Monday, 23 March 2009

The Films of Val Lewton part 2

Cat People continued

Back at work in the Ship Builder’s Office, Alice and Ollie share a water cooler moment. Ollie confesses his unhappiness, a feeling which leaves him perplexed. He has never felt this way before, having had a happy childhood and generally been content to ‘let the rest of the world go by’. He admits his attraction to Irena, but it is a mystery to him. This is probably because he is a mystery to himself and doesn’t want to acknowledge the darker corners of his brightly-lit persona which his attraction to Irena directs him to. Just as America is sufficient a world for him, he has no desire to acknowledge that he wishes to look beyond the borders of his own familiar continent of everyday contentment. He seems genuinely confused by the idea that anyone might not have shared his own uncomplicated experience of the world thus far. His idea of love is a simple one – of companionship and friendliness, evidently the relationship he has with Alice. As she says, implicitly declaring her love, ‘we’ll never be strangers’. Irena remains a stranger to Oliver, but this has always been her appeal, the allure of the ‘other’ who offers new experiences. Her animal attraction, the sweet musk she exudes without the aid of perfume, communicates directly with Oliver’s subconscious desires, bypassing the rather dim surface cloud layer of his consciousness. This is not a country he has any desire to travel to, nor to even admit really exists. No wonder he’s confused.

From now on, Irena is largely seen on her own again. She notes the key left in the lock of the panther’s cage, the key to the unlocking of subconscious libidinal rage. Doctor Judd seeks her out, chiding her like a recalcitrant child for not coming to see him. Irena makes the observation that he talks of the mind but is unable to help the soul, an assertion of the limits of the modern rationalist mindset which is unable to minister to matters of the spirit. This is a theme which will recur in Lewton’s work, attaining particular thematic prominence in ‘The Body Snatcher’. Dr Judd makes explicit the panther’s symbolic embodiment of the death urge, and this theme, the attraction of death, is another which recurs throughout his work (and is very Old World) It particularly emerges from the underworld to see light in the Thanatos-obsessed Seventh Victim.’

Back in the apartment, Ollie awkwardly attempts to ‘have a talk’. He fumblingly suggests that they may be growing apart due to Irena’s inability to tell the truth. He immediately makes it obvious that she has become the object of discussions beyond the marital circle, suggesting that the burden of evasiveness lies on his soul. He has brought these matters up after talking to Dr Judd and then discussing her with Alice. It seems Irena is the last person to whom he reluctantly talks. He is unaware of how his casual aside ‘it was like I was saying to Alice’ might hurt Irena, and as soon as she shows her displeasure, he immediately shies away from confrontation and retreats to a café. Again, it is notable that this apartment is really Irena’s territory, into which he is seen as something of an interloping presence. His default response to any problem is to retreat to the office, which is where Irena thinks he has gone now. This is his territory, a realm of the comfortingly measurable, where everything can be quantified, calculated and charted before being constructed.

In the café, Ollie further reveals his blandly normal colours when he turns down the offer of a chicken gumbo from the Caribbean waitress and opts for a coffee and a slice of good ‘ol American apple pie. Alice is at this point in the office where she receives an anonymous phone call from Irena, who draws the obvious conclusion that she is there with Ollie. She bumps into Ollie in the café, where he was perhaps hoping to meet her, not wishing to admit his motivations by actually going into the office. She tells him to go home and make up with Irena, although her motives may be more calculating than they seem to the guileless Ollie. His lame, chummy homily ‘gee you’re swell’ (which is just short of being accompanied by a playful punch on the arm) is met by the response that he’d better watch out because ‘I’m the new type of other woman’.

Irena has witnessed Ollie and Alice’s intimate exchange from the window, and perhaps their body language has told her something which their words have elided. In any case, there follows the famous ‘bus’ sequence, which gave its name to the Lewton technique of introducing the sudden intrusion of an everyday noise or object to break a carefully paced mood of heightened tension and make the audience jump out of their skins. The sequence in which Irena stalks Alice creates the impression of New York as a place which contains its own wild, uncanny places. In this case it seems to be a version of Central Park, with its ill-lit underpasses and rocky walls. The New York walk of terror will be reproduced in The Seventh Victim, although here, the wilderness has spread out from these darkened corners to the open streets of the city itself. The waving of the trees from the movement of some night creature and the growl of the panther will also be reproduced in The Leopard Man (the titular beast is, given its lack of spots, fairly obviously not a leopard) although this time produced by human agency. The transformation of Irena’s footprints into those of a big cat leave us in little doubt as to the reality of her curse.

Irena returns distraught and dishevelled to the apartment, to be met by an apologetic Ollie. His attempts to explain things away, to provide an authoritative, explanatory ‘these things happen’ tone are accepted passively, but they are clearly on different wavelengths. Her distress has nothing to do with their earlier non-altercation. She retreats to the bath, where the camera focuses on one of the clawed, scaly feet on which it rests before slowly panning up to find Irena bent over, softly crying to herself. Her bestial nature has been inescapably revealed to her. Later that night, lying in bed, she dreams of cats padding unstoppably out of a dizzying vortex, with the voice of Dr Judd intoning his Freudian mantras about ‘the need to loose evil on the world’ and ‘the desire for death’. Dr Judd himself appears as King John, his sword held horizontally before him, a vision of bellicose rationality. His sword transforms into the key to the panther’s cage, the agency through which this ‘evil’ can be set free. Dr Judd’s language is very judgemental. Cats are morally neutral, driven to act out their animal instincts and needs. But it is his subconscious influence that has given Irena the link between the figurative beast within and its real, caged manifestation.

The following scene finds Ollie, Alice and Irena in the city museum. Irena is clearly excluded from this group, the odd one out, pushed to the margins. It is Ollie and Alice who lean close to each other and share each others enjoyment of the exhibits. Irena is once more treated like a child, the others suggesting she go and look at something else. Her plea ‘don’t send me away’ is met with a half-hearted rebuttal. This is obviously precisely what they are doing. And its a rejection which takes on a more sinister aspect given the later prospect of her being sent away to an asylum. This is Ollie’s part of the museum, anyway. Full of boats and the products of rationalist, post-Enlightenment western history, measured, constructed and fully explained. Ollie blandly notes that the picture of the Victory represents the last use of the lateen-sail, which demonstrates the nuts and bolts level on which his interest in history rests. Irena goes downstairs and pauses in front of a large black statue of Anubis.This is a darker, more ancient level of history, which is indivisible from the underground streams of myth and ritual through which it reaches the modern day. Whilst Ollie and Alice wander the well-lit upper rooms of the rational world, Irena belongs in the subconscious subterraenea of suggestive statuary.

The following scene is the second one in which Alice is menaced. It clearly follows the rejection of Irena, her reaction to having been pushed away. The sweet little black kitten petted by the receptionist (with her cat’s ear hair bow) at the hotel to which Alice goes to swim is a reflection of Ollie, Alice and Dr Judd’s view of Irena as a naively childlike soul, but the feline force which she unleashes is very far from harmless and domesticated. The celebrated swimming pool scene, which conveys so much through shadow and echo-distorted sound, is another example of a wilderness space found in the centre of a busy, bustling city. This urban watering hole also serves as a compelling externalisation of subconscious space, the ocean swells of the mind’s deeper currents. Here Irena recognises her murderous jealousies and Alice confronts her feelings of guilt. It is significant that it is in the following scene that she confesses to a sardonically interested Dr Judd that she is in love with Ollie. When the lights go on, Irena looks down at Alice, helplessly treading water, and relishes her position of power. Alice is vulnerable in only her swimming costume, whereas Irena is wrapped in her fur coat pelt. She gloats over her terrified victim like a cat toying with its prey. Again, the shredded remains of her bathrobe leave us and now Alice too in no doubt as to the tangibility of Irena’s transformations. This is no mental illness or neurotic fantasy.

Alice meets with Dr Judd and tells him of her belief in the genuine nature of Irena’s fears. Dr Judd immediately tells her that she also is a ‘victim of fear’ due to her feelings of guilt. He reveals his sword-stick, his discreet version of King John’s sword of rationalism and male power. He sees his relationship with Irena as a contest of wills, determined to force her to reveal her psychological secrets and thereby submit to his rational world-view. He is also clearly attracted to her, and there is a sense in which this less innocent, more louche and knowing individual might in some ways have been a better match for Irena. As it is, the closest he is able to get to an admission of his feelings is that it is ‘maybe because you interest me’ that he is prepared to go that little bit further in order to help her. As it is, their session threatens to get intimate as he asks her what she would do if her were to kiss her. ‘I only know that I should not like to be kissed by you’, she evasively replies. Doctor Judd asserts his authority in the face of this rejection by telling her that she could be ‘put away for observation’, and the threat of commitment to an asylum hangs over her for the rest of the film. Irena is now treated as a case, someone who has no power over the direction of her own life. It is an assertion of authority which is made over female characters in other Lewton films. Characters are manipulated and pushed to the margins, punished for their non-conformity or misunderstood compassion . In the case of Nell in Bedlam, her voicing of awkward and socially uncomfortable truths is silenced through her being declared insane and dumped into an asylum, the loony bin into which uncontrollable elements are swept.

Having come away from her meeting with Dr Judd with the determination to ‘lead a normal life’ Irena comes home in a mood of buoyant optimism, only to be confronted by a sombre Ollie. He tells her that it’s over and essentially admits that he has used her in order to discover what his true feelings were for Alice. It is an unashamed and once more blithely insensitive rejection, made more unbearable by his assertion that ‘it’s better this way’. ‘Better for whom’, Irena justifiable retorts. She tries to hold her feelings in check, her transformations held back beneath a suppression of emotional rage. As she declares ‘I love loneliness’, she seems to be trying to erase the hopes which their time together had fostered in her, rejecting the desire for companionship and a place in everyday society which had briefly appeared attainable. But it is too late to return to her former state. Ollie has got under her skin and has damaged her beyond repair. As she tells him to get out, presumably for his own good, her fingers slide down the back of the sofa, leaving the torn trails of claw scratches.

The conspirators, who now seem to be acting as a cabal, meet at the cafe again to decide Irena’s fate between them, much as the urban cultists decide the fate of Jacqueline (also fur-coated), another isolated and lonely character cast out of the golden circle, in The Seventh Victim. The characters’ menu choices are commensurate with their personalities. Dr Judd enjoys the pungent taste of roquefort, Alice goes for the Bavarian cream, which betokens a mild, cosmopolitanism in sugary dessert-form, whilst Ollie, as the waitress wearily concedes, gets the apple pie, the plain, unadventurous Americano choice. Irena’s choices seem to have been narrowed to a marriage annulment or a commitment to an asylum. Ollie opts for the latter, with Alice’s approval, on the grounds of a feeling of continued responsibility for her. What it does in effect is maintain the control of all three over her life. Her fate is theirs to determine, and they decide to enact it at her apartment. This casual, unthinking invasion of her territory merely serves to highlight the contempt which they now feel for her.

Reconvened at the apartment, Alice plays the record which had previously been ‘our song’ for Irena and Ollie. He asks her to take it off without it appearing to trigger any particular feeling for him. In fact, Ollie and Alice seem to be fed up with waiting, and decide that they have better things to do, work to catch up with at the office. Irena is effectively sidelined and forgotten already. She has served her useful function in Ollie and Alice’s life and her fate is now a tiresome inconvenience for them. Only Dr Judd seems to retain an interest in her, making sure that he has the means to regain entrance into her apartment.

In the office at night, Alice receives another anonymous call and realises that it is Irena. Again, there seems a trace of the guilty conscience behind her automatic conclusion. Irena’s appearance in the office, with its uplit drawing tables casting elongated, expressionist shadows, is her first appearance or invasion of Ollie’s rational territory. This is a domain in which she is the intruder, as she stalks the workspace in which plans are measured and drawn according to unambiguous calculi. She is driven off by the casting of a shadowed cross on the wall, but it is really the set square which creates this and the numbers painted behind it which repel her. The armoury of authoritative rationality beating back the instinctive and irrationally emotive. As they make a cautious exit from the building, Ollie and Alice see the doors close on an empty lift, and the doors revolve from an unseen force. Irena has already become a ghost, dissipated into invisibility, only her perfume left hanging in the air.

Retreating to her apartment, Irena finds that it has been invaded by Dr Judd. She now bears a fatalistic air of weary resignation. She submits to his embrace, a strange gleam in her eyes, as if she has already half left the world and is staring at somewhere beyond. Her inexpressiveness makes Dr Judd’s forced attentions seem even more of a violation. He definitely feels a perverse attraction to Irena; On one level he seeks to master her, to forcefully convert her to (and encage her in) his worldview. But there is perhaps also a secret and inadmissable desire for his rationalism to be overturned, an attraction to someone who may be strong enough to shatter the control which he exerts over his own and others’ relationship with quotidian reality. He longs for an irruption of the irrational into his life, even if this means going half way to meeting his own death. The look which they exchange as they are about to kiss suggests a certain implicit understanding of the implosion of energy which is about to be unleashed. Her transformation is swift and terrible.

Dr Judd loses his life in the struggle, the sword-stick which is the sharp edge of his rationality snapped in two. The duel of rationality and instinct is fatal for Irena too, however. She crawls outside the apartment, hiding unnoticed in the shadows as Ollie and Alice race upstairs to discover the chaos which she has wrought. Once more she has retreated into the background, a creature of the city’s dark interstices. She retreats to the zoo and finally uses the key to unlock the panther’s cage. Far from loosing evil upon the world, this merely provides the means for finalising her own destruction. The release of her animal soul ineluctably leads to her own death, and the fact that she deliberately looses it upon herself makes it a sacrifice. This is the fate that Ollie and Alice have been spared.

The inextricable connection between Irena and the panther, the sense that this is the shadow side of her divided soul, is underlined by the fact that the panther is knocked down and run over by a car as soon as it has leapt over the confining boundary of the zoo wall. Like Irena, its attempt to leave its closeted, shut-off pocket of a recreated environment long-since left behind and move out into the bright flux of the city proves fatal. We cut from the picture of its bloodied carcass to Irena’s prone form, her fur coat covering her body like an animal’s pelt. Oliver rushes onto the scene, returning to the place where he first met Irena and says, as if composing an epitaph, ‘she never lied to us’. Shifting the emphasis onto the ‘she’ and the ‘us’ would make this an admission of guilt, but it is not voiced that way. Ollie’s own vow to give her ‘all the time in the world’ was certainly soon spent, and the implication of these final words is that such honesty as Irena has displayed is a debased currency in this world.

So Cat People is the story of an outsider in the city who is temporarily offered the apparent chance to belong, to come out of the shadows into the light. This offer is withdrawn as it is made clear to her that her function all along has been to reveal Ollie’s true nature to himself, to allow him to take his place in the normal, daylit scheme of things. Irena is left trying to regain her former state of self-contained isolation, but that lonely Eden has been forever lost. Lewton shows how the marginalised, the different and strange, the ‘foreign’ are pushed into the shadows by groups who thereby shore up their own sense of normalcy, of being right in the world. What Lewton returns to is who defines this state of normalcy, and who determines the chosen who will be admitted to its confederacy.

We will see how the informal cabal of Ollie, Alice and Dr Judd become a corporatised coven in The Seventh Victim. Witness Irena becoming the patron saint of the abandoned and thereby win her own redemption in Curse of the Cat People. And find the discarded and awkwardly non-conformist organising and fighting back in Bedlam.

Coming next....I Walked With A Zombie

The Films of Val Lewton part 1

Cat People (1942)

Cat People was the first of Lewton’s literate horror films and the one which perhaps offers more of the traditional pleasures of the genre than any of the others. Its success encouraged him to tread other, more obscure paths through the generic materials placed before him, but many familiar themes are foreshadowed here. Irena and Alice are the first of many strong female characters to be found in Lewton’s work, perhaps reflecting the female environment in which he grew up. Irena is immediately identified with the caged panther in the zoo – there’s no hanging around in making the obvious allusion. Her casual disposal of her sketches before moving on to another indicates that, despite her protests, she is an artist struggling to express some instinctive vision. Artistic endeavour, often frustrated, will be another thread running through Lewton’s films. Oliver, lounging by the ice-cream van, a position which immediately suggests a certain childlike, immature quality to his character, makes the first move to introduce himself to Irena. He is gauche and conversationally clumsy. It is soon clear who is in control in this situation and it’s not him. Having been walked home, Irena boldy invites him up for tea. She openly confesses her loneliness and thus becomes the first of Lewton’s lonely and isolated characters. Her poignant admission that Oliver is ‘the first real friend I’ve had in America’ is perhaps an indication that what she is really looking for is companionship and friendship. It is a reflection of the immigrant feeling of lostness in a new land, which will crop again up in Lewton’s work and is maybe a reflection of his own or his family’s experience.

Inside her apartment, all is shadows and darkness, an ambience that she does nothing to lighten. ‘I like the darkness. It’s friendly’. She still carries the exoticism of deep history within her, an Old World cloak of mysterious night. Her room is kept sepulchral, noir to keep the bright, noisy lights of the modern, busy American city at a remove. On the wall hangs a reproduction of Goya’s painting Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga, an early indication of Lewton’s use of pictorial art as direct influence or quotation in many of his films. This picture hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and so would have been accessible to Lewton. The picture is particularly apposite for Cat People, with it’s juxtaposition of different ‘classes’ of pets; The wild songbirds in the cage, the tethered magpie with his weary, resentful eye looking out to the viewer, and the cats, staring at the magpie with gazes of naked greed. The boy who marshals these pets is a picture of innocence, but barely seems aware of the wild forces which are tenuously kept at bay around him. The child also prefigures the way in which Irena will be increasingly infantilised and treated as if she were an innocent who needs to be taken care of , to be put in a cage like the birds. Goya’s depiction of witches and their rites in other paintings and illustrations further makes him the ideal artist for Irena to turn to in order to remind her of the old days and the old ways.

At the centre of the room, Oliver’s attention is drawn to the statue of King John, a very male figure within the female space into which she has invited him. The centrality of this figure certainly draws attention and acts as a focal point. The king sits upon his charger, his sword thrust triumphantly upward, skewering the splayed form of a cat. It is an aggressively phallic symbol of male rationality and reason, cutting through the heart of the female symbol of the cat, through the shadows of superstition and intuitive power. Power drawn from the nature and the surrounding environment (reference is later made to Irena’s father having died mysteriously ‘in a wood’).

The premise of Cat People is essentially a feminisation of the werewolf story. Rather than the unleashing of the inner wolf, the wild beast in man, we have the more complex transformation of a woman into a wild cat. This brings up associations with the cat as a particularly female creature. It is domestic, or rather domesticated. It is often seen as the companion of women, particularly those who are isolated or alone, and therefore viewed as witchy or strange, not one of us. Whereas the werewolf might be seen as connecting to some inherent untamed wildness in the male persona, the transformation of woman into panther returns the wildness to a tamed archetype. It is a release of a socially conditioned and ironed-out nature, suddenly unbounded by decorum or the need to be ‘ladylike’. It is PJ Harvey or Patti Smith emerging from Connie Francis. The feminine becoming physically deadly rather than striking through ‘catty’ remarks.

Irena describes King John as a Serbian hero who drove out the Mamelukes, who had enslaved her people (although they themselves were originally descended from slaves). This locates him (and Irena’s ancestors) at another faultline between divergent histories and cultures. Now that faultline is between America, the New World, and the Old World of Europe. The suggestion is also made that the evil which she describes as having grown under the Mameluke occupation is one which has been imported from the east, from Turkish and Middle Eastern countries. King John thus acts as a Crusader, driving out heathen faiths and demonising them in the process.

Irena’s apartment overlooks the zoo, a corner of controlled wilderness contained and walled-in within the city. The cries of the animals carry up to her window over the night air, and she says that ‘the panther screams like a woman (and) I don’t like that.’ She doesn’t like to be reminded of the forces which she is repressing within herself. She remains in control of this encounter though, and is able to convey her desire for Oliver to leave with the slightest of gestures. She fully understands the innuendo of his comment that ‘boys who come to tea can’t expect to stay to dinner’, and leaves the possibility of future dates open. As it turns out, he probably won’t even get to his starter. Oliver is clearly intoxicated by this very un-American woman, but already we sense a fundamental disparity between their natures. Reference is made on several occasions to the heady scent which Irena trails around her, a sensuous pheromonal perfume which may have added to Oliver’s attraction.

Oliver’s wooing of Irena is carried out through the medium of pets. Pets and people’s relationships with them. Here, Oliver presents Irena with a cute kitten, which evidently doesn’t take to her at all. If the kitten represents Oliver’s view of how he hopes Irena will turn out to be, then he is clearly going to be disappointed. Irena harbours a much fiercer feline soul. The trip to the pet shop to buy an alternative pet causes mass panic amongst the caged birds, who evidently intuit Irena’s hidden animal anima. But it is one of these which is purchased for her, ‘a little lemon-coloured fellow’ who sounds more like a boiled sweet that Irena can snack on in-between meals. The use of a pet is also a way for Oliver to inveigle his presence into the very personal domain of Irena’s flat, of course. Pets are used in symbolic fashion throughout Lewton’s work, culminating in the interchangability of people and animals in Bedlam.

At work, we are introduced to Alice, and it is immediately apparent that Oliver (or Ollie as she calls him with familiar informality) is much more at ease with her than he is with Irena. She is a Hawksian companion, a work colleague and plain-talking compadre with whom he is on an equal footing. She is all-American and entirely unmysterious, although perhaps her friendly willingness to help and provide a sympathetic ear is not entirely without its unconsciously scheming aspect. It is her who finds the Serbian restaurant, The Belgrade café, where Irena and Oliver have their post-nuptial celebration feast. It is her, therefore, who re-emphasises Irena’s ‘un-Americanness’ and re-connects her with a past which she is trying to leave behind. Indeed, the presence of Alice as a confidante throughout the relationship suggests a certain manipulativeness, unconscious or otherwise. On Oliver’s part, he is either exhibiting a bluff refusal to acknowledge anything of his own nature beyond surface simplicities, or he really is a guileless dunderhead who lumbers through life unaware of the damage he does. This uncomplicated, untroubled outlook is seen as being some kind of American, clean-living ideal. After Irena has confessed to him that she has ‘fled the past’ (whether a collective or personal past is left ambiguous) he offers himself up as an embodiment of the New World which she can join. ‘A good, plain Americano’, someone who ‘grew up to be quite a nice fella.’

The Belgrade café, to which Alice has so considerately guided them, is a little bit of the old country in America. It is here that Irena is recognised by one of ‘her kind’. This woman, who sits alone, elicits whispered comments from the men present, one of whom dismisses her with the words ‘looks like a cat’, an appearance accentuated by the black bow in her hair. Her identification of a fellow spirit serves to isolate Irena from the jovial spirit and group bonhomie of the rest of the table, which is notably filled with Oliver’s work colleagues and family. They have been treating her as an intriguing outsider, charming for her foreignness, and this encounter, together with the choice of venue, merely serves to highlight her isolation. She is not ‘one of us’. At the end of the day, they draw up outside their apartment. This is still the apartment where Oliver first came to call upon Irena. It is interesting that for all his intimations that he can help her to become a proper American, it is to the shadowed spaces of her apartment, with its Old World relics and proximity to the wildness of the zoo, that they go to start their married life. Does this suggest a certain economic superiority on her part, or does this space really represent the qualities for which Oliver has married her in the first place. She pleads for understanding and he offers all his patience and kindness, with ‘all the time in the world’ to wait if need be. In fact, he seems to last barely a few weeks before he is once more confiding in Alice.

It is at Alice’s suggestion that Irena goes to (or rather is sent to) the psychiatrist Dr Judd, although of course Oliver (Ollie) doesn’t admit this to her. Dr Judd’s dark office offers a parallel with Irena’s apartment, but his is a space in which the spirit of King John is dominant, not reduced to a small tabletop gewgaw. Irena lies on the couch, under Doctor Judd’s spell (or hypnotised). A light shines in her eyes as Doctor Judd draws out her inmost history and fears. It is a violation, an invasion of her subconscious without the consent of her will, the barriers of which have been removed. When the lights go on again, we see that the light which has been interrogatively pointed at her is bluntly phallic in a vaguely art deco style. It is the modern, rationalist version of King John’s sword, designed to penetrate and destroy the shadows of unreason. Judd rattles off a standard psychiatrist’s litany of demystification, telling her of anxieties and fears originating in childhood. The dismissal of Irena’s experiences as being merely symbolic of fears and anxieties which have taken root in the subconscious can also be seen as a reflection on the nature of fantastic fiction itself. The film Cat People does address these fears and anxieties, but it does so by creating a story in which a woman, under certain conditions, turns into a murderous panther. By making the metaphor manifest, it makes for a much more direct and unambiguously forceful depiction of such feelings. It is also, naturally, a lot more exciting and entertaining, with the additional pleasure attendant upon any good horror film of allowing us to see into some of the darker rooms of our own mental mansions. Doctor Judd responds to Irena’s question as to what she should tell her husband with the advice ‘what does one tell one’s husband? One tells him nothing.’ It is as if he is a furtive lover covering up an affair.

Astonishingly, when she gets home, she finds Alice there with Oliver. Given that he must have known she was visiting the psychiatrist, an initial visit liable to leave her feeling vulnerable and confused, it is indicative of the distance he is already establishing between them that he should consider this a good time to invite Alice in. Again, we are left with two possible views of Oliver. Either he is an incredible lunkhead, an emotional simpleton. Or he is engaged in an assault on his wife of some considerable passive aggression, possibly with a little direction from Alice. Against Dr Judd’s ‘one tells him nothing’, suggesting that a marriage thrives on a certain element of mystery and secretiveness, Oliver is moronically upfront and open about everything, a quality which he extends beyond the circle of his marriage. His assertion that you can tell Alice anything because she is ‘such a good egg’ merely exacerbates the issue, and makes it clear to Irena that her own attempts at openness have been betrayed, confidences broadcast. Oliver’s conciliatory declaration of love, that ‘he’d turn handstands to keep you happy’, is a further indication of his childish ideal of romance. It is at times like this when it becomes apparent that Irena is right to deny him access to the marital bed. She would devour him whole. Earlier, Oliver had bought Irena a pet, a caged bird which she had inadvertently scared to death. He is that yellow canary.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Karlstadt

Re: Children of the Night (let’s call it Stepchildren of the Night if you like). Well, they say confession is good for the soul, and it can sometimes lead you to discover that you are not alone after all. The indifference with which Herzog’s Nosferatu was greeted may have been due to its incongruous status within the predominantly realist trend of the new German Cinema which arose during the sixties and seventies. Directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotte and Volker Schlondorff drew on many traditions of German (and Hollywood) film and storytelling, but gothic romanticism and the fantastic weren’t amongst them. Perhaps the nation’s descent into the Wagnerian nightmare of the nazi era with its propogandistic appropriation of the national mythos had tainted such associations. However, Wenders turned away from American dreaming to the very European, Cocteau-esque fantasy of Wings of Desire, and Fassbinder’s final film was the opium haze of sunset dreaming Querelle, so perhaps realism exerted only so much fascination for the German psyche.

Herzog, always more in tune with the numinous, was reaching back into older traditions both of cinema and of German literature and folklore. One of the interesting things about both Nosferatus, in fact, is how German they are. Nosferatu is as much a creature of the dark forest, of Walpurgisnacht folk tales and bloody Grimm Rumpelstiltskin fairy stories as he is Stoker’s Carpathian monster. Herzog’s version is also steeped in the imagery of German romanticism, of Casper David Friedrich’s wanderers gazing over the sublimity of mountain wilderness. The presence of music from Wagner’s Ring cycle and from the modern hymns of Florian Fricke’s Popul Vuh on the soundtrack further underlines its Germanic flavour.

Murnau’s Nosferatu was made at a time when the German tradition of the fantastic, with its emphasis on the gothic and the grotesque, still exerted a significant influence on German cinema. Murnau’s own Faust, Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, Paul Leni’s Waxworks, Robert Wiene’s Hands of Orlac and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and the Nosferatu scriptwriter Henrik Galeen’s The Student of Prague were all products of the silent era, and their style and even some of their scenarios found their way over the ocean into the Universal horrors. It’s therefore easier for them to be accepted into an identifiable and (essential for scholars) categorisable canon.

Herzog’s (or should I say Kinski’s) Nosferatu is an etiolated, anaemic character, showing all the signs of that very German condition, weltanschauung. Here, his attenuated, Struwellpeter fingernails and elongated incisors seem less the characteristics of the goblins of the dark forests or mountainsides than the self-neglect of world-weary lassitude. The plague which accompanies him on his travels is an outward manifestation of his yearning for death. The sense of an endgame being played out reflects the feeling of a now aged, page-worn myth, one whose weary players are seeking the suitable moves to reach a conclusion. A similar atmosphere is found in Christopher Lee’s final Dracula outing, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he attempts to spread a deadly plague whose apocalypse will wipe out the lifeblood which sustains him. In Herzog’s Nosferatu, the flame is passed onto a new generation, however, with Kinski granted his final peace. His ending is twitchilly physical with its spider-like death throes, as opposed to the spectral fading out of Murnau’s less corporeal phantom of the night.

The nationalisation of the Dracula story perhaps points to a way in which the ‘problem of Dracula’ can be solved. And yes, it’s interesting here to wonder what Polanski might have done with the story. His Hammer parody The Fearless Vampire Killers certainly had a pungently East European flavour. This regional relocation was really what Hammer did, too. Their films may have notionally been set in a vaguely sketched middle Europe, with everyone seeming to be travelling to or arriving from Karlstadt, a common destination most likely indicative of a bit of thrifty pragmatism allowing for the re-use of signage. But Lee and Cushing’s characterisations of Dracula and Van Helsing were indelibly English, and it’s noticeable that the superstitious peasantry tend to mumble and grudgingly serve visitors at the inn in stage-Devonian yokel-ese.

Dracula himself seems to be rooted in a particular time. Other characters from the Victorian period can be transported across the decades with some success, with a possible play on the anachronisms between their era and the world in which they find themselves. Sherlock Holmes is an obvious example, and Jack the Ripper seems to make the transtemporal journey in several stories. But Hammer’s attempts to locate Dracula in a contemporary setting found him strangely adrift, enclosed in restricted settings such as the church in Dracula AD1972 and the corporate penthouse office in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (quite an effective idea but not well seen though). The action all took place elsewhere, and there was a sense that Lee’s token presence was just an excuse to have the word Dracula on the poster (not that his absence stood in the way of Brides of Dracula’s slightly misleading title).

The firmly established image of Dracula as the anachronistically (even in Stoker’s late-Victorian novel) Byronic figure, which has led some writers and film-makers to mistakenly cast him in a romantic light, is now so inflexible that it would take a fairly radical and necessarily strong re-imagination to tear him free from the stereotype and allow him to live again. Until then, the cloak and stiff, aristocratic mien hold him back from being resurrected in all but the hyperkinetic cgi-soaked gothery that he is currently condemned to.

I look forward to Neil’s further confessions of a Nosferatu Herzogophilist. Maybe he’ll convert us all to his sinister Kinskian cult.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Laura Kikauka's Art of Fun

The first thing that should be said about Laura Kikauka’s new exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, Celebration of Failure, is that looking around it is just such damn good fun. This is not a quality which is frequently associated with modern art and may even be disapproved of in some quarters. It’s worth emphasising this because the exhibition notes (fine though they are) are rife with the usual gallery lexicon, the issues addressed, questions raised and debates reflected which can sometimes overwhelm the spectator’s own personal reaction to the work. This is the kind of spiel which has its place, but which can put off those outside the bubble of the art world, with its shared linguistic codes (and possibly handshakes). That would be a shame in the case of this exhibition, as it’s the sort of experience which needs no theoretical justification and which could be really enjoyed by people who (in the words of Neil Tennant) wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. The children who were there for their Saturday morning art club when we visited were certainly having a whale of a time.

The first thing you notice as you enter the gallery (having taken in the paper cut outs which cover the windows as you pass outside) is the transformation of the smaller space on your right into an object-strewn blizzard of whiteness. A carpeted area is bounded by a tiny fence, but you are invited by a hand-written message which follows the edge of this unimposing barrier to take off your shoes and enter. This gives you a nice feeling of being personally ushered in and welcomed to the exhibition, which immediately takes on the aspect of the artist’s own personal trash palace. Polystyrene packing chip snow drifts across the floor outside this open domestic interior, something which I imagine will create a daily chore of sweeping up for the gallery staff. The centrepiece of this room, which draws the eye with its motion, is a bath with a disembodied torso of polystyrene statuary reclining in it, a small fountain cascading from just below it’s truncated form. It’s a mildly, inoffensively dirty joke which the kids will enjoy and which possibly gives the nod to Duchamp (taking the piss you might say – sorry) and de Chirico (one of his figures relaxing after a hard days posing in the piazza) although spotting such references is wholly unimportant beyond the dubious pleasure of self-congratulatory smugness (mea culpa).

The rest of the room is filled with white objects, some altered or given 3-D enhancements by Kikauka’s glue gun (white glue, of course) but all adhering strictly to the colour(less)theme. Do go to the loo, too, even if you don’t have to go, otherwise you’ll miss an added, hidden element to this part of the exhibition. A list posted on the door gives some listening suggestions: White Room by Cream, The White Album etc.

Passing under the door, which is covered by pictures of nude ladies in vivid 70s hues juxtaposed with implausibly sized items of fruit and other food (statuary at the gates of the palace? Abandon All Taste, Ye Who Enter Here?) you enter the main gallery space. The corridor, whose surfaces have been painted a very 70s tone of orange, is bedecked with multi-coloured tights, with vintage tights packaging forming a collage of 60s and 70s stylings on the wall to the left. It is indeed a tight spot, a pun which the artist may have intended, or which may have simply arisen rather too readily in my mind (or to give credit where it’s due, Mrs W’s in this case).

To the right, in the main gallery space, you enter the real heart of the exhibition, a recreated lounge bursting with the detritus of discarded leisure pursuits. I've known people's teenage bedrooms which looked very much like this. Hell, my teenage bedroom wasn't so very far off. The wonder is that it’s all in such good condition. Kikauka has organised everything into thematic areas, so that the apparent chaos is given form. It’s a veritable cornucopia of cheerful crap, guaranteed to have people of a certain age (me) wondering around saying ‘ooh, I used to have one of those’.

There’s a plastic skull covered with pieces of broken mirror glass, placed on an old revolving turntable, with light from a cheap bedside lamp bouncing off it, transforming it into a mirror ball. It’s a cheeky parody of Damien Hurst’s notorious skull, whose chief value seemed to reside in its obscene expense, a readymade for the bloated art market. This version is probably thousands of times cheaper and is, to my mind, about a thousand times better. It's more reminiscent of the folk art which provides the friendly momento mori which proliferate during the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Oversized novelty slippers form a wainscoting which offers a very off-kilter insight into times gone by (look, there’s Ronnie and Nancy) and the wallpaper is made up of record sleeves from artists justifiably (mostly) consigned to the discount bin of history. Although whoever threw away Charles Lloyd’s Love-In might have got themselves a few bob on e-bay or down their local second-hand record shop for it. Again, the record sleeves are arranged thematically, so you get your Moog section, space-age records, marimba and maraccas exotica and a Saturday Night Fever selection which includes the must-hear Sesame Street Fever, with Super Grover proving a strangely apposite stand-in for John Travolta, his spindly arms perfect for that point-at-the-ceiling pose.

The floor is also partially given a parquetry of discarded vinyl. This reminds me of the exhibition by sound artist Christian Marclay, who covered the floor of the gallery space with copies of a record of his, which visitors proceeded to ‘remix’ by walking over and scratching it. The far side of the room is given over to a table tennis table, with two bats and balls, which encourages people to relax and enjoy themselves with a game, to make themselves feel at home. This is just what the children at their art class were doing, to the extent that their teachers were having a job to coax them into doing some actual art stuff. Hey, the kids were Being art by participating in the exhibition! They also inadvertently made me party to art theft, scoring a hole in one into my bag with a ping pong ball, which I discovered upon my return. Fear not, I shall return it, thereby giving myself a convenient excuse to revisit the exhibition. The feeling of being at home is further enhanced by the small record player to the side of the table, with its attendant pile of 45s from which you can pick your leisure sounds. You could really spend a very pleasant afternoon here.

The exhibition does not confine itself to the usual gallery rooms. The atrium space reserved for the kids club and other meetings is filled with further eye-catching objects and photo-collages, and a glance out of the back window reveals that the courtyard has also been transformed into an oasis of plastic flora. Open umbrellas hang suspended as if they are oversized clouds of dandelion seeds descending gently to earth; a tip of the bowler hat to Magritte’s skies of raining bureaucrats, maybe, albeit in a gaudily colourised version. Or even a Dick van Dyke nod and a wink to Mary Poppins.

The room which is approached by a ramp and which is slightly more enclosed is lent an attic-like atmosphere by its low-lighting and the fact that it is filled with teetering piles of storage boxes. This is the Aladdin’s cave- spring from which such a rich hoard has gushed forth. It’s drab gloominess and musty cardboard smell contrasts markedly with the rest of the exhibition, but there’s a sense that this is the womb from which it has all emerged. A list of contents makes it clear that when these Pandora’s boxes are repacked, it will be according to a strictly regulated plan.

So what does it all mean? A valorization of the rejected? An act of reclamation and classification? A hoarder putting her compulsions to good use? Frankly, who cares. Just immerse yourself in this paean to the phases of passed time. If this is the Celebration of Failure, then we can all be beautiful losers.