Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Tarkovsky's Exile

I learned in a Guardian obituary last weekend of the death of Russian actor Oleg Yankovsky. This led me to revisit scenes from the two films he made with Andrei Tarkovsky, Mirror and Nostalgia. His appearances in the former are quite limited, given that this is a film which focuses on women. But his soldier returning from war to the country house or dacha possesses a real nobility. His children run through the trees to embrace him, the boy falling headlong to the ground in his eagerness to reach him, in a seemingly unplanned piece of naturalism. Tears fall from the father’s face as he embraces them both, red star badge (a medal? A reward for courage?) prominent above his breast. The scene has an added poignancy when you read that Yankovsky’s own father was an officer in the Red Army who died in the Gulags during Stalin’s reign of terror. Yankovsky also gets to gaze on one of Tarkovsky’s ecstatic floating women, Margarita Terekhova in this case, tenderly stroking her hand as she levitates above their bed, as if he is lovingly keeping watch over a spiritual flight which he cannot himself partake in.

Yankovsky takes the central role in Nostalgia, Tarkovsky’s film of physical and spiritual exile. In long grey overcoat and hair shot through with a patch of pure white, he is the very picture of philosophical Russian weltschmerz (there must be a specific Russian word for this) completely out of place in the sunny Italian landscape. He brings a depth to and creates sympathy for a character who could easily have appeared irritatingly self-absorbed and self-pityingly truculent. The scene in which he wades through a drowned church, drinking and smoking, and meets a young girl (an angel?) to whom he talks in faltering Italian is beautifully played. Yankovsky really seems to be revealing something of his character Gorchakov’s soul.

In the final scene, he carries a candle given to him by the madman/visionary Domenico (played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson) across the drained mineral baths of Bagno Vignoni. Following Domenico’s self-immolation, this act becomes a declaration of hope for mankind, an unobserved act of witness. It becomes vital for him to carry the flame from one end of the baths to the other, as if the very fate of the world depended upon it. Yankovsky manages to convey the importance of this seemingly inconsequential act. At first he looks around with a certain sheepishness, but by the end he is sheltering the flame beneath his coat with the utmost concentration and intensity. Filmed in one slow unbroken take, it is a scene of incredible emotional power. The final image of Gorchakovsky resting by a pond with his dog in front of his childhood dacha (seemingly a locus of Russian nostalgic longing) which we see is nestled within the enfolding walls of a ruined cathedral, a flurry of snow blowing through its spaces, open to the elements, is quite simply one of the most achingly beautiful in all cinema. It serves as a fitting epitaph.

All Yesterday's Parties

A couple of weekends ago we made our way upcountry to Minehead for the third year in a row to see the second of this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals at the Butlins holiday camp. We’re very lucky to have this taking place so close by, particularly given the fact that very little music of any vaguely exploratory or experimental or really interesting in any way whatsoever stripe tends to make it beyond Bristol in its journey westwards (our correspondent Mr Orphan’s musical extravaganzas notwithstanding, of course). I did go and see Jackie-O Motherfucker last year (or Jackie-O MoFo as I, a sparing user of profanity, had been calling them) and myself and the five others there enjoyed it very much, but the sparse attendance didn’t bode well for a return visit or indeed for any departure from the city’s tendency to go for the safe middle of the road bet every time. One of the pleasures of the festival is the opportunity to discover music you’d never come across before. Previous years introduced me to favourites such as Stars of the Lid and Grizzly Bear, both of whom put on fantastic late night shows. This year’s festival was curated by The Breeders and contained a mix of the old and the new, several of both camps associated with the 4AD label. Alas, School of Seven Bells, Young Marble Giants and M83, all of whom I’d have liked to see, played at the first festival weekend. But there was enough at the Breeders bash to more than compensate for this.

The bus from Taunton station to Minehead takes you all the way past the ‘border guard’ into the camp. Your ‘papers’ are checked whilst you are still on the bus, a moment which occasioned a murmured ‘what the fuck are we doing here’ from a couple of festivalgoers behind us. I know how they feel, but we’re kind of used to the setup by now. Indeed one of the attractions of the festival is the very incongruity of the setting as a site for alternative music. Seeing spindly indie kids smoking fags and drinking Bud outside the bright primary colours of Bob the Builder World, or plaid-shirted and beardy Yank new-folksters carefully aiming a put on Ye Pirate crazy golf ship is wonderfully surreal. The rather old-fashioned preponderance of Wild-West themed attractions such as the Crazy Horse Saloon and the Old Fruit Mine must seem a trifle bizarre to the many American bands and visitors who come over. The food on offer is strictly of the chain variety, but luckily Minehead itself is only a short walk away and has much to offer.

Our regular haunt became the Queen’s Head, which had the local Exmoor Ale brews on tap, alongside selected guest ales, which well earned it its place in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. And someone put The Monkees’ Porpoise Song from the film Head on too. Adjacent was Pinocchio’s, an Italian restaurant of considerable charm packed with gewgaws related to the wooden puppet and his Tyrollean surroundings, which provided a hearty lunch for a ridiculously reasonable price. Of course, you have to have a cream tea at some point, and this was provided, with gorgeous local whortleberry jam, at the Apple Tree cafe. All of which beat the Butlins Burger King and Stella bill of fare.

The first band we saw on Friday was Giant Sand, a fine introduction afforded by the affably urbane Howie Gelb, who felt like a genial host welcoming us to the festivities. His humour and delivery were as dry as the Texan desert guitar licks and barroom piano stylings with which he accompanied his mordant songs, which were often about ‘love...and its ramifications’. As he bade us goodbye, he revealed that ‘we’re gone – we’re not even here anymore. These are just holograms you’re watching up here’. Next up, after a stroll along the strand, were Throwing Muses, who I’d been particularly looking forward to. Playing as a trio, with Bernard Georges on bass and David Narcizo on drums, the focus was very much on Kristin Hersh. There were surprisingly few songs from the excellent recent (well, most recent) self-titled 2003 recording. This was essentially an exploration of the back catalogue. Hersh and the band were on fine form, kicking up a compact storm with Kristin’s voice stepping up to a rasping bellow on demand and even essaying some of the ‘speaking in tongues’ from an early song. Great stuff.

We dashed from the tented pavilion to the Centre Stage to catch the second half of Yann Tiersen’s set. Anyone expecting a display of arpeggiated accordion Frenchness a la Amelie was liable to be disappointed as Yann cranked up his guitar and displayed a tendency displayed throughout the weekend, with sometimes frankly wearying inevitability, to rock out. The most interesting feature of his accordion-free line-up was the ondes martenot, the electronic instrument invented in the thirties and much favoured by Olivier Messaien. Indeed ,the last time I had seen one being played was at a performance of his Turangalila Symphony at the Proms. Its swooping and modulating tones had me craning for a better view. In fact, it is housed in a rather unprepossessing wooden box. Back to the Pavillion Stage for Bon Iver, who was already underway. It was difficult to envisage how his intimate and hermetic solo album would translate to the big stage, but he managed it without losing the fragility which made the songs so engaging in the first place. Particularly impressive was a largely instrumental (using keyboards and layered vocals) Steve Reichian piece from the recent Blood Bank ep. It all ended with a big group sing-along to the chorus of The Wolves, a warm and fuzzy moment taken from a wintry work of loss and heartbreak – some transformation.

Buffalo Killers were comfortingly recidivist rockers, mountainous and full of beard and with a sound to match. A guitar/bass/drum trio with a pleasingly West Coast acid-drenched lead sound. Finally came Pit er Pat, whose music I’d really enjoyed discovering. Some of their Lps ‘Pyramids’ and ‘High Time’ sounded a little like Pram in their dreamy drift and home-made clatter. Live they were reduced to a duo, with percussion also triggering off various samples and Fay Davis-Jeffers playing guitar and singing. Her spidery guitar lines were a welcome alternative to the default recourse to the distortion pedal and the interaction between them and the pots and pans and kitchen sink percussive trickery which surrounded them could have provided the soundtrack to a particularly strange Czech animation film. I would have liked more of her vocals, though, and the odd song from the aforementioned albums. But you can’t have everything, can you.

Saturday, the same mix of sunshine and blustery showers, saw us back in the Queen’s Head and also sheltering in the beautiful church on the hill, with its medieval font and antique illuminated books. Thank goodness for the good old British weather, which ushers you to places which would otherwise remain undiscovered. In the afternoon, Whispertown 2000 were something of a disappointment. The voices of the two singers seemed a little bland and the guitars were once again cranked up, which was unnecessary for what was essentially country music. Later on the Pavillion stage, CSS were obviously in party mood, their instruments gaily bedecked with balloons. Singer Lovefoxxx (that’s three Xs, not one more or less) took command of the stage in her multi-coloured leotard, proving adept at flicking up a hat with her foot and catching it without breaking her stride. Unfortunately, we had to leave as she was detailing how ‘the bitch (Paris Hilton) said yeah’ as we went to see Wire on the Centre Stage. Lacking the presence of the experimentally inclined Bruce Gilbert, this was a back to basics set with a stripped down guitar led sound. I would have liked a bit more of Colin Newman’s wry and oddly gentle art pop songs, but this was a set aimed at pleasing the aging punks in the crowd, dusting off old Roxy and Pink Flag favourites such as 12XU. I particularly liked the ‘how long can we keep playing this one chord’ numbers.

Back to the Pavillion for Teenage Fanclub, whose perfected Roger Mcguinn/Gene Clark harmonies and unerring sense for a wistfully uplifting chord sequence temporarily turned the Minehead coast, with its view of the lights of the refinery at Barry across the water, into a sunny 60s West Coast dream. Lovely stuff. This was followed by hosts and headliners The Breeders, who were funny and friendly and informal and featured a fiddle in a surprise turn towards country music for one song. And it worked. Not always coming across successfully on record, the songs really came alive onstage. This was really the Kim and Kelley show, the twins continuing to chat and chide one another as they presumably do in daily life. Kelley reminded everyone to attend her knit-in the next day - hangovers not accepted as an excuse.

Later at the Central Stage came one of the most remarkable performances of the weekend. A solo drum set sounds distinctly unenticing, but Zach Hill was amazing. He’s known for his work with the group Hella, and also as the drummer in guitar-wizard Marnie Stern’s band. Here he pounded the drums in everchanging circular rhythms (and triggering off samples, I would guess) whilst his duetting partner knelt on the ground with guitar and laptop. The drums worked with (and against) cascading runs of Cecil Taylor-ish keyboard notes and juddering, flesh and bone-shaking bass pulses. It was essentially high-energy free jazz and as such attracted a, shall we say, select audience, but those who stayed were transfixed. At the end, Hill staggered from behind his drum kit and stumbled offstage, drained and exhausted, having given his all and a bit more besides.

There was a bit of a break until the next act I wanted to see so I retired to the Butlins cinema for a midnight screening of The Exorcist, which proved to be the Director’s Cut. Frankly, I could see why the much-vaunted extra scenes had been left out. They added nothing other than rather cheap shock effects to the film, and Regan’s ‘spider walk’ down the stairs just seemed faintly ridiculous. I didn’t make it through to the exorcism proper (and alas neither did I see Max von Sydow’s arrival at the house, silhouetted in the light from the bedroom window) as it was time for the late night appearance of Holy Fuck (or Holy Heck as I, a sparing user of profanity, had been calling them). Using vintage and probably quite inexpensive electronic equipment in conjunction with a rock rhythm section of bass and drums they stir up a largely improvised and highly infectious mix of slowly building keyboard arpeggios and melodies and casio bleep and blip electronic beats. The crowd responded with arms in the air in classic Dance fashion. A great end to the day and a hurried return to our chalet, which was about as far away in the really quite sizeable Butlins fiefdom as it was possible to be.

Sunday morning was wet and therefore an ideal time to retreat to the cinema to see the wonderful Wall-E. The first half hour or so of this film was just so beautiful and reminded me of why I fell in love with science fiction in the first place. I could have watched a whole film of Wall-E trundling aroung the ruins of a despoiled Earth, following its futile programming and stacking the mountains of junk into towering sculptures reminiscent of the ‘outsider art’ edifices of Sabato ‘Simon’ Rodia Watts Towers and Ferdinand ‘Le Facteur’ Cheval’s Palais Ideal in Hauterives, France. The moment when he leaves the polluted cloud of Earth’s atmosphere and enters the starry realm of space is a classic moment of conceptual breakthrough and is simply gorgeous. As is the dance using the fire extinguisher later on. The engine of the plot tends to be something of a distraction in the face of such moments of abstract and melancholy beauty, but the satire of the scenes onboard the ship is initially very funny. The idea of a ‘generation starship’ which has forgotten its original purpose may not be terribly original (see Robert Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of the Sky’, Brian Aldiss’ ‘Non-Stop’ and Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of the Long Sun’) but it is brought neatly up to date with a swipe against the stupefaction engendered by corporate brainwashing. The ending might be a little bit glib and skip lightly over the harder questions raised, but it is a children’s film after all, and needs to leave some room for hope and a feeling that the problems aren’t insoluble. So I’ll allow for that touch of Hollywood sheen on what is generally a fantastic film.

The first act we saw on Sunday was the incredible Melt Banana. Feted by John Peel, who once remarked after a broadcast concert that it was ‘one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve seen in all my life, to rate alongside things like Captain Beefheart in Hollywood’, they were indeed amazing and really have to be experienced live. The set began in darkness, the band wearing headlamps which swept around like lighthouse beams, elucidating the movements and sounds of the musicians. When the lights do come on, they reveal the guitarist, whose face still remains hidden as he wears his characteristic dust mask, and the singer, who may be slight of figure but is able to unleash a formidable series of barking yelps at the top of her lungs. The guitarist doesn’t so much play his instrument as unleash a torrent of effects laden sounds, staccato chords and sliding notes which swoop up and down the fretboard in undulant waves of queasy oscillation. The effect is quite the opposite of much noise music, which attempts to drag the listener down into a slough of despond, emphasising the dark and perverse. As with fellow countrymen The Boredoms, this is the sound of pure exhilaration, a concentrated blast of the life force. Marvellous. Rather charmingly, their part of the long merchandising table in the Pavillion featured a couple of bananas which were decorated with Japanese writing (kanji?). No idea what it said or indeed whether they were for sale as well as the cds and t-shirts. If so , it would be a strictly limited edition, limited life-span piece of memorabilia. Indeed, they were already looking a little past their best.

Back in the Pavillion for Deerhunter, the singer from which, Bradford Cox, we’d seen the previous year in his solo electronica guise as Atlas Sound. Then, rather thrillingly for me, he’d bought Broadcast on as guests. It has to be said I didn’t realise this until the end, as we’d come in just after he’d started and Trish Keenan and James Cargill were crouched over the devices on the floor. This year, he was playing Deerhunter music, dreamy songs drenched in echo and reverb and occasionally building up into a noisy storm of sound. Bradford was clearly enjoying himself, and when he invited Kim and Kelly Deal up on stage to sing an old Amps song, a fine time was had by all, as he and Kim attempted to suppress fits of giggles. Very enjoyable. Gang of Four were somewhat perplexing. Ina way, they painted themselves into a corner right from the start of their ‘career’ (no doubt a term they’d despise) with their withering analysis of the forces of the entertainment industry (on the 1979 LP ‘Entertainment’) and the packaging and manipulation of individual choices and relationships which it represents. But here they were coming on like 80s pop stars, singer Jon King with jacket but no shirt throwing shapes like a hyperkinetic Jim Kerr reborn as a hardline leftist. Full marks for effort, but I’m not sure what the systematic destruction of a microwave oven was supposed to symbolically convey. It all just came across as a bit aggressive in an unpleasantly macho way.

Foals ended the weekend’s Pavillion performances with an energetic set of their ‘math’ rock. Interlocking high-pitched guitar lines and chopped rhythms, the spectre of Steve Reich hovering once more as well as unexpected echoes of deeply unfashionable 80s acts such as (whisper their name) Haircut 100 and Kid Creole. Which is good. Experimantal music which you can dance to. Singer Yannis Philippakis led the security guard a merry dance at one point as he leapt from a stage swollen by guest tribal drummers and ran through the crowd, still beating the rhythm with his drumsticks. A bit of low-key Bono-ism, maybe, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of diverting showmanship.

Having eschewed the Fuck Buttons (or Fun Buttons as I, a sparing user of etc. Etc.) DJ set which everyone seemed quite excited by I made my way to see X, having listened to and quite enjoyed a couple of songs by Distortion Felix, whose name pretty well sums up their sound. X seemed to come with the epithet ‘legendary’ regularly attached, but I’d not really got it from what I’d heard. An efficient if unoriginal rock band, but legendary? Their set did nothing to change my mind. They themselves seemed a little uninvolved. After a perfunctory introduction where they thanked The Breeders for inviting them, they said they would dispense with formalities and just play the songs. Fine, except that singer Exene Cervenka reneged on this statement of intent to announce that they had t-shirts on sale at the back. Hardly the kind of hawking that punk ‘legends’ should indulge in, surely. Co-singer John Doe rather obviously glanced at his watch at one point and they left slightly before their allotted time was up having given the distinct impression of going through the motions. Billy Zoom was the most interesting member on stage. Standing stock still most of the time, he cranked out rockabilly riffs with a fixed Val Doonican-esque smile permanently attached to his rather waxy looking face. He even gave the odd Val nod and a wink. It was funny but also a bit disconcerting. God, I thought, I’d hate to think he was directing one of those at me.

Thankfully the weekend ended on an eccentric high. One woman, a drum and a ukulele. This was tUnE-YaRdS, the one woman show (and she’s also apparently a puppeteer) who took the Red stage single-handedly by storm. With Indian-style warpaint cutting a transverse stripe across her face, she created drum and vocal loops over which she sung songs interspersed with full-blooded whoops and ululations, holding nothing back. Bantering directly with the audience, she completely won them over and was clearly having a great time herself, which fed back and enhanced our enjoyment. She created a real communal atmosphere and it was a marvellous way to end my weekend’s musical experiences.

The next day we stumbled out into the cold light of morning and headed into Minehead for breakfast (your basic Wetherspoons this time – not bad, mind). Then it was time to travel back in style on the West Somerset Railway. We settled down into one of the old single compartment carriages and waited for the engine to steam up. Gratifyingly, there were quite a few festival goers who had decided that this was a far more stylish mode of transport than the grotty old bus. Indeed, one was describing to his partner in some detail the class of engines on the sidings at Williton (where the Diesel and Electric Preservation Group can be found). I love the idea that an enthusiasm for post-punk music and railway engines can co-exist. On such disparate connections is happiness founded. Film fans may recognise the West Somerset line (originally from Taunton to Minehead, now stopping a little short at Bishops Lydeard) from a couple of sources. In A Hard Days Night, this is where the boys’ (along with Paul’s ‘very clean’ grandfather Wilfrid Brambell) excursion ticket takes them. In Christopher Petit’s Wim Wenders-funded ‘Radio On’, the protagonist runs out of road (a hazard in any British road movie) and hops on a train at Blue Anchor station to begin his journey back to London. Unfortunately the train is heading towards Minehead, so he’s going in completely the wrong direction (dear sir, my viewing of the film was completely ruined by the factually inaccurate depiction of the branch line train to Taunton. The clock reads 3.30, when there was no train timetabled in that year until 4.27...etc.) A great weekend in all. I’m already looking forward to next year. Broadcast for curators?

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Music and Movement

This record came in to the Oxfam record department in Exeter the other day with a bunch of spoken word LPs. The second side is particularly interesting given that it is composed by Desmond Briscoe. Along with Daphne Oram, he was the co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and became its manager in 1960, a post which he held until the appropriately science-fictional year of 1984. Briscoe’s own music for the Workshop is relatively scarce during these years as his energies were mostly directed towards encouraging other composer/engineers to produce remarkable new sound manipulations. This means that he is rather eclipsed by better known figures such as Delia Derbyshire and John Baker, both of whom have achieved posthumous culthood. The music on this record, released in 1966, is particularly welcome, then.

Briscoe, who died towards the end of 2006, had developed an interest in electronic and concrete music through hearing the music of Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 50s. His own early efforts include two radio collaborations with Samuel Beckett, All That Fall and Embers, and the unnerving sounds which invade the minds of the characters in Quatermass and the Pit. He also provided electronic sounds for several films and television programmes in the 60s and 70s, including Children of the Damned , the 1963 sequel to the John Wyndham based Village of the Damned; The Ipcress File, for which he presumably provided the pulsating electronic tones used to brainwash Michael Caine’s bespectacled spy (‘My name is Harry Palmer’); The Haunting, with its pounding and buckling doors and walls; The Stone Tape, another Nigel Kneale drama which could have been made for the Radiophonic Workshop with its tale of architecture as recording medium; and Phase IV, for which he provided the kind of music which might be made by an intelligent ant hive mind.

The music on this record is the kind of thing that children of a certain age (alright, my age) would have been encouraged to create interpretive dance movements to. There is a scene near the beginning of Georgy Girl which evokes the feel of these freeform imaginative workouts for body and mind. Lynn Redgrave leads the children a merry dance as they ‘do things in space’ to the electronic sounds of Tom Dissevelt (whose LPs Song of the Second Moon and Fantasy in Orbit are well worth seeking out). It’s all rather wonderful. The titles of the different tracks on this record provide a clue to the wonderful worlds which these sounds helped children to imaginatively conjure. A Wish / A Magic Journey, Smoke Rings, Witches, Wizards, Alchemists, Sorcerers, Imaginary Creatures, Underwater Adventure, and of course, Journey Into Space. So if you’re interested in discovering some of the more obscure corners of The Radiophonic Workshop and live in the Exeter area, check the racks of the Oxfam shop in South Street to see if it’s there. Or you can take a look on the Oxfam Online Store here:

LATEST NEWS - it's on Oxfam's e-bay pages here until 31st May.

Meanwhile, imagine you’re on a spaceship, floating and weightless, the Earth a small blue dot dwindling into the vastness of space behind you. Wait ‘til the music starts

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Greatest British Movie Ever Made - Part Ten

10. Mysticism

Whilst it is always fairly clear that we are supposed to see the heaven which Peter envisages as a construct of his own imagination, there is nevertheless a sense in which it broaches real and universal questions of what lies beyond the surface appearance of reality and what might endure beyond death. When Dr Reeves asks Peter ‘do you believe in the survival of human personality after death?’ he replies ‘I thought you said you said you’d read my verses.’ Dr Reeves himself has ‘thought about it too much’, an admission of morbidity which foreshadows his own death. That death , when it comes, is all too palpably physical. We are spared the sight of Dr Reeves after his flame-engulfed crash, but the look of reflexive revulsion on the face of the ambulance driver, who is presumably no stranger to disaster, tells us all we need to know. It is particularly upsetting to realise that the Doctor upon whom Peter relies and whom we have come to see as a noble and self-effacingly authoritative soul has not only died, but done so in a fashion which has destroyed his body. He has been definitively erased from the Earth in a manner all too familiar to people coming to the end of a massively destructive war. Seeing him restored whole and unbelemished in the next world therefore carries a great emotional charge. It suggests something about the immortality and endurance of the human spirit, that element which transcends the physical. It can be no coincidence that the person who he is chatting with and who is clearly a fellow spirit turns out to be John Bunyan, the author of another classic English account of the journey of a soul.

A Matter of Life and Death is never explicitly Christian. It takes a more humanist approach to the religious spirit, suggesting the endless quest for knowledge and enlightenment which underpins the persistent need to find meaning, connection and a continuity of existence in the universe. That this is an ongoing quest is made clear by Peter’s rejection as defendants of the monumental philosophical giants which pass him at the side of the ascending staircase. These overbearing pieces of towering statuary represent the danger of being trapped in ossified systems of belief which crush the individual quest for knowledge and understanding based on personal experience and feeling. Peter has absorbed their knowledge but needs someone to represent him who knows of his feelings and the particularities of his time. ‘What do they know about the problems of today?’ he asks of these marble giants. He needs ‘someone with his head screwed on’. Naturally he chooses Dr Reeves, who replies ‘I hoped he would’ with a wry smile which covers his evident pride at being given this honour.

The core of mystical vision is the ideal of tracing connections, the unification of seemingly irreconcilable opposites into a transcendent whole. This is really the structure of the entire film. The unification of nations, of languages, of the individual and the masses, of tradition and modernism, will and determinism, objective vision and the imagination, the great and the small. This is represented on a cosmic scale by our opening tour of the universe, spiralling from the widest perspective into the particularity of a moment as experienced by two individuals. It is also embodied on a smaller scale by Doctor Reeves’ camera obscura, through which he observes the life of the village (itself a microcosm of England as a whole). As he so eloquently puts it, this is a visionary perspective through which ‘you see it all clearly and at once, as in a poet’s eye.’ It is also, of course, analogous to the way in which we watch a film and it is through this art that Powell and Pressburger effect their transcendent, unifying vision. Dr Reeves’ diagnosis of Peter’s hallucinations also describes our experience of the film and of cinema in general. ‘A series of highly organised hallucinations comparable to an experience of actual life…a combination of vision and hearing and idea.’

It is a mark of a great screenwriter that you come away from a film with lines of dialogue firmly embedded in your memory: ‘Politics – Conservative by nature, Labour by experience.’; ‘Boy oh boy, home was nothing like this’ – ‘mine was’; ‘stupidity has saved many a man from going mad’; ‘If he gets onto politics, I’m sunk’ – ‘who isn’t’; ‘One is starved for Technicolor up there.’

It is a mark of a great director that scenes live on in your mind’s eye: Trubshaw and the heavenly receptionist looking through a porthole window onto a bureaucratic cityscape; Peter wandering over the sands and dunes of a heavenly beach, morning sea-mist drifting away behind him; Peter and Conductor 71 discussing philosophers as their monumental statues drift past on an endlessly ascending escalator; Entering an inner world of pulsing blood vessels as a giant eyelid closes, before colour leaches away and the moving dots below resolve themselves into crowds of people walking to take their places in a vast arena.

A writer/director collaboration which attains true greatness is one which occurs when the creators of these separate elements of magic know and communicate with each other to create a work of art which exceeds what either could do individually. This integration of two very different perspectives (Michael Powell an Englishman to the core, Emeric Pressburger a well-travelled Hungarian émigré) into a transcendent whole is embedded in the very themes and structure of A Matter of Life and Death. It can thus stand as an artistic testament to their partnership, a film which acts as a signature of the most remarkable British film-makers of all time: Powell and Pressburger

Now give yourself a treat and go and see the film.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Eight

The Leopard Man - part three

Clo-Clo is making her way to the nightclub, the closed off and exclusive world from which the leopard has initially been loosed on the town outside. This time it is the walled enclosure which offers the warm buzz of life as opposed to the dark and deathly streets outside. This arena dedicated to the pleasure of wealthy visitors is carefully insulated from the tribulations of the world beyond its walls. Here we find a table with a trio of American tourists, one of whom is loudly complaining about the service. The rich older man is ignored by his companions (his daughter and her fiancé). As with Kiki and the cigarette girl, there is the constant fear of obsolescence, of being superseded by a new generation eager to usurp your position and assume control. He drifts over to where Clo-Clo is sitting and they engage in knowing banter. An element of honesty soon enters the conversation and they clearly enjoy each other’s company. They reject champagne, the symbol of conspicuous wealth, in favour of beer. Clo-Clo, with a hint of righteous anger, defiantly admits to being a gold-digger, and in response to the old man’s questioning as to whether she really knows what she wants states the importance of money to those who don’t have it. It is for ‘Mama and the kids and the unpaid bills and the rent’; A selfless desire for wealth, then, beyond mere self-indulgence. Drawn out by the old man’s evident kindness (foolishness in the hard eyes of his daughter) she admits to her feelings for Carlos Dominguez, a boy who works in the grocery store, but economic factors loom large for her here too. ‘Feelings don’t buy houses and pay for the rent and help bring up kids and get clothes for them’. They both laugh at the uninhibited articulation of such underlying inequalities which are normally smoothed away in this controlled environment. It is a suspension of the required civilities occasioned by the ease and understanding which has instantly sprung up between them (Clo-Clo has asked him why he allows his daughter to treat him with such contempt). When she leaves, it is with a hundred dollar bill in her hand. It is an exchange which has been made in a genuine spirit of generosity (because he can and because he likes her) and leaves her feeling elated rather than cheap and used.

Clo-Clo sets out on her walk home in high spirits, castanet clicks echoing in empty streets. But she stops off to see the gypsy woman on the way and is filled with doubt as a result. The king of spades is drawn, betokening ‘something black coming your way’, followed once more by the death card. Whereas Clo-Clo has shrugged the doom –filled readings off in the past, it as if, now she has something to lose, she has become much more vulnerable to the suggestion of ill-fortune in her future. Her cheer has swiftly dissipated and the night suddenly seems ominous and threatening. Her spirits have previously seemed to transform her surroundings to conform with her vitality, but now she herself is overwhelmed by the palpable atmosphere of menace and dark foreboding. She gets the gypsy woman to walk with her awhile, towering over her until they part company and she steps from the kerb, reducing her to an equivalent height, cutting her down to size. The night walk home is solitary now; there are no cheery greetings or exchanges of gossip. She has an offer of a lift, but turns it down because the car is black. Superstition leads to such random choices which can actually lead a person to the fate which they seek to avoid.

Clo-Clo makes it back home and greets her little ‘Pepita’, promising her a beautiful dress. This is the first time we’ve seen Clo-Clo in her domestic environment and it fundamentally alters our view of her as another competitive showbiz ‘player’ looking out for her own interests. Her mother comes down the stairs to complete the picture of this female environment. The three aspects of the old goddess are all here – girl, woman and ‘crone’. But this is the modern world, and this old triumvirate is confined to the interior domestic world, shut-in and hidden. The outside world is reliant on economic exchange and Clo-Clo discovers that the money which she tucked into her stocking is gone. She must go back out. In the exterior darkness she hears someone approaching and chooses to believe that it is Carlos. It is a choice to believe in life rather than to fear death. Sadly, it is not a belief which is borne out on this occasion. The camera focuses on her cigarette on the ground as she dies, its flickering embers representing the last of the dying light.

Kiki and Jerry are preparing to make a tactical retreat and leave for Chicago, leaving the mess they have created behind them. The cigarette girl tells them about the annual parade which is due to take place. She also relates her own dreams of escape, an individualist dream which has no time for local community and which she believes Jerry and Kiki to have achieved. A dream of going to Chicago and New York and of ‘being somebody – an entertainer’. A rather hollow ambition which serves to stand in for the competitive ethic of America as a whole, which serves to set people against each other. The dream of making it big in the city indicates the way in which the aspirations of American culture have been overlaid on communities which they unbalance and distort as a result. In the car in which they are driving away, Kiki decides to break their journey in order to take the flowers which Galbraith has given them to Consuela’s grave. Again, flowers end up symbolising death, in contradiction of their original intention. The graveyard proves to be the arena for mutual confession and for a rejection of the aloof isolationism which has been gradually eroded away throughout the film. The break in their journey becomes permanent. ‘We’ve been so busy trying to be tough guys’, says Kiki. ‘Maybe I’m tired of pretending that nothing bothers me, that all I care about is myself and my 2 by 4 career’. They determine to stay and solve the problems which they have set in motion, although with limited resources at their disposal, as it turns out that they have both given away most of their money to help the families of Theresa and Clo-Clo. This reduction of wealth further serves to level them with the community with which they have chosen to identify themselves. They are no longer intervening from a position of economic superiority, imposing their worldview from above.

As they leave the graveyard, they have an exchange with the gatekeeper, who confides that ‘I have many friends, but they don’t bother me with talk’. He is the keeper of the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. They meet Charlie, who has the body of his leopard (and demands economic recompense) which has been lying in the wilderness for some time. It becomes evident that it was Galbraith, who left the main body of the posse at some point, who shot it and failed to inform anyone. Jerry follows up on their avowal to get involved and goes to visit Raul, whom he wrests away from his retreat into the bottle. By the time they leave his room, Raul is having one last swig, but this time it’s for courage.

The final scenes take place as the annual procession makes its sombre progress, Inquisitorial figures holding candles before them and intoning what sounds more like Russian Orthodox chant than the traditional liturgical forms of Catholicism. Galbraith explains the procession to the cigarette girl, who has seemingly also been drawn into Jerry and Kiki’s grand plan which now begins to unfold. It is ‘so that they won’t ever forget that a peaceful village of Indians was wiped out by the Conquistadores back in the 17th century. A band of monks buried the dead, prayed for them and did penance for their deaths’. The procession is a continuation of that penance. The cigarette girl has been primed to draw this information out of Galbraith not only to inform us of the ceremonial significance of the parade, but to underline it for him and bring it to the forefront of his consciousness. His personal guilt is directly linked with this historical guilt and the prompting of his reiteration of the story behind the procession is the first step in a series of taunts to his psyche designed to bring about a mental collapse and confession. If the atrocities of the Conquistadores play on feelings of ancestral guilt then the voice from the graveyard and the cigarette and castanets on the ground remind him of direct personal guilt. Spectres ancient and modern are conjured to haunt his conscience.

Galbraith retreats to the ossified past of his museum, a place where history is no longer a living thing but a collection of relics from a dead culture, neatly categorised, labelled and stored away. Kiki comes into the museum to block this anticipated avenue of retreat, claiming that she has come to see the procession. Galbraith nervously says ‘they’ll just be shadows’, as if trying to dispel the potency of the forces at work in him. But Kiki continues the conjuration of his subconscious demons, announcing ‘they’re coming now’ and insistently suggesting that they turn the lights out. She is goading him into revealing the darkness in his soul and when she drops the castanets she has up her sleeve, he realises who has been behind the ‘hauntings’ which have driven him to take refuge here. He knows that she knows what he’s done. She knows that he knows she knows. He moves to attack her. At the cue of her scream Jerry and Raul burst in and in the ensuing confusion Galbraith manages to run outside.

His flight takes him straight into the procession, where he is soon joined by Jerry and Raul. They all fall in step and are all effectively confessing and doing penance for their collective guilt. The three men, two American and one Spanish. Charlie the Indian has spent his night in prison and his innocence has been proven by the murder which took place during his residency. Kiki remains back in the museum. The low bass voices of the processors emphasise that this is a male affair. Galbraith has directed his rage against women and now joins a ceremony which is a display of Catholicism in the raw. We’ve already seen hints of older religions and traditions in which women played a stronger role; the hints of Greek influence in the graveyard, including the shrine which resembles the opening of an oracle; Clo-Clo’s female household which contains the three aspects of the goddess as represented by the Fates in Greek mythology; the gypsy woman’s pagan Madonna and card oracle. There is also the Indian woman who we have glimpsed spinning outside the museum in another echo of the Fates. At the end of the film Kiki has drawn out Galbraith’s darkness, made manifest his male violence, buried beneath a mild-mannered exterior. Is it too fanciful to see the Catholic procession as an embodiment of the expunging of female power, of the elevated position of women in pre-Christian pagan religions and cultures? Galbraith, with his total immersion in the past, has become infected with this will to power and domination. We have already seen the juxtaposition of religious traditions in I Walked With A Zombie, and the clash of the modern catechisms of rationalism with ancient beliefs in Cat People. Religion will continue to occupy a central position in Lewton’s films, from the diabolists of The Seventh Victim, through the revival of Greek traditions in Isle of the Dead, to the Quaker non-conformism of Bedlam.

When he is finally cornered (by a withered tree, another pagan symbol absorbed into the iconography of the cross) Galbraith confesses and tells how the sight of Theresa’s body had haunted him and twisted something in his mind. He had come across Consuela by chance as he passed the graveyard and felt his compulsion to kill awakened by her evident vulnerability. This will to dominate and take advantage of other’s weakness is an extreme version of the relationships we witnessed at the beginning of the film, when the cigarette girl was picking up on any sign that Kiki might be faltering, all too willing to step into her shoes at a moment’s notice (and remember Kiki’s comment about her trying on her coffin). But these two rivals have teamed up in the end, taking part in a group effort to catch the killer. They have in effect formed a miniature community of disparate types. This contrasts starkly with the isolated figure of Galbraith, a man very much alone. The danger of isolating oneself from the community of others is a recurrent theme in Lewton’s films, and particularly comes to the fore in The Ghost Ship.

Raul shoots Galbraith beneath the tree. But it is as if this is what Galbraith has been seeking. He has been drawn into the darkness by witnessing violent death. This has forced him out of his retreat into the empty spaces of the museum in which he has sought a cold comfort, a place where, like the graveyard gatekeeper, he has communion only with the taciturn spirits of the dead. Even before the shock of the sight of Theresa’s body shakes his mind into a new and distorted configuration, he has been half in love with the stasis of death. In Cat People, the leopard was released at the end of the film, whereas here it is released right at the beginning. Irena was aware of her nature, which it was made evident during the film was a genuine manifestation of the supernatural. Her preoccupation was to use that self-awareness of the darkness inside her to make sure that it didn’t emerge into the light of day and cause harm to others. In The Leopard Man, the beast is set loose right from the start, and is a manifestation both of the careless abuse of power deriving from personal ambition and of the dark death-drive within Galbraith. He may not literally turn into a leopard, but the effect is the same. Unlike Irena, he refuses to recognise this side of himself and so has no control over his actions. He strikes us as an emotionally distant man, someone disconnected from his own feelings; A stranger to himself. Jerry and his ‘team’ force him to confront his nature in the end, and in doing so also to reveal their own hidden selves.

In the final scene, Jerry and Kiki find themselves outside the funeral parlour again. This would seem to be a central location in this small town, a place where people regularly gather. Recalling their first visit there, Kiki tells Jerry ‘I hated you that day, you and your flip talk’. But she has discovered that ‘you are soft inside where it counts’, as indeed has Jerry himself. This softness, traditionally seen as a feminine virtue, is seen as the quality which has redeemed Jerry. It’s the quality which nurtures a sense of empathy and in turn of community, of caring about the people around you. Jerry recalls Gabraith’s interpretation of the symbolic nature of the fountain, of how he said that people ‘get pushed around by things bigger than themselves’. He indulges in a little analysis himself: ‘that’s the way it was with us. Only we were too small to see it that way’. They were pushed around by the entirely un-mysterious whorls and eddies of personal ambition and competitive greed. Now they have connected with something less definable but a great deal grander. They exit down the dark street at a slow pace, the same street which Clo-Clo had owned as she walked along it, her familiarity with its every inhabitant drawing connections and creating a sense of the exchanges and small intimacies of everyday life. These are the buoying forces which keep that small, fragile sphere afloat.

Next...The Seventh Victim, corporate diabolism in the Big rotten Apple

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Best British Film Ever - Part Nine

9. Optimism and Ideals

A Matter of Life and Death was made at a time when the war was all but over and people were starting to think about the future once more. What sort of a world did they want to build? What had they been fighting for? There was a general sense that what came next would have to give meaning to the terrible destruction which had dominated people’s lives for so long. The film embodies this yearning for a better world to come, but also gives that longing a wider and more expansive historical, cultural and philosophical context. This optimistic outlook is clearly laid out in the philosophical to and fro of the celestial courtroom scene. Abraham Farlan, the American revolutionary soldier who is chosen as the prosecution witness, is enmired in the historical hatreds of a past which for him has become set in stone, ineradicable. His world has been shaped by war and has remained rigidly formed by the experience of those violent, disruptive times. He argues for cultural separatism, for people to remain, either literally or figuratively, on their own islands. For him, people are the product of their culture and the history (and climate!) which has created it, an almost Calvinist espousal of predetermination which definitely puts free will on the backburner (or the rear gas-ring if we want to play his game of cultural exclusivity). These arguments are seriously flawed by the undying flame of burning hatred which lies behind them and for which they act as mere rationalisations.

To his bitter cynicism and high nationalist rhetoric, speeches which had been all to familiar to people in recent years, Dr Reeves eventually offers a more personal approach. His ‘only real piece of evidence’, June’s tear, represents the emotional core of a new world, building from personal connections over the rubble of nationalist clashes. Love, truth and friendship, ‘those qualities alone can build a new world today and must build one tomorrow’ Dr Reeves states in summary of his case, a sense of urgency giving force to his voice. Peter and June’s love has become emblematic of a utopian future in which people matter above all. America is taken as an example, as if to confound Abraham Farlan by agreeing with his own nationalist fervour. Dr Reeves’ request for a new jury is one which is made up of representatives of the new America with its high ideals of a melting pot of all nationalities and races mixing together to recreate themselves afresh. The resentments of Imperial subjects are replaced by the varied citizenry of a new society in which they are active participants. This is a prescient admission (and one coming from a director/writing team who come from the conservative end of English Romanticism) that the days of Empire are over. A new model is required. That model needs to be built on the highest principles, the power which drives people’s most noble thoughts and deeds. It is the power that connected Peter and June in the face of mortality and which was made physically manifest in a frozen tear balanced between rose petals. It always was and it always will be.

The Film of Val Lewton - Part Seven

The Leopard Man - part two

The film is structured around three deaths. These are occasioned by the search to satisfy three basic human needs: Food, love and money. As ever with Lewton, life carries with it the shadow of death. The Leopard Man illustrates how this can exert an overpowering fascination. The three women who die are at differing stages of life. Theresa Delgado is a young girl, Consuela is just beginning to approach the first bloom of maturity, and Clo-Clo is a mature woman in command of herself and at ease in her surroundings. Women are often presented as victims in horror films, of course, but here you sense that they are symbolic of different aspects of the life force, succumbing to an almost impersonal embodiment of the opposed force of death (Thanatos, as Freud would have it). This is death in a masculine guise and is also representative of historical and religious forces of conquest and the violent imposition of power.

The scene in which Theresa meets her death is perhaps the most celebrated of the film. It is another of Lewton and Tourneur’s sustained exercises in atmosphere. Theresa’s mother sends her daughter out into the night for cornmeal for tortillas out of a sense of pride – she doesn’t want to be seen to poor in front of guests. Theresa’s evident fear is dismissed out of hand. She is too late for the local shop, the proprietor of which refuses to unlock the door for her because it would be too much trouble for her. These are the small gestures creating the forks in the path which determine someone’s fate. If she had taken the trouble to open up the door for her, Theresa wouldn’t have had to continue over the arroyo to the more distant store, as she does. The arroyo itself is an ominous southern gothic landscape, with a dry desert wind blowing through the dark underpass of the concrete railway bridge which spans the dusty gulch. This imposition of the resolutely artificial on the natural is echoed in the store, where Theresa admires the mechanical toy birds in their cage. The storekeeper has evidently known her since she was a little girl, and the sense of community which this once more underlines is furthered by his insistence on giving her credit, since ‘the poor don’t cheat one another; we’re poor together’.

As she makes the trip back through the arroyo and into the dark shadows beneath the bridge, the wind has died down and the sound of water dripping into the narrow channel only serves to amplify the silence. We see the twin points of light which are the leopard’s eyes. The Lewton ‘bus’ on this occasion is a train, which roars overhead, throwing its light onto the concrete in epileptic flashes. Whereas the original ‘bus’ which arrived at the end of the first nightwalk scene in Cat People (see previous post) served both as a mechanical jolt and a signal that the danger was over, here the intrusion of loud modernity into the wilderness serves to frighten the leopard and make it leap into aggressive action. As Charlie had said of his creature in criticising the police tactics of trying to drive it out with noise, ‘they don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them, they go crazy’. Theresa runs, dropping the cornmeal which spills out onto the ground. We hear her pounding at the door, but her mother won’t let her in, determined to chastise her for taking so long. When we hear the thud of a body against the door and a scream suddenly cut short by animalistic snarls, we know that it is too late. The blood which flows in a stream under the door, echoing the thin trickle of water beneath the bridge, pools and spreads out in the cracks of the floor paving, following a rigorous path as if this has all been pre-determined by fate.

The inquest is held in a glass-fronted showroom on the main street, and we first see the events through this window, which is in the process of being cleaned. The following scene will make the situation more transparent, it is implied. Theresa’ s young brother makes leopard shadows against the wall. Death is simply not a reality for him yet. Kiki gives a contribution for the funeral to a nun who is in attendance. The church as a convenient outlet for the expiation of guilt. Jerry’s solution is also to ‘slip them a few bucks’, an economic reaction to culpability which elides deeper involvement. It is left to Chief Robles to comfort the family. He is like a secular priest, a humane man who cares about the people in his community. Jerry’s lack of involvement is conversely highlighted when he turns down the offer to take part in a posse to hunt for the leopard, making ‘flip talk’, as Kiki will later refer to it, about being a tenderfoot. Chief Robles pointedly tells Gailbraith that ‘no-one blames you’ after his evident distress whilst Jerry is told ‘no one holds you legally responsible’. Merely morally. These judgements will be reversed by the end of the film. As the family walks down the street, Jerry moves aside. He is apart, distanced from the community which is united in mourning.

The next scene juxtaposes the image of the nun from the inquest with a momentarily still tableau of the gypsy fortune teller in Marian pose, head tilted contemplatively to one side, head covered with a veil. The piety of this icon is immediately sullied when she pulls up her everpresent cigarette to her lips. The introduction of such a cheekily profane image makes a point about the way that spiritual solace can be found in the most unlikely of places, however. It is also a reminder that older religious traditions exist from which Catholicism has drawn in order to fulfil the need for a focus of female power. Clo-Clo goes to see the gypsy for more than a mere card reading. Chief Robles is a figure who acts as more than just a police chief. His cells become almost monastic when he admits Charlie to them for the night to allow him to work off what he knows is a baseless feeling of guilt. The fortune teller is a wise woman in proletarian guise. She says that Charlie Howe should be allowed to look for the leopard, since he is an Indian. She believes in the old wisdom, knowledge connected to the landscape and the ancient cultural strata with which it is layered. Of those who have superseded and buried the ancient traditions, she is dismissive; ‘men are all fools – they like to make a big show’. The bad card comes up again in her reading for Clo-Clo, after one which has indicated ‘you will meet a rich man and he will give you money’. ‘For what was I born for if not for money’ Clo-Clo declaims. It will in fact be money for which she dies.

The gypsy passes Jerry as she leaves Clo-Clo’s dressing room and throws him a dirty look. It turns out that he did go on that posse after all, where he met Galbraith (a buried but important plot point). He says that they got on, and right until the end, when he and Kiki are about to leave, he is saying that they must keep in touch with him, suggesting an affinity between the two men (and a shared guilt?) At the ‘supper show’ they meet up with him and learn that he is the curator of the local museum, which has ‘interesting exhibits of Indian arts and crafts’. Galbraith was a teacher of zoology, but gave it up for reasons he leaves unstated. This evasiveness suggests a guarded personality and hits at some kind of breakdown or crisis in his life; Something which has led him to withdraw to this remote town and within himself. He seems hesitant and a little distant, aloof and emotionally disconnected from the life surrounding him. He will remain a mysterious character until the end, to himself as much as anyone. It is his horror at discovering an element of his personality which he is unable to suppress which leads him to do what he does.

The second death in the film is once more preceded by Clo-Clo acting as a linking character, meeting with a servant, Rosita, who is on her way to bring flowers to her mistress, Consuela Contrera. The fact that Clo-Clo cannot even afford one flower acts as a striking contrast with the well-off Contrera household. The interior of the house is grand, with a staircase ascending in a sweeping curve. The roses are laid out on Consuela’s bed for her birthday in a fashion which directly parallels the way in which she’ll lay them out on her father’s grave later on. Once again, the notion that death is a seed contained within birth is put forth. ‘I must go to the graveyard. It’s my birthday’, she says. This is reminiscent of the islanders in ‘I Walked With A Zombie’, who weep at a birth and celebrate at a funeral. Rosita has surreptitiously shown Consuela that she has a letter from her lover, which agrees to an arranged rendezvous in the graveyard. The laying of roses on her father’s grave act as an excuse and makes the equation between love and death, for both of which these flowers are now the symbol.

Having been told by the cemetery gatekeeper of the time at which he will close and lock the doors, Consuela, lays flowers on her father’s grave and talks to him of her lover, Raul. She goes to meet him in mourner’s black, waiting in a grove circled with classical columns. At the centre of such a space, suggestive of ancient sacred traditions, the statue of the Virgin with child appears more like Diana, a goddess embodying female power. Raul has not waited, however, only the butts of his cigarettes indicating his former presence. The cigarette butt on the ground will be echoed in the later scene with Clo-Clo meeting what she momentarily thinks may be her lover. The extinguished butt on the ground is the dying out of the light of hope and life.

Consuela sits disconsolately on one of the benches, lost in a world of her own misery. She misses the closing time and when the bell is rung, is lost amongst the pathways of stone and evergreen shrubbery and locked in. We see the small fire outside the gate, the precious and tenuous flames of life, which contrast with the cold moonlit stone inside. As Consuela runs through the evergreens which seem to form the walls of a maze which actively seeks to misdirect her, she passes a statue of what may be St Peter, but which in this context is more resemblant of Pan. And indeed, he exerts his influence, as Consuela begins to panic. Cultures are layered atop one another, never wholly disconnected from what has come before. Traces of the past will always leach through the surface coating to form a palimpsest of myth and symbol. Consuela also comes across a small recess in the wall, a votary or shrine which, in the shadowed night, looks more like an ancient oracular site, like the mouth of the stone face at Delphi; the dark entrance to a dank underworld. The wind has started to blow, as it did during Theresa’s trek across the arroyo, a sign of the immanence of the uncanny. The landscape itself seems to conspire against her. Consuela momentarily connects with the world of the living beyond the cemetery as a passerby promises to return with a ladder, but she is now shut off from it by a barrier of stone, just as the concrete bridge proved to be a boundary between life and death for Theresa. In that case, a ball of tumbleweed blew past in the wind as if hurrying between worlds. Here, nature becomes animate again, a branch bending down as if the trees are reaching out to grasp her. Her screams end the scene as we are spared the sight of her end.

The police are joined by Jerry and Galbraith at the graveyard where Theresa’s body has been discovered. Jerry is sceptical about the nature of the crime, which is being ascribed to the leopard. Galbraith opines that ‘caged animals are unpredictable. They’re like frustrated human beings’. He draws the link between human and animal nature, and between a nature upon which captivity is imposed and one whose confinement is a more complex and at least partially self-created form of repression. Meanwhile, Charlie has been reduced to hawking charms and miracle potions. As he tells Jerry, ‘I can’t make a buck without my leopard’. Jerry has appropriated the economic basis of his living. The effects of a careless act reverberates way beyond its initial impact. As Chief Robles, the film’s moral voice puts it, ‘people who want publicity and don’t mind how they get it...what agony and sorrow they bring to other people’.

Jerry and Charlie accompany Galbraith to his museum. It is more like a mausoleum. Outside, a woman in traditional Indian costume sits adjacent to a postcard rack weaving on a handloom. The two are implicitly equivalent, objects of local colour for the edification of tourists. The woman stands (or sits) in contrast with Charlie, who with his silver belt buckle and felt hat looks like a much more modern native inhabitant of the New Mexican landscape, influenced by subsequent developments. The visitors’ footsteps echo and voices reverberate in the interior of the museum, merely serving to underline the deathly emptiness of the space. Galbraith talks to Charlie, trying to interest him in his heritage by showing him a ceremonial leopard head, but he doesn’t respond. Galbraith shows them his latest exhibit and relates how he went back after the rest of the team had packed up and gone home and dug it up himself. The whole museum has the air of a solitary pursuit in which no-one else is interested. Jerry is voicing his suspicions that a man carried out the latest killing, and Galbraith deflects suspicion onto Charlie, under the guise of levity. The whole museum, curated by an American, is a testament to the disappearance of a culture and the erosion of self-esteem which has led to such neglect. Galbraith now plays upon this to arouse Charlie’s native self-doubt. He is so appalled by the very thought that such impulses might be present inside him that he demands he be confined to jail, something which Robles is happy to do for him in his ‘clerical’ guise, even while emphasising his utter disbelief that Charlie has anything to do with Consuela’s death.

We see Charlie in jail and then hear Clo-Clo’s castanets once more providing the link between scenes and emphasising the connectivity of characters in this community. Clo-Clo now walks down a very different street to that in which we first saw her, however. It is dark and depopulated, with only the police and some delivery men for her to greet. Once more we witness the effect of Jerry and Kiki’s careless act on the community. It has become a street of fear.

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Greatest British Film Ever Made - Part 8

8. Romantic Landscapes

When Peter drifts back into consciousness after his parachute-less plunge from the bomber’s cockpit, he finds himself on a wide expanse of sand, with the waves which have washed him ashore creating long, successive overlaps of undulant lines when seen from above. Naturally, he believes himself to be in the afterlife. In fact, he is on Saunton Sands in North Devon, which locals may always have suspected was a gateway to paradise. In a haunting scene, Peter, having divested himself of the more cumbersome of his earthly garments and walked up to the dunes in bare feet, comes across a naked goatherd playing an ethereal melody on his flute (the Phrygian mode?) ‘I always hoped there’d be dogs’, he says, as the boy’s Labrador runs up to see him. The atmosphere of some kind of Elysium is created before a plane roaring overhead shatters the idyll. And yet the feeling remains that such landscapes breathe of a heavenly air, an English Romantic paradise. As Peter runs down the dunes to the boardwalk and greets June as if they were already lovers, we feel that such full-blooded emotions are a natural extension of such wild, elemental surroundings.

They would seem more of an aberration in the cool, distanced spatial order of the monochrome heavenly world above. Trubshaw gamely tries it on with Kathleen Byron’s angelic receptionist during the trial sequence, but you sense that he’s never going to get past first post, and he is soon distracted by the cricket commentary which drives everyone else mad with boredom. The contrast of English Romanticism and heavenly modernist distance is also symbolically shown in the transition of Conductor 71’s rose from black and white into heightened, painterly Technicolor (and later, freighted with June’s precious tear, back again). Conductor 71 is an unabashed romantic in the French mould and will later help Peter’s case in the name of l’amour. His first meeting with Peter takes place in a bower of flowering rhododendrons. At this point, however, he is too concerned with the possible repercussions to his position resulting from his error to allow his mistily sentimental romantic side to take the upper hand, although he does dreamily sigh ‘exquise’ at the sight of June’s frozen form. Nevertheless, Peter senses some sort of affinity when he says, just prior to the Conductor’s departure, ‘you know, I think you’re not a bad chap’.

The English landscape can also be seen from the perspective of Dr Reeves’ hair-raisingly authentic motorcycle rides through the countryside. As his bike threads the lanes bracketed with hedgerows and overhung with oak and beech boughs, we feel the sheer exhilaration of being out in the open air. These English landscapes are contrasted with the European Romantic sublime of heaven, monumental landscapes which inspire awe and even terror and against which human scale is dwarfed. Perhaps an appeal for a more tempered modernism on a human scale is being sought. The kind of modernism which A Matter of Life and Death’s costume designer Hein Heckroth experienced during his time teaching at Dartington Arts College, with its classic 30s white-walled buildings such as High Cross House, designed by William Lescaze, set against the rolling hills of the Dart valley and the wild backdrop of the moor. Modernism and romanticism combined.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Six

The Leopard Man (1943)

The Leopard Man is not perhaps one of the most successful of the Val Lewton productions, partly because of the unsympathetic nature of the source material, Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi. Lewton and his writers had previously been given carte blanche within the confines of the lurid titles provided by RKO production head Charles Koerner. But here they were working from a pre-existing story and there was therefore less leeway to incorporate personal themes and concerns. Nonetheless, they did manage to mould the material into a form which exhibits many of the typical Lewton traits, and whilst it is not as resonant as either Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie, it does further explore some of the thematic elements which those films introduced.

The credits sequence immediately introduces us to the ambience with which the film is imbued; a view of the night street of a small town with the sound of castanets on the soundtrack evolving into a bolero theme. This is the sound of Hollywood exotic, and indeed the camera glides from the dark exterior through a shadowy corridor into a brightly lit dressing room where a dancer practices with her castanets for her nightclub act. This is Clo-Clo, the New Mexican dancer for whom the castanets are a constant accompaniment, always in her hands as if they were a natural extension of her body. They provide a soundtrack for her as she walks along the streets with a confident stride. It is as if she dances through life. Indeed her vitality and ability to incorporate romantic yearning alongside pragmatic realism within an all-inclusive and never cynical worldview make her the central embodiment of vitality and generosity within the film.

In this opening scene, however, we switch to the adjoining dressing room where two American voices disparage this sound, hammering on the wall to try to get her to shut up. One of them, putting on the costume of the cigarette girl, contemptuously says ‘oh, she’s a local’. There is a palpable sense of tension and rivalry in the room. The other woman is Miss ‘Kiki’ Walker, the ‘big star’ at the night club at which we are backstage. Eloise, the cigarette girl with dreams of stardom, makes it quite clear that she is ready and waiting to step into her shoes should she falter at any step. ‘I bet someday you’ll try on my coffin, and I hope it fits you perfect’, Kiki fires off. This rivalry, the sense that you need to be constantly looking over your shoulder, makes the night club a neat microcosm of America as a whole, a walled-off corral within which the values of ruthless individualism, competitive ambition and money predominate. It contrasts diametrically with the feeling of community which exists in the town outside.

The introduction of the leopard, led in by Jerry Manning, Kiki’s ‘good agent and good friend’, is a symbol of the savagery which lies beneath the civilised airs on display here. Indeed, it’s employment as a tool of showbiz rivalry, to upstage and displace Clo-Clo’s more popular ‘local’ act, puts this symbolism to immediate and explicit use. The leopard is an object which will inspire fear and awe, but most importantly attract attention. It is a way for these American outsiders to impose themselves on the local culture, using one of its totemic creatures. As we learn later from Galbraith, the museum curator, the jaguar and cats in general represented for the Indian indigenes ‘a personification of force and violence’. Kiki is clearly nervous about using this tool of aggressive force, but makes her choice. She chooses a black dress over a red one, ‘then I’ll be just like him’ (indicating the leopard), a creature serving its own needs and hungers, at the expense of others if need be.

In the courtyard of the night-club, the camera focuses on the fountain which is at its centre. This is the film’s symbolic object, the equivalent of I Walked With A Zombie’s statue of Saint Sebastian, and as with that meaning-drenched object, it will be used as visual punctuation, reminding us of its various significations. The small white ball balancing miraculously above the tumbling waters suggests the fragility of life and the mysterious forces which drive it. The ball could stand in for the human soul. Galbraith has his own interpretation, describing the fountaining waters which keep the ball dancing as being analogous to the forces which move us without our knowledge. This could be interpreted as referring to the subconscious or to supernatural or spiritual forces – a matter of belief and worldview. The interpretation of symbolism is ultimately a personal matter and may serve to reveal much about the reader. Certainly it gives a retrospective insight into Galbraith’s psyche (or soul, if you will) which at this point is untainted by murder but is evidently inclined towards the introspective.

The original script described Clo-Clo’s night club dance routine as being first seen reflected in the waters of the fountain’s basin, but a tight shooting schedule rendered this shot unfeasibly complex. It’s another indication of the water’s connotation of transience and fragility though. The water could stand in for the shadowy bars cast upon the walls in I Walked With A Zombie, here with its intimation of a reflective just beyond that of surface appearance, peripherally glimpsed through the intuitive lens of subconscious perception. Rather than the visual image, it is the signature sound of Clo-Clo’s castanets heard over the shot of the fountain which draws the parallel between her, the embodiment of life, and the transience of the tumbling waters and their tenuously suspended dancing ball. When she sees the leopard, led in by Kiki with Jerry ushering her on from behind a curtain, she immediately knows what is going on; she can see the calculation behind the act. Her startling of the leopard with her castanets is a confrontation of opposing forces; The castanets, which provide the rhythm for the dance of her life, daring the dark power of destructive chaos to take her on. It proves unequal to the challenge, and the leopard pulls free from Kiki’s grasp and runs into the night. It is significant that it is Jerry who has bought the leopard into play, urging a reluctant Kiki to carry out his plan. If he is indirectly responsible for the first death and Galbraith is culpable for those which follow, then the leopard stands for the loosing of a malevolent male wave of violence upon the female world. Kiki and Jerry have unleashed forces over which they never had real control. A waiter bears the three-furrowed scar of the leopard’s slashing claw, one of the workaday people who have to face the consequences of such casually used power.

The following police search introduces us to Charlie How-Come, ‘The Leopard Man’ from whom Jerry has hired the beast. He is a Native American (an Indian here) and thus adds a third layer of ethnic history to the New Mexican landscape: Indian followed by Spanish followed by American. This layering of histories is an important subtext of the film. The museum is a central thematic locale and is where the climax of the film takes place. The procession which ends the film is also an annual act of expiation, a commemoration of the savage incursions of the Spanish Conquistadores. The massacre of the powerless by those with exponentially superior force is reflected by the events which unfold over the course of the film, set in course and, as we shall see, perpetuated on this occasion by American men.
The scene in which the humane police chief Robles, Charlie and Jerry discuss the leopard hunt is interrupted by the arrival of Clo-Clo, once again heralded by the sound of her castanets, this time with a note of mocking triumphalism as she waves them in Jerry’s face.

We then follow Clo-Clo as she walks along the town street. She is used as a bridging character in several scenes, emphasising the close connections existing within the community. Here she confidently treads the well known pavement, greeting everyone she passes with a personal exchange betokening a knowledge of and interest in their lives. Clo-Clo is something of a dual character, however. A vivid personification of the spirit of life, she also carries with her something of the night; a faint aura of death. The sound of the castanets could be the dry sound of rattling bones, as musically represented by the xylophone in Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, his portrayal of the dance of death. When she drops in to see the gypsy fortune teller, she has the first of several card readings which draw a concluding ace of spades, ‘the death card’. This, as the gypsy tells her, can mean different things. It does not initially foretell her own death, but she is the connecting figure who seems to identify those who are about to meet their ends, as if she is passing that card on. She is there at the window greeting Theresa Delgado just before she closes it and is told by her mother to go out for cornmeal. She is given a flower by the maid who has just bought them for Consuela Contreras, who will go out to put them on her father’s grave. Finally, the card is not passed on and accurately foretells her own fate.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Best British Film Ever Made - Part Seven

7. Voices and Accents

I would love to have an accent like Roger Livesey. It has the soft, slightly rasped but perfectly balanced quality of a fine malt whisky. Possessed of a gentle, unassuming authoritativeness, it is like a beautifully played musical instrument. There is another Powell and Pressburger film, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, in which he translates a Highland song for Wendy Hiller, who is trying to stick to the righteous path of marrying into money. Suddenly, Livesey turns to face her directly as he comes to the line ‘you’re the one for me’. She is doomed from that moment on. When Dr Reeves arrives in heaven (chatting with fellow-spirit John Bunyan) and is told that Peter has chosen him as his defending counsel, he gives a quietly satisfied, humourous smile and says ‘I hoped he might’. The understated quality of his response (no whooping and punching the air here) is full of the warmest affection.

There is much play with accents in A Matter of Life and Death. They are seen as embodying national characteristics but never fall into condescending stereotyping. They are too characterful for that. After all, they were created by a writer (Pressburger) who, as a European Jew between the wars, had been buffeted from country to country by the winds of history and who therefore had friends of many different backgrounds. He unfailingly found the best in these varied nationalities to the extent that even during the war, when propagandistic purposes might dictate otherwise, he was able to create sympathetic German characters. But he was never above a little gentle mockery as well. As we see newcomers reaching the top of the elevator into the celestial reception hall, there is an animated exchange in which a French airman wildly gesticulates as he re-enacts the final moments before his demise. The Englishman who is patiently listening to him and clearly understands not a word, nods as his tale concludes and says ‘bad luck old boy’. Two national stereotypes are painted with broad brushstrokes but there is a rather touching conclusion that such superficial differences of language and behaviour can be overcome by common experience and understanding.

There is much amusement to be had in the misunderstandings between Conductor 71 and, in heaven, Trubshaw and on Earth, Peter, but again they find that they all get along just fine in the end. After an initial misunderstanding over what ‘ ‘ad a few’ might mean, The Conductor and Trubshaw look like they are both ready to head for the bar as they bond over beer (‘ah, la biere’). And Peter and the Conductor eventually end up firmly on the same side as the Conductor’s romantic affinities lead him to give a little help at the trial.

The importance of voices is emphasised from the beginning. They are the first indications of human life that we encounter as we drift downwards to Earth and hear words emerging from both the English peasouper and the obscuring electronic fog of the radiophonic aether. Peter and June fall in love with each other’s voices. June says to Dr Reeves that ‘it’s his voice. I fell for that before I saw him’, whilst Peter tells the court that ‘we fell in love before we met’. People’s voices manage to convey much of their character, although they can also be used deceptively or strategically.

For English people, Churchill’s voice had come to represent the spirit of their country at a particular time, just as Hitler’s voice had seduced so many in Germany and beyond. This propagandistic use of the voice can be heard in the trial scene, in which Abraham Farlan indulges in some high nationalist rhetoric which serves to stir up certain sections of the crowd (although Trubshaw looks distinctly peeved). This is enhanced by the fact that he is striking noble poses looking outward from a striking rocky promontory. Another seductive voice using intoxicating language against a monumental backdrop to rally troops to a terrible and destructive cause. Facing each other across a literal gulf, Farlan and Dr Reeves are divided by time and by inclination. Farlan, in his American revolutionary uniform, is a soldier with a conscience rooted in war and a strident, hectoring and jingoistic voice to match. Dr Reeves stands in his tweed jacket, cardie and woollen tie and speaks with a reasoning, conciliatory voice, appealing to compassion and hope. His is the civilian voice of peacetime, of the future rather than the past (recent or otherwise).