Friday, 21 May 2010
The first of this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals at Butlins in Minehead was something of a departure in that it wasn’t curated by a band or musician, but by Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons and Futurama. This was his second bite at the cherry, following on from his successful stewardship of the 2003 ATP Pacific festival at Long Beach, California. Groening confesses to knowing nothing about Butlins or Minehead, which is more than just an ocean and a continent away from Long Beach, and also expresses his puzzlement over what exactly a chip butty is. Hopefully that curiosity has now been satisfied. One of the artists which he chose, Joanna Newsom, pointed out during her set that it was particularly appropriate for her to be playing at this festival since people had been saying for years that she sounded like Lisa Simpson. The line-up Matt Groening chose definitely veered more towards what might have been Lisa’s choices, rather than Bart’s. There was a strong showing for female artists and a much broader musical spectrum than has sometimes been the case. This perhaps makes a good argument for more non-musicians to be invited to be curators (I know Jim Jarmusch is curating one day of the ATP New York festival) since they’re not bound to a particular musical genre and beholden to fellow artists who operate in a similar area. Having said which, of the two May festivals, it was the one curated by Pavement for which there was a mad scramble, and which was on its way to selling out before a single further act had been announced. The rather dispiriting message seems to be that there is always more demand for the familiar and well-worn than for a more surprising, offbeat and eclectic mix. People are happier with what they already know, with an experience which will offer exactly what’s expected. To an extent, of course, an act has to be well-established to be a curator. They have to have been around the block a bit, to have built up connections and left a trail of influence in their wake. The case of the Pavement sell-out, however, seems to suggest that it is the name of the curating band as much as the acts which they choose which attracts people’s attention. At the moment, the God Speed You Black Emperor ATP in December is fast on its way to selling out too. Hopefully the festival won’t drift entirely into becoming an indie identikit festival, and will persist with offering the kind of line up which Groening himself calls ‘quite adventurous’. The slightly reduced attendance did alleviate some of the problems which had dogged previous occasions, however. The concerts were more evenly spaced, programmed one after the other on the three available stages, thus avoiding agonizing clashes. And there was less of a sweaty, beer-soaked crush in the two inside venues. On the whole, it was altogether more civilised; I only got showered with beer once (well, it’s good for the hair anyway, apparently).
The first act on Friday was James Blackshaw, who took to the Centre Stage in unassuming fashion with his twelve string guitar. He produced scintillant showers of arpeggiated notes in extended pieces which swirled around in perpetual motion. It was just James with his guitar on this occasion. The titles of Blackshaw’s LPs and pieces tend to have titles which highlight their numinous qualities, sometimes referencing particular religious works, such as The Cloud of Unknowing. He professes to be uninterested in religion himself, although perhaps now that he’s entered the orbit of David Tibet and Current 93, his opinion might be swayed. There were none of the extra colours provided by celeste, harmonium and the like which are to be found on his records; and, alas, there was no Lavinia Blackwell to vocalise as she did on the Steve Reich-like piece Cross from the recent Hermann Hesse-referencing LP The Glass Bead Game. But the guitar alone was enough. Blackshaw’s lack of stage patter meant that lengthy retuning interludes were, as he conceded, talk amongst yourselves moments, but this didn’t matter in the slightest. Each new open tuning opened a new book. Pieces tended to start with slow, exploratory strums, sounding out each new possible chord. There was a slight problem with the sound, which emphasised the bass strings over the treble, thus losing some of the finer detailed filigree overlaying the hypnotically repetitive ground. Live engineers tend, by default, to ramp up the power to emphasize heaviosity, but this seems rather pointless when dealing with an acoustic guitar. It was a beautiful start, nonetheless.
I’d spotted James Cargill and Trish Keenan of Broadcast wandering along the seafront as we approached the gateway (or should I say checkpoint) into Butlins, and, as my favourite band, they were one of the three acts which I was anticipating most eagerly over the weekend. They spent a long and vexatious time setting up their projections from a recalcitrant laptop (a common enough experience) which seemed to leave very little opportunity for sound checking. For a set which relies a good deal on vocal improvisation and subsequent manipulation, Trish’s inability to hear herself in the monitor was obviously a serious impediment, and combined with the squeals of feedback emanating from her microphone whenever she made any exaggerated movement, she was left in a state of agitated insecurity, her technology no longer under her control. She was visibly frustrated, adrift on washes of engulfing sound, which she rode out to the best of her ability. She could be seen after the performance having a few demonstrative words with the sound engineer. The set basically followed the pattern of recent shows, with the first half’s soundtrack to a slightly truncated version of Julian House’s Winter Sun Wavelengths film having a more aggressively pulsating menace than when I heard it in Cardiff towards the end of last year. It was a combination of sound and visuals which drove the senses towards a state of derangement and promised blood sacrifice and the summoning of forces from the beyond. The song section which followed found sound problems coming to the fore, and were uncharacteristically tentative as a result. There were still moments of magic, with Trish’s white dress absorbing the projected kaleidoscope of colours to become a genuinely psychedelic garment when she moved centre stage during …….But the spell, and the dance, were broken when the microphone started squealing with feedback again. The lovely synth lines which James wove into the interludes between verses in this song in previous shows also seemed to be lost in the mix. This was a great shame, particularly since artists later in the festival seemed to have no compunction in taking their own sweet time in setting up and soundchecking, even if this meant that the schedule ran significantly late. Broadcast, it seems, paid the price for their punctiliousness. They did rally for the pounding, one chord Mongolian lute (I’m guessing here) driven Kosmische drone of the final song, whose anti-materialist mantra ‘what you want is not what you need’ took on an extra admonitory tone with the more primitive sound to which they’d been reduced.
Cold Cave lived up to their name, producing icy, echoing synth pop in the mould of early Human League or Cabaret Voltaire, transforming a corner of their native Manhattan into a place that’s forever Sheffield in the late 70s. Songs like The Laurels of Erotomania and Theme from Tomorrowland suggest a similar fascination for the alienated futurescapes of JG Ballard. The band dressed in black, remained static throughout, and played in darkness, save for the cold blue lights surrounding the stage proscenium. I suspect there may have been a mild element of tongue in cheek, but I could be wrong. The songs showed a gift for melody, all in the minor key, and it was all set to a highly danceable metronymic machine beat, surprisingly produced by an actual drummer. Of all Matt Groening’s characters, this would have been Futurama robot Bender’s choice.
Iggy and the Stooges would definitely have been Bart’s choice. I’m not a fan of Iggy Pop, so the prospect of him performing Raw Power didn’t excite me in the way I know it did others (Jarvis Cocker gave his London show a resoundingly good review on his Sunday show on radio 6). I caught part of his evening show more out of curiosity than anything. We wandered in to the main stage (set up beneath the Butlins ‘big tent’ which dominates the skyline on this side of Minehead) as he reached the tail end (sorry) of Now I Wanna Be Your Dog. It was a cold weekend, with a stiff breeze blowing up the Bristol Channel, but this didn’t deter Iggy from divesting himself of his shirt. I guess this is just what people expect of him these days, and he’s trooper enough to give the fans exactly what they want. Like many other rock heritage acts, he’s long since given up on progressing into new territory (on stage, anyway) and is content to milk fond memories. And he doesn’t do it by halves, it has to be said. He also adds an element of unpredictability and potential chaos by inviting members of the audience on stage and throwing the mic into the crowd for comments. Fun House was enjoyable, with its funk and free jazz sax skronk. But the tenor of the show seemed to be set by the young female saleswomen who accosted passersby and tried to flog them expensive mp3 memory sticks of a previous concert from the tour.
Toumani Diabate was the first of the 3 African acts of the weekend, and Matt Groening can be congratulated for providing a truly continent spanning line-up, with acts from Africa, Europe, North and South America and Asia (well, 3 from Japan). No Australasians, but you can’t have everything. Toumani sat centre stage with his kora, but this was really a full on African dance band, a 9 piece outfit which included a mix of traditional and rock instrumentation, with effects driven guitar solos giving way to displays of virtuosity on the balafon, the African equivalent (and probably precursor) of the marimba. Another fellow played a tiny ukulele-like instrument, out of which he managed to squeeze a couple of plucky solos. Indeed, the solo space given to all of the musicians gave this something of the feel of a jazz gig.
I retreated to the cinema for a screening of one of my favourite films, If…, and watched until the scene in which Christine Noonan, looking not dissimilar to Trish Keenan from Broadcast, takes a stunt ride with the boys on their stolen motorbike. Then it was off to receive a sonic pummelling from the Liars. Singer and front man Angus Andrew seemed to be competing with Iggy Pop in terms of exhibitionism, leaping manically and treating the crowd to the occasional Jagger-like shake of the ass. This actually served to lighten the generally oppressive and paranoia-soaked tenor of the music, which gives Radiohead a run for their money in depicting the modern world as a locus of fear and loathing. Indeed, last time they were due to play an ATP festival in Minehead, they pulled out after having been selected to support Radiohead on tour. The material was mainly from the recent LP Sisterworld, with tracks like Scissor and Scarecrows on a Killer Slant getting the late night crowd heaving. There was an outing for There’s Always Room on the Broom from their Walpurgisnacht-themed LP They Were Wrong So We Drowned (The Liars have great song and album titles), which is maybe as near as they’ve come to a ‘hit’. The video for Scissor is great, by the way. Call me an old fart (oh, you already did) but after a while I decided it was getting a bit late for this kind of art punk barrage, good as it was, so I called it a night.
On the Saturday, after breakfasting on toast with whortleberry jam at the Apple Tree tea rooms, dining on a fine pizza at Pinocchio’s and sinking a couple of pints of Exmoor ale at the Queen’s Head, it was time for another of the three acts which I was looking forward to with particularly eager anticipation. This was The Boredoms, who I’d long wanted to see and hear (particularly after seeing the photo of the gravity defying leap which Yamatsuke Eye performs in the inner sleeve of the Vision Creation Newsun CD). They were continuing their recent tendency towards tribalistic percussion based music by staging a performance which went by the name of Boadrum. This was a circle (or horseshoe) of eight drummers, with Boredoms front man Yamatsuke Eye at the centre. The other members of the boa drum snake were fellow Boredoms Yoshimi P-We and Yojiro Tatekawa, Hisham Bharoocha of Soft Circle, Zach Hill, Butchy Fuego from Pit er Pat, Kid Millions from Oneida, Jeremy Hyman from Ponytail (also performing at the festival) and Shinji Masuko from DMBQ. The whole set up was backed by the three-walled rack of Eye’s incredible 14 necked guitar, a deliberately absurd instrument which outdoes the twin-necked efforts of 70s prog and jazz rock guitarists such as Steve Howe and John McGlaughlin by several degrees. This was as much a musical sculpture in the style of Harry Partch as it was an instrument, although it served that purpose too. It was struck percussively by Eye with a couple of long, colourful sticks, the guitar becoming a kind of bell, chiming pre-tuned chords at climactic moments during the piece. Early on, one of the drummers was carried in on a moveable platform, a kind of palanquin, from the back of the hall by some 6 or 7 bearers, and brought towards the stage, playing all the while. On this first of two shows, it was Yojiro Tatekawa who had the honour of this regal progression, which temporarily halted in the midst of the audience from where he beat the bejesus out of his drum kit in a call and response duet with the musicians on stage, before being carried forward to join them. The whole performance was orchestrated with wild yet controlled energy by Eye, whose yells and vocalisations served both as rhythmic markers, modulating the ebb and flow of the waves of percussion, and as a human face for the music. He also provided electronic washes of sound, manipulations and white noise. It was an astonishing experience and left me half deaf for the rest of the day, my eardrums evidently having pounded in sympathetic resonance. A Japanese lady danced with her small child just in front of us, occasionally pausing to play ball, and propped her on the balustrade beside where we were sitting for a while. A Bore-baby, perhaps?
After briefly sampling Danielson, with his family band dressed in home-made nurse’s uniforms, and deciding it was interesting but not really my cup of tea, the next act was Deerhunter, who cleaved more closely to the kind of indie guitar fare which has come increasingly to characterise ATP festivals (and which would certainly dominate the next weekend’s Pavement festival). They produced some great reverb-drenched songs, sending out billows of sound which expanded to fill the spaces enclosed by the big Butlins tent with a nebulous and dreamy haze. The haziness was perhaps more pronounced given that singer Bradford Cox pronounced himself to be feeling a bit poorly. He also revealed some of his own personal favourites by thanking Matt Groening for giving him the chance to see The Residents and The Raincoats. Next on the Central Stage, Konono No.1 brought their Congolese sounds to Somerset, complete with their own home made amplification and loudspeakers on poles. These produced a built in distortion which the gave the thumb pianos which are at the centre of their music a tone which paradoxically feels both very modern and like its covered with a slight patina of rust. It’s a grainy sound which contemporary electronic musicians might strive to produce using the latest digital equipment, but which is here created through junkyard experimentation. They got the room moving with a large band, which augmented the three thumb pianos with a female singer (who also accented the rhythm on timbales), a guitarist and a couple of percussionists, one of whom enthusiastically punctuated the proceeding from time to time with blasts on his playground whistle, as if alerting us to pay attention to the beat. It was the kind of music you could imagine playing well on into the Kinshasa night.
Back on the main stage, She and Him, who consisted of alt-country singer M.Ward and sometime (most of the time, really) Hollywood actress Zooey Deschanel, along with band and backing singers, provided bright, sunny pop redolent of a pre-rock (pre-lapsarian?) era of girl groups and Brill Building songwriters in the Carole King mould. It was effervescent and instantly catchy, and would have been the perfect prelude to a walk out into the sunshine and onto the beach. The prevailing meteorological conditions were against such a happy congruence, but the music created a little sunshine in our hearts.
Back on the Centre Stage, The Residents were in the midst of a soundcheck, maintaining their anonymity and sense of mystery even during the banal routines of the set up. They had rather grumpily pointed out on their website that their ATP performance would be a truncated version of their current show, but that as it was a festival audience, they probably wouldn’t care anyway. The show in question featured the band members, as always, in disguise, with the two instrumentalists perched at either side of the stage dressed in sequined ruby coats, faces covered with black masks draped with limp strands of hair, pairs of what looked like night-vision goggles in place of eyes, the whole ensemble suggesting an alien vaudeville on a toxic planet. The Residents are known for their strangeness, both musically and in terms of their appearance. If one of Matt Groening’s characters were to choose them, it would have to be Doctor Zoidberg from Futurama. It would all make perfect sense to him, and he’d break into a scuttling dance. At centre stage was the singer, standing amidst a set which represented his front room, with hearth, radio and sofa, to which he occasionally retired. He was our storyteller, an old, beak-nosed man in loose, striped dressing gown, polka-dot shorts and a pendulous, over-sized tie. He looked like an aged Mr Punch gone to seed, unsavoury, irascible and more than a little unhinged. The tales he told were ghost stories and twisted reminiscences. Two old cowboy songs were reconfigured to turn the familiar old West into a deserted, spectral landscape, guitar chords echoing in the emptiness before trailing off with an eerie dying fall. They were crying out to have accompanying films made by David Lynch. The old man essayed some bow-legged Rumpelstiltskin dance moves, with back bent and arms splaying out to the sides, tie swinging in time to the beat like the axe in The Pit and the Pendulum. It was a prehensile sway which gave the old geezer a demented, goblin-like air. We gained an insight into his disturbed inner life and memories of the past, his voice occasionally pitch-shifted into a disturbingly distorted childlike whine. This may have given an idea as to why he was alone in his room, raving about invisible soul stealers (to an invisible audience?) He told us of the unknown (and perhaps imaginary) sister, of an ill-advised childhood prank which left him motherless in a horrific fashion, and of the sinister mirror people, who he fretted about throughout. They wait patiently, plotting to steal your identity (your soul, if you will), and are occasionally glimpsed looking greedily out of the mirror, in the periphery of vision. Having warned the first few rows of the audience that they might be at risk should these phantoms become manifest, they finally burst through in an explosive burst of noise and light. The Residents show was an utterly absorbing spectacle, sometimes amusing, sometimes unnerving, and yes, I would’ve liked to have seen it in its entirety. I would have had to travel to mainland Europe to do so, however. Oh, and the mirror people really are out to get you now, you know.
On the main stage, Amadou and Mariam were the third and possibly best known of the festival’s three African acts. Anchored by Amadou’s sinuous and surprisingly forceful guitar (a key, perhaps, to why they find favour with the indie crowd) their live show was bright and well-honed, with a few of the stadium gestures which have presumably developed in the light of their huge success in France. There were traces of the kind of musical slickness with which African acts tend to become imbued once they find their way into Parisian studios, but the strength of the Malian couple’s own voice shines through such surface tampering. XX on the centre stage were, to my ears, rather colourless, both in their uniformly black clothes and in their sound. I fully concede that this is a case of my not connecting with the music in question. I know others love its sense of space, its spare arrangements and languid atmosphere. They unleashed a bone-juddering, kidney-quivering bass at some juncture, which seemed a little extraneous to the needs of the song. Perhaps it was an attempt to vary the general tone of sparsity and inject a blast of force to win over the agnostics.
Finally, after deciding that the queue for the swiftly arranged jam between Konono no.1, The Boredoms drummers and Jason Spaceman was rather too long, and feeling that the pre-arranged set by The Ruins shouldn’t really have been usurped anyway, I went along to see them. Or rather him, since the Ruins are (is) now just drummer Tatsuma Yoshida. He provided precision, stop-start squalls of drumming to a pre-recorded backing of lightning fast noise prog. This included a Mastermind ‘how many can you spot’ cut-up of classic prog themes and extracts (I scored rather poorly, only my rusty knowledge of the old Yes catalogue rising back to the surface). It was a performance of athleticism and endurance, exhausting to watch let alone play, but impressive and exhilarating. Any drummers amongst the festival audience were well and truly spoiled this year.
The Sunday gave another chance to see The Boredoms, and this time I placed myself in the thick of it to see this day’s drummer of choice, Zach Hill, carried in procession to the stage. It was a spectacle well worth seeing twice. My hearing having been largely restored, I wore earplugs this time. The old lugholes can only take so much. Matt Groening came on stage to introduce The Tiger Lillies as a ‘favourite favourite’ amongst a weekend of favourites. I wish I could share his enthusiasm, but many of their songs seem tossed off (appropriate phraseology given that one concerns a character called Masturbating Jimmy) with offhand and rather casual abandon. They occasionally hit the mark with some of their more subtle songs, but the leering obsession with Victorian sleaze and decadence, and the sledgehammer way in which it is often underlined, becomes a little tiresome. They provide an inadvertent reminder of the power of indirection and suggestion (and even clever innuendo), and despite the bluntness in which they revel, lack the depth or wit to be as offensive as they’d clearly like to be. The playing of the theremin with the contrabass was a nice theatrical touch, though, and its always nice to see someone who can manipulate a musical saw with aplomb.
Juana Molina, the South American representative, stood at her rack of electronics with guitar in hand, which she used briefly to provide short phrases which were immediately sampled and looped. Bassist aside, she was essentially her own one-woman orchestra of layered and transmogrified sound, creating a layer over which she sang, providing another layer, over which she sang, providing..etc. She managed to maintain the lightness of her songs, never allowing things to get to cluttered or overcrowded. How much of it was pre-programmed and how much improvised, I don’t know, but it was a hypnotic and bewitching performance. On the main stage, Matt Groening was on hand again to introduce Daniel Johnston, who was somewhat lost standing alone on such a large platform, amidst the furniture and instrumentation set up for Spiritualised’s band, chamber group and choir. He played a new guitar, a small solid bodied affair which looked like it had been knocked up in a woodwork class, and which sounded exactly like the battered old Spanish guitar which he used to play. He also sat at the electric piano for several songs, where his technique was a little more assured than the somewhat notional guitar accompaniement which provides for himself. Watching Daniel Johnston requires some knowledge of the history which lies behind his songs, of the early self-assurance which led to him actively seeking an audience, and the agonizing decline into serious mental illness, all played out in the public eye (and documented in the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston). In listening to him play live, you are listening to the latest chapter in his life story. It seems to have settled into a fairly calm and well-managed course, with medication and family care keeping him on an even keel. Some of the early exuberance is missing however. This could just be the passing of time, and maybe also the resignation which has come with the realisation of the permanence of his condition. There’s a certain amount of special pleading required when you approach his music, and the crowd was clearly willing him on. The best of the songs, crudely delivered though they might be, are worth hearing in their own right, though. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable when Daniel’s declaration of his mental illness raised a cheer from the audience (why?). It sounded like he was cut off from elaborating, and such a reflexive response suggests his celebrity is becoming as much based on his illness as it is on his music. It would be a shame if this were the case. We saw him after the show wandering along the seafront with some companions. He paused by one of a series of what looked like old iron torpedo casings (which may have been because they were old iron torpedo casings for all I know) which formed someone’s strange idea of a good promenade decoration.
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, fronted by the former Mazzy Star singer (that group are due a perhaps inevitable reunion in the near future – curating an ATP festival of their own perhaps) provided a languid set of drifting dream pop, with the guitars occasionally roused to create a minor storm, but quickly settling back into a laid back state of calm. Hope remained fairly uncommunicative throughout, with only the odd mumbled word of thanks, but there was some atmospheric burbling ambient hum between numbers which obviated any awkwardness. There’s not a great deal of variance to the tone or the downtempo feel, but I didn’t find that a problem. I was drawn along in the music’s slow burning wake. Hope herself added a few extra colours to the sound with some plangent harmonica sighs and a light sprinkling of celeste stardust.
We went for a walk on the beach, the skies having cleared at last, and heard the heavenly choir backing Spiritualised’s run through of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space drifting out into the evening air. I admit to a certain antipathy towards Spiritualised’s music, which reminds me of later Pink Floyd in its overweening pomp and its amassing of large forces to convey a series of dirge-like, self-pitying plaints. Rock star drug abuse and moping over splitting up with your girlfriend (hmm, could the two be related do you think) are lyrical concerns which betoken an insular self-regard, a worldview locked into its own narrow orbit. Why should we care? Having said which, we did get to hear the free jazz freak out section of Cop Shoot Cop, whilst waiting in the queue which was amassing with worrying rapidity for Joanna Newsom outside the barricaded and security guarded doors of the Central Stage, and it was pretty good. A whole concert of that sort of thing would have suited me fine.
The queue grew larger and the doors were still not open by the time the concert was due to start. Chaos threatened to ensue, and a general state of grumbling began to fill the air, as no explanation was forthcoming. Someone said something about the sound system having packed in. Anyway, eventually we did get in, whatever the problem was. There was a tremendous sense of anticipation for Joanna Newsome’s appearance (not least from myself – she was the third of my most eagerly anticipated artists) and she didn’t disappoint. The group consisted of her drummer and percussionist Neal Morgan, who was isolated on her left, and who played a fairly prominent role throughout, and a chamber group consisting of mandolin and other assorted stringed instruments (plus recorder), two violins and, of course, a trombone. Joanna herself played her harp and a piano which was place to the rear of the stage. It’s quite difficult to play such relatively hushed acoustic music, which demands full attention, to a festival audience, particularly a well refreshed night-time one (who had been forced to queue for a long time, too) but the crowd was rapt. Most of the material was from the new Have One On Me LP, including a great rendition of the multi-part title song, with all the group joining in for the final vocal harmonies. She did a version of Inflammatory Writ from The Milk Eyed Mender, but perhaps understandably, there was nothing from Ys, or indeed from the Ys Street Band EP (Coleen would have been nice – it was one she played at the Sydney Opera House gig earlier this year). Bizarrely, she spent several minutes tuning her harp, leaving her hapless percussionist, at her suggestion, to field questions from the audience. Having replied to one questioner who asked what his favourite cheese was by replying that he didn’t really like cheese, a later disgruntled audience member asked, in an aggrieved tone, ‘why don’t you like cheese’. The mood was turning potentially nasty in this county famous for its cheesemaking (Cheddar’s not all that far away) and he threw a pleading look towards Joanna. She finished her tuning, and promptly retired to the piano for the remaining two songs. Indeed, after a rousing version of the Good Intentions Paving Company, she suddenly declared that that was it, and abruptly left the stage. It was a good number to finish on, but, with time to spare in the one hour slot, the audience clearly expected an encore, and there were boos when it became evident that they weren’t going to get one. Leave them wanting more, I guess. Apparently, Joanna was seen after the show munching on some chips. Perhaps she was just really hungry.
The Raincoats packed out the smaller Reds Stage, and obviously commanded a huge amount of affection. Their set had a winning informality, with the singers Gina Birch and Ana da Silva enjoying an easy, relaxed and chatty rapport with the audience, and with each other, and had a nice line in self-effacing humour. They seemed to be really enjoying playing, and that enjoyment communicated itself to those watching. The music was loose and a little ragged around the edges, but still possessed of an adventurous spirit. They came back after a playfully staged ‘encore’ set up (having not quite managed to actually leave the stage) and led the crowd in a singalong of Lola, which they’d covered on their debut LP back in 1980, and the odd fluffed line mattered not at all.
The final show of the night, on the Central Stage, was by Coco Rosie, the group centred around sisters Bianca and Sierra Cassady, and they continued the trend of starting late, not finally finishing setting up until about 1.20. I saw them through to about 2, and they were excellent. Bianca’s child-like voice (another Lisa Simpson) provided a counterpoint to the more classical style of Sierra, who had trained to be an opera singer (although apparently her real passion had been medieval music). Her soaring vocals projected a sense of yearning and melancholy longing. They had a new pianist in Gael Rakontondrabe, who provide a new element to their arrangements, which also found Sierra playing what looked from a distance like a harmonium, and a Celtic harp – baby to Joanna Newsom’s concert mother. The song Hopscotch from their excellent new LP Grey Oceans (the one which sees them sporting strange Pharaonic beards and false eyebrows on the cover) was put into context as they started by chanting and playing a clapping game as if they were back on the childhood streets of their hometown. There were also interjections from a human beat box, which added a touch of hip hop to this already strange amalgam of folk, jazz, torch song and operatic nursery rhyme. This was the kind of music which you could imagine playing in some dreamlike end-of-the-world saloon (the one in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film Querelle springs to mind, although that had Jeanne Moreau providing the songs) and its lulling verses accompanied me into my dreamworld. It was a fitting end to a fine weekend. Thank you Mister Groening.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
I went to see Trembling Bells on Sunday at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter. On arriving, I found out, through asking at the box office counter, that the starting time had been shifted to 9, although the schedule on the noticeboard still said 8. The notice also still located it in what is known as the Voodoo Lounge, an attempt to lend an air of exoticism to what seems like an old schoolroom upstairs (the building used to be part of the university). Having returned nearer the time, we found this to be completely empty, and obviously not set up for anything. Asking where they were in fact playing, I was told, in a manner which suggested I was a bit of an idiot, that it was, of course, on the main stage. Pardon me for not being tuned in to the psychic frequency on which such announcements were clearly being announced. The main hall was supposed to be housing the milling throng who’d come to see the guitar stylings of ‘blues-rock legend’ , Tommy Castro, but he was nowhere to be found. Not quite legendary enough, it would seem, or perhaps it was the result of the complete lack of any advertising (although volcanic ash may also have played its part, of course. The lackadaisical ‘yeah, whatever’ atmosphere of amateurishness which the Arts Centre exudes perhaps explains the poor turnout for this concert. Trembling Bells have, after all, received a great deal of good press, and have been championed by the likes of Joe Boyd, Paul Weller, and Stuart Maconie on his radio 6 programme The Freak Zone, and Exeter is an area in which music which has a folk element generally attracts a good crowd. The Sunday evening factor may also have played its part, but more people should have been here, particularly as it was such a great gig.
The atmosphere did indeed have something of a Sunday evening air, the weekend already packed away and people’s minds half focussed on Monday morning. This may have explained the general hushed quietude which gave the between song interludes a slight sense of awkwardness. You might not have been able to hear a pin drop, but you could certainly hear a harmonica being fitted into its holder with a preternaturally loud series of exaggerated clunks. Singer Lavinia Blackwall seemed diffident and apologetically awkward in her introductions, and was occasionally helped along by fellow vocalist Alex Neilson’s amusingly offhand comments from behind his drumkit (he refrained from providing his own rimshots). I liked his reference to a large, barren area of featureless scrubland north of Yorkshire – Scotland. He’s allowed to say this, since they all live just north of Glasgow and are therefore adopted natives.
The band is generally filed under the heading folk rock, which doesn’t necessarily do them any favours. It’s a collision of styles which has produced occasionally sublime but often cumbersome and timelocked music. They’re a disparate bunch, whose take on folk is informed by the divergent musical genres in which they’re versed. The fact that they’re approaching the music from the perspective of interested outsiders means that this is third or fourth generation music, with no interest in the preservation of any notional idea of the purity of its sources. The folk elements of the songs, most of which are written by Alex Neilson, provide a backdrop of English romanticism on which to project tales of love, loss and yearning, and which lends them a real sense of place and seasonal atmosphere. The lyrics are romantic in the poetic sense, full of an evident love of language (and with the odd literary reference thrown in, such as the Dylan Thomas referencing ‘rage against the dying of the light’ chorus to When I Was Young), with Neilson in particular clearly enjoying the sound of particular words, which he rolls his voice around with emphatically articulated relish. It could be said that the 70s rock elements in the music are in fact as traditionally English as the folk aspect, so completely have they become part of the universally shared subconscious soundtrack to the era.
Trembling Bells - Live at the Vortex, London from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.<
Lavinia Blackwall, a tall woman, comes from a background in early and medieval music, which she studied for an MA, and has a soaring, pure-toned voice which would be equally at home in the classical recital hall. She stood out front behind her keyboard, although she generally favoured a hollow-bodied electric guitar on which she played ragged rhythm chords. She also accompanied her singing on one song with a celeste, handily contained in its own pastel blue carrying case. Alex Neilson, a fairly small man, stood out front to sing with Lavinia on the first number before retreating to his drum kit, where he joined that small coterie of vocalist drummers in the company of Karen Carpenter and, perhaps more appropriately, Levon Helm of The Band. He comes from a free jazz improvising background, and his drumming progresses in loose, shifting patterns which gives the music a feel of relaxed fluidity, avoiding the sometimes clodhopping rhythms of the 70s folk rock of yore. These songs sprawl, and feel like they could stretch out to Grateful Dead length if allowed, although perhaps fortunately, the band don’t allow themselves to lapse into such self indulgence. His drumming is visually interesting, too, as he sometimes raises his left arm and holds the stick, elbow bent, poised behind his head, as if taking part in some ritualistic form of Japanese percussion. He also adopts the usual panoply of dextrous stick twirls, although didn’t attempt any of the more advanced tossing the stick in the air and catching it moves.
His singing is an unaffectedly gruff yet quite light counterpoint to the crystal clarity of Lavinia Blackwall. Alone, it might prove insufficient to carry the weight of the songs, but in duet, it adds to the perfect blend of elements which create such a fine complimentary balance. He adds the odd enthusiastic yelp at appropriate moments, which vocalises the music’s joyful propulsion. Bassist Simon Shaw (a medium sized man) locked into the rhythm section faultlessly and provided the odd bit of backing vocal. The guitarist Mike Hastings, a big man (why am I so obsessed with their sizes? Perhaps my subconscious is trying to emphasize the disparate nature of the individuals which make up the band, the different qualities which they bring to it) really comes into his own live. His playing is given much more prominence, as he has to fill the gap left by the absence of the sounds of brass bands, crumhorns, recorders and harps which fill the records. He lead guitar, with the subtle addition of effects, has a liquid fluency, with forceful attack when required (he can rock out, in other words). Thankfully, he avoids the blues-based clichés which tended to provide the rock element of folk rock in the 70s, and marred records by the likes of Trees. His flowing guitar, with its blurred slides and swift flurries of notes reminded me of the free jazz player Sonny Sharrock, with hints too of West Coast psych bands. Oddly, I was also reminded, in more of an associative way, of XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, particularly his solo on That’s Really Super, Super Girl from the Skylarking LP. That’s probably just me, though. You can get an idea of Hastings’ playing from the track Love Made an Outlaw of My Heart from the new LP Abandoned Love. He also played a bit of mournful harmonica, to add a bit of extra, plangent shading.
They played a few tracks from Carbeth, one of my favourite LPs of last year, including When I Was Young, with its impassioned chorus, and to my delight, Willows of Carbeth, which is one of their most successful amalgams of folk and rock, and which Lavinia sings with real force. No Garlands of Stars, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything. There was plenty from the new record, which occasioned wry comments about the delight with which audiences tended to greet the announcement ‘we’re going to be playing mostly new stuff tonight’. Adieu England was one of the more folky tracks, and was preceded by patriotic assertions of the beauty of Yorkshire. Other numbers, such as Baby Lay Down Your Burden (which Alex claimed was written just so that they could have a song with the word ‘baby’ in the chorus) and Love Made an Outlaw of my Heart, suggest that they are quite happy to expunge the folk element of the folk-rock formula. As previously suggested, these had as much of a traditionalist air as the folkier songs. There was no September is the Month of Death, a gorgeous song from the new album, but perhaps it would be too difficult to reproduce its atmosphere, with its medieval instrumentation and double tracked vocals, live. The small crowd enthusiastically applauded for an encore, and Lavinia came back alone to back herself on guitar for a melancholy song of lost love whose chorus sung of feeling like Monday, appropriately enough for Sunday evening. Alex was enticed back, despite complaining of a sore throat, for a final a cappella rendition of Seven Years A Teardrop, the closing track from Carbeth, during which he bent the end of his vocal lines up to meet and harmonize with Lavinia. It brought a fine concert to a quiet but rousing finish.
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
Yvonne Loriod, the virtuoso pianist, ondes martenot player, composer, and wife and muse of Olivier Messiaen passed away on Monday. She was a piano player of amazing, intuitive technical facility. Messiaen composed music with her technique and style in mind, knowing that she could master the most taxing physical requirements which his musical imagination might demand. Her support of modern music and ability to understand and sympathetically interpret its often complex and bewilderingly new idioms led to her giving premieres of pieces by composers such as Boulez, as well as her husband. I remember hearing a broadcast of her playing Messian’s solo piano suite Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus one Christmas a while back. This was about 2 hours of the most demanding music for the performer, full of block chords, birdsong trills, unconvential non-western rhythms and wide dynamic shifts. Incredibly, she played it all from memory. She had the eidetic ability to absorb music as if it were a vividly recalled film, and had learned the entirety of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier when she was still in her teens. She was also a composer herself, although her works seem to be seldom performed or recorded. Perhaps she lies too much in the prominent shadow of her husband. Her works tend to feature both piano and the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument which includes both a keyboard and a ring controller which could be swept up and down to create gliding swoops of sound. Her sister Jeanne was a master of the instrument, and would play on these pieces, as well as on Messiaen’s compositions which incorporated it (and his enthusiasm is indicated by the fact that he composed a piece for 6 Ondes Martenots in 1937 called Fetes des Belles Eaux – you can hear Oraisons, an extract from it, on the Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music box set). Yvonne was also played the Ondes Martenot, and did so more often after Jeanne died in 2001. There aren’t too many players of this rare instrument left in the world (although Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has done his bit to popularise it, and I saw one being played in Yann Tiersen’s band) and Loriod’s death makes it seem like an increasingly endangered species. To think of all that music in her head, memorised and stored away, waiting to be given life by the unique spirit with which she could imbue it. Now it’s gone. I shall go and listen to Jardin du Sommeil d’Amour from Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, on a recording which features Jeanne on Ondes Martenot and Yvonne on piano. It makes for a fitting and beautiful elegy.
Thursday, 6 May 2010
Bedlam was Val Lewton’s third consecutive film with Boris Karloff, and he once more provided the actor with the opportunity to provide a performance of great subtlety, creating a nuanced character whose evil is as much a product of his social milieu as it is inherent. Lewton and Karloff were by now entirely comfortable with each other’s artistic approaches, a relationship of mutual respect having expanded into friendship. The Body Snatcher had been a huge success, both critically and in terms of box office returns. As a result, Lewton was given a much greater budget for Bedlam and allowed more time to prepare the picture. The production was even deemed prestigious enough to attract a four page article in Life Magazine. It seemed that Lewton’s time had come, and that he could at last look forward to working with a greater degree of independence and creative control. It was not to last, alas, but Bedlam does bear his authorial stamp more indelibly than any of the films which he produced. It mixes elements from his two previous historical pictures with Karloff, The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead. It is meticulous in the recreation of historical detail, in mannerisms and costume as much as in set dressing. It also takes much inspiration from works of art. Whereas Isle of the Dead drew on Goya and Bocklin, Bedlam takes much of its detail from the etchings and paintings of William Hogarth. The wealth of detail in Hogarth’s prints provided a rich visual source of historical detail for Lewton and his director and screenplay co-writer Mark Robson, and the film openly acknowledges this influence, displaying some of these works at intervals throughout.
The credit sequence uses a series of Hogarth prints and paintings as a backdrop. This progression emulates the sequential, narrative nature of some of Hogarth’s best-known works. His picture series such as The Rake’s Progress and the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice tell a story in a number of carefully detailed tableaux, which mark the stations of the protagonist’s experiences, generally marking an inexorable descent into madness, degradation and death. There are many symbolic objects and significant background details which point to the moral cause, both in their character and in the wider social and political milieu, of their downfall. The paintings and etchings which Lewton uses in these opening credits might not form a sequential narrative, but they do refer to various aspects of the film to which they act as a prelude, introducing themes, characters and settings in much the same way as might the overture to an opera. They also provide an appropriate commentary or reflection on the credits to which they form the backdrop, sometimes with a slyly humorous or satirical edge.
The Company of UndertakersThe first picture is not part of one of Hogarth’s narrative series, but is the satirical coat of arms ‘The Company of Undertakers’, which he had originally intended to title ‘A Consultation of Quacks’, since these are in fact medical men (and one woman, in the centre at the top). The tips of the canes apparently contained disinfectant, which some of them wave in front of their noses, presumably to ward of the stink of decay. The utilitarian wigs and the ponderous manner in which some of them prop their chins atop the knobs of their canes, along with their general funereal air, are a model for the appearance and bearing of Boris Karloff’s character Simms, whose sombre, unadorned garb is so at odds with the obligatory gaiety and bright dandyism displayed in the upper echelons of society. This print is indeed used for Boris Karloff’s credit card. Karloff once more receives top, star billing, as he had in both Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher.
The Idle and Industrious 'PrenticeThe second Hogarth picture is a print from the parallel narrative sequence The Idle and Illustrious ‘Prentice, stories which set out to illustrate the moral and material benefits of hard work in their depiction of the rise and fall of two characters who set out with an identical employment and social standing. The first plate in the series finds them both at their looms in a silk weavers’ workshop in Spitalfields (on the border between the East End and the City of London). One is absorbed in his work, his calmly intent features illuminated by the light pouring through the window. The other is dozing and dishevelled, the shuttle of his loom hanging idle and toyed with by a white cat. He is in shadow and leaning, mouth agape, against the wooden frame of his loom in a manner which anticipates his end on the gallows at Tyburn. The plate from the series which Lewton uses here is number 12, depicting the culmination of the industrious apprentice’s rise, as he rides through London in his carriage after having been made Lord Mayor. This street scene depicts the throng of a milling and shouting mob which surrounds his progress; a celebratory crowd but one whose mood you feel could easily turn. This forms the ‘Bedlam’ title card, and the word here seems to be used as the abstract noun, which derived from the vernacular term for the Royal Bethlehem Hospital. In this usage, it describes a state of uncontrollable chaos and disorder. The fact that bedlam is shown here erupting out in the open in society at large illustrates the blurring of the distinction between the world inside the madhouse and that beyond its walls which is central to the film. The industrious apprentice’s ascension to such a prominent position also introduces the idea of social aspiration and mobility; the idea that someone from a relatively humble background (such as Hogarth himself) could attain a position of some importance through hard work and the application of their own innate talents. The validity of such a meritocratic ideology is later called into question by the Quaker character Hannay.
A Harlot's Progress plate 4 - Scene in BridewellThe third picture backs the credit for the actress Anna Lee, who plays Nell Bowen, the film’s heroine. It is plate 4 of ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, entitled ‘Scene in Bridewell’. Here, the protagonist of this tale of moral degradation and individual and social exploitation, Moll, finds herself in Bridewell Prison, having been arrested for common prostitution. She is obliged to join the ranks of prisoners who beat hemp cloth on stumps of wood, overseen by the cruel-faced jailor, who holds his cane at the ready to thrash any who are recalcitrant in their labours. This anticipates Nell’s incarceration in Bedlam, and the cruelty with which its director Simms oversees his charges. The social status of the prisoners in the print, with an ordered downward ranking from left to right, also anticipates the social divisions which exist within the central hall of Bedlam. The credits for the cast are appropriately backed by the print ‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’. This also makes reference to Nell’s past incarnation as an itinerant actress in a group of strolling players (a background perhaps suggested to Lewton and Robson by this very print). The chaos which is barely kept in check (and going by the fire which has just broken out in the rafters, won’t be for very much longer) suggests the tenuous nature of such a profession, as well as the air of dubious repute with which it tended to be associated, partly as a result of such insecurity. The formal pageant which this largely female troop seems to be rehearsing anticipates the masque which Simms prepares for Lord Mortimer’s banquet in Vauxhall Gardens.
A favourite, and entrusted by his masterThe fifth picture is another from the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice series, this time plate 4. We are once more following the prospering fortunes of the industrious apprentice, here seen in the silk weaving workshop where he is evidently taking on a more supervisory role. This is a depiction of a harmonious workplace, the owner looking on with appreciative approval at the order which the apprentice has created, with workers assiduously spinning and weaving at their wheels and looms, each at their assigned position in a workshop filled with light. His gesture seems to indicate that he is happy to leave the apprentice (as was) with the responsibility for supervising the work. This scene is given the title ‘A Favourite, and Entrusted by his Master’ and forms the backdrop for the credit of Jack Gross as ‘Executive Producer’. Gross had arrived at RKO from Universal Studios and had become Lewton’s boss during the making of Mademoiselle Fifi, the historical drama based on two Maupassant stories which had preceded Isle of the Dead. Lewton hated his interfering management and what he saw as his vulgar attitude towards film and particularly the type of horror picture which he was trying to make. The imposition of Karloff, which Lewton intitially resented, seemed to epitomise Gross’ intention to import the values of the Universal monster factory into RKO. In a letter to his mother, Lewton referred to him as ‘an abysmally ignorant and stupid gentleman’. It’s perhaps typical that even in his most vituperative put downs, an element of gentility remains. Gross had interfered constantly in the making of The Body Snatcher, pushing Lewton to include more scenes of a graphic and shocking nature. Lewton felt himself to be far from the ‘favourite’ of his ‘master’ and regarded him with a barely disguised contempt. It’s probably safe to say that the choice of this Hogarth print to accompany Gross’ credit (which comes before Lewton’s own) was made with pointed ironic intent. The weaving workshop also resembles the printers in which Nell makes her rendezvous with the Whig politician and reformist John Wilkes. The notion inherent in this picture and the series as a whole, that work is good for the soul and carries its own inherent rewards, is one which is also elucidated in the film by the Quaker stonemason, Hannay. In the centre of the picture, the cat arching its back in a gesture of aggressive defensiveness at the passing dog adds a nice incidental nod to Cat People, as well as indicating the key symbolic role which pets and animals in general play in the film. Hogarth, like Lewton, may be expressing his own dislike of cats here (perhaps his best known self-portrait is of himself with his pet pug Trump). A cat is associated with the idle apprentice in the first print in the series, and in this industrious and prospering workshop, the cat is here seen to be on the defensive. Indeed, it may well be about to be chased out by the dog, which loyally accompanies its master in his labours as he carries in rolls of finished silk.
The Rake's Progress part 8 - Scene in a MadhouseThe screenplay credits are backed by plate 8 of Hogarth’s best known narrative sequence, The Rake’s Progress, the story of the self-inflicted decline and fall of one Tom Rakewell. This is entitled ‘Scene in a Madhouse’, which is, of course, Bedlam. This is the key Hogarth work from which the film draws its detail and the painter is given the most prominent billing at the top of this screenplay credit to emphasise the primacy of his inspiration. It states that the film is ‘suggested by’ the painting Bedlam (which is not actually the title by which it is known) although this might implicitly include the works of Hogarth as a whole, which were the primary source for its look and tone. The picture is, as the credit states, taken from the series of paintings rather than the prints of The Rake’s Progress. These can be seen (and I did indeed recently see them) in the wonderfully eccentric house of the architect John Soane, which is now a museum and a hidden London treasure. They have to be uncovered by an attendant in the picture gallery, Soane having used his ingenuity to design a system of folding panels to solve the problems of space caused by his obsessive collecting and hoarding tendencies. This may also have been convenient in covering their controversial content from the eyes of his more genteel guests. The painting provides several details for the set of the Bedlam interior later in the film. These include the globe sketched on the wall (a recurring image from previous paintings or plates in The Rake’s Progress series) with its lines of longitude and latitude. This is both a symbol of rationalism, and of the idea that Bedlam contains a world unto itself, albeit a constrained one which offers few opportunities for travel. At the bottom of this card, Lewton himself takes writing credit, alongside director Mark Robson, using his adopted pseudonym of Carlos Keith, which he had also used on The Body Snatcher.
The Idle 'Prentice - betray'd by his whoreThe 7th picture takes us back to the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice sequence. This time, we focus on the idler as he is about to meet his fate in plate 9. As its title points out, it depicts the idle apprentice ‘Betray’d by his Whore and Taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice’. The whore is pointing to the apprentice as the magistrate and his guards enter to arrest him, but she might also be pointing to Lewton’s crew, for whose credits this forms the backdrop. He jovially paints them as a band of rogues, co-conspirators who have somehow managed to get away with it thus far, and huddle over their ill-gotten gains in the cellar room of a pub. The brute chaos underlying the surface appearance of order, reason and rationality is highlighted, along with the venal and predatory side of human nature which Hogarth so mercilessly exposed. This gives us a hint of the murky depths of society into which we will be guided.
Beer StreetThe 8th picture is a detail from the print Beer Street, which bears Lewton’s own producer’s credit. This print depicted the contrary state to that illustrated in Gin Street, in which the same locale had fallen into physical and social decay and dissipation, with only the pawnbroker prospering (in Beer Street, his premises is the only one in a state of disrepair). The scene here is full of bustling life, with one inn being repaired, and another having its sign freshly painted. The artist with his palette stands in for Lewton himself, as if he is making the point that this is above all his creation. The 9th picture takes us back once more to the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice series. This time we see the industrious prentice in plate 2 ‘Performing the Duty of a Christian’. He is piously singing from a hymn book which he shares with a young woman who leans over from the neighbouring pew, who rather conveniently happens to be his master’s daughter. Hogarth himself had married the daughter of the prominent artist Sir James Thornhill, at whose academy in Covent Garden he had been a pupil, so there may be an element of autobiography to this scene of blossoming romance. This is the print which is used for Mark Robson’s credit as director, and may be Lewton’s way of telling his apprentice that he is doing a good and righteous job. The church setting, with the apprentice and the young lady sharing their hymnbook, also makes reference to the Quaker Hannay’s attempts to guide Nell towards a recognition of the value of compassion towards and concern for her fellow man, the social engagement which for him is underpinned by his religious beliefs.
The Idle 'Prentice - executed at TyburnThe final picture is also the final print from the idle ‘prentice’s story, plate 11 of the series, in which he is carried in a cart towards the triple tree of the Tyburn gallows, making last minute penances before the Methodist preacher who accompanies him. A packed and lawless crowd eagerly awaits the entertainment which his hanging will provide them. This is the London mob, the unruly mass force which also surrounded the industrious apprentice’s Lord Mayoral carriage in the first print of the series, which headed the credits (after Boris Karloff’s standalone card). The mob offers the everpresent possibility of the explosive eruption of social chaos. It is the aspect of 18th century society which underlies the ordered veneer of civilised sophistication, the rarefied circles of the wits, dandies and political progressives who populate the guarded interiors and gardens of the city. The mob is the force of the streets, the lawless territories in which the laws of nature, of the survival of the fittest, prevail, and where morality is an unaffordable luxury. These two worlds, the world of wealthy society and of the street, are contrasted in Bedlam, and Nell’s incarceration is in some ways a descent from one to the other. The barbarous scene at Tyburn forms the backdrop to the title card in which Lewton provides us with his historical introduction to the film’s period setting. He indicates time and place (London, 1761) and offers ironic quotation marks around the statement that this is what was called ‘The Age of Reason’. The picture of the hanging and the chaotic air of festivity which surrounds it suggests a desperate revelry in the face of death. The sense of an abyss lying beneath the surface of civilisation is metaphysical as much as it is social. We are given a glimpse of the dark depths, both of the city and of the human soul, into which we will be guided.
Cinematographic etchingThis scene of a hanging dissolves into another. At first, we seem to be looking at another print. The dark façade of a looming, gothic building stands starkly etched against a star speckled night sky. The gateway to the left is topped by two statues, which reflect Lewton’s usual scrupulous historical research. These are the figures of the raving and the melancholic states of madness, one looking down and one gazing upwards, which stood at the entrance to Bedlam at the time. Hogarth echoes these contrasting states in the figures of Tom Rakewell and the religious maniac praying in his cell in the Scene in a Madhouse from The Rake’s Progress, which will be reproduced later in the film. The camera zooms in on this façade as if we are examining the print more closely, and a patch of bright whiteness against the gloomy walls is revealed as the shirt worn by a figure who is struggling to climb onto the roof, from the guttering of which he is hanging. As the camera moves in, he seems initially out of proportion to the size of the building, as if he is a giant. It’s as if this is a theatrical flat, to whose trompe l’oeil height and depth we are still visually adjusting after the curtain’s rise. An official with a lantern appears, but rather than help the struggling man, he sends him plunging to his death below with casually callous deliberation. According to Tom Weaver’s commentary on the dvd, the ensuing scream is taken from one of the sailor’s on the soundtrack of King Kong (another RKO production), which is appropriate given the confusion in scale. This scene of a hanging man has ended with the same finality as that of the idle apprentice. The camera pans around as people rush to discover his body and focuses on the sign attached to the gatepost: St Mary’s Bethlehem Asylum.
streets of fireWe see a fire in the street which a carriage passes by. The fire is an indicator of the atmosphere of chaos and disorder which smoulders in the streets, and which can easily be sparked into a full blown conflagration given the right prevailing conditions. An open fire in the street is depicted in Hogarth’s painting and print Night, from his The Four Times of the Day series, although in this case it causes the passing carriage to crash. Lewton returns to this picture for inspiration later in the film. Inside the carriage, sheltered from external disorder, all is good cheer. A dark haired woman with a veil, who we later discover is the film’s heroine, Nell Bowen, talks to a parrot, and it is through the bird that we are introduced to her travelling companion, Lord Mortimer. Lewton memorably describes Lord Mortimer in his script as ‘a blandly stout man, puffy as a Yorkshire pudding, with a belly that would do honour to Silenus’. Nell’s pet parrot is indicative of the important role which animals play in the film. She talks through the parrot, which thus takes on human characteristics. Nell in her turn has something of the parrot about her in the way that she tends to talk in short, curt phrases of a brittle, sharp brightness. Similar transformations happen out in the world, with people taking on, or being ascribed animal characteristics and being treated accordingly. The parrot spouts a bit of doggerel which casts Lord Mortimer himself as an animal: ‘Lord Mortimer is like a pig/His brain is small and his belly is big’. Both he and Nell turn and laugh at each other. Laughter and gaiety are a disguise and a distraction, a way of diverting attention from the unpleasant aspects of the surrounding world, and also of getting away with bald insults under the guise of amusement. As Lewton writes in his introduction to Nell in the script, ‘she is bold as a frigate, merry as a flag with no more thought for right and wrong, or the problems of the future, than the parrot on her wrist. She would rather say a bright word than do a good deed’.
The World seen through a windowThe carriage draws up by the gathering crowd in Bedlam gardens, which causes an inconvenient delay to their progress. The crowd is seen by them through the frame of the carriage window, which is a screen within the larger screen of the cinematic frame. They are watching the world outside from a distanced perspective. It is a world through which they wish to pass without their attention being distracted, without any contact being made. But the unpredictable behaviour of the crowd forces external events to impinge on their consciousness and temporarily intrude upon their self-contained world of wit and charm. The woman’s response to the news that the delay has been caused by one of the ‘loonies’ is a bright ‘a prank? A jest?’ This is the reflexive response of someone for whom the tireless search for the next amusing diversion is the primary raison d’etre in life. When she sees the building, she remarks, with a dismissive disappointment, ‘it does not look so merry a place, milord’. Lord Mortimer begs to differ, saying ‘you’ll have to pay Master Simms tuppence to see all the loonies in their cages’. This introduces the idea of Bedlam as a human zoo, and a place where suffering is offered as entertainment. Human beings are regarded as animals, and can thereby be easily dismissed as a lower order of existence. The idea of the currency of human exchange is also raised, the way in which men and women are bought and sold, attempt to increase their value in the social marketplace, or lose it altogether and become offered as exhibition for the gain of others. Lord Mortimer is indifferent to the death of the ‘escapee’ and evidently eager to move on, but his attention is caught when he finds out that dead man, ‘young master Colby’, was an acquaintance of his. He immediately becomes business-like, adopting a serious and admonitory tone. Upon learning of his absence, Simms is blamed for ‘dining out with Colby’s blood on his hands’. Some lives are worth more than others, it would seem. The master of Bedlam is summoned to wait upon Lord Mortimer’s pleasure the following morning. Hierarchies are thus established. Simms is effectively being asked to pay court.
The waiting gameThe first of the film’s inter-titles follows, a device familiar from previous Lewton pictures. Whereas in previous films these had tended to focus on symbolic objects which drew attention to the undercurrents of the story, in Bedlam they take the form of Hogarth prints, details from which are then reproduced in the following scene. The work shown here is The Company of Undertakers, which we have already seen at the beginning of the film, bearing Boris Karloff’s lead credit. And here, the picture dissolves to reveal Karloff as Simms, sombrely bewigged and dressed in dark, heavy clothing which would perfectly suit an undertaker. His appearance contrasts markedly with the light and elegant surroundings. He leans his chin pensively atop his cane in a manner which is a direct echo of the characters in Hogarth’s print. The pose suggests that he has been waiting here some time. The muffled sound of the parrot croaking ‘Lord Mortimer is like a pig’ comes from the room beyond the door, followed by bright laughter; a world of merriment from which he is excluded, and which causes a frown of frustration to cross his face. Footmen pass through and ignore him, followed by a small black boy in a turban. This is a figure familiar from Hogarth pictures. Such a figure can be found in plate 4 of Marriage a la mode, ‘The Countess’ Levy’, and in the satire on Society pretension, ‘Taste in High Life’. Simms stops the boy and asks him to remind Lord Mortimer of his presence. The boy puts on a theatrical air of haughty superiority and enters the room, leaving Simms to scowl and wait.
armed with a looking glassInside the room, Lord Mortimer is delicately sipping tea in bed, dressed in a frilly silk nightshirt. Nell leans on the corner bedpost, dressed mannishly in a tricorne hat and jacket, with cravatte. There is a sense of role reversal in their appearances, Lord Mortimer taking the passive, supine position and appearing more feminine than Nell, who looks prepared for some sort of practical activity. Lord Mortimer furthers this impression by carefully attending to his beauty spots, using a hand mirror to place them just so. This is a world of mirrors in which attention to appearance is of paramount importance. Appearance combined with wit are the qualities which determine one’s standing, and the need to create an impression is vital. The looking glass becomes like a sidearm, the dandy’s weaponry for the cutting showdown. Nell casts a look (unnoticed) of undisguised contempt as she watches Lord Mortimer’s attempts at beautification. The boy makes a face in the mirror, which he says is like that of the visitor in the hallway. It is thus made clear that Simms singularly fails to meet the standards required for this company. The bedroom is a protected interior world like that of the carriage, and Simms is the intruder from barbarous realms beyond. Lord Mortimer calls him in, and Nell sardonically echoes his summons in a way which asserts her sense of security in her position within this protected enclave. ‘First course for milord’s rage’, she adds brightly, as if she is looking forward to the spectacle of his dressing down. Her every word is gilded with an aura of arch self-awareness, a feeling that every utterance must be witty and light; and as a result, utterly inconsequential, even when important matters might incidentally be addressed.
Out in the corridor, Simms looks worried. He enters with a bow-legged and stooped gait, which suggests both age and the possibility of a deformity caused by dietary insufficiency, such as rickets. He pats his wig, basic though it is, into place, recognising the importance of appearance in the glittering world he is about to enter. The footmen close the doors and then crouch to listen in, eager, like Nell, to enjoy his humiliation. Once more, human suffering is offered up as entertainment. The black boy comes out and gives them a look, and they scatter. They know their place in the hierarchy. Unlike them, we will be a privileged spectator at Simms’ audience. The footmen’s dismissal gives us a heightened sense of voyeuristic pleasure and anticipation. Simms is clearly in for a rough ride.