Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty One

Isle of the Dead - Part Two

The other guard dog

The gateway to the isle is marked by a statue of Cerberus which rises on its plinth above the landing place. This is another remnant of Classical Greece which suggests that this is also a gateway into the past, or into an enclave which is still haunted by the old gods. In an underlining of the symbolic congruence of the General with Cerberus, which in the original script was left to the audience to pick up, Davis blithely points at the statue and says ‘there’s another watchdog for you, General’. Whilst not denying any analogous kinship, the General points out that ‘he only guards the dead. I have to worry about the living’. In fact, Cerberus was a border guard who had to keep an eye out on either side, ensuring that the dead didn’t stray back into the world above, but tearing apart any living soul who might attempt to enter the underworld. In the original script, the statue’s symbolic properties are clearly delineated: ‘two of the heads have been carved to represent sleeping heads; the third head glares towards the mainland with a sightless, unseeing, but ever watchful stare’. Jorge Luis Borges, in his Book of Imaginary Beasts, describes the three heads of Cerberus as representing a view of the past, present and future. If the two thirds slumbering beast here represents the General, then he only looks to the present. But his stay on the island will force the other heads to awake into confused consciousness.

Where the siren song leads

The General goes down into the darkness of his wife’s tomb and emerges with the news that it has been broken into and her body taken. His eyes flicker around uneasily, and he seems apprehensive and fearful for the first time. Back at the boat, they hear a female voice singing a mournful song. The camera pans up the wet, moonlit stone steps which ascend the rock face and lead towards the tombs, from which the sounds seem to emanate. This is very much like a siren song, coming from the rocks. Again, there is the sense of an enclosed world in which the ghosts of the old religion can still be felt. The voice combining with the moonlight lends it the feel of a feminine environment, which may explain the continued unease of the General, who is now outside of the male world over which he can exert his unquestioned authority. They follow the sound, which leads them on through an open doorway into the dark shadows of one of the tombs, the further entrance a clearly outlined door of light at the far end of a corridor of darkness. Their voices echo against the stone inside the tomb, which is marked out as a space separate from the world outside by this dislocating shift in the nature of sound. Words suddenly sound hollow, at a remove from the people who voice them. Feeling their way through the darkness between the two doors is like crossing some threshold, with the world into which they emerge on the other side not the same as that which they have left behind. They come to a door on the other side, which has the feel of the entrance to a gatekeeper’s cottage. The singing stops, and the General, as if reasserting his masculine dominance, pounds heavily on the door with his fist.

The door is opened by a friendly and welcoming man, who will soon introduce himself as Doctor Albrecht, a Swiss archaeologist. In the background, a woman looks on nervously. If this is a female domain, then its presiding have momentarily been cowed by the General’s aggressive entrance. The General is immediately recognised by Albrecht, an instant notoriety which is absent in the original script, where he has to join in the general introductions. The original would have placed him as just another soldier, whereas here, word of his deeds evidently precedes him. The General eschews Albrecht’s hospitable greeting, and immediately goes on the offensive regarding the desecration of the graves. Albrecht’s apology and explanation that it had taken place a long time ago suggests a steady and ongoing crumbling of the precepts of a civilisation which has long since declined. The desecration of the tombs is caused by peasants looking for antiquities to sell, asset stripping their own past. The General’s immediate response is to tersely inquire ‘has anyone been punished for this crime’, the wider observation of his culture’s decline passing him by. He is attempting to shore up the crumbling structure of his country’s past through the rigid application of the law. The fact that these peasant’s are supplying a demand from other countries for the antiquities of classical Greece is irrelevant in his eyes. It is his own people who must accept responsibility and who must be punished accordingly. Albrecht all but confesses to his own part in this destructive market, this wholesale export of a country’s history. As an archaeologist, the island was ‘his great find’, with ‘antiquities dating back to Homer’. Again, the sense is conveyed of an enclosed world from which the past has yet to leach. Albrecht accepts moral culpability for the transformation of a living past into a commodified set of objects ripe for plunder. But the General refuses to admit the impact of a wider world, of a marketplace which reaches in from beyond the borders of his country. His sense of justice is rigidly codified, and allows of no mitigating circumstances, no recognition of the changing pattern of the system of the world. His sense of punitive justice is directed inward, at his fellow countrymen. ‘The legal guilt is theirs and must be reported to the authorities’. The authorities for whom he is a good and loyal guard dog.

After this initial awkward exchange, further introductions are made. It is at this point that significant differences from the original script become apparent. Albrecht first introduces Madame Kyra, an old woman dressed in black who has been watching the newcomers with a look of wary suspicion. It is a look, and an attitude, which seems permanently frozen on her face. Albrecht explains that he bought the house from Kyra, its original owner, and she stayed on as housekeeper. Kyra thus represents the displaced native population, forced to become servants in their own country to outsiders who come to pick over the relics of their past. She immediately draws the General to one side, separating them from these other outsiders. In the original script, this character, referred to as Ida, makes only a briefly functional appearance to pour Albrecht’s guests wine and is not seen again. But she is a central figure in the final film, serving as a poisonous influence, a whispering voice which awakens ghosts of peasant superstition from within the General’s subconscious. She is like the General’s Iago, feeding him suggestions which guide him towards actions which he believes to have been arrived at through his own volition. This role in the original script was taken by a character called Cathy, who was the daughter of Mr St Aubyn, the British Consul who will be introduced shortly. Her motives for playing on the Colonel’s confused state of mind relate to her search for a replacement father figure, someone who she can have all to herself and who will protect her from the world at large. Thea, the young Greek girl who her father has taken in as an orphan in the original script, is a rival for this attention and so she uses the Colonel as another passive weapon. Making the character who serves this role an old, dispossessed Greek woman shifts the motive from the Oedipal (or its Electra counterpart) and makes it dovetail more neatly with the wider theme of internecine conflict. It becomes another example of a culture and people turning on each other with unbridled self-hatred. The venom which Kyra directs towards Thea also introduces the psychological element of the jealous resentment of the old for the vigour and optimism of youth.

spreading the virus of fear

Albrecht introduces the other guests at the table as being ‘travellers, refugees from your battle’. Kyra, meanwhile, is beginning her campaign to cast her spell over the General. We see them profile to profile. She makes an offhand confession to having destroyed the bodies, but talks of ‘one among them, an evil one, wicked’. The General dismisses her tales as nonsense. ‘These are new days for Greece. We don’t believe the old foolish tales anymore’. But there is a hesitancy, a flicker of belief in his face as he says this. One of the great subtleties in Karloff’s performance is the way he manages to convey the General’s inward struggle, the conflict in his mind between the rationalism of modernity and the superstitions of older traditions which he has supposed to have been exorcised. Kyra is very much the dark side of the island’s female nature, the crone whose wisdom has turned inward and thus bitter and sour. The other guests at the table include Mr St Aubyn, the British Consul from Adrianople, and his wife, Mrs St Aubyn. The latter has already been pointed out to the General by Kyra, who draws his attention to her pallid appearance with a sly emphasis which ensures that he makes a mental note of it. In the original script, Mrs St Aubyn is replaced by a character called Miss Wollsten, who is the secretary of Mr St Aubyn. She and St Aubyn are in love, but the needy dependance of Cathy has prevented this love from blossoming, and it has remained suppressed, a furtive and secretive affair. In the original story, Cathy effectively seeks to remove this rival for her posthumous paternal affections by neglecting to divulge her knowledge of Miss Wollsten’s tendency to fall into cataleptic trances, thereby condemning her to premature burial.

A cockney far from home

The third person at the table, a small, rather distracted man, introduces himself as ‘Robbins, Henry Robbins, tinware’, a well worn greeting which marks him out as a salesman even before he proffers his card. Robbins is played by Skelton Naggs, one of Lewton’s regular and most distinctive actors, here essaying a rather stilted attempt at a cockney accent. Robbins is full of a melancholy longing for the familiar pleasures of home, an English variety of sehnsucht. ‘I’d give all the blooming statues in Greece for one whiff of fish and chips’. People have different notions of what constitutes culture, what is personally representative of the essence of civilisation, which permeates all levels of society. The idea of a country, what images, sounds and smells resonate in the mind when trying to sum up a mental collage, has to encompass all of its social levels, all its different regions. ‘Each to his own taste’, as Albrecht says, rather dismissively. But what really could be more evocative of England than the smell of fish and chips? Robbins stumbles off to bed, clearly feeling unwell, something Mr St Aubyn, the British Consul, ascribes, with a definite whiff of social snobbery towards his fellow countryman, to ‘plain drunkenness’.

Youth, art and Death

The sound of Robbins tripping and falling heavily on the stair brings a rush of motion, and a light is cast upon a young woman who is bending over him. This is the woman to whom Kyra has insinuatingly referred, contrasting her health and youth with the sickly pallor of Mrs St Aubyn and leaving the General to draw the connection. Her feeding of his subconscious suspicions has evidently had its effect, as he watches her intently as she walks into the room. She is introduced to Davis as Thea, and it was her who sang the siren song which drew them here. As another Greek native, she automatically takes up the role of servant, pouring wine from a jug for the guests, a role taken by the minor character Ida in the original script. The character of Thea as originally written was very much a mirror reflection of Cathy, the two young women being inverted doubles. Whereas Cathy is trying to maintain an exclusive relationship with her father, and then find a suitable replacement in order to remain in a suspended state of protected childhood, Thea is fearful of the General, who she soon realises is her father, and shies away from revealing her identity to him. St Aubyn, in the original script, had adopted Thea (Theodosia, as he explains her full name to be) as his daughter Cathy’s companion; effectively as a second daughter, something which it is made clear that Cathy deeply resents. There is some initial awkwardness about her role, and Mr St Aubyn firmly points out that ‘this not a servant in my household’. This is clearly not the case in the film as it came to be made; and Thea, whose origins are left unexplained, is now the companion and nursemaid of Mrs St Aubyn and is expected to pour the wine. As she does so, we notice a picture on the wall behind her of an artist’s self-portrait, with death’s bony visage peering over his shoulder, playing a danse macabre on its fiddle. This memento mori is a reminder of the nature of the island, and of this house which otherwise seems so full of life. It also places the film itself within a long artistic tradition which serves to remind us of our mortality. The Latin phrase Et in Arcadia Ego, found in Virgil’s Eclogues, is perhaps the earliest example of the memento mori. It means I can be found even in Arcadia, a region which Virgil depicts as a pastoral paradise. This is usually interpreted as death declaring his presence in the midst of the most bucolically carefree days. Such reminders of mortality have always been a spur to the creation of art as a means of evoking the precious transience of life. This creativity becomes one response to the shadow of death, and even a validation of it. Lewton himself replied in provocatively hyperbolic terms to an order that his film should contain ‘no messages’ by saying ‘I’m sorry but we do have a message, and our message is that death is good’.

When Thea hears General Pherides’ name mentioned, she refuses to pour him wine. Her assertion that ‘he is a cruel man. He has a bad name’ is made with some feeling, and she is taking a moral stand. But again, it is notable that it is with a fellow countryman that she discovers the limits of her willingness to serve. The General allows himself to be argued into staying the night under the pretext of being able to make an inspection of a battery on shore before his troops break camp. Kyra immediately breaks through this self-justificatory use of ‘military efficiency’ by declaring ‘you stay to guard us’. In the strange atmosphere of the island which the General finds so disconcerting, she senses that she is already beginning to prevail.

the bed as temporary tomb

As everyone retires to bed, we move upstairs. This is an area of darkness and shadow and becomes associated with death and suppressed secrets throughout the film. It is the house’s equivalent to the tomb passages of the island. The corridor is the equivalent of the catacomb through which the house is reached, and the bedrooms are the sarcophagi. Lewton thus draws a parallel between sleep and death, an analogy which has been a recurring motif in literature over the ages. Virgil again provides an early example, in The Aenid this time, depicting the world of dreams as a borderland on the edge of the beyond: ‘There are two gates of Sleep, one of which it is held is made of horn and by it real ghosts have easy egress; the other shining fashioned of gleaming white ivory, but deceptive are the visions the Underworld sends that way to the light’. Such are the deceptive visions with which the General’s mind is clouded, and which lead Thea to doubt her own nature. Shelley links death and sleep in his poem The Daemon of the World, and the following lines could easily have served Lewton as one of his opening literary epigraphs, echoing his message that ‘death is good’: ‘How wonderful is Death,/ Death and his brother Sleep!/ One pale as the yonder wan and horned moon,/ With lips of lurid blue,/ the other glowing like the vital morn,/ Then throned on ocean’s wave/ It breathes over the world’. We see Thea walking along the dark corridor with her antique lamp. The light in darkness is a recurrent motif in the film. We have already seen Davis holding his lamp before him as he and the General cross the battlefield at night. As bearers of light, these two young characters are already subliminally linked. Davis, sharing his room with the General, is in a cheerful mood. For him, the marker of civilisation is the ability to luxuriate in a warm bath. He mocks the General for stripping his bed, as if he is still in a military barracks. The General has no time for the niceties of civilisation, preferring the asperities to which he has accustomed himself. Davis makes passing reference to Thea’s refusal of her hospitality, and the General replies that he doesn’t care what she thinks in a manner which makes it plain that the opposite is in fact the case.

Thea’s room is in darkness and she sleeps soundly. The camera slowly pans across the room to reveal Kyra watching intently from her bed. The sound of troubled moaning drifts in from next door and Thea wakes and goes to see what’s wrong. She wears a white toga. Kyra gets up to follow, slipping on a black robe and becoming part of the shadows. In the manner of many Mediterranean widows, Kyra seems to dress in nothing but black. She seems a part of the darkness which defines her character, a tenebrous soul whose tendrils curl out to infect others. For her, Thea’s compassion is immediately interpreted as predation. Thea is in fact attending to Mrs St Aubyn, whose room is striated with the film-noirish shadows cast by slatted blinds familiar from previous Lewton films. As before, these are suggestive of a world beyond, or slightly an angle to this one, or of the tentative nature of the tangible.

the light in darkness gutters

Thea offers to go to Mr St Aubyn and fetch her medicine, which entails going out once more into the dark corridor. Along the way her lamp is blown out, just as the light of Davis’ lamp blinked out on the shore where he had left it. The snuffing out of the lamp’s light serves to create an atmosphere of suspense, of course, but is also symbolic of the extinguishing of life and hope, of being plunged back into the shadows of superstition and fear. Lamps, with their feeble and vulnerable light, will be a recurring symbol of the human spirit flickering above the abyss.

Looming from the shadows

Thea collects the medicine, eliciting not a trace of suspicion from Mr St Aubyn, and goes back out into the darkness, all the more impenetrable now her light is out. The General suddenly looms out of the shadow and blocks her passage. He clearly takes pleasure in her fear, asserting his brute masculine power once more. He’s been sent up by Kyra, who has told him of Thea’s movements and cast them in the most suspicious light. He is acting as her watchdog. He asks Thea why she refused to serve him wine, and she reasserts her moral position by answering with a further question: ‘Why do you kill your own countrymen?’ This is a direct statement of the film’s themes of internal strife and self-destruction, of violence turned inwards. It is embodied in the way Kyra and through her the General direct their hatred and superstitious dread on Thea. Thea tells the story of how the General collected taxes from her village ‘with field artillery’. She represents an opposing force with which he is seldom confronted in his masculine military world and this confuses and troubles him. Thea represents the female power of the island which is the obverse to Kyra’s dark designs worked through suggestion. Her statement that ‘laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel’ is a challenge to the ethos which has become the General’s raison d’etre. She posits a world where judgement is tempered by compassion. She is also implying that the General has no real power of judgement, no moral compass to guide his actions, and is wholly reliant on the rules laid down to him by others to provide a framework for his hollow soul. He has no response to her challenge, and is visibly rattled, his earlier triumphalism, occasioned by his ability to instill fear, entirely dissipated.

the caged bird sings in the face of death

The following morning, the General is still disturbed, and proclaims that he’ll be glad to get off the island. He’ll be back in the masculine world where his authority goes unchallenged, away from this feminine domain. But everything changes with the news that the hapless Henry Robbins has died in the night. The General sends for Dr Drossos and insists that until then everyone must stay on the island. When the doctor has arrived and made his tests, he announces the presence of the septicimic plague. There is a pan across the room and all who are gathered listening to this terrible news. On the wall is cast the shadow of a bird which is singing. Caged birds are a rather common symbolic device, and we have already come across them in Cat People. The cage most obviously represents the fact that they are trapped on the island, but it also acts to suggest the symbolic cages of social and nationalistic status and custom, as well as the more metaphysical cage of the span of life. The louvred shadows cast by the blinds upstairs could be seen in a similar light. Once the doctor has made his diagnosis, the General immediately takes over. ‘No one may leave the island’ he intones imperiously, blankly repeating it in the face of objections or demands to be excepted until it is evident that this is a command which brooks no questioning. ‘We will fight the plague’ he solemnly declares. The General has imposed his own brand of martial law on the island, asserting male dominance over this female realm. He is gearing up to meet the rider on the yellow horse. He has declared war on Death.

'No-one may leave the island'

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Music of the Spheres

These sounds, which are radio emissions from the polar regions of Saturn monitored by the Cassini space probe, currently puttering around the ringed planet, would appear to be the genuine music of the spheres. Of course, like astronomical photographs, they've been tinkered about with a bit; the time frame compressed, the frequencies shifted downwards into the range of human hearing. Nevertheless, you are still essentially listening to the sound of a planet. And how hauntingly beautiful it is. Electronic swoops and oscillations have often been used as the default background ambience to soundtrack journeys into (or from) space, ever since Bernard Herrmann used the theremin over the top of his trademark rippling harps in his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Louis and Bebe Barron provided 'electronic tonalities' to summon up the atmosphere of the alien world of Altair IV in Forbidden Planet. Turns out they were spot on.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty

Isle of the Dead (1945) - Part One

Isle of the Dead was the first of what could be considered a historical trilogy of films starring Boris Karloff. The collaboration with the horror star was a happy one, Lewton allowing Karloff to create characters of complex moral shading. The imposition of the star by RKO was not initially something about which Lewton was at all happy, however. He felt that it was an attempt to direct him towards making the more generically predictable material for which Karloff was well known. The studio bosses appeased him by promising that this would be his last horror film before he graduated to other, better funded projects. It was a promise that was never honoured, of course. But as it happened, Karloff and Lewton found themselves to be fellow spirits, both men of some cultural refinement who longed for a more nuanced approach to the tales of terror they had found themselves locked into making. Karloff was returning from a lengthy and extremely successful stage run in Arsenic and Old Lace, a play which emphasised grotesque humour over horror. So successful was his performance that he was denied leave to reprise his role in Frank Capra’s film version, his place being taken by Raymond Massey. Several in-jokes refer to Massey as looking like Boris Karloff, an indication of how well known he was for this part. In returning to the screen, he was loath to fall back into the old stereotypes of lumbering brutes or refined madmen which had previously been his lot. Lewton offered him the opportunity to develop beyond the limited range of these stock bogeymen. He might still be playing monsters; after all, his image was by now too well established to allow him to essay characters of unblemished nobility. But these monsters were deeply and understandably human, their monstrous behaviour arising from a psychology located within particular historical and social contexts. Karloff was always grateful for Lewton’s friendship and the films which allowed him to give some of the greatest performances of his career; performances which make us see into the heart of the seemingly inhuman. As he himself put it, Lewton had ‘rescued him from the dead, had restored his soul’.

The filming itself was not without problems. These chiefly centred around a serious back problem which plagued Boris Karloff. Although he gamely struggled on with filming, taking to a wheelchair in between shots, it eventually became clear that he would have to undergo surgery. This resulted in a considerable break in filming. In fact, due to difficulties in re-assembling all of the original cast, Lewton ended up shooting The Body Snatcher with Karloff before Isle of the Dead was completed, and it was that film which was released first. Whether it was this hiatus which resulted in wholesale alterations to the original script is a moot point. The film as shot varies significantly from the story as originally written, however. This not only results in some characters being superimposed over others, but in others being removed altogether. The thematic underpinning of the film is shifted by these changes and in the opinion of some critics is thereby left confused and inconsistent. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but I shall highlight some of the major points of variance along the way.

As the RKO radio mast appears, we are immediately cast into the world of the film; rather than the usual theme which accompanies the famous studio introduction with its beeping, radiating emissions, we have a dramatic and tragic piece of romantic music. This break with convention establishes a mood almost in the manner of an overture, and suggests that this will be a film of atmospheres, a mood piece. The music draws on two famous pieces which depict the passage to the isle of the dead; Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela, which depicts the black swan which patrols the waters around the isle in the Finnish mythology of the Kalevala; and Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, which is inspired by the Arnold Bocklin painting of the same name. These musical references lend the film itself the air of a tone poem, a piece which attempts to summon up a mood of sombre mystery. We are introduced to the Bocklin painting which inspired Rachmaninov in the titles. Lewton had already used the picture once before, in I Walked With A Zombie, where it hung on the wall of the undying Jessica’s room, a western counterpoint to the Caribbean isle of the dead which was the film’s setting. Lewton, as we’ve seen, was strongly influenced by the visual arts in creating the look of his films, and this influence reaches a new level here. The film’s central locale is a reproduction, in spirit if not absolutely literally, of the isle in Bocklin’s painting. Bocklin did in fact paint five versions of his most famous work, so perhaps we can regard Lewton’s isle as a composite of various common elements. The view of the painting here seems to be a close-up, focussing on the island itself and trimming away some of the surrounding sea, giving it a feeling of claustrophobia, of being a closed-off world. Boris Karloff’s name appears bold and large above the film’s title, making it clear that he is the star, the film’s main attraction. As far as the studio is concerned, this a Boris Karloff rather than a Val Lewton picture.

After the titles, we get a screenful of introductory writing, which sets what is to follow in its cultural and historical context and also, in traditional form, alerts us to the fact that this is a Historical Picture. This is at variance with Lewton’s usual practice of introducing his films with a literary quote. He did indeed have one ready for use in his original screenplay (co-written with and credited to Ardel Wray) which was taken from Herodotus: ‘when war and tumult torment the Earth, the dead are disquieted: there is frenzy in the grave’. The introductory words which are actually used are less poetic, and serve as a practical primer for the themes of the film, as well as giving us a date and a geographical location upon which to hang the events which follow. They run as follows: ‘Under conquest and oppression the people of Greece allowed their legends to degenerate into superstition; the Goddess Aphrodite giving way to the Vorvolaka. This nightmare figure was very much alive in the minds of the peasants when Greece fought the victorious war of 1912’. This is the Balkan War in which Greece and its allies established an uneasy independence after many years of occupation by the Turks. The idea of the decline of civilisation into self-devouring barbarity and the tantalising introduction of a new regional addition to the familiar gallery of monsters are quickly sketched in.

The very first image we see in the first scene is of Boris Karloff’s character General Pherides washing his hands over a bowl. This is an image which will recur throughout the film, acting as both a literal and symbolic representation of the attempt at cleansing. Here, in the interior of a military tent, the General is introduced as a modern day Pilate, unwilling to venture beyond the strict dictates of duty. This washing ritual also serves to indicate that he has just come in from some strenuous endeavour. He listens with cold indifference to the voice of a Colonel, which pleads on behalf of his troops, emphasising their human weakness and weariness. ‘It wasn’t my fault they didn’t arrive on time’, this voice concludes. The battle was won anyway. We see this voice embodied in the play of shadows against the tent wall, a makeshift screen upon which this man’s humiliation is projected as he is stripped of his marks of rank. With a shift of camera angle, we see him in the flesh, stepping out of his own shadow. Another man who is not in uniform watches from his vantage point of a bench to the rear. We will later learn that this is Oliver Davis, an American reporter from the Boston Star. His position as passive observer is essentially maintained until the end. Despite the occasional strongly asserted viewpoint, when he acts it is usually in concourse with the general or with the male authority figure on the island, Dr Albrecht.

Passive aggressive pistol
The General finishes washing his hands and dries them, an indication that he is now ready to confront the man directly. But still he doesn’t address him. His eyes pointedly fall to the revolver which lies in the middle of the table, and then are raised to look directly at the Colonel. He picks the gun up, reverses it and pushes it barrel first towards him. No words are spoken, but with a slow, grave nod of his head, a command has been made, a man condemned. The business is concluded with a cursory ‘that’s all gentlemen’, the report of the revolver sounding from outside. The General is seen as the authoritative master of fate, who determines who shall live or die. The lack of any direct order and the presentation of the revolver which makes the soldier both executioner and executed indicates the degree to which his power has become a matter of almost intuitive, reflex understanding. The Colonel’s self-execution is also an indication of the film’s preoccupation with a country’s people turning inward and devouring themselves. The central conflict in the film is between the General, Thea and Kyra, the native Greek characters. The influence of the foreign characters on the course of Greek culture and history goes unremarked by them, even when it is guiltily drawn to their attention. The presentation of the weapon is mirrored towards the end of the film with the taking up of Poseidon’s trident from Albrecht’s desk and suggests the playing out of a pattern of fate in a display of passive aggression. The weapon becomes almost an embodied agent of fate, directing the actions of those into whose hands it falls.

When all have left the tent and Davis is left alone with the General, he feels free to question what he has seen, although in far from harsh terms. He asks whether it is just ‘to condemn a man to death just because some other men happened to lag behind’. But the General’s response is without any shade of moral doubt. The fact was simply that ‘they were his troops’. His world is rigidly codified, with absolute values and unwavering consequences of actions. He himself is an unquestioning agent of powers who determine the nature of the conflicts which he conducts. Their moral underpinning or the innocence or otherwise of those who become embroiled in them is not something which he finds it necessary to contemplate. He is the classic soldier of the ‘I was only obeying orders’ variety. ‘And I’ve been wondering why they call you the watchdog’, Davis states, not entirely disapprovingly. This is the first reference to the General’s nickname, which will be a key signifier of the nature of his character. It is also a nickname which conjures up archetypes from Greece’s classical past, and the analogy with Cerberus will be underlined later. More echoes of Greek mythology will emerge as the film unfolds. Karloff’s hair in Isle of the Dead is light and curly, giving an added visual touch to his canine reputation. This is not entirely complimentary, of course, carrying with it the suggestion of subjugation to a master and the need for guidance, the inability to draw on one’s own resources in order to decide a course of action.

General Pherides tells Davis that ‘it’s my way. The only way I know’. This is the world he has been brought up in, the behaviour into which he has been trained (like a dog). He reveals that the man who he has sent to his death was a personal friend, Colonel Tolditis. Perhaps his granting him the means to end his own life was his idea of granting him an honourable death. Davis continues to question Pherides’ worldview, and it is indicative of a certain understanding between the two that he is allowed to do so. Davis is a journalist on the Boston Star, rather than the New York for which he wrote in the original script. Perhaps this migration to the cradle of the American Revolution is designed to suggest a certain sense of fellow feeling with the General and his struggle to assert his country’s independence. Nevertheless, he suggests that the General’s notion of patriotism takes it almost to the level of psychosis, both personal and national. ‘I think you’d kill your wife or child for your country’s sake – if you had a wife’. Davis voices the theme of a people turning their savagery on themselves. The latter addendum indicates how implausible Davis feels that the General could have any connection with the feminine. But he is instantly disabused of this notion. ‘I had a wife’, the General says, giving us a glimpse of a personal life beyond the fields of war. He smiles for the first time, as if to ease the journalist’s apologetic awkwardness. Again, we sense a certain flickering of friendship and fellow feeling in these exchanges. Perhaps even the sense that, given the right circumstances, Davis wouldn’t shirk from such ruthless ferocity himself. ‘You think I’m a cold man. Cold and brutal’, the General rhetorically speculates. ‘If you’d asked her, she would never have said so’. Thus he hints at a female influence in his life which has faded over the passage of the years. Perhaps the bitterness of its absence has contributed to his coldness, his ability to countenance the brutality of dispassionate justice ruthlessly meted out. He reveals that she is buried on the island off the nearby shore. It is as if the female influence on his warlike, masculine life has been isolated there, quarantined by the straits which separate it from the mainland. They both plan to go there, Davis eager to connect with the General on a personal level beyond the all-consuming arena of war.
Goya - The Disasters of War: Bury Them and Keep Quiet

To reach the island, they must first cross the battlefield, however. Davis leads with a lantern, which is a tiny beacon of light in the darkness. Lanterns are a recurrent motif throughout the film, and suggest the journey of the living into the underworld, into the nightlands to which they are not acclimatised. This is a journey across the land of the dead. It is a landscape in which the dead outnumber the living. It presents us with an inverted order in which the isle of the dead provides a refuge for the living beyond the waste land which the world has become. It is reminiscent of the trajectory of George Romero’s zombie films, which culminates in the world of Land of the Dead, in which the living are reduced to small survivalist enclaves. In that film, the dead wade across a Styx-like river to re-enter the land of the living, with no Cerberus on the shore to deter them.
Goya - The Disasters of War: Cartloads for the Cemetery

The blasted plain across which they travel is again influenced by the visual arts, this time by the black and white prints of Goya which fall under the title The Disasters of War. These were inspired by and were perhaps even direct representations of the Peninsula War which followed the invasion of Spain by Napoleon in 1808. They depict war in a very unheroic manner, and emphasise its devastating effects on ordinary people. The prints all focus on the aftermath of battle, and these scenes of a landscape strewn with corpses, often with a dead tree acting as an impromptu gallows in the centre, are perhaps still the definitive images of the sickening reality of war. They remained unpublished until many years after Goya’s death and even now evoke strong reactions. Sadly, they were recently subject to a ‘re-interpretation’ by the Chapman brothers, which reduced them to the level of jeering adolescent heavy metal cover art, draining them of any of their poignancy or stark horror. Lewton clearly had to tone down their graphic content, but retained the sense of a devastated landscape with people reduced to an animalistic essence, their outer layers of humanity eroded away. When Davis sees a group of men dragging a cart loaded with dead bodies, and is appalled by their exhausted exertions, he asks why horses can’t be used. He is told that ‘horses cannot understand why they have to work beyond endurance for their country’. But there is little sense of noble purpose behind their reduction to beasts of burden.
Goya - The Disasters of War: They Don't Know the Way

The soundtrack is full of the subdued groans and moans of the dying and the weary labouring at the limits of their ebbing strength. There is the mournful sound of a trumpet in the score, which evokes the sounding of the last post. The whole blasted landscape looks forward to the devastation of nature seen in World War 1, only two years away from the events of the film. Perhaps Lewton and his art director were also influenced by the pictures which Paul Nash painted during this conflict, particularly his famous paintings ‘We are Making a New World’ and ‘The Menin Road’. The world has become an open graveyard. In the middle of the battlefield, Davis and the General meet the masked figure of Doctor Drossos, who is to become a central character later in the film. Removing his mask, he explains the threat of the typhus and the septicimic plague, which necessitates the swift clearing of the corpses from the area. The General intones, in a portentous oracular voice, ‘the horseman on the pale horse is pestilence. He follows the wars’. This is a reference to the fourth horseman of the apocalypse as outlined in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. This is the horseman specifically referred to as Death, and it is he, as a personalised and mythological embodiment of the invisible ‘enemy’ of the plague, who will be faced on the island.

Paul Nash - We Are Building a New World

We fade from the battlefield to a point of view shot over the shoulders of the General and Davis of the shore, with its boats and the island beyond. This is, if not a direct reproduction of one of Bocklin’s paintings, an assemblage of the elements which go to make up his isle of the dead. There are the tall cypruses in the centre, and rocky outcrops to either side with the black holes of tombs carved into them. There are also the ruined columns of a classical Greek temple, a reminder that civilisations fade and die just as people do. The view of the island in the near distance introduces us to the landscape elements amongst which the rest of the film will take place; rocks, trees and ruins. It is also a landscape which reminds of the New Mexican cemetery in the Leopard Man, which was also dominated by cedar trees, classical statuary and the graves of the dead, all enclosed and shut off from the outside wall by its high stone walls.

To the Island

Davis leaves his lighted lamp on the shore to act as a guiding beacon from the island, both of them intending to return as soon as the General has visited his wife’s tomb. This is the light of the land of the living, the spirit of life which can’t be carried over into the underworld. As they reach the further shore, Davis looks back and sees this light blink out. The untended lamp soon gutters and dies. This could also be read as a symbolic indication that the mainland which they have left behind is now the land of the dead. As previously mentioned, the isle of the dead has, in the inversion of wartime, become a refuge of the living. There is also a sense, which Davis automatically shrugs off, that their return passage has been shut off.

The light of the land of the living in its last glimmering

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Art Holiday - Part Two

Kettles Yard in Cambridge is a small gallery and house just outside the centre of the city. The house was knocked together from three old cottages, with a further extension added later, by the art collector and former curator of the Tate Jim Ede. He lived here with his wife Helen from 1958 to 1973. His art collection hung upon the walls, part of the usual furnishings and objects of daily life. The house was opened as a gallery whilst they still lived there and remained as it was after they had moved out. It offers a unique opportunity to view works of 20th century art in a sympathetic domestic setting. The abstract works, in particular, seem to really gain from being juxtaposed against the domestic objects and ornaments, which are in themselves often things of beauty. The spiral of pebbles on the circular wooden table, graded according to a chiaroscuro scale of grey, have been adopted as a kind of house logo. The adjoining purpose built gallery shows temporary exhibitions, some retrospective and some by contemporary artists, as well as hosting concerts of chamber music and jazz.

We’ve been here on many occasions, but this time the current exhibition followed through on its promise to turn things ‘Upside Down/Inside Out’. The house where Ede’s collection normally hangs was given over to ‘interventions’ by artists who had exhibited over the past 14 years, thus giving it something of a ‘best of’ flavour. This idea was particularly effective if you were familiar with the usual arrangement of the contents of the house, as these changes disrupted the experience to which you’d grown accustomed, making you look afresh at objects and spaces which you may otherwise have ignored through casual recognition. The house is well known for the way the light pours in and plays over its objects and furnishings throughout the day. Kathryn Faulkner makes use of this by creating images on photographic paper imprinted by the spectral shadows thrown by sunlight through various glass objects. Literal impressions of light. Judith Goddard put up a fixed door of transparent Perspex barring entrance to Helen Ede’s old bedroom, and set up a security camera inside to sweep it eye across the enclosed space. The slowly moving image could be watched on a tv screen set up on a chest of drawers. Its clinical digital picture seemed both somehow more sharply real and less present than the actual space it reproduced. You half expected to see a digital HD spectre walk across the screen, reluctantly reconfigured from the past and reduced to a diminished virtual existence; a gigabyte ghost. It reminded me of Gwen John’s Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, with its empty chair by an open window, and I found its similar record of absence extremely moving.

The table where the radio sat

My favourite piece was probably David Sheppard’s interactive sound art object, a re-tooled old wooden radio from the pre-transistor age. This allowed you to create your own live mix of music by manipulating the three control knobs for band, volume and tuning, which gave access to different sounds, rhythms and pitch variations. Both Stockhausen and John Cage had incorporated the spontaneous sounds of tuned radios into their music, so this was perhaps a nod to their memory. In any case, it was great DIY avant-garde composition fun.

The walls of Kettles Yard are painted white, the better to reflect the shifting shadows cast as the sun measures out the hours of the day. Michael Craig-Martin’s painting of one alcove room in a violent shade of magenta was thus particularly startling, and difficult to ignore. He had removed all the furniture whilst he redecorated, replacing it all again in exactly the same place, save for one chair, which he painted in relief outline on the wall. His intervention was perversely effective for being so wholly out of character with the rest of the house, and for being hidden in a well chosen nook which meant that you came across it unexpectedly.

Along the lengthy gallery of the extension, Douglas Allsop had strung his ‘Blind Screen’, fashioned from lengths of video tape. These shimmered gently in the breeze, which I admit was caused by my blowing on them. The use of what is now an all but redundant recording medium as the material for this installation could have been just another piece of weakly punning conceptual art, but its shiny, shimmering and inherently fragile surfaces made it visually appealing in itself. The mystery of what further images were locked into its magnetic depths merely added to its allure. Just opposite, Mary Lemley had set up a small monitor atop an empty glass-fronted cabinet, which slowly reeled through photographs of every object in her house. This was interesting enough for a while, particularly in the juxtapositions it threw up between, say, an art book and a more practical item such as a mug. It did seem a bit redolent of the ‘let’s look at me’ art of recent times which reflects or perhaps just seeks to be a part of the modern malaise of celebritocracy.

David Jones, Vexilla Regis (1947-8)

The converse side of this disruption of the normal display in the house was the use of the gallery for pictures which had been displaced, alongside further works not normally on show. This was a good opportunity to see these displayed in a more conventional gallery space, and grouped together by artist. There were several prints and etchings by David Jones, including his illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was interesting to mentally compare with those of Mervyn Peake and Gustav Dore. Also on display was his Vexilla Regis from 1947, one of my favourite Kettles Yard paintings. This is a complex interweaving of Roman and Celtic landscapes with a plethora of pagan Christian symbolism. There are Roman temples and what looks like a statue of Diana in a woodland grove alongside a stone circle and a Glastonbury-like mount. The three trees in the foreground, one topped with a Roman legionary eagle, are the trees of Calvary, the foremost of which has flowered into a riot of life at its crown. It is a wonderful picture which really needs to be seen close up to appreciate its dense detail. You can imagine Jones himself, his eyesight failing, leaning close to the surface of the paper to create these thickets of tangled symbolism. It was probably actually better seeing it in this context than in its usual position in the house, where the confined space and domestic furnishings militate against a closer and more detailed inspection.

Elizabeth Vellacott, Bare Trees and Hills (1960) in the house

Winifred Nicholson, Primula and Cyclamen (1923)

Jones worked at least partly in pencil, and there were also several beautiful works in pencil by Elizabeth Vellacott, whose depiction of trees is particularly fine. She somehow manages to convey the mysterious haze which hangs silently over some afternoons. The musical equivalent would by Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, in whose particulate layers of drift you can almost synaesthetically see the dancing motes of dust in beams of sunlight. Winifred Nicholson was represented by one of her many flower paintings and by a seascape of paradoxical solidity. The flower paintings always seem to convey the idea of some kind of threshold. The flowers on the windowsill and the landscape beyond suggest a boundary between inner and outer worlds, of ordered experience and unmediated nature. The flowers themselves, contained in vases, bottles or jugs, positioned on this threshold, are somewhere in between. Their subtly variegated colours could act as a symbol of the act of vision with which we perceive and interpret the world, and of the inner eye through which the artist seeks to transform it in order to express some underlying essence. Nicholson would, in later life, experiment with the use of prisms on the windowsill in order to split light into its spectrum, cracking it open to reveal and examine its contents.

Ben Nicholson, Christmas Night (1930)

Ben Nicholson, at one time married to Winifred and later to sculptor Barbara Hepworth, is represented by abstract work which is more in line with European and Russian currents of modernism and constructivism. But there is also an earlier work from 1930, a domestic interior of his bedroom at night. Painted at a time when his life was in a state of transition, having left Winifred and his children, it has a rather melancholy feel of loneliness. His monogrammed brush set takes on a monumental presence in the emptiness of the room, his occupation of what would traditionally have been considered a primarily female space serving to emphasise his solitude. Outside, the church is swallowed by the darkness, and a horse (or a donkey?) looks longingly in at the light of the domestic interior from which it is excluded. The viewer’s perspective is from the interior of the room, but the curtain is drawn back to frame a wide expanse of the winter night. The depths of this cold darkness threaten to engulf the fragile comforts of the home.

Christopher Wood, Building the Boat, Treboul, 1930

Another Kettles Yard artist featured in the gallery, a friend of both the Edes and the Nicholsons, was Christopher Wood. His Building the Boat, Treboul from 1930 is very familiar from its customary position in the house, and was one of many pictures painted during his stay on the Breton coast. The half-built boat resembles the beached skeletal ribcage of a beached whale, the woman in the foreground sadly cradling a plank of wood as if she is carrying away a relic. The painting seems haunted by death, although this maybe a judgement influenced by the knowledge of Wood’s own tragic passing shortly thereafter.

Christopher Wood, Jean Bourgoint with Siamese Cat (1926)

Wood was born in Liverpool, but took the traditional artist’s passage over the channel to France, and it was here that he established himself in the fevered atmosphere of the golden age, the ‘harlequin years’ of Paris in the 20s. The portrait ‘Jean Bourgoint with Siamese Cat’ is of one of the young men in Jean Cocteau’s circle. Wood himself shared a studio with Cocteau in 1924/5, and it was through him that he met Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint, a brother and sister with a very close bond. They were to become the models for the central characters of Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles, later filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Wood’s full length portrait depicts Jean as frankly sensuous, with his relaxed, crossed-ankle posture, red lips and blue-eyed gaze. This sensuality is further reflected in the Persian cat which he strokes, and which shares his blue eyes. The cats claws are spread out and digging into his leg, however. Maybe Wood is alluding to a vicious and parasitical side to his charms, of which he is all-too conscious. He is like the cat in that he expects to be taken in, fed and loved but feels under no obligation to give anything in return. There may even be an element of jealousy here, Wood digging in his own catty claw. The rumours amongst Cocteau’s gossipy hangers-on were that he was now favouring Jean over Wood. The visible fragments of sketches in the background of the painting suggest that Wood abandoned it before applying the finishing touches, perhaps tiring of the subject and of the Parisian demi-monde in general. What remains, however, is the perfect portrait of the gilded and offhandedly destructive youth of the period. Sadly, it was during this period that Wood, and Jean’s sister Jeanne, picked up and addiction to Cocteau’s drug of choice, opium (and Cocteau has, fairly or unfairly, been accused of wrecking a succession of lives at this time). Neither was able to shake their addiction, and both ended up committing suicide, Wood beneath the wheels of a train at Salisbury station.

Alfred Wallis, Boats Before a Great Bridge (c.1935-7)

When living in St Ives, Wood became friends with the ‘naïve’ artist Alfred Wallis, moving into a house a few doors away from him. Many of Wallis’ paintings, confined by the space of the scraps of card or packing-case wood which he used as canvasses, can be found in the upper gallery of the house extension, and several made it into the gallery exhibition too. Wallis intuitively reached some of the same compositional distortions of perspective which modern artists were adopting, the flattening out into clearly separated blocks and shapes of colour, perhaps making a virtue out of technical limitations. Both Wood and Ben Nicholson, and through them others, took inspiration from him and his untutored and thus, to them, somehow purer eye. Wallis made the break with tradition that they were seeking by virtue of being unencumbered by knowledge of it. The fact that he was a retired man (an ex-fisherman) who painted out of personal need rather than with a commercial imperative made him all the more appealing.

Jim Ede at Kettles Yard

Wallis is now seen as an important, if eccentric, English (Cornish, if you prefer) artist, largely, but not solely, for his influence on others. It is interesting to speculate as to how others like him have existed in parallel with the recognised figures of art history, their work lacking the patronage of well-placed artists which Wallis’ received and destined for the bonfire after their deaths. There is something very satisfying about seeing these vivid paintings on their scraps of discarded packaging hanging on the whitewashed walls of a modern gallery. No conceptual commentary behind the use of material, it was just what lay to hand. They are so very far from a small Cornish fishing village at the corner of the country, and also from the commodified ArtWorld ™ which often seems to exist largely to reflect upon itself and its market processes. The exhibition, and Kettles Yard in general, serve to remind us of some great British artists, but also that they didn’t exist in isolation. Their work may have been distinctively British, but it was also fully aware of and had strong links with the European movements. This is no little Englander art. Ultimately this is a place which retains the atmosphere of a home, and as such is a tribute to the openness and generosity of Jim and Helen Ede, who did so much to accommodate and encourage the artists who were also often their friends.