Thursday, 11 December 2014

Nick Talbot of Gravenhurst

It was tremendously sad to learn of the passing of Nick Talbot, who died on 4th December at the desperately premature age of 37. Talbot had been the creative force behind the group Gravenhurst for 12 years, ever since their first LP Internal Travels, released in 2002. Indeed, Gravenhurst was, at various points, a veil for solo projects and performances. Talbot’s hushed voice, assured guitar fingerpicking and ear for affecting melody made the more intimate solo aspects of his work quietly compelling, drawing the listener into dark places and states of mind, but always tempered with compassion, pity and even empathetic identification. The more haunting and haunted aspects of the folk repertoire were an influence, as were the folk artists of the 60s and 70s. There are definite echoes of Nick Drake’s solid fingerstyle playing to the circling patterns of Circadian on the Ghost in Daylight album, for example, and his more dextrous accompaniments recall Bert Jansch and John Renbourne, in or out of Pentangle. There’s something of a folk air to the name, too. It’s an imaginary English place fashioned from a real village. Whilst Gravenhurst songs often have a contemporary urban setting, there’s always a hint of older patterns coming through the grubby surfaces, ancient and mysterious landscapes underlying the cracked concrete surfaces, thrice told tales recurring once more.

Gravenhurst could also create a driving sound as a trio or quartet, with the occasional guitar explosion providing the cathartic release of ecstatic noise. There was s subtle sound design applied to both the stark acoustic and fleshed out electric incarnations of Gravenhurst. Talbot had been inspired by the likes of Flying Saucer Attack and Third Eye Foundation when he moved to Bristol in the 90s, drawn to the richness and depth of their drone-based sounds. Many of his own productions surround the songs with shimmering haloes of organ drone and flickering spectres of electro-acoustic sound. They can be heard to great effect on Fitzrovia, which is backed by the moaning ghosts and echoing rush of the forgotten histories and buried rivers (‘Wandle, Falcon, Effra, Ravensbourne’) the song summons up. This, together with a feel for dynamic pacing which gives some of the longer numbers a sense of narrative development, lends his music a certain cinematic air. There were the occasional instrumental pieces, too. This seemed to be a direction he was moving in on the last album, The Ghost in Daylight. Carousel and Islands are particular lovely ambient miniatures, the latter dedicated to the Broadcast singer Trish Keenan. I first saw Gravenhurst when they supported Broadcast back in 2006.

Lyrically, Talbot was always attracted to dark matter. A recurrent theme was the seed of violence inherent in humanity, ‘the velvet cell within men’. In an early song from Flashlight Seasons, I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor, he wrote ‘you’re only a stone’s throw from all the violence you buried years ago’. It’s a line which forms the basis for a significant portion of his future output. This violence exists on a personal level, but also expands outwards into society and into the political arena. It reflects the balance of power at all levels. So, in Black Holes in the Sand, he sings ‘I held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city’. A circle of culpability and indirect agency which insists on a moral dimension to the most seemingly inconsequential of actions. The Foundry on the 2012 album The Ghost in Daylight makes the connection between violent impulses on a personal level and the violence of fascism and other political doctrines of forceful control explicit. ‘A uniform changes something inside’ Talbot writes, ‘and you won’t know when evil comes, evil looks just like anyone’. Anyone is capable of it, ‘the man with the match could be anybody’. This concern with violence also manifests itself in one aspect of Talbot’s writing which I find troubling: his portraits of murderers and serial killers. The serial killer as a modern day mythological figure and recurrent motif of horror and detective fiction is a cultural phenomenon which I find particularly depressing. Talbot’s disturbingly allusive songs are generally indirect and focus on the inner state of the characters he creates. In some respects, they are contemporary manifestations of old, death-haunted folk songs. Although Talbot’s approach is the opposite to the extrovert melodrama of Nick Cave’s murder ballads – his songs hint at hidden stories rather than explicitly relating them in an unfolding narrative. It’s significant that the only time he does do this it turns out to be a cover version – Husker Du’s Diane.

These songs also intersect with another abiding thematic concern, the distance between people and the retreat into states of disconnection and isolated inner solitude. Another early song from Flashlight Seasons, The Ice Tree, sets the mood: ‘we try to connect with the people outside, they pass through our slumber like trains in the night’. A feeling of numbness and emotional damage blurs the psyches of Talbot’s subjects. They stumble through the world like bewildered ghosts. In She Dances, the dancer thinks ‘I need new clothes, new skin; a mind I can bear to live in’. Another character (in Animals) reflects upon the revellers of an English Saturday night and muses ‘I wish I could be like them and I try/but I find it more rewarding to walk along the river/picturing my body discarded in the water’. Clearly there’s a good deal of self-loathing going on here, which can develop into an unhealthy way of defining identity, of creating confining prisons for the soul. This is fully expressed in the short lyric of the lengthy Song From Under the Arches: ‘I’ve seen bad things in bad places/What did I learn?/Wallow in grime/Tonight we’ll drink the sewers dry/We can’t function outside of these dreams of suicide’. Relationships are also seen as traps, with romance a self-deluding compulsion which causes people to keep dancing around one another when any feeling has long since dissipated.

Talbot’s view of love may have been jaundiced, but he remained a romantic, albeit a dark-hued one. ‘The universal dance/The black romance’ as he puts it in Nicole is one whose steps he rehearsed over and again. He rakes over the cold ashes of love rather than stoking its initial heat, dwelling on the sadness of its diminishment and the bitterness of its betrayal. Again, a shrinking into the cold cage of the disconnected self is often the cause of death for romance. As he writes in The Ice Tree ‘I caress where my lover once lay by my side before I turned inwards and forced her to fly’.

Talbot was also a romantic in his use of romantic language and mysterious imagery drawn from the natural world. Pine forests, rivers and seas, snow, ice and fire, stars and moon are all used to evocative symbolic effect. These depict real, figurative and inner landscapes, the latter suggested by the title of the first Gravenhurst album, Inner Traveller. Natural landscapes are contrasted with decaying cityscapes, the expansiveness of the former serving to highlight the claustrophobic confinement of the latter. In Grand Union Canal, for example, he writes ‘while you are waiting for me by a copper blue sea/I am fading away in this room’. He conjures city atmospheres with a beautiful economy of effect worth of his literary hero Iain Sinclair. I particularly like ‘black spine Northern Line, feeds on money and time’ from Hourglass. It seems to paint the city itself as a predatory beast, a devouring underground serpent. Seasons and their atmospheres are also invoked, winter and autumn in particular. The winter chill is the natural mood for a Gravenhurst song, and we find it in the opening lines of The Foundry in which ‘two wolves chase a whitetail through the snow’, as well as in songs such as Fog Round the Figurehead (a marvellously imagistic title), Winter Moon and The Ice Tree. The idea of buried or sunken ruins, artefacts or histories is also one which fascinated Talbot. There are the ‘cities beneath the sea/in deserted towns and burial mounds’ and ‘buried in sand/an ancient talisman touched by a thousand hands’, as well as the ‘lost event(s) consigned to history’ in Fitzrovia, the secret stories of the city. These lost worlds or frozen landscapes equate with the subterranean caverns of the unconscious, the unexplored territories of the self.

It might sound as if the tenor of Talbot’s music is relentlessly and oppressively downbeat. Whilst it’s difficult to deny this charge given the evidence cited above, there are counterbalancing forces. They lyrical quality of the language raises the tone above turgid misery-mongering. The sheer beauty of much of the music and the light delicacy of Talbot’s voice (like a less wavering Robert Wyatt), which is shot through with compassion, sympathy and even pity, makes the subject matter easier to bear, and casts it in a different light. A commensurately harsh musical setting would indeed make it oppressive, the kind of thing which would only appeal to people who feel that music should be harrowing and extreme, an aural endurance test. And there are chinks of light which shine through, too. They are all the more pronounced and precious for their scarcity. Talbot rejected shallow triumphs, glittering prizes and facile, baseless positivism. What hope does emerge is hard-earned and thereby genuine and strong.

There is a non-denominational religious aspect to all of this; a yearning for an authentic way of being free of the traps of violence, false emotion and material desire. Something beyond ‘the emptiness of the prize’. He is seeking ‘the Ghost of St Paul, still missing’, as he put in the song on The Ghost in Daylight. Perhaps there are hints of it in older forms, in the mysterious folk rituals which he summons up so well in songs like Flowers in Her Hair. The unmasking of the Spring Queen, the metamorphosis of veneration into abomination, marks a passing of something from the world, a desacralisation. ‘And when the flowers died they saw through the disguise/and all the townsfolk circled her/with prayers and tar and feathers/and fire’. And later, in The Ghost of St Paul, ‘slowly the smell of her fades/as blossoms wither away’. The sense of the world as sacred, and of that sacredness as being essentially feminine, incarnated in the form of the Goddess, is supplanted by a worldview dominated by the male violence Talbot dissects. A violent power which itself dissects (and murders) anything threatening its authority or potency. The eponymous authority figures in Hollow Men ensure that the status quo is maintained, and that there can be no rebirth of the Goddess, of sacrosanct female power: ‘her name is known, her name is known,/cut her up, cut her out,/crush her before she finds it’.

Talbots landscapes are haunted by the hunted. From the whitetails chased by two black wolves in The Foundry through the ‘dog loose in the woods’ where there’s ‘a fox tied to a tree’ in Flowers In Her Hair to the knowledge that ‘they will come for me/with searchlights streaming through the cedar trees’ in Song Among the Pine. But there’s still a hint of something which was once there, and may one day be rediscovered and resurrected. The key line in Ghost of St Paul dedicates the song to those who refuse to give up hope, who continue the quest and resist the controls of those who would corral their spirit: ‘here’s to the brave/to all those resisting’.

Some of Talbot’s influences were revealed through his choices of covers. He went back to the roots of the expansive, noisy drift of fellow Bristolians Flying Saucer Attack and Third Eye Foundation by taking the psych pop of The Kinks’ See My Friends and extending its two chord drone to the horizon. Husker Du have already been mentioned, but there is a general translation of the brutal realism and anti-romanticism of hardcore into a more melancholic English idiom. The cover of Fairport Convention’s Farewell, Farewell demonstrates a real affinity with Richard Thompson’s bleak but compassionate songwriting. The spectral winds ghosting around guitar and voice suggest final words of parting, perhaps delivered from somewhere beyond. It’s a truly haunting interpretation. A version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren also captures the haunted, yearning quality of its briny drift with unadorned simplicity. Talbot also sang The Beatles’ Only A Northern Song on a Mojo collection of Yellow Submarine covers. It was a choice which indicated he might have shared George Harrison’s disdain for music biz practices. He also expressed a great admiration for Ian Curtis’ writing, his pared down but resonant phrasing.

Talbot was a writer as well as a musician, and literary influences show through in much of his work. Hollow Men alludes to TS Eliot, whose Waste Land also permeates Gravenhurst’s entropic landscapes. William Burroughs, an early inspiration, is acknowledged in the title of the LP The Western Lands. The cover itself has a rather bookish graphic design. Talbot also wrote for the online magazine The Quietus, and interviewed a number of writers for its pages. He was a keen student of philosophy, and his interview with John Gray makes fascinating and revealing reading. Gray opposed the rationalist/humanist fundamentalism of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling in his books Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals. He offered a different interpretation of religion which acknowledges its value and usefulness as a mythological template for understanding the complexities of human behaviour and experience. In his introduction to the interview, Talbot indicates his sympathy for Gray’s views and his dislike for the wholesale attacks on religious belief launched by Dawkins and Grayling, whilst declaring his own atheist standpoint. He wrote ‘to the many atheists who found the Dawkins camp’s rabid proselytising not only smug but tinged with an oddly religious fervour, the prospect of an intellectual heavyweight tearing up the very foundations of the rationalist position was a beautiful thing’. It shines a further light on, and adds more complex shading to the yearning for the sacred, for deeper connection in the Gravenhurst lyrics.

Talbot’s interview with Alan Moore reveals further literary influences: both Moore himself and the London writings of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Talbot published a few issues of a comic called Ultraskull, written by himself and a small coterie of collaborators. Avowedly amateurish, thoroughly cynical and deliberately offensive, it was an uncensored outpouring which recast Gravenhurst preoccupations in the form of deep black humour. It was occasionally funny, frequently sick, sometimes both – a nihilistic blast. Talbot was a particular admirer of Sinclair’s language, viewing its concentrated folding of word pictures, allusions and metaphors as something to aspire to. The conversation with Moore also turns to HP Lovecraft, which points to another inspiration, a source for those subterranean cities and ‘black holes in the sand’. Talbot was a horror fan in general, and ghosts and spectres flit through his work over the years. The luminous string arrangement at the end of The Prize is provided by the Algernon Blackwood Memorial Ensemble.

In fact, The Prize is a grand song to go out on. If the sentiments of the lyric insist upon the emptiness of the prize, be that romantic fulfilment or the promises of shiny consumer enticements, the glorious coda offers something far more uplifting. The strings swell and pulsate, building and building until the voice of the guitar explodes into roaring harmony, elevating everything with an ecstatic chordal riff. It’s such a celebratory sound, not empty at all. Perhaps that the message left for us. Music is where we find direct connection. In a cold world, this is the warm, beating heart of it all. The real Prize. God bless and may you find peace.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff - 40 Years of Art Walking

Walk On is a major exhibition loosely themed around the act of wandering and the art it has inspired over the past 5 or so decades. It is distributed around various venues in Plymouth, allowing the spectator to become a participant by tracing their own routes across the city. Indeed, the city itself can become a backdrop if you take part in one of the walks coinciding with the show, or if you borrow Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Walk Book and follow their recorded instructions. The everyday can be transformed, the art prompting you to perceive familiar surroundings from a different angle, making them new and surprising or rendering them strange and alienating. The title Walk On suggests a continuum of work, a distinct path beaten through the tangled and tortuous landscape of modern art. It also suggests a certain indifference to contemporary trends, a lighting out for territories beyond, travelling along tracks branching off from the from the urban Artworld heartlands. The exhibitors here might not consciously be participating in a shared movement or drawing on each other’s work. But there’s evidently something inherently attractive to the artist about walking, getting out into the world. It’s an act which implies a broadening of perspective and an exposure to the unexpected, the unplanned. Walking pursued for its own end can also be a solitary endeavour and positions the artist as an observer, a stranger passing through and recording what she sees. Making the walk itself a subject questions the very basis of art. How does the artist represent what he sees? How to convey the many impressions which impinge upon the sensorium, how to map the totality of experience, or even the smallest part of it. Part of the fascination of the exhibition lies in the variety of means and modes used to translate direct observation into some kind of representational form.

The first two artists the visitor encounters in the part of the exhibition housed in the museum (the largest of the venues) are Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, who studied together at St Martin’s College of Art in London. It’s the perfect starting point, locating the origins of walking art in the 1960s, a decade which was defined artistically by a spirit of experimentalism and adventure; a wilful breaking away from established traditions. One obvious way of doing this was to move beyond the confines of the gallery space to create works in and from the landscape. Hamish Fulton conducted and early walk in 1967 with fellow students, shuffling along in a cluster from St Martin’s to their chosen destination a short distance away in Soho. It marked a conscious step away from premises where art was officially ‘done’, moving slowly into the chaos of the city and taking time to observe its passing parade. The route was retraced for the 40th anniversary of the event; walking as remembering and reflecting upon time and change. The representation of this walk takes the form of a poster advertising something which has already taken place. Details of time and place are laid out in a clear, bold graphic style, and there is a photo of the original walkers, which also acts as a snapshot of a London moment, with the styles and period details telling the story of the era. It could almost be a flyer for a band that’s recently passed through, yet to be torn down and pasted over with the latest thing.

From local beginnings, Fulton’s path radiated outwards, embracing the whole world. Investigations of the backyard expanded into epic explorations of far flung wilds. From college to the city, from the city to the country beyond its borders, and from that country to other countries, other continents. Just walk on. Eventually he attempted the ultimate ‘walk’: a climb up Everest. This is also presented in a bold graphic style, this time principally in the form of the bright, colourful Tibetan flag, which is placed centrally in the composition. It turns the walk into a political act, a crossing of boundaries and a refusal to recognise their invisible imperatives.

31 Walks is the first of the maps in the exhibition. They take many forms, artists playing with the idea of the map as a diagrammatic representation of landscape, and as a guide to navigating your way through the land; the map as a way of planning journeys or of making them in the imagination, mental travel through inner space. Fulton’s map shows the British and European landmasses as white blanks given shape by the sky blue of the surrounding seas. His walks over the decades are traced with thin, winding lines, intersecting capillaries with arrows indicating the direction of flow. The text compressed into the top right corner (over the unwalked Nordic countries) reads ‘walking coast to coast/coast to river/river to coast/river to river’. Britain in particular is condensed into a watery island, a land defined by what is not land. Imagistic word lists are another means to summon up the impressions of a journey. Fulton reverses the dictum that a picture is worth a thousand words. The repetition and varied placement of the two words ‘river’ and ‘coast’ with their accompanying associations with complex line and expansive border create their own rhythm of motion and connective pattern. The value of the work is in the direct experience as far as Fulton is concerned. ‘A walked line, unlike a drawn line, can never be erased’ he writes in one of the works here. And elsewhere, ‘the artwork cannot represent the experience of a walk’. It can only be alluded to through symbols – words, flags and maps. Beneath the 31 Walks map are printed the words ‘walking into the distance beyond imagination’. Fulton disappears into the all-encompassing haze of oceanic blue. We can only follow him so far, picking up on the traces he leaves behind him.

Fulton takes the art of walking into head-scratching metaphysical zones in which the nature of representation becomes an inseparable part of the work. We will never get to experience the walk, the work itself (although there is a chance to join one of his walks during the exhibition), only the attempt to express something of its essence. It’s a reflection upon the nature of art in general. Richard Long isn’t quite as reductive as his contemporary. Although an early work does pare down the tracks of his Dartmoor walks to a few minimal lines and circles, symbols charting his own territory with no co-ordinates provided to help give the outsider an idea of the topography covered. Long is also more inclined to make his mark on the landscape (and make a record of that marking) as is evinced by England 1968 and A Line In The Himalayas 1975. The linearity of the track ‘drawn’ across the field through walking repeatedly back and forth and the neatly arrayed, lightly coloured row of stones forming a runway to the distant mountain peak are clear indications of human presence and organising thought in the non-linear surroundings of the natural world.

Long uses maps as record and ‘proof’ of his walks as well as for the visual pleasure they afford. If a map is a two-dimensional diagram of a three dimensional space, then Long takes it to the next dimension as well. One of the works displayed here, A Square of Ground 1966, is a small tabletop landscape, a hilltop draining into a stream which traces folded contours as it runs down into the valley. This miniaturised topography, which resembles a geological model, implies a similar miniaturisation of any human figure (including Long himself) within it. It’s a pocket version of the sublime, with observers (us) peering down from above like towering gods.

Long also uses natural materials gathered on his walks, something which Fulton pointedly never does. In this exhibition, he has created two circles from blocks and wedges of stone, laid out on the gallery floor like fragmented wheels. This construction of a work composed of elemental materials in the centre of a ‘refined’ space creates a sense of dislocation, of worlds colliding. The congruent arrangement of raw materials redolent of stark, remote sites, circles which the visitor has to walk around as they make their way through the gallery, summons up a ritualistic atmosphere. It’s entirely appropriate that an exhibition in the neighbouring room displays materials recently found in a Bronze Age burial mound at Whitehorse Hill on Dartmoor.

A good many of the artists in the Walk On exhibition take their cues from Fulton and Long, adapting or updating them according to their own particular experience or intention. Maps are a recurrent feature. Chris Drury’s High Desert Wind superimposes a map of Ladakh on a cross-section of the human heart. It contrasts the spiritual with the corporeal, outer with inner landscapes. Symbolising the yearning for travel and adventure, self-discovery and enlightenment, it is a map of the human heart. Jeremy Wood’s White Horse Hill is a relief map made from cardboard which bursts out from the frame in ridges and contoured rosettes. Its protruding dimensions were drawn from GPS tracking signals. The ancient chalk downland landscape and the marks which man has made upon it (the Uffington White Horse) are thus contrasted with modern satellite technologies. These are technologies which create a distance from the landscapes and places which were once sacred, as the powerful lines of the chalk horse indicate.

Sarah Cullen displays several drawings whose abstract patterns were created using a simple yet ingenious low-tech home-made device. She carries a case on her walks within which a pencil is suspended and weighted over a sheet of paper. The swaying and jogging of the case beneath its handle is translated into the inscribing movement of the pencil. It becomes an index of the effort, changes of direction, ascents and descents involved in the walk, all recorded in the relative densities and vectors of the lines and curves made on the page, the areas which they fill more fully and those which are more sparsely shaded.

There are tabletop landscapes, miniature geological features or built-up maps. Brian Thompson, like Jeremy Wood, uses GPS technology to create layered sculptures whose shapes are determined by the tracked outlines of his walks. These outlines are incrementally enlarged, with the final form resembling a stalagmite mountain outcropping. These accretions equate with the formation of the landscape over time, but also with the intimate interconnection of landscape and memory. Again, the surface skimming devices of modern satellite technology are used to express something more ancient and deeply rooted.

Tracy Hanna’s Hill Walker shines a spotlight on pristine conical mountain of mounded plaster dust. Set within a dimly lit cubicle, it casts a sharp shadow in its wake. The mountain has a dark, penumbral side, the hidden reverse of its brightly illuminated face. Projected onto the slope we see the tiny silhouette of a figure trudging up its steep incline. It never quite reaches the top, fading away to reappear at the base again and begin the ascent once more. Tragi-comic, heroic and ridiculous, this mini-drama – a pocket-sized epic – reflects the British love of the noble failure, as enshrined in the mythologised stories of Scott and Mallory. It’s also a light-hearted embodiment of the human spirit for exploration and adventure or, in more nebulously spiritual terms, its constant aspiration towards some higher state. It’s also just great fun.

Some artists develop personal systems through which they visually codify the impressions gathered on their walks. James Hugonin’s Binary Rhythm takes the colours he has noted during this walks through the Northumbrian landscape and arranges them in grids of tiny squres. The result is a tiled wall, a sampler of the rich variety and infinite contrasts of nature’s palette. Rachel Clewlow records the landmarks passed on her urban walks in a small notebook. The information is laid out with obsessive neatness and symmetry on the page, the writing tiny but perfectly spaced. This information is translated onto the canvas, appearing as a visual analogue through the application of a codifying system. The results are reminiscent of spectral read-outs, Venn diagrams and bar charts (and the colour paintings of Bridget Riley) but have an abstract visual beauty all their own. It’s only through close inspection that you can see the framework they are built on – the artistic x & y axes for the visualised memory graph.

Some artists create a strong narrative structure to give form and meaning to their wandering. Sophie Calle’s photographs are intimate snapshots of her 1980 travels to Venice, capturing mysterious details which imply some personal significance hidden from us. These are put into context by the accompanying text, a first person narration which resembles the inner monologues of a Raymond Chandler PI. Calle decided to follow a stranger she had met briefly in Paris. Her attempts to track him down in Venice, where he had told her was going on a trip, build up a feeling of suspense, and the developing story of obsession and identity crisis resembles a Hitchcock film. The self-conscious manner of its telling is also like a Jean Luc Godard take on the detective genre – Calle as Anna Karina. Calle’s obsessive pursuit drives her to adapt different disguises, becoming a character in her own self-willed drama. Her random quest also makes her a stranger in an unknown city, and the story conveys a feeling of alienation, of being adrift in unknown territory. Maps are also supplied, attempts at providing evidence for way may very well be one big sustained work of fiction.

Walking also lends itself to game-playing, the setting of rules and limitations and the direction of human action and behaviour. Tim Knowles’ Kielder Forest Walk finds him rigorously following a straight line plotted through a dense coniferous plantation. It’s a fool’s journey through a dark land, pointless but not without aim. The unedited 8 hour HD film of his hapless endeavour is only ever likely to be seen in short extracts. A POV perspective of a man in a protective mask plunging relentlessly on through dim, uniform woodlands is only going to hold the attention of even the most determined viewer for a limited period. It’s the sheer single bloody mindedness with which the walk was carried out which makes it admirable in its own perverse way. The artist did it because he could and said he would, and that’s that.

There are others who walk the line, figuratively following in the footsteps of Richard Long. Carey Young directly quotes Long in one of her Body Techniques series of works. She created a line on the rubble strewn outskirts of Dubai, which she then walked along dressed in a grey business suit. She almost seems to merge with her surroundings, as if she had arisen from this wasteground. The glass towers clustering in ever-growing profusion behind her suggest that she is enacting a modern mythological drama, one which marks an ending as well the emergence of a new world. The mark made on this landscape won’t be subject to the gradual erosion of natural forces but will almost instantly be erased by the accelerated temporal demands of global finance.

Catherine Yass’ High Wire sets up a scenario in which walking the line is imperative, a matter of life and death. She filmed the high-wire walker Didier Pasquette crossing a line strung between high-rise blocks on the Red Road estate in Glasgow. The vertiginous experience of the walk is heightened by the use of a POV perspective gained by attaching a camera to Pasquette’s head. The tentative crossing, with long-distance shots taking in the estate and the horizon beyond, symbolises the post-war ideals of high-rise, high-density living, and the decline of the utopian dream which saw the Red Road monoliths erected. The wire-walker must sustain a concentrated balancing-act. If he succeeds, he walks amongst the clouds. If he fails, he falls fast and far onto the hard reality of the concrete world below. The towers have now been demolished, the dream reduced to rubble and then cleared away, dispelled as if it never existed.

Marina Abramovic walked the wavering and in parts semi-erased line of the Great Wall of China in 1988. She started at one end, her partner Ulay at the other. Their meeting in the middle marked the end of their collaboration and of their romantic involvement. It’s not as cold and clinical as it sounds. The original intention had been that they would marry upon meeting. But the complex arrangements and negotiations required to set up the walk took years, and personal circumstances changed in that time. The symbolic heart of the action was thereby turned on its head. An immense symbol of political power and dominance was also transformed into the backdrop for an epic personal drama. There are six photographs of the walk displayed here, each with small drawings of diagrammatic figures scribbled 6 years later placed beneath. These are star doodles from someone who has now attained art celebrity status. They resemble pieces of retrospective graffiti scrawled on the wall. A personal iconography spelling out the affirmation ‘Marina woz ere’.

Bruce Nauman walks the lines of a square in ‘Walking’, taking ungainly backward pigeon steps and making walking look like suspended falling. His video focuses on the most basic of movements, but sets them a little off kilter, making them seem effortful. The masking tape path laid out on the floor looks like a crude practice grid, the walker some alien being just learning how to inhabit a human body. It’s not quite got it right yet.

Francis Alys’ short film Guards records an event in which he created a set of rules for a troop of Coldstream Guards. They enter the square mile of the City of London singly from different directions. When they meet their comrades they begin forming into ranks and march in step. Groups gradually agglomerate and coalesce, the sound of their heavy, tramping shoes increasing in volume and intensity. The aim is to form an 8x8 square. When this is achieved, their instructions are to march to the nearest bridge over the Thames. The film acts as an exploration of the City’s empty weekend alleys and byways. They are sounded out by the explosive ricocheting of the soldiers’ one-two steps. The inherent oddity of the deserted streets is heightened by the anomalous presence of these anachronistically colourful troops. Individually, they appear lost, as if they had just woken up to find themselves in this unfamiliar setting. A battalion from an Imperial past teleported to a concrete future, left to wander dazedly through the maze of the Barbican. They seem touchingly human in these first stages of bewilderment, peering around corners or finding in comfort in sitting and combing their busbies. As soon as they encounter their fellows, however, stereotypical behaviours snap into place, and exaggerated marching steps turn them in to programmed components in a greater whole. There’s something almost lemming-like about their final passage to the river. When the square breaks up, its destination having been reached, the individual components of the marching machine once more disperse, as aimless and lost as they were at the beginning now that their purpose has been fulfilled. There are many dimensions to this playful but gripping work. On a purely visual level, the vivid red of the soldiers’s uniforms provides a pleasing contrast to the prevailing grey of the City buildings. There’s something here of the old Busby Berkeley routines, with their choreographed direction of bodies in synchronised motion shot from above. A stiff , deindividuated dance devoid of all personal expression. Guardsmen with strong nationalistic associations marching through the financial district can’t help but carry symbolic overtones. Are they here to restore order and impose control over a system which has descended into chaos? To drive out predatory jackals and instate a new set of values? The sight and sound of soldiers marching through the old streets of London makes us reflect upon how fortunate we have been not to have experienced such violent disruptions in the recent past. The martial rhythms drum up ghost echoes of alternative histories, time streams superimposed for a brief visionary instant.

Guards takes some of its footage from CCTV cameras, and this emblem of modern surveillance and paranoia features in a number of works. Alys uses it again in Nightwatch, another short film. We watch the nocturnal wanderings of a fox through the empty halls and corridors of the National Portrait Gallery via these remote viewing eyes. The fox sniffs at plinths, walks the length of benches, crawls under cabinets and leaps up onto a table where it curls up to go to sleep. All under the blank regard of the serried ranks of Tudor and Stuart worthies who hang lifelessly on the wall. Like Guards, Nightwatch gains much of its power from placing its subject in an alien environment. The contrast here is between a creature renowned, in an urban context, for scavenging (the ragamuffin urchin of the city’s fauna) and the refined setting it is set loose in. The figures it moves amongst are the kinds of people who would have hunted it down in their day. But they are now immobile, fixed in their immortal aspects. The fox is a brush-tailed blur of restless motion in the still hush of the museum after dark, following whatever trails it is picking up on the parquet flooring. There’s a certain tension as to whether it will knock a bust from its pedestal or piss on a portrait of the queen. The fox’s folkloric role as trickster and wily outsider gives an extra resonance to the film.

Some artists order the memories of their travels through the traditional holiday means of the slide show or the collection of mementoes. Atul Bhalla’s Yamuna Walk shows a series of pictures of a walk along the banks of a river which passes through New Delhi. This progression of images and the contrasts they throw up portrays the different aspects of the river, the co-existence of seemingly incompatible qualities. It is sacred, and industrial and agricultural resource, a workplace, a site of grandiose and politically charged engineering works, and a dumping ground. A list of words at the end are like captions which have floated free from the scenes they were intended to explain. This stream of words trigger recollections of the images which have passed before us. It’s an associative flow which sums up the bewildering chaos of the landscape Bhalla depicts in all its decay and fecundity.

Julian Opie's cover for Saint Etienne's How We Used to Live
Juian Opie’s Summer is based on a walk through the countryside in France. The artist took a regular series of photographs which became the basis for a slowly progressing slide show of paintings. Opie’s landscapes are characteristically simplified, reduced to outline forms filled with undifferentiated colour and with little distinguishing detail within. It is an edgeless Arcadia painted in shades of green, and with the images fading gently into one another, we glide through it with frictionless ease. The soft murmuration of ambient music accompanies our dreamy drift. Objects have a blurry lack of definition. We can recognise trees, but any finer species distinction is impossible. Rounded rectangles looming before us could be haystacks or they could be standing stones. It’s almost like a journey through a Batsford book cover. This is a landscape in which nothing can hurt, and everything is perceived through an anaesthetised veil. It also reminded me of some of the lovely covers Opie did for Saint Etienne at the time of their Sound of Water album.

Alex Finlay’s The Road North: The 53 Stations documents a journey through Scotland he made with his travelling companion Ken Cockburn. Their progress is memorialised by a collection of whisky miniatures, each a distillation of place and associated feeling. These feelings, records of a moment (the moment after knocking back the local malt) are expressed in the form of compact verses or epigrams, written on labels and attached to the bottles. They pay homage to the haiku written by Basho during his journey on the Narrow Road to the Deep North. One reads, for example, ‘approaching the bridge my fingers can’t help feeling for change’. The bottles may also be a nod to the many inns depicted in Hiroshige’s woodblock print series 53 Stations on the Tokaido Road, which often have landladies positioned outside almost forcibly dragging passing travellers into their establishments.

The lure of the northern wilds is felt by many artists. Richard Long and Hamish Fulton both headed for the Himalayas. Iceland is also a popular destination. Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson went on a ten-day walk through the north of the island. A series of pictures on a concertinaed length of card is like one of the fold-out postcards you used to be able to get if you had more to say than would fit on just the one side. The title, Home, suggests that it might indeed be something to send back from far flung regions. The pictures depict cairns, markers and also perhaps memorials. They could represent guiding posts, reassuring the traveller that they aer on the right track; or reminders of the lost, those who wandered from the path and never found it again. They are ambiguous and silent forms, tightly packed and self-contained, enshrouded in icy mist.

Dan Holdsworth also travelled to Iceland, and his lightbox image is like a huge projected slide. It is blown up to a scale intended to convey something of the sublime nature of the chill volcanic landscape. The eye is drawn into its mysterious depths, and you almost feel as if you could drift into it. The negative inversion of light and dark amplifies the uncanny spirit of the place, lending it an unworldly ambience. The soft illumination suffusing the glass plate from an obscure source behind serves to deepen the unfathomable shadows, radiating a dark light.

The words Walk On conjure the lyrical invocations of Rogers and Hammerstein and Neil Young in the songs You’ll Never Walk Alone and Walk On. The one anthemic and prayerful, the other resigned and dismissive of critical carping. They both confront the obstacles and disappointments of life, recognise the inevitability of change and determine to persist whatever happens. Walking is an act of hope, of openness to the unfolding of new experiences and encounters. The artists here embrace it in a variety of ways, displaying a great breadth imagination and vision. So walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

3000 Years with Ottilie

This record, which came into the Oxfam record shop in Exeter yesterday, is a real discovery. Ottilie Patterson was the singer with the Chris Barber Band, belting out good time trad jazz. But on this 1969 album she explores entirely different territory. There's dark folk with lush studio arrangements, baroque psych pop (with the rhythm section of Brian Auger's Trinity lending a bit of heft) and jaunty Elizabethan dances setting Shakespearean lyrics. The label has a nice art nouveau/Biba look - all purple and orange swirls. Very late 60s. It was set up by Giorgio Gomelsky in 1966. He was one of those characters in swinging London who seemed to try his hand at anything. He managed (vaguely) the Stones and the Yardbirds at the outset of their careers, ran the Crawdaddy Club which they emerged from and produced a number of records. In the 70s, he was involved with Gong (he produced the Flying Teapot album) and in particular Magma. They ignited his love of experimental, exploratory music. The Marmalade label released records by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity (including Wheel's On Fire), John McLaughlin's Extrapolation (his 'free' record with John Surman, Tony Oxley and Brian Odgers) and John Stevens Spontaneous Music Ensemble (a key progenitor of British free improv, here with Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, Trevor Watts, Peter Lemer, Johnny Dyani and Maggie Nichols), English psych pop band Blossom Toes (whose music features in Eric Rohmer's film La Collectionneuse), a pre-10CC Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley, and Chris Barber himself. Diverse or what! This is a great record, though. The dark tenor, low key balladry and expansive arrangements remind me of 60s Scott Walker. Which is never a bad thing. Here's Ottilie with the dark, epic folk of Helen of Kirkconnell.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bloody Homage: The Hammer of Dr Valentine, Terrors of the Théâtre Diabolique and the Enduring Appeal of Hammer and Amicus

The golden age of British horror movies continues to exert a fascination over successive generations of fans. The films of the late 50s through to the mid-70s belong to a distinct period of post-war popular culture, a pre-corporate era in which small companies could produce and market movies which were relatively small in scale but highly distinguished in quality. It was also a time in which maverick Soho producers at the lower end of the market could knock off cheap exploitation pictures which occasionally (very occasionally) resulted in the revelation of a fresh and exciting new talent, creating something which transcended the formula its backers were flagrantly trying to copy. The horror cinema of this era bears so little relation to contemporary manifestations of the genre, with their emphasis on prolonged physical pain and the dogged pursuit of new extremes, that they seem to come from a far more distant time, beyond living memory. Their values can seem impossibly outmoded, but in this marked difference lies part of their charm. The best of the pictures from this time offer a great deal more than the nostalgic appeal of period quaintness, however. They were made with great care and craftsmanship, featured actors of real class (the oft-twinned names of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee being the stellar examples) and a wonderful array of character performers, and were often possessed of a full-blooded romanticism which formed a continuation of British traditions both cinematic (Powell and Pressburger and Gainsborough), literary and artistic. The Hammer and Amicus studios were the most notable homes from which they emerged. And they were homes, with a family feel to what they produced, a house style which you could depend upon. It’s a seemingly contradictory thing to say about the productions of a genre intended to inspire terror, but a real warmth and affection for their films and those involved in the making of them has developed over the years. Two new books pay homage to them in the form of reference-steeped fiction, and serve as testament to this enduring appeal.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert, published by Spectral Press, is a sequel to The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine, which won the British Fantasy Award for best novella at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention. That first encounter with the diabolically resourceful physician, bent on avenging the death of his daughter, drew very consciously on the films of Vincent Price. The models for the absurdly elaborate deaths meted out to the medical staff deemed responsible for allowing his daughter to die are lifted from Price’s films, Valentine adapting them according to circumstance. The narrative structure and blackly comic tone is lifted from Theatre of Blood and the Dr Phibes movies in particular. They were distinguished by lusciously contrived camp, the horror (and they were surprisingly vicious at times) alleviated by knowingly exaggerated and patently ridiculous excess. Dr Valentine emulates ham thesp Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood in his adoption of role-playing disguises, his propensity for gloating moral lectures and his relish for bad puns and mordant quips as agonising at the torments he inflicts upon his victims. These victims are invariably loathsome and wholly undeserving of sympathy, thus allowing us to enjoy the spectacle of their exquisitely plotted and executed demises.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine shifts the focus from Vincent Price and onto the extensive output of the Hammer studios. The Doctor is back and this time choosing as the subjects for his art of death the tabloid sleazemongers and hack bestseller writers who distorted the true nature of his previous escapades. As an aesthete of decadent derangement, this distortion of his carefully constructed narrative or revenge is unforgivable. Thus they are picked off one by one, eliminated by the monster they helped to foster and becoming fodder for more of their kind. Still sticking assiduously with the template of Theatre of Blood and Dr Phibes, even though nominally now on Hammer territory, the Doctor is provided with a young and loyal female assistant, his co-star and siren in the deadly skits he contrives. Also following the pattern, the forces of the law always plod a few paces behind. The returning DCI Jeffrey Longdon is left cursing impotently at his minions, the morbid chorus of DIs Martinus, Graves and Wentworth, as he comes across the latest implausible murder scene. He’s less the stoical Peter Jeffries of the Phibes movies, more the irascible, cynical and petulant Donald Pleasance in Death Line. There’s a less morally compromised character on the roster of potential victims, John Spalding, the equivalent of Joseph Cotton in The Abominable Dr Phibes or Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood. If anyone is likely to survive and bring the Doctor’s murderous mystery play to a close it will be him. He is also effectively the ‘savant’ of the scenario, the character with the specialised knowledge necessary to defeat the monster. He is no Van Helsing, but his knowledge of the variety of Van Helsings on screen may prove of use. As a film critic he is acquainted with the whole range of Hammer films and thereby with the modus operandi of the supervillain he and the police force face. But will this cinephile learning arm them sufficiently to defeat such a mercurial, elusive foe.

Hammer fans will have a huge amount of fun spotting the films whose deaths Dr Valentine goes to such lengths to reproduce. They’re not necessarily the obvious ones, either. Probert digs deep into the Hammer back catalogue and comes up with some surprising and effective choices. He may just lead you to dust off films you’d put to one side as inessential. Fear In The Night or The Reptile, for instance. Valentine is in some ways a superfan himself, dressing the part and paying his own form of tribute with appropriate bucketloads of Kensington gore. Probert makes no bones about his own love of the studio’s output. Well, most of it anyway. He reserves a pronounced disdain for the 70s psycho Peter Pan drama Straight On ‘til Morning, with the new Hammer star of the time Shane Bryant and an uncomfortable Rita Tushingham (her unease palpable in the commentary she provides for the dvd release). His objects to what he perceives as its failed pretensions towards arthouse status. I find things of interest in it. It seems to be a swinging sixties film infected with the growing disillusionment of the seventies. The Knack or Smashing Time in which the bright pop art backdrops have faded to grey, the zany antics wound down into entropic stasis; the Peter Pan fantasy of carefree youth is no longer sustainable, and the attempt to prolong it induces psychotic breakdown. But no, it ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of such a scenario, and descends into another of Hammer’s tiresome psycho derivatives.

Prominent citation of sources during the opening credits for The House That Dripped Blood
In an extensive afterword, Probert provides a film by film key to the story’s cinematic reference points. There’s a lovely image in the book of the police incident room map, lines of red wool radiating out from the crime scenes to join with small reproductions of the relevant Hammer film posters. The afterword is Probert’s explanatory counterpart to this chart. It is charmingly autobiographical, and his remembrances of first encounters with various films will chime with many readers, prompting their own misty reminiscences. I particularly liked his recollection of watching Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed on HTV Cymru, unconvincingly dubbed into Welsh. Amicus gets a look in via the reference to Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen, the classic study of German expressionist horror. It is prominently placed on a desk and lingered over by the camera at the start of The House That Dripped Blood.

We also get to visit Dr Terror’s Haunted Cornish Funfair, which combines Dr Terror’s House of Horror’s with the fairground setting of Torture Garden. A new entertainment venture for Peter Cushing’s tarot reader, perhaps. The rides include Dr Blood’s Coffin and Crucible of Terror, references to two Cornish set films of surpassing dullness (Zennor standing in for ‘Porthcarron’ and Perranporth for any Cornish folk out there). ‘These local things were never up to much’, one character muses, ‘so they could give the Crucible of Terror a miss’. It’s an amusingly offhand critical dismissal. Probert’s story is full of such pleasing details and, like its illustrious sources, serves up shudders of fear and laughter in equal and well-balance measures. We also get to visit one of the ultimate locations for 60s and 70s British horror: Oakley Court, a neo-gothic mansion by the Thames in Berkshire (conveniently close to Hammer’s Bray Studios). It provided the backdrop to several Hammer films, transported to Cornwall for The Reptile and Plague of Zombies and middle Europe for Brides of Dracula. Amicus used it for one of their few all-out gothics, And Now The Screaming Starts, and it was put to atmospheric use in Vampyres. Intriguingly, a parting reference to Don’t Look Now suggests that the demented Dr V may yet return – but moving into the arthouse and using Nic Roeg films as his sick source material. We can only wait with fearful anticipation.

Terrors of the Théâtre Diabolique is an anthology edited by Dan Barratt and John Davies. It is graced with an urbane introduction by David Warner, who played an unfortunate character in the Amicus film From Beyond the Grave, a devilish cover by Simon A.Brett and illustrations by Paul Griffin. Profits from the sales of the book, whether in physical form or as a downloadable pdf, are going to MIND, a particularly worthy charity. Not least amongst the services it offers is enlightening the public about the nature of mental illness, thus dispelling the bogies summoned up in Amicus’ film Asylum; an absurdly melodramatic view of the ‘mad’ as devious and dangerously unpredictable which is still surprisingly prevalent. The inspiration here is the series of portmanteau horror films made by Amicus from the mid 60s through through to the mid 70s. Or the early 80s if you care to include The Monster Club, which I rather think I do, largely out of blurry nostalgia. Alright, so Amicus had folded by then, but it was produced by Milton Subotsky and is an Amicus film in all but name. It was the first horror film I saw in the cinema. I was thrilled at the prospect of watching an Amicus picture on the big screen, having become familiar with the likes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, From Beyond the Grave and Asylum via Saturday night horror double bills on the BBC.

Dan Barratt shares my affection for the Amicus portmanteau films and has fashioned a contemporary version in the form of a short story collection. He supplies the framing narrative himself, inviting others to provide the creepy vignettes he sets up. The opening scenes are written with a cinematic sweep, taking the point of view of a swallow gliding down towards a seaside town. This affords us long and medium distance establishing shots, followed up by exterior close-ups of the Victorian gothic details of a crumbling theatre of dark varieties. Following a near escape from a local cat, the swallow conducts a swift (sic) aerial survey of the interior before coming to a rest at a high vantage point, from which it can watch events unfolding below. The choice of a swallow might be a little nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. The swallow as symbol of selfless sacrifice provides an ironic contrast to the self-absorbed outlooks of the characters who people the stories in the collection.

You're all dead already - end of story
The protagonists in Amicus films are by and large unsympathetic: selfish, mean-spirited, venal, cold-hearted and frequently coldly murderous. They tend to find themselves gathered together in some unwelcoming venue (a crypt, a vault) or linked by a common locale they all visit (a strange shop, a house which changes hands with suspicious regularity). There is a guide or host who welcomes them, generally with a highly portentous, sepulchral air. He then proceeds to tell them their secret stories, reading their fates, which invariably involve a distinct element of finality. Having pronounced their collective doom, he then reveals the shocking truth, which brings the film to an end. This tends to be a reminder that they’re all dead already and will be, or have for some time been spending an eternity in hell.

Peter Cushing's mild-mannered shopkeeper in From Beyond the Grave - just don't shortchange him
There’s certainly a strong current of judgement contained within the stories of the Amicus portmanteaus. Poetic justice is meted out with cackling relish, often rounded off with a summary quip from our guide. I always loved Peter Cushing’s parting words to Ian Carmichael in From Beyond the Grave. Carmichael had just surreptitiously swapped price tags on two antique snuff boxes, buying the more expensive one for a considerably reduced price as a result. In this uncanny shop, hidden away in a forgotten city alleyway in which the Victorian era seems to live on, it is, however, extremely, indeed fatally unwise to cheat the proprietor. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it sir’, he says, a pitiless note underlying his amiable, mild-mannered demeanour. He clamps his pipe in his mouth, turns and shuffles off with a certain air of weary disappointment at being confronted yet again with human weakness and greed. The moral comeuppance visited upon richly deserving characters betrays the influence of the notorious EC comics of the 50s. These had a notably satirical undercurrent, drawing (and inking) a picture of contemporary America as a moral vacuum which belied the comfortable self-satisfaction of the Eisenhower era. Vengeance was often carried out at the clawed, earth-encrusted hands of rotting revenants, leering corpses returning from the grave to right wrongs with much rending and tearing of flesh. They were anti-superheroes of a sort, emerging from the earth rather than descending from the skies, draped in ragged shrouds rather than colourful capes. A suppurating Justice League of America for the downtrodden and betrayed. Needless to say, they failed to win the approval of the moral majority. The Amicus films didn’t really share the barbed satirical element of the EC comics, although there was a certain undermining of 70s consumerism and class divisions, the relentless pursuit of wealth and the idealisation of the spotless suburban household. There weren’t many rotting corpses clawing their way out of the grave either. One memorable exception was the tale of Arthur Grimsdyke, a highly effective episode featuring a performance of heartrending pathos from Peter Cushing. We cheer him on when he returns from the dead to make literal the figurative heartlessness of his proto-yuppie tormentor. That story was told in Tales from the Crypt, one of two films directly adapted from EC comics.

Grimsdyke returns in Tales From The Crypt
There’s definitely a strong element of moral comeuppance to the tales told in the Théâtre Diabolique as well. We have our guide here, too. A cowled figure who ushers his ‘guests’ through a tour of the dilapidated Victorian house of varieties, leading them into the subterranean vaults lying beneath the stage. There are conscious echoes of Amicus films throughout, as you would expect from a homage. The touring party pass various dusty objects in storage rooms which hint at stories untold, or perhaps ones we’ve seen before: an ‘ornate mirror’ reminds us of the possessed glass in From Beyond the Grave; ‘a child’s doll’ the toy which Christopher Lee snatches from the hand of the little girl he believes to be a witch in The House That Dripped Blood; ‘some scattered illustrated pages’ are perhaps drawn by Tom Baker’s artist in Vault of Horror, whose portrait subjects suffered damage commensurate with that inflicted upon their images. Others are less familiar, although ‘a large, ominous pendulum blade’ and ‘a human sized ape suit’ might have strayed in from the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe pictures The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. Similarly, a ‘spiralling metal staircase’ which ‘groaned and swayed alarmingly’ may have been relocated from Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, as memorably visualised in Robert Wise’s The Haunting.

Ingrid Pitt in a publicity still for The House That Dripped Blood
As for the stories themselves, they fit the Amicus mould in that they share a contemporary setting. No moonlit gothic castles wreathed in mist here. Amicus briskly dispensed with the gothic staples in their first portmanteau picture, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, which featured werewolves, vampires, a crawling hand (the beast with five fingers), voodoo curses and, er, a swiftly spreading variety of intelligent, carnivorous weed (menacing poor old Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman). They turned up from time to time, but in a joky context. Vampires bared their teeth with an accompanying nod and wink in Vault of Horror (tucking into rare or medium clots in an exclusive restaurant) and in The House That Dripped Blood (supplying a splendid and much reproduced still of Ingrid Pitt hissing through elongated incisors if nothing else). They no doubt realised that they couldn’t beat Hammer at their own game, and so set their cruel tales in 70s living rooms, bedrooms and lounges (and basements). The horrors often extended to the décor.

JR Southall’s House Sitting is a variant of the malevolent house tale. A building which feeds off the fears and painful buried memories of those who stray into its field of baleful influence. Ghosts of the mind are awakened, personal hauntings set into spectral motion. Southall’s tale harks back to The House That Dripped Blood, with its desirable Victorian detached house from which tenants are despatched with disdainful frequency. It also echoes the evil architecture of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, with its uncanny feel for the hidden weaknesses of its inhabitants. The Day Martin Anderson Lost It is a latterday tale of Walter Mitty daydreaming. This is extreme Mitty, however, with fantasies of psychotic violence directed against a hated call-centre boss superceding the whimsical escapism of Thurber’s character. In railing against corporate workplaces with their empty managerial mantras, it voices frustrations which we can all identify with to some extent.

David Warner looking decidedly unwell in From Beyond the Grave
Tony Eccles’ The Finding is a haunted house tale whose supernatural manifestations centre upon a mirror with uncanny properties. It’s the kind of mirror whose depths contain a little more than a simple inverted reflection presented to those standing in front of it. It brings to mind the David Warner episode in From Beyond the Grave, one of the more disturbing of the Amicus stories, not least because of Warner’s quietly intense performance. It follows its protagonist into the depths of a psychotic breakdown, his murderous actions prompted and directed by a figure in the mirror he bought from Peter Cushing’s shadowy emporium. He didn’t pay enough cash, either. A haunted mirror also appears in the honourable ancestor of the Amicus portmanteaus, the 1945 Ealing picture Dead of Night. Eccles’ story also plays with the confusion of the real and the imaginary, the border between rational perception and emotionally clouded hallucination. This ambiguity provided the basis for a few Amicus stories. There was the ‘Dominick’ episode of The House That Dripped Blood, in which a murderous character from writer Denholm Elliott’s novel seems to have come to life. And in Asylum, Charlotte Rampling dreams up an imaginary friend (Britt Ekland) who indulges in all the wild things she is far too timid and anxious to do herself.

Simon A Brett’s The Artist’s Medium concerns a very special pen which, when mixed with bodily fluids (their specific provenance doesn’t seem overly important) becomes imbued with the power to alter in reality that which it draws on the blank page. Used unwittingly in a state of post-coital reflection or in a fit of drunken rage in the wake of a bitter break-up, the results prove grimly ironic. They are punning deaths in the Amicus mould, figures of speech or symbolic representations rendered literal, with liberal splashes of gore to bring it up to date. The Vault of Horror story with Tom Baker as an artist who discovers his power to affect reality through his painted representations is a classic reference point here. Tom misuses his powers, but comes a cropper when a workman knocks over a bottle of white spirit onto his self-portrait, causing features to blur and run – a Francis Bacon meat face for real.

Lee Rawlings’ By Rook or By Crook (the agonising Amicus pun contained in the title) is kitchen sink psycho horror combined with the Freudian supernatural of The Birds. The dynastic rivalry between father and son is also a clash between the pragmatic Yorkshireman’s bluntly fiscal worldview and the more aesthetic outlook of his adopted offspring. The age old imperative to displace the father, enshrined in the modern age by Freud, is given a nicely ritualistic air by the stark, ancient landscape in which the story takes place. Jon Arnold’s The Golden Ghouls (another painful pun) draws on the new extreme strands of cinema, and on the body horror which has been a significant generic strand since the 80s. His story is simplicity itself. Two lively old ladies in an old people’s home who still entertain libidinous thoughts are charmed into drinking an elixir of youth. It’s a homeopathic remedy whose sub-microscopic elements are demons from hell. They are duly possessed and their puppeteered bodies are made to dance to the devil’s tune in a strict modern tempo. Arnold takes the satire of the EC comics and some of the Amicus stories to delirious new levels (or depths). His story seems driven by a pervasive disgust at and cynicism about the modern world, and exhibits a visceral horror of old age. The wholesale assault on venality, consumerism and the empty, possessive carnality which accompanies it is unbalanced and more than a little hysterical. Arnold certainly holds nothing back in his detailing of the ladies’ orgiastic rampage. It’s like a mini-Salo, portraying contemporary society in terms of readymade circles of hell. The in your face unpleasantness could almost be construed as rude riposte to the relatively refined horrors of Amicus and Hammer, a mark of how far we have come (or fallen). Milton Subotsky, an old school horror aficionado (as witness the books displayed at the start of The House That Dripped Blood, borrowed from his own collection) would not have countenanced its like. I certainly don’t have the stomach for it, which is why I tend to avoid most modern manifestations of horror. A matter of taste (and age), I suppose.

Who's next? Could it be YOU?
The finale, bringing us out of the theatre once more, creates an explosive eruption of Lovecraftian delirium which Amicus could never have dreamed of staging on their meagre budgets. They tried consigning a soul to a fiery pit of damnation at the end of Vault of Horror, but their ambition outstripped their means, and the effect was frankly embarrassing. Dan Barratt gives a grandiose climax which encompasses and then surpasses the default Hammer way of ending things by bringing the house down, and usually burning it the ground as well. A quiet coda offers a version of the typical Amicus ending in which the guide or proprietor turns to the new visitors, customers or lost souls. Who will be next to enter my domain – could it be you? Here we are introduced to a modern incarnation of the popularly loathed social type, the sort who many would gladly see receiving their just dues. For our age, it is a banker. It rounds things of with a pleasing circularity, ending on the kind of wryly humorous note which characterised the Amicus films. A reminder not to take any of it too seriously. The curtain falls. But which side are you left on? Who is that cackling dryly in the shadows? Why has it all gone so dark? Where has everybody gone? Hallo?

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Stephen Volk's Leytonstone and the Secret Heart of Hitchcock

Stephen Volk’s new novella (novelette? I never did work out the fine distinctions) Leytonstone is a tangential follow up to Whitstable, his acclaimed 2013 book, also published by Spectral Press. He once more fashions a story around a particular time, place and a real person inhabiting them. Whitstable offered a heartfelt portrait of the aged Peter Cushing wandering through the sleepy Kent seaside town in which he had settled with his beloved wife Helen and made his home. It reflected upon both Cushing’s gentlemanly manner, old world kindliness and Christian worldview and the moral rectitude and certainty of the more upright, crusading characters he played onscreen. These qualities were set against the backdrop of the harsh, increasingly desensitised world of the 70s in which such moral and spiritual convictions had begun to dissipate, and to which the fantasy world of Hammer with which Cushing was so indelibly associated was struggling to adjust. New fears and terrors, allied with the uncertainties attendant upon a declining economy, were arising to eclipse the gothic staples of the Hammer universe with monsters of a more grimly realistic tenor – monsters with a human face. Cushing’s personal crisis of faith and hope in the wake of his wife’s death becomes paradigmatic of the crisis of the country at large. In the manner of Boris Karloff at the climax of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets, Cushing has to face a contemporary monster imbued with all the ambiguous complexities of human nature. In that film, Karloff confronted a sniper who had turned his sights on the audience at a drive-in where one of his old cobwebbed gothics was screening. In Whitstable, Cushing intervenes in order to protect a young boy who has turned to him, or rather to Dr Van Helsing, for help in driving out the father whom he believes to be a vampire. In doing so, the actor has to face his own fears of redundancy and helplessness in a world he no longer understands, and feels he has no real place in anymore. It is a deeply moving portrait, full of the compassion and psychological insight Volk brought to difficult and upsetting subject matter in his supernatural TV series Afterlife. This was a fictional iteration of Cushing, but it spoke about the man and his work with great eloquence, revealing much about the enormous respect, admiration, and indeed love with which he is still regarded by so many (myself included).

Volk treads a parallel path in Leytonstone. Whereas Whitstable viewed the compensatory imaginative world of a child from the perspective of an adult, Leytonstone invites us to see things from a young child’s point of view. That child is Fred, or ‘Cocky’ to his schoolmates. We know him better as Alfred Hitchcock, or perhaps as ‘Hitch’, the nickname which he preferred as an adult to the crude name-calling of the playground or childhood streets. At this stage in his life he is a 6 year old boy living in the east end London borough of Leytonstone, in a house attached to the successful greengrocer’s business of his father, William Hitchcock.

Volk adopts a cinematic style appropriate to his subject, setting the scene with the acute eye of the accomplished screenwriter. There is some quick cross-editing in the first few pages, with Fred’s recitation of potato varieties intercut with close-up details of the street, indicating someone approaching (‘dark legs stride in mirror-black shoes’). The imaginary camera eye then pulls out to give us an interior and exterior view of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s. Later, there are expressionist shadows which turn a policeman walking the gaslit streets into a skull-faced ghoul: a nod to the German films from which the young Hitchcock learned so much in the formative years of his career. We get a foretaste of some of Hitchcock’s own cinematic devices too. Windows and peepholes provide voyeuristic screens within the screen, iris ovals which make the audience complicit in what they watch. Fred clears the misted pane of his bedroom window to look out onto the evening street below. Volk observes that ‘it’s black and white out there, like a film’. A view at a safe distance from the pick-up he half-comprehendingly watches take place. Later, he spies on a prototype Hitchcock blonde through a hole in a matchbox he had customised for a practical joke (played upon said blonde). This tiny matchbox is a miniature model of the prying lens of the movie camera. Echoes of Rear Window resonate down the years. The fact that the matches are of the England’s Glory make provides the potential for a crude joke (the glory hole) which Fred would have no understanding of, but which the adult Hitch most certainly would. His love of bawdy toilet humour is anticipated in Fred’s nervous inscribing of a cock and balls, copied from a piece of graffiti he has seen, onto the wall of the toilets at his Jesuit school.

Other well-recorded aspects of Hitch’s character and behaviour are also anticipated, lent dramatic context and provided with psychological insight: his compulsive comfort eating, his yearning for easeful luxury, his enactment of elaborate and cruel practical jokes, and his placid remoteness and emotionally distant demeanour. His iconic image is pictured at the end of the book seated onstage at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work. It is an image of someone who is aloof and at a remove from ordinary human motivations, which he observes and sums up with a few dramatically weighted words of mordant wit. Volk describes him as ‘a vast Buddha as recognisable as any of the actors whose name he put up in lights’. It’s a description which could be applied to the giant sculpture of his head which rests, heavy-lidded and rustily bronze, in the centre of a complex of offices and flats built on the site of the Islington studios where his film directing career took flight. But this is a Buddha, Volk’s story suggests, who never achieved enlightenment; who remained in the dark, alone and filled with a paralysing fear which could only find release through his art. Behind the Buddha’s serene gaze lies a void.

Hitchcock and Truffaut
The first half of the story centres around an event which became a well-worn anecdote reeled off time and again by the mature and feted Hitch. His father took him to the local police station when he was a small boy (‘about six’, as Hitch told it). He had arranged for the policeman in charge to lock him in a cell for a short period of time (‘five minutes’ was the general estimate). ‘This is what we do to naughty boys’ the PC in charge told him by way of explanation. Hitch told this well-rehearsed tale, along with many others, as a way of deflecting any attempts at soliciting personal information. It offered a tidbit of prefabricated insight into the genesis of the ‘wrong man’ theme running through his work, along with the notion of transferable or latent guilt which attends it. The anecdote was duly brought out for the 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut which formed the basis for his 1967 book on Hitchcock. This was the only window on his early childhood he allowed his admiring interrogator, aside from a remark that, rather than being strict, his father was ‘a rather nervous man’. The only other glimpse we can get of Hitch’s childhood is the photograph of him posing next to his father, perched comfortably on a stout pony, in front of the luscious cornucopia of fruit and veg (including pineapples strung upside down like gamebirds) displayed in front of the shopfront with its proudly prominent sign reading W.Hitchcock – Fruit Salesman. William and Fred are both dressed in tropical khaki, the windows draped with flags to celebrate Empire Day (a celebration which the exotic fruits also implicitly play their part in). The photograph is incorporated into Volk’s story, which gives us some idea as to what might be going on behind the distant, detached gazes of father and son.

Volk takes the police station story and transforms it from the inflexible anecdotal shield it had become into a raw and pivotal moment in young Fred’s emotional and psychological development. The constant reiteration of the experience in the form of an amusing tale becomes a double-bluff; a piece of genuine self-revelation coated in the polished veneer of a light, carefully crafted recollection. It’s a pointer to the nature of Hitch’s films, the way in which he embedded his own deeply personal fears and desires beneath their immaculately contrived surfaces whilst never, ever admitting to any such dimension in public. In Volk’s story, the punishment meted out in the police station is a great deal more traumatic than the mild admonishment of the anecdote, the incarceration much lengthier than the brief incarceration Hitch outlined. Fred is left there overnight, bullied and tormented by a sadistic policeman who delights in telling him that Jack the Ripper is lodged in the adjacent cell. He has only a piss-stained bed with an indeterminately sticky blanket to curl up on, his lullaby sinister nonsense songs bellowed by the neighbouring drunk. It’s related with a Kafkaesque sense of existential terror. Fred feels utterly abandoned, and betrayed by his parents (his mother who let him go with a promise of his favourite steak and kidney pie upon his return). But most of all, he doesn’t understand. If he’s being subjected to this terrible punishment, he must be guilty of something. But what? Some latent sin he has yet to manifest? A universal guilt lodged within every human heart? It’s almost as if he is being guided to discover that guilt. At this juncture, he might as well be called Fred K.

The shadows of films to come are glimpsed throughout the story. There’s a certain game-like element to these allusions. They are partly speculative excavations, searching for the psychological strata underlying the stories Hitch chose to tell. But they are also offered with a nod and a wink, an enjoyable bit of movie spotting for terminal film buffs. The Ripper reference looks forward to The Lodger; the stuffed bird in the Jesuit father’s office, the transvestite and the police officer’s taunting ‘bit of a mummy’s boy, are we?’ to Pyscho; the ‘fluttering and scratching’ pigeons filling the upstairs room of a ruined house to The Birds’; the idea of hiding a body in a sack of potatoes to Frenzy….and so on.

Shadow selves - Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train
Other abiding themes running through Hitchcock’s films are also alluded to. The idea of disguised or hidden selves is present from the start in the form of metaphorical architecture – the division between the immaculate and bright streetfront display of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s and the dark interior behind in which the family lives. One of the bullying policeman’s methods of playing on young Fred’s imagination is to act as if he believes that his thorough knowledge of transport timetables and routes points to his being a potential spy. He turns something innocent, a source of intellectual pride, into something secret and despicable. Spies are key characters in a significant number of Hitchcock films: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, North by Northwest, Torn Curtain and Topaz. Volk has Fred ask his father what a spy is. His answer sheds light on their role within these pictures. His dad also inadvertently describes himself and all adults who aren’t unblemished saints (ie all adults), and presents his son with a sketch of his future self. A spy, William explains, is ‘a person who keeps secrets. Somebody who says he’s one thing but he’s really another’. The spy theme and the idea of the self hidden behind a carefully maintained surface extends to the doubled characters which cast mirroring reflections across Hitchcock’s filmography. Cary Grant and James Mason (Roger Thornhill – or ‘Mr Kaplan’ - and Phillip Vandamm) circling each other in North by Northwest is the example that most vividly springs to mind. But there are also the pairings of Cary Grant and Claude Rains in Notorious, Farley Granger and Robert Walker (Guy and Bruno) swapping murders in Strangers on a Train, James Stewart scripting Raymond Burr’s murder of his wife to alleviate his boredom in Rear Window, deadbeat Jon Finch and his psychopathic mate Barry Foster (Richard Blaney and Bob Rush) in Frenzy and many others. In Leytonstone, Fred’s father William is doubled with the monstrous, bullying policeman. The latter is a bluff brute who lives to feed his appetites, without any moral compunctions which might curb them. William is far more uncertain of himself (the ‘rather nervous man’ of Hitchcock’s recollection), filling his life with labour to allay the fear that it might all be ultimately without purpose. Or rather, that he might never discover that sense of purpose which those around him seem intuitively to possess. The doubling theme finds interesting form in Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film Double Take, in which footage taken from introductions to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series is contrasted with interviews with and footage of a contemporary Hitchcock impersonator.

Villain as victim
There’s an often ambiguous borderline separating hero from villain in Hitchcock’s films. They are, to varying degrees, different aspects of a divided self. The hero is sometimes bland and rather weak, as with Guy in Strangers on a Train or Richard in Frenzy. The villain is contrastingly smooth, decisive and charismatic. In other cases, Psycho being the prime example, the heroes are little more than bullies, the villains damaged, fearful and misunderstood (save by the director and, perhaps, their victims). Fred exhibits sympathy towards the ‘villain’ as he appears at the beginning of Dickens’ Great Expectations. ‘I like him’, he says of Magwich after his mother has called him ‘a terrible man’.

The wrong man as Christ-like martyr - The Lodger
The doubled self also links in with the ‘wrong man’ theme. If there is a wrong man then there must also be a right man, or a man who bears the genuine burden of guilt. Fred is the wrong man (or boy) in Leytonstone. But in a sense he is also the right man. his imprisonment is a premonitory punishment (akin to the delayed punishments meted out by the Jesuit teachers at the hour of the pupil’s choosing). The notion of overwhelming and all-pervasive personal guilt, prevalent also in his Catholic upbringing and schooling, almost invites action to provide a palpably solid basis for its nebulous presence, an identifiable source for its oppressive weight. Volk suggests a religious dimension to the wrong man theme (a dimension explicitly evident in Hitchcock’s I Confess) by having Fred ask of the Jesuit schoolfather ‘but Jesus was crucified as a criminal. For a crime he didn’t commit. What was the crime they though he committed?’ So Christ was, from a certain viewpoint, and example of the ‘wrong man’ – the lamb taken for a lion. Or of the right man, taking on the guilt and sins of others, something only possible by virtue of a shared humanity. The wrong man takes on the sins of the ‘villain’ with whom he becomes inextricably linked. The guilt is, to all appearances, removed from the ‘sinner’, for the time being anyway. What happens to that guilt? Does it correspond to something that was always present in the ‘wrong’ man? Of course, it’s the nature of the plot’s progression that he tries to return it to its original owner. The analogies with Christ only stretch so far. As Father Mullins, the Jesuit teacher, states, desperately trying to evade the issue, ‘it’s complicated’.

Of course, there has to be a Hitchcock blonde. The prototype here is a girl called Olga from the local convent school. Fred is fascinated by her coolness in the face of his friends’ base schoolboy pranks. His confusion over his feelings towards her leads to the dramatic tension at the heart of the second half of the novella. A tension which mirrors that of the first, but with Fred now putting himself in a position of power. Taking up the director’s chair. It provides a psychological basis for Hitch’s treatment of the ice blondes in his mid-period classics (Grace, Kim, Eva, Janet and Tippi) which is directly linked to his experience in the police cell. The production of exquisitely manufactured scenarios of suspense and release as a means of subsuming personal, inexpressible fears, art as a means of controlling that which eludes you in real life. It is also, as the parallel events of the story make clear, an indirect way of trying to connect with someone, to create an intimacy based on shared fear. This perverse melding of romance and terror would characterise many of his films. It also suggests that if Hitchcock has his doubles onscreen, the characters which truly express the secret spaces of his heart, then they are not the suavely collected Jimmy Stewarts, Cary Grants or Sean Conneries, but the fearful, haunted Tippi Hedrens, Kim Novaks and Eva Marie-Saints.

Volk takes a certain amount of license with the facts in Leytonstone. The police cell incident took place when Hitch was about 6, and that is Fred’s stated age in the story. He attends St Ignatius Jesuit School, although Hitchcock didn’t go here until 1910, when he was 11 years old, by which time the family had moved from Leytonstone to Stepney (via Poplar). His precocious 6 year old self is already familiar with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whereas Hitch spoke in interviews about having discovered him when he was 16. There is also no mention of his older brother and sister, William jr. and Nellie, who would presumably have been living at home at this time. But this is mythography, not biography. Volk is creating a fictional portrait based on aspects of a well-known public persona and body of work, drawing on elements from a whole lifespan. Hitchock’s version of his own life was as much fiction as fact (the same could no doubt be said of us all). Volk’s story, with its compression and folding outward of time, its collision of the real with the invented, reflects on Hitch’s fundamental, Kane-like inscrutability.

There have been many attempts to psychoanalyse Hitchcock, generally undertaken in an amateurish and highly speculative manner. They seem to take their cues from the psychology for simpletons lecture at the end of Psycho. Hitch was a master of misdirection and manipulation, both in his films and as regarded his private life. It’s tempting to reach for facile simplifications when trying to penetrate his implacable exterior, to draw on particular events to neatly summarise the complex contradictions of his character. Donald Spoto’s controversial biography, whilst admirably frank and honest in some respects, is all to ready to reach instant psychological conclusions. Volk’s book is partly a response to these versions of Hitchcock, which have reached their apogee in two recent films (Hitchcock and The Girl) which cast him in a deeply unflattering light. By portraying Hitch as the young Fred, a frightened and confused boy, Volk is able to examine the roots of his art and its universal appeal from a neutral distance.

Hitch’s films have affected an enormous number of people over the year, attracting an audience way beyond the coterie of cinephiles who continue (in the wake of Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinema boys) to revere him. Vertigo has now displaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in the weighty estimation of Sight and Sound readers and critics. Volk’s Hitchcock is ultimately a mystery to himself, just as his father is depicted as being. He’s not a monster. He remains that frightened boy, bewildered by the betrayals and machinations of the adult world; torn between adoration of his father, respect for his father’s authority and a rejection of both; and disconnected from the turbulent swell of his own emotions, and thereby from real communion with others. He is a tragic figure.

Reaching out for contact (see also the Anthony Perkins photo above)
Towards the end of the book, we encounter him in the form we know at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work held in 1979, not long before his death the following year. The lost little boy is still there, unable to apprehend the love and professional respect being directed towards him. He remains adrift, the world never having truly made sense to him since that night in the police cells when he was confronted with such overwhelming fear and guilt arising from an unknown place, from no identifiable source. The films are phantom emanations, attempts to reach that emotion, to create a sense of commonality through fear and suspense. The adulatory response of the AFI audience is proof that he achieved that. The tragedy is that he is unable to share in that commonality. The depth of his films lies in the perception of the tragedy lying beneath their exciting colourful surfaces (and the nearness of that tragedy to the surface of Vertigo is perhaps why it is so critically revered). Hitch also persisted in asking the questions which Volk has his Jesuit teacher Father Mullins so definitively to answer. In a strange way, he was a religious director.

Volk’s book brilliantly and movingly gives an origin myth to bring light to the ambiguous depths and tragic dimensions of the films, and to restore to Hitchcock his humanity, the wounded and confused pain and compassion at the heart of his work. The critic and playwright David Rudkin wrote, in his TV play Artemis 81, of Hitchcock’s camera being a ‘consecrating eye’, detecting the sacred aspect of his work, the yearning for a transcendent sense of connection, of profound love. This sense of the sacred, of shared fears and desires, is at the heart of Hitchcock’s great post-war work. It’s what has earned him his immortality, and has made such a profound impact on so many people over the years. We can all empathise with these feelings at some level, learn to fall together and find release from our fears. Hitch, forever Fred deep inside, remains outside, watching us with an impassive, unreadable regard, that famous profile a serenely blank mask. Perhaps he’s Buddha after all.