor Judd’s spell (or hypnotised). A light shines in her eyes as Doctor Judd draws out her inmost history and fears. It is a violation, an invasion of her subconscious without the consent of her will, the barriers of which have been removed. When the lights go on again, we see that the light which has been interrogatively pointed at her is bluntly phallic in a vaguely art deco style. It is the modern, rationalist version of King John’s sword, designed to penetrate and destroy the shadows of unreason. Judd rattles off a standard psychiatrist’s litany of demystification, telling her of anxieties and fears originating in childhood. The dismissal of Irena’s experiences as being merely symbolic of fears and anxieties which have taken root in the subconscious can also be seen as a reflection on the nature of fantastic fiction itself. The film Cat People does address these fears and anxieties, but it does so by creating a story in which a woman, under certain conditions, turns into a murderous panther. By making the metaphor manifest, it makes for a much more direct and unambiguously forceful depiction of such feelings. It is also, naturally, a lot more exciting and entertaining, with the additional pleasure attendant upon any good horror film of allowing us to see into some of the darker rooms of our own mental mansions. Doctor Judd responds to Irena’s question as to what she should tell her husband with the advice ‘what does one tell one’s husband? One tells him nothing.’ It is as if he is a furtive lover covering up an affair.

Astonishingly, when she gets home, she finds Alice there with Oliver. Given that he must have known she was visiting the psychiatrist, an initial visit liable to leave her feeling vulnerable and confused, it is indicative of the distance he is already establishing between them that he should consider this a good time to invite Alice in. Again, we are left with two possible views of Oliver. Either he is an incredible lunkhead, an emotional simpleton. Or he is engaged in an assault on his wife of some considerable passive aggression, possibly with a little direction from Alice. Against Dr Judd’s ‘one tells him nothing’, suggesting that a marriage thrives on a certain element of mystery and secretiveness, Oliver is moronically upfront and open about everything, a quality which he extends beyond the circle of his marriage. His assertion that you can tell Alice anything because she is ‘such a good egg’ merely exacerbates the issue, and makes it clear to Irena that her own attempts at openness have been betrayed, confidences broadcast. Oliver’s conciliatory declaration of love, that ‘he’d turn handstands to keep you happy’, is a further indication of his childish ideal of romance. It is at times like this when it becomes apparent that Irena is right to deny him access to the marital bed. She would devour him whole. Earlier, Oliver had bought Irena a pet, a caged bird which she had inadvertently scared to death. He is that yellow canary.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Herzog's Nosferatu: Part 1.


Herzog. Nosferatu. Finally...

It’s funny that my favourite filmic takes on Dracula should be so completely different stylistically. Terence Fisher’s DRACULA (no ‘Horror Of...’ here, thank you very much), and Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT are, by far in my opinion, the most successful films to have been made from the material; the two that work the best as films (I’m not overly concerned with fidelity to Stoker’s novel here, I’ll save that for a later date ). Runner’s up include the BBC TV adaptation with Louis Jordan (a near perfect first part, but the second episode feels rushed – as if it really needed three), Murnau’s Nosferatu (though technically it isn’t Dracula I suppose) and Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s diary (Hammer's Dracula sequels don't count on this list, but for the record I love Prince Of Darkness & Taste The Blood...). Though my favourite take on Dracula, after the Fisher and Herzog adaptations is probably Orson Welles’, done for radio in 1938(currently available on CD, you can also listen to it here for free).

If only he’d gone on to make a film. Think of it, what if DRACULA was the ‘Greatest Movie Ever Made’ instead of CITIZEN KANE... there’s a world in which that might be true. Kim Newman’s probably writing about it as we speak – in fact didn’t he already?

As it stands, no one has really made a great film that actually sticks close to the book , we’re still waiting for Horror’s LORD OF THE RINGS. I’m confident that it will happen some day; a properly epic horror film, a good three hours long.
But this is all beside the point. The point here is NOSFERATU, as realised by Werner Herzog.

It really is a wonderful film – but as a horror film, it sort of fails. It isn’t scary.

It is however, unsettling. Creepy. Unnerving. It manages a kind of vertiginous awe, as the music and images sweep us up and lead us in, particularly in Jonathan’s approach to Castle Dracula. Watching it for the first time, I felt my stomach drop, my pulse raise, my throat and scalp go tight, the way it might standing on the edge of a cliff before a dramatic landscape, the beauty of which might be overwhelming, but only because it was laced with fear that you might, at any moment, step right off the edge.

Herzog’s film is sublime. But it is not scary. Not in the traditional sense. Not in the way a horror film is meant to be.

It is more in tune and in line with the classical Gothic or Romantic traditions. It is intensely beautiful, while simlultaeneously being obsessed with gloom, and the grotesque, and with decay.

Herzog embarked on the film in order to connect with a legitimate german cinematic tradition, of which he held Murnau’s film to be the pinnacle. He succeeded. But he also connects, just as powerfully, and perhaps more so, with an older Germanic tradition, in literature and the arts, the Gothic Romantic tradition.

What has been astounding to me in thinking about the film, reading about it, is how little has been said about the influence of Caspar David Friedrich, and I must thank Jez for pointing me towards his work.

There are frames in Herzog’s film that, to me, seem to mirror certain of Friedrich’s paintings. And even when they don’t, the way that Friedrich captured light, the way he painted landscape, and the way he placed figures IN that landscape, are very much the same as Herzog does in film. Indeed, while it is perhaps most pronounced here in Nosferatu, you can see it in all of Herzog’s early films. It is there in the opening shot of AGUIRRE and the opening of HEART OF GLASS, it’s there in KASPAR HAUSER – the grandeur of landscape. But most particularly in Nosferatu it’s the way he shoots the backs of people looking out into the landscape, a landscape that seems to speak so eloquently, so dramatically of what’s going on inside their souls.

Jonathan setting out on foot for Transylvania; Lucy sitting on the beach and staring out to see, Joanthan and Lucy walking down the beach AWAY from us, as the wind blows sand like mist across the beach. The whole of Jonathan’s later approach to castle Dracula, as he climbs into the mountains, leaving light and life behind (note how the lush greens of earlier disappear as he comes ever closer to Dracula’s domain) is like watching frame after frame of images that could be hanging in a gallery with Friedrich’s name inscribed in one corner.

For all that Herzog’s approach to film may be comparatively stripped down, and shorn of stylisation in terms of tricky cinematography, still the cinematography is outstanding. The texture of the film is so palpably real, solid, dramatic. As ever, because Herzog takes his camera to somewhere on the earth that expresses imagistically what he refers to in ‘Herzog On Herzog’ (a highly recommended read) as ‘the ecstatic truth’. Here, perhaps more than ever, the nature of the material he is working with, gives license to indulge in ecstatic imagery. The mountains, the sky, the clouds, the sea, a bat in ultra-slow motion, the mould upon the walls of castle Dracula, the peeling crumbling stonework, the bats that hang from the window of Harker’s room, Renfield listening to the flies, the rats - oh god the RATS!

Here Herzog visualises what Dwight Fry (perhaps the only thing in the Universal Dracula I actually like) was ranting maniacally about in 1930. Strangely perhaps, the rats, with their off white fur, have always reminded me of maggots more than anything. Something about the way they look en masse, seething, writhing... it’s a feeling and an image that’s reflected in the high shot that opens the dance of death scene in the square, once Wismar has succumbed to the plague, as white-ish coffins are lead in a slightly wriggly line through the grey town square...

The tangibility of Herzog’s imagery, his reliance on location shooting and natural light, lend the film a solidity and reality, that it seems to me was the intention behind Bram Stoker’s use of diary entries and letters to tell his tale – though there was more to it than simply this – it lends verisilimitude to a fantastical plot. It says, ‘these things are real’. Indeed, the first shots of Herzog’s film are of real death, real decay. Handheld shots of dried up corpses, their eyes empty, their skins shrivelled, their mouths an open scream, while the music of Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh chants and moans, laden with doom, and pierced with discordant cries. Herzog then cuts to a shot a bat flying in extreme slow motion, an image that is at once very real, and yet by virtue of the extreme slow motion, very un-real. Dream-like? Perhaps. Certainly the context of the editing as the scene progresses suggests that that’s exactly what it is. But is it something more? A way into the film?

The image has a certain resonance, a certain dark and simple poetry, especially in conjunction with the music, and it will return towards the end of the film, while Kinski drinks from Isabelle Adjani’s throat. Is it the vampire’s soul? Or merely a symbol? In the climactic scenes, the slow motion bat, appearing onscreen in the midst of Kinski’s feeding, as life slips away from Isabelle Adjani, seems symbolic of something – since the scene is played with overt erotic overtones, the image of this creature in flight, a creature associated with darkness and the night, seems almost to carry overtones of some kind of dark orgasm, and orgasm related to a complex sensuality/sexuality, an almost literal petit mortes?

At the same time however, it is an image which links the scene of kinski feeding and Adjani giving her life in the bedroom, and Jonathan downstairs, becoming fully vampire. It is only after Dracula’s death that Jonathan’s vampire infection finaly succeeds in transforming Jonathan from living to undead, and the image of the bat seems to link the two occurances, almost as if the bat somehow symbolises the dark thing (demon?) that inhabited the shellof Dracula’s human body. As if suggesting vampirism as as a kind of possession, or contagion, a thing which will inhabit and animate a dead human being/shell... in the shot of it in flight as Kinski drinks to his doom and the sun rises, it is as if the thing/the darkness within Kinski is fleeing – but where in Hollywood this might have been our end, Herzog ties it to the infected, tainted, Jonathan downstairs. As one vampire dies, another is born. Having shivered his way through so much of the film, looking ill and weak, Jonathan looks suddenly ‘alive’ and whole, the gleam in his eyes is devious. Herzog ends the film with the vampire Jonathan riding off into what is, by the looks of the lighting, a sunset: an ironic inversion of the Hollywood cliché. As this new born vampire gallops off toward the horizon, to spread his disease amongst the world, the clouds darken and gather overhead... like the end of The Terminator, ‘A storm is coming...’