Monday, 26 April 2010

Jodorowsky's Dune - The Ideal Film

I stepped on to the train last week and travelled along the edge of sea and estuary, skirting the boundaries of moorland and threading through verdant hills until we entered we entered the concrete city. In short, I took a day trip to Plymouth, a place where the weather forecast seems stuck to a permanent prediction that it will be ‘partly cloudy’, as if the all-pervasive greyness of the post-war development is refracted back into the sky. The object of my journey was the exhibition which centred around the production designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s swiftly abandoned Dune project. It was subtitled ‘an exhibition of a film of a book that never was’, a circumlocuitous way of including Frank Herbert’s novel in the equation. Indeed, ther was a shelf upon which the novel was to be found in all the varying colours of its paperback publishing history. The exhibition was displayed in an arts centre housed in a small row of old and rather rickety half-timbered buildings of some vintage at the end of a quiet terraced street which leads you to a very busy road and the rather unlovely surrounds of the bus station. Beyond this is a completely inaccessible traffic island about which a stream of traffic constantly circulates, and on which the ruins of a bombed out church are stranded. It serves as a perfect metaphor for the post-war development of the city. There is a sense that the terraced street into which the arts centre has been inserted marks some sort of frontier, or interzone, between old and new. It’s both on the edge of the new city, and off at an angle from the old Barbican dockside area. It’s a small pocket of the old everyday city which was somehow missed by the Luftwaffe, who otherwise did such a thorough job of levelling everything in their sites. Given their peripheral location, the arts centre is probably doing a good job in preserving these houses, which might otherwise fall to rack and ruin. It’s a rather incongruous setting for an exhibition which offers the dreams of advanced technology and interplanetary travel that are central to space opera.

Jodorowsky talks of his ideas for a film of Dune in terms of his own mystically inclined worldview, which had been expounded with varying degrees of clarity in El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The exhibition notes quote him as saying “there is a Hebraic legend which says: ‘the Messiah will not be a man but a day: the day when all human beings will be illuminated’. Kabbalists speak about a cosmic consciousness, a species of meta-Universe. And this for me was what the Dune project was”. The modern artists in this exhibition follow this mystical interpretation rather than the more conventional Ruritanian tale set against a Lawrence of Arabia backdrop which lies beneath the science fiction exoticism of Herbert’s novel. The three artists who Jodorowsky recruited to work with him, Chris Foss, HR Giger and Moebius, essentially do their own thing.

HR Giger - Harkonnen Castle
HR Giger seems to do little to adapt his style to the material at hand. Perhaps Jodorowsky hired him because he felt that this style would fit in with his own ideas of the look of the planet of Arrakis and its architecture. I’m not sure that Giger’s obsessively reiterated biomorphic forms are appropriate in this context. They are more suited to portraying the dessicated remains of a civilisation (or the husks of its inhabitants) rather than one which is in full, if decadent, flower. They were perfect for Alien, therefore. On the other hand, with a little subsequent redrawing, they could have suggested structures shaped by sandblown centuries, buildings with the bones showing through. Giger’s Harkonnen Castle is essentially a huge statue of its inhabitant, as if it had accreted around his recumbent form. It squats like a huge and bloated Buddha, gaping outlets like the mouths of shells allowing for the expulsion of vast quantities of waste. If this is a rounded and feminine form, for all that it’s moulded around its male inhabitant, then Giger’s staircase is aggressively phallic. Swords thrust out from either side to lend each step of the way a menacing air of threat and impending violence. This is further displayed in his skull fronted train (an odd design choice for a public transport system) which seems made for high speed collisions.

Chris Foss - Spice Container
Chris Foss’ Spice Ship is a very feminine form, its great, transparent belly pregnant with the billowing clouds of blue spice. The Emperor’s Artificial Planet and The Emperor’s Palace reflect the symmetrical polygonal forms of the Pythagorean solids, which were held by Pythagoras, Plato and their followers to represent a mathematical purity which provided the underlying structure and ordered harmony of the universe. These geometrical forms stand in opposition to the more natural, rounded forms, and together they embody the forces of order and chaos, the manufactured and the naturally evolved. A geometrical form hewn from stone which falls short of the perfection of the Pythagorean solids features amongst the objects in Albrecht Durer’s print Melancolia. It represents one of the ways in which the mind can become weighed down. Abstract notions of ideal forms don’t necessarily help when struggling with human imperfections in the chaotic flux of the world of coarse matter. The prints of Chris Foss’ characteristic and vividly coloured spaceships, which graced many a Panther SF paperback in the 70s, have sketches in the borders at the bottom which depict technologised landscapes (spaceports and mesas), setting the scene for the interplanetary civilisation whose vehicles he has imagined. Moebius’ costume designs were seen only within a supplement taken from a copy of the French comic, or bands desinees, magazine Metal Hurlant (known over here as Heavy Metal), which was laid out sequentially on a low table, covered with Perspex. My grasp of French is somewhat basic, and certainly insufficient to warrant bending down to read at length. Moebius’ costumes looked colourful and exotic, with a customary liking for the bulbous, and were once again recognisably in his characteristic style. If the film, as Jodorowsky had envisaged it, had kept true to the designs of these three artists, it would have emerged as a strange, hybrid creature, a patchwork cockatrice of a beast.

The works produced by the three artists inspired by Jodorowsky and his collaborators’ ideas for Dune were scattered through three rooms on three levels of the arts centre. In the basement, you come face to face with a silver metallic mask draped, made by American artist Steven Claydon, which has a wild sprouting of raffia-like hair, resembling either the matted locks of a sadhu, or the untamed split ends of a hippie in the Jerry Garcia mould. This disconcerting visage could be the death mask of a prophet, or that of a deranged killer. The uncertainty of its provenance reminds us that the abandonment of rationality in favour of mysticism, which was a marked tendency in the era of the 60s and early 70s, can open the door for charismatic psychopaths (Charles Manson being the emblematic example) whose ravings are accepted as profound insights by minds which have been exhorted to abandon ego and reject ingrained pattern of thinking. In turning away from the established systems of belief and figures of authority, many sought alternative sources, and there were plenty who were happy to take on a messianic mantle and provide them with the wisdom which their instant enlightenment had granted them. Science fiction played its part, providing material which was thrown into the general collage of voguish ideas, alongside ill-digested eastern religions and half-baked occultism. The novels which became cult accoutrements for the counter-culture tended towards the fascistic, Robert A Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land being a good example. Ideas of evolutionary advancement towards higher forms reinforced the idea amongst many that there was something innately special about them, that they were set apart from the wider society, which remained stubbornly unenlightened. Such views were embodied in Jefferson Airplane’s song Crown of Creation, which lifts whole chunks of its lyrics verbatim from John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.

There are aspects of Jodorowsky’s films which are visually striking and which show evidence of a powerful imagination at work. But they seem to be a product of that self-absorbed mysticism of the time, which turned inwards and became detached from the world and, in that detachment, came to consider itself superior to or beyond its concerns. The films toy with religious iconography and sententious symbolism, but there never seems to be any overall coherence. Although perhaps Jodorowsky would argue that the lack of coherence was a way to jolt the mind from prefixed patterns of thinking and seeing. The enthusiasm with which they were received in some quarters (and Holy Mountain was funded due to the enthusiastic support of John Lennon) may simply be the dope-addled mind’s enjoyment of weirdness for its own sake. To convey mystical insight, clarity is needed above all, but here, any illumination tends to get lost in a mist of obfuscation. Exhibition curator Tom Morton wonders whether Jodorowsky’s film of Dune, had it been realised, would have marked a new direction for cinematic SF. It might rather have appeared as a singular grand folly, marking the last sunset days of a dying era. The failure to get beyond the preliminary sketch stage is in itself an indication that those last days were in fact already gone, the shadows of dusk having crept up unnoticed.

Claydon’s mask, which could represent Jodorowsky the mad magician, has eyes which are bulging out on spiralling tubular protuberances. They are like the fixtures of screw-top lightbulbs, the bulbs themselves, we can imagine, lodged behind the eye sockets, producing a dazzling flood of inward illumination. The face itself is peppered with pinprick holes, through which this inner light would leak back out into the world in pointillistic beams. On the opposite wall, Claydon has hung a bifurcated print of the writer Somerset Maugham. I have absolutely no idea why he has done this, and it frankly meant nothing to me (I didn’t even realise it was Somerset Maugham at the time). Perhaps Maugham’s supercilious, disdainful gaze is supposed to represent the attitude of the literary (and artistic) establishment towards science fiction. Or it may be a simple facing off on the gallery walls between an aloof and coolly balanced view of art, and the wild-eyed and wholly unbalanced outlook of the mask; The old opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The mask’s three dimensionality, together with the fact Maugham’s portrait has been sliced in half, suggests that the latter is definitely in the ascendant here.

French artist Vidya Gastaldon seems to have chosen, and perhaps wisely, not to read all of Herbert’s novel, but to select passages at random with the use of the I-Ching on which to base her works. The use of the I-Ching would be particularly apposite had she be choosing passages from the novels of Philip K Dick, given his personal use of the oracle and his incorporation of its interweaving of chance and order into the alternate world of The Man in the High Castle. Gastaldon includes the extracts from the book which she has chanced upon (or been guided towards?) in her pictures, etched in pencil, and the words provide a contextual anchor for the swirling watercolour landscapes which surround them. They also provide the titles for the paintings. The quote ‘what senses do we lack that we cannot hear another world around us’ is inscribed to the side of a landscape which is being engulfed in an all-pervasive sandstorm. An ear has formed within the sand clouds and eyes have flowered on stalks below. The desert possesses its own godlike sentience, watching over and listening in to whatever is occurring within its boundaries. Another picture has eyes floating in the sky, an image which has further resonance Philip K Dick’s work, notably his novel Eye In The Sky. Gastaldon paints the desert in psychedelicised colours - bright oranges, yellows and reds (vermillion sands). In The Lasting Conquest of the Night, her sandworms billow like clouds, soft and bulbous forms with large, bassett-hound eyes. They seem more playful than threatening. They are feminine forms, rounded and non-angular, which spew out Pythagorean polygonal solids in their wake. In another picture, these worms, which she manages to make utterly unphallic, become more aggressive, having developed a ring of sharp, bared vagina dentate. The landscapes are semi-animate, the lines of distinction between flora and fauna, sand and sky blurred and indeterminate.

Vidya Gastaldon - I Must Not Fear Death
British artist Matthew Day Jackson’s To Infinity…is found upstairs an makes for an immediately arresting encounter (you can see it at the head of this post). A golden skeleton hangs from the wall, topped with a black ebony-like skull. To the right, a progression of skulls traces an evolutionary sequence, the curve of the brain pan becoming ever more geometrical, its surfaces smoothing out into regular, flat planes until finally the eye sockets, which have transformed into a kind of visor, disappear altogether and we are left with a black pyramid. This is the tetrahedron, the simplest and therefore purest of the Pythagorean polygonal solids. One face is sprinkled with gold paint, which resembles a star field against the black background, and there is a small circle of pearl embedded in its midst, like a milky planet. The skull, now with no doors of perception, contains the mind which is in itself sufficient to encompass the universe. It is a progression which neatly summarises the mystical version of Dune which Jodorowsky envisaged. The skull imagines the development of a perception of the universe in its ideal form, beyond the limited, indirect vision offered by the senses. It is the form in which Jodorowsky’s film remains.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Terence Davies' Sound Pictures

Between the Ears, the Saturday evening ‘radiophonic’ programme on BBC radio 3, this week broadcast Intensive Care, Terence Davies’ memoir of his relationship with his mother. The title bears a double meaning, taking in both its common medical usage, as Davies observes his mother decline and progress towards death, and more centrally, the intensive care which she had offered him throughout his life, and which had been a stable and constant centre of love and support for him. It was a love and care which he tried to reciprocate, but always with the feeling that he was somehow letting her down. He is very sensitive to perceived rejection, and harsh words and small cruelties affect him deeply. Such blows are harboured and dwelt upon, seen as signs of a hostile vindictiveness which exists in the world beyond the calm acceptance of his mother’s presence. He relates an encounter with a young drama student, who’s clearly taken a dislike to him and attempted to infect others with her disdain. With a disingenuous preface she spitefully observes, in front of the whole class, ‘I don’t mean to be nasty, but you’re a real mother’s boy, aren’t you?’ Hurt by the hateful and accusatory tone, and the implication of abnormality behind the attack, he replies ‘yes, I love my mother very much’. This radio piece is an expression of that love. It covers ground touched upon in the autobiographical matter of his first two feature length films, Distant Voices and Still Lives and The Long Day Closes; but this is the heart’s blood, the exposure of painful memories undisguised by the distancing devices of art. It is a love letter, a love poem and a love song to the love of his life.

Lost in memories - The Long Day Closes
Davies’ play (for want of a better word) begins with the faint ghost of Kurt Weill’s September Song emerging from a sea of static, as if a wireless is just warming up. This could also represent the fog of clouded memory slowly clearing to reveal a clear and sharp picture. The bleeps and crackles in the background could either be the sound of radio frequencies oscillating as the station wavers in its uncertainly tuned station, or they could be the noises made by intensive care machinery as it labours to preserve a life and electronically record its waning pulse. These bleeps also later register as the sound of sonar signals, measuring out the depths of feelings and emotions which surge beneath the surface, never directly expressed but felt nevertheless. There is the mournful call of whales at one point, too, further suggesting deeps well below the shallows of unreflective consciousness, diving down into the levels in which the reveries of associative memory flash freely by.

Ecstatic carpet
As in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, as well as the poetic documentary Time and the City, the specificity of memory, of a particular moment recalled, is bound up with music, and especially song. Davies delights in telling us that his mother was born in the same year as Shostakovich (1906), a piece of synchronicity which highlights his ineluctable association of her with music, her life the songs she sings. Classical music and the popular songs from the shows and movies which his family used to sing are the twin poles of the soundtrack to Davies’ memory, and may indeed be used as a means of invocation. Nothing conjures up the flavour and scent of the past like a familiar piece of music which has accompanied you through the years. Music finds a direct path to the emotions and inexpressible sensations connected with time and place which might otherwise have evaporated, gone in the air (to borrow Eric Dolphy’s quote about music). This is exemplified in a pure and almost abstract form in a scene from The Long Day Closes in which the changing pattern of light wavering over the design on a front room carpet is accompanied by the evocative opening bars of George Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow, perfectly expressing the ache of memory, of a moment of reverie recalled, the timeless drift of a childhood afternoon which seemed like it was a slice of eternity, but which was destined to pass forever out of reach. The music can awaken a trace remembrance of that heightened state, however. I find this scene enormously affecting; it seems to say so much about how memory works, and the strange mix of melancholy and exhilaration which it can simultaneously encompass. As Davies’ says in this play, ‘it is the small things which hold the weight of memory’. Others found this scene merely dull, and couldn’t understand why they were being asked to stare at a piece of carpet.

Comforting song - The Long Day Closes
The songs in Intensive Care have less of the feeling of communal belonging, of the expressive exuberance of the pub or front room singalong which is found in Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Long Day Closes. They are more melancholy, imbued with a lonely, expressionist echo. They are the songs which Davies’ mother sang to herself (here voiced beautifully by Lorraine Ashbourne) once the family gatherings had dwindled into occasional visits. Remembrances of family Christmas get-togethers, with the bustle and warm-hearted chaos which imbued the season with such a sense of magic, fade into Davies’ bitter recollection of the time when it had all been reduced to himself, on holiday from drama college, and his mother, everyone else having retreated into their own family homes. These songs sound like hauntings, and they expose a vein of guilt which runs through Davies’ memories, the sense that he left his mother behind as he went out into the world, and never quite did enough to repay her love. His mother’s singing of ‘If you were the only girl in the world’, its reverb suggesting empty space, expresses the loneliness to which he feared he had left her. She keeps singing the old songs, her voice growing steadily weaker, until finally she stops. ‘I don’t sing anymore’, she says, and this declaration marks some sort of ending, a diminution of spirit.

Intensive Care obviously lacks the visual element of Davies’ films, and it is perhaps to compensate for this that there is much poetry read throughout. Davies has a wonderful voice (inexplicably mocked by the reviewers, Mark Kermode excepted, on the BBC Late Review show, who seemed to be in complete ignorance of his work in general) and might perhaps consider a secondary career recording readings of English poetry for audiobooks. Poetry obviously means a great deal to him, and I recall from an interview that he writes it himself. It would be nice to think that this might one day see publication. He remembers how his favourite class at drama school was the weekly poetry reading. We hear the cheeky delight with which he reads John Betjeman’s Hunter Trials, which seems to be something of a party piece. He recited it from memory at the end of a NFT interview which we went to see a few years ago. He also reads WH Auden’s Tell Me The Truth About Love and Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears, and part of Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman, amongst others, all of which serve as an expression of what he is talking about or feeling at the time. He reads poems at the funerals of both his brother Tony (Christina Rossetti’s Remember) and his mother (John Byrne Leicester Warren’s A Song of Dust), finding within them the means with which to express the intensity of his feelings. The poetry readings focus on the richness of language, and are perfect for the radio. They both compensate for the lack of images and help to conjure them in the mind. They are the equivalent of the visual poetry of Davies’ films, and similarly combine with music to create their emotional effect. It is perhaps with this in mind that Davies chooses to read a poem directly influenced by listening to a piece of music, Siegfried Sassoon’s Concert Interpretation (Le Sacre du Printemps). This is obviously a good excuse to play the opening stirrings of Stravinsky’s piece, before its violent eruption. This being the poem which Davies’ read out in his entrance exam for drama school, and which he believes to have been the performance which got him in, it also marks a rebirth for him, the coming of spring.

Davies twice refers to having been delivered, saved from ‘the gradual death of book-keeping’, firstly by his acceptance into drama college and later (having lapsed once more into that gradual death) into film school. There is a sense that art is absolutely essential to him, a means through which he can order and define lost moments of happiness (and terror) and thereby capture some of the essence of the lost eden which is steadily receding into the past. Through art he can stave off his tendency towards despair and self-torment (partly by voicing it). It is in film that he discovers the true realisation of what he wants to do. It’s not an easy process, however, and he describes the making of his first film Childhood (the first of what came to be known as the Terence Davies Trilogy), shot from his own script when he was still at drama school, as ‘the worst 18 months of my adult life’. The crew are openly contemptuous of his ideas for what is supposed to be his picture and snobbishly regard him as an amateur with no knowledge of film technique. When he reaches film school, he finally finds a sympathetic and intellectually invigorating environment in which he feels entirely at home. He talks of his fascination for ‘what is implied beyond the frame’ and enthuses about the lectures given, during his visit, by Alexander Mackendrick, who tells the students to ‘not just look, but see’. But always there is the guilt of leaving his mother, and his reminiscences of her become more like snapshots in which he notices her ‘aging at each visit’.

Religious observance - The Long Day Closes
Where Davies has his art, his mother has religion, the Catholicism in which young Terence was raised, but which he has definitively rejected; or, it might be more accurate to say, given its condemnation of homosexuality as ‘evil’, has rejected him. He cheekily remarks, when talking about his sense of happiness at film school, that ‘even though he doesn’t exist, God is good’. The church remains a constant source of comfort and company in his mother’s life, however. The Sacred Heart is ‘two buses and a walk away’, but she always attends. Davies may have rejected religion, but he retains traces of his upbringing in his language and the way in which he divines an absolute essence of goodness or wickedness in people. Whilst some are embodiments of implacable hostile and vindictiveness beyond understanding, he finds in others an inherent benevolence which is the spark of divinity. Ethel, his mother’s neighbour in the sheltered home to which she moves, is ‘the soul of goodness’. His mother, after all, is a very Marian figure to him, the vessel for the suffering and emotional hurt which he feels. She absorbs her own suffering (a succession of pregnancies and physical abuse, as he puts it) without complaint, and is the source of enduring and unconditional love. He is furious at the priest who tries to prevent him from reading a poem at her funeral, and then insists on his reading from Revelation first, but this is a disgust at dogma and those who are its purveyors rather than the religious spirit in general, with which his mother was evidently imbued. This play is his icon of her, an act of devotion and worship.

At rest - Distant Voices, Still Lives
The play ends with his mother’s funeral, with bleak winds blowing in the background, and with Davies’ sense of desolation at being parted from her forever. It is an inevitably downbeat ending (what biography ends otherwise?), and it is certainly true that Davies doesn’t shy away from voicing despair, here and elsewhere. The Trilogy has more than its share of bleak moments, although it is, in the end, enormously affecting rather than depressing. The final scene of Death and Transfiguration, with Wilfred Brambell (what a heroically brave performance) reaching towards the light is an extraordinarily powerful (and religiose) concluding image. The exhilaration and passion which are ever present in his voice belie the self-lacerating comments and tendency to dwell upon the hurts of the past which characterise his work (and his interviews). In the NFT interview which we went to see, he reduced the audience to helpless laughter, just as the film screened beforehand, Distant Voices, Still Lives, had reduced them to tears. No one can hear him enthusing about Singing In The Rain (‘sheer perfection’ as he breathlessly extols) without immediately wanting to go out and see it again (or even better, for the first time). Here, after moments of joy, excitement or simple, ordinary, everyday happiness, we are left with Davies’ elegy to the love of his life. He laments that there will no longer be a ‘you and I’, and the phrase is repeated until the final I is choked off with a sob, an expression of an inconsolable sadness which will never be assuaged, and which memory will only serve to rekindle. The lonely echo of a final song, Me and My Shadow, fades once more into the fog of radio static, or the amplified pulse and hum of mechanically sustained life, and memory – Intensive Care.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Doctor Who and the Radiant City

Future cops guard the Hayward Gallery
During a recent (and ongoing – we’re currently up to The Monster of Peladon) trawl through Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who, we saw Frontier in Space, and I was struck by its use of the architecture of the South Bank centre in London to depict an utopian Earth of the future. There is an inherent pleasure in watching fantastic scenarios played out in settings with which you are familiar, particularly when the obvious urban markers (Big Ben, the Washington monument etc) are avoided. Here we get the noble, voluminously caped lizard-like race of the Draconians and the prognathous and beetle-browed thugs for hire the Ogrons shooting it out from the concrete stairwells and walkways of the maze-like arts centre, with the Doctor and Jo shuttling back and forth between factions. Scenes were shot in the areas surrounding the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, both of which are prime examples of the style which became prevalent in the 60s and 70s and was known as the New Brutalism, usually shortened to brutalism. It is often used as a readymade backdrop in film and television science fiction of this time, generally in order to connote oppressive, dystopian societies in which the individual is reduced to an undifferentiated unit. Imagined futures often reflect more on the look of the era in which they were created in retrospect. The shining art deco city of Things to Come is a prime example. The building of the city, accompanied by Arthur Bliss’ stirring score, was symbolic of the triumphant re-emergence of the human spirit after a descent into barbarism and tribal conflict, even if, in the end, the representatives of its new generation had to escape it and travel into space in order to further the human endeavour. The fact that brutalist buildings were used to conjure bleak and totalitarian future societies in which human individuality was ruthlessly curtailed indicates the widespread suspicion and resentment the social engineering which they embodied generated.

Ogrons late for a Chopin recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
The architects who came up with the term ‘new brutalism’ (and it’s Alison and Peter Smithson who are generally cited as its progenitors) intended it as a riposte to the term ‘new humanism’, which referred to the post war vogue for re-incorporating traditional styles in deference to public taste. To the radical young architects of the day, this was a weak-willed dilution of the purity of modernism, a failure to carry out the sweeping away of the dead weight of tradition with the requisite ruthlessness. The moniker came to be deeply damaging, effectively providing a convenient term for voicing the disgust and outrage which the rush of inferior examples with (and in) which people were forced to live aroused. The fact that such a term could be adopted, with its intended meaning lost in obscure hermetic in-jokes (Peter Smithson was apparently sometimes known by the nickname Brutus, and there may also be a reference to the art brut movement which was in vogue at the time) suggests that the architects who used it weren’t overly concerned with the reception of their ideas by a wider public. The connotations of the word beyond this inner circle were suggestive of a bludgeoning coercion, a defiant anticipation of the antipathy this style would arouse and a contemptuous disregard for any objections. The label of Brutalism came to stand for the overbearing and bullying nature of the architecture itself, and by extension the architects themselves too. This may not have been the intention, but it’s representative of the way ideas which originate in privileged enclaves become transformed and subject to sceptical scrutiny once they enter the wider world in which they are to be implemented. And it wasn’t much of a joke, anyway.

The brutalists were intent on furthering the ideas of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, who insisted on a ‘purity’ and ruthless disavowal of decorative artifice. They talked of ‘honesty’ of materials and form, and the use of such language suggested that they believed that they were engaged in a high-minded moral endeavour. Most were indeed socialists with a desire to transform cities to conform with their ideals of what would constitute a brave new world. Such honesty of materials tended to result in an overwhelming prevalence of unadorned concrete, moving away from the white surfaces of pre-war modernist buildings in what was known as the ‘international style’. These ‘maisons blanches’ had always seemed more at home in the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean anyway, and grey concrete did fit in more aptly with the British climate. But it’s not a very welcome congruence. Who wants an architectural style which seems to earth the atmosphere of leaden, overcast skies? At best, it means that the British character gets to grumble about the buildings as well as the weather. This all-pervasive greyness of the 60s and 70s developments is one of the keys to their unpopularity. These buildings seem to embody a strain of English Puritanism, a deeply ingrained national tendency rooted in history and climate. You can’t help but think of the way in which the ornamentation of cathedrals and churches was smashed and defaced (literally in the case of many statues and reliefs) by the puritans of the 17th century, whose own buildings were stark and unadorned. The stripping back to basic functionalism which dictates the form of brutalist buildings lends them their uncompromising and imposing austerity and their air of stern morality. They certainly don’t convey any sense of playfulness or levity, and any trace of frivolity is certainly outlawed.

Brutalist gothic tower - The Barbican
The functions which were allowed were those deemed necessary for the living of a modern life by the architects and planners. They were designing for life as they envisaged life was led – or for life as they felt it should be. Le Corbusier, the chief guru of the brutalists, is said to have declared ‘the design of cities…too important to be left to the citizens’. The impersonal rationalisation of his views of urban living, embodied in his famous phrase about houses being ‘machines for living in’, is furthered by the fact that no-one ever seems to call him by his actual name. Le Corbusier is a nickname which, roughly translated, means the crow-like man. He was born with the rather more human name of Charles-Eduard Jeanneret. Did anyone ever dare call him Charlie? This sounds rather akin to the forbiddingly modernist composer Milton Babbitt’s notorious article for High Fidelity magazine which seemed to reject the validity of what he saw as an uninformed audience’s critical reaction to the new music he and his contemporaries were producing, or indeed of any audience at all. The title ‘who cares if you listen?’ was deliberately provocative and not actually of his choosing; but at least an option was being provided. It’s rather easier to ignore an abstruse classical piece perhaps broadcast in the evening on radio 3 than a large high-rise and flyover development with, or in which one is obliged to live. As Babbitt saw listeners as an unnecessary adjunct to the abstract perfection of his music, so human inhabitants seemed to be something of an intrusive inconvenience to the architectural models which Le Corbusier and his acolytes designed. These attitudes are parodied in Monty Python’s architect sketch, in which the designer’s explanation of his model of a high-rise estate descends into a description of a human slaughterhouse, in which the tenants are carried along a conveyor belt ‘towards the rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes and the mangled flesh slurps…’ The following model simply collapses and bursts into flame and is accepted on the basis of a Masonic handshake. This was about a year after the collapse of one side of the system-built Ronan Point high-rise block of flats in the East End on 16th May 1968. This date really marked the end of any public trust in the modernist high rise vision of the future.

Dreaming of the future. Bruno Taut - Alpine Architecture 1919
The utopianism of post-war planners, the design from scratch of a plan for living expressed through structures which will shape it is what makes this architecture so perfect for SF. The grand plans of early 20th century architectural dreamers are often barely distinguishable from the covers of pulp SF magazines. The buildings on the South Bank which were part of the 1951 Festival of Britain were a late-coming reflection of such dreams, and the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery and even the Festival Hall did indeed make it onto the cover of a science fiction magazine; the Autumn 1951 issue of New Worlds. Visions of cities like crystalline alpine deposits and towering glass cathedrals were clearly only ever going to be constructed in the imagination. Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for the rebuilding of Paris along the lines of his rationalised ideal of ‘la ville radieuse’, or the radiant city, was perhaps always meant to remain an ideal. Certainly only a degree of power bordering on totalitarianism would have allowed him to sweep away the necessary swathes of the pre-existing Paris, of whose irrational tangle of streets many were rather fond. The radiant city into which Le Corbusier wished to transform Paris was based around urban motorways which would allow citizens (all of whom would have their own private transport) to glide between the clearly delineated zones. Such clear delineation would, by extension, apply to the functional roles carried out by the citizens themselves.

Festival of Britain - 1951 Futurism

A fine day in the Radiant City
It all betokens a world view in which all life is neatly filed and assigned, kept within pre-determined limits. Such limits are as much an indication of the narrow boundaries of the imagination, which in science fiction (generally of the lazier sort, unless a point is deliberately being made) tends to manifest itself in inhabitants of the future wearing identical clothing according to their role within society (and the story) and shuttling about between different ‘zones’ which exist in complete separation one from the other. All Le Corbusier’s illustrations of his radiant city needs to turn it into a pulp SF cover are a few air cars, people floating about in anti-grav belts and a space port on the horizon with a rocket blasting off to the stars, where more planets are ripe for development. Indeed, there is a strangely shaped plane buzzing over the ranked high-rises, its proximity to their cruciform roofs presumably designed to illustrate their skyscraping elevation. In its lack of any evident aerodynamic qualities of design, it seems no more likely to rise to the skies than the buildings which Le Corbusier has dreamed up. These pre-war visions of the future city foreshadow the brutalists’ taste for monumental forms. The high-rise was the signature shape of things to come, a symbolically aspirant reaching for the heavens. Pyramidal or ziggurat forms also proved popular, indicating either an attempt to recreate an spirit of epic endeavour, a sense of a future filled with wonder waiting to be constructed, or an inadvertent exposure of the underlying megalomania of the architect’s ego, depending on your point of view.

The concrete balustrades, walkways, spiral stairways and bunker-like buildings of the South Bank don’t necessarily connote a dystopian future in Frontier In Space. The tensions between Earth and its rival Draconian Empire are being inflamed and manipulated by an external force, and it comes as no surprise in this era of Who when this turns out to be the Master. The resultant unrest across the globe, seen via unrolling newscasts (complete with textual commentaries scrolling along the bottom of the screen!) reveals the tensions which underlie the World Government, but these hostilities are directed against outsiders, the alien Draconians, with whom an uneasy state of peace had recently been negotiated. The Draconians are even given their own racist epithet, dragons, an appellation which the Doctor explains to Jo with evident distaste. Once the Master’s meddling has been exposed, along with the identity of the third party for whom he is acting as agent (clue – they tend to shout a lot) there is a sense that the government can act as a uniting force, it’s president having acted with reason and restraint throughout. This strong female leader even manages to win the terse and belligerent military commander over to a more considered outlook. Having said that, there is a penal colony on the moon, from which there is no return, for political prisoners from the Peace Party; The ‘concentration moon’ which Frank Zappa envisaged on We’re Only In It For The Money’. Its existence is evidence of an authoritarian security state operating alongside the supposed democracy, created as a response to the artificially maintained climate of fear and paranoia. Having been sent here himself, the Doctor does manage to elicit a promised from the president that with the fear of subterfuge and war removed, these prisoners will be returned to Earth to play an active role in its society.

Buckminster Fuller's dome over Manhattan - why?
Terence Dicks, in the extras to the dvd of Doctor Who and the Silurians, reveals that Frontier in Space writer Malcolm Hulke was at one time broadly communist in his political views, and had indeed worked with theatre groups in East Germany. He had mellowed a little over the years, but the production team shared with him an essentially left wing view of the world. The socially progressive agenda of modern urban planning, the desire to sweep away the divisions of the past and create the world anew, was an outlook which they viewed in a sympathetic light. Hulke also manages to hint at other aspects typical of science fiction utopias and future cities. A newscaster reports on the progress of the Arctic reclamation schemes, a big science project. People who move their to the enclosed cities of New Montreal and New Glasgow are told that the Bureau of Population Control will have their family allowance raised to two people. The human race is still expanding, and has now established an empire in space. The reference to New Montreal may well be a nod to Buckminster Fuller, one of whose domes was displayed in the 1967 Expo which took place there. The idea of covered cities, whether that be in the form of domes or pyramids, was very much in vogue in the 60s and 70s, and had been a staple of science fiction for ages. Buckminster Fuller was the chief designer and proponent of the geodesic dome, many of which were realised. But he did allow himself to indulge in more extravagant fancies. These included floating tetrahedron cities and a glass dome which would cover half of Manhattan. These were late entries in the tradition of the sketches and vague plans of grandiose new Xanadus made by the romantic dreamers of the early twentieth century, and they were never remotely likely to make it into the real world. They certainly stirred the imagination, though.

Earth government buildings
There is an insert shot, when we are first introduced to the President of Earth and her general, of the saucer-like forms of Oscar Niemeyer’s national congress buildings from the central administrative plaza of the Brasilian capital city of Brasilia, which stand in for the administrative centre of this world government of the future. The South Bank Centre provides the fine detail, the background for the action scenes. The merging of the two geographical locales (and you can’t see the join) from opposite ends of the Earth, demonstrates that concrete modernism is essentially the same the world over. Brasilia was purpose built in the central region in 1960 as a centre for the government and its administration, and the population which it was assumed would cluster around it. This was perhaps the closest anyone came to designing Le Corbusier’s ideal city of the future. Robert Hughes revisited the city some twenty years after its construction in the course of his series on modern art The Shock of the New. For him, Brasilia is emblematic of what happens when the ideal plan of utopia collides with the reality of life as it is actually lived, and indeed with physical reality itself. As he puts it, ‘it is a vast example of what happens when people design for an imagined Future, rather than for a real world’. It had ‘ceased to be the City of Tomorrow and turned into yesterday’s science fiction’. The tropical climate has caused the concrete to crack, and there is a sense that it may not be long before the jungle re-establishes dominion. Brasilia will become another lost site awaiting future archaeological explorers to unearth its remains, like the Khmer city of Angkor in Cambodia, or the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala. Utopias are always best left to the pages of the architect’s drawing book or the covers of SF magazines. It’s worth remembering that the literal translation of utopia is no-place, or nowhere.

Firestarters on the Alton West Estate
The Alton West Estate, built on the edge of Richmond Park in 1959, establishes a more straightforwardly dystopian mood in the opening scenes of Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The inhabitants of this residential block, modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, stand outside in an impotent huddle to watch as the books (mainly Penguin paperbacks of the time), which have been gathered by the firefighters turned secret police in a surprise raid, are burned in a pyre which has been set up with professional haste. The fire station itself is approached via encompassing brutalist walls, with their characteristic rough surface taken from the patterning of the wood grain of the shutters between which the concrete had been poured. The bright red paint of the station’s façade betrays the brutalist aesthetic of transparency of material. It is a statement of an authority which wishes to stand out from its uniform surroundings, drawing attention to itself in order to make clear the all pervasive and inescapable nature of its power.

Profile on concrete background - Julie Christie in Fahrenheit 451
Alton West’s situation at the edge of Richmond Park is a realisation of the idea that building upward would allow for a greater expanse of open space at ground level. It is also an example of the way in which modernity and the traditional rural and pastoral vistas of England came to abut against one another. Big science bestrode the countryside, erecting its cooling towers, pylons and satellite dishes amongst the fields, its motorways ploughing through hillsides. Alton West appears like the edge of an urban drift, a debris-strewn high water line marking a boundary between geographical and psychological zones which threatens to push further with the next rush of the tide. The open grasslands of the Royal Park, with its grazing deer providing a reminder of its former status as a hunting ground for the nobility, is met in a blank face-off by this aggressively monumental frontage of high density urbanity. The green spaces obediently incorporated by the descendants of Le Corbusier into their versions of his radiant city are here appropriated from pre-existant land and absorbed into the plan. Only the radial motorway flyovers with their steady streams of personal traffic glinting in the sun are needed to make the dream complete. The gravity of the massive structure of the building, perched improbably on its spindly concrete pillars, warps the nature of this park space around it. It also blocks out the view of London beyond, making this grey container ship of a place feel like it could be isolated and at anchor out in the middle of the countryside.

Monorail commuters
The fireman who is the troubled protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, played by Jules et Jim’s Jules Oskar Werner, lives in the suburbs, in a close of detached houses far from the communal blocks of the Alton West buildings. To reach this, he travels on the monorail, a real relic of futures past, whose concrete embedded suspended rail is cradled by bow-legged iron girders, whose repetitive forms create a receding perspective marking out distance across the countryside. This is a strange mixture of the rural and technological reminiscent of the tramway which runs from country to city in FW Murnau’s Sunrise (or Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality for that matter). The monorail scenes were filmed in Chateauneuf-sur-Loire in Loiret, France. The widespread use of public transport puts the world of Fahrenheit 451 at something of a variance from the norm of utopias which follow the blueprint of the Le Corbusier cityscape, with its universal use of the car or its technological antecedents. Perhaps this reflects the age in which the source novel was written (it was published in 1953), or perhaps merely the fact that it was made by a Frenchman. Roads carried on flyovers and beneath underpasses were a feature of attempts to realise aspects of the radiant city in the real world, and provided a fertile imaginative landscape within which JG Ballard moved his depersonalised characters in novels such as Concrete Island and Crash. The real brutalist manifestation of such car centred planning was the multi-storey car park, a feature which seems strangely absent from Le Corbusier’s plans. This structure became an almost archetypal focal point for violence and dread, its grim spirit captured in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, Michael Caine tipping one of the victims of his campaign of revenge over the barrier of the spiralling entrance ramp on the top storey.

Thamesmead nocturne
Perhaps the most infamous use of brutalist architecture to depict a brutalised future is in A Clockwork Orange, which makes effective use of the Thamesmead Estate, a purpose built complex whose flaws, both in terms of material and social design, became apparent soon after its completion. Thamesmead seems designed for a post-collapse world, its lakes and flower beds destined to be immediately filled with a scummy drift of cans and plastic bags; the estate as litter bin and general dumping ground. Kubrick’s litter, which he no doubt spent many days scattering about the estate, looks strangely well-ordered, much of it seemingly consisting of rather large packing boxes. This is a grand plan which has subsequently been abandoned and left to fall apart, to develop its own social microcosm in isolation. The heroic mural in the entrance lobby (to the side of the non-functional lift) with its Greek figures heralding a return to classical order and balance, has been covered with graffitied genitalia and obscenities. The estate and its surroundings becomes the arena in which Alex and his gang of droogs conduct their territorial wars and internal power struggles. For all his violence and anti-social behaviour, Alex is at heart a conformist. In murdering the tramp at the beginning of the film, he is carrying out his won form of social hygiene, cleansing the architectural body of contamination by undesirable human forms. When he goes to prison, he merely exchanges one uniform for another, one drab cell block for another. His fierce, pitiless (save for self-pitying) intelligence is co-opted by the government, and he accepts their overtures with a self-interestedly calculating enthusiasm. He thus gains access to the inner sanctum of the authoritarian bunker.

The Ludovico Centre
The Ludovico Medical Facility where Alex undergoes his aversion therapy was in fact the lecture centre of Brunel University in Uxbridge, one of the new university campuses which was created to accommodate the expansion of further education in the 60s. The Ludovico treatment is a more directly coercive form of the kind of behavioural control which architects and planners aimed to induce with their new developments. The brutalist blocks of this building really do feel like they’re a huge granitic mass waiting to crush Alex and the other guinea pigs, just as the demonstrator of the technique presses his shoe down on Alex’s face in a literal demonstration of George Orwell’s description of the totalitarian government of 1984 as being like ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.

The figures of authority or with elevated social status in these three stories tend to live some distance away from the communal settlements to which the mass of citizenry is assigned. The modernism of which they partake is of a more discretely detached and luxurious design. It is more in accord with the private residences for wealthy clients built by Le Corbusier with the white box of the Villa Savoye, and Mies van der Rohe with the glass box of the Farnsworth house. In Fahrenheit 451, fireman/secret policeman Oskar Werner goes home to his detached close of 60s bungalows. The Draconian ambassador to Earth in Frontier in Space relaxes in the secluded setting of a modern house with an expansive garden in Fitzroy Park in Highgate. In A Clockwork Orange, the modern country house in which the writer and his wife (Patrick Magee and Adrienne Corri) live, with its neon sign generically marking it as ‘home’, was located in Radlett, in an area of Hertfordshire just beyond the sprawl of London (near the film centre of Borehamwood, in fact, where some interiors for the film were shot) and was known at the time as Skybreak. It would have been interesting if Magee’s character had been an architect. Alex and his gang’s attack on his home would then have taken on the aspect of a symbolic revenge. The misshapen products of his social engineering come back to shake him from his detachment.

Luxury modernism - escape from Highgate
The failure of brutalist architecture and post-war modernist urban planning in general to meet basic social and human needs can be further seen in the way in which concrete environments became synonymous with alienation and anomie in the cinema. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, David Hemmings’ character drives through a city which is being rebuilt to high rise level all around him before ending up at the park whose hushed tree-lined upper enclosure will become the locus of the film’s mystery. The reconfiguration of the city can be seen lowering at the park’s edge, the illuminated sign on the scaffolding an all-seeing eye which oversees the events observed by his own detached and uncomprehending camera eye. The flats which were built can be seen there now, on the far side of Maryon Wilson Park, near Woolwich, and are quite low-rise by the standards of the time. In The Passenger, Antonioni places Jack Nicholson against the purpose built complex of the Brunswick Centre, with its stepped ziggurat of flats and attached shopping and cultural centre. This was built in 1972 from a design by architect Patrick Hodgkinson and was recently granted grade 2 listed status. Nicholson’s character has just arrived in London, and with his assumed identity impulsively adopted from a dead man, he really has no idea who he is. The building, with its at the time jarring modernity, serves to reflect his existential crisis of identity; this is a very different kind of Bloomsbury in which he finds himself. The late-period Hammer film Straight On Til’ Morning (which, like many Hammer films of this vintage can be considered an interesting failure) finds us back at the South Bank Centre, where lost souls Shane Bryant and Rita Tushingham fail to meet with one another as they wander through the night along disconnected walkways. The Barbican Centre still waits to be used, a perfect ready made set on which to stage an adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle. The overbearing structures of brutalist architecture provided the perfect visual embodiment at the time for the dehumanising nature of a world of rapidly developing technology and mechanization. These were massive forms whose weight could crush the soul.

The old and the new on the edge of Maryon Wilson Park from Blow Up - the flats are still there, the teashop isn't
The examples of brutalist buildings which still remain from the 60s and 70s now seem like relics of a bygone era, somehow appearing more ancient than they really are, so alien is the world view which guided their construction. The best of them have a solid and rather grave grandeur. I still strain to gain a glimpse of the brontosaurus-headed behemoth of Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower from the window as the train approaches Paddington Station. We had a tour of this high-rise block during one of the London open house days, and now that it is properly maintained and overseen (possibly as a result of its grade 2 listing) it seems like a grand place to live, with truly amazing views over the city. The buildings of the South Bank and the National Theatre add an interesting variety to the Thames cityscape. The starkness of their grey planar surfaces now tend to be illuminated at night with purple and pink lights, just as the Hayward Gallery was decorated for many years with a prominently positioned, multi-coloured neon sculpture atop its roof (whose skylights were also apparently a compromise of the original design, which called for an interior lit entirely artificially). I passed by the Brunswick Centre the other week, and it looked fine, the flats now painted cream as per the original intention. I felt no particular sense of alienation or existential angst (no more than usual, anyway) in the face of a cold and depersonalised modernity. The interior has been transformed into a blandly generic shopping mall, which has no room for the Cartoon Museum which used to be found there, but the underground Renoir cinema is still in existence, and buried underneath you can also find the well-stocked shelves of the Skoob second-hand bookshop. Just over the road is Russell Square tube station, which I feel compelled to mention as it is the key location in the 1973 film Death Line, in which a rather pitiful cannibal scavenger prowls its tunnels. Sadly, the station announcements no longer warn you to ‘mind the doors’. Less positive reactions than mine to Brunswick and Trellick greeted the news that Robin Hood Gardens, the estate near the Blackwall Tunnel, built by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1972 as something of a last hurrah, was being proposed for listing. The proposals were eventually rejected in May 2009, after massive opposition from the people who actually had to live in the place.

Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower
It’s true to say that had the plans of the brutalist architects and planners been realised to their full extent, the results would have been disastrous. But the examples we see now appear in isolation, their solid, block-like forms and grey, rocky prominences giving them a curious congruence with ancient megalithic sites. Like the stone circles and long barrows which are scattered across the country, monuments to the beliefs of a former age, these buildings have become an emblematic part of the British landscape, shapes with reflect an aspect of the national psyche. The protection which some of them have been awarded through listing has proved controversial, but indicates that they have become firmly as part of the cultural past. If nothing else, they serve as reminders of an era when there was still an expectation that the future would be a place which would be excitingly different from the present, and in which the dead weight of the past would be left behind. The steady onward progress of technology would produce a world full of wonder. The Trellick Towers, Centre Points and South Bank Centres, along with other buildings of their ilk, together form a disconnected necropolis for these utopian ideals; monuments and mausoleums beneath which the era’s visions of the future lie buried.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Beautiful Buttons and Camden Town Nights

Girl at a Window, Little Rachel 1907

We took a day trip to Cambridge during our Easter visit to the in-laws, and went to see a couple of exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The first was a selection of paintings by Stanley Spencer, John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert. The first two don’t really interest me much, but I find Sickert’s offhand glimpses of interior London lives more engaging. These paintings could be seen as a kind of post-impressionism. Sickert was much influenced by Degas, whom he went to Paris to meet. Like him, he painted scenes of the Parisian stage, although he characteristically chose to focus on more popular entertainments like the music hall and the circus rather than Degas’ more decorous back-stage ballet subjects. If Sickert’s late nineteenth century music hall paintings and Edwardian Camden Town interiors are in any way post-impressionist, then it is in a peculiarly English fashion. Rather than the warm colours of the French painters, we are in a world of dull and muted tones. Light comes in weakly through grimy windows and faces are lit by gaslight or the harsher glare of theatrical limelight. It’s an urban impressionism for an island with a predominantly overcast climate, the momentary effects of light merely serving to further illuminate the surrounding drabness. These paintings are certainly impressionist in the sense of capturing a moment of lived life, however. Hints of colour take on an exaggerated importance, life asserting itself amidst the dull drudgery of poverty. The sun catching the red hair of the young girl Rachel Siderman whom Sickert painted several times in 1907 seems to illuminate her inner world in these contemplative portraits. The painting in the exhibition was actually Little Rachel at the Mirror rather than the picture above, and seemed to capture a bellow of smoke from a train passing by outside Sickert’s Mornington Crescent house, in this area enmeshed by railway lines.

The ghost of Marie Lloyd sings

The Old Bedford, 1894-5

Up in the gallery

Noctes Ambrosianae, 1906
James Mason returns to this area in 1967 in his role as the guide in the film The London Nobody Knows, based on Geoffrey Fletcher’s book. After an introductory glide past construction sites and half or freshly built high-rise office blocks, which indicates the new London which was being erected upon the ruins of the old, we first encounter the urbane Mason as he descends the steps of the Bedford Theatre. He reminisces about how this used to be the favourite venue of probably the greatest music hall star, Marie Lloyd. ‘Now it’s just a mess’, he observes, glancing at the crumbling cupids and drooping plaster rosettes around him. We hear a ghostly echo of ‘The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery’ as the camera dwells on the pitiful ruins which remain. It’s not even a good shelter for pigeons and tramps, Mason adds, because ‘there’s a bloody great hole in the roof’. This was the theatre where Sickert came to sketch scenes which he later turned into his paintings of performers isolated on the stage or audiences up in the galleries stretching over the balconies to get a better view. Mason relates with a certain grim relish how one Belle Elmore also sang here, before later becoming the victim of Dr Crippen, whom she had the misfortune to marry. Sickert himself became posthumously mired in one of the more implausible tributaries of the ever-widening catchment of Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories when Patricia Cornwell put him forward as a new suspect. He plays a small role in Alan Moore’s panaroma of Victorian society which centres around the Ripper murders, From Hell, but Moore (who is not interested in identifying the murderer, anyway) clearly has no truck with such tenuous speculations. Sickert’s paintings of the Bedford are largely of the theatre as it existed before it suffered extensive fire damage and was opened again as The New Bedford in 1899. The atmosphere of the ruins through which Mason ruefully picks, occasionally casting aside a bit of debris with his umbrella, must have been largely the same, though. Like much of the Victorian London whose last traces this film lovingly lingers over, it’s now gone. The bright lights of the White Heat of modernity banished the shadowy interiors of Sickert’s London.

Ashinaga and Tenaga
Also in the Fitzwilliam, there was an exhibition of Japanese Netsuke. These are tiny carvings which served the functional purpose of holding up the sashes from which pouches, boxes or personal items were suspended in traditional Japanese dress, which didn’t incorporate pockets. These grew from initially utilitarian designs into fantastic and beautifully carved items, works of art deriving from mere sartorially necessity. They were also a means of self-expression (and an indicator of prestige) within a dress code constrained by the dictates of the government bureaucracy (or Bakufu) of the Edo period, rather like a businessman or male newsreader wearing a colourful or extravagantly patterned tie. The contained explosion of the creative imagination which these objects embody gives the impression of an art which is almost surreptitious and furtive in its tiny scale. For those who sported them, it perhaps felt like a small act of rebellion against the overbearing strictures of a heavily formalised society; Something akin to wearing a brightly coloured badge on your school uniform.

Tenaga catches an octopus - comic business to ensue
Netsuke were generally carved from ivory, wood or antler and they embody a wide range of subjects, from animals and insects, through religious figures and noh masks, to mythical beasts, demons and gods. It’s lovely to see how funny and rambunctiously whimsical a lot of them are. One of my favourites was the twinned figures of Ashinaga, or long legs, and Tenaga, or long arms. These were two mythical characters, fishermen who lived by the shore, and combined their curious anatomical features to good, symbiotic effect. Ashinaga would wade out to sea with his long, spindly legs whilst Tenaga would ride on his back and reach down with his long arms to scoop up fish. They seemed to have regular problems with octopuses, though (ok, octopi, if you want to get picky), which, as Captain Beefheart observed (talking about squids, but the principle is the same) are fast and bulbous (even when not in a polyethylene bag). Such antics once more demonstrate the universal delight which people have always taken in simple and effective slapstick.

Giving a ride to a witch
Another of the netsuke on display depicted the warrior Omori Hikoshichi carrying what he believed to be a beautiful young woman across a river. On seeing her reflection in the water, however, he realises that he’s saddled himself in a rather literal sense with an evil witch. A strikingly similar scenario is played, but in reverse, in the 1967 Russian film Viy, which takes its story from a Ukrainian folk tale. Here, the feckless monk who is the film’s central character finds himself being ridden across the sky (with effects courtesy of Alexsandr Ptushko) by an ancient witch, only to find her transformed into a beautiful woman when he wakes from his trance upon landing. There is evidently a certain underlying universality which unites folk tales from widely differing cultures.

Drunken wasp
The observation of nature found in many of these netsuke is also astonishing. These are pieces which would rival the finest Victorian botanical illustrator or wildlife artist. Carvers seemed to take a particular interest in odd sea creatures such as turtles and octopuses (octopi!); natural enough for an island race surrounded by the ocean. Insects also seem a popular subject, their intricate form perhaps presenting a challenge to the artist. Or maybe just giving the opportunity to work to scale. The netsuke of a wasp eating a pear, which we can see is soft and overripe, is wonderful, and maybe plays to the Japanese love of evoking the atmosphere of a particular seasonal moment. These tiny carvings, whose details you have to lean close to take in, are a great example of how beauty can arise from the most mundanely utilitarian origins. The imagination really does take root and flower in some of the most unusual and unpromising places.