Monday, 29 June 2009

Herrmann's Worlds Beyond


Another fantastic LP cropped up amongst the records donated to the Exeter Oxfam music shop the other day, one particularly close to my heart. The film composer Bernard Herrmann is best known for his scores for some of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Hollywood thrillers, to whose success he contributed more than a little. Hitchcock’s oeuvre never reached the same heights after the two departed on less than friendly terms. But this record features Herrmann’s own re-recordings of scores for fantasy and science fiction films which span the years from 1950 to 1966. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and The Day the Earth Stood Still were films I loved when I was a boy. They had an atmosphere of magic and mystery which absolutely entranced me and I now realised that it was Herrmann’s music as much as the visual spectacle which in large part wove that spell of bewitchment (and no doubt led me towards my lifelong love of the fantastic in film and literature).

Journey to the Centre of the Earth featured the redoubtable James Mason and the somewhat less impressive Pat Boone. The music features Herrmann’s usual innovative blend of instrumental colours. The feeling of romantic sublimity created by the volcanic Icelandic backdrops is summoned by church organ chords of ecclesiastical awe. The eerie beauty of the subterraenean world is evoked by tuned percussion and electronic organs, the reverb of vibraphones and the crystalline sparkle of electronic organs and harps echoing the cavernous spaces and iridescent glitter of jewel-like mineral deposits. The encounter with prehistoric creatures as the adventurers approach the centre of the world desperately needs the heft of a strong musical score, given that the creatures themselves are painfully obviously magnified lizards of a less than terrifying aspect (aaarghh, no, the gums!) Herrmann responds with aplomb, and also with a neat pun, reviving the renaissance instrument called the serpent, which has a perfectly lumbering saurian sound. It even looks like a coiled serpent, as the name would imply (albeit a serpent which resembles an overambitious portion of black pudding).

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad features a stirring theme for the opening titles and market scenes, a whirl of romantic Rimsky-Korsakov orientalism, a Thousand and One Nights dream of a magical onion domed Araby that never was. The yearning strings show what a great composer of romantic music Bernard Herrmann was (most notably in his aching themes for Vertigo and The Ghost and Mrs Muir). For the first of Ray Harryhausen’s immortal fighting skeleton scenes (he’d bring a whole squadron of the bony beggars into play in Jason and the Argonauts) Herrmann charts the action with the dry ossified sound of the xylophone, drawing and expanding on Saint-Saens’ use of the same instrument for similar purposes in Danse Macabre.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is possibly, alongside Forbidden Planet, THE definitive science fiction score. Stuff Star Wars, with its return to post romantic musical forms merely another element in its retreat towards shallow familiarity. The Day the Earth Stood Still saw Herrmann employing electronic instrumentation alongside the standard orchestral colours to evoke the immensity of the cosmos as seen from Earth. The swoop of the theremin over the sparkling arpeggios of multiple harps, capped with the rising chords in the woodwind capture the feeling of immensity which you can feel whenever you look up into a clear night sky (if you are fortunate enough to have access to one). The theremin wasn’t a new instrument at this time (1950) having been around since about 1920, but it had largely been used for classical performances (chiefly by its major exponent Clara Rockmore) of a rather conservative nature. Only Edgard Varese had really explored its potential as a source of new sounds in his piece Ecuatorial (1932-34), although it was often replaced by the ondes martenot, since this was easier to play. After Herrmann’s score, the theremin became the default sound for science fiction films in the 50s, although its use in other films soon came to be a musical shortcut for the ‘creepy’, so much so that it crossed over into the horror genre too (arch showman William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill is a good example). Which just goes to show that it takes a great composer to turn such an instrument to sublime use. The theremin has re-appeared recently in scores by Howard Shore for Tim Burton’s homages to 50s SF and it’s creators, Mars Attacks and Ed Wood. So Herrmann can be said to have created a truly iconic sound to go alongside his oft-imitated (and parodied) Psycho stabbing shower strings.

Fahrenheit 451’s opening theme very much echoes the music for The Day the Earth Stood Still, but this time without the electronic component. The opening scene takes in a roofscape, with a proliferation of tv aerials (giving it an instant retro-futurist feel today) which indicate that the aetheric drift of Herrmann’s characteristic harp arpeggios and celestes (sounding very much like Neptune the Mystic from Holst’s The Planets, which Herrmann conducted) will soon be earthed. The rest of the score seems like a compendium of the composer’s characteristic themes, perhaps appropriately given that it was a work from his ‘mature’ period (1966), and one which came shortly after his break from Hitchcock (which occurred during the making of the latter’s Torn Curtain). There are the scurrying strings which accompanied Marion Crane’s flight in Psycho and which here follow the fire engines towards their inverted task. The circling romantic theme which echoes the yearning chords which surrounded Kim Novak’s enigmatic character in Vertigo. The trilling blare of horns, which reminds of the great cross-cutting dance of the chase from North by Northwest. And the final downward sweep of chords which is another Herrmann trademark.

This is a great selection of Herrmann’s music, which I see has recently been re-issued in a super-duper high-fidelity remaster, currently going for silly money online. This record was released in Decca’s Phase 4 stereo series, and is presumably therefore also of particularly impressive fidelity. Sounded alright to me, anyway. It’s currently up on Oxfam’s e-bay pages, here, until 5th July.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Doorways to the worlds within...

Hi there, Neil here - long time no see. Sorry about that.

It's been a strange few months. Odd happenings etc, and now it's all coming to fruition.

My absence from this blog was at first due to my concentrating on my other writing, trying to get somewhere with my scripts. Well, I sort of have... sort of. And then other weird and interesting things occured that have meant the writing has had to hop into the back seat for a little while... strange days indeed.

First up, a music producer/audio artist I know has (indeed, IS) working on something that I wrote. We've been trying to do something together for ages, ever since we met, when he was a customer (big fan of Hammer) at BRAZIL the DVD rental shop i ran a while back, but which had to close.

Anyway, one of those knowing someone who knows someone evenings occured in which he was talking to some people and mentioned a story idea that I've had lurking in my head for over ten years. They thought it sounded really good, just the kind of thing a friend of theirs at Radio 4 might like - and suddenly that old idea that we'd knocked around a little in talking over the counter, was pushed back to the fore.

Only problem is, I've changed a lot in the ten years since I first had the idea. The parts of it that interest me NOW, are not the same parts that seemed so interesting to me THEN. Much of what I thought I knew about the story, I've had to unlearn/relearn/re-discover. Which is good. But slow sometimes, and hard when you just want to launch at it.

So we've been working on a trailer, which has turned into something that's less a trailer and more a five minute story in itself - a taster, a snippet, a glimpse at what the thing might be.

It's almost ready now. The plan being to have something solid and real to give the guy at Radio 4, because the story doesn't really lend itself to soundbites and pitch lines. And we want to do it all ourselves anyway. Once it's done - a week or two with luck - we'll get it to 'The Guy' and also hopefully put it up for all to hear, in the hope that it grabs attention and interest, enough to help convince 'The Guy' that this is worth backing either for radio or as an internet project.

Anyway. That's that. And it's exciting.

But I have a day job too, in a major bookstore chain here in UK, and it's undergoing changes that made my position there uncertain. And that's when the wife of my old landlord called to ask if I'd be interested in taking over her bookshop, here in Exeter: THE READ & RETURN BOOKSHOP (on Fore Street, for any local readers). The shop is running fine, but she wants to go back into nursing, and wondered if I'd like to take over the shop. It's been running since 1972 you see. She's had it for the last five years, and done a lot of work on making it a really nice place (got rid of the 'Gentlemen's Magazines for a start). So after a quick scout round for cash, my wife and I said YES!. Job problem solved.

So now my head is all filled up with that. Which should be happening July 1st.

Big stuff, huh? All at once. Hope it all works out. The shop is all exciting and great. I think it's really going to work for us. I hope the Radio project does too - but if nothing else we should have some interesting work out of it. As I say, hopefully I'll be able to let you all have a listen in the next few weeks.

So, in conjunction with the shop, I've started up another blog: YELLOWED PAGES for the Read & Return, you can find it HERE. There's not too much up there yet, it's just a place to give the shop a presence online. But some of what I've started takling about over there, might be of interest, so I thought I'd link across.

It's on the subject of how much cooler and more interesting book covers - in particular Children's book covers - were in the late 70's early 80's.

The thread starts HERE...

And continues HERE...

It really has been a strange, exciting and BUSY last few months.

Best to you all. If you're local, maybe I'll see you in the shop.


We sell New and 2nd hand, and there's a lot of interesting stuff in there.

Sincerely,
Neil

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirteen

The Seventh Victim - Part Five

Munch - The Dance of Life. Innocence to Experience

James Ensor. Distorted faces of the crowd.

The dark, deserted street in which she now finds herself is like the one along which Clo-Clo walked in The Leopard Man, lit by the same globe street lights. This is noir lighting, with pools of shadow of the deepest blackness. The block-like and angular figure of a man casts its cubist shadow from around a street corner. These are cubist shadows which distort the human figure in an expressionist manner. Picasso re-imagined by Munch, or Braque by Ensor. That these turn out to be cast by entwined lovers merely serves to highlight Jacqueline’s aloneness. The Lewton night-walk she is taking is in some ways an externalisation of depression, a condition which serves to distort the individual’s view of the world from which they feel excluded. In this sense, the voices of the Palladist cabal from which she has just escaped (or been allowed to escape) are merely the voices in her own head telling her how worthless she is and how the best course action for everyone concerned would be for simply to eradicate herself for once and all. She hurries on from the couple, harried by figures which she can’t see. One of the Palladist heavies emerges from the impenetrable blackness of a doorway as if he were attached to it, or part of it. He begins to follow her. Jacqueline turns pleadingly to passersby, but to no avail. As with Mary on the subway, there is a sense of being alone amongst multitudes, of the atomisation of the city’s inhabitants. Nobody cares, covert glances are swiftly averted. As she runs, her pursuer walks at a confidently nonchalant pace. In this expressionist nightmare, the laws of physical space are warped and he has to expend exponentially less effort to keep up than she does to flee. Jacqueline runs out into the road and is almost knocked down. Everything is now threatening, human and inanimate alike. It is as if the structures of the city are beginning to shift and conspire against her.

cubist expressionism.

She crawls along the face of a wall, back to its surface, with face in profile and hand outstretched. She looks like an Egyptian relief figure. She moves slowly, as if under conditions of heavy gravity. She comes across the backstage doors of a theatre, with its masks of comedy and tragedy. As she pauses in the doorway, the symbol for tragedy is covered up, as if to emphasise the fact that this is the mask which she now wears. There are sounds of laughter within, which correspond to the mask of comedy. The light is much brighter around this door too. Is this pointing to the compensatory comforts of art amongst the bitter experiences of life, the need for escapism and bright pageantry? If so, Jacqueline backs away from it, back into the shadows. It is another route to happiness which is denied her (and perhaps she would have been better of with art than psychiatry as a means of therapeutic release).

The living mask of tragedy.

As she retreats backwards, her hand, feeling along the wall, comes into contact with the fabric of a coat. She turns to see the rictus grin of her pursuer. The human form rendered as exaggerated expressionist mask. He releases the blade of his flick-knife with a threatening click (although we know that he cannot use it, of course). The laughter of the players intrudes upon this moment of silent menace as they burst out of the theatre doors. They are a motley parade of jesters, Romans and damsels an irruption of unreal colour into this bleak cityscape. Jacqueline allows herself to be swept up in the noisy throng, but is deposited outside the bar to which they convene. Inside, a jaunty barroom piano jangles away and she can see blurred shapes moving inside beyond the frosted glass. This is the world of light and life from which she is now excluded and in whose revels, by all accounts, she was once an active participant. What drew her away from it? Was it Gregory? Or the onset of depression, a desolation both experiential and metaphysical. She is outlined against the tavern sign, her exclusion represented in symbolic tableau.

The false hand of friendship.

Jacqueline finally makes it back to the apartment, her night journey ended but with the promise of future ordeals of psychological terrorism to come. Ascending the staircase, she pauses outside room 7, her death’s door. At this point, Mimi comes out of her room and the two come face to face on the landing. ‘Who are you?’ Jacqueline asks in a hollow voice. ‘I’m Mimi – I’m dying’ she replies matter of factly, as if this is an introduction she offers to anyone who asks. Jacqueline gives a ‘no’ of denial, a reflexive rebuttal of the reality of death. Mimi expands on her condition in a statement of defiance before the inevitable, a rejection of her previous submission which is like a less thunderous version of Dylan Thomas’ declamation ‘do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/rage, rage against the dying of the light’. That poem concerned itself only with men. Here, Mimi conducts her rebellion against quietude in a less clenched-fist waving fashion. ‘Yes, I’ve been quiet – oh, ever so quiet. I hardly move. And yet it keeps coming closer all the time, closer and closer’. ‘And you don’t want to die’, Jacqueline replies, more a statement than a question. ‘I’ve always wanted to die – always’. It is this inherent depression, this lurking darkness, which the Palladists have exploited to their own ends, denying Jacqueline the control of her own destiny which room 7 represents. ‘I’m tired of being afraid, of waiting’, Mimi says, articulating Jacqueline’s thoughts at the same time. ‘Why wait?’ she replies. ‘I’m not going to wait’, Mimi determines there and then. ‘I’m going out and I’m going out and I’m going to laugh and dance and do all the things I used to do’. As with the deaths in The Leopard Man , which were attendant upon the search for some of the essentials of living (food, love and material self-sufficiency) the brightness of life is here seen to contain the seeded shadow of death as an everpresent counterpoint. ‘And then?’ asks Jacqueline, as if wanting to force an explicit admission of the outcome of which they are both aware. ‘I don’t know’ says Mimi, avoiding the issue. ‘You will die’, Jacqueline bluntly states. At this point, both retreat behind their personal death’s doors, Mimi’s door which is the portal to the domain of death which for her is the outside world of fully lived life and Jacqueline’s which leads to her pre-prepared end. Their encounter, once more on the transitional stage of the staircase, has made up both their minds for them.

Meanwhile, Jason and Doctor Judd have arrived at the apartment from which Jacqueline has recently been expelled. Jason spits out his contempt. ‘The devil worshippers, the lovers of evil. It’s a joke, a pathetic little joke.’ They don’t look so sinister now. ‘You’re a poor wretched group of people who have taken a wrong turning’, he continues. Dr Judd looks up at him with what almost appears to be admiration. The fact that he was discovered performing his card tricks at this apartment suggests that he was being courted by (or was himself courting) the Palladists (possibly with Jacqueline as a bargaining chip on his part) with an eye towards joining their ranks. His joining the group of questing fools and subsequent courting of Jason’s friendship may have saved him taking ‘a wrong turning’, from fatally succumbing to his preference for ‘the sinister side’. The mystery of the Palladists relies on secrecy, a relentlessly humourless sense of self-importance and the abuse and exploitation of the weak and the lost. This is how they exercise their power and justify its use to themselves. Their unnamed leader speaks up for them, breaking the atmosphere of hangdog chagrin which is prevailing now all the lights are on and the cheap stage trickery has been packed away. ‘If I prefer to believe in satanic majesty and power, who can deny me? What proof could you bring that good is superior to evil?’ Speaking of devil worship as if it were a valid lifestyle choice, this man is once more positing a relativist world in which good and evil are meaningless and personal choice and power are everything. This challenge is repeated with a sneer, a hint that he is regaining some of his ubermensch authority (and the Palladists, with their occult dalliance justifying a claim to a natural lineage of power deriving from an inherent superiority resemble nothing if not a bunch of Nazis).

Dr Judd speaks up at this point. He says that whilst talking with Jason, he had been reminded of words recalled from childhood. This is the re-emergence of Innocence in his life, which had been so thoroughly infected with the world weary negations of Experience. This is the Lord’s Prayer, from which he quotes a couple of lines; ‘forgive us our trespasses’ and ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. This might seem like a rather lame riposte, but Judd is in effect offering himself up as an example. He has been converted, reborn. It is this evidence that there are other paths and that the misguided choices one makes are not irrevocable that makes them hang their heads in shame, like miscreant schoolchildren. As they leave on this revelatory note, Dr Judd gives them one of his sardonic glances, to let them (and us) know that he hasn’t abandoned some of the more charming habits of the world of Experience.

Mary is with Gregory in her room when Dr Judd calls to say that Jacqueline is on her way up to see her (as we know she had been). Gregory resolves to take her away with resentfully dutiful resignation. But who let the Palladists know where she was (and for that matter where Mary lived)? There is more to Gregory than his is revealed by his cagey exterior, and his sombre, joyless demeanour is definitely in keeping with the Palladist style. He tells Mary that he loves her through clenched jaw, having insisted that she remain facing away from him. She, on the other hand, looks him directly in the face when she tells him that she loves him, but that Jacqueline comes first. ‘At least I’ve heard you say it’, she says. There’s something of a reversal of roles here, as she is now the one acting with more emotional maturity than the repressed Gregory. She has evaded the trap which this relationship represented (and into which Jacqueline had fallen) whilst using it to measure her own feelings and the effect which she has on others. The recognition that these feelings will pass marks a growth in maturity. She has fallen for the first man who has shown an interest in her, and has now heard that that interest was reciprocated. But her ability to draw a line under the relationship shows that she remains in control of herself. Gregory, on the other hand, should know better and is dishonest both with himself and with others. The death of Jacqueline immediately after his declaration of love to her sister implies some correlation and thereby a degree of culpability on his part. He has already abandoned her to her own fate, only belatedly joining the quest which he had half-heartedly initiated on his own part. His role in the search was scarcely active, either, being mostly reliant on others calling him to join them once they’d done the legwork.

The final scene depicts the playing out of the choices made by Mimi and Jacqueline during their encounter on the landing. And in a film in which staircases have provided a central metaphorical space for transitions between states (innocence and experience, domestic shelter and unprotected exterior, life and death) it is appropriate that it is upon one that the film ends. Mimi goes to descend the staircase into the outer world in all her finery, ready for one final joyous danse macabre, and hears the sound of a chair crashing to the ground in room 7, a sound which means nothing to her but everything to us. We hear the words of Donne’s poem which had opened the film, and which now applies to both Mimi and Jacqueline. ‘I run to death and death meets me as fast/and all my pleasures are like yesterday’.

Circles of the Solstice Night

To celebrate Summer Solstice night, during the short hours of which these words are being written, here are a couple of suitably pagan pieces of film centreing on the stones of Avebury, one of the three destinations we aim to reach this year. Derek Jarman's flickering and filtered super-8 films seem to capture or re-animate an ancient spirit of the landscape (the genius loci) through the grain and speckle of a technology which, in our accelerated times, is in itself a pre-historic (ie pre-digital) mode of seeing. Coil's rumbling ambient drones which accompany the images could be the hum of the currents earthed by the megaliths and sarsens. This is poetical imagination here, by the way. I don't actually buy into new-age earth 'energy' folderol. But I do recognise the power of certain landscapes and the generations of inhabitation which have made their mark upon them. At some sites, the distant past seems to be closer to the surface than at others. The imprint remains fresh.



Children of the Stones was a series I loved as a child and have rediscovered twice in the intervening years, both times hoping that its power hadn't diminished. I still love it, and will probably still pretend that one of the giant Avebury stones gives me an electromagnetic jolt which throws me back onto the ground when next I go there. The opening credits are great, the camera swooping and looming in a wide-angled collision course towards the pock-marked and ice-cracked surfaces of the stones. And the music! This was an era when a children's itv programme could have a theme tune whose composer drew on Gyorgy Ligeti and other avant-garde influences to create a mesmerically atmospheric piece of ritualistic choral music, ending in that soaringly haunting solo soprano melody as the camera-eye drifts on aerial currents above the town-within-the-circle, the whistling of an eerie wind becoming audible as the final notes fade away. So, let us take to the old rugged roads, the trackways which lead to the centre of the circle, and then follow the West Kennet Avenue to find Sanctuary. Happy Day!

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twelve

The Seventh Victim - Part Four

Back at the restaurant , we see Mrs Romari singing in the restaurant and the camera pans up to find Mary singing in the shower. The link between the two creates the feeling that Mary is at home here, and even happy, feeling like part of the family. Mrs Redi intrudes on this scene, appearing as an abstracted shadow behind the curtain in a scene which many have commented anticipates Psycho by several years, although the threat here remains implicit. The curtain remains as a distorting veil throughout and is not torn violently apart as it is by Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s film. The enlarged and blurred shadow of Mrs Redi’s head, warped by the shape of her hat, is drained of humanity, a looming abstract of menace, her presence reduced to her emotionless monotone of a voice, devoid of expressive inflection. There is a feeling that the darkness in this barely human shape might expand to swallow up Mary’s vulnerable form. Mrs Redi tells her to go back to school, but Mary sticks up for herself, forcing her to become more explicit in her threats. These are directed more at Jacqueline, who Mrs Redi reveals as the murder of August. ‘You go back to school’ she reiterates. She is another person who is telling Mary what to do. The fact that she evidently knows about what Mary saw on the subway creates a sense of paranoid unease. It is as if nothing you do is unobserved. They are everywhere, watching you, noting what you see, what you feel.

The devouring shadow.

Mrs Redi enters Natalia Cortez’ apartment where a gathering of people awaits her. This is the first sighting we have of the Palladists. Here, Mrs Redi displays signs of nervousness, admitting that ‘this is very trying for me’. She is not a fully established presence here yet and still feels that she is on trial, as perhaps all of them will be in perpetuity, ever watchful for the stumble which will find them outcast. Or worse, for as we discover, any betrayal is punishable by death. The two contradictory dictates of the society are ‘the rule of non-violence and the rule that whoever betrays us must die’. The effects of capitalism work at a distance, allowing a disavowal of any direct causation, of corporate responsibility. Frances is here and doesn’t understand. She has yet to have her human feelings of compassion and empathy expunged. She is told that ‘some of us must believe without understanding’. Follow the prevailing ideology and enjoy its benefits without ever realising what it truly stands for or who its patron saint is. The man who seems to be the default leader of this group quotes their founder, Johann Rosenquartz, as having written ‘we will avoid violence, for once undertaken, violence can become its won master and lead to either good or evil.’ Neither outcome is desirable for these people. They wish to maintain a status quo in a morally neutral universe in which all such distinctions are rendered obsolete. It is a universe in which power can be exercised without compunction or restraint. Further quotes underline the specificity of the world this group was set up to prevail over: ‘those who go out into the marketplaces and speak of us and give knowledge of our being and our deeds; whomsoever doeth this shall die’. These are the prototypes of the hubristically self-named ‘masters of the universe’, the manipulators of the global markets who operate behind the painted backdrops of the world stage. With moral neutrality comes emotional neutrality. This is a peculiarly joyless gathering. Jacqueline’s betrayal came about through her unhappiness, which drove her to see a psychiatrist. She had failed to attain the required level of detachment, the almost zen-like ability to view the world in abstract terms, through figures and cost benefit analyses. Frances is also unable to suppress her humanity and is visibly upset. She clearly doesn’t belong here.

We next discover Jason in his classic bohemian artist’s garret, writing at his desk. Mary enters, the muse of this creative renewal. Jason is clearly delighted to introduce her to his world, holding her hand and telling her ‘I want you to see my room’. But Mary’s reply, ‘but it’s such a small room, Jason’, is filled with sadness, as if for her it is a representation of his failure. He has chosen this room as he chooses his seat at the feet of Dante in order to fulfil his fantasy of being a bohemian poet. Every textbook detail of the artistic life has been perfectly reproduced with the exception of the one vital detail – the writing of verse. Jason indicates the roof window ‘through which I see the world’, the window of imaginative vision. A searchlight flashes across the sky, which he immediately translates in his fanciful fashion into ‘a sword blade cutting the cloak of a prince’. Mary pulls him out of his reverie by telling him that she intends to return to Highcliffe, her school, having capitulated in the face of Mrs Redi’s threats. She is acceding to her role as princess in the tower, subject to the agencies of others. Jason’s response is to call Gregory, who he informs Mary is in love with her. He clearly feels that his feelings are insufficient to keep her here. After all, he is merely a failed poet in his ‘small room’, whereas Gregory is a professional with his own office and a good income. With him on the team, the quest for Jacqueline is renewed, with the intention that she give herself in to the police. Jason brings Judd into the equation, leaving to find him with his new poems (‘verse I wrote’). He ineptly shadows him, Judd waving to him to let him know that this is all a game. Being a detective in the real city as opposed to searching through books, Jason proves hopeless. He is more comfortable in the world of ideals couched in literary language.

Now a gang of four, they go to find Jacqueline. As they wait outside the house where Judd has hidden her away, we see Mary in profile, with Gregory a sharp silhouette to her left, a figure of darkness who has detached himself from the shadowed night. Inside, we are faced with another staircase, down which Jacqueline descends with fearful tentativeness when Dr Judd calls her. She looks weary and wary. The hall of the apartment is a cheerless and spartan space, betokening a life stripped of joy. Jacqueline’s slow descent suggests a return to a world which has become strange through prolonged absence. There are also echoes of the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre, the novel which Lewton had drawn upon for the story of I Walked With a Zombie. Jacqueline wears a fur coat much as Irena did in Cat People, but here it seems to make her seem smaller, as if she has shrunk inside her skin, retreated inside herself. Jacqueline and Mary embrace, but she steps back from Gregory. He tells her ‘you’re safe. Nothing’s going to hurt you’, to which Dr Judd replies ‘your husband seems very certain of that’. It is not a very convincing assurance. Of course, the diabolists can’t directly harm her, something of which Gregory is perhaps aware. They can only drive her to harm herself, as perhaps he also did. Much is hinted at, nothing directly stated. Dr Judd is open about his influence, having no pretence towards nobility. For him, Jacqueline’s emergence from the shadows means a diminution of his power over her, and thus he says ‘for me, this seems to be the end of a delightful relationship’. A relationship in which he was the wholly dominant partner.

The reviving draught.

Back in Jason’s room, Jacqueline sips a cup of tea. ‘It’s like coming back to life’, she says. She has returned from the underworld, like Eurydice or Persephone. Finally she gets the chance to tell her story, which we have heard in fragmented subjective extracts up until now. But still the professionals feel the need to chip in with the ‘official’ version. So Judd declares that ‘Jacqueline was always a sensationalist, trying to seize on to something, anything to bring her happiness’. A description which could also apply to himself. Jacqueline describes her misery and unhappiness, her need to break away from the Palladists which had led her into the purview of Dr Judd. The camera slowly moves in on her face, becoming more and more close-up until we see only her eyes as she describes how she was kept locked up in the room at La Sagesse and her terror at ‘the darkness in the corner of the room…all the little noises’. The focus on the eyes recreates the feeling of lonely fears, the movement in the darkness born out of isolation. The camera’s slow zoom in seems to be trying to force us to share her subjective viewpoint and the pitch of paranoid despair to which she was driven.

Meanwhile, the boys are sparring. Jason is looking to the searchlight again and this time likens it ‘Cyrano’s sword’ in a none too subtle analogy which alludes to ‘a man knowing he couldn’t have the woman he loved and wooing her for his friend’. ‘We’re friends aren’t we Gregory?’ he adds, as if the point needed driving home. Gregory’s surly demeanour (his default mien) suggests otherwise and Mary makes a tactical exit with her sister, Dr Judd positioning himself between the two potential suitors.

In the daytime, we are back on the stairs again as Mary says goodbye to Jacqueline. She has lost her haunted look and states ‘I won’t be lonely’ as Mary leaves her. She will never see her again. Once more the staircase serves as a transitional stage. At the kindergarten there are presentiments of retribution in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons which the children chant (‘here comes the chopper to chop off your head’). Death in the garden, et in arcadia ego. The world of Experience once more invades that of that of Innocence as Mary receives a phone call informing her that Jacqueline has left with two men.

The anti-grail.

Jacqueline is sitting in a high-backed chair in Natalia’s room, faced with a rank of Palladist’s in severe black formal attire. Their leader addresses her as ‘my dear’, but the endearment is cold and false. The recital of the rules further adds to the sombre ritualistic atmosphere. Jacqueline can only say yes or no to any question, once more denied the chance to express herself. These people are certainly not in the least interested in her motivations or psychological troubles. Words such as ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ are used, which make this sound like a family gathering or a business board meeting, or a mixture of both. They are words which carry an imperative towards certain actions without having a particular moral weight. They are, in a sense, words which replace the traditional moral distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong (and all shades in between) which motivate certain behaviours and choices, and which imply an obedient supplication to pro forma traditions. The poisoned cup is placed before her and a psychological waiting game intitiated to drive her to drink it. This is an inverted form of the ultimate object of the grail quest alluded to in the stained-glass window of Mary’s school which she passed on her way out to the world. The grail which holds not a renewal of life but coerced draught of darkness and death. Jacqueline’s fingers tapping on the arm of the chair sound loudly in the pendulous silence like a snare drum leading the condemned to the scaffold.

Into this tense scene of vigilant inaction, we cut to Dr Judd and Jason for a parallel scene in which the psychological screws are turned. Apropos of nothing, Judd reveals that ‘that girl you loved, that other patient of mine. She didn’t disappear. She’s in an asylum. A horrible raving thing. I never wanted you to know’. The fate of the woman who we assume to have been his previous muse, the one who inspired his one success, has been hidden from him. By implication, this was a fate to which Jacqueline was also likely to succumb. Was Judd jealous of Jason’s success and determined to remove that which inspired it? Jason’s comment ‘and all the while, you’ve been my friend’, said with a certain amount of incredulity, belies the fact that thus far we’ve heard nothing but contempt for the poet from Judd. He seems to regard him as little more than a child, who must be shielded from the suffering and violence of the world, thus condemning him to sheltered stasis and stunting of growth that Miss Gilchrist had warned Mary of when she was about to leave school.

Back in the apartment, the one-armed Natalia plays a recurring figure on the piano. It is a disconcertingly unresolved series of descending whole-tone arpeggios, which creates an ambience of heavy suspension, of delayed resolution. It resembles Eric Satie’s conceptual piece Vexations, a single page of music with the instruction to repeat 840 times. This has a circular, unresolved nature and the arbitrary designation of a set number of repetitions suggests that it could in fact go on forever. It has in fact been played on a number of occasions (often by a relay team of pianists) initially by John Cage and friends. The music played here also suggests that the Palladists are prepared to wait as long as it takes. The concerted gaze of the group directed at her emphasizes the will to conformity on their part. Mrs Redi shows her inexperience by her unnecessary voicing of this exertion of will, telling her to ‘just drink’ and pushing the glass towards her. This actually serves to lessen the psychological effect. The group exercise in silent coercion is an attempt to get Jacqueline to conspire in her own destruction, to force her will into submission. It is the manufacture of consent, as Noam Chomsky would phrase it. This is the way (as Chomsky has it) that democratic societies (that is, those which don’t impose their power through direct armed force) mould conformity in the populace by creating and then feeding subconscious needs and desires rather than simply providing for the essentials of civilised life (food, shelter, the rule of law etc.). It is a modern variant, with the lessons of Freud taken on board and applied, of the classical Roman model of bread and circuses.

Back with Judd and Jason, the former offers the strangely worded proposition, ‘if you like, I’ll go with you to dinner, Jason’. An offer of friendship using all the wily indirection of the experienced psychiatrist. Not a question and one which shifts the initiation of the date away from the non-questioner. If this were a film made in a later decade, we might assume that this was a coy come-on (men don’t really ask each other out for dinner), a prelude to the two becoming lovers. This would certainly chime with Judd’s disposal of Jason’s previous muse, his coming between him and Gregory over Mary and his sustained interest in the poet over the years mixing with a surface veil of contempt. The relationship would also potentially parallel that hinted at between Mrs Lowood and Miss Gilchrist at the start of the film, with Judd being the dominant partner in this case. But it would take a fairly strenuous reading between the lines to justify such an interpretation here. The two, who have up until now been unaware of Jacqueline’s disappearance, are met by Mary who informs them of what has happened. The three head off to find her once more.

The room in which Jacqueline sits is now dark, faces harshly outlined by the stark shadows cast by the light of a standard lamp. She slumps in the chair, tired and weak. Frances hysterically pleads with her to drink, but when she picks up the glass, she dashes it from her hand. She breaks down and cries ‘the only time I was ever happy was when I was working with you’. An important use of the word ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ which sums up the change of regime at La Sagesse. This suggestion of the fragility of happiness and the rarity with which it is grasped again paints the city as a depthless well of loneliness and despair. ‘You were always so good to me’, she says. She talks of Jacqueline as if she were as close as family. It is quite the opposite of this self-interested anti-family, this cold corporate kinship to which she is now bound. It also shows us a hint of the warm, loving and sociable side of Jacqueline which has been driven into hiding. The spell is broken, the light switched on. A whisper in the ear of the goons who Mary espied about their dirty business on the subway sends them out into the night. Jacqueline is unceremoniously dragged up from the chair and shown the door. When she hesitates, the leader contemptuously snarls ‘I told you you could go’. She is framed in the doorway like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, shut out of the interior world and cast into darkness. That she should look back at this terrible family who have rejected her with longing shows the depths of despair and isolation into which she has plunged. The door is firmly shut.

Diversions

I've been listening to Barry Booth's 1968 album Diversions a lot recently. I first heard it on Stuart Maconie's excellent Radio 6 show The Freak Zone, where it was featured as an album of the week. In some senses a product of the psychedelic era, as the cover art would certainly suggest, in others it stands wholly apart from it. The 'beautiful people' are only seen in the background, on the streets below the flat where the model builder in 'He's Very Good With His Hands' constructs his kits, for example. The songs do share the preoccupation of the age with childlike adults and dreamy nonsense rhymes, however. The lyrics were written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin and sung by Booth, who also plays piano and sings. He has a pleasant, lightly pitched voice with pronounced Yorkshire vowels at times, but was modest about his abilities and never sang on disc again. He has worked as a musical arranger for many people, including Roy Orbison, John Renbourne, Bert Jansch (The Avocet, I wonder?) and not forgetting Rolf Harris (and according to his website, Tim Buckley - bloody hell). The arrangements on this album use brass and strings to very good effect, and he plays some fantastic piano, producing some great baroque lines with a firm right hand, sounding like some of the modal jazz players of the 50s and 60s at times inflected with hints of English folk melodies(the beginning of The Problems of a Simple Man, for example). The distinctively evocative fanfare-like opening of The Hottest Day of the Year also illustrates his innovative ear for unusual and yet still tuneful melody. The drums sometimes betray his background in televison music, sounding like they come from a musical number on The Two Ronnies, or some other Ronnie Hazlehurst piece of BBC Radio Orchestra smoothnes, but frankly, what's so bad about that?

The songs themselves partake of the British penchant for wistful melancholia. Some are simple nonsense rhymes, with a whiff of Edward Lear about them. The Kings Thing particularly appeals to the childish side of my sense of humour, with a gnome-like voice (a la David Bowie's Laughing Gnome) constantly interrupting with a 'pardon?' to Booth's increasing consternation (he finally sighs 'I don't believe it - why don't you just listen?') Others share Ray Davies's love of depicting everyday English eccentricities, but without the satirical edge which much of his songs of this period possessed. Indeed, lying beneath the surface is a sense of deep sadness and even incipient madness which threatens to overwhelm many of the repressed or depressed characters we meet. There's Vera Lamonte, who dreams of a glamorous life as a famous trapeze artist, courted and admired by the wealthy and famous, a life which she never led. Instead, she lives a nocturnal existence in a flat, lonely and uncared for, her dreams interrupted by the boiling kettle. Or there's Henry Smith (in 'Henry Smith Addresses a Butterfly') who wishes he could be a butterfly, bringing happiness into other people's lives, instead of being stuck with his own gloomy existence ('the sadness of Smith'). It is the dream of the happy,carefree simpleton which crops up in other songs of the era, such as The Small Faces 'Mad John' or Neil Innes' 'How Sweet To Be An Idiot'. Then there's Henry Watkins, in 'The Hottest Day of the Year', who overcomes years of timidity by first taking off his bowler hat, then his worsted suit and just carrying on from there, 'til 'his shirt was divested and he was bare-chested'. Fortunately for him, this unburdening of his repressions, which could be seen as a breakdown, is greeted with cheers, and he runs happily off over the park grass. Henry Dupont is not so fortunate. This purveyor of fruit and veg in the markets of Marseilles (the inevitable accordion accompanies the song, of course) is taken away by 'six Israelis and a Turk', his head full of dark visions which perhaps stem from the war (was he indeed a collaborator?) There is also 'A Concise History of Harry Shoes', the eponymous character of which is generally agreed by everyone to be 'the man with very poor taste', the details of which are delineated in the song before his demise is noted. Of this, nobody has anything to say, at which points Booth sings (and Palin writes) 'I think that's very poor taste'. The sense of melancholia and disappointment at life's failure to match the vague dreams which youth promises are summed up in 'After the War', when 'things were supposed to be different', but in actuality swiftly revert to ennervating routines (days on the allotment and cycling trips to Worthing - Jones and Palin are great at capturing the telling detail). The dream of moving from the flat above the bakery to a house in Kew (of post-war upward mobility, in other words) merely leads to boredom. There is even a flirtation with suicide, a la Brief Encounter, in the marvellously titled 'The Last Time I Saw You Was Tomorrow', although, as with many of the songs, it turns out that we are seeing the world through the eyes of an incurable dreamer for whom the barriers between reality and fantasy frequently collapse.

In case I'm making this all sound rather depressing, I should emphasise that this is far from the case. One look at the pictures on Booth's entertaining website show that he is clearly a man with a great sense of fun. I suppose a good analogy would be with The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby (or Yesterday) whose lyrical content is bittersweet but is made exhilarating by its melodic power. A lot of the music here is very upbeat, as well. The songs pull off that tricky balance of being happy and sad at the same time. There is a strong absurdist undercurrent, which also manages to juggle the delightfully silly and the reflective. This is best heard in the song 'Mole', a slightly aggressive address to a member of the titular tunneler set to a particularly groovy piano line. The lyrics consist of an interrogation over whether he misses various random aspects of human life which pass him by down in his burrow: football on Saturday, washing the car, catching the early train, cocktail parties, waiting in queues. It is another litany of the everyday which leaves us thinking he's probably happier off down underground, all things considered. The final track on the LP, 'Sad Jolly Song', sums up the ethos of the record, a nonsense song featuring maidens and sycoraxes with a chorus which I find myself humming (possibly even singing in more absent-minded moments) as I cycle about town. It even allows the final words to have a very Yorkshire flavour (Palin and Booth allowing their roots to show). So, altogether now: 'Hey do, hey dee, life is full of misery/Hey do, hey dum, isn't it just, by gum'.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Eleven

The Seventh Victim - Part Three

A conspiracy of silence.

The following morning the headlines of murder are being shouted by paper sellers as Mary goes to meet Gregory in a restaurant. The old woman who has being hawking the headlines in a coarsely bellowing voice says thank you to a purchaser in a gentle and refined tone; a hint of the mysterious hidden histories lying behind every passing stranger on the streets. Gregory reads the paper and tells Mary that the murder is of another person. Death is common currency here, the daily news. Mary confesses her part in August’s death, demonstrating that she does not shy away from unpalatable self-knowledge. ‘He was a kind little man in his way…and I made him go down that hall into the darkness’. And yet her feelings of guilt don’t douse her flash of fierce independence when Gregory tells her to drink her milk, which earns him an admonitory ‘I don’t like to be ordered to do anything. However, he does take up his offer of a job working at a local kindergarten. This seems very similar to the position which she had been offered back at the school, and leads us to draw the parallel between Gregory and the head Mrs Lowood (and thereby also their relationships with Jacqueline and Miss Gilchrist respectively). Mary is ushered back to the world of innocence from which she has already taken several decisive steps.

In the waiting room of Gregory’s office, we encounter Dr Louis Judd, a psychiatrist who prefers writing about mental illness and leaving the untidy business of curing it to others. To the secretary’s inquiries on behalf of her alcoholic father, he replies ‘dipsomania is rather sordid’, with evident distaste. Could this be the same Dr Judd we have already met in Cat People. He is certainly played in the same manner by the same actor (Tom Conway) and has the same louche, vaguely decadent mien. Evidently the events here would have to be taking place in a an earlier time period than Cat People, given the fatal conclusion to the case which he took on in that film. Anyway, he and Gregory are acquainted through the agency of Jacqueline, who is Judd’s patient and is seemingly also under her power. Judd here is presented almost as if he is a modern incarnation of a magus, whose psychiatric practices have cast some kind of mesmeric spell over Jacqueline and allowed him to bend her to his will in ways which we are left to imagine. Judd makes no bones about the material nature of their relationship. ‘Her care imposes a financial burden upon me’, he states bluntly, just as Mary’s care at school was contingent upon the maintenance of fees coming from Jacqueline. His ensuing statement that there is ‘a grave danger of Jacqueline losing her sanity’ (a prognosis which he also imposed on Irena in Cat People) appears bereft of professional integrity given that he is clearly attempting to extort money from Gregory. His insistence that ‘she can only take cash’ only serves to further the sense of a shady backstreet deal, a petty protection racket , as does the fact that he is finally seen off with whatever ready money Gregory happens to have about his person. This is indeed ‘rather sordid’ as Judd earlier put it; human relationships as cash transactions, measured out in handfuls of bills snatched out of a pocket wallet.

From this scene, we cut immediately to the kindergarten, from the world of cynically exploitative ‘experience’ to the innocent (?) world of the playground. But Dr Judd invades this innocent (kinder) garden in his serpentine fashion, announcing out of the blue ‘I’ve come to take you to your sister’. The place he takes her seems to be some kind of home, presumably a low-key mental hospital. The mental hospital or asylum is a destination with which Lewton’s female characters are frequently threatened or to which they are consigned with little hope of release. Judd sardonically declares that ‘it’s amid marble splendours such as these that Jacqueline dwells’. This paints the home as a mausoleum in which she is enduring a living death under Dr Judd’s ‘care’. There is a split staircase ascending to the first floor and Judd declares, knowingly, ‘I prefer the left, the sinister side’. Once more, the stairway is presented as a transitional space, here promising the unveiling of the mystery of Jacqueline’s whereabouts and the reason for her disappearance and erratic behaviour. It also provides a metaphor for the choices we make in life. Judd’s choice of the left-hand path is made more out of the jaded world-weariness of ennui than through any real dedication to wickedness, but it is a choice which leads to real consequences for others which extend beyond his dilettante’s desire for new sensations. Before they go up the stairs, one of his patients pushes a pram out. This again reminds of the contrast between the ‘contrary states’ (as Blake put it) of innocence and experience. The latter lies above.

Upstairs, a vacuum cleaner and a brush lean against the banisters, symbols of an attempt to clean away the past maybe. The brush falls as if knocked over by an invisible presence. They go into a locked room which Judd once more locks behind him. We are reminded of the similar room which Mary and the Romari’s broke open earlier to reveal Jacqueline’s preparations for death. But Jacqueline is not here, her recent presence marked by a spectral curl of cigarette smoke. She has become like a living ghost, haunting this disturbed dream house. ‘I don’t know why she left – she knows she shouldn’t have’ Judd says, his poise thrown. He is controlling Jacqueline in a way which Mary firmly resisted when Gregory displayed the merest hint of such an attitude. Even though we have yet to see her, we are already gaining an impression that Mary has many nascent qualities which are fully manifested in Jacqueline. Mary picks up Jacqueline’s monogrammed brush. Such personal objects are freighted with the melancholy weight of the departed. They can become imbued with associative power until they become almost unbearable to look upon; whereas to others it’s just a hairbrush. Dr Judd is suddenly fearful to the extent that he displays genuine emotion and self-doubt. ‘She’s left me to meet them alone’, he frets, ‘I can’t’. He flees and Mary stubbs out Jacqueline’s cigarette. We have seen how the extinguishing of a cigarette can stand for the dying out the fires of life in ‘The Leopard Man’. Here it seems to represent Mary giving up hope of ever seeing her sister again. She opens the door to leave and Jacqueline is standing on the other side. And then she immediately closes the door and is gone. Mary’s attempts to run after her are in vain.

This sudden appearance and just as sudden disappearance of a character whose almost mythological status has been slowly built up through a patchwork of anecdote anticipates the way in which Orson Welles’ Harry Lime is introduced in The Third Man several years later. All we are left with is a fleeting impression of a tired and haunted face, a finger to the lips including Mary in a conspiracy of silence. When she returns to the room once more, Mary notices in the mirror the smoke of a cigarette rising from behind the chair. This is a cause for fear, of course, but may also indicate the re-ignition of her hopes. The visual pun of smoke and mirrors, whether intended or not, also leads us to reflect on Jacqueline’s sudden emergence from her phantom existence as the ghost of other people’s memories, and the possibility that her dramatic entrance was not without its element of theatrical contrivance. The man in the chair is Paul Radeau, the large man who had menaced August and who is also a PI. He has lost none of his charmless, bullying aggression and his manner is the opposite (this is a film in which many characters seem to have their opposites) of the small, hesitant kindnesses of Irving August, upon whom he had so casually asserted his superior power and indirect influence. This unpleasant man has been hired by Gregory Ward, whom he shockingly reveals to be married to Jacqueline. The hints of a connection to a sinister organisation (of which Mary is unaware) which had immediately led August to back off the case (‘okay, Mr Radeau. It’s forgot’) cast Gregory in a very different light from that of the affectionate protector. This voice of authority and professional certitude is thoroughly corrupt.

Back at the café, Jason sits at his customary table at the feet of Dante who looms over him on the large wall mural. He reads while he eats, just as when we first saw him he was reading as he walked. Poetry and literature are for him the food he eats and the air he breathes. He demands more wine in a playfully demanding tone and it is obvious that this he is at home here and that he is indulged like a favourite son. His call for more wine also suggests that his approach to poetry is more Dionysian than Apollonian, the poetry of night and wild mystery rather than the bright sun of daylight rationalism and order. He woos Mrs Romari with flowery phrases (‘why do you bring me wine when you yourself are so intoxicating’) but his charms are on the surface and playful, with a hint of self-mockery. Meanwhile and in contrast to this scene Gregory is attempting to explain himself to Mary, but his words are evasive and unconvincing. Mary plays him off against Jason with mock innocent coquetry, telling him how he has complimented her. She doesn’t accept his elisions of the truth, reasonably pointing out that ‘you could have told me any time you were Jacqueline’s husband’. There is a sense that she fully sees through Gregory’s dubious charms but is stringing him along because she find him a useful echo location object against which to measure the effect which she has on others. He helps her to discover the lineaments of her own desires without at any time proving a likely figure to fulfil them.

Gregory is about to say that he wants to find Jacqueline in order to ‘settle things’ when Jason comes over. This is an ambiguous phrase which implies divorce but also has a sinister sense of finality about it. It is not even clear whether this ‘settlement’ is to be conducted with Jacqueline at all. We have already seen how Gregory and Judd have cut deals over her in his office. Jason’s arrival leaves the matter hanging unresolved in the air. He has been sent over by Mrs Romari to make Mary laugh after she has rhetorically asked why everyone can’t be happy like them, failing to notice the sadness and self-mockery underlying Jason’s clowning. His role here is the poet as jester, but it is a role which he refuses to play. Instead he acts the gallant, telling Mary with instant resolve ‘I’m going to find your sister’. Just as Mary’s quest is also a means of self-discovery, this will be a way for him to regain his sense of self-worth.

Controlling the cards.

Jason arrives with Mary and Gregory at a party at which Dr Judd is performing tricks for their host Natalia Cortez, who shuffles the cards with her one arm. ‘This is a trick of telepathy, not card manipulation’ he declares, displaying an interest in the occult (unless he is playing them along) which his arch-rationalist equivalent in Cat People would have roundly dismissed. It soon becomes evident that Jason too knows Judd, and that a former acquaintance of his (a ‘nice girl’ - like Mary) had disappeared from view once she’d entered his orbit. Maybe this was his Beatrice, Dante’s lost love who was the muse for The Divine Comedy. Jason is certainly lost on life’s path much as Dante was at the start of the Divine Comedy. In the Dorothy L.Sayers Penguin translation from 1950 the opening lines read thus: ‘Midway this way of life we’re bound upon/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.’ They are lines which could apply to many of the characters in the film. Judd is only too happy to point Jason’s lack of direction out to him. ‘I know you haven’t written for ten years’ he tells him. ‘I’d gave given anything to have written that book. You had all my admiration and respect…once’. When a woman at the party hears that they are looking for Jacqueline, she talks of her having gone ‘out of circulation’. This is since she has come under Judd’s care, and there is evidently a danger that, as with Jason’s friend, this could become a permanent condition.

Jason talks to Mary in a quiet corner, with Chopin music playing in the background, and sells himself to her, emphasising his knowledge, which has brought them here. He gains her approval and confesses to her his feelings of failure. The characters in The Seventh Victim are a cross section of failures. Jason with his fading literary ambitions, Gregory with his failed marriage and Dr Judd with his jaded contempt for his own professional practice. But only Jason faces up to his failure and finds in the quest for Jacqueline a chance to rediscover a sense of purpose and meaning in his life.

He goes to the library and uses his charms on the librarian to trace the books with Mrs Redi and Dr Judd have taken out. Throughout the film, people make conscious use of their charms to manipulate others. It is no accident that one of the central locales is a beauty parlour and perfume manufactory. It is natural that the poet turned detective should start his search in territory with which he is familiar, determining people’s character and connections through the books which they read. In this case, these are ‘black books’ from the restricted shelves.

Back at the restaurant, Jason waves and says hello to Mimi on his way up to see Mary. As a poet, he is on nodding terms with death. Mimi appears as a punctuating figure between scenes in much the same way as the statue of St Sebastian in I Walked With A Zombie or the fountain in The Leopard Man. She acts as a memento mori, a reminder of life’s transience. Jason shares his discoveries with Mary. Mrs Redi and Dr Judd have read the same books, as if there is some implicit link between psychiatry and the beauty industry (in fact, of course, Dr Judd has been following the same investigative path as Jason). Jason shows her the symbol of the Palladists, a historical society of devil-worshippers, which Mrs Redi had traced. It is ‘a parallelogram with a split triangle at its very centre’. This is the logo of the La Sagesse beauty parlour, the product brand. These devil worshippers don’t have the traditional cabalistic symbols, pentagrams or moons. Theirs is an abstract design, old but also moderne, fitting in with the design trends of the age. This is Satanism in corporate clothing, the devil as Mammon. The logo works as a magical sigil through the creation of consumer desire, the manipulation and maintenance of discontent and unfulfilled need. This capitalist demonology serves the ends of profit above all else, and the creation of a secret cabal ensures that the resulting accumulation of wealth and power is carefully corralled amongst a select few.

Jason has difficulty making Mary take this seriously, partly because they feel at ease with each other and he makes her laugh. In a film in which happiness is a rare thing, any smile or laugh becomes emphatic and underlined. Jason sends Mary off to find out about Mrs Redi, treating her as an equal in a way that is very different from the paternalistic treatment she gets from Gregory. She goes to quiz her friend Frances at the beauty parlour, a look of calculation in the mirror making it plain that she is consciously using her surface innocence in a calculating fashion. Mary speculates about Mrs Redi, suggesting that ‘it’s always seemed to me that she was sort of lonely and unhappy’, to which Frances replies ‘well, Mary, I guess most people are’. The theme of loneliness in the city is brought up again, and Mrs Redi is seen in a human light for the first time. There is a suggestion that in turning to the Palladists, Mrs Redi is trying to find a way out of her own isolation and unhappiness, seeking a new family. But this family seeks to perpetuate the atomisation which is inherent in the view of the world which they promulgate. Frances says ‘in the old days this would have been on the house’, but new values prevail and the niceties of human kindness are irrelevant in the pursuit of profit. Frances identifies the logo which Mary shows her (and with which Mary had herself been unwittingly etched during her fateful night visit) as being the new trademark (or logo as we would now term it). She is berated by Mrs Redi for this, who says ‘you fool. Why, that symbol is us…she was asking about us’. Thus the link between the society of devil worshippers and the world of corporate capitalism is explicitly articulated. They are the brand.

Occult Brand

The City Quiet As Death


'The City Quiet As Death' is a short story I came across by a favourite author of mine, Michael Bishop. In fact, it is co-written by Steven Utley, a name I'm only vaguely aware of. I'm glad to discover he's still writing, in a way, since it's a while since I've come across anything new by him. This may be as much due to the publishing industry here, which doesn't favour American science fiction writers and often seems to put more effort into endless reprints of perennial 'classics'. Bishops novels such as Ancient of Days, Philip K Dick Is Dead, Alas (aka the more prosaically titled 'The Secret Ascension' in its American edition) and Brittle Innings (a baseball fantasia vaguely reminiscent of the Michael Chabon novel Summerlands which fortunately, like that book, requires little enthusiasm for the game in order to enjoy it) have always shown a fascination with religion and the entangling of theological and scientific debates about the nature of the universe and of what it is to be human. This story also explores those themes, as well as being steeped in literary references. It is difficult to place generically, its Caribbean setting giving it the air of magic realism, speculations on the wilder shore of theoretical physics dipping a toe into science fiction, and the air of cosmic horror definitely giving a tip of the hat to HP Lovecraft. The presence of a giant squid may even be a cheeky riposte to Margaret Atwood's dismissive denial that any of her writing was SF, since that was the kind of stuff which featured talking versions of the aforementioned cephalopod. Inserting such an impossible creature in an immaculate facsimile of a respectable 'magic realist' story sends a gently blown raspberry in her general direction, in the unlikely event that she should be listening.

The central character, Don Horacio Gorrion, bears a strong resemblance to Roderick Usher, transferred to warmer climes, so his house is less liable to subsidence. He even has a beloved sister who has died, like Usher's Madeline, plunging him into existential despair. The mannered and overly articulated nature of the prose, which lacks a sense of any vernacular accent, makes it seem even more like a translation of a latin American magical realist story, or one of Jorges Luis Borges fables, an effect that was perhaps intentionally crafted. The literary allusions also include a list of the books in Don Horacio's library, which tend towards the existential and ontologically curious writers. Quotes are also proffered from Keats and George Eliot, which suggest the metaphysical necessity of limits to human perception, the breaking of which would allow a flooding in of sensory information which would result in madness. We should be grateful for what we don't know, it is suggested in classic Lovecraftian fashion. Finally, the setting suggests detail absorbed during a holiday, unless the town is an imaginative construct of an MC Escher like nature. You can imagine Bishop and/or Utley looking down on the precipitously plummeting streets and thinking, 'wow, what if someone where to...' But I mustn't spoil it. Read it here and enjoy.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Ten

The Seventh Victim - Part Two


Downstairs we hear the hectoring voice of a policeman, who is initially offscreen. His is the voice of official reason and rational authority. Meanwhile, the camera focuses on the poet, Jason Hoag, as he wanders across the café. The policeman is curtly dismissive of his attempts to express an interest, telling him to stick to the poetry. The implication is plain; poetry is strictly for the birds and has no place in the real world the policeman inhabits on a daily basis. He is firmly on the philistine side of the perennial ‘what use is art’ debate. Jason counters with a mildly stated defence of his calling, claiming that being a poet ‘in a way…makes everything my business, doesn’t it?’ It is a statement which underlines the centrality of poetry to the film, which in itself works in a poetic fashion, with its visual rhymes, imagistic suggestiveness and thematic resonance which echoes beyond the surface levels of story. Jason’s advice to Mary is pitched at a more metaphysical level than the pragmatic procedural prompting coming from the policeman. He tells her to ‘look into your heart. Do you really want to find your sister?’ He is introducing the idea of a dangerous knowledge. A knowledge which reveals aspects of the world which will change the seeker irrevocably. It is also a knowledge which reveals or manifests parts of the soul which had previously been occluded or had lain dormant. This revelation of self-knowledge is perhaps the most dangerous of all, taking us right back to the Christian Pentateuch foundation myth of Eden and the forbidden fruit, and is one with which Jason himself is perhaps well acquainted. He is suggesting to Mary that her quest is a metaphysical as much as an actual one, with attendant dangers of a less tangible nature. William Blake’s balance between Innocence and Experience, between the world perceived openly and intuitively or filtered through the control grids of institutional authority, is at stake. He is saying ‘are you really ready for this?’ But unlike the other characters whom she will meet and who will offer her help in her quest (both of whom are from the professional classes and have a cynical attitude towards the arts) he is not seeking to guide her but merely asking her to put the question to herself.

The next scene takes place in the missing persons bureau and the camera glides across the enquiry desk, subdivided into separated booths by flimsy screens. This is a collage of the lost and lonely, with snippets of dialogue (‘she was only 16’, ‘he went out without his hat or his coat’) giving brief descriptions of those beloved of some but destined to sink into the indifferent humus of the city. The officer’s businesslike ‘any identifying marks or characteristics’ makes it clear that this is a matter of routine for him, and that we are hearing of only a tiny sample of the city’s errant souls. For him, these are all just words filling the blanks on the forms which he has to fill. Their actuality as living (or maybe not) beings is secondary to bureaucratic requirements. Having found shelter (and the shadow of death) at the Dante restaurant, Mary is now beginning her journey into the underworld, the night lands, and this is the gateway. It is a journey which echoes the descents into the underworld of Dante and Orpheus (and even of Christ in apocryphal tales of the ‘harrowing of hell’, drawing on folk legend). She meets a potential guide to this realm in Irving August, a private investigator who opportunistically stations himself at this gateway and who offers her his services. He is a small man (smaller than Mary) but can offer her local knowledge, in both a physical sense (Manhattan is his lifelong manor) and metaphysical in his acquaintance with the ways of the underworld. As with mythical gatekeepers and guides throughout time, he needs payment. With chilly presentiment he tells her ‘it ain’t pleasant, the morgue’. Although his services are rebuffed at this stage, August is still warned off by a physically much larger man. The bullying nature of this exchange is clearly indicated both by this towering use of the menace granted by greater size and by the exertion of implied authority (August immediately knows who this person is and who he represents). But his identification of Jacqueline as the object of Mary’s quest piques August’s interest. Jacqueline is once more seen to be a well known (notorious?) denizen of the world which August knows so well. Once more, her cumulative mystery is enhanced.


The next scene finds us outside the morgue, a Dickensian scene of night fog and tail-coated funeral directors. The sign above the door which reads ‘he calleth all his children by their name’ is a further poeticization of death, as well as suggesting a personal relationship (as with the ‘princess’ and Orphee in Cocteau’s film). The men piling coffins outside almost evoke a feeling of a city under the scourge of the plague and suggest that death is working overtime. Mary exits from the morgue door and pulls her coat around her, warding of the chill of the night air or of the spirit.

From here she moves on to the lawyer whose name she has been given at the morgue, Gregory Ward. Fainting in his office, she immediately puts herself in the position of the damsel in distress and he becomes the confident face of adult authority, sitting behind the desk of an office with his name on the door. He is the first to offer answers to some of the mysteries lying behind Jacqueline’s disappearance, but there is a sense that, in their confident certainty, there is something glib and over-defined in his analyses of her character. This is Jacqueline as he sees her (and he immediately confesses that he loves her) but it is not necessarily any more real than the Jacqueline as princess or ‘bellissima Madonna’ portrayed by the Romaris. His attempts to articulate Jacqueline’s appeal are vague and unspecific; despite asserting that ‘there’s something exciting and unforgettable’ about her, he can only add that it’s ‘something you never quite get hold of’. She remains an evanescent phantom, with no-one seeming to be able to describe in terms of a real, living person. She is an essence as intoxicatingly intangible as the fragrances created at the perfumery she used to own.

Gregory goes on to explain the mystery of the noose, again reducing its complex symbolism to a singular rationalised explanation which says more about his reductive view of the world than it explains Jacqueline’s motivations. He talks about her feeling that life ‘wasn’t worth living unless you could end it’ and that the ‘room made her happy’. But having neatly summed up her tangled psyche, he then goes on to dismiss it in an offhand manner; ‘she lived in a world of her own fancy’ and ‘I’m afraid she didn’t know what the truth was’. The latter statement clearly implies that Gregory believes that he does. He also talks of her in the past tense, as if he either thinks her dead or has dismissed her from his life. The disparaging view of a woman’s ‘fancies’ and the self-appointed authoritativeness of those who define (or diagnose) them is reminiscent of the way Irena and Jessica are treated in Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. Jacqueline also resembles Jessica in the way in which she is absent even though everpresent (through people’s reminiscences in this case), dead whilst still alive. Mary objects to Gregory calling her a ‘youngster’ but offers no objection to being taken to lunch, an experience which she evidently enjoys and consequently expresses guilt over, as if it is not right for her to feel pleasure. This is a further indication that the search for Jacqueline is also a journey of self-discovery. As she finds that she has an effect on people and even learns how she might use that to her own ends, there is a sense that the object of her quest grows less important, the lessons learned in the process becoming an end in themselves. And so Jacqueline grows evermore indistinct, a decaying echo of memory.

Back in the lobby of the apartment we are reacquainted with Irving August, who is again waiting at one of these ‘gateway’ points between the inner and outer worlds, between the safely lit interior of the domestic sanctuary and the night lands outside. He tells her that Jacqueline had deeded the La Sagesse buseness to Mrs Redi as a gift. There is a flash of professional pride as he tells her how he used a phony health inspector’s badge to get in. The fact that he has taken her case on without pay shows that for him this is something he does for more than just the money. It is a calling. He is an unlikely knight in shining armour (this image of the PI as a dishevelled descendant of the figure of Arthurian romance is one explored by Raymond Chandler through the character of Philip Marlowe and explicitly referred to in the opening of The Big Sleep). His is a small-time chivalry. When he tells Mary of a locked room at the La Sagesse works and she says with reflexive resolve ‘we could go there now’ he replies, with fearful hesitancy, ‘I don’t know if I want to go with you or not’. But he goes. His is the bravery of the coward. He is not blessed with the fearlessness of the hero but he confronts danger nonetheless.


The two investigators, now operating outside the law, break into the factory at night and find their way to the deeply shadowed corridor with the square of light at the end indicating that the locked room is inhabited. The heavy thuds of a pendulum mark out time in an ominous fashion and seem to be an externalised amplification of the tense beating of the intruders’ hearts. Mary sets of into the darkness but hesitates, afraid to go on. The darkness here is very dark, almost like a solid river of stygian blackness which must be crossed. And here Mary applies the little knowledge she has gained in the world so far. She puts on a voice of little girl innocence and says ‘you could go on, Mr August. It’s only a little way Mr August…you could go and open the door’. At he hesitantly makes his way forward, we see his progress from her point of view and notice that she is standing in such a way that the shadow of the La Sagesse logo etched into the circular window is cast onto her back. Her manipulative behaviour has somehow drawn her into the secret confederacy for which it acts as symbol and badge of membership. Irving is swallowed up in the darkness and Mary backs away a few steps, the logo disappearing. She hears the nightwatchman approaching and moves forward to warn Irving, who staggers out of the darkness and executes a stiff and strangely dignified walk along the corridor, hands clutching the knife which protrudes from his belly. Mary has sent him to his death.


Mary flees from the scene and now literally descends into the underworld of the New York subway. The night train is deserted and lonely, the couple sitting opposite and chatting only serving to emphasise her solitude. As the inspector lets her know, she’s been to the end of the line and back, lost in her own thoughts and no doubt reflecting on the enormity of what she has done and what it has revealed about her self. In deliberately using her appearance of youthful innocence to inveigle a man who had freely offered his help into entering the darkness which he feared, that very innocence has become tarnished. She has taken a step towards Jacqueline’s world of experience. As the train returns to 14th Street, where she had first boarded the train having fled La Sagesse, two drunks get on carrying their incapacitated friend. His hat slips and she sees that it is August’s body. She moves into the next carriage but they point her out, suddenly very sober. Mary goes around the few people in the carriage, trying to alert them to what she has seen, but no-one is interested. In the city, you are alone in the midst of the anonymous millions of the indifferent and uncaring.

Monday, 15 June 2009

This Pyschodrama Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us

This is one of those announcements which leaves you blinking rapidly and doing an exaggerated James Finlayson double-take to make sure that the words which you've just read aren't some projection from a part of your brain where strange hybrids are created in a cauldron of dream logic, emerging like an exhibit in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, clearly pinned together from disparate and wildly mismatched components yet at the same time striking subconscious chords, as if it has already been half-glanced in a continuum set at a slight angle from the quotidian reality of the here and now. But no, when I squinted at them again through quizzically narrowed eyes, the letters hadn't rearranged themselves into something more sensible. Here they are, from Uncut magazine:

"Sparks are writing and producing an original radio musical for Swedish radio, which will be broadcast in August.

Entitled “The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman” Sparks' Ron and Russell Mael have written the musical fantasy in Swedish, although an English version will be released after.

Speaking about the Sveriges Radio commision, Ron Mael says: “As Americans we have almost abandoned radio drama and it was truly exhilarating for us to work in a medium where the imagination of the listener is so integral a part of the work. Aside from our love of Bergman, we have a love of Orson Welles and his use of the medium of radio was something that inspired us in this work.”

Russell and Ron also see the radio musical easily transferable to the stage and they hope to stage a theatre show based on the play.

Russel Mael explains: “Although The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman was commissioned as a radio musical, we always saw it in cinematic terms. We hope that the listeners will be able, in their own minds, to see the same movie that we wrote on hearing it on the radio and that at some point an actual film can be made of this piece. We would also like to present The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman as a theatre piece and perhaps this will be the next stage show for Sparks.” "


Furthermore (from the Allsparks website):

"Sparks' Ron and Russell Mael have been commissioned by the Swedish National Public radio SR to write and produce an original radio musical. Sparks creation, "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman," is a musical fantasy based on the internationally acclaimed film director Ingmar Bergman.

Though his films' themes have traditionally centered on matters of death,faith,God's existence, and the struggle to find love and meaning in our lives, Bergman is confronted in the musical by the lure of a mythological Hollywood seemingly at odds with all he stands for---a Hollywood that tempts him and ultimately tries to control him. What starts as an exploration by Bergman of the possible mutual benefits of his working in Hollywood turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare, a nightmare ended with the aid of a most unlikely savior.

The radio musical will be broadcast in August 2009. An album with both the original Swedish/English version and an all English version will be released to coincide with the airing. Sparks are planning to present the musical in a live format as well hoping to see the project be made in to a motion picture."

Well I never saw that one coming. An apposite collaboration for this blog, too, dovetailing with the title (which could now be imagined as a film lobby poster designed in the gaudy primary colours and fat lettering of seventies graphic styles) and the delight in unusual collisions and oddball juxtapositions(as well as this writer's Bergman fixation). I can't wait.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Americana


The sad news of David Carradine’s death led me to thinking about the film Americana, which he directed, starred in and sung the theme song for. It’s release date of 1983 belies its origins as a post 60s come down film reflecting the disillusionment of the Nixon era and the implosion of the counter culture. It was clearly a labour of love for Carradine, who started shooting it in 1973 and toiled for years in the cutting room, raising funds from his own work in tv and other films. It’s minimal budget is sometimes reflected in the editing and camerawork, which are a little rough around the edges. But the film has its own languorous rhythm which evokes the feeling of an endless summer, and a mythic sense of place which gives the film the universal state of the nation resonance suggested by the title. Carradine’s performance is monosyllabic and inexpressive in the manner of Clint Eastwood or Peter Fonda. It is the kind of performance which was prevalent at the time, in which saying and doing the absolute minimum was supposed to indicate profundity and contemplative depth. Actually, it often merely seemed to betoken an inability to communicate in an articulate manner. But Carradine’s performance does suggest a character ill at ease in the world, who forms relationships reluctantly and is happiest when alone.

The plot is a modern variant on the classic Western formula which was given mutant form in the 60s by Sergio Leone and his compatriots. A mysterious stranger drifts into a sleepy small town which is seemingly disconnected from the main currents of the world and happy to be so. The townsfolk show the traditional wariness of verging on outright hostility towards outsiders, particularly when they are as taciturn and unconcerned with everyday pleasantries as Carradine’s unnamed character. Carradine comes across the wreck of an old wooden carousel lying neglected in the middle of an unkempt meadow at the centre of town and becomes obsessed with restoring it to working order. The film follows his slow progress across a long hot summer, during which he sleeps out in the meadow and works on the carousel in the evening, paying his way and buying the necessary materials through working at the local garage with the initially friendly Mike. Carradine seems to follow pacifist ideals as he refuses to rise to the provocations of the local jocks and is appalled by the spectacle of the secret cock fight which Mike takes him to. His moral disgust at this world of macho violence turns Mike and most of the town against him and his project. He is beaten and his work on the carousel vandalised.

This is all witnessed by a strange girl who watches him from a distance, running away when he approaches and calls to her. This is Barbara Hershey, who generally appears and skipping and suddenly freezing mid-step like a startled faun against a daze of sunlight on lens. She is the personification of the hippy naïf, the girlish child of nature beloved of the era, and indeed of Carradine himself. He and Hershey, who changed her name to Seagull for a brief period, had a child together which they named Free, later Tom. Innocent and naive times. She is an outsider like him and lives on a farm at the edge of town, although little agricultural work seems to be done there. She is certainly not a part of the town’s social network and seems bereft of the power of speech for much of the film. The noissome jocks who torment Carradine have sex with her down by the river in a manner which Carradine, who is about to intervene, thinks is rape but proves to be otherwise. Her passivity is indicative of the secondary role women were largely granted in the 60s counterculture (and in the Beat culture which preceded it) ; far from the progressive alternative to ‘straight’ society which they purported to represent. They were perhaps less distant from their parents’ generation than they liked to imagine. Nevertheless, it is with her that Carradine’s character evidently feels an affinity and she provides a naively innocent perspective which counters the insular suspicion and distrust of the townspeople. It perhaps also symbolises a lost innocence, with the scene by the river being an Edenic echo of a time before the knowledge of shame. Hershey’s character is also an isolated aspect of the feminine as opposed to the aggressively male front which the town presents. She is the one who seems to intuitively understand the purpose behind his obsession which Carradine’s character is perhaps unable to articulate, for himself or for others. It is an initially spontaneous and then determinedly sustained act of creativity which maybe prompts her to reflect on the aimless drift of her life.

The ending of the film sees Carradine, now a pariah in the town, forced to take part in a dog fight by Mike in order to win the final part he needs for the completion of the carousel. Seemingly defeated, he retreats from the town, but this is only to return briefly to his former life and pick up some back pay he is owed. It is now we learn that he was a much awarded officer in Viet Nam who went AWOL and is a cause of concern to his former confederates. This is a puzzling turn of events. Does his time in the town have some metaphorical link with Viet Nam? Or is his embrace of pacifism a rejection of his former life and the vision of America which it embodied? The depiction of the military environment to which he briefly returns doesn’t seem to be portrayed from a critical perspective or with any irony. The film seems slightly confused on this point and this may indeed be a scene which was filmed later, possibly after the war was over and the benefit of a degree of hindsight had cooled the immediacy of the rage which burned in the 60s and early 70s. On his return, Carradine does reluctantly take up the challenge and fights an attack dog, which he kills with a fairly sickening crunch on the soundtrack. Is this an allusion to the figurative dogs of war, perhaps. He then carries the dog’s body to the carousel, which, with the final cog attached, is finally set spinning gently around. The dog becomes the first passenger. It acts as a sacrifice which serves to show the townspeople the darkness in their own souls. Carradine, of course, walks off down the road he’d first arrived by as the people start to climb onto the wooden horses which spin around to the sound of the calliope.

So what does it all mean? The carousel is obviously symbolic. It represents the sense of community and belonging which had been lost in the mistrust, paranoia and polarization of the Nixon years. Carradine’s character has left the war behind and his slow and patient repair of the archaic mechanism represents a return to older ideals. He is piecing together his own psyche and also the fractured nation itself. In the face of aggression and reflexive suspicion, he rebuilds the platform on which everyone can ride.