Friday, 18 December 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Four

The Body Snatcher (1945) - Part One

The Body Snatcher was made relatively swiftly in the midst of the interrupted shooting of Isle of the Dead. Boris Karloff had recovered from his back problems, but it took a while to re-assemble the rest of the cast. In the end, The Body Snatcher was both filmed and released before Isle of the Dead was completed. The film was the third of Lewton’s direct literary adaptations, following on from The Leopard Man, which had been based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, and Mademoiselle Fifi, a costume drama based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. This time, the source was a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and his title The Body Snatcher was considered eye-catching enough to keep. Stevenson had already had lines from his Child’s Garden of Verses poem The Unseen Playmate quoted in Curse of the Cat People. It’s also possible that his Suicide Club stories may have been an influence on The Seventh Victim. It would certainly appear that Lewton was familiar with Stevenson’s work in general. He remains faithful to the incidents in the story and lifts several of its lines of dialogue, but he significantly changes its structure, removing the retrospective framing which finds the once fresh-faced student Fettes mired in alcoholic dissolution. He stays true to the central motif which runs through much of Stevenson’s fiction, this short story included, and which is most famously exemplified by The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde; that of the doppelganger which haunts the ‘respectable’ protagonist and which can be seen as an emanation of the divided self. If we take this film to be subsequent to Isle of the Dead in Lewton’s filmography, it marks a further step back in terms of historical period, a retrogression which would continue with its follow up, Bedlam, which takes place in the eighteenth century. The historical contexts of these films are important and Lewton evidently put a lot of effort into his researches, ensuring that the background would be as accurate as possible within the confines of budgetary restrictions. Given his concern with how social and historical circumstance affects human relations, this detailing is much more than mere colourful set dressing.

As with The Isle of the Dead, the film’s music, by regular Lewton composer Roy Webb, plays over the RKO radio mast, establishing the atmosphere from the outset. This elision of the studio introduction suggests that Val Lewton productions were taking on an identity of their own. His name was beginning to signify a guarantee of quality which raised the picture beyond the level of generic RKO product. Such small steps towards individual autonomy could prove dangerous within the context of a studio system in which the balance of power lay firmly with the heads of production and ultimately with their employer, studio boss Charles Koerner. After his unhappy experiences on two non-horror pictures, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi, Lewton’s unit had been moved to a production unit under the management of Jack Gross, who had headed the horror department at Universal. It was he who had brought Karloff into the fold, and his obvious intent was to reproduce the success of the Universal formula. This seemed to seal Lewton’s fate at RKO as a horror producer. He had to continue to strike a balance between delivering what the studio demanded of him and adhering to his personal vision. The creative forces which such polar stresses brought to bear continued to prove fruitful with the relatively sympathetic Charles Koerner remained at the top.

Boris Karloff’s name is the first to roll up on the credits, emphasising the fact that the film, like Isle of the Dead, was marketed as a star vehicle. Karloff’s persona of gentile menace and the lumbering physicality of his presence was something upon which Lewton could play. He could exploit the audience’s familiarity with the roles in which Karloff was becoming increasingly typecast. He uses Karloff’s voice particularly well in The Body Snatcher, employing it in a highly mannered fashion which reflects the self-conscious performance of the character, Cabman Gray, as much as the actor. The archness with which Karloff delivers his dialogue tells us that this character is playing a role, an earnest masquerade disguised beneath heavy layers of protective sardonicism which is entirely in keeping with the social play of status and power which lies at the heart of the film.

Literary pedigree
After Boris Karloff’s name comes a title card which announces the film as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher. This privileging of the author presages recent horror films which dishonestly trail their literary origins: wholesale adaptations such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which depart significantly from the authorial impimatur to which they lay claim. The former at least is given further complication by its movie novelisation, which labours under a title which could read Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen based on a script by James V. Hart. The foregrounding of The Body Snatcher’s literary antecedent once more points to a striving to expand the confines of cinematic horror, although the fact that Stevenson follows Karloff in precedence assures us that certain generic convention will still be observed. Whilst he might have chafed against them, it was within such strictures, with their alchemical challenge to transform base materials into gold (or its nitrate compound) that Lewton seemed to thrive.

A picture of Edinburgh Castle looming dark and drear provides the backdrop to the title cards, over which Roy Webb’s music plays, incorporating melancholy echoes of a Scottish dance tune. The gloomy prospect depicted by this painting indicates that the Scotland we are to be shown will be one of gothic shadows rather than the tartan romance of Walter Scott. Val Lewton and Robert Wise each receive a separate full-screen credit. This was Wise’s second full directorial assignment with Lewton, the first having been the budget-straightened Mademoiselle Fifi. Wise had in fact made his directorial debut on Curse of the Cat People, having been promoted from editor when its director Gunter von Fritsch proved unable or unwilling to keep up with the tight shooting schedule. Wise proves adept at projecting Lewton’s world of darkness onto the screen. Whereas Curse of the Cat People had been a film of daylight as well as night (daydreams and nightmares), The Body Snatcher has almost as many deep black shadows beneath the arches of its city walls as The Seventh Victim’s metropolitan noir.

The historical context of the film is brusquely set up with a title indicating time and place; Edinburgh, 1831. Lewton eschews his customary opening quotation on this occasion, although he does oblige at the end. Perhaps he felt that the prominent use of Stevenson’s name had already sufficiently established the film’s literary credentials. The choice of the year 1831 is significant and its choice no doubt arose from Lewton’s scrupulous historical research. It is the year which preceded the 1832 Anatomy Act, which effectively put an end to the need for grave robbing by opening up a new supply source. The act was partly prompted by the notoriety of and outrage at the Burke and Hare case, which received a huge amount of tabloid-style publicity in 1828. Burke and Hare murdered seventeen people in order to supply the needs of the Edinburgh surgeon John Knox for bodies to dissect in his anatomy class. Their victims were the old, the destitute and the marginal, and Lewton focuses on the social divisions which the resurrectionist’s trade preys on. In Burke and Hare’s day, legitimate anatomical specimens were provided from the corpses of executed criminals. This failed to provide sufficient material for the blossoming of medical education within the city. Grave robbing, or resurrection, was not technically illegal, since the body after death was not defined as property. But the grave robber risked violent public opprobrium if caught. After the 1832 act, it was the bodies of those who died in the workhouses and who remained unclaimed, largely due to the inability of relatives to afford the costs of a funeral, which could legally be used by anatomists. This transition in the availability of cadavers for dissection from executed criminals to the institutionalised poor carried with it the implication that destitution was in itself essentially criminal. The ownership of the bodies of the poor in the workhouse seemed to extend both sides of the grave. The Anatomy Act was one more reason to dread the workhouse and the condition of poverty which would drive you there, and to fear that once in, you might never come out again.

Dr Knox was part of the Scottish Enlightenment which centred on Edinburgh at this time. He and his colleagues anatomised the human frame into its corporeal components, their invaluable work indicative of a shift towards an increasingly materialistic view of the world, and by implication of society. This trend would culminate in the explosive impact of Darwin’s revolutionary theories of evolution and the adaptation of successful species to their environment (and the extinction of those which failed to make this adaptation), but his ideas were already played out at the lower levels of society in the struggle for status and survival by any means available.

The idea of human beings as part of a wider Darwinian order is suggested by the presence of animals throughout the film, from Gray’s horse to the cat which he keeps at home to the terrier guarding its master’s grave. They would have been considered to be at a lower level of the medieval and renaissance theological concept of the great chain of being, which posited a divinely ordered stratification of existence. This ordering of the natural world, whether human or divine, in some senses anticipated the phyla into which modern naturalists place their compartmentalised classifications of life. It encompassed all levels of creation, from the mineral through the plant world, on to the ranks of animals and humans, before finally ascending to the different castes of angels and ultimately to God her/him/itself. The great chain of being differed in defining a static, divinely ordained system rather than one which was in a state of flux and dynamic evolution. It was further extended to the stratifications and divisions of human society and thus used to justify the status quo, with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The gradual repudiation of this worldview could therefore have profound social as well as philosophical implications. It would also dispel the notion that mankind was elevated and fundamentally separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. We may be the smartest monkeys, but common behavioural patterns still prevail.

The establishing scenes in the film are packed with incidental historical detail. Joel Siegel, in his book Val Lewton - The Reality of Terror, suggests there is too much detail on display here and quotes from the script in which all is laid out with great specificity. He has a point, but the detail is all packed into this one scene. The script doesn’t go into such detail again, and so the quotation given doesn’t really give a fair description of its overall tone. This is an establishment of historical context of which the details Lewton has provided are a condensed representation. They are there to be picked up by the viewer who is aware of Scotland’s history, but such recognition is not essential. They work equally well as background colour and as the constituent parts which go towards creating period atmosphere. It’s indicative of the care Lewton lavished on all of his work that he should be so concerned about the accuracy of the apparently incidental. Such depth of research and the thematic ends to which it was put is one of the elements which give his films the kind of multi-layered depth which rewards closer scrutiny.

Stock footage - ignore those cars!
After the titles, we see what looks like stock footage of the castle and the royal mile. The city is showing its better side here, offering the kind of views which would sell a thousand postcards. We swiftly move on to another face of the city, however, and one of the film’s main studio sets. This is a far grubbier and narrower street through which a pony and trap swiftly ride, as if this is a place which in which its occupants have no desire to linger. An old woman sells cloth from a cart at the side of the street. A soldier marches down the street to the beat of the snare rapped out by the drummer boy who follows him. Another boy runs alongside them, as if they are still a novelty, a object of curiosity in this southern city. Lewton specifies the soldiers as being from the Seaforth Higlanders, a native regiment composed of higlanders, many of whom would have taken the king’s silver as a desperate last measure following the massive population shift known as the clearances, which had swept away the pre-existing social order of the clans. The camera pans along the street until the soldier reaches a guard box, onto which he pins the recruitment poster which he has been carrying. There will be plenty of young men who have drifted down from the north who will be more than eager to take up this call to arms, even if it is for a monarchy which has done much to create the conditions for their displacement in the first place. The sentry box suggests a surreptitious form of military occupation, or at least a military presence which watches over the population as much as it guards the gates of the castle.

Singing for her supper
Besides the box stands a young woman in a tartan shawl who sings a street ballad in the old Scottish dialect. As the camera moves in on her face, the words of the song tell of ‘a time o’war’. This singer, a pure voiced beggar, will appear as a chorus figure bridging scenes in the by now traditional Lewton manner. She is a living as opposed to inanimate symbol such as those employed by Lewton as recurrent visual devices in previous films; the statue of Ti Misery in I Walked With a Zombie, the fountain in the Leopard Man and the magic tree in Curse of the Cat People. The presence of soldiers alongside such conspicuous poverty points to the aftermath of a catastrophic social upheaval. The highland clearances were still ongoing at this time and caused a massive population movement. Many emigrated, some resettled in small crofts, and many more came down south. A spinning wheel in a shop window points to the major new form of land usage, with landlords displacing tenants to make way for sheep. A man in a top hat and one with a shepherd’s crook both drop coins into the begging bowl. They stand for the two faces of the new Scotland, the forward looking age of urban industrialisation and the increasingly intensive farming of the landowner’s estates. The ballad singer is the voice of the streets and of the rural highlands, the embodiment of a notion of Scottish culture which is being condemned as an anachronism, disappearing into sentimental nationalist myth and the romanticised history of the defeated. Scraps of tartan folklore will crop up throughout the film and will duly be trampled into the dust of a harsh new world.

From this start, we dissolve to a house with castellated turrets atop round towers in the familiar Scottish style, even if this is only the Scotland of Walter Scott via Hollywood. Sheep are being driven towards a pair of grandiose gates, once more hinting at the changes in land use which had so drastically altered the balance of highland society. This is a more prosperous face of the city, and is in pronounced contrast to the poverty we have just seen. The camera moves on to find a church, and through the graveyard gates we get the first glimpse of our protagonist and ‘innocent’ witness of events. The following scene was placed as the opening one in the script, but was swapped around with the establishment of historical detail and context outlined above. Lewton sketched in the world of the film before placing his characters into it. We find the young protagonist sitting on a table-top tomb eating his lunch, the sustenance of the living beside the cold stone silence of the grave. He is immediately given an association with death, although his eager demolishing of his pie shows a relish which contrasts the worlds of the living and the dead. His acquaintance with questions of mortality would appear casual and unexamined.

Dining with the dead
He attempts to share his food with a terrier which sits atop the earth of a freshly dug grave, but his overtures are rejected. This is the first example in the film of kindness to animals, the compassion or fondness for ‘lower’ forms, a very un-Darwinian impulse. An old woman comes in to feed the dog with more success and reveals that this is Robbie, who guards the grave of her son. This is a version of Greyfriars Bobbie, the Edinburgh icon whose statue is an essential stop on any tourist trail. This wee doggie apparently kept guard over the grave of its master, John Gray, for fourteen years between 1858 and its death in 1872. The old woman talks of her son, ‘a fine lad…gentle with all little things, like Robbie here’. The value of compassion towards ‘little’ or lesser things is emphasised, and the young man’s treatment of the dog suggests that this is a quality which he possesses. The old woman brings up the question of a ‘grave watcher’, which she can’t afford. The young man expresses incredulity at the possibility of grave robbing in the heart of Edinburgh. Given the references to Burke and Hare throughout the film, this suggests a degree of naivety which hints at a sheltered upbringing far from centres in which news circulates. The voice of local authority sets out to disabuse him of his dangerous ignorance, telling him ‘they’re uncommon bold, the grave robbers…and the daft doctors who drive them on’. She shows a canny awareness of the two sides to the supply and demand chain, and that both bear equal responsibility for the acts in which they are involved. The young man lets on, in an airily casual fashion, that he is ‘something of a medico’, at least ‘until today’. Some decision has been arrived at, perhaps with the help of the perspective offered by the gravestones which surround him.

Graveyard occultation
As the young man gets up with a decisive air, our perspective is shifted to the road which passes outside the graveyard. He walks towards the gates. At this moment a black cab pulled by a white horse drives by. In the script, this cab was also to have driven down the street with the soldier’s sentry box, blocking out our view of the ballad singer. But perhaps due to the reshuffling of the opening scenes, it only makes its appearance here, where its juxtaposition with the graveyard gives it the appropriate symbolic charge. The cab is driven by the imposing hulk of a figure who is bundled up in a bulky cape, his head topped with a tall black hat. He leans forward with a carrion stoop, his head emerging from the hunchback of the cape like that of a vulture. The gates of the graveyard and the young man exiting it are occulted by this isolated piece of traffic, the horses hooves echoing on the cobbles. The cabman’s dark form has something of the bearing of death about him.

The kindness of Gray
There is a screenwipe and the same white horse and cab pulls up at the stone porticoed doorway of a handsome and luxurious house (‘an imposing edifice’ as it is described in the script). The driver gets down and opens the door of the cab for a woman before setting a chair down and lifting a little girl out. ‘Cabman Gray will see you through safe enough’, he reassures her, and takes her to see his horse. Gray will be associated with animals throughout the film. This both reflects his own lowly status and the dual nature of his character. He is capable of kindness and care as well as cruelty and offhand brutality. Here, he immediately strikes us as a kind and considerate man, who understands the needs of the little girl. ‘Someday, when you’re running and playing in the streets, he’ll nicker at you as we go by’, he tells her. When she replies that she can’t run and play, since she’s paralysed, he says ‘all the more reason then for friend here to give you a hello’. She smiles and pats the horse, and he puts her in her chair, ‘safe in your own wee cab’.

Speaking on the level
The equation of the wheelchair to which she is confined with his cab suggests a similar confinement on his part. He is restricted to his own cab as the means by which he must earn his meagre living, which he is driven to supplement through other channels. He bends down to be on her level and tell her ‘now you watch sharp, little miss, for my horse to give you a hello’. This exchange, conducted on the same physical level, contrasts with the treatment she will receive from Doctor MacFarlane. It will also provide the major psychological factor in her will to recover. It’s significant that Gray crouches down to address her, as the shifting patterns of power are indicated throughout the film by the level of elevation of those involved in conversational exchanges; sitting and standing, or looking down from staircases. The front door is opened by a woman in a tartan shawl, and the little girl’s mother asks to see Doctor MacFarlane. The woman glances at Gray, and there is a look there of recognition, a cognisance which encompasses dislike, wariness and possibly even fear. There is personal history here which remains to be uncovered.

Uneasy recognition

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Broadcast in Cardiff

Broadcast’s show in Cardiff on Monday took place in the intimate and welcoming surroundings of the Chapter arts centre, a venue some distance beyond the centre of the city. Perhaps such an out of the way interzone is appropriate for a band who exist between worlds, giving pop form to abstract electronic noise. The sense of a journey beyond was personally enhanced by the out of time trains (slam doors and views through the driver’s cab) taken from the Cardiff Bay station (complete with half-wrecked ghost station canopy) and the ensuing slog through driving rain which poured off the lowering forms of the stone beasts atop the walls of the castle park, looking crouched and ready to pounce in water-blurred vision. The chill of the night was soon eased by the excellent food and local ale (four different brews on offer!) at the arts centre café/bar. The vats and metallic pipework of the Brains brewery loom over Cardiff (local industry yet) and the many old-fashioned street-corner pubs, such as the recently saved Vulcan, tend to bear its logo and offer its beer. And very good beer it is too. But the Chapter eschewed its ubiquitous influence and offered ales from local microbreweries, a small scale and individualistic selection which seemed in keeping with its ethos. The tortellini and gnocchi were very tasty and hugely welcome on such a grim winter’s evening.

The homely, friendly feel of the place extended into the evening. Trish was to be found chatting at a table in the café. A merchandise stall was set up by the entrance, and copies of Microtronics 1 and the tour CD Mother is the Milky Way were on sale alongside vinyl copies of Tender Buttons, Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, the America’s Boy 7” and t-shirts of Ha-Ha Sound vintage; all this proffered with free badge in Noise Made by People bag. The venue itself was a small cinema, with sink back in comfort chairs. The general hubbub was instantly silenced as Trish popped in from a side exit, only for her to urge us to carry on talking as she was only making an adjustment to some plug or other. The fact that she was wearing an anorak suggested that they were gamely waiting to enter from an alley outside. When they did unceremoniously make their entrance, they were wearing the same outfits they were pictured in for the Wire interview; James in his comfortable 70s Blue Peter presenter jumper, Trish in her ritual attire of white dress with flared sleeves. The show commenced with the Julian House film Winter Sun Wavelengths, for which they had first provided an improvised soundtrack at the Belbury Poly Youth Club night a year or so back. The form of this improvisation seems to have become fairly well established, with James setting initial sine wave drones into motion, which morph into keyboard arpeggiations and electronic sighs and screams emerging from thumping ritualistic drum loops. Trish layered vocalisations on top, which she modulated to a greater or lesser degree. The film itself was hypnotic on the big screen, firing off op art circles and flashing stars and flowers at the senses in between the lightning cut ups of winter woods and pools edited together for maximum impact on the subconscious.

This initial instrumental section (with the voice wordlessly used as instrument) segued directly into the second, song-based half. James and Trish remained to either side of the screen, onto which were projected abstract visuals which changed for each song. Most of the material was taken from the Focus Group EP and Tender Buttons. This made sense, as both were made by Broadcast in two-person mode, and therefore lent themselves to this lean live format. The song half was launched by the infectious looping bass line of Corporeal. Black Cat was the sole occasion on which James reached for his guitar, which produced a trebly slash of descending chords which gave the song a very 80s sound. Trish ventured centre stage for one number, the exquisite In Here the World Begins from the Mother is the Milky Way CD, with its gently pulsating drone background overlaid with warm keyboard lines from James’ Korg synth. There were selections from the Witch Cults album which reflected its rough-hewn, kaleidoscopic character. Perhaps the most obvious choice of ‘song’, The Be Colony, was passed over in favour of the Royal Chant, with Trish approximating the Valerie like chorus on the record, and the collage of musical fragments which end the album (The Be Colony/Dashing Home/What on Earth Took You?) with more warm synth runs and manipulated vocal sounds.

The one dip into the pre-Tender Buttons catalogue came in the form of Lunch Hour Pops from the Ha-Ha Sound album. This was re-cast with a lopsided rhythmic backing which sounded like the bubbling and hiccupping from the lab in The Man in the White Suit, or the mechanical clanking of a dubiously cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption. It was a good re-imagining of the familiar. There were two songs which I didn’t recognise; one a piece of dreamy psych-folk with a Piper at the Gates of Dawn organ sound; the other the number with which they ended the show. For this, Trish took up what looked like some kind of Mongolian lute, with a small triangular body and long, thin neck. Thrashing out rhythmic chords over a pulsating synth, this song carved a motorik Krautrock groove which seemed to have been transplanted to the Eurasian steppes. Trish sang what sounded like an anti-materialistic mantra, ‘what you want is not what you need’, with playful leaps into her upper register. It was a great way to end the show, and an exciting portent of the new LP promised for next year. After such a bewitching evening, I noticed on our way back (now under stars rather than rainclouds) a shop whose cheery purple letters spelled out Lovecraft. An emporium dedicated to the Rhode Island purveyor of cosmic horror? Or a strange concatenation of sex and knitting? I may never know, but its appearance (had it been there at all on the way over?) seemed strangely appropriate.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Gone Through the Gate of Horn

I was really sad to hear about the death of Robert Holdstock on Sunday. He was a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed ever since the publication of Mythago Wood in 1985. This is one of the great works of post-war British fantasy, and it is perhaps appropriate that it is set in the years immediately following the war, since it in part deals with the disconnection of the modern era from the continuum of the past. Mythago Wood was a fine novel in itself, but it also created a template for other works through its establishment of an imaginative device via which the mythic Matter of Britain could be explored and reflected upon. The sequence of novels which followed were not so much sequels as further expansions of the possibilities inherent in the original model. They include Lavondyss (1988), the title novella of The Bone Forest (1991), The Hollowing (1993), Merlin’s Wood (1994), The Hollowing (1997), Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1997), and his recent return to the original story Avilion (2009). Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, the Hollowing and Gate of Ivory have been collected as The Mythago Cycle volumes 1 & 2.

Mythago Wood takes place in and around a small area of ancient woodland in Herefordshire known as Ryhope Wood. It is narrated by Steven Huxley, who returns after the death of his father George in 1947 to Oak Lodge, the cottage on the edge of the wood in which he and his brother Christian grew up. The father was a remote figure whose obsession with his study of the wood led to the neglect of his family and his wife Jennifer’s suicide (an event which is explored further, and to heartrending effect, in Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn). Sundered families and their conflicts are at the heart of all the Mythago novels, and the psychological anguish which such fragmentation causes is the catalyst both for the search for solace in the universalised stories of myth and for the unleashing of the unconscious energies which create the concretised myth images (or mythagos) from the woodland’s vortex. For George Huxley’s discovery, derived from a mixture of anthropology, archaeology and science, is that there really is substance to the flickering shapes darting from woodland shadows in the periphery of vision.

His scholarly speculations are conveyed, in the manner of Victorian and Edwardian literature, through journal entries, and also through the clarifications of his son Christian, who has returned to the Lodge directly after the war. ‘The old man believed that all life is surrounded by an energetic aura’, he says. ‘In these ancient woodlands, primary woodlands, the combined aura forms something far more powerful, a sort of creative field that can interact with our unconscious. And it’s in the unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – that’s myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature. The image takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing…The form of the idealized myth, the hero figure, alters with cultural changes, assuming the identity and technology of the time. When one culture invades another…the heroes are made manifest, and not just in one location!…When the mind image of the mythago forms it forms in the whole population…and when it is no longer needed, it remains in our collective unconscious, and is transmitted through the generations’. Steven voices his understanding of his father’s ideas: ‘and the changing form of the mythago…is based on an archetype, an archaic primary image which father called the Urscumug, and from which all later forms come’. The setting of the novel in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War provides the necessary context of national dislocation for the manifestation of such heroic mythagos. Think of the myths of the Blitz, the more modern mythagos of the city captured in novels such as Michael Moorcock’s Mother London or Graham Joyce’s Facts of Life (centring around the Coventry blitzkrieg). Or going further back, to the phantom archers of the First World War trenches, seemingly conjured from the pages of Arthur Machen’s story The Bowmen.

But such heroes no longer emerge from the landscape of the ancient woodland, and the novel is more interested in the rediscovery of the ancient myths through conscious investigation and the violent disruption of individual psyches. The pain which Holdstock’s characters go through serves to highlight the more personal level of the matter of myth, the recurrent needs which these stories reflect.It is not the heroic figure of Arthur who is resurrected by Huxley and his sons, but that of Guinnevere, or Guiwenneth as she is here known (the etymological evolution of names is another important aspect of the Mythago books). As such, the novels are a reflection on the need of our psyches for stories which reflect and embody our own inchoate emotions, and of the way that we interact with them on a personal level. The imagos which the Huxleys conjure up from the woodland are not immutable. Their basic structure is further shaped by the hidden currents of the heart. Steven reads as much in his father’s diaries; ‘I found, in his erratic recordings, much that told me of his sense of danger, of what – just once – he called “ego’s mythological ideal”, the involvement of the creator’s mind which he feared would influence the shape and behaviour of the mythago forms’.

This sets up the idea of the interaction of the unconscious, at both its universal and personal level, with the specific spirit of place, the genus loci of the ‘oak vortex’. It is perhaps its density, its sense of a hidden interior separate from the world beyond which makes the ancient woodland such a perfect site for the manifestation of archetypal figures drawn from the deep wells of the subconscious. Finding a point of entry into the seemingly impenetrable thicket of Ryhope Wood offers a passage into worlds within worlds, a realm in which space and time expand. The further one journeys towards the heart of the wood, the further one penetrates the deeper recesses of the mind. The distortion of dimension which intensifies towards the centre is hinted at in Steven’s childhood memory of the brothers launching a bark boat along the stream entering the woods. When it fails to emerge on the other side they assume it has sunk or got caught in some tangle of twigs, but some six months later it does appear again, having navigated who knows what waters. The wood offers a sense of refuge from the battering complexities of the modern world, a sparsely populated place where a sense of solitude can be found. The retreat into its deeper spaces and the receding echoes of an ancestral past is part of the age old attempt to rediscover a dimly intuited Eden of lost innocence, to heal the fractures of time, both personal and cultural. Often, with Holdstock, this is represented by the attempt to make shattered familial connections whole again. The reconnection with the world of your ancestors makes this doubly meaningful. The family is the current shoot given flower by these lengthy tangles of roots. This notional space in which everything will be made whole once more is to be found at the heart of the wood, and one of the names by which it is known is Lavondyss, which is the title and subject of the second book.

People often look back on their childhoods as periods of lost innocence, and perhaps Holdstock was recalling some of his experiences of growing up as a self-avowed ‘man of Kent’ in creating the enchanted space of Ryhope Wood. Although nominally set in Herefordshire, perhaps in order to place the wood at the heart of England, Ryhope always had the feel of a Kentish locale for me, perhaps a reflection of my own upbringing as a ‘Kentish man’. There’s an important distinction between the two appellations; one indicates that you’ve been born below the Medway, the other above. Although essentially a London suburbanite, I did travel down into the weald of Kent on many occasions, and there were several stretches of ancient woodland which possessed a powerful atmosphere which lingers in my imagination to this day. They were then and are now more than ever bifurcated and sheared away by transport routes and commuter satellite developments which fill in all the ‘empty’ spaces of this overcrowded corner of the island, warped by the gravity well of London’s dense mass. I always laugh at the sign which greets you as you descend from the heights of the Dart Bridge across the Thames and crawl along the motorway with the other multi-lane traffic, past the bleak architecture of high-rise motels and supermarket storage hangers; ‘Welcome to Kent’, it says. ‘The Garden of England’. Well, the garden has been concreted over. The small clumps of woodland which are left (and lets not forget the depredations of ‘the great storm’ – or was it ‘the great wind’?) become an even more alluring haven, the need for a place to retreat from this choked landscape which screams of the tawdry cheapness of the bottom line ever more vital. The fact that Holdstock sets his novels at the dawn of this modern age is key to what makes them so much more than just another retreat into the mists of Celtic fantasia. They confront the need for escapism, but don’t allow their characters that comfort. He is intent on showing how these stories serve a purpose beyond ‘mere’ escapism. To this extent, they amount at times to an almost propagandistic manifesto for the importance of the imagination, and of the stories which it creates.

The notion of the mythagos developed as the novels progressed, and Holdstock himself had time to reflect on his creation. The Hollowing plays an interesting variation by having a boy with a damaged psyche lost in the woods, his disturbed state leading to the creation of mythagos beyond the standard ‘template’. And what could be more natural for a boy of his age than to people the woods with velociraptors. The cathedral in the trees amongst whose ruins he takes sanctuary is a powerfully resonant image, too. Again, I remember a stretch of woodland (Beaver Woods) which lay beyond the boundary of the busy Sidcup bypass (and was thus already imbued with a certain sense of danger – somewhere beyond the normal range of childhood territory) in the midst of which were the ruins of an old house (including a sundial). It is the kind of place which has no-doubt become amplified and distorted by memory and dream, to the extent that I would be reluctant to return for fear of dispelling the aura of slightly threatening enchantment which it has accumulated with what is no doubt a drab actuality.

Real people who have themselves delved into the collective experience of English landscape and memory occasionally make an appearance; there’s Alfred Watkins, the author of the 1925 book The Old Straight Track, which introduced the idea of ley lines, who corresponds with George Huxley in Mythago Wood; Vaughan Williams converses with the aptly named protagonist of Lavondyss, Tallis Keeton; and the name Huxley itself suggests the writer Aldous, who bridged the worlds of science and the arts, becoming the seemingly paradoxical figure of a rationalist mystic. Holdstock himself studied medical zoology to Masters level, and you can sense something of scientist’s need to classify in his explorations of the Matter of British myth, a filing of archetypes into their stratified phyla. Christian Huxley articulates the impulse towards pursuing scholarly speculation which provides one element of the Mythago books when his brother Steven questions his motives in continuing his father’s work; ‘Why, to study the earliest times of man…From these mythagos we can learn so much of how it was, and how it was hoped to be. The aspirations, the visions, the cultural identity of a time so far gone that even its stone monuments are incomprehensible to us. To learn. To communicate through those persistent images of our past that are locked in each and every one of us’.

Of course, he is lying. His motives are anchored in personal needs with no such loftily idealistic detachment. But the novels can do both. They can stray along interesting speculative byways whilst telling a story rooted in the traditional literary values of character and psychological verisimilitude. In many ways, he has created a confluence between the sometimes disparate qualities of literary and fantastic fiction, the latter of which has often been accused of neglecting character in favour of landscape and symbolic detail. Here these details actually emerge from the psyches of the characters, and so are emblematic of them. The mythagos, meanwhile, are emanations of the landscape and evolve a unique personality which diverges from their archetypal role according to the extent to which they interact with the ‘real’ characters who come into their realm and draw them forth. This creates a typically science fictional (for Holdstock’s fantasies have the worked-through rigour of SF) meditation on the nature of humanity. In an inquisitive aside of the kind which would seem out of place in a generic fantasy which takes its materials for granted, Steven wonders just how mythagos are created. ‘How did the generic process work, I wondered, watching this beautiful, solid, soft and warm human creature. Did she form out of the leaf litter? Did wild animals carry sticks together and shape them into bones, and then, over the autumn, dying leaves fall and coat the bones in wildwood flesh? Was there a moment, in the wood, when something approximating to a human creature rose from the underbrush, and was shaped to perfection by the intensity of the human will, operating outside the woodland? Or was she just suddenly…there. One moment a wraith, the next a reality, the uncertain, dreamlike vision that suddenly clears and can be seen to be real’. Ultimately, the characters will be absorbed in the coils of their own story, becoming mythagos themselves, their tales told to future generations. A grace which the lasting influence of his novels will also bestow upon Robert Holdstock.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Children of the Crimson Sky

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

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Garden of Axos

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

Emerging from the beached ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatstone sound mirrors and listening wall

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

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Rainbow Quarrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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