Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sparks of the Summer Night

As mentioned in an earlier post, Swedish National Radio commissioned the group Sparks to produce a radio musical some time ago. Their only proviso was that it should touch on some Swedish theme. As Ron Mael wryly observed, they didn’t think they could get much material out of a musical about Volvos, so they settled instead on Ingmar Bergman as a subject. The result, entitled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, was broadcast on Stuart Maconie’s Radio 6 programme The Freak Zone a couple of weeks ago with an ensuing Q&A, and is soon to be released on CD. Maconie chose a few apposite Swedish themed tracks to start proceedings off, including, of course, Scott Walker’s magisterial The Seventh Seal, with its condensation of the film’s narrative. I guess an airing of John Cage’s 4’33 to represent The Silence would have made pretty poor radio in practice.

The musical was written in the usual Sparks manner, with the arched eyebrow of irony permanently raised. And yet they displayed an evident knowledge of both Bergman and film history in general which gave the themes, lightly addressed as they were, genuine depth. Asked what their own favourite musicals were, both came up with interesting answers which point to a diversity of influences reflected in the mixed sound palette of their skewed contribution to the genre. Russell plumped for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued enchantment of the humdrum and everyday; Ron, confessing a dislike of the more traditional type of Broadway musical, instead chose Richard Strauss’ late-romantic blast of extreme operatic expressionism, Elekra. Whilst nothing in The Seduction… matches the melancholy charm or insane intensity of those two examples, they provide twin poles of style and approach, opposite ends of a spectrum from which to draw musical and dramatic colour. Kurt Weill somewhere in the middle there too.

After a minor key, Satie-esque piano introduction, the musical begins with the announcement of Bergman’s ‘Best Poetic Humour’ award at Cannes for the warm-hearted comedy ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ over a pounding percussive synthesised beat. The assumption is that this is an atypical work, an interruption of Bergman’s more customary mode of tormented introspection. In fact, comedy was one of several styles he tried out in early films such as A Lesson in Love and the elevator sequence in Waiting Women, and he had a fine comedic actress in Eva Dahlbeck, who is perhaps the central character in Smiles of A Summer Night’s ensemble cast. The Summer Night has its shadows too, with attempted suicide, romantic torment and a humiliating duel inserted between the laughs and the lusty paean to life. Bergman never entirely eschewed comedy, either. Later films include the bawdy farce The Devil’s Eye, the gothic trickery of The Magician (with its eyeball in an inkwell) and the knockabout slapstick of All These Women (a film which I seem in the minority in finding very amusing). But the premise of the musical is that the success of this film alerts Hollywood to his potential as a prestige talent at a time when European cinema had a great deal of cachet, and that he is therefore tempted to stray from his true dark muse.

After the announcement of the awards, there is a sweeping Hollywood style overture, after which we hear a portentous, actorly voice pronounce ‘I am Ingmar Bergman. You may or may not know anything about me as a person’. A neat way of saying ‘don’t worry if you couldn’t care less about him, carry on listening anyway’. Bergman remains as a gloomily commentating voice throughout, never bursting into song. Essentially he narrates the events taking place inside his own head. This voice was originally spoken by Ron Mael in rehearsals, but he stepped down for the final recording. Asked in the Q&A session who they would like to see play themselves in a film version of their story, Ron settled on Max von Sydow, an appropriate choice in this context. I could see that working, although I’m not sure whether he could get the mad, staring eyes. Bergman wanders distractedly into a cinema in Stockholm to see the kind of big budget Hollywood epic for which he expresses the utmost contempt. When he walks out, he has been magically transported to the streets of Hollywood, where a limousine awaits to take him to a meeting with studio bigshots. The limousine and its driver are constantly on call, and its appearance provides a series of interludes between the main encounters and songs. Nothing is too much trouble for the obsequious driver, who offers Bergman the freedom of the city. The seduction has begun.

What might have been?
Russell sings the part of the studio boss in a song which presents the central theme of the uneasy marriage of art and commerce. It is a full-blown piece of off-kilter Sparks pop, with Russell’s voice swooping up to falsetto heights over a propulsive, driving base. ‘Mr Bergman, we’re not hicks’, he warns him, ‘but we must deliver kicks. Works of art can also work/ for some creepy mid-west jerk’. Throughout, there is a counterpoint voice translating into Swedish, giving the song the form of a bilingual call and response. Once Bergman has gone, he says he thinks that the meeting has gone well, rounding off with a chorus of ‘he’ll come round, they always do’, with the music shifting into a sinister suspense theme. Meanwhile, Bergman, evidently giving the matter serious consideration, wonders how he would do working in English. Of course, given the benefit of hindsight, we can answer (as Ron and Russell do in their Q&A) ‘not very well’, since the two films he did make in English (and the one in German for that matter) were two of his weakest; The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg (and the German film From the Life of Marionettes, the only one of his films for which I have a genuine dislike). We hear his strong rejection of some current Hollywood styles. The music is ‘an abomination’ and method acting ‘ridiculous’. However, when he reaches the Beverly Hills Hilton where he is being luxuriously accommodated, the seduction takes on a literal form as he is greeted by ‘The Hollywood Welcoming Committee’. As the young actress who knocks at his door admits, it is ‘a blatant attempt, I must say/by those who desire you to stay/knowing you’ve a weakness for the girls’.

In the aftermath of this night-time visit, which we assume was successful, Bergman is left desperately repeating ‘I’ve got to contact Sweden’, an attempt to reconnect with his reality. But the phone operator is obtuse (Sweden? How do you spell that?) and the lines of communication seem to be blocked. The following day finds the chirpy limousine driver taking him to the Commissary for a bite to eat. Here he is introduced to ‘directors of a foreign stripe/who’ve done quite well, see if they gripe’. The following ‘list’ song offers examples of émigré artists and the works which they made, all set to a jaunty shuffle in a Kurt Weill style, with hollow ‘ha-ha-ha’ laughter chorus. The potted history is served up thus: ‘Ah, Billy Wilder sure you say/he had to come, no other way./ But Sunset Boulevard as such/ I’d say we let him keep his touch’; ‘Jacques Tourneur, Cat People, great/ Simone Simon right here so grey(??)’; ‘And Murnau, genius just like you/Made Sunrise, top gear in my view’; ‘And Edgar Ulmer made Detour/A classic if you like film noir’. The Mael’s evidently know their cinema.

Bergman is on the verge of being convinced again. He tells himself ‘I must not be hasty’ and contemplates how he might apply his working methods within the system. But his imaginary encounter with a Hollywood star is a disaster. This role is sung in the manner of an operatic diva, a style which suits her attitude as she choruses ‘who do you think you are’. Bergman is then shadowed by a tour bus, filled with star spotters. ‘Give Ingmar a wave’, they are encouraged, and he is assailed with vapid cries of ‘Ingmar, you’re a genius’. This makes his mind up, and he declares ‘I must escape here and return home’. He is caught in a drama in which he experiences the themes of his own films, which he outlines as nightmares, hopelessness and the loss of identity. ‘This Hollywood is not a place, it’s a sensibility’, he realises, and it’s difficult to escape from an idea. Nevertheless, he tries to sneak out of his hotel room and leave by the back exit. But the concierge, who sounds like the limousine driver, is keeping an eye out for him, and the Studio powers are soon informed. ‘How could they be so small/To turn us down at all’ they sing. ‘He thinks he has a choice in all this’, they angrily chorus.

The music switches to a percussive synthesised chase score, with the voices of radio co-ordinated pursuit providing a pitiless, robotic commentary on the progress of what has become an all-out Bergman-hunt. ‘They’re after me’, he says with dawning awareness and astonishment. As police cars, dogs and helicopters join the chase, he realises ‘I am now an actor in a bad big-budget Hollywood action film’. The studio boss, meanwhile, weighs up whether they can afford to let Bergman go, holding his fate and even his life in the balance. His conclusions do not bode well for the fleeing Swede. He is completely lost and doesn’t know which direction to take. As he bitterly concedes, ‘it’s not as if I see a sign saying Sweden this way’.

Bergman's saviour
Finally, he finds himself at the shore of the ocean, an arrival marked by a short burst of what sounds like serialist music. Here, Bergman comes face to face with his despair and admits that ‘I need a saviour’. At this low point at which he admits to his helplessness, he lets loose his one, subdued song, the plaintive recitation ‘Oh my God, do you exist?’ And as if his prayers have indeed been answered, a figure approaches him along the beach. It is Greta Garbo, who tells him ‘I’m here to bring you home’. Greta asks him to be her date for a trip to the cinema, where they go to watch her in Gosta Berling’s Saga, the film which brought her to Hollywood, although it was it’s director Mauritz Stiller who MGM boss Louis B Mayer was in fact interested in. Bergman drifts off, and when he wakes, Greta is no longer there and the film is over. He leaves the cinema and discovers that he has been transported back to Stockholm. Greta has indeed been his saviour, a guardian angel using her own sad burden of experience to deliver him safely home.

The musical delivers its own Hollywood ending, with Bergman given a rapturously triumphant homecoming song with massed, everyone join-in call and response in true Gilbert and Sullivan style. Russell settles into his falsetto range to sing ‘and the seduction failed, as anyone can see/They mispronounced his name, but here at home he’s he’. The final, summary lines are a valedictory ‘But Bergman, well, he examines all/ But most of all himself, goodnight that’s all’, a farewell echoed by Bergman himself. It’s a denouement which displays an affection for the director and his work which is displayed throughout. There is much humour to be had from placing Bergman in a tongue-in-cheek escapade such as this, which bears the hallmarks of a 60s Richard Lester film at times. But Sparks manage to maintain the balance between outré quirkiness and an evident knowledge and respect for their subject. Such an apparently mismatched alliance avoids the over-reverential light in which Bergman can sometimes be cast, and allows us to have a little fun with his reputation (unearned, I’d say) for gloomy introspection, but not at his expense. The themes of artistic freedom and commercial imperatives are universal ones, after all, and could equally be applied to groups like Sparks, who continue to insistently plough their own furrow. In the Q&A session which followed the Freak Zone broadcast, Ron revealed that they’d had talks with Guy Maddin about a possible film adaptation. What a perfect collaboration that would be!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Children of the Crimson Sky


An interesting little interview with James Cargill from Broadcast here, in which he discusses some of the film and television which has influenced their recent collaboration with the Focus Group and the concerts which have developed from it. His references are more or less congruent with what we love here, which may go some way towards explaining why I like the band so much. I feel compelled to get picky and point out that The Curse of the Crimson Altar isn't a Hammer film, and that the tensions which exist between the central triad of characters in the Owl Service emerge because two of them are outsiders from a well-off family and one a local boy who is intelligent but feels trapped by his environment. Having seen The Curse of the Crimson Altar on the telly recently, I have to say it is a godawful film, lacking even the period charm and barmy brio of some of the 70s Hammer films such as Dracula AD72 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. It's sad seeing a frail Boris Karloff wasted on such lame fare, and why did they feel it necessary to paint Barbara Steele green? And give her absolutely no dialogue? Blood on Satan's Claw would seem to be a film from the era more in keeping with the spirit of Witch Cults of the Radio Age. As indeed Dracula AD72, with its supposedly hip characters pre-occupied with groovy parties and the tireless search for opportunities to freak out. In the spirit of the times, this inevitably leads to the staging of a black mass in an old church. This disastrous 'happening' is soundtracked by Broadcast favourites White Noise, the brief collaboration between Radiophonic Workshop favourites Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, and David Vorhaus. Extracts are played from the appositely titled track 'The Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell', and very effective it is too, with the Kensington gore duly flowing and the Count conjured back into his cape once more. But as Cargill says, it is the lingering fragments of childhood memories which these programmes evoke which have seeped into their music. I'm glad someone else was affected so much by Children of the Stones. And Sky looks well worth seeking out. It's another one released on the Network label, who seem intent on unearthing all the hidden artefacts of our 70s childhoods.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Garden of Axos

Neo-romantic landscape
It’s not often that you find Derek Jarman and Doctor Who mentioned in the same paragraph, but they are, after all, both quintessentially English. And both made use of the stark, primal beauty of the Dungeness landscape, with its shoreline juxtaposition of ramshackle fishermen’s huts, striped lighthouse and monumental nuclear power station. These human elements stand out like large film-set fronts against the stripped, horizontal landscape gradations of shingle, sea and sky. The Doctor Who in Dungeness episode is The Claws of Axos, from the Jon Pertwee era, from which we’ve been sampling quite a bit of late. The Jarman Dungeness film is The Garden, made shortly after he had made his own home away from home in Prospect Cottage, one of the old wooden boarded, pitch-coated black shacks wedged beyond the upper reach of the tide. It was here that he had begun to create a garden which reflected the nature of the surrounding environment and in which he bedded plants which were able to withstand the depredations of the scouring winds.

Emerging from the beached ship

The Claws of Axos makes the most of the location shooting, using several sites in the limited time available. There were freak weather conditions during the shooting schedule, which meant a freezing fog and snow on the ground. A line was swiftly inserted into the script, with a UNIT dispatch explaining the sudden wintry drifts in the beach’s hollows. Whilst this was obviously frustrating for the director who had been hoping for sweeping, atmospheric vistas, and no doubt made the whole process something of an ordeal for the mini-skirted Katy Manning as Jo, this does add to the feel of an isolated spit of land, cut off from immediate aid. It serves to render the surroundings eerily ominous and threatening. What we do get to see embedded in the shingle is a large tubular of irregular dimensions which looks organic, like the discarded carapace of some huge insect or the excreted tower of a marine gastropod which lurks below.

Bladderwrack spaceship
It is in fact a crashed spaceship of an organic nature which harbours the golden-eyed Axons. The placing of this oversized object on the terraced surface of the shingle is a great use of the area’s naturally surreal allure. It seems to invite such fantasias of flotsam and jetsam. Derek Jarman’s garden, with its mixture of stone, wood and iron, was assembled from such storm-blown detritus. His super-8 camera picks up many discarded objects, which somehow come to seem strange in this setting, dissociated from their original purpose as they are eroded and corroded by the elements. As Shakespeare almost puts it in The Tempest (of which Jarman made a distinctively personal film adaptation) they ‘suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange’, which ends up washed ashore. At the start of The Claws of Axos, we see a comical tramp of the type which was probably seeing the last of its days in the 70s picking through more junk in the sheltered hollows behind the shoreline. This is clearly a place where stuff accumulates from both directions, drifting up from sea and civilisation.

An Axon blows a fuse
The statuesque Axons, with their statuesque Grecian looks, have their more monstrous counterparts which, together with the ship itself, form part of an interlinked organism, a gestalt being. These manifestations perform the functions which require an element of lumbering threat. They resemble overgrown and malformed tubers which have pulled themselves up from the soil, like some self-extracting mandrake root. They are like some exotic plant which Jarman has planted in his garden which has been mutated by a radioactive leak from the local power plant and has run amok, 50s monster movie style. Indeed, it the nuclear power plant, the next location shooting site, which is the focus of their invasion. This allows for some excellent scenes of these shambling organic forms causing chaos amongst the inhuman concrete geometries of the architecture embodying the cooling fires of Wilson’s ‘white heat’ of technological revolution. Particularly effective is a long shot of the monster crossing the covered walkway between two of the buildings. Inevitably, the massed firepower of the UNIT soldiery proves utterly ineffectual (in a later episode, Robot, the Brigadier will utter the exasperated wish that ‘just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets’).

Heavy plant crossing
The nuclear power station is like a hugely magnified version of the concrete bunkers which sprang up along Britain’s shore during the Second World War, and which were themselves the descendants of the Martello towers of the Napoleonic wars. These massive blocks placed amongst the linear lines of shore, ocean and sea wall proved irresistible to several English landscape painters such as Paul Nash (as covered in an earlier post) and Ben Nicholson in his pre-abstract days. It gave them a natural English version of the deserted plazas of de Chirico or the Andalusian plains of Dali, stages on which to create their dramas (or non-dramas). Powell and Pressburger used the very similar setting of Chesil Beach as the bare backround for the climax of their film The Small Back Room, in which the landscape stands for the exposure of the protagonist’s fragile psyche.

Derek Jarman, an artist as well as a film maker, acknowledges the influence of this tradition on his film. It is in many ways an attempt to capture the spirit of this place where he has come to make a home. As such, he inscribes his own autobiographical version of Christian iconography onto it, creating a very personal mythology peopled with emanations from his psyche. Just as his garden, with its stone circles and rows and assemblages of found objects, is a way of making the matter of the land sacred, so the film, with its tinted compositions and video transpositions, draws the mythological out of the landscape. He is very much in the mould of the British romantics who inherited the visionary tradition of William Blake and Samuel Palmer and recast British landscape, history and mythology in the mould of their own imagination. There are definitely elements of Nash, Graham Sutherland, and of Powell and Pressburger in The Garden (and in Jarman’s other work). Jarman typifies this strand of English artistic outsider who still harbours a romantic yearning for some pre-lapsarian version of the country. Which is what The Garden represents. It stages the Christian story as a set of mythic tableaux within the Dungeness landscape. Dungeness is the garden before the fall, an area of innocence which is free of the clutter of the materialistic world (other than its discarded flotsam, of course). It is a place where there is space to live and create. Jarman himself is seen dreaming inside his house as water drops on various artefacts in a very Tarkovsky-like manner (dreaming the film?); and taking Voltaire’s advice and tending his garden, where he also writes. This idealised space, a land on the margins beyond the controlling systems of power, provides the playground for Jarman’s film family. It is also the place to which Timothy Spall’s cabby, crushed by the pressures of low-wage city life, comes to clutch a few hours of solitary contemplation in Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing.

Beach pebble megaliths
But the power station always looms in the background. This stands for the power systems in the world which marginalize Jarman’s artistic family in the first place. It is alongside its barbed-wire fences that Jesus receives his Judas kiss. The Axons in Doctor Who also plan to use the power of the nuclear power station for destructive ends, having initially appeared as angels of salvation, offering the world a seemingly unlimited energy source, axonite. This turns out to be a poisoned gift which, when activated (via the power station) will allow them to carry out their true purpose, which is to devour the earth as a food source. They are a kind of interstellar parasite. The connection between the axonite, with its illusory promise of unlimited power and the ‘Nuton’ power station provides a none-too subliminal criticism of the solutions to the world’s problems being sought through big technology. The instant gratification offered by the mineral axonite also has its parallel in The Garden in the huge boulder of gold dragged by the harnessed team of priests, which also gives a nod to Bunuel’s clergy-baiting imagery in Un Chien Andalou.

Christ amongst the power lines
In The Garden, Christ appears amongst the power lines which extend outwards in all directions, but he seems lost, able only to look sadly on as the old story of which he was once the living embodiment is played out once more, this time in terms of gay martyrdom. These are not lines of power over which he has any control. It does make for a great visual image, however. Whatever their manifest demerits, pylons striding across the fields and shore do provide a powerful and almost mythological image of the technologised landscape. It doesn’t take too much, given the right atmospheric conditions (early morning mist would be ideal) to imagine them marching in earth-trembling formation to some crackling electrical core. The scornful world soon invades this utopian idyll, and the innocent male lovers on the shore are subjected to ritual humiliations before the path to the cross. There are recurring images of a last-supper sized table around which sit Greek and Cypriot women, their fingers tracing the rims of wine glasses to produce a crystalline drone which offers an alternative to the hum of the power lines emanating from the nuclear power stations. The table also provides the stage for one of them to demonstrate her flamenco skills. This is one of the ‘turns’ which gives Jarman’s films the feel of a school play; something which is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your outlook. Personally, I like the feeling this gives of an extended family, relaxed and encouraging each other to shine. Indulgent, yes; but a generous indulgence, a delight in others.

Female Communion
Another nearby location used in Jarman’s film is the giant curved wall at Greatstone, situated by the remarkable sound mirrors built at the beginning of the second world war as giant listening ‘ears’ and made almost instantly redundant by the invention of radar. It is against this wall that Jarman stages the abuse of his drag Mary Magdalene by various women dressed as for the opera, 80s style. Jarman is rhapsodic about the listening wall in his diaristic book ‘Modern Nature’. He writes ‘the Listening Wall is the grandest concrete structure in the Kingdom – its scale Olympic, its symmetry Attic, kith and kin to the great Moghul observatories that listened to the stars. The Wall had its two ears tuned to earthly conversation, could hear a whisper a whisper over the horizon – or the shouts and curses of Dunkirk, the drone of enemy bombers in Normandy. An Acropolis worthy of pilgrimage, its graffiti dedicates it to Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah. Even great Lutyens’ cenotaph or the many monuments of battle lack its power. Here, lost in the shingle, reflected in the lake, beside this great monument falling into ruin, you can lament the heroes if you wish. Perhaps this is its finest hour, alone with nothing in particular to listen to.’ These huge stone artefacts look older than they really are. It is as if they are the fossilised remnants of the science of a civilisation long gone, uncovered from the shingle by the relentless sea.

Greatstone sound mirrors and listening wall

Having viewed these two disparate entertainments through the coincidence of their common backdrop, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not such a gulf between Derek and the Doctor. Romantic outsiders both, embodying a romantic view of Englishness which may often seem outmoded but always retains its attractions, they offer an alternative way of being flamboyantly British without the attendant small-minded jingoism. Both have (or had) a love of dressing up, and a tendency to draw inspiration from the past. Both have their ‘families’, collaborators to whom they constantly return. As far as the productions go, there is a sense of joyful amateurism in both (at least as regards the old Who of which we’ve been talking), which detractors might dismiss as mere shoddiness. Both made colourful worlds with limited resources and abundant imaginations. The video backdrops of The Garden could very well come from an episode of Who such as Warrior’s Gate or Logopolis, stories which also approach Jarman’s non-linearity and reliance on visual symbolism to provide meaning in their bafflingly convoluted plots and conceptual leaps. I can’t imagine his directing style ever working on Doctor Who, but in one of his other guises as set and costume designer, Jarman might have worked miracles on a meagre BBC budget. Who knows what alien worlds or fantastic palaces he might have constructed out of discarded bits and bobs. Whatever the results, you suspect he would have a great deal of fun.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Extreme Noise Ecstasy



I was sad to read of the death last month of Maryanne Amacher, the remarkable sound artist and electronic music composer. She is part of a significant lineage of women who have found their voice through electronic music, from Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire through Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue and Kaffe Matthews. Not to mention composers such as Kaija Saariaho who incorporate elements of electronic sound (or approximations of its tonalities) into their ‘spectralist’ compostitions. There seems to be something about the dissection of the grain of sound, the manipulation of its uncovered matter which is particularly appealing to a female creative sensibility. Amacher’s work also explored the experience of sound within particular spaces, whether they were the rooms of an old house or the multiple passages of a tunnel system. She was interested in the way in which sound could be moved around the space, or in which its various facets could be discovered by listeners moving about between its carefully placed sources. Wide variances in dynamic range characterised her music, creating different kinds of psychoacoustic effects. She often pitched her sounds to activate the ‘third ear’, in an equivalent of the pictorial trompe ‘oeil effect (trompe l’oreilles?) Listened to in the right kind of space, this would result in sounds appearing to generate directly from within the ears (or even the spaces between).

I’ve never had the fortune to experience one of Amacher’s installations. She didn’t make it to David Toop’s major sound art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 2000 (Sonic Boom), perhaps because any true representation of her work would have reached out and devoured any other exhibits within its radius. Perhaps I heard something of its psychological effect when I saw a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Bird and Person Dyning at the CMN tours Feedback concert a few years ago. This piece, like many of Lucier’s, is halfway between music and a scientific enquiry into the nature of sound and its effect on the human mind. Putting a microphone to a mechanical model of a chirping bird, he then took another portable mike and moved through the concert space, searching for acoustic feedback ‘shadows’ of the original sound. It’s very difficult to describe, but the sounds seemed to suddenly appear just to the left of your ear, or just behind your shoulder or over your head. It was an uncanny but utterly captivating experience. Similarly, when I went to see Karlheinz Stockhausen presenting his classical electronic piece Kontakte (in this version without the piano and percussion accompaniement) he mixed the different sounds around the space of the old Billingsgate Fish Market (in which he’d arranged speakers to surround the audience and provide three ‘storeys’ between floor and ceiling) so that you could follow them and take a flight (as he jovially encouraged us to do at the start). It’s interesting to note that Amacher studied at Dartington College in Totnes, Devon, a place which has recently also seen residences by Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros (you can still catch the Hear and Now radio 3 documentary on Oliveros and James Tenney on the BBC’s listen again facility until next Saturday).

I can only imagine the effect that one of Amacher’s installations would have based on such experiences. But you can get some idea from a couple of releases on John Zorn’s Tdzadik label, Sound Characters volumes 1 and 2. The effect of these recordings is unlike any other. Again, they have to be played loud, and it would be great to hear them in different spaces (the Spacex Gallery here in Exeter would be good). The music is far from the ambient wash often associated with electronic music, although its occasionally extreme dynamics don’t have the aura of assault you find in a noise musician like Merzbow. At times it sounds like a flock of metallic starlings (one of Amacher’s rare previous recordings was for a compilation called ‘Swarm of Drones’); at others the seismic impact of an aerial bombardment heard from deep within a bunker (the Tower). Synaptic Island does sound like the kind of oceanic drift of the more ambient varieties of electronica, but it has a real feeling of density, of a sound mass. It has a long fade out into silence, until the sounds that you are hearing are probably now only playing in your head. And in case you had drifted off, the following Synaptic Island track (part of a Synaptic archipelago?) has the most astonishing concatenation of sounds. The deep rumbling ruptures and thunderclaps of collapsing metal suddenly give way to a high pitched liquid mobile of sounds in a sudden transition which still makes me jump out of my skin every time I hear it. There are liquid explosions like high-pressure jets of magma being shot out of some violently cracked open fissure, which are drowned out in a waterfall of white noise. The sudden transitions between the lowest audible tones and the highest remind a little of Ligeti’s Atmospheres, the music used for the journey beyond the infinite in 2001 A Space Odyssey. The joyful sense of cacophany also reminds me of some of the pieces made with (and by) schoolchildren on the Daphne Oram Oramics CD. I really hope that someone puts on a commemorative exhibition in this country. Meanwhile, you can see Maryanne playing her music before an appreciative Thurston Moore, who sincerely declares it to be ‘the best music I ever heard’. Further extracts from this film (including Moore’s interview with Amacher) can be found over at Ecstatic Peace. The website of The Wire magazine has also put up Alan Licht's 1999 piece, written around the release of the first Sound Characters cd.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Rainbow Quarrier

not exactly the Marlboro man
I recently watched two films from the late 60s, Wonderwall and the recently re-discovered Separation, the film written by and starring Jane Arden and directed by Jack Bond. The films are poles apart in tone, Wonderwall being a quintessential piece of period whimsy and Separation a film in which the swinging sixties collides with dislocated film editing and theatre of the absurd alienation to provide a portrait of mental fragmentation which dramatises the ideas of a nascent feminism. In fact, the two films aren’t thematically so far apart, both featuring the subjective viewpoints of characters who are undergoing what amounts to a mid-life breakdown. Partly as a result of this subjectivity, both also display a characteristically 60s blurring of the divide between reality and dream-sequence fantasy. But what struck me was the presence in both films of the actor Iain Quarrier. I realised that he'd appeared in several of my favourite films from the era (and one of my least favourite – but we’ll come to that later). His character is essentially the same in these two films, and indeed in all his cinematic roles. He reflects the gilded youth of swinging sixties London, the glittering Bohemian inner circle of beautiful people. He is an immaculate dandy, a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’, clearly caring a great deal about his appearance and the way he is perceived but affecting an air of disdainful, disinterested cool.

Froideur
The two best known anecdotes in which he features involve him being hit, and its perhaps not difficult to see why people of a certain generation or frame of mind might feel the need to strike out at him. The characters which he plays are generally objects of desire, but aloof an unreliable ones (hommes fatales?) In general, he exudes the hauteur displayed by characters played by some of the most beautiful English and continental actresses, including his fellow Polanski collaborator Catherine Deneuve, who it seems unlikely he didn’t know. His characters are generally all too well aware of their charms, and casual in their use of them. As such, he is representative (perhaps even more so than Terence Stamp) of the dissolving of the hardened distinctions between the masculine and the feminine which began to take place in the 60s (at least on the surface, and at certain social levels).

Seeing the future
In Separation, he initially represents the freedom from responsibility which the younger generation in the sixties sought. He is the childlike, carefree man who plays with his action man diver in the bath and offers Jane Arden’s disturbed middle-aged woman an escape route back to an untroubled state of innocence. But by the end of the film, he has become a figure of menace, and the Holland Park Eden through which they had previously cavorted in the prescribed Richard Lester manner becomes a maze of trees and fenced paths through which she is stalked. In Wonderwall, Jane Birkin is driven to attempt suicide by his abandonment of her as soon as she reveals her pregnancy.

A stroll down Portobello Road
Quarrier, despite his association with the time and place of London in the late 60s, was in fact born in Canada. He found himself in England when its capital was enjoying its brief flowering as the epicentre of worldwide cool. It was clearly the place to be for an aspiring actor, and he made the most of the opportunities which were available to him. He made a film in 1964 called The Fledglings, which I’ve never seen and which to my knowledge has never been released on video or dvd. I’m guessing it’s no classic, although its story of two hustling movie producers trying to get an American producer to fund their picture sounds prescient of Quarrier’s later forays into production. Their use of a model (played by Julia White) to achieve such ends makes it sound like the sort of fare which might have been destined for the rather seedy cinema ‘clubs’ which were springing up around Soho at the time. The Allmovie guide review (pretty much the only place where you’ll find anything written about the film) is pretty much an object lesson in damning through utter indifference. ‘Some distance removed from good’, it says, ‘but it has its moments here and there’.

Quarrier evidently soon established himself as a central figure in the metropolitan demi-monde of the era’s in-crowd blend of the dazzling and dodgy. Roman Polanski, freshly arrived in the capital after the success of his first feature Knife in the Water, and ready to make his next film for Compton Pictures, rooted in the Soho world alluded to above, was glad of Quarrier’s help in introducing him to this world. His portrayal of him in his autobiography positions him in the lineage of fin-de-siecle decadants or twenties bright young things; a product of those decades when the younger generation is burning with an energy to live and create, partly in anticipation of an imminent fall. Many of the best-remembered figures from these heightened eras are remembered as much for what they did as for what creative works they left behind; the carefully crafted personality and social act as performance. Polanski describes him as ‘a tall, good-looking Canadian who gate-crashed my own first party with a luscious girl on each arm and a tiny puppy nestling in his jacket. Though only on the fringes of London showbiz, Iain Quarrier was very much at the centre of the London scene, and I profited a lot from his social know-how; his almost uncanny knowledge of who, where and what was in at any given moment’.

Being told where to go in Cul-de-Sac
Polanski cast him in two of his films, Cul-de-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers. Cul-de-Sac. Cul-de-Sac took him away from London to the isolated island of Lindisfarne (or Holy Island) off the Northumbrian coast. He plays a small role as the cuckolding lover of Francoise Dorleac’s Teresa, with whom he is first seen by Lionel Stander’s interloping gangster lying indolently amongst the dunes. Again, he is the beautiful youth who offers a bit of guilt and responsibility-free carnal play for the female character, and who affects an air of cultivated boredom; everything is simply too tiresome to expend any energy on. The older generation involved with the film didn’t seem to take too well to Quarrier’s youthful anomie. In the brief reminiscing documentary which accompanies the dvd release, producer Gene Gutowski calls him ‘a layabout’. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, in an anecdote which bears signs of being a little too well-worn in its airing, tells of the time he felt driven to sock him one over derogatory remarks he made regarding Donald Pleasance’s wife’s age. According to Taylor, Polanski wasn’t displeased by such treatment, although this may simply be in line with the discomfort he reportedly enjoyed creating on set. It should be said that such anecdotage is rather unbalanced by the absence of any counterpoint-of-view from its object.

Herbert von Krolock - pale and interesting
Whatever Polanski might have felt about Quarrier, he worked with him once more on The Fearless Vampire Killers. Here, he displayed a delicate comedic touch as the gay vampiric offspring of Ferdy Mayne’s Count von Krolock. Yes, the character is something of a stereotype (at one point we see him mincing down the corridor) although in a broad comedy this is to expected. But Quarrier’s eschewal of camp queening in favour of restraint, and his nuanced delivery of his dialogue in a world-weary, archly aristocratic manner inflected with East European tones makes the character all the more amusing. His reading from Alfred’s (Polanski’s character) little book of romantic etiquette is particularly funny. Quarrier is given a look of elegantly sensual dissipation in this film, his cheeks and eye sockets hollowed. His brocaded frock coats and frilled shirts with extravagant lace cuffs are a rare excursion beyond 60s high fashion, and make him look rather like a taller Brian Jones. You can imagine he’d have made a rather dashing Doctor Who, too, albeit a rather lackadaisical one. Quarrier also gets to show his athletic side, as he chases the hapless Alfred through the icy labyrinth of corridors in the Count’s castle, culminating in an impressive skid and crash into a collapsing four poster bed.

Reading from the book of love
Quarrier was back to familiar London territory for his next film, Jane Arden and Jack Bond’s experimental work Separation. As previously mentioned, he plays the youthful lover once more, good for a bit of fun but fundamentally feckless and undependable. At one point, he is portrayed as if he is a daring jewel thief, making a rather impressive (and potentially very dangerous) leap between rooftops. Quarrier clearly had no problem with doing his own stunts. He also travels across the Thames astride an iron girder suspended by the arm of the last surviving steam crane at the time, before joining Jane Arden for a swift half at the Royal Oak in Isleworth. They sail off down the river on a Thames barge in a scene which is like an Anglicised version of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. Director Jack Bond’s highly engaging commentary on his film, which he is clearly revisiting and reminiscing upon for the first time in a while, sheds some light on Quarrier, as we shall see, as well as informing us of the settings for various scenes. Further acrobatics take place in Richmond swimming pool, where Quarrier takes a leap from the top diving board, fully clothed in pin-stripe suit and hat. Given Bond’s emphasis on the fashionable boutiques and tailors from which the characters’ clothing comes, this was clearly some sacrifice, and the shot was presumably one of the last made with Quarrier on the film.

Doing his own stunts
Elsewhere, this immaculately tailored outfit is covered in outdoor sequences by what Bond wryly informs us is a wolfskin coat. In scenes which are fascinating for the background details of the era, Quarrier and Arden can be seen driving through Kensington in a Ford Galaxie, briefly stopping in Sloane Square to pick up some flowers; browsing along the Portobello Road antique market; and cycling through the Little Venice area (Quarrier) and Holland Park (Arden – with Quarrier in playful pursuit). Later, in a very intense and powerful scene, Quarrier and Arden’s character’s husband (played by David de Keyser – who provided the voice of Dracula in Hammer’s ill-advised martial arts crossover Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, no less) lean in close on either side as she sits on a swing in Mortlake park, providing the externalised voices of inner conflict and self-negation which are tearing her apart. The scene is brilliantly played, with Quarrier now becoming genuinely hateful, and is undeniably given added weight by the hindsight of our knowledge of Arden’s suicide in 1982. Once more, Quarrier’s easy charms can swiftly become a threatening force.

Vocal assault
It was through Roman Polanski and his screenwriter Gerard Brach that Quarrier came to be cast in Wonderwall, which was also the third film in which he’d worked with the redoubtable Irish stage actor Jack Macgowran, a favourite of Samuel Beckett. There is, indeed, something Beckett-like about MacGowran’s performance in the film, with his retreat into a solipsistic world, his increasingly dust-covered appearance as his DIY efforts reach new extremes and his barked non-sequiturs and failures to communicate. Quarrier gets to play perhaps his definitive swinging sixties dandy, getting through as many costume changes as Jane Birkin, who plays his model girlfriend, Penny Lane (I know, it’s terrible!) Birkin had almost appeared in Separation. Jack Bond notes that the occupants of the car which pulls up outside the then trendy Kensington restaurant Alvaro’s, and which is moved on by an old-fashioned English bobby, were Birkin and then-husband John Barry. Still, we do get Michael York chatting in the background, in a genuine (and youthful) swinging sixties precursor of his Basil Exposition persona. In an interesting inversion of the stock character of the time, as typified by David Hemmings in Blow Up, Quarrier plays a fashion model rather than a photographer; more Zoolander than Austin Powers. This gives him the opportunity to pose in several fab tableaux.

Iain and Jane
He first appears with his photographer who seems to be accessorising an apple green suit with a car of matching colour. In a film which emphasises the separation of its two main protagonists (Birkin’s Penny and MacGowran’s Professor) by the eponymous barrier, Quarrier does have a few bits of dialogue, both on the phone (a conversation conducted whilst he poses as a cowboy on a rocking horse) and with MacGowran. In these, he carries off a creditable Liverpool accent, a nod to the film’s soundtrack composer, perhaps: one George Harrison. Quarrier’s character is vain and fickle (again) and carries a large portable cut-out of himself like a portable ego. When he creeps out on the sleeping Birkin in the middle of the night, having discovered that she is pregnant, he makes sure to pick this up before closing the door behind him.

With his ego tucked under his arm
Wonderwall, with its Beatles connection, provides a link with Quarrier’s next film, Jean Luc Godard’s Sympathy For the Devil. Godard agreed to come over to England to make a film if he could get The Beatles or The Rolling Stones involved. Both Lennon and Jagger were interested, the former voicing his opinion in his usual witty and amusing way (‘who’s doing this fucking Godard film – the Stones or us?’ cf. Mim Scala’s ‘Diary of a Teddy Boy), but it was the Stones who were eventually chosen. Quarrier co-produced the film with a scion of the aristocracy, Jack Pearson, with whom he had set up a company called Cupid Productions. Jack Bond says that it was him who introduced Quarrier to Pearson. It’s a classic 60s partnership, a mingling of disparate worlds, with the aristocracy connecting with the increasingly glittering milieu of popular culture. Quarrier’s centrality to the scene of swinging sixties London, now entering a phase in which its successful participants were consolidating their considerable wealth, and the evident social skills which had got him there must have been the key in securing the Stones’ participation. He also, as producer, helped stump up some of the cash to finance the picture. Perhaps Godard should have borne this in mind whilst venting his later hissy fits. Or perhaps that’s just outmoded ‘bourgeois’ thinking on my part.

No love was lost
The film itself is one of the most tedious I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through. I watched it at the Scala Cinema in London in the 80s in a triple bill with If… and Blow Up, two films which I saw frequently in screenings there, and which remain favourites to this day. For all its many virtues (and it’s a cinema for which I, and many others, have incredibly fond memories) it had a rather cavernous acoustic, and prints were rather well-worn (because well-loved). This made the endless readings which punctuate the film’s scenes of musical rehearsal even more insufferable. Having fast-forwarded through the Times free DVD giveaway, it became evident that even a sound and projection system of immaculate digital clarity would have failed to alleviate the excruciating boredom of these scenes, whose sound is haphazardly recorded anyway. The Stones’ endless rehearsal of fragments of the title song have a certain fly-on-the-wall interest, but by the end, repetition leaves you hoping to never hear it again for some time to come.

Quarrier himself was not due to appear in the film. His role was to have been played by Terence Stamp, but he ended up working with Pasolini on Theorem instead. Stamp also appeared in Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead in that year. Godard would have made a good Euro art director hat trick. Quarrier’s character is billed on the imdb as ‘fascist porno book seller’, which is perhaps not the most tempting role he’d ever been offered. His scene sees him in a lurid purple outfit completely at odds with the seedy bookshop in which he reads in a plainly unrehearsed fashion form the turgid prose of Mein Kampf. He is obliged to do little more than this, occasionally taking magazines or books from customers, shouting out ‘Jackie’ to his assistant who is typing in the corner and giving a nazi salute as the shopper leaves. We immediately understand the connection which is made between fascism and sexual repression, but the point is belaboured at length. He seems to also include science fiction in his equation, and since the elderly gentleman picks up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle amongst his other choices (he passes over a copy of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human), a book which is a favourite of mine, I take this rather personally. As a long-term reader of science fiction literature, I can assure Mr Godard that it has not turned me into a nazi. And if he really wanted to make his point in this area, he should have done his research and had the old man pick up the Robert Heinlein paperback which can also be seen on the shelves. In fact, even that wouldn’t have been accurate. Heinlein was a right wing libertarian, not a fascist. Words and definitions, political or otherwise, become devalued when they are thrown about with such casual and frequent abandon. The chief and possibly most valuable impression which the scene leaves you with is just how dull Mein Kampf really is.

Purple prose
The tedium of the film’s banal rhetorical surface leaves one desperately focussing on incidental details in the background to try to sustain interest. There is a routemaster which sails past one of the anonymous figures who spray-paint ‘revolutionary’ graffiti in the form of word collisions throughout the film (‘Cinemarxism’ anyone? Gosh, you can hear the Establishment tremble). I didn’t catch the number. Perhaps the good people at Buses on Film might be able to shed some light. Who knows, maybe there’s a radical bus-spotters syndicate out there somewhere. Quarrier’s involvement with the film did enable him to play a small part in rock history, however. When the title song finally came to be recorded, he joined Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg and others in adding his ‘whooo whooos’ to the backing vocals at the end.

Routemaster obscures revolutionary slogan
When the film came to be released, all hell broke loose. Godard fell out with Quarrier big time. Quarrier had re-edited the film to end with a complete version of the song, playing over a shot of the body of ‘Eve Democracy’ draped over the camera atop its crane. This shot goes through a number of colour tints in a mildly psychedelic fashion. He also changed the title from One Plus One to Sympathy for the Devil. The changes were very minor, and considering that most people wanted to see the film for the Stones rather than to be battered over the head with Godard’s heavy-handed political haranguing, seemed reasonable enough. Nothing was actually removed, after all. But Godard merely wanted to use the Stones’ celebrity as a means of smuggling his sloganeering across to a wider and unsuspecting audience. He’d try the same thing in America with Jefferson Airplane, although to be fair, they weren’t above a bit of empty sloganeering themselves. Even such minor changes as Quarrier made, presumably in a desperate attempt to salvage something from the film, were seen as an unforgiveable compromise. Godard and Quarrier ended up holding separate press conferences to promote the film.

When it came time for the premiere at the NFT, Godard tried to persuade the audience to veto the film. Unsurprisingly, when it was put to the vote, the people decided they’d really rather watch the film they’d come along to see. Godard called them all fascists, evidently widening the compass of the term to include anyone who disagreed with him. He then stormed out, but not before he tried to land a punch on Quarrier. What was it about him that made others want to sock him one. The thought of him arousing the Gallic ire of the self-important director makes me like him all the more. To drive someone to the point in a debate where they sink to resorting to physical assault is a sure sign that they have definitively lost the argument. Godard no doubt sulked off over Waterloo Bridge and into the night, and vowed never to return to these islands again. Tant pis.

Sympathy for the Devil does have some value as a comedy. The idea of Mick Jagger as a revolutionary figure is in itself utterly risible. Watching the scene in which Eve Democracy is interviewed by a team of Carnaby Street fops it’s difficult not to believe that you’ve tuned into an old episode of The Fast Show. Nike Arrighi, who played Tanith in The Devil Rides Out, makes a brief appearance as one of the white robed victims of the Black Power movement in the car scrapyard. Godard’s revolutionary posturing didn’t extend to giving women a voice. Here they are victims, elsewhere sighing, monosyllabic respondents to the endless self-involved chatter of male interrogators (Eve Democracy) or typists and till operators (Jackie). Arrighi is a striking presence and deserved more. I expect she got better treatment from Francois Truffaut in Day for Night.

Sympathy for the Devil was Quarrier’s last appearance in a film. Cupid Productions went on to produce the cult film Vanishing Point, a film whose petrol-head appeal rather passed me, a non-driving cyclist, by. According to Jack Bond, he was ‘the brains behind putting Vanishing Point together’. But on the credits, he is cited as a mere ‘creative consultant’. His old partner Michael Pearson claims the role of co-producer. Bond says he felt a great deal of bitterness after Vanishing Point. Perhaps he felt out of place in the less parochial, more hard-nosed world of Los Angeles. The informality and amateurism of London in the sixties, the feeling that the combination of imagination and charm (and a bit of spare cash) could produce something new and exciting had evaporated, perhaps partly a victim of its own successes. After Vanishing Point, Bond says that Quarrier ‘disappeared – untraceable’. He goes on to say, in regretful tones, that ‘quite a few people have tried to find out where he is and what’s happened, and no-one’s succeeded’. The fact that he has vanished so completely from public view leaves him all the more indelibly associated with the brief and colourful swirl of the zeitgeist which hit London in the sixties. It would be great to hear his take on that era, and get his side of the story to give balance to those anecdotes of which he is the object. Maybe the rediscovery of Separation occasioned by the BFI’s restoration and release which prompted Jack Bond to look back on those times in such an engaging manner might encourage him to emerge once more. I’m sure he’s got many fascinating stories to tell. Meanwhile, wherever he is, here’s hoping he’s contented – and still immaculately cool.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Three

Isle of the Dead - Part Four


The General, looking drawn and hollow-eyed, creeps into the front room. As Thea makes her way cautiously down the stairs, the General confronts her and orders her back to her room. He reminds her of his nickname and of his pledge, now renewed, to stand guard against the plague. His moment of uncertainty and bewilderment in the bedroom is gone. Now he has fixed his sights upon her as an adversary against which to direct his force. He admits to a degree of uncertainty about her nature, whether this is a ‘contagion of the soul that you carry’. If so, it can presumably be cured or exorcised. The General hovers between the language of medicine and that of religion, but he no longer has the Doctor to hand to lend the former the weight of his authority. He vows to keep Thea away from the others, and to kill her if necessary. He preys on her insecurity, showing that he’s learnt a thing or two about suggestive psychology from Kyra. ‘Can a vorvoloka in her human form remember the evil that she did at night’. He’s almost pleading with her to accept the role into which he is attempting to cast her, to provide him with the solid manifestation of evil which he needs to provide him with a visible combatant. Again, in modern terms, he’s essentially asking her how much she really knows what goes on in her subconscious, in her dreams. As she retreats back upstairs, he hastily adds ‘I hope that I’m wrong’, as if suddenly ashamed at his bullying. Perhaps some part of him realises that he is victimising a defenceless young woman.

The spirit of life in Death's mirror
Mrs St Aubyn sits in front of her mirror, the symbol of approaching death in the film. She stares intently, as if she can see something beyond the reflected surface. She smiles as she sees Thea enter the room in the mirror. If, as suggested earlier, the mirror reflects the approach of death, then the observation of Thea’s entry in its surface suggests the confusion cast in her own mind by the General’s questioning of her level of self-awareness. Perhaps she is beginning to succumb to the insistent attempts of her fellow countrymen to literally demonise her.

Thea takes over the brushing of Mrs St Aubyn’s hair, an impromptu act which indicates the unspoken ease which they feel in each other’s company. She asks whether Mrs St Aubyn was ill before she worked for her, a clear sign that she has indeed become infected with the seeds of self-doubt which the General has sown. Mrs St Aubyn reassures her that her illness, which is degenerative, has nothing to do with her. She tells her that she is ‘good…kind and generous’ and asks ‘how can anything bad come from goodness?’ She is saying that a person should be judged by their acts. As we have seen, Thea acts out of compassion, whereas the General and Kyra act according to the dictates of law and outmoded superstition. Thea still worries about what her wandering spirit may do, speaking about it as if it were a separate entity co-habiting her body. Mrs St Aubyn re-iterates her previous point, saying ‘your spirit is yourself, Thea’. She then tells her to ‘go to the young man’. She is setting herself up as Thea’s guardian angel, in opposition to the General’s guard dog. One guards over, one against.

Putting out the light before putting out the light
With the protection of Mrs St Aubyn giving her strength, Thea comes down and leaves the house. The General watches from his room and blows out his lamp, which has been his watchlight. This has the sinister connotation of the snuffing out of a life, and the decisive way in which he does it suggests that he’d have no compunction in doing the same to Thea. The gesture brings to mind the line from Othello, ‘put out the light and then put out the light’. Davis waits for Thea by the shore. On her way to meet him, Thea pauses fearfully by the mouth of the tomb and murmurs a quick prayer before moving past its entrance. Davis watches this and smiles with vaguely patronising indulgence. They embrace, but are soon interrupted by the General, who makes it known that he will follow them wherever they go, and that ‘when I am sure, I will destroy her’. Davis tells him that they intend to leave in the morning, for the sake of Thea’s safety.

A prayer for safe passage
In the morning, we see a shot of the bird in its cage, a reminder of the varying levels of entrapment, physical, psychological and metaphysical, to which the characters are subject. Upstairs, Thea is packing, and urges Mrs St Aubyn to come with them. But she says ‘I don’t dare go with you’. She is still held in thrall by the burden of fear her illness carries with it. She says that she will explain everything to Albrecht, which shows that she hasn’t thus far. They embrace and Mrs St Aubyn says ‘God bless you’ with some authority. The blessing sounds like it has actual force.

"God Bless You"
Down by the shore, Thea finds the boat smashed, however, and returns to the house to be confronted with the quietly self-satisfied Kyra, who sits in a chair in the front room like some malignant presiding spirit. It’s as if she has regained her ascendancy in the house. She knits, an image which provides a counterpoint to Mrs St Aubyn’s needlework earlier. She is the third of the Fates, and undoubtedly the one who cuts the thread. The General comes back in, and Kyra indicates with a nod of the head that Thea has gone back upstairs. The General looks very weary. It is as if Kyra is draining the life force from him. If there is anyone analogous to a vorvoloka in the house, it is her. She is a psychic vampire.

Malevolent Fate
Thea goes to Mrs St Aubyn, who immediately confronts the General; another woman standing up to him. She berates him for ‘terrorizing her with ugly, savage superstitions’, and becomes visibly upset, finally saying ‘I will not have it’. She is becoming a commanding voice to set against the General’s naturally assumed authority. She turns away, as if shaken by the violence of her own feelings. As the middle aspect of the triple goddess, she is used to being a balancing force, a negotiator and peacemaker. This display of forcefulness goes counter to her nature. The General is forcing her away from her accustomed state of equilibrium, setting off processes which he may be unable to control. As Davis enters, the General says in somnambulistic tones that ‘what must be done I will do’. His will no longer seems to be his own; it’s as if he regards himself as an instrument of fate. Davis’ angry upbrading over the destruction of the boat has little impact.

The anger of the meek
Upstairs, it is Thea who now stares into the mirror, as if something might reveal itself to her in time. Mrs St Aubyn staggers in, and Thea attempts to help her to the bed, but she collapses on the floor. Thea closes the door and prepares for a vigil. There is the sense that a series of pre-arranged actions is being put into action. Downstairs, at the table, Kyra makes insinuating remarks about the absence of the two other women. The birdcage is now ominously covered with a black cloth. Observations are made on the wind direction and a tense suspension of time hangs over everything. Everyone is waiting for something to happen.

The veil of night
Kyra keeps her vigil over Mrs St Aubyn through the night, plagued by Kyra, who observes a parallel anti-vigil outside her door. Repeatedly whispering vorvoloka, she comes out with a litany of superstitious wards against evil. The passing of time is marked by the shifting patterns of moonlight and shadow over Mrs St Aubyn’s body, the shadows once more serving to suggest a world just beyond the threshold of this one. As the shadows shift, so does the constant stream of whispered words which come from Kyra beyond the door. Thea paces and wrings her hands, assailed by the doubts which are being placed in her mind. She pleads with Kyra to stop, and then begins to question herself, and perhaps also the prone form of her guardian angel. ‘Is it my fault?’ But there’s no answer now, no compassionate voice to tell her that her that she is good, and therefore her spirit is good too. Just as the General need the balancing voice of reason which the Doctor provided, so Thea needs the blessings of Mrs St Aubyn. Without them, she is vulnerable to the mental poisons of Kyra’s dark arts.

No more words of comfort
In the morning light, we see Kyra at the window with the bird. She looks very restless and is wringing her hands in a manner similar to Thea the previous night. This has taken a lot out of her too, and she is uncertain of the impact her psychological warfare has had. When the General emerges, she immediately latches on to him, saying ‘I’ve been waiting’. They go upstairs. Downstairs, Davis and Albrecht hear a crash from above and rush to investigate.

A recurring image - wringing/washing hands
We see a tableau of the General facing Thea with Mrs St Aubyn’s body lying prone at her feet. This is all the proof he needs. Davis and Albrecht burst in and restrain him before he has the opportunity to do his duty, and Thea is ushered away to safety. Albrecht goes through the standard tests, holding the mirror up to Mrs St Aubyn’s lips. They discuss bringing up a box to serve as her coffin. Eventually, Mrs St Aubyn is left alone in the room. The camera focuses in on her face, and we see a momentary twitch of her lips.

Circumstantial proof

Thea wanders in the cypress glade, the ambient noise of the wind which is everpresent now punctuated by the hammering of nails into the makeshift coffin. She shivers, as if at the very notion of death, of the cold stone passages of the tombs. There is a dissolve, and she is waiting at the shore by the statue of Cerberus. This is the boundary zone, the debarkation point from a place which she longs to leave.

Looking out to the land of the living
Albrecht, Davis and the General pass, carrying the coffin back inward to the tombs. Thea faces the land of the living, but they still have business with the dead. Their footsteps develop an echo as they enter the empty space of the catacombs. The coffin is placed on a stand, and they pause for a moment before leaving, as if there is something more that they feel should be said or done. But no words come. But we remain as the camera slowly moves in on the coffin, which is fashioned from an old antiquities crate. We hear a slight murmur from within, amplified by the tombs resonant acoustic.

What to say?

Out on the ledge, Davis comments to the General that the wind has changed. But the General displays no delight at this news of their turning fortune. ‘I shall never leave the island’, he blankly declares, and when he gets up it is with a stagger. Davis understands that he has the plague, and helps him through the passage of the tomb towards the house as if he has now become his guide to the underworld.

A change in the wind
Back in the darkness of the tomb, the camera now glides slowly out from the coffin, and then cuts to a close up of the lid. There is a loud and terrified scream and the sound of scrabbling and then hammering. In the original screenplay, the horror of Mrs St Aubyn’s (or her counterpart Miss Wollsten’s) confinement is much more graphically portrayed, with shots from the interior of her panicked attempts to break out. This more subtle approach leaves us to imagine her terror.

Back in the house, Davis helps the General into his bed, where he is left with Kyra. She immediately adduces a supernatural import to his sickness. She has a comfortless bedside manner. ‘Soldier, you stayed your hand. Now the plague punishes you. The vorvoloka still lives, rose-cheeked and full of blood’. The plague is a vector of moral retribution in her mind, and the rosy cheeked health of Thea is an affront to her in the face of death and her own old age. But she utters a fearful ‘I am alone with her’ which displays genuine belief in the demons with which she tries to infect others. The General is given fresh purpose. ‘I am not dead yet. She shall not harm you’. Perhaps Kyra is cunning enough to manipulate the General’s emotional responses thus, refusing to let him rest and prepare for his own death.

Amplified raindrop
Outside, we see the flag visualising the winds’ currents before retreating once more to the tomb, which is all the more claustrophobic in contrast. Whereas the wind moves freely through wide open space, inside the tomb, the water drips on the coffin lid with a steady and repetitive rhythm. Thus, the elements delineate the difference between the kinetic dance of the world of the living and the dull heaviness and gravity of the chthonic underworld. In the original script, the dripping of the water spells out the syllables of the world in Miss Wollsten’s mind, effecting her subjective transformation into the creature. This corresponds to the nightlong attempt at suggestion to which Kyra subjects Thea. We cut back to Kyra and the General. Kyra is again voicing her fears, and now speaks of the other one, for ‘who dies by a vorvoloka becomes a vorvoloka’. This creature seems to be a regional variant of both werewolf and vampire, then.

Expressionist sounds - fear in the night
The rhythm of the film is speeding up as it reaches its climax, with a faster intercutting between scenes. From the tomb, the sounds of dripping water are joined by the creaking of wood. The use of sound here is brilliantly used to create a sense of anticipatory tension. Kyra and the General wait fearfully, perceiving the sounds of the tomb as if they are in the room itself. The wood splinters and cracks with a preternatural loudness. These are sounds amplified within the subconscious underworld of their own minds. This is an expressionistic use of noise as a manifestation of their own sense of guilt. They know it is coming for them.

Laughing at the 'bus'
The camera glides towards the entrance of the tomb, as if carried on a gust of wind. A distracted voice from inside mutters ‘shut me in the dark, shut me in again’. Mrs St Aubyn emerges from the shadows. She has been reborn. Inside, Davis and Thea watch Albrecht as he polishes a trident. Albrecht explains its providence: ‘Poseidon didn’t use it for fishing’ but for stirring the waves. In other words, this is not a weapon. The General is mumbling about the vorvoloka, so Davis sends Thea out to get away from him. Thus begins this film’s nightwalk sequence, a key component of Lewton’s films up until this point. She is drawn by the song of a bird in much the same way as Davis and the General were drawn by her siren song at the start of the film. Down in the glades, the bird’s song is suddenly overlaid by the discordant skronk of another creature, presumably an owl. This is the ‘bus’ moment familiar from Cat People and subsequent films. Here, it is inserted almost as an afterthought. Thea, after her initial jolt of fear, smiles at herself in self-mockery at her jumpy reaction. It is almost as if Lewton is giving us a nod and a wink at what he realises has now become something of a well-worn convention.

Wind elemental
In the house, Albrecht, a neglectful watchdog, is dozing off. With the General also asleep, Davis goes out to find Thea. She is still trying to locate the songbird, but its call is now joined by cracked and broken fragments of a troubled song. This stands in direct contrast to her own siren song, which was a seductive stream of sound. We see Mrs St Aubyn drifting through the glade, the white veils of her dress floating freely behind her. She looks as if she is being carried along by the wind, or has been reborn as some kind of wind elemental. Having emerged from the clammy rock and earth of the tomb, with its deadly rhythm of dripping water, she is enjoying the free flow of the air once more.

At the mouth of darkness
Thea is back at the shore debarkation point once more. Retracing the steps of the General and Davis at the start of the film, she follows this broken song up the rocky path into the dark passage of the tombs. The shadows of bare branches shivering in the wind are cast upon her face and look like long raking fingers. The choked syllables of the singer’s song bear the echo distortions of the tomb’s interior. Whatever is making these sounds is here with Thea. She tremulously asks if it is Kyra, a logical deduction since she is the only other living woman on the island. The uttering of this name is like a trigger. The name is thrown back as a yell of anger, and Mrs St Aubyn emerges from the shadows and flows out of the opposite exit. Thea runs back down the stone steps where she meets Davis.

The night's raking fingers
Mrs St Aubyn enters the house and sweeps past the sleeping Albrecht, instinctively picking up the trident from where he left it lying on his desk. She ascends the stairs, past the now veiled bird. The bird has its black night-time cloth to cover its cage, a presentiment of death as well as a blinker to shut out the world, to retreat into the shadows of limited vision. Kyra is awake and grasping her sheets with white-knucked terror, awaiting her fate. Mrs St Aubyn delivers it with a fatal stab of the trident to the neck. Kyra’s fears of being prey to a devilish creature which slowly drains away her life are belied by the swift expediency of her dispatch. There is no malice here, just a sure and efficient carrying out of justice. This is the destruction she willed the General to mete out on Thea. Effectively, she has been identified as the vorvoloka-like source of psychic infection, the ‘pale, half-dead thing that drains all the life and joy from those who want to live’ as Miss Wollsten put it in the original script, referring to Cathy. As such, she has been removed in order to disinfect the island.

Resurrected Fury!
The trident is a weapon which is not a weapon, a distinction carefully pointed out by Albrecht. It resembles the gun which the General pushes towards his disgraced colonel at the start of the film. This was also presented by someone from behind a table, designed, with conscious intent in this case, to be picked up by someone on the other side. Mrs St Aubyn picks up the trident which Albrecht has carelessly left lying on his desk without pause in her progress. It is in exactly the right place for her as she passes, and thus almost seems a tool of providence. It is the sacred object through which the agency of the gods is channelled, an agent of fate and an object which carries the symbolic weight of old beliefs. It is a tool turned to violent purpose in much the same way as the tools turned weapons in The Ghost Ship embody labour turned against itself. Here, Kyra is the subject of greater forces than the demons which she has feared and who she herself has referred to as the agents of the gods.

The weapon which isn't a weapon
Davis bursts into the house with Thea at this point, waking Albrecht up and explaining about Mrs St Aubyn’s trances. Thinking she is still outside, they go to search for her, whilst Thea goes up to her room. The General sees her ascend, and staggers out of his bed to follow. Thea goes to her bed, not seeing Mrs St Aubyn, who waits in the shadows, guarding over her with her trident. The General emerges from the top of the stairs, and we see a blurred point of view shot of the corridor. He is now half-blind, his distorted vision symbolic of the way his view of the world has been warped, the truth veiled. He is like the bird at the foot of the stairs, covered in its night-time cloth. He stumbles into Thea’s room, moving with the energy of will alone, already half-dead. Finding Kyra’s body with blood on its neck, he understands that he has failed in his pledge to guard her, and that Thea, in vorvoloka form, must be in the room. He blindly feels around for her, and when she makes a sound, fixes on her position and moves forward. Having waited until he presents a genuine threat, Mrs St Aubyn now emerges from the shadows and stabs him with her trident. Unlike her killing of Kyra, which was done in the guise of a cleansing Fury, acting to destroy an infectious soul, the General is put down like a dog which has become out of control, no longer responding to orders. Her work done, Mrs St Aubyn flows downstairs and out of the door. She seems almost to glide, an elemental of the scirroco wind, which has also come to burn away the disease.

The pitiful guard dog
Davis and Albrecht see her outside as she passes through the grove and the temple of Hermes before finally throwing herself off the cliff and into the sea. Hers has been a temporary resurrection for a specific purpose, just as the reawakening of ancient forces has been momentary and ruthlessly effective. Back in the bedroom, Thea has pressed herself into a corner as the General drags himself towards her. With his face looking up at her with hungry eyes, he really does resemble a pitiful guard dog, lame and powerless but refusing to give up its post. Davis and Albrecht come in, and Albrecht cradles the dying soldier.

Comforting lies
‘I saw the vorvoloka’, the General says. ‘The grave clothes, wings…eyes of death and evil’. ‘Yes, yes’, Albrecht replies, allowing him the comfort of his illusion. ‘She came out of the darkness…she must be destroyed’, he says, still feebly issuing orders. ‘It is done’, Albrecht assures him. ‘She has gone back to endless night’. Hearing this, the General allows himself to die. Davis immediately offers eulogising words; ‘he wanted to protect us’. This is a very generous summation of his motives, given that he was using the last ounce of his strength to try to kill Thea. It is a select ‘us’ which Davis refers to, and his blindness to the destruction the General has wreaked, both here and on his own people, demonstrates his own affinity with his journalistic subject. There is a sense in which the General’s attempt to kill Thea is an attempt to silence her opposition to his authority, her objection to his moral ruthlessness in pursuing any means to achieve an end which he has been ordered to effect. This is not something which Davis necessarily disagrees with, and his final apologetic could extend to the General’s wider actions. In the original script, Davis reveals to the dying General that Thea is his daughter, and there is a final reconciliation. Here, he dies with his illusions intact, and indeed fed.

Debarcation from the Isle of the Dead
The following day, Davis and Thea climb into the boat which will take them from the island, and the last shot of the film is of the statue of Cerberus. The General is left on the island to guard the dead from his grave, finally finding a role to match that of his analogous mythic beast. In the original script it is Albrecht, not Davis, who gives the summary line of the film. He blesses Davis and Thea, saying ‘may life be good to you both. As for the others, they will be quiet here, and I will be with them’.



Next, Karloff returns in Lewton's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher