Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Garden of Axos

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

Emerging from the beached ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatstone sound mirrors and listening wall

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

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