Friday, 20 August 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirty Three

Bedlam - Part Three

The feminised man - Skelton's dandy
Nell marches across the street and attempts to mount her horse without pause, causing it to shy and nervously skitter away. Her anger affects her judgement and the horse retreats from her with instinctive fear. As we’ve seen, the link between animals and people is strongly and repeatedly made during the film. The Quaker comes to help get a hold of the animal, approaching it with a calm and soothing manner. Standing by and proving of little help is Nell’s valet, played by Lewton regular Skelton Knaggs. He is another feminised man, dandily dressed and immaculately bewigged. His clothes seem to somehow define his shape and dictate his movements, engulfing his small frame. They really do make the man in this case, and this furthers the theme of the abiding attention given to the world of surface appearance. As Nell explains to the Quaker, ‘he can plant a tress or twirl a furbelow quicker than a handywoman, but he has no knack with horses’. If Nell is an adornment for Lord Mortimer to display in public, then Knaggs’ character, Varney, serves much the same purpose for Nell. He is the next one down in the descending chain of authority, and s such is a visible indicator of her status. The Quaker admonishes Nell for striking Sims, pointing out that it will be the powerless inmates who will suffer in her stead. He is aware of the Newtonian rule as acted out on a social level, whereby the force of violence begets a reaction (even if it is not equal and opposite) which is usually directed downwards in the power spectrum.

Flirting with religion
Nell diverts his stern train of thought by indulging in a bit of flirtation, refusing to respond directly to his criticism. She picks up on his archaic language and asks, in a bright tone, ‘are we lovers that you thee and thou me?’ Her valet explains in the kind of mock arisctocratic voice oft-adopted by Irene Handl. ‘He’s a Quaker, Mistress Bowen’. Skelton Knaggs is hilarious here, and his petite dandy is instantly engaging in this scene, and in the few others in which he appears. His air of dreamy self-absorption, which later shades into rueful self-awareness, provides the third in a series of connected characters which he played in Lewton films. There was the dying cockney, fever-dreaming of home comforts in Isle of the Dead; and Finn, the deaf-mute sailor with his ruminative inner voice offering mystical insight in The Ghost Ship. Each of them are caught up in themselves, existing in much the same isolated state that Nell had noted amongst the Bedlamites. All are outsiders in their own particular way. The Quaker now introduces himself to Nell, and by extension to the audience, as William Hannay. Nell reduces the sum of his beliefs to the formula ‘they turn the other cheek’. She says this with much the same disbelieving contempt with which Sims responded to Hannay’s rejection of his bribe. She shares Sims view of the world as a place in which one must be active in pursuing one’s own interests; a place of constant struggle for position and interest. She has no time for what she considers to be a philosophy of passivity and inaction.

Quaker lecture
Hannay provides his own take on Quakerism as being manifested in particular actions and the feelings which inspire them, and attempts to connect her to the core of his beliefs. ‘It is feeling pity for those in there as thee did’, he elucidates. Back out in the world beyond the asylum walls, Nell is defensively haughty and contemptuous of such a display of unguarded emotion, which she equates with weakness. Her reflexive compassion is swiftly withdrawn as she returns to the hard, sharp preoccupation with the surface world of appearances. ‘Do you think I struck him because I felt pity for the loonies?’ she asks with deliberate harshness. She attempts to expunge her violent expression of revulsion of any moral component by claiming that she hit Sims because ‘he is an ugly thing in a pretty world’, and she wishes to preserve the illusion of life as a gilded pageant. Her ‘pretty world’ is an enclosed and exclusive enclave which must be vigorously maintained and ruthlessly policed. Hannay makes the point that ‘there are many ugly things in this pretty world if thee would but see them’. It is a question of unveiling your perception from a willed and convenient blindness. Nell will have nothing of such implied criticism, which seems to assume that she has lived a cosseted and privileged existence. ‘Master Quaker, I did not always wear velvet’, she corrects him. She has risen from a lower social class through the use of her sharp wits. Her harshly individualistic social philosophy is that of the self-made man, or in this case woman. She simply doesn’t wish to confront the ugliness of the world, of which she is well aware, having now managed to attain her position in her gilded and luxuriously furnished cage. Hannay counters such a worldview with an argument grounded in an active religious morality which drives a philosophy of social radicalism. He posits a society which offers protection for its less self-reliant (or less ‘witty’) citizens. A Quaker, a member of a religious group associated with the early days of America, is saying that all men are NOT born equal, either in terms of wealth, social position or natural abilities, or even of that elusive quality of innate character. It is an argument against allowing the ‘natural’ law of survival of the fittest, of social Darwinism, to work itself out. An argument for the moral need of social intervention, in effect.

Equestrian statue
Nell takes up Sims’ tactic of dehumanising the Bedlamites by likening them to animals in order to deny them any such consideration. They are ‘animals without souls’, she says, in true parrot-fashion. Her comment carries religious connotations, placing them on a lower level of the great chain of being, and casts the catatonic woman’s iconically Marian appearance in an even more ironic light. With the pragmatism of hypocritically constituted religious dogma, the denial of a soul allows for a guilt free disassociation from exploitation and abuse which is clearly not in keeping with the fundamentally egalitarian tenets of Christianity. It’s a blatant use of religion to morally excuse a stance of indifferent individualism, a hollow philosophy which Nell adopts to suit her own needs. Hannay tries to re-acquaint her with her own authentic soul; with the self that displayed such fierce anger on behalf of the Bedlamites. ‘That is not thee thought’, he tells her. She invites him to come along to Vauxhall, where Sims’ ‘masque of madness’ will be performed, and where she will prove her indifference and ‘laugh at the loonies’. Again, the derogatory word, with its air of dismissive jollity, robs the inmates of their humanity and diminishes Nell at the same time. Hannay provides a corrective to her terminology, rehumanising them and attempting to do the same for Nell by insisting ‘thee will not laugh at the poor and afflicted’. He thus re-asserts his faith in her. He has cast her as an instant icon of compassion and is determined not to be disappointed in his initial estimation. But for now, she towers above him on her horse, declaring ‘my heart is like a flint, sir’, an adoption of cold-heartedness as a strategy for survival. She is posed like an equestrian statue, aloof and imperious, cast in unassailable stone.

Overture to the feasting
We fade in to the scene at Vauxhall Gardens, which are lit by lanterns and candlelight around a loaded banquet table. The pleasure gardens at Vauxhall had been opened by their owner Jonathan Tyers in 1732 and were an ordered arcadia of arches, bandstands, cascades and freshly fashioned ruins. They were a place to see and to be seen, and the fairly minimal entry charge of a shilling meant that there was a genuine mix of classes, although it excluded the wider mass of the poor. They took their more anarchic pleasures elsewhere, in less regulated open spaces such as Greenwich Park. The link with Hogarth is maintained in that the supper booths which were a feature of the gardens were adorned with works of art, Hogarth’s Four Times of the Day amongst them. Indeed, it may have been Hogarth who suggested the use of the booths as galleries to Tyers. Baroque chamber music completes the scene of studied good taste around the loaded table. The classical order and harmony of the elegant music will find its rough counterpoint in the artless singing which we hear at the end of the scene. The sumptuous feast of over-consumption is a frequently used metaphor for the extreme divisions between top and bottom within society; Marie Antoinnette filling her face with cake while the mob gathers outside. Joni Mitchell’s song Banquet is one such expression. Here, those divisions will be directly juxtaposed, as the Bedlamites, the symbolic representatives of the dejected and destitute, make their appearance as performing spectres at the feast.

Herald of the golden age of reason
The loaded table and the expensive glitter of the surrounding decoration represent the trappings of society to which Nell has pledged herself. Her assurances to Hannay that she will enjoy the banquet and its attendant entertainments to the full make this something of a test, albeit in his absence, of her true assimilation into such circles. It is a test which Sims will play his part in setting, anxious as he is to displace her from Lord Mortimer’s side, whilst at the same time enjoying the opportunity to make redress for her slights and blows. This scene is the moral fulcrum of the film, and the point at which the finely constructed balance of power begins to shift, having been given a well-placed nudge. Sims speaks the introductory preface to his play, referring to the gilded government of ‘our golden age of reason’. A boy with orb and sceptre, standing beneath a small proscenium arch and painted entirely in gold, is its rather obvious symbolic representative. Sims cues him by saying that he ‘will tell you of its brightest adornment, Lord Mortimer’, which occasions a deep bow of unashamed (or perhaps sarcastic) unctuousness. Nell, his Lordship’s brightest adornment, enthusiastically joins in the applause from her position by his side.

Prodding and prompting
The boy attempts to speak, prodded and prompted by Sims, but is filled with painful anxiety. Lord Mortimer leans over to Wilkes, and merrily comments that ‘a mad boy playing reason’ is a ‘Tory joke’, to which this renowned reformer ripostes ‘we Whigs have some concern for the humanities’. Whether this is meant to indicate a concern for his fellow man or an adverse critical appraisal of the artistic offering is left unclear. He certainly doesn’t seem in the least perturbed by the evident suffering of the young man on the stage. Lord Mortimer and John Wilkes belong to another sub-world, one in which their politics is set in a closed loop of verbal sparring, with no outward connection to the wider commonality, to whose fate they remain blandly indifferent. It also doesn’t seem to occur to Lord Mortimer that a ‘mad boy’ declaiming him to be the brightest adornment of the age may in fact be a bitter joke at his expense.

Standing apart from the crowd

The boy speaks his lines in fractured, stuttered bursts, which suggests the fragmentation of both thought and language, and points to a disconnection between the two. It as if the disparity between the world as he experiences it and the myth of classical glory which he is being forced to voice makes the words physically painful for him to articulate. Sims, meanwhile, seems unconcerned by the breakdown of his introductory chorus. The performance piece he has created is many layered and reveals his considerable cunning. Its inherent cruelty acts both as test and taunt. Sims has already witnessed (and been subject to) the flashes of uncontrolled anger which Nell displays, and which give the lie to her façade of indifference and moral affectlessness. The nature of his masque, its very form, will serve to create a division between her and Lord Mortimer and the fashionable demi-monde to which she has gained entry. At the same time it will hold an ironic mirror up to the genuine lack of concern of the fashionable aristocracy. The verse is akin in its effect to the satirical mock classicism of Alexander Pope in his bathetic epic The Rape of the Lock. But if Sims is unconcerned at the loss of his words, it’s because it is the form of the masque which carries its real meaning. A paean of praise delivered by madmen conveys his concealed disgust of Lord Mortimer and his ilk, a contempt masked by being couched as yet another gay amusement for their delectation and distraction. The words which the young man does manage to choke out take on the guise of mockery through their distressed and halting delivery, which gives them an air of uncertainty. They lack the appearance of sincerity granted by the authority which would have been conveyed by a more confident theatrical oration. ‘To this pretty world’, he stutters, a reiteration of Nell’s phrase, which is now reflected back at her in parodic form. ‘To this pretty world…there came…heaven sent…divinely inspired…the blessing of …our age’. The boy’s escalating discomfort makes it clear that this is not a blessing which is exercised on his behalf. Nell stands up, distancing herself from the grinning figure of Lord Mortimer, who is clearly basking in the assumed glory of every complimentary image.

Suffocating words
Sims pokes the boy with his stick, and prompts him with carefree gaiety, seemingly glad to intrude on his own work. He reminds him ‘I spent all morning beating it into your head’, making clear the boy’s status as an animal to be trained through the conditioned fear of pain. On an emblematically wider social scale, this is the attitude of the fashionable and political elite to the control of the populace, and they join in with encouragements to ‘prod him on Sims’, with much accompanying merriment. Wilkes speculates on the necessity of being able to breathe through the pores of the skin, but it is an abstract observation, and he watches with increased interest, as if awaiting the conclusion of an experiment which might bear his theory out. The boy evidently is suffocating, clasping his throat as if to squeeze out his breath, but Sims continues to prod him on. His lines now definitely bearing the Pope-like stamp of rising rhetorical exaggeration for satirical effect. ‘A man…set like a jewel…this prince of men’. We see a close up of the boy’s gasping, gilded face as he utters the words which reveal the identity of the recipient of his tawdry eulogy: ‘this paragon – Lord Mortimer’. There is then a close up of Nell’s concerned features, which creates a sympathetic link between her and the boy. This is the crucial moment of her test, the nodal point at which a moral choice is offered.

Commencing battle
The boy collapses, which causes general amusement, furthered by Sims’ suggestion that they duck him in the river. He is utterly beneath their concern, his suffering a comical sideshow. Nell literally stands up for him, rising once more from Lord Mortimer’s side to accuse Sims of deliberately endangering his patient. He replies with measured words, carefully approaching the anticipated confrontation, which he had perhaps set up right from the start. His taunt has worked, and drawn Nell apart from the evening’s entertainment in a conspicuous fashion. He adopts a coolly analytical manner the better to deflect the anger of his opponent and fan the furnace of her ire, which he knows will leave her judgement at the mercy of her passion. She is, for all her protestations, a romantic in a classic world of cool restraint and cautiously channelled emotion. ‘If I understand you properly’, Sims adduces with subtly directed condescension, as if her meaning was poorly articulated, ‘this boy is dying’. A nod from a footman causes him to make a revision to his tense with scarce a pause, and no alteration in tone, a chilling expression of reflexive indifference to a life deemed less than human. ‘This boy is dead’, he continues, ‘because his pores are clogged by the gilt’. Wilkes has the empirical proof for his scientific speculation. It is a highly symbolic death. He has been killed by the very gilding of the age which he has been painted to represent, his dying words hailing Lord Mortimer as its embodiment. It’s almost as if Sims has planned such a cruel and pointed irony. The maintenance of the glittering demi-monde which those gathered inhabit comes at the expense of such powerless victims. The death is quickly turned into a witticism, as Sims points out that the boy expired ‘of his own exhalations’, from the condition of his life. The enchanted court of wit and gaiety which casts its charm of wilful blindness on the all-pervasive degradation and chaos in which it is set is re-inforced by this communal act of mockery, a denial death and shared humanity. Nell looks around her at the general laughter with a look of hatred and disgust. She has taken sides.

Indulging the fancies of his pet
Nell directs her wrath towards Sims, making a conscious attempt to use her influence to deflate his sense of triumph at the voluble amusement which he has engineered. She declares that she has ‘had enough of that boring, dull man and his cruelty’. The dullness and boredom would be the unforgiveable qualities her, as she well knows, having voiced such sentiments herself on several occasions. Lord Mortimer answers with genuine lack of understanding. ‘But we’re all laughing’ he points out with catch-all QED logic which precludes further argument. Gaiety and amusement are seen as an end in themselves, the means through which they are achieved being of little consequence. Nell attempts to locate their laughter in a moral context, to force Lord Mortimer to recognise and take responsibility for the effects caused by his carefree passage through the world. The content of her speech begins to show definite signs of the influence of Hannay’s ideals, which she had so forcefully and dismissively brushed aside earlier. She makes a summary statement as if addressing a jury, attempting to dispel for a moment the shallow self-absorption of the gathered diners; ‘A boy died tonight – a boy who had no mind to guide his thoughts or deeds’. Indeed, he was the perfect puppet for Sims’ convoluted purposes. It’s a plea for recognition of his humanity, as well as being a startling self-revelation of compassion affirmed, realised through the act of its articulation. Perhaps realising the futility of attempting to penetrate Lord Mortimer’s class armour, she appends a political dimension to her appeal to his emotions. At the same time she invites Wilkes to prove his radical credentials, to justify his popularity amongst the commonality. ‘Perhaps there’ll be some concern about that amongst the Whigs’, she stirs. Only on such an abstracted level, that of Westminster village party bickering and vote bargaining can interest be generated. Lord Mortimer smiles indulgently, the wine glass in his hand indicating where his passions truly lie. He is determined not to let his evening be ruined, and to continue to enjoy reports of his own magnificence. Nell’s words are as easily cast aside as were those of the Quaker Hannay by her own assumption of superiority. They ultimately carry no more weight than the phrases squawked out by her parrot, and we are once more reminded of the parallel between her and her pet. ‘You’ll find they’re laughing too’, Lord Mortimer points out of the Whigs, and indeed they are. All are absorbed in their political to and fro, bandying witticisms and bon mots as if nothing has happened.

Outsider art
Sims introduces the next act in his masqued variety show, an old woman (or perhaps she is worn through the effects of experience more than age) who he introduces as ‘Alfrieda, Queen of the Artichokes’. All pretence at classical form is now cast aside, and the open mockery of the Bedlamites begins. Nell pauses on her way out to listen as the old woman sings a folk tune in a quavering, unsteady voice, sounding frail and emotionally vulnerable. It is a heartbreakingly raw performance and has something of the quality of modern ‘outsider’ artists such as Daniel Johnston, singers whose artless and unaffected music can on occasion convey a direct and unvarnished expression of unguarded emotion. The words of her song hint at opposing poles of innocence and experience, of foolishness and wisdom, and possibly at the recovery of a forgotten past, of a self long lost. They also underline the opposite ends of the social spectrum which are here present. ‘Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen’, she sings, ‘here’s to the widow of fifty/Here’s to the flaunting extravagant queen/and here’s to the housewife that’s thrifty’.

A backward look at the life she's leaving
Nell walks off. She has failed in her intent, stated to Hannay, of providing a demonstration of her stony, statuesque indifference to the plight of the ‘loonies’. In his eyes, she has passed the moral test which this banquet has served to provide. As for Sims, he has succeeded in causing a rift between her and Lord Mortimer, whose patronage he seeks to corner for himself. He has once more revealed himself to be a man of considerable cunning. The laughter continues to ring out in the night air at the expense of the woman and her song. The Vauxhall scene is bookended by two very different kinds of music, each of which represent, through their wildly disparate classical and folk forms, the opposite ends of the social spectrum which are present. The folk song which ‘Alfrieda’ sings, the vernacular music of the people, occasions mocking hilarity from the banqueters. It is beneath their contempt, and so is she.

Hogarth's Night
Another Hogarth print is displayed as an intertitle. This is Night, from the series The Four Times of the Day, which had been put up in one of the supper booths in Vauxhall Gardens. It’s an appropriate picture to lead us from that locations to the night-time street scene which we now fade in on. Hogarth set his work in the Charing Cross area, identifiable from the statue in the background. The version which Lewton uses is actually a rather crude copy. The idea of a barber plying his trade with cut throat razor by candlelight on a drunken night is an alarming one, and seems to invite bloody disaster. Hogarth depicts a much more chaotic Night than Lewton is about to unveil, one filled with incipient violence and calamity. There is a fire in the road, the inchoate energy of the street waiting to be fanned into a full-blown blaze. This is the fire which we saw in the opening scenes of the film, in which Nell and Lord Mortimer drove past Bedlam in their carriage. The carriage in Hogarth’s print has crashed and there is much violent dispute surrounding its overturning, with one short fellow waving a stick in the air, a long dagger or possibly even a set square hanging from his belt. A spark from the fire falling into the carriage’s interior is about to make things much worse. The figure in the foreground is a freemason, and he’s just about to receive the contents of someone’s chamber pot on his head. A group of homeless people, akin to the inmates of Bedlam, huddle under a table outside the barber’s. The still point of this hectic composition is the innkeeper, quietly pouring ale into his barrel as he smokes his pipe, such a chaotic melee merely an everyday matter. Once again, as in his Beer Street print, ale is portrayed as a positive force for the social good.

Night recreated
Lewton’s street scene is considerably more quiet, with less of a claustrophobic clutter of detail and activity. We see the rim of a carriage wheel, still upright and intact, and the window of a barber’s, the candles lighting each of its panes reproduced from the Hogarth print. The camera pans along the street from the barber’s until it encounters a group of Quakers leaving their meeting house, hats firmly back on as they leave the presence of God. The meeting house is a place of warmth and communality in the darkness of the night street onto which its doors open. Such comradeship and human society is of immense importance throughout Lewton’s films. It counters the psychological dangers of isolation and self-containment which Nell has noted in the inhabitants of Bedlam, and which we have encountered in a variety of characters, from Irena in Cat People and Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim through Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship to Amy in Curse of the Cat People. Nell’s declaration to Hannay that her ‘heart is like a flint’ indicates that she was on the way to becoming the latest in this lineage.

The Queen of Vauxhall Gardens
As Hannay passes the carriage, Nell emerges from its interior and greets him in a humorously imperious fashion. She descends like a queen in her Vauxhall finery. He lends her a hand as she leaps the gutter onto the pavement, helping her across the abyss which lies between the enclosed, protected world of the carriage, which is in effect still the world of Vauxhall and of Lord Mortimer’s bed chamber, and the pavement upon which she makes her landing. Nell has questions for the Quaker which she brings to him directly from her life-changing experience at the gardens. The urgency of her feelings require an immediate explication and affirmation whilst they are still fresh. The facility with which she reels off her questions suggests that they have been carefully mulled over and formulated during her carriage ride and subsequent wait. She asks him whether he thinks her ‘a woman of kind heart’. He once more reminds her of the look of kindness and compassion he saw in her face in Bedlam. ‘I’ve never seen that in my mirror’, she replies. The mirror is the side-piece of social armoury in which appearance is adjusted and fixed, ready for the next duel in which reputation and social standing are defended and attacked. It reflects the world of surfaces and depthless masks and penetrates no deeper. The very act of looking in the mirror in this manner precludes a more profound level of self-examination. She entertains the idea that she may have experienced pity for the inmates of Bedlam and seeks guidance from Hannay, who she is looking to as some kind of expert in morality; a religious professional. She is wrestling with the recognition of a new and powerfully awakened nature which she does not yet know how to assimilate into her world view. It is a feeling which will in fact profoundly change it.

Crossing the abyss
Hannay is indirect, uncomfortable at being viewed as a figure of unshakeable moral wisdom. He invokes God as a higher authority, evading a direct response and effectively passing the buck. Nell looks troubled, and gives what sounds like a tentative admission put forward in a confessional, awaiting a prompt for further elucidation. ‘I have seen things I have no liking for’, she says. Hannay assures her that ‘thee need not tell me’. He’s not here to be her confessor, nor her interrogator, and offers the option of sparing herself the distress of having to relive painful events which have so recently been experienced. She also need not tell him because he is well aware of the ill-use to which Sims is liable to put his performing ‘loonies’. He re-iterates his concerns for the downtrodden in words which sound like those of the radical, reformist politician which Wilkes claims to be. ‘It’s a bad time for the, and the people suffer, the ones with wit and the ones without’. There is no distinction between the world of Bedlam and the world without its walls. Those walls, and the cages and chains within, are symbolic as well as real. They exist in the world beyond Bedlam, which stands as a representation of the wider mass of the poor, the helpless and the hopeless.

Seeking a confessor
Nell asks Hannay how to act on the feelings aroused by the recognition of injustice and inequality, and the brutality and cruelty by which it is maintained. He says ‘I do what I can – I’m a stonemason’. He makes the best use of the skills which he has, and leads by example through work well done. ‘I build well’ he says, and offers a vision of the shining city, the city on the hill which represented the utopian ideal for early Puritan colonists in the new world of America. It can also be seen, in the light of the time at which Bedlam was made, as a vision for the construction, both physical and ideological, of a new post war world. ‘Let others build as well and soon this city will become a clean and decent habitation’. Hannay’s Quakerism is a religion rooted in communal values, and is completely the opposite of the capitalist cult of diabolism in The Seventh Victim, with its brand logo icon and philosophy of parasitism on the social body. His moral convictions are translated into practical action, driven by a firmly rooted idealism. Nell is less sure of what talents she can offer, however, and suffers a rare moment of self-negation. It is a recognition of the tenuous nature of the position she has managed to manoeuvre herself into in society. ‘I’m only a jester to bring laughter to Lord Mortimer’s dinner table’, she admits, taking a step towards a greater sense of humility.

Coquetry with a Quaker
This uncharacteristic modesty doesn’t last long. Hannay points out that Lord Mortimer is a member of the council which runs Bedlam, and that her influence can be put to use. She is, in effect, in a position to act as a politician. She smiles at him and says, with renewed brightness, ‘good, you’re not such a fool as I thought you’. She turns the exchange around, and with the rhetorical skills in which she has become expert, makes it seem as if she prompted the idea in the first place, like Lord Mortimer laying claim to Sims’ plan for a masque of madness. Her confidence restored, and with a new course of action in mind, she flirts with Hannay again. She smiles as she asks him why he doesn’t take off his hat – ‘do you have no liking for me?’ He reaches to oblige before remembering that they unhat ‘only before God’. Just as she is abandoning her ruthlessly individualistic philosophy to take a few steps towards his religiously-based morality, he is leavening his strict doctrinal code to approach her. Both are drawn to the other by a magnetism which mixes the physical with an attraction of mind and spirit. Nell smiles coquettishly and flutters her fan, and the Quaker looks flustered. He is utterly under her spell, and she knows it. She has recalled where her skills lie.

Monday, 16 August 2010

London Open City

O Lucky Man! Travis joins the establishment in the Reform Club
The programme is now out for this year’s London Open House weekend, which takes place on the 18th and 19th September. This always offers a great opportunity to have a look around buildings not generally open to the public, and enjoy free tours of those that are which often incorporate hidden and inaccessible corners. There are many locations which have associations with film and literature, considerations which tend to influence my choice of where to go. Last year we went to the Reform Club, which is also in the programme this year, although I suspect it’s pre-book only tours are full up by now. It is most famously the point from which Phileas Fogg sets out on his travels in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and is also used in the 1956 film of the novel with David Niven giving the archetypal unruffleable Englishman performance which he settled into later in his career. It represents a solid establishment backdrop in Quantum of Solace and the recent Sherlock Holmes film, and rather more surprisingly crops up in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, Malcolm McDowell briefly gaining access to its privileged halls in the course of his picaresque rise and fall. The Reform Club is considered one of the more progressive of its breed (it used to be aligned with the Liberal Party) and proudly declares that it was the first such club to admit women on equal terms with men – in 1981!

Lucifer over London - Pete and Dud atop the PO Tower
The BT tower is also open, operating tours through a very sensible booking lottery draw, open from 16th August. I still like to think of it as the Post Office Tower, the pre-privatised name under which it became a symbol of the modernist aspirations of the mid-60s. As such, it became a popular location for films trying to capture (or cash in on) the swinging tenor of the times. In the George Melly scripted Smashing Time, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave cause chaos by setting the revolving restaurant at the top spinning out of control. Peter Cook’s devil takes Dudley Moore out onto the balcony in Bedazzled, from where he sends pigeons off to do their business on a businessman’s head, and points out the Garden of Eden, a ‘boggy swamp just south of Croydon’. In the 1966 Doctor Who serial The War Machines, the Post Office Tower is the headquarters from which a supercomputer known with sinister acronymity as WOTAN develops a mind to take over the world, and releases crap robots into the back streets of Fitzrovia in order to achieve this ambition. It’s thwarted by William Hartnell with the aid of a couple of new companions he picks up along the way; dolly bird Polly and with it geezer Ben, a couple of mildly groovy types who hang out at the Inferno night club and give the series a bit of swinging sixties sheen. On the other side of the bisecting torrent of Oxford Street, you can climb up the tower of St Anne’s in Soho and look down on the warren of streets and alleyways surrounding St Anne’s Court, perhaps imagining them deluged by some catastrophic flood and turned into a grubbier cousin of the canals of Venice, as Chris Petit does at the end of his novel Robinson.

The Gothic screen - The Granada Cinema, Tooting
There are some fine old 20s and 30s cinemas to see, most of which have been saved from the post war wrecking ball through being converted to other uses. Many others were casually demolished, dream palaces razed to make way for the banal functionality of characterless rows of shops or the arid spaces of car parks. Those that remain are now listed to save them from a similar fate. The Muswell Hill Odeon is happily still in use as a cinema, and tours are limited in order to fit in around their programme. It retains the streamlined art deco interior so redolent of its time. The Forest Hill Cinema was part of the ABC chain and also put on variety shows on its stage. It’s now one of the Wetherspoon pubs which make use of historical buildings, and is known as the Capitol. The former Gaumont Palace in Wood Green has become, like several other grand old cinema auditoria, a place for evangelical gatherings. God has re-entered the house (apparently) for perhaps the first time since Charlton Heston fetched his widescreen tablets in The Ten Commandments. But perhaps the finest of them all (and the first cinema building to receive a grade 1 listing) is the Granada Cinema at Tooting Broadway, now a Gala Bingo Hall. And in case we’re tempted to sniff at such an appropriation, there is every likelihood that the building would not be here at all today had its usage not been continued through such humble entertainments. The entrance lobby is suitably palatial, with balconies from which the occasional visiting star (Sinatra played here) could wave down at the gathered masses in regal fashion. Indeed such a scene is depicted in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in which Geoffrey Rush, playing Sellers, rains down caustic comments about his latest Pink Panther movie and its director Blake Edwards. The auditorium is approached via a corridor of mirrors, colonnaded with painted wooden columns. It’s a walk whose endlessly multiplied images invites glamorous self-regard, and which acts as a prelude to the entry into the realm of the unreal. If memory serves, it was used to such ends in The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. The auditorium itself is a mock gothic fantasia, with fake windows on the side walls which make you feel like you are in a cathedral or fairy tale castle if you’re willing to suspend your sense of disbelief a little (and if you’re not, why would you be going to the cinema in the first place?). It would be a fantastic place to see some of the classic gothic horror films, the Karloff Frankensteins or Hammer Draculas. The tour I went on some years ago included a look inside the projection room, and the sheer distance to the screen below was amazing, and caused some logistical difficulties. The old organ lies somewhere beneath the bingo tables, and has recently undergone restoration (although sadly was damaged once more in recent floods). It is still poised on its elevator, and you can imagine it erupting amongst the startled players intent on their bingo sheets, bursting forth with a triumphant blast. Perhaps some of the more elderly amongst the bingo regulars remember the cinema in its heyday and still perceive the dying echoes of pictures seen in its (and their) golden age. Where once people packed these palaces to share fantastic communal dreams, they now offer booze, gambling and god. Ah well.

The Sands Film Studios, which have adapted an old Thameside warehouse at Rotherhithe, are opening their doors. They’ve lent their production facilities to Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, amongst other films. Their cinema club also looks excellent, offering a selection of classic art movies such as The Gospel According to St Matthew, La Grande Illusion, Intolerance and a selection of Humphrey Jennings films. Alexandra Palace is also well worth a visit, although the main interior, which once hosted the countercultural summer of love showpiece the 24 Hour Technicolor Dream, is now rather shabby. But it does house the studios from which the BBC first broadcast, and where The Quatermass Experiment was filmed (live, of course). There’s also a hidden and rather ghostly theatre, disused since the 30s, the walls of its expansive hall covered with the flaking gilt and dark red paint of bygone days. The Palace and its transmitting tower were used in the Doctor Who episode The Idiot’s Lantern, effectively writer Mark Gatiss’ tribute to the early days of television broadcasting. A variety of theatres are open, with tours including glimpses into the backstage world. These range across the temporal spectrum, from the music hall galleries of Hoxton Hall through the gilded variety palace of the Hackney Empire to the brutalist functionality of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre on the South Bank. No Wilton’s Music Hall this year, although you can easily go and visit now that it’s a working venue once more. The rather more forgiving South Bank modernism of the recently renovated Royal Festival Hall is also offering an architectural tour of one of the few permanent remnants of the 1951 Festival of Britain (excellent footage of which can be found on the BFI’s COI Design For Today dvd).

Son et lumiere over Derry and Toms roof garden
Buildings with literary and artistic pedigree are also included in the programme. You can ascend to the shady oasis, the roof gardens and Babylon Restaurant atop what used to be Derry and Toms department store, which is cloistered from the surrounding noise and bustle of Kensington High Street. This features as Jerry Cornelius’ retreat at the start of the second of Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet, A Cure for Cancer, where the gentile tranquillity of tea time is soon disrupted by a strafing chopper. Moorcock’s 1971 novel describes the atmosphere of the place, pre-helicopter attack, thus: ‘The time might be July 31st 1970. London, England. Cool traffic circulates. A quiet, hot day: somewhere in the distance – a bass tone.
In High Street Kensington, where the trees of Hyde Park creep out among the buildings, stands the age-old structure of the Derry and Toms department store. Tier upon impressive tier, it is proud among its peers.
On the roof of the store, in a lot of rich earth, grow shrubs and trees and flowers, and there are little streams and ponds with goldfish and ducks.’ He goes on to use a 1966 guidebook to describe the Old English garden, Tudor courts and flower beds and the Spanish garden with Moorish pergolas and the court of fountains. They’ve all been recently refurbished, but Jerry would still feel at home.

Victorian decadence - Lord Leighton's house
Just over the road, Victorian artist Frederick Lord Leighton’s house is a fabulously gaudy fantasy palace, a monument to his ideal of art as a recreation of classical dream worlds. It’s certainly a very opulent setting within which to entertain such lefty friends as William Morris and Walter Crane, and the Arabic hall, with its arts and crafts tiling and indoor fountain and pool immediately sweeps you away from its Holland Park surroundings to a storybook version of orientalist fantasy. Morris’ own Hammersmith riverside home at Kelmscott House is also open (or at least the coach house owned by the Morris society). George MacDonald was resident before him, and wrote At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin whilst he was living there. If you want to pursue the radical artist connection, then you can go to St Pancras Old Church, whose grounds house the grave of the pioneer of women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft. She was also the mother of Mary Shelley. Mary’s father William Godwin, for all of his espousal of radical ideas, disapproved of her relationship with the impecunious poet Shelley. With a sense of atmosphere appropriate for someone who would go on to re-invent the gothic novel for the Romantic era (and provide a template for its modern revival) she made secret assignations with him over her mother’s grave. Also buried in the graveyard is Sir John Soane, whose remarkable house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is also open for the Open House weekend (although it always is anyway), and which includes his gothic ‘theme’ basement, with its fictional ‘mad monk’ in the style of Matthew Lewis’ unhinged 18th century character from his novel, titled with admirable simplicity The Monk. You can go and see children’s writer and illustrator Kate Greenaway’s arts and crafts house in Frognal, Hampstead.

Hampstead modernism - Maxwell Fry's Sun House
Frognal, a road too posh to have the word Street appended, is a fascinating conglomeration of architectural styles, with many a controversial incursion of modernism into its leafy surrounds. A modernist house now provides a discreet neighbour for Greenaway’s, and you can see number 66 as you pass, a house built along le Corbusier lines which caused a bit of a to do when it was built in 1938. A short sidetrack up Frognal Way will reveal more modernist houses, none of them taking part in the Open House programme alas, but you might as well have a nose whilst you’re there. These include architect Maxwell Fry’s Sun House of 1936, the first modernist concrete house to be built in London. There’s a triumvirate of post war modernist buildings designed by Erno Goldfinger, the only architect to lend his name to a James Bond supervillain. This dubious privilege came about due to Ian Fleming’s displeasure at the plans for what became Goldfinger’s own home at Willow Road in the writer’s Hampstead backyard. The Willow Road flats now have the official National Trust seal of approval, but you can get in free over the Open House weekend, and as an incidental pleasure, get to see some of Goldfinger’s in situ art collection (modern, of course). Goldfinger’s two signature London buildings are both included in the programme, the Trellick Tower in the West, and the Balfron Tower, its smaller twin (Baby Godzilla to the Trellick’s full monster). The Trellick is unsurprisingly already fully booked (you have to get in pretty quick for a lot of these pre-booked tours) but the Balfron is open on a first come basis. There are also tours Alton West Estate, including the grey parkside blocks of the le Corbusier inspired Highcliffe flats. These provided a suitably cold dystopian backdrop for the opening of Francois Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.

Learning pod - Peckham Library
As a counter to that film’s book burning premise, there are several libraries included in the programme. The London Library in St James Square transferred there in 1845 and remains the country’s largest private library, a Victorian treasury of knowledge cradled in wrought iron and available to the gentleman scholar for a modest subscription. The Herbarium library at Kew amasses and catalogues knowledge in a different form, with plant specimens instead of books, but still with Victorian wrought iron, and spiral staircases too. The Marx Memorial Library on the edge of the radical hotspot of Clerkenwell Green offers the rebellious autodidact food for thought. The socialist Twentieth Century Press was located here from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, having been guaranteed by William Morris, and Lenin worked on his journal Iskra (or The Spark) here from April 1902 to May 1903. The fifteenth century tunnels which run underneath, and which were only rediscovered in 1986, sound irresistibly mysterious, and hopefully we’ll be allowed a glimpse. The Bishopsgate Institute, situated on the faultline of the City and the East End (the former metastasizing ever further outwards, as 201 Bishopsgate and the Broadgate Tower in the programme testify) is another leftward leaning library and cultural centre which has been included in previous years, but not this. It is open to the public anyway. It featured in the recent updating of Sherlock Holmes by Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, the latter of whom clearly has a good sense for an atmospheric London location. Peckham Library represents new ideas for open city learning, and its bright, inviting and imaginative building won the RIBA Stirling prize for the best British building of the year in 2000, a real sign of hope for the future. This year’s shortlist for the prize has one building in the Open House programme: 22 & 23 Bateman’s Row, which married architects Patrick Theis and Soraya Khan built for themselves in Shoreditch to both live and work in, mixing office and residential space. The queues are bound to be long for this one, so get there early.

Mona Lisa - Bob Hoskins tries to get some service at the Park Lane Hotel
For my part, we shall enjoy being ushered around the art deco splendour of the Park Lane Hotel (actually in Picadilly), undoubtedly the only way I’ll ever get to see its plush interiors. Its bar is apparently particularly fine, and is used in films such as Mona Lisa (where Bob Hoskins orders a cup of tea – not Earl Gray, not Darjeeling, just tea) and The Golden Compass (again – for all its faults, this is a film rich in English locations). It also stands in for the interior of a transatlantic liner in Brideshead Revisited (the 2008 film). So, it’s time to dust off the old A-Z and plan a tactical route, plotting intersections of the coloured veins of the tube map and tracing a path across the centuries of London’s architectural strata of wood, stone, brick, concrete, steel, glass, grass and straw.

Hologram by These New Puritans


Here’s a good video for Hologram by These New Puritans. This is one of the quieter, more reflective moments from their recent LP Hidden, which is a wonderful mix of offbeat percussion (both lightly chiming and crushingly pounding), gorgeous brass arrangements (played by the Britten Sinfonia) and concrete sounds (including a recurrent slicing swoosh, as of swords being drawn). There is a jazz-like feel to the song’s offbeat syncopations and zig-zagging melody. The piano has a slight hint of John Cage-like pre-preparedness, and there’s an affecting vulnerability to singer Jack Barnett’s delivery. You could imagine Robert Wyatt singing this. Comparisons with Wire’s Colin Newman are also perhaps inevitable (and I’m sure have been made), not least due to a certain physical resemblance, but Barnett’s voice is definitely his own. A couple of possibilities for future collaborations there, though. The film has much of the atmosphere of videos of the late 70s and early 80s post punk era, and could almost be seen as a pastiche. There’s the monochrome black and white photography, the band playing in some anonymous and decaying warehouse bunker, the moody looks, with glances up to the camera as if suddenly awaking from a moment of profound introspection. Thankfully, there are no long grey overcoats. But it’s simple, it works and I like it. The emotive pianist (presumaby Sophie Sleigh-Johnson) with her negative twin works against the general mood of restraint and stillness, crying onto the surface of her instrument’s reflective casing whilst Barnett, in contrast, remains withdrawn and hunched up into himself throughout, crouched on the floor. In the end he seems to have been awakened from his state of morose isolation, and stands with his arms held out, back to the camera, conjoining (and joining with) the split pianistic twins in a final upbeat tableau. These New Puritans are playing with The Britten Sinfonia at The Barbican on 23rd October. Should be a memorable evening.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Genre Collage by People Like Us


Genre Collage was the latest audio-visual delight offered up by People Like Us, the long-running guise from behind which sound artist and sampling magician Vikki Bennett forges whatever found materials she has gathered together and which spark her imagination into surreal associative collages. It was shown (or rather performed) at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol last weekend, and provided a welcome retreat from the hubbub and milling crowds of the ever-expanding annual Harbourside Festival outside into the cool shadows of the cinematic cave. For the genres being collaged were those of the movies, specifically Hollywood films from the 40s through to the seventies (with a few Brit films creeping in). This period, reaching from the war to the dawn of the Reagan/Thatcher watershed, is rich in shared associative memory, and the splices, superimpositions and ironical collisions to which Bennett subjects her material is not only very funny, but affecting on a deeper level, raising spectres of a world which has become unrecoverable and distant but which has left many traces. The parade of faces and scenes are a film buff’s dream, too, with the smug thrill of recognition running into the agonizing knowledge that you’ve seen this one somewhere, if you could just recall... Bennett herself remains in the shadows to the side of the stage, walled off behind a bank of digital technology, palely glowing in laptop light. This was a live performance, but attention was firmly directed towards the cinema screen.

The show was divided into a series of themes and variations, in which cinematic gestures, conventions and atmospheres dovetailed, provided startling and often hilarious contrasts and created surreal and strange new hybrids. The opening sequence drew us in with that most characteristic and seductive of film images, the charismatic star gaze, casting its magnified glamour through the camera lens and out into the audience. As Bennett played a stuttering rendition of the Look of Love, full of crackle and wow and flutter, a series of glances, stares and blank regards were cast to the side, over the shoulder, from beneath lowered lids or hat-brim shaded brow, or held direct and unblinking. These were looks full of love, calculation, anxiety, sorrow or suspicion; eyes tear-filled, shining with joy, shyly averted or boldly inviting. It all begins with Marion Crane glancing nervously in her rear-view mirror, a reflexive look which directs itself to her own back projection screen, forming a complex, multi-angled path of vision which finds its endpoint with the watching audience. Ingrid Bergman, a regular presence in the collage, gives her signature look of forebearance in the face hurt and emotional suffering. Judy Garland’s Dorothy’s are brimful of tears, caught on the brink of spilling over. Christopher Lee sets his features into a mask of fixed seriousness as the Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out, uttering mesmeric mantras at his possessed young charge. Charles Gray as evil black magician Mocata turns his hypnotic blue-eyed stare upward in the same film, transfixing whoever is on the other end. Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson give narrowed-eye spaghetti western looks of confrontation and appraisal, the later playing his eerie, echoing three note harmonica phrase all the while. And Sabu’s eyes are full of silent pleading as he is compelled into a to crouch down, transformed by another evil magician into the faithful dog Abhu in The Thief of Bagdhad.

Other thematic sequences include a succession of back projection rides, with Hitchcock’s late 50s and 60s films, known for their sometimes shaky use of the technique, heavily featured. Marion’s ride to the Bates Motel in Psycho turns up again. Tippi Hedren takes to the wheel in The Birds, caged lovebirds leaning into the bends beside her. James Stewart cruises the streets of San Francisco after Kim Novak before driving with her to the redwood forests. Cary Grant is a reluctant passenger and drunken driver in North by Northwest. There is also some reckless vintage car driving through the leafy lanes of England from The Devil Rides Out, with more remote magical interventions from the meddlesome Mocata. There are some aerial rides, beginning with Roy Scheider exuding excitement as he looks down from his chopper over the expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge below him (Blue Thunder?). The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz cackles gleefully (yes, she’s evil, but she seems to have such fun) as she joyrides on her broom, spewing out noxious and literate orange exhaust fumes in her wake. Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang offer birds eye views of British land and cityscapes. And Rex Ingram’s towering, pig-tailed genie soars at full supersonic stretch above the mountaintops in The Thief of Bagdhad. Mists, fogs and obfuscatory miasmas billow in the San Francisco of Vertigo; in a cloud of desert dust raised by a passing Greyhound to envelope the Cary Grant’s solitary figure-in-a-wilderness in North by Northwest, besmirching his grey suit; a menacing swarm of birds fills the sky in The Birds; and a magic fog appears from nowhere in the woods in The Devil Rides Out (yes, it’s Mocata up to his tricks again).

Crazy like a cartoon
A hall of mirrors is stalked by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in Lady From Shanghai and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, before they are shattered by bullet and fist. James Stewart tosses and turns in his troubled sleep in Vertigo, his dreams here visualised by some of the gaudier Technicolor moments from the studio montage sequence in Singing In the Rain; mechanically marching marionettes and a disembodied mouth screaming through a megaphone become the stuff of nightmares. The rather Gilliamesque recession of Jimmy Stewart’s disembodied head, forelock disarrayed into an unhinged Tintin quiff, down a swirling op-art vortex (always a signifier of bug-eyed madness) is a disturbingly stylised moment from Vertigo. It’s full of a feeling of the self-mockery of madness, the sense of having become an unreal and absurd cartoon character (it’s also a sequence which I’m reminded of by the opening credits of Peter Davison era Doctor Who). Here, that mockery is reinforced by the superimposition of Donald Duck’s head over Stewart’s startled features (making him a lame duck?) with other cartoon characters cavorting around him like gleeful imps. A scene in which a perplexed OJ Simpson puzzles over what to do in a control room full of blinking panels and banks of switches and buttons allows for Bennett to produce an array of comedy bleeps, whizzes and swannee whistle swoops, with screens showing scenes from SF movies past. Other control room scenes are intercut, including one from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Francois Truffaut doodles at his keyboard, producing the famous five note theme.

Towards the end of the show, everything comes to an abrupt and worrisome halt, and a message comes up on the screen indicating that the digital signal has been lost. This is not a genuine computer crash, however, but a bit of playful fun with the frustrations of technology with which most of us are familiar. It’s also a rude reminder that we are now in an era in which the medium of film is rapidly becoming an anachronism, and that what we are watching is a digital projection emanating from a laptop computer. Vincent Price’s voice tells us not to be alarmed (always a sure sign that alarm is indeed the appropriate response) and to remain in our cinema seats. Digital crash and projector breakdown are juxtaposed as we see the shadow of a giant creepy crawly cross a blank screen, both announcement and bug invasion taken from William Castle’s The Tingler. There follows scenes of theatrical panic and mayhem taken from various sources, including some taken from Joe Dante’s Matinee, a film which affectionately parodies the kind of shameless showbiz gimcrackery in which Castle liked to indulge. There are also clips from that movie’s film within a film, Mant – ‘half human, half ant – all terror!’ We see the collapse and conflagration of the fairground roundabout at the end of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, an appropriate inclusion since an old steam carousel had been whirling delighted riders around by the docks outside, to the rousing pipe organ strains of a Pomp and Circumstance march (and was it my imagination, or was that Brunel himself in stove pipe hat and frock coat contemplating climbing aboard?). Further destruction was wrought in a sequence based around storms and deluges, conjured and conducted with maniacal pleasure by Conrad Veidt’s wicked vizier Jaffar from The Thief of Bagdhad, throwing a dancer’s balletic gestures against a lightning forked sky. Was this one of the scenes directed by Michael Powell? It could certainly take its place in the Red Shoes ballet with little sense of artistic disjuncture.

Calling Ingrid
Wonder Woman earned a sequence all to herself, Lynda Carter spinning through a giddy succession of transformative twirls, all to a soundtrack of tinkling electric piano fairy dust (I can’t recall whether it was at this point that Bennett introduced her beat-enhanced version of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plumb fairies – it certainly would have been apposite). Gentle fun was also had at the expense of Ingrid Bergman, whose tearful confessionals and declarations of devotion from Notorious and Casablanca were spliced together with respondents who remained coldly indifferent to her melancholic charms; Telly Savalas’ Blofeld from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his mind preoccupied with schemes of world domination through super technology; William Sylvester’s affectless scientist calling from the videophone on the big wheel space station in 2001; and a 50s robot, looking like it could have been knocked together from Meccano and a home electronics for boys kit (as indeed it may well have been), which provides the required romantic responses (the voice of Cary Grant?) but in vain, for alas, it was a love which could never be.

The hills are alive with the smell of napalm
Two outstanding sequences linger in the memory more than others, though. Firstly, a brilliant combination of The Sound of Music with Apocalypse Now, Julie Andrews trilling The Hills Are Alive…whilst Jim Morrison gloomily intones ‘This is the End’ behind her. Elements of the two films are superimposed. Choppers hover over the Austrian mountaintops, and as Julie Andrews runs up the Alpine slopes, arms held wide in joyful supplication, the valleys below her blossom in orange napalm efflorescence. As she skips lightly across the clear mountain stream, she tosses pebbles into the water, and they detonate with the force of highly charged explosives. It was hilarious, the laughter tinged with the same edge of hysteria which accompanies Slim Pickens’ whooping descent on the atomic bomb in Dr Strangelove.

American pastoral nocturne - Night of the Hunter
The sequence using the night river journey of the two children in Night of the Hunter was simply sublime. It’s always been one of my favourite cinematic scenes, with the little boat drifting along beneath the stars, a beautiful folk lullaby accompanying the children as they’re watched over by the creatures of the river bank, safe for the moment from the murderous attentions of their false preacher father, cradled and protected for a magically enchanted interlude by the forces of nature which have chosen to look upon their innocence with a benevolent eye. Here, as the boat drifts towards the geometrical silhouette of a barn on the shore, we see the earthrise from 2001 filling the expanse of the night sky beyond. My jaw dropped at this point, and it’s not often that I experience a clichéd figure of speech becoming a physical actuality, and I had one of those ‘who’s been monitoring my mind’ double takes. It’s a deeply affecting moment, two films which are an integral part of the substrata of my memory suddenly and unexpectedly connected, and with the sense of perfect rightness characteristic of the best dreams. The sky beyond the sleeping children in their drifting boat is also streaked with the plummeting shooting star from It Came From Outer Space, warped by the whirling tornado from The Wizard of Oz, and they even drift out onto the Atlantic, where they pass the looming mass of the doomed Titanic. The motion of the little boat is nudged on by a happy collision of I Can Sing A Rainbow and I Was Born Under A Wandering Star, Uncle Lee whispering a gruff, protective lullaby which lets you know that everything is going to be alright. But it was the image of the sky filled with the arc of star and planet beyond Charles Laughton’s American pastoral nocturne which will really remain in my mind’s eye.

If you want a taste of People Like Us’ audio-visual work, there is a good selection available to view over at UbuWeb, which is well worth a visit in general. For a quick blast, the doll head terror of At The Movies is startling, amusing and just a little bit disturbing. Skew Gardens, meanwhile, is an excellent surrealist collage of nature tamed and contained in the wrought iron of Victorian glass houses, and then unleashed on the concrete and steel terrain of the modern urban jungle. It features a giant caterpillar crawling beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Really, what more could you want?

The Sirens of Titan in Oxleas Wood


London Bubble are a South London theatre troupe who have been going for many a year now. They specialise in the risky (given the unpredictability of the English summer climate) pursuit of the outdoor performance, guiding the audience to the various spots where scenes are to be played out. They obviously know their manor like the back of their collective hands, and such an approach has the considerable side pleasure for locals (and this is the general area where I grew up) of imaginatively transforming familiar, everyday locales, taking what’s already there and using it as suggestive theatrical props. In the wood and parkland settings, this makes it all feel like an extension of childhood games of make-believe. Climb up to that branch and you cross over into another world. That pond over there is the home of a many-tentacled monster which will drag you down into bottomless depths if you disturb its slumber. This is an element which is present in all theatre, no matter how ‘grown up’.

London Bubble have already tried their hand at adapting Terry Pratchett to the terrain of the green spaces south of the river, having put on their version of Lords and Ladies some time ago. This year they’ve chosen to adapt the work of one of his spiritual and stylistic forebears, Kurt Vonnegut, boldly opting for one of his early SF novels, The Sirens of Titan. This has always been one of my favourite novels, ever since I read it by the shore of Lake Windermere in my early teens. It has a definite flavour of Pratchett and, particularly, Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, both in its tone and its philosophical pessimism, tempered by a wryly humorous outlook towards the absurdities of human behaviour and the uneasy contemplation of the possibility that life, the universe and everything might be bereft of any deep meaning. One of the main characters in Sirens of Titan even shuttles back and forth between Earth and Betelgeuse (although Vonnegut gives no hint as to its pronunciation). Both Adams and Vonnegut might have fun pointing out the crazy way that human lifeforms are prone to act, but their satire is underpinned by a deeply romantic yearning for life to be less destructive, for sanity and good sense, compassion and sympathy for one’s fellow players in the cosmic comedy to prevail. Even if they concluded that this has thus far proved a vain hope, they were never ready to give up. The Sirens of Titan is certainly a timely adaptation to present, given its message about the emptiness at the heart of the pursuit of vast wealth, the vain comforts of fundamentalist religious belief as an answer to the basic problems of life, and the need for human companionship and love above all.

What part of Hilly Fields Park will be used to represent the barren plains of Mars? Will the tea hut at the top of Oxleas Wood stand in for Winston Niles Rumfoord’s palace on Titan? Will they ignore one half of the never work with animals and children adage and have Winston’s dog played by a real mutt? How will they go about portraying Salo, the little three-legged alien from Tralfamador? Just how do you depict a chronosynclastic infundibulum? Well, there’s only one way to find out. Here are the remaining dates…
3 - 9 August (no show on 5 August), Oxleas Woods
11 - 14 August 2010, Hilly Fields Park