Saturday, 31 December 2011

Films of the Year

I didn’t see many films at the cinema this year, partly because there wasn’t a great deal to tempt me out. I did enjoy Richard Ayoade’s debut feature Submarine, a wry coming of age tale set in an isolated coastal town in Wales told by a pubescent narrator who is perhaps not as smart as he thinks he is. Howl mixed colour, black and white and animation to capture the kinetic energy of Allen Ginsberg’s reading of his poem, and of his tumbling speech in general. The film lent visual rhythm to Howl’s biblical cadences and breath-length proclamations. James Franco was excellent as Ginsberg, capturing his blend of loquaciousness, exhibitionism, and endless, agonised self-analysis. Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In was an uneasy horror story, akin to George Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage in its tale of an obsessive surgeon turning his skills to terrible ends in the name of his daughter. Almodovar uses to the full the generic elements lightly touched upon in Broken Embraces, once more playing provocatively with ideas of gender. Antonio Banderas was coldly calculating as the surgeon, his passions kept firmly under check where once they would have been put on uninhibited display, when both he and Almodovar were younger men. We saw the film at the Duke of York’s Picture House in Brighton, a fabulous Edwardian cinema established in 1910. It’s still there in all its unpartitioned glory, with an option to sit up in the stalls, elevated above the hoi-polloi in the main gallery. A real architectural treasure. We inadvertently happened upon the premiere of Francois Ozon’s Potiche at the bfi Southbank, having become aware of a small crowd gathering around a hastily erected hoarding outside. Thus we had the delightful pleasure of seeing Catherine Deneuve in the flesh (Ozon was there too, but was inevitably in her shadow). La Deneuve lingered only briefly, as it began to rain and she wasn’t about to let her coiffure be dampened. An umbrella was swiftly produced and she was ushered inside. The film displayed her light comic talents, her characteristic coolness set against the broadly farcical antics unfolding around her. She proved an effortlessly elegant jogger, and her disco routine with Gerard Depardieu, increasingly stout and barrel-like, was priceless. We Need to Talk About Kevin saw the return of director Lynne Ramsey, and thankfully her poetic cinematic eye was still very much evident. The camera hazed in and out of focus, and bathed in deep reds from various sources, capturing the subjective viewpoint of Tilda Swinton’s constrained, passively suffering mother. She was excellent as ever as a woman trapped within other people’s notions of motherhood as a sacred and natural female state with which she feels absolutely no affinity. Like The Skin I Live In, it was really a horror film in respectable clothing, Kevin himself a complete blank, a malevolent and manipulative monster who might as well be the child of the devil.

The Duke of York's Cinema, Brighton
Elsewhere, I revisited some classic British horror. Death Line took us down into the underground, branching off into the abandoned tunnels purportedly branching off beyond Russell Square tube station. Actually, the film was largely filmed at the recently closed Aldwych station, as one of my father-in-law’s many railway books reliably informs me, with further scenes shot at the Bishopsgate Goods Yards just off Brick Lane. The animalistic figure who haunts the tunnels, last of a line of navvies buried in a cave-in and left for dead, emerging to feast on the flesh of hapless late night travellers, elicits our pity and disgust in equal measure. There is a neat parallel drawn between worlds above and below, and Donald Pleasance’s bigoted, class-conscious copper is a wonderful character – loathsome and yet strangely likeable in the same paradoxical way as the subterranean cannibal. The Wicker Man was enjoyable as ever, as much a fictional anthropological travelogue, detailing the colourful facets of a pagan community, as a horror film. Christopher Lee seems to relish his role as Lord Summerisle, glad to cast aside his cursed Dracula cloak in favour of a hardy tweed and, at the end, a colourful frock, in which he cuts a merry caper. It struck me this time that Sergeant Howie is not entirely the hapless fool that he is made out to be. After all, he retains his faith to the bitter, burning end, whereas Summerisle’s paganism is demonstrably a fiction, cobbled together by his ancestors to keep the islanders in line; An opiate if not for the masses, then for the remaining duped feudal subjects of this very traditionally minded Lord. Blood on Satan’s Claw marries some glorious framing of the English countryside, a brilliant score by Marc Wilkinson, underlined with woozy ondes-martenot, and a depiction of 18th century rural life as harsh and unforgiving, the cruel atavistic behaviour into which the young villagers fall a product of environment as much as the influence of a sketchily depicted devil. There’s a double Doctor Who connection here, too, with Anthony Ainley, the Master of the late Tom Baker and Peter Davison eras, playing the pallid vicar, and Wendy Padbury, Patrick Troughton’s brainy companion in the 60s, as the unfortunate Cathy.

There were a couple of entertaining Amicus omnibuses which I hadn’t seen for some time: Torture Garden, with Burgess Meredith as the gleeful, fortune-telling fairground huckster (the fortunes all turn out badly, of course), and Tales from the Crypt, with the heavyweight luvvie presence of Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper – a far cry from the EC comics depiction of a demented, bulging-eyeballed skeleton. Peter Cushing’s performance as the gentle old man Arthur Grimsdyke, persecuted by his upwardly mobile neighbours, is quietly hearbreaking, and his vengeful return from the grave is grimly satisfying. Hammer make-up maestro Roy Ashton’s creation of the shambling, hollow-eyed revenant is a brilliant piece of work on a tight budget. Patrick Magee is also wonderfully eccentric as the leader of a group of blind men in an institution which, under its new, ex-military head, becomes more like an internment camp. His repeated, uninflected ending of every sentence with ‘Major Rogers’, appended as a sullen afterthought, makes the script sound like it comes from a Pinter play, or piece of absurdist theatre. The Major’s final fate is an ingeniously nasty piece of poetic justice, quite extreme for an Amicus film. Another film familiar from 70s BBC horror double-bills (of the sort which the Classic Horror Film campaign is trying to bring back) was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, an unfeasibly entertaining adventure from Hammer’s late period. Brian Clemens blending of the romanticism of gothic and swashbuckling forms seems entirely natural (unlike the later attempt to dovetail gothic horror and martial arts in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires). The film has its tongue lightly in its cheek, but not so much that it becomes mere hollow camp. John Carson is excellent as Kronos’ old compadre Dr Marcus, nobly undergoing a variety of tests to determine the particular manner in which the strain of vampirism with which he has been infected can be destroyed. And Caroline Munro is as quietly bewitching as ever as the gypsy girl who becomes embroiled in the good Captain’s search for the source of the local vampiric plague, inevitably falling for his steely Scandinavian charms.

Daughters of Darkness - Delphine Seyrig as art deco vamp
More Hammer came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, with Ingrid Pitt imperious as Carmilla, imbuing her with dreamy allure, fierceness and pathos. It was one of a number of films featuring female vampires which I saw. Frisson des Vampires and Fascination (well, not vampires in this one, although they do drink blood) served to pay tribute to Jean Rollin, who died this year. They both have the usual blend of dreamlike poetic imagery, crude exploitation and clumsy action, but are always worth watching for their occasional and unforgettable surrealist scenes. In Fascination (for which I had to try and ignore the German dubbing with which my copy was lumbered), this includes a cloaked Bridget Lahaie advancing across the bridge over a castle moat sweeping a scythe before her. How did Rollin find, and gain access to, all these fabulous ruined castles, I wonder. He certainly made the most of them, bathing them in purple and green light and lovingly framing them, with his characters moving through their corridors and down their staircases with measured step. Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness centred upon a sensuous and knowing performance by Delphine Seyrig, and art deco vamp with a decadent sensibility as much as a thirst for blood. The grand out of season hotel in which she and her current chosen partner reside, with its great empty lobbies and sweeping stairways, and the deserted, windswept beaches of Ostend over which it looks out constitute a setting which could have been imagined by Paul Delvaux or Rene Magritte. I also saw a lost Hammer classic which I'd never come across before, Joseph Losey's The Damned, this one imbued with the spirits of Elisabeth Frink (whose sculptures are featured) and Paul Nash. Oliver Reed's dandyish thug, striding through Weymouth with furled umbrella swinging in a jauntily menacing manner, anticipates Malcolm MacDowell's Alex in Clockwork Orange. With big science hidden away in ancient landscapes, this conjures a very British apocalypse, haunted by Porton Down and Aldermaston.

There were ghosts, too. Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black remains terrifying. Its haunted house is not merely remote and ramshackle, but cut off each night by treacherous tides and chill estuarine mists. The spectre’s sudden appearances, and the doom which they effect in the world, are carefully spaced throughout the story, and create an atmosphere of overwhelming dread, culminating in her screaming, close-up rage as she hovers inexorably towards the poor lawyer, lying sick in his bed. I belatedly got around to seeing Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, a Spanish supernatural tale with underlying strains of Catholic guilt. The Awakening was almost like a direct response to that film, the female protagonist’s potential entrapment as mother within a ghostly family viewed as a chilling prospect rather than some kind of spiritual fulfilment. Andy Robinson conjured up spectres closer to home in the houses, streets and parks of Exeter, appearing in half-glimpsed edge spaces and reflective surfaces in his assured and long laboured-over debut feature The Forewarning. I also managed to see some of the MR James Ghost Stories for Christmas, broadcast by the BBC in the early 70s, and repeated at various times thereafter: The Stalls of Barchester, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and, best of all, A Warning to the Curious (briefly available on a bfi dvd a few years ago, and still in the Devon Library system). Peter Vaughan’s portrayal of a quiet, reserved man who has recently lost his clerk’s job after many years of hard work, and who turns to his lifelong hobby of archaeology to try and turn a much-needed profit (the innkeeper looks disapprovingly at the worn soles of his shoes, which tell the tale of his poverty), makes his final fate all the more affecting. It is so undeserved, and the revenant spirit so mercilessly and malevolently vengeful. These films were playing on the screen in the bfi Southbank bookshop over Christmas, but in an Australian edition. For some reason, the BBC refuses to release, or license for release by another company, these quintessentially English ghost stories in this country. Which pointless intransigence frankly makes downloading them an entirely reasonable option. They are also available to watch at the bfi mediatheques, if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.

Fantasy of different and more gaudy nature came in the films of Guy Maddin, several of which I saw: Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Cowards Bend the Knee. Pastiches of silent movie appearances (the softened borders, intertitles and coloured tinting) are shaped to serve Maddin’s own inflamed ends. Melodramatic tales of thwarted passions, incestuous desires and incipient madness are played out against fantastically artificial landscapes. Both camp and sincere, intoxicating and absurd, they create their own self-enclosed worlds. Cowards is one of his pieces of utterly unreliable autobiography, with exotic hairdressing salons staffed by wise and erudite barbers, domineering mothers, and ‘Maddin’ himself as an ice hockey hero led astray by a sly temptress. Also revelling in its artificiality, and with additional knowing asides to camera (a level of self-referentiality which Maddin never indulges in), and with a similar love of colourfully eccentric costume and elaborate set-dressing was Sally Potter’s Orlando, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-hopping, cross-dressing and gender-shifting fantasy. Perhaps a little overlush in parts, and tipping a wind at the audience once too often, the scenes set on the frozen Thames in Elizabethan London were undeniably gorgeous. A different approach to historical film was taken by Ken Loach in his adaptation of Leon Garfield’s Black Jack, which seemed to think that period authenticity and a feel for character lay in draining the people of all expressivity and the story of all drama.

There were plenty of films set in London, from the ersatz East End of Oliver to the real one of Sparrows Can’t Sing; the Soho of Espresso Bongo (a really great Cliff film, perhaps because Cliff is largely peripheral and his character a bit of a berk) and of The Small World of Sammy Lee (with Anthony Newley authentically clammy and desperate); the swinging sixties London of Smashing Time, Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London and The Pleasure Girls (with Anneke Wills, William Hartnell’s ‘swinging’ Dr Who companion Polly, and, rather more implausibly, Klaus Kinski as a coolly flash underworld kingpin); the demented end of 60s meltdown of Herostratus, whose wild and uncontrolled experimentation was more miss than hit, and the post 60s reflection and self-questioning of Barney Platts-Mills’ Private Road, with Bruce Robinson in his acting years. Meanwhile, the Ealing classic The Lavender Hill Mob offered fascinating glimpses of the bombed out rubble of post war London.

Eastern European and Russian films formed another theme. Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Legend of the Surami Fortress were brilliant Georgian conflations of myth, spectacle and psychodrama. Alexsandr Dovzhenko’s 1928 silent film Zvenigora also excavated the myths of Ukrainian land and history, to sometimes magical and sometimes numbingly propagandistic effect. Two lighthearted comedies from the Czech new wave of the 60s, Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and Jiri Menzel’s rubbish dump-set Larks On A String were subversive through their very concentration on human rather than political values, as well as in their gentle mockery of the pomposity of officialdom. Szindbad and Morgiana were colourful films, the one impressionistic the other expressionistic. Szindbad was a Hungarian story collaging the subjective impressions of a life looked back on by a dying Casanova. Morgiana was a Czech horror story centring around two sisters of diametrically opposed character – one fair and seemingly innocent, blessed with good fortune; the other dark, bitter, and full of murderous schemes. It’s a riot of over the top colour and costume, a sinister fairy tale with an all-seeing cat (whose low-level perspective we sometimes share) which seems possessed of a calculating intelligence of its own. It also boasts a score by Lubos Fiser, who composed the music for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Finally, Katalin Varga was made by an English director, Peter Strickland, but was clearly inspired by Eastern European cinema. It made atmospheric use of leftfield music by the likes of Stephen Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound, and of the rural Romanian landscape to tell its dark, fable-like story of bloody revenge and its inevitable price.

Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg
I saw a number of Japanese anime films, including The Secret of Mamo, featuring the irrepressibly amoral and apelike superthief Lupin III. Here, he ends up in a supervillain’s city-sized lair which seems to be furnished with many of the great art treasures of the world, and through whose classical, gothic and baroque passages and stairways an aging Hitler seems to be wandering. The anthology film Memories was a mixed affair, with the outstanding story being the first, Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, set in another internal, artificially created world, found this time inside a drifting spaceship. The best of these anime films were directed by Mamoru Oshii. Angel’s Egg was an early effort, a beautiful and largely wordless exploration of a surreal landscape, filled with chequered plains, ranks of stone statues, flying fish and old, crumbling European streets, and through which a small girl in Victorian dress runs with a translucent blue egg. Innocence: Ghost in the Shell II unfolded worlds contained within worlds in dizzying succession, the artificial and the real becoming indistinguishable and meaningless distinctions. Straying occasionally into tiresome scenes of the blowing things up with big guns variety, it was nevertheless worth it for the stunning parade float sequence and the gorgeous design of the palace floating on the lake – and for Kenji Kawaii’s brilliant score. The Sky Crawlers was an existential tale of eternally youthful air aces, lost and bewildered and lacking any purpose or real sense of what’s going on in a world predicated on constant corporate war as all-consuming spectacle. Always, in Oshii’s films, the love of a good bassett hound is at the heart of it all – simple and unconditional.

Three Hitchcock films spanned his British and American years and showed how diverse and yet how thematically consistent he was: The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent and To Catch A Thief. The latter was Hitch at his most inconsequential, but also probed the easy Cary Grant charm as he had done previously in Notorious and Suspicion. My Ingmar Bergman fixation was satisfied by watching Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night and Summer With Monika, all of which formed a fitting tribute to his first great collaborative cameraman Gunnar Fischer, who died this year. There were also lesser but still enjoyable efforts, Three Strange Loves and All These Women. The latter is an out and out slapstick farce, a corrective for those who think Bergman is unremittingly gloomy – although it has to be said, it does open and close at a funeral. I caught up with two recent films by favourite directors of mine: Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. Me and Orson Welles was an old-fashioned putting on a show movie, with all the trials and tribulations leading up to the rise of the curtain on the opening night and the triumph of art and toil over all the odds. Jarmusch’s film attracted a good deal of negative press when it came out, but I absolutely loved it, far more so than Coffee and Cigarrettes and Broken Flowers. It was a film of classical restraint, beautifully framed and composed and full of haunting visual and verbal rhymes and correspondences. It worked as a dreamy travelogue of its Spanish locations, picking out odd and peripheral details, and also as a study of its star, Isaach de Bankole, much as John Boorman did with Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Basically setting an elliptical artistic approach to the world against a materialistic, controlling one embodied by Bill Murray and his followers, it shared the mystical mindset of Dead Man, possibly another reason why it was disliked. Boris’ miasmic guitar noise replaced that of Neil Young in Dead Man to great effect.

In How I Won The War, Richard Lester began to use his kinetic, madcap pop style to serious moral ends in an absurdist depiction of the follies of war, although it was a little too scattershot and unfocussed to be wholly effective. O Lucky Man was Lindsay Anderson’s sprawling, modern day picaresque tale. It followed Travis, possibly unrelated to the revolutionary schoolboy of If…, although still played by Malcolm MacDowell. He goes out into the world, compliant, eager, anxious to please and make his mark. Anderson uses the same mixture of realism and fantasy as he did in If…, with Alan Price and his band acting as chorus and providing an oblique commentary with their songs. Finally, having started the year with the all-singing Dickens-lite of Oliver, we ended it with a fine adaptation of another classic – The Muppet Christmas Carol. As Matthew Sweet succinctly puts it in the current issue of Sight and Sound, ‘anyone who remains unmoved by the sight of Michael Caine accepting the gift of Beaker’s scarf is surely some species of psychopath’. A fine way to anticipate the Dickens bicentenary year.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Drift Records of the Year

The estimable Drift Records has released its annual best of the year list, which always offers a good guide to some of the best music released in the previous 12 months. This has directed me towards some fine things in the past, notably last year’s Holkham Drones by Luke Abbott, an excellent collection of spiralling, gently pulsating electronica. The shop itself can be found nestled at the top of Totnes in Devon, at the point where the central medieval road curves narrowly around having ascended from the bridge over the Dart, passed the covered Elizabethan walkway and the postwar town hall (it’s all very Belbury Poly here), and skirted around the mound of the Norman motte, crowned with its circular castle wall. It’s always a very friendly place, with good music playing, and boxes full of new vinyl to browse and admire the covers of. There’s also an excellent dvd hire club attached, which offers an enticing range of cult and world cinema alongside more mainstream fare.

I’ve come across a number of their top 100 choices this year. Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues (no.4) was a continuation of the latterday Crosby, Stills and Nash sound found on their debut. The sun-drenched harmonies which suddenly break out as the instruments fall away and the words ‘one day in Innisfree’ are sung (a Yeats reference?) on the otherwise jauntily countrified Bedouin Dress is magical, and I like the little burst of improv sax skronk towards the end – a hint of a new and potentially controversial direction, perhaps? Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit (6) also has a 70s LA pastoral spirit, evidently popular in Totnes, which channels the spirit of America and Jackson Browne. The light, bubbling guitar line running through Desert Raven is impossibly and immediately infections and can’t help but raise a smile. More beautiful harmonies are forthcoming from the Sparhawks on Low’s C’mon (9), a lighter effort than their previous LP Drums and Guns, whose confrontation of the darker, more oppressive currents of the times necessitated a concomitantly harsher sound. The tone here is set by the beautiful celeste melody opening the first song, Try To Sleep. The sparse and simple snare drum, bass, organ and guitar sound (with a touch of folk banjo picking thrown in for good measure) looks back to Secret Name and before. Mimi Sparhawk’s vocals are particularly lovely throughout. Alan Sparhawk still throws in the odd admonishing line, taking on a female viewpoint in Witches and pointing a finger at ‘all you guys out there trying to act like you’re Al Green – you’re all fools’. A vintage Low album.

I look forward to hearing tune-yArDs (and yes, you do need to typograph it thusly) whokill (11), the alias of singer/songwriter/performer Merrill Garbus, having found her solo set completely entrancing at an ATP festival a couple of years ago. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake (13) has won many plaudits over the course of the year, all of them completely justified. It’s a complex and conflicted suite of songs about war, land and nation, and incidentally stands as a validation of the continued relevance of the album as a unified work. Battles were intent on demonstrating that they could do just fine without Tyondai Braxton’s contribution on Gloss Drop (15), and undoubtedly did so, although I found its relentless knotty density a little wearying over the long haul. It’s best in small doses. Arbouretum were a big discovery for me in the latter part of the year (largely courtesy of Exeter library), and The Gathering (17) upped the heaviosity quotient of their folk-inflected rock, heading straight off into full-on, distortion-blurred, massive guitar trio riffing and single-minded soloing, all of which took me back to my teenage metal years – but in a good way.

Metronomy are a local Totnes band, and therefore likely to win favour, but they deserve their position. The English Riviera (19) makes reference to the local Torbay coastline, an area which singularly fails to live up to its marketing monicker. The album thankfully steers well clear of the didgeridoo and drum circle music you’re in danger of encountering if you visit the town, opting instead for danceable pop with some nice keyboard hooks which keep the sound varied and interesting. Rome by Dangermouse and Daniele Luppi (21) has been one of my favourites of the year, an LP which employs some of the veteran studio musicians who worked on the soundtracks to Italian films composed by the likes of Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai in the 60s and 70s. Essentially variations on a single, swooningly beautiful melody, it is, naturally enough, lushly cinematic, and makes good use of the contrasting voices of Jack White and Norah Jones. Blanck Mass (35) was another oft-played favourite, a solo project by Benjamin John Power, splintering off from the Fuck Buttons. It has all the intoxicating sweep of the Buttons, but extracts the martial beats. It’s a mesmeric, miasmic LP of analogue electronica, a perfumed fog of an album (as the cover seems to suggest) in which to lose yourself in directionless drift.

John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (34) hovers between 80s synth pop pastiche and parodic pisstake, with Maus adopting the portentous baritone of a Phil Oakey or John Foxx, intoning repetitive lyrics such as ‘and the rain came down’ with enough conviction to somehow lend them sombre majesty. Mogwai’s cumbersomely titled Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will (59) mixed massive, crunching guitar attack and plangent melodicism to exhilarating and emotional effect, mournful and angry by turns. Oneohtrix Point Never’s (aka Daniel Lopatin’s) Replica (67) wrongfooted, and therefore disappointed, me at first, differing significantly from the warm analogue synth sounds which I’d loved on Rifts and Returnal. But once I got used to the difference, to the aural collage of its rough assemblage of samples, sometimes smooth and seamless, sometimes jaggedly fitted together, I found it a bracing and absorbing listen. Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath 1972 (76) was one long fade out, a series of slightly melancholy drones, blurry and distorted around the edges, with minimal, Enoesque melodic sketches laid on top. I’ve heard parts of Johann Johannsson’s The Miner’s Hymns (96) on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone. It’s a soundtrack with echoes of Arvo Part, again filled with a mournful sadness, naturally enough given the subject. I shall have to check out Barn Owl’s Lost in the Glare (89) next year, as it’s been recommended to me and is in the library – the name alone is enough to arouse my interest, anyway. A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Cervantine (77) continued this New Mexican band’s exploration of Eastern European folk music, with accordeon blending with violin and blistering brass in labyrinthine tunes played within strange (to my western ears) time signatures.

A good selection again, with plenty more to explore. I would have included The North Sea Radio Orchestra’s gorgeous album I A Moon, which I bought at the shop this year. It’s probably too late for the inclusion of the Trunk Records release of the music from the 70s children’s TV programme Fingerbobs, which Mrs W was delighted to come across. Perhaps they’ll find space next year for the delightful songs of Gulliver, Scampi, Fingermouse and Flash.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, who died earlier this week, was the author of two timeless books, The Mouse and His Child and Riddley Walker. The latter is a post apocalyptic science fiction novel published in 1980, when cold war fears were rising once more. Set in England many centuries after a nuclear war, in the midst of a long and continuing era of barbarism, it is remarkable for its inventive recasting of the English language, shaped as if it had been lost and slowly built up again. This linguistic form is in itself a moving portrayal of an individual, and by extension, of humanity, trying to begin the process of resurrecting a decimated civilisation and culture. Some aspects of the old world persist in almost unaltered form. Riddley watches a Punch puppet show at one point - the most basic of violent entertainments surviving along with the basic urges and impulses it depicts. Only Judy's name has changed, as she mutates into Pooty. Everything begins with the word, which allows for the expression of the finest ideas, but also the most dangerous. In telling his tale, in all its raw directness of thought and expression, Riddley begins to inscribe the human story into recorded history once more, starting the slow ascent from the new and long dark ages. The lengthy, freeform opening sentence probably determines whether or not this is a book whose language you'll be happy to puzzle your way through: 'On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen'. I remember going to see a dance piece at The Place in London way back in the 80s which Hoban had written for the stage, and which I think was probably The Carrier Frequency. It involved a lot of splashing about in water, which represented the surface of another post-apocalyptic world, which this time had seemingly been subjected to flooding. Scaffold towers rose from the central pool, up to the platforms of which the dancers sometimes climbed. It was all utterly bewildering, and I had little idea of what was going on. But it was strangely beguiling, nevertheless, working on the imagination of my youthful self in a suggestive, abstract and mesmerisingly associative fashion. I went along on the strength of Hoban's name, having read Riddley Walker after it was included in David Pringle's 1985 critical survey Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (and yes, it is self-evidently a science fiction novel even if it is 'literary'). At my age then, I might have been a little out of my depth for such avant-garde goings on, but it's an experience I still remember - and something entirely other from the sort of things I would normally have gone out to see.

The Mouse and His Child is one of the great children's books of the post war period, telling the tale of a father and son, conjoined clockwork wind-up mice, and their travels through a forbidding and dangerous land. They meet an oddball cast of characters - tramps, rats, crows, kingfishers, elephants and frogs, not all of whom treat them kindly. Hoban's world of anthropomorphic creatures is far from the comforting world of The Wind in the Willows. This is a harsh fable shot through with a sense of mortality (the clockwork must wind down in the end) and a concomitant compassion and awareness of the preciousness of life and the need to grasp moments of joy as they occur. It is simply written yet intensely felt and deeply emotionally affecting, and contains more genuine wisdom than many an adult novel. It's outlook on life, as hard as it can sometimes be, is best summed up by its final line: "'Be happy', said the tramp". It was one of my mother's favourite books. I shall re-read it this Christmas. Peace.

The Awakening

WARNING: contains spoilers
The Awakening, written by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy, who also directs, is an English ghost story set in the aftermath of the First World War. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a strong-willed and independent modern woman, has taken it upon herself to be the scourge of occult charlatanry and fake spiritualism, exposing the methods of mystification, the table-tapping trickery through which people are fooled into believing that they are once more connected with people who have passed from their lives. She has become something of a minor celebrity, having written a book detailing her investigations which was a great popular success. Having thus gained a widespread reputation as a ghost hunter and demystifying detective, she is hired by a teacher, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), to employ her methods at Rookford, an isolated boys’ boarding school in the north in which he works. The spectral apparition of a boy has been appearing in a succession of school photographs and haunts the night corridors, its presence seemingly leading to the death of one pupil. Florence expects to discover some elaborate schoolboy prank, or sceptic-baiting hoax, and Mallory, in calling upon her services, is also apparently seeking a rational explanation. There are complex currents of repressed emotion running through the school, and she soon finds herself being pulled into their undertow, and finds it difficult to leave or find easy answers to the mystery. When the school breaks up for the holidays, she is left in the great, empty mansion in which the school is housed, with only Mallory, Judd the groundsman (Joseph Mawle), Maud the nurse and housekeeper (played with typical quiet restraint by Imelda Staunton) and one pupil, Tom, for company. As well as whatever else may be present.

The Awakening is a ghost story of self-conscious classicism, with many of the traditional and familiar elements intact. There is an isolated manor house, cheerlessly grey and labyrinthine, with a full compliment of locked rooms and concealed passages and basements; a still, stagnant pool with an old and disused boathouse offering a shadowy, secluded space at its edge; dark woods and twisted rhododhendron thickets bordering the grounds, forbidding places even before night begins to fall; and a journey across bleak and sparsely populated moorland to arrive at the school. It is just the kind of setting in which Florence would expect a supernatural drama to be played out. When we first meet her, she is anonymously taking part in a séance, which unfolds with all the stagy spookiness of old-fashioned cinematic illusion. There is carefully masked illumination to highlight certain actions and direct attention away from others, sepulchral set dressing to evoke a supernatural mood, simple special effects and atmospheric sound, mechanical stage props, and transformative make-up and key lighting to create a suitably cadaverous pallor on the faces of the actors. Florence contemptuously tears open the curtains to throw daylight across the shadowy room, dispelling the otherworldly aura and laying the mechanics of the performance bare. It is as if someone were to slash the cinema screen and stand in front of the projector making mocking hand shadows.

When Florence is invited to Rookford, she anticipates coming across a similarly elaborate theatrical set up, played out on a larger stage. Part of the sense of narrative anticipation lies in the question of how her disbelief will be challenged, and whether it will be worn down. Volk’s script and Murphy’s direction also makes play with the classic ghost story elements, with allusions to various scenes from the relatively few notable cinematic examples of the form. The ball bouncing down the stairs has echoes of similar children’s balls thrown by an invisible hand in Mario Bava’s Kill Baby Kill, Peter Medak’s The Changeling and Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Pale faces pressed to the windowpane also make an appearance in Charles Gordon Clark’s adaptation of MR James’ Lost Hearts in the Ghost Stories for Christmas sequence, in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, and again in Kill Baby Kill. A figure suddenly turning to reveal hideously deformed features is something of a horror film staple, and is used (on a regular basis) in John Irvin’s Ghost Story and in The Others. Two minor characters, a couple with the surname of Vandermeer, would also appear to tip the hat to contemporary curators of the weird in literature and other forms, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. The all-pervasive sense of knowingness, whilst never spilling over into empty parody or pastiche, is given a rationale in the final revelation that the genuine hauntings also have their theatrical aspect. Its part of the humanisation of the spirit world that its inhabitants are allowed to have a playful side, as much as the children who participate in the original ‘fake’ haunting. The smeared, open-mawed and gaping socketed visage which has caused so much terror is in fact the ghostly boy pulling faces. He is playing a role as much as anyone else.

Stephen Volk’s script is in some respects a period version of his TV series Afterlife with the roles reversed. In Afterlife, Alison is a troubled medium who receives messages from the dead and is sometimes able to see them. She becomes an object of study for Robert, a lecturer in psychology, whose treatment of her as an academic case implies a distanced standpoint of objective non-belief, which begins to shade into active hostility as he becomes more personally involved. He is interested in mediumship as a social and psychological phenomenon rather than in any possibility of a spiritual dimension. Florence is like Robert but is more actively hostile to spiritualism and the paranormal, wanting to expose rather than merely document the practices of mediums, and dispel the superstitious belief in hauntings to which they claim to be sensitive. Believing that they are inherently fraudulent and self-serving, she sees them as purveyors of emotionally manipulative exploitation (the view of many censorious souls towards cinema over the years). Not all of those who are saved from such exploitation are necessarily grateful for her interventions. The woman who was the client at the séance subsequently strikes her. The solace offered by the medium, the hope of renewed contact with someone whom she loved, has been abruptly torn away, leaving her with emptiness once more. The film has a prefaratory text explaining the rise in interest and participation in spiritualism in the wake of the huge loss of life in the war, and through the flu pandemic which coincided with its ending. People cling to necessary illusions in order to make life bearable. ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ as TS Eliot put it in The Four Quartets.

The Awakening also resembles Afterlife in its humanisation of the supernatural, of the ghosts which it manifests. Afterlife, in the course of its two series, used its supernatural premise to unflinchingly explore some of the most traumatic and emotionally shattering experiences of life, confronting fundamental fears and universal anxieties, with death in its varied guises being the ultimate unspoken reality underpinning them all. Need, desire, jealousy, hatred, longing and loneliness – the whole panoply of human emotion – are common on both sides of the spiritual divide. The hauntings in Afterlife and The Awakening give form to feelings which are too overwhelming to bear ordinary expression. In The Awakening, this is at least partly the national trauma and benumbed daze of the war’s aftershock. There is an element of the ghost story which dovetails, to a greater or lesser extent, with the detective story. The nature of a haunting, its origins in a particular event or feeling which has yet to find resolution, has to be discovered. When this discovery has been acted upon, the haunting can be brought to an end, the case closed. Both Florence and Alison are psychic detectives in their own way, and both are ultimately working towards a resolution of unspoken traumas in their own childhoods. The confrontation of initially terrifying intrusions into the rational world allows them to face their fears and find an empathic connection with the inhabitants of the world beyond. Fear is dispelled through understanding and compassion. Alison lays ghosts to rest, helping them to move beyond the material world in which they have become temporarily trapped. Florence is dedicated to laying more material spirits to rest, figuratively whipping away the white sheet to reveal the prankster beneath. Both ultimately face their own ghosts in the form of monstrous parents – Alison her terrifyingly manipulative mother, the manner of whose death is designed to create an unbreakable bond; and Florence her murderous father. Human psychology as much as supernatural emanation is at the heart of these hauntings.

Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofornes
The 1920s setting allows for an examination of the way in which notions of masculinity and femininity, and the roles of men and women, were changing (at some levels of society, anyway). Florence is very much the embodiment of the new woman, self-confident and assertive in pursuing her own ends. She dresses in mannish clothes, is curt and to the point, unconcerned with any need to appear demure and retiring in speech and manner. She smokes cigarettes, not waiting for someone else to light them, and doesn’t even use a holder! She is the primary protagonist of the story in an active way, not in the passive sense of female characters up until this juncture. With her scepticism and sardonic manner, she exhibits traditionally male traits which complement her dress, and go against the idea of women being more ‘sensitive’, ‘open’, and ‘understanding’ (all of which could be qualities ascribed to Alison in Afterlife). She attracts opprobrium from some people she encounters, just as women were viewed with resentment if they tried to maintain their position in the workforce into which they’d been welcomed during the war. The fear of women’s growing independence is dramatically expressed in the huge painting which hangs above the stairs at Rookford: Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofornes, in which the Jewish heroine is in the process of effortfully cutting off the head of the Assyrian leader, whom she has first seduced. A castration image, Freud would no doubt hastily have concluded. It’s a choice of picture that suggests that the single sex school and the household which preceded it is a hotbed of repressed feeling and sexual anxiety. The groundsman at Rookford, Judd, is portrayed as a weaselly man, impotent and cowardly, an anti-Mellors (the groundskeeper in DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover). His only way to display his manhood in the face of Florence’s open disdain is to attempt to rape her. Mallory looks like the standard rugged, heroic figure, handsome and a little distant. But he is also vulnerable, his stutter giving him a hesitancy suggestive of a lack of self-assurance. He becomes the object of her gaze when she finds the peephole bored into the wall of the bathroom, and it is only later on that she willingly offers herself to what she believes to be his regard before the same hole. He prises open his old war wounds until they bleed, a modern day fisher king figure whose unhealing wound is connected with the surrounding malaise.

The war is itself seen as a crisis in Victorian and Edwardian ideals of masculinity. Mallory may take his name from the explorer George Mallory, the mountaineer who died during an ascent of Everest – a heroic man who also shared the open sexuality of the Bloomsbury group, having affairs with both men and women. Then again, it could also refer to Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers books, set in a girls’ boarding school. Judd is a troubling figure. On the one hand, the war is seen as being a prolonged and horrific nightmare, a slaughterground upon which men’s lives were meaninglessly thrown away. It created a new mistrust of the establishment and their motivations and fomented revolution on the continent. On the other hand, Judd, who is cast in an unsympathetic light throughout, is seen as despicable coward (by Florence as much as by anyone else) for having faked injury to escape his fate as expendable cannon fodder. Judd is like Mallory’s shadow self, a manifestation of his fear and loathing, and of his attitude to the war and its aftermath, which remains unspoken. He is representative of the psychological rupture of war, its explosion of meaning and purpose, which are left to lie in rubble and ruin. Judd is always seen outdoors, often in dark, liminal places such as the moorland, the woods or the rhododendron thickets, whereas Mallory is generally to be found within the school building. Mallory’s evident dislike of Judd is first made manifest when the latter is seen up a ladder leaning against the side of the building. It as if he has come to close, pushing up to the boundaries of Mallory’s world. When Judd assaults Florence in the woods, Mallory finds himself mysteriously locked into his room, from which he can only escape to the roof to impotently look out. It’s as if his ignoble, bestial self has been let loose. There’s also a class element to the Mallory/Judd dualism. Judd, like Lawrence’s Mellors, is a working class figure with a pronounced northern accent, and Mallory’s disease with him is partially a reflection of this fact. Mallory’s wartime suffering, horrific through it is, is given a certain noble cast. It’s the suffering immortalised in verse by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – the sensitive officer class. Judd was supposed to be one of the foot soldiers who died namelessly in the mud, their bodies never to be recovered. That he evades this anonymous fate results in his being held in contempt, not least by Florence, his survival regarded as a negation of his manhood. The malaise of violent masculine authority is traced back to the paternal atrocity which is the singular event lying at the heart of the Rookford hauntings. The roots of this individual tragedy, which has scarred Florence’s life and which she has suppressed for years, are thus linked with the wider international tragedy of war, which has affected her as it has affected everyone, directly or indirectly. Mallory is trying to suppress his memories of the war; his fellow teacher Malcolm McNair, a man with a bitter aspect, may also be haunted by it, his persistent hacking cough perhaps a constant physical reminder of a trench gas attack.

Haunted houses are often repositories of repressed emotion, physical edifices built from unconscious materials. Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s adaptation of it as The Haunting is a classic example, with the house itself seeming to possess a malign persona which amplifies and absorbs Eleanor’s self-negating, unassertive character until she is a spectral aspect of its unnatural architecture, a lonely ghost walking its corridors. Similarly, in Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Stone Tape, the bricks of an old building act as a kind of receptor for violent emotion, a storage battery for terror and nameless dread. In The Awakening, the house becomes a metaphorical locale for the attempt to strip Florence of her self-assurance and wordliness, to return her to a pre-war notion of female domestication. Like Eleanor, Florence is confronted with her own underlying anxieties and nagging sense of self-doubt. Her boyfriend, whose offer of marriage, made from the front, she rejected, has died in the war. Her choice of independence is thus shaded with guilt, as if she was somehow, through her rejection, responsible for his death.

A large doll’s house takes on a sinister import as the film progresses, with Florence reluctant to approach too closely and see what’s inside. When she does, she has the ontologically vertiginous experience of seeing a direct representation of what she has experienced, including a figure of a woman peering into a small doll’s house. It seems as if some godgame is being played out, the demiurge of the house toying with her sense of self and her perception of the nature of reality. This vertigo, of the world as she knows it receding rapidly before her eyes, is also experienced by the lakeside, where she loses the keepsake given to her by her dead boyfriend. Gazing into the water, she impulsively rolls in, sinking below the surface. Is it a suicide attempt, or has she been drawn in by some mesmeric force? The metaphor of the doll’s house as representing women’s imprisonment within the domestic sphere was most famously explored by Henrik Ibsen in his play The Doll’s House. Here, it serves a similar purpose, Florence being slowly led towards permanent entrapment within Rookford’s walls. It is partly her discover of an old doll containing a musical box which triggers her memories of what had happened to her as a child in this house. The sounding of the box’s chimes had been what alerted her father, in the midst of a murderous psychotic breakdown, to her hiding place. For him, she was his fragile doll, and with the disruption of his perfect domestic set up, occasioned by his own philandering, he intends to smash everything that was a part of it. The housekeeper, Maud, who was also there in the house during Florence’s childhood, desires to have her two spirit children with her forever, and attempts to poison Florence as she has poisoned herself, so that they will be a spectral family, a permanent aspect of the house. She is expressing, in extreme form, the idea that the woman’s place is in the home. A letter in the January 2012 Sight and Sound, responding to the previous month’s review, pointed to the ambiguity of the film’s ending, in which no-one seems to see Florence as she walks through the school, term now reconvened and the corridors full of bustling activity. We never actually see whether Mallory succeeds in rescuing her, and for a moment wander whether she is actually dead. But there seem to be definite indications to the contrary. For a start, she has regained her confident air, striding in a self-assured way with a smile upon her face. The chaplain, who talks about her without acknowledging her presence, has treated her with distanced disapproval from the start. She leaves the building and gets a cigarette from Mallory, which he lights for her, an acknowledgement of a degree of comfortable dependence. Her indulgence in a material pleasure such as smoking gives us firm assurance that she is still in the land of the living. And her independence is confirmed when she calls for a car to take her away from Rookford – awakened and out in the wide world again.

Friday, 9 December 2011

On the Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle

I seem of late to be haphazardly falling in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle, happening upon memorials marking various moments of greater or lesser import in his life. A couple of weekends ago, making our way back from the Royal William Yard in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth, we started to notice small lengths of coppery metal embedded in the paving stones of Durnford Street, a late 18th century road lined with smart Georgian terraces. They bore inscriptions which, upon closer peering inspection, revealed themselves to be select sayings of Sherlock Holmes. These fragmented quotations passing by beneath our feet revealed various facets of his complex character: his rationalism and empirical scientific methodology; his fear of or indifference towards women; his need of excitement and danger to stimulate a mind too easily clouded by melancholia; his sense of drama and love of rhetorical flourish; and his underlying sense of moral order. The rationale behind this seemingly random street decoration became apparent as we reached number 96, where a plaque informed us that Durnford Street was where Conan Doyle had first set up in medical practice. In fact, this practice was at number 1 Durnford Street, but since that building no longer exists in its original state, number 96’s well-preserved façade serves to give us an idea as to what it would have looked like.

Conan Doyle had studied medicine at Edinburgh University, from which he had graduated in 1881. He signed up for a brief and unhappy stint as a ship’s medical officer aboard the Magumba, part of the African Steam Navigation Company’s fleet bound for the west coast of the continent. After this uncertain start to his career, he was only too happy to receive an invitation from George Tournavine Budd, a flamboyant senior student at Edinburgh whom Doyle had become friends with, to join him in a new practice he was setting up in Plymouth. This was opened in Durnford Street in April 1882, and Doyle stayed with Budd and his wife in a grand residence in Elliot Terrace, an imposing mid-nineteenth century block of white-washed housing on the north west side of the Hoe commanding a sweeping view over the Sound. The luxurious appointment of this dwelling is indicative of the extravagant standards of living which Budd, the scion of a wealthy medical dynasty whose profession he inherited as a birthright, was accustomed to enjoying. He was, by all accounts (including Doyle’s), something of a rogue, albeit a periodically charming and frequently brilliant one. He prescribed medicines which, thanks to lucrative deals with pharmaceutical companies, were his major source of income, with carefree abandon. Doyle disapproved of such flagrant profiteering and their partnership, and friendship, soon hit the rocks. Doyle took a steamer from Millbay Docks sailing to Portsmouth in June, and set up in a practice of his own in neighbouring Southsea. It was here that he began writing in earnest, producing what would become A Study In Scarlet, published in 1888 and marking the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. So did the highly colourful George Budd have any influence on the creation of the great detective? It’s usually said that the primary figure who inspired Holmes’ character was Dr Joseph Bell, whose lectures Doyle attended at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, and under whom he worked as an intern. But perhaps some of Budd’s self-assurance and wayward methods of diagnosis, his offhand manner with his patients, also coloured his creation. The divergence in personality between his eccentricity, noisy flashes of inspiration and ostentatious display and Doyle’s quiet and methodical manner may certainly have informed the odd couple equilibrium of the Holmes and Watson partnership, even if that proved more successful and longer lasting. It might seem a trifle opportunistic to memorialise such a brief stay in such an expansive way (not just one house, but a whole street). But we are talking about the creator of possibly the most famous fictional character in the world. The impulse to draw attention to any connection, no matter how tenuous, is nigh on irresistible.

Durnford Street, Plymouth
Exploring the rather more grandiose Georgian streets of Marylebone in London a few months earlier, we came across Conan Doyle’s old consulting room at 2 Upper Wimpole Street. This was marked by a plaque in green rather than the more commonly seen blue, put up by Westminster City Council and the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. Doyle had left his Southsea practice to set up as an opthalmologist in London in March of 1891, having had a brief period of study in Vienna. He’d had to swiftly concede that his grasp of German was woefully inadequate to the task of comprehending the lectures he was attending. Nevertheless, he felt he had sufficient knowledge, combined with practical experience from his work in Southsea, to establish a practice. He installed himself and his family in apartments in Montague Street, opposite the British Library, and set out to his Wimpole Street rooms across the divide of Tottenham Court Road each morning. He was later to claim that he had virtually no patients, with a waiting room in which no-one waited, and whilst this was undoubtedly an exaggeration, he did find himself with plenty of time to write. The literary endeavour to which he was most committed at this time was his novel The White Company, a lengthy historical romance of noble derring do set during the Hundred Years War in the reign of Edward III. It was a great success during his lifetime, a bestseller for a good while, but has not lasted well, now appearing turgid and overburdened with descriptive period detail.

2 Wimpole Street, London
He had already published two Sherlock Holmes novels by this time, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, which had found a degree of success. In 1891, whilst working as an opthalmologist in his Wimpole Street consulting room, he submitted two short stories featuring Holmes and Watson, A Scandal In Bohemia and The Red-Headed League, to the newly launched Strand Magazine. The Strand was first published in December 1890 and combined journalistic articles, profiles of well-known figures and copious illustrations. But at its heart was fiction, and its literary editor, Herbert Greenhough Smith, immediately recognised that he was onto a good thing with Doyle’s Holmes stories and commissioned him, with a handsome financial incentive, to write four more. The first two stories, published in July and August, were a huge success. The mass popularity which the Sherlock Holmes short stories so swiftly achieved was intimately bound up with their regular publication in The Strand, and it was from this point that the worldwide Holmes phenomenon blossomed. It could have been tragically short-lived, however. Doyle caught a bout of influenza, epidemic throughout London, and a disease which could claim a high mortality rate in Victorian times. He recovered, however, and whilst recuperating made the decision to abandon his career as a medical practitioner to concentrate on his writing. By June, he and his family had moved south of the river to a sizeable villa in South Norwood. His opthalmological endeavours in Wimpole Street had lasted barely 3 months, but these rooms can make a good claim to be the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes as a literary phenomenon and iconic fictional character.

The College of Psychic Studies, Queensberry Place, Kensington
The College of Psychic Studies was one of the buildings open to the public during this year’s London Open House weekend, and as it fell on our route between two other destinations, we stopped off to explore. What lover of supernatural fiction, of psychic detective stories featuring Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, could resist such an enticing open invitation. We were shown around by the amiable president, who pointed out the spirit trumpets, ouija boards and planchettes, relics of old methods consigned to historical display the cabinets. We passed many a portrait of former august members, a well as framed examples of automatic writing, channelled drawing and painting, and photographs supposedly capturing ectoplasmic manifestations in full spew. The College was originally known as the London Spiritualist Alliance, and was founded in 1883 at the behest of the wonderfully named Rev. Stainton Moses. It changed its name to the College of Psychic Science in 1955, finally becoming the College of Psychic Studies in 1970. Conan Doyle had long been fascinated by Spiritualism and the occult, although he initially maintained a position of determined scepticism. He had rejected the Catholic faith of his parents, but was evidently searching for a belief system to replace it with. He took a brief interest in Madam Blavatsky’s theosophical movement, which seemed to hold an attraction for many writers and artists, but concluded that her ideas were too vague and ill-formed. He needed something which offered more certainty. In 1887, he attended a séance with a medium who he felt revealed personal information, in the form of automatic writing, which no-one else could have known about. From this point onward, he began to adopt a more open attitude towards Spiritualism and its claims to offer channels of communication with the spirits of the dead.

Sir Oliver Lodge - tuning in to the voices in the Aether
He remained circumspect about his developing beliefs for many years, aware of the potential damage it might do to his reputation, but ‘came out’ as a Spiritualist at a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance in the autumn of 1917, chaired by his friend Sir Oliver Lodge, a fellow member of The Ghost Club, another organisation dedicated to the investigation of paranormal phenomena. Lodge is a fascinating character himself, a proponent of the theory of the all embracing medium of the Aether and pioneer of radio wave generation and transmission. These new phenomena, of disembodied voices floating in an invisible and apparently dimensionless space, were themselves suggestive of spirit worlds, a conjunction of the worlds of science and the occult. The period of the First World War saw such an overwhelming loss of life, both in the trenches and as a result of the pandemic of Spanish flu which swept the country, that many sought solace in the belief held out by Spiritualists and other mystics that those who had been so suddenly and savagely taken away could be contacted, and final goodbyes properly exchanged. Lodge lost his son Raymond in the war in 1915, and wrote several heartbreaking books claiming to detail his communications with him in the afterlife. Doyle, who had lost his sister Annette to influenza in 1890, saw his son Kingsley die from the flu in 1918, followed shortly afterwards by his brother Innes. The emotional impulse to find evidence for a continuation of life beyond death was clearly very strong. He had maintained a patriotic view of the war as a noble enterprise right up until the end, all evidence to the contrary, and wrote a six volume military history, whose final instalment was published in 1920, and which has been largely forgotten, so uncritical is its approach. This bullish outlook is reflected in his stance on Spiritualism, too. Once he had set his mind on something and determined his views to his own satisfaction, nothing was likely to divert him from his dogmatic path.

Conan Doyle became an energetic evangelist for Spiritualism, travelling the world to spread the word, engaging in lively debates which, as a highly accomplished speaker, he invariably won. He wrote regular articles for Light, the journal of the London Spiritualist Alliance, and was its president for much of the 1920s. The Association became more firmly established geographically when it found a permanent base in 1925 in a four storey Victorian terraced house (in the Second Empire style, we were informed by the president, himself and architect) in Queensberry Place, Kensington. A year later, Conan Doyle, then in the midst of his presidency, published his compendious 684 page History of Spiritualism, which no doubt graces the shelves of the College’s extensive library, alongside such occult volumes as the Malleus Maleficarum, Madame Blavatsky’s and the output, fictional and (purportedly) otherwise, of adherents of the Order of the Golden Dawn such as WB Yeats, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. All this in addition to works by less esoteric and more homely modern mediums in the Doris Stokes line, more intent on bringing a little comfort into people’s lives than penetrating the great mysteries.

The Cottingley Fairies
Conan Doyle’s wholehearted embrace of Spiritualism made him a tireless and forceful advocate. But his single-minded absorption in the belief system he’d chosen to adopt, and his refusal to countenance dissenting voices led him to fall frequently into injudicious credulity. He seemed at times to be setting out to embody GK Chesterton’s dictum that ‘when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything’. This could prove embarrassing to those he was vocally supporting, the publicity which he inevitably attracted subjecting them to more ridicule than they already received. His best remembered stumble into foolishness and absurd gullibility involved his validation, in the December 1920 edition of The Strand, of the photographs taken by two girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, of fairies capering at the bottom of their Yorkshire garden in the village of Cottingley. Certain as ever of his rightness in the matter, he later elaborated on his position, developing fanciful notions of the nature of fairy realms as if they were real insights, empirically arrived at. His 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies was tersely described by Russell Miller in his biography The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle as ‘undoubtedly the nadir of his non-fictional work’, sounding embarrassed on his behalf. But Arthur Conan Doyle’s tenure as president of the London Spiritualist Association and his support of its work in the face of ridicule and even legal action (he appeared as a supporting witness at the trial of two mediums, Claire Cantlon and Mercy Phillimore, accused of vagrancy under an obscure law defining fortune tellers as beggars) means that he is still a presiding presence at Queensberry Place. There is a dedicated Arthur Conan Doyle Room in which a signed photographic portrait prominently hangs alongside other memorabilia.

Conan Doyle himself turned up in some footage shot at his Sussex home, playing with his dogs, in a short preface to the 1925 film of his novel The Lost World. This played in the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre with an atmospheric synth score by John Garden. It’s chiefly memorable, Wallace Beery’s splendidly grumpy and pugnacious portrayal of Professor Challenger aside, for Willis O’Brien’s stop motion dinosaurs. Long before Spielberg’s Lost World, with its CGI herds of sauropods, O’Brien had massed hordes of triceratops and allosauruses stampeding across a plateau to escape the fires of an erupting volcano, the predators occasionally taking advantage of the panic and leaping onto the backs of the herbivores.

Alongside chance encounters with the geographical markers of Conan Doyle’s life, career and beliefs and glimpses of him on film, I’ve been enjoying Jeremy Brett’s wonderful portrayal of the great detective. It’s a wilfully eccentric performance which makes of Holmes a self-conscious actor at the centre of his own drama, full of manic gestures followed by lengthy funks. Edward Hardwicke’s Watson is the long-suffering friend who has to put up with his demanding and inconsiderate behaviour in the knowledge that it is the necessary condition for the continued functioning of his remarkable mind. In modern terms, Brett’s Holmes would be classified as having borderline behavioural difficulties and obsessive compulsive traits. In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, Holmes fakes a serious and potentially fatal fever, hiding the spurious nature of his illness from Watson in order to ensure the authenticity of the Doctor’s feelings when calling on the aid of a dangerous and sharp-witted adversary. His pitiful, whimpering requests for Watson’s ministrations, broadcast from the couch across which he has limply draped, says much about the relationship, however. Brett’s Holmes is a needy character, evincing an emotional dependence on Watson which he can never fully admit to. In The Golden Pince-Nez, Watson is absent (and here the TV adaptation differs significantly from Doyle’s story), his place taken by Charles Gray’s imperious Mycroft Holmes, very much the solicitous elder brother, naturally assuming a position of superiority. Holmes is all at sea, and relies on his brother’s prompts to prod him in the right direction and get to the bottom of the case (another featuring the settling of old scores incurred in far flung climes on English soil). I love the scene at the end of The Red Circle in which we see Holmes standing at the back of a theatre box, unobserved by any other, listening to a dramatic operatic aria. This is a momentary coda to the TV episode which draws from the final line of Conan Doyle’s story, in which Holmes says to Watson ‘by the way, it is not eight o’clock, and a Wagner night at Covent Garden! If we hurry, we might be in time for the second act’. Brett’s Holmes’ eyes are rhapsodically closed, his body overwhelmed by waves of painful emotion as he listens to the music. He suggests a character of great complexity, self-consciously concealing its troubled depths with a mask of cold, ascetic rationalism and analytical rigour.

The adventures of Holmes and Watson are as popular as ever, as demonstrated by their transportation into 21st century London in Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC series and Anthony Horowitz’s new and warmly received Holmes novel The House of Silk. We’ve also been selling Holmes audiobooks online at the Exeter Oxfam Music shop on a regular basis recently, read by the Actorish likes of Roy Marsden and Christopher Lee (who told the Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, appropriately enough). We’ve still got a couple left at the moment, both read in the distinctive and commanding tones of Robert Hardy. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes takes four stories from Conan Doyle’s second collection: The Adventures of the Yellow Face, The Stockbroker's Clerk, The 'Gloria Scott', and culminating in The Final Problem,Conan Doyle’s futile attempt to kill his creation off in a struggle to the death above the Reichenbach Falls. There are also four stories from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which really was the final collection of tales featuring the great detective, published in 1927: The Adventures Of The Three Gables, The Three Garridebs, The Lion's Mane, and The Retired Colourman. A further selection taken from various collections features The Adventures of the Three Students, The Sussex Vampire, The Greek Interpreter, and Charles Augustus Milverton. These are stories which really benefit from a characterful reading, just as the illustrations by Sidney Paget and others added an extra dimension to them in The Strand. Holmes and Watson are always just waiting for someone to conjure them from Doyle’s undemonstrative prose and bring them to life – so that once more, the game will be afoot.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Wire at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter

And Exeter on the 30th

Wire played at the Phoenix Arts Centre last week, their first visit to Exeter since 1979. They were supported by Talk Normal, a female guitar and drums duo from Brooklyn with the immaculate new/No wave stage names (at least I am presuming they’re assumed) Sarah Register and Andrya Ambryo. Ambryo plays circular, roiling rhythms on her spartan drumkit, her tubthumping stuttering into off-kilter patterns as it incorporates pauses, hopsteps and added beats. Sometimes she stands up to beat the drums, bringing to mind the steady pounding of Moe Tucker with the Velvet Undergroung (if this is any longer a cool comparison to make after her recent born again Tea Party outburst) or a more frenzied version of Mimi Sparhawk from Low. Her drumming gives the music a tribal feel, a ritualistic air furthered by her occasional sharing of shouted call and response vocals, directed upwards to the pendant mic, and the semi-darkness in which they were shrouded for the whole set, relieved only by low and baleful red lighting. Register played her guitar as a white noise generator, turning up the distortion and reverb to produce a more or less constant wave of sound which flooded around the propulsive drum patterns. She intoned rather than sang over the top, vocals curt and unmelodic. They finished with style by turning the background interval music back on whilst the feedback was still dying down, and immediately set about packing their equipment away, dissipating the low-lit performance mystique which they had built up. It was only a show, after all.

Wire wandered on with little ceremony and got down to business straight away, with no time wasted on introductions. They were a trio tonight, with Bruce Gilbert having called it a day, possibly for good. This left Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed, although is should be added that they were joined on this tour by Matt Simms. He looked like he’d arrived from a different musical world, another band, another era. Hunched in ecstatic absorption over his guitar, his long hair covering his face, he’d have seemed equally at home crunching out riffs and launching into heavy solos in a stoner rock band. But he filled out the sound to good effect and remained self-effacingly in the shadows at the side of the stage. The regular Wire trio remained bracingly efficient and chary of rock gestures, keeping communication to a minimum and swiftly progressing from one number to the next. Bass player Graham Lewis, a fashion school graduate from a while back, sported a fetching Scottish Glengarry cap in recognition of St Andrews day. Colin Newman looked bookish and studious in his spectacles, referring to what looked like a notebook on a small lectern at the end of each song. At the end of the show, he lifted it up and it became evident to me, as it probably had to everyone else from the very beginning, that it was a compact piece of digital wizardry, the flicking over of pages really the closing and opening of programmes or adjustment of settings. Robert Gotobed looked ascetically gaunt as ever, wearing a vest top in anticipation of the sustained athletic task of keeping up his concise, driving rhythms with unflagging precision.

Wire have self-consciously subjected themselves to many transformations over their stop-start history, with the result that you never know quite what you’re likely to hear at one of their concerts. They combine the cerebral and the visceral, producing music of the head and the gut. They also occasionally produce music of the heart, although their songs are generally too lateral, inquisitive and playful to be openly emotional. There will always be many, both young and old, yearning of a blast of the early, angular punk, a nostalgia which is antithetical to Wire’s progressive ethos. The refusal to retread old ground is what has kept them together, despite several hiatuses. When they reached the end of one particular road, they went their separate ways, meeting up again when they’d found a new route worth exploring. The original and retro punks get a fair sampling of what they’re here for tonight, however, resulting in an outbreak of pogoing at the front of the hall. The likes of Pink Flag are still startling in their stripped down brevity. They say what they have to say and then stop, without indulging in unnecessary repetition. The abrupt end of some songs can still bring you up short, though. Drill, from their second phase in the 80s, is a song which is elastic in its timing. It relentlessly pounds towards an endlessly and tantalisingly delayed resolution, reaching towards the conclusion of a verse before an anticipated chorus which never arrives. On this night, it didn’t stretch out into one of the lengthier excursions; this was a medium-sized Drill, just long enough to exert its pummelling effect of stunned hypnosis. You either give in to it or it drives you to distraction. The former is the preferable choice.

Red Barked Tree
It was the more melodic and even poppy side of Wire which came to the fore on this occasion, however. I sense that this is the mood which prevails on their recent album Red Barked Tree, although I confess I’ve yet to hear it. Newman’s tuneful ear and pleasantly light vocal style were much in evidence as he became the de facto frontman. He sported an attractive sky blue guitar whose pastel colour seemed to suit this more open, less aggressive aspect of their music. It also pointed to the importance which visual and graphic style has always played in Wire’s art (and art is an apposite word to bandy about when talking of the group). The guitar sound was also light, lent an airy jangle by whatever technology was being used to shape it. The likes of Map Ref 41°N 93°W and Outdoor Miner sound like the more adventurous end of early 80s pop, exploratory (as Map Ref’s cartographic title suggests) without being afraid of lyricism. The lyrics are also allusive, playful, revelling in the sound of words and sentences, and sometimes plain good fun. Having said that, the sound balance, or possibly just the nature of my hearing, meant that I couldn’t make out many of the words on this night. Lewis took the vocal lead on a couple of songs, his deeper baritone, with its echoes of John Foxx, goth scowlers and even Phil Oakey contrasting nicely with Newman’s lighter tones.

Newman replaced his blue guitar with an oval-bodied white model, familiar from Pink Flag days and photos, for a few numbers, which betokened a shift to a more raucous sound. He became a little more animated towards the end, and both he and Lewis put aside their distanced stance to exchange a few words with the audience, evincing a genuine sense that they were having a good time. They played the rock game sufficiently to come back for two encores. The raw fierceness of the Send LP was reserved until the end, with 99.9 (I think) exploding into a splintered roar, its dying feedback squall sculpted into howling electronic noise, sending us all out with ringing ears – the music reverberating beyond the venue, fading away sometime in the night, in dreams.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Clock Keeps Ticking: 11.15 'til 12.45

Peter Fonda about to discard time in Easy Rider

I returned to Plymouth and The British Art Show 7 a couple of weekends ago to see another segment of Christian Marclay’s 24 hour film The Clock, whose screened collage of time contained and observed within movies and TV programmes remains congruent with the daily passage of time in the real world. Having previously witnessed the events of the late afternoon, this time I caught the period between 11.15 and 12.45. One of my speculations, voiced in previous comments below, was answered. Peter Fonda looks meaningfully at his wristwatch in Easy Rider before discarding it onto the rocky New Mexican ground, affording us a clear glimpse of the time: 11.38. Young Lukas Haas also attempts to cast aside the tyranny of time in the TV movie David and Lisa, after first having told his psychologist, played by Sidney Poitier, that he has invented an atomic watch which will tell the precise time for centuries. Poitier suggests that people might not want to be constantly reminded of the passing of their lives, which leads Haas to rail against time and mortality, finally throwing something at the grandfather clock in the corner of the office and shattering its face. It’s also clock smashing time in the Laurel and Hardy short Dirty Work, in which Stan, inadvisably left to look after the fireplace end of their chimneysweeping enterprise, knocks a heavy carriage clock off the mantelpiece. His frantic efforts to silence its loud and incessant chiming culminate in his wrapping it in canvas and bludgeoning it with a handy nearby shovel. Stan also wanders vacuously through the corridors of the County Hospital in which Ollie has been laid up, an absently approaching nemesis with a bag of hard boiled eggs and nuts in his hand. The clock in the lobby behind him clearly indicates the time, counting down the minutes until his friend will be plunged into yet another nice mess. A recovering Ollie will later ruefully and wearily repeat Stan’s vaguely stated reason for visiting at this time: ‘You had nothing better to do, so you thought you’d come and see me’.

Stan tries to silence time - Dirty Work
Late morning and early afternoon seems to be a time when mortality preys on the mind, perhaps a side effect of low blood sugar mood dips as lunchtime looms. Columbo has a blood pressure check up at the doctor’s, admittedly more to test out a few theories requiring medical know how than to allay any health fears. There are a couple of chill post mortem scenes in grey mortuaries in which slabside analyses are made before small gatherings of ruminating detectives, and the time of official conclusions noted. There is an agonisingly drawn out wait as the bureaucracy of execution is observed, leading up to the release of gas into a sealed chamber, ending a young woman’s life. Another life is ended as a body drops through the trapdoor of a gallows with shocking suddenness. Emmanuelle Beart returns as a very solid ghost, a revenant returning to the house in which she committed suicide in Jacques Rivette’s L’Histoire de Marie et Julien. Colin Firth’s college professor in A Single Man disconsolately addresses his bored students on the theme of anxiety in literature, the sense that a life can pass in which no-one listens to or really cares about you or anything you say. He is evidently not talking in the abstract, but articulating his own feelings.

Going through the motions - Bergman's Winter Light
This is the part of the day when time hangs heavy for some, and seems to move with a weighty slowness, as if affected by a dense gravity. In The Breakfast Club, the rebellious students set off a group whistle-along of Colonel Bogie, the theme from A Bridge Over the River Kwai, to alleviate the dullness of their confinement in the library. The church organist in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light glances at his watch whilst he plays, the pitifully meagre congregation muttering the words of the hymn whilst Gunnar Bjornstrand’s priest, his faith hollowed out and scoured away, goes through the minimal motions of religious observance once more. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the elevator carrying Michael Rennie’s celestial visitor and Patricia Neal, the woman whose son has been helping him, judders to a halt. Asking her what time it is, she replies ‘almost twelve’, and he casually notes that the worldwide stoppage that he has instigated through ‘neutralising’ all electrical activity has taken effect. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf slumps in a shadowy café, hiding away from the daylit world outside. He glances listlessly up at the clock, but pays it little heed, his day lacking any sense of urgency or purpose. Humphrey Bogart looks nervous and twitchy in a cheap apartment room, waiting for a fateful knock upon the door. When it comes, he hesitantly walks over and opens the door, but we never get to see what is on the other side. The Clock does this with several sequences, teasingly creating tension without resolution and making you want to discover the original film to find out just what does happen. This is certainly the case with Five Minutes to Live, the bank heist thriller in which Johnny Cash’s psychotic hoodlum holds the manager’s wife hostage, waiting for the phone call from his accomplice which will tell him the ransom money has been successfully transferred from the bank vaults. As the minutes tick away, events at the bank spin out of control, and the hapless employee who has been brought along for the ride is left saying ‘you don’t know what you’ve just done’. Does the wife live, or does mad Johnny get to pull the trigger which he is so evidently eager to squeeze?

The end of time - Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone
The bank is one of the hubs of the daytime business world, the centre through which the flow of commerce is channelled, and it is such a place in which Burgess Meredith’s meek and unassuming clerk works in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone story Time Enough At Last. A bibliophile whose greatest joy in life is reading, he is never afforded the chance either at work or at home, having to snatch what quiet moments he can. One such involves taking his lunch in the sealed environs of the bank vault, and it is here that he is shaken by a sudden seismic tremor. He emerges to find himself the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, the city a blasted ruin around him. Wandering about in a state of existential fear which is typical of most characters in the Twilight Zone, he talks to himself and begins to go mad with loneliness, until he stumbles across the remains of the city library. It’s here we find him in The Clock, surrounded by a literary calendar made of neatly piled up books divided to fill the months of his solitary years. ‘At last I have time’, he says with a resurgence of hope. Marclay doesn’t show us the conclusion of this conte cruel, however, in which this terribly poor sighted man drops his glasses in his excitement, smashing the lenses. ‘It’s not fair’, he quietly whines to himself, ‘it’s not fair’. The effective loss of literacy marks the final and absolute collapse of civilisation.

The rhythms of the business day are also felt in Wall Street, in which Charlie Sheen’s eager yuppie, after an endless wait, is told that he can have five minutes with Mr Gecko. He adjusts his appearance in the mirror, and gears himself up to make an instant and lasting impact. In The Hudsucker Proxy, head of the company Waring Hudsucker sits at the far end of the long boardroom table high up in the glass and steel corporate tower over which he has presided. He has a slightly unhinged smile fixed upon his face, and is psyching himself up to use the table as a runway, launching himself through the window and into a brief flight down to the sidewalk many stories below. We don’t witness this plummeting flight in The Clock, but see Paul Newman’s cold and calculating corporate shark peering down through the broken window (which, given the cartoonish nature of much of the film, might as well be in the shape of a wildly leaping, spreadeagled man), happy at the successful conclusion of this board meeting. At the other end of the business spectrum, a rank of assembly line workers mechanically rise in perfect formation to make way for the next shift in Rene Clair’s A Nous La Liberte.

If this is the time at which the wheels of commerce are already busily turning, for others, more attuned to a nocturnal clock, the day is barely beginning. We see Paul Newman again, younger and in a white vest rather than a grey suit, sprawling in bed and marvelling at the fact that his companion is up and working on her art. Another bleary eyed couple pull back the sheets, she commenting that she is normally an early morning person, and that, as he clearly is not, this is never going to work out. In another room in another film, in a seedy, crowded apartment block, a woman awakes, sees the lateness of the hour and immediately starts to hustle her bedside partner out, panicking that he might be seen by her returning husband. The pleasures of the previous night have faded, their memory rejected in a desperate rush to reassert a façade of dull daytime normalcy. Forest Whittaker’s lone urban samurai in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog gears himself up for the day with some rooftop zen routines. Meanwhile, Bill Murray’s neurosis-ridden Bob leaves his apartment in the late morning, bidding goodbye to his beloved goldfish Gill and forcing himself out into the world in What About Bob?

Timing L'Arlesienne - The Prisoner
The hours in which the day has built into full bustling business is also the time for spying and detection, for observing purposeful forays and transactions, piecing them all together to form coherent stories. We see Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoin Doinel in Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, furtively dodging through the streets of 1960s Paris as he follows the woman identified by his client at the detective agency which he has haphazardly ended up working for. He is the most amateurish of detectives, peering over newspapers, dashing into doorways and slowing and accelerating his pace in the most conspicuously suspect manner imaginable. In Laura, Dana Andrews’ seedy, down-at-heel detective looks disinterestedly at Vincent Price’s collection of fine art objects, a sneer irremovably fixed to his face. When he meets the unctuously eager to please Price, he doesn’t bother to disguise his proletarian contempt for such fancy display. Columbo, meanwhile, goes through his deceptively polite and apologetic rounds of questioning, sidling towards the seemingly inconsequential but crucial point. Here, he examines the identical LPs of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne from which Number Six has assiduously sampled the opening motif in the Village shop’s listening booth, checking his watch as he does so (the time is twenty to twelve). Surely there must be some hidden message. ‘You say he was timing them?’ he asks the shopkeeper. Some variation in tempo, perhaps. Patrick Macnee’s Steed prowls around a seemingly deserted airfield in The Avengers, the silence broken by the sound of a receding milk float which draws his attention to the dead body of Roy Kinnear’s amiably bumbling tramp. In The Prisoner episode Hammer Into Anvil, Patrick Cargill’s thoroughly unpleasant Number Two is driven to a state of paranoid apoplexy by Number Six’s apparent communications with his superiors. Another eerily deserted setting forms the backdrop for the 80s Twilight Zone revival story A Matter of Minutes, in which Adam Arkin and Karen Austin find themselves shifted four hours ahead of the progress of present time. The familiar elements of the town in which they live are being assembled around them, reality seemingly a hastily constructed set with props introduced as required. How will they get back in phase with the normal flow of time? Or will they be edited out now they have glimpsed what goes on behind the curtain?

Traintime in Grand Central - The Palm Beach Story
Railways and Westerns both continue to feature, with the two sometimes combining. Claudette Colbert’s looks around the vast temple of Grand Central Station in Preston Sturge’s The Palm Beach Story, looking for the train on which she can escape from New York and her husband, and the person who’ll provide the money for a ticket. Tom Courtenay’s back stage dogsbody pleads with the engine driver to delay the departure of the train for a few moments to await the arrival of The Actors in The Dresser. He receives short shrift, and the train begins to steam off, only to shriek to a halt at the commanding thespian tones of Albert Finney’s Shakespearean veteran, whose bellowing cry of ‘stop that train’ echoes throughout the station. Colin Firth plays the characteristically flustered and awkward Englishman standing on a London platform with Irene Jacob, both realising that their respective friends aren’t going to turn up for their holiday and deciding to take the train together anyway. In a horrifying scene from Richard Lester’s sceptical San Francisco summer of love drama Petulia, a Mexican boy runs from the ticket booth at which Julie Christie is buying him a ticket to send him back to his own country, dashes out between the ranks of Greyhound buses idling at the station, and is run down by a passing car.

The time of the accident - Petulia
In No Country For Old Men, Josh Brolin’s modern day cowboy waits in the desert with a pair of binoculars, looking to observe the outcome of a drug running exchange. In Once Upon A Time In The West, Henry Fonda black-clad villain paces warily through a deserted Western town, trying to pick out the hidden bounty-hunting gunmen who are trying to kill him. Charles Bronson looks laconically on, remarking ‘time sure flies – it’s already past twelve’, thus drawing Fonda’s attention to the shadow of a rifle falling on the face of the clock painted onto the side of a building past which he’s walking. It marks out time where none yet exists on clocks without hands, in a frontier civilisation still in the process of being constructed. The pendulum propels time towards a fateful midday in High Noon, which provides a climactic moment around which others gather in the countdown to the clock striking twelve, a northward pointing meeting of the hands which seems designed for dramatic conclusions.

Carbine sundial - Once Upon A Time In The West
As we cross the threshold of midday, we move into the flexible period of lunchtime. Meryl Streep presides over a family table reluctantly and sullenly gathered. ‘Say grace’, she prompts, to which her teenage daughter sardonically bites back ‘grace’, plunging headlong into her food. Two Chinese men wordlessly chow down bowls of noodles in a streetside bar, chopsticks a blur of motion. Dustin Hoffmann’s autistically precise Raymond in Rain Man notes ‘of course, lunch time 12.30’. His yuppie brother Charlie, played with consummate narcissism by Tom Cruise, is too busy striking deals on the phone to pay him any attention, and Raymond marks the passing of that all important median dining moment, halfway between 12 and 1, with a note of rising distress at routing and structure disrupted: ‘of course, now 12.31’. Presumably if we’d stayed on a little longer, we might have seen the pub lunch (six pints of beer and four packets of peanuts) which Arthur and Ford down and scoff in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as they await the end of the world, Ford making the profound observation that ‘time is an illusion; Lunchtime doubly so’.

Watches and clocks take on an elevated emblematic or symbolic importance at various points. Christopher Walken’s imposing general tells a young boy the rather insalubrious tale of how his father’s watch has been kept safe through years of war and imprisonment before passing it on to him, a precious heirloom bearing a weight of family history. Matt Damon and Alain Delon play Patricia Highsmith’s amoral character Tom Ripley in adaptations of The Talented Mr Ripley separated by almost 40 years. In the 90s version, Ripley lies on his hotel bed and stares at the clock which represents for him the easeful elegance which his rich American acquaintances effortlessly exude. In the 1960 French version, retitled Plein Soleil, Delon’s Ripley looks at his new friend’s stylish watch with similar envy. A loquacious customer in a jewellers shop looks at watch after watch, unable to make up his mind which one he wants. He directs the assistant’s attention to one behind the counter, swiftly sweeps the whole display tray left on top into his briefcase and scarpers. It’s a rather unsubtle attempt to steal time. The thief in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is rather more expert and artful, and we see the various hiding places in his spartan room where he has stashed his plunder. A stolen watch is strapped around the leg of a table, revealing the time. Roger Moore’s watch proves to be a lifesaver in The Man With the Golden Gun, a handy Q gadget which includes a mini circular saw. This cuts through the ropes which suspend him above the inevitable shark tank into which he is being lowered in a typically overelaborate supervillain execution method which favours poetry over practicality. Marclay seems to have slipped up at one point, the clock on a mantelpiece in The Browing Version some 20 minutes ahead of real time in. But then Michael Redgrave’s traditionalist teacher notices the error and sets the hands back, a true conservative. Robert Powell’s Richard Hannay tries to literally stop the progress of time (or at least its horological demarcation) in the 1978 remake of The 39 Steps, climbing out on to the glass face of Big Ben and hanging on to the big hand as it approaches a quarter to twelve, the time at which the chimes will ring out, on this occasion triggering off a large explosive device. It’s perhaps the ultimate of many appearances made throughout The Clock’s duration by Big Ben, that instant signifier of London as a location as well as handy background indicator of the time of day.

Stopping the official progress of time - The 39 Steps
Actors are seen at various stages of their lives, making startling leaps in age, growing old or rejuvenating before our eyes. The more actorly take on widely different personae whilst stars remain essentially the same throughout. Dirk Bogarde is a northern-accented, calculating gentleman’s gentleman in The Servant and a high-collared Regency dandy in another film (possibly A Tale of Two Cities?) We see a young and self-assured Richard Gere choosing from his extensive wardrobe in the 1980 Paul Schrader film American Gigolo, and an old, grey and downbeat version from more recent times (The Mothman Prophecies?) Dustin Hoffman is Raymond in Rain Man from 1988, and is seen in early 70s youth riding a bicycle alongside a river, a clock attached in a back basket. Paul Newman is youthful in black and white in the 50s in a white vest and older in colour in the 90s in a sober grey suit. Al Pacino crops up from time to time, although at this point in The Clock’s day, he seems to be mostly present in later grizzled form.

And so it goes. The clock ticks on, sweeping through film history, crossing generic boundaries and travelling around the world, taking in all life as projected through the cinematic lens. A sprawling work of art which manages to be about pretty much everything – just like in the movies.