Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Six

Bedlam - Part Six

Dreams of cinema - Sidney and Gray
From Sims’ contemptuous dismissal of Nell, whose ‘Augean labours’ he implies will never be enacted, remaining nothing more than an idle ideological fancy, we cut to an exterior of a street scene. The street outside Bedlam, in fact, where Nell and Lord Mortimer had pulled up in their coach at the beginning of the film. A street seller hawks hot rolls, the fresh product of the baker’s early rising efforts, and the impression is thus given of time passing. Night has turned into day, possibly more than once. Back in the main hall of Bedlam, someone is demanding his theatrical script from Todd, still rooted to his desk. The Bedlamites are a cheap and readily exploitable source of labour, lowly and powerless. There is a definite sense that this overbearing and demanding visitor to the ‘closed set’ of Bedlam is a satirical caricature of a movie producer, or at least an antecedent of the type. The script or screenwriter is effectively a slave, his work seen as something which can be made to order, the art and care which have gone into its creation casually disregarded. He is little more than a scribbling or latterly typing monkey. It is the complaint of many an author who has strayed into Hollywood’s outwardly alluring web.

The satisfaction of purposeful labour - with discorporate onlookers
Sidney points out to the visitor that they have ‘been busy’ helping Mistress Bowen. She has managed to penetrate the aloofness of the people of the pillar, dissipating the haze of their indifference and engaging them in her efforts. She is proving a catalysing force for a more egalitarian environment, involving everyone who is able in general labour which would usually be considered menial and demeaning, the invisible provenance of the lowest social classes. All unite to better their own conditions. Nell is making up beds, and we see the spectating shadows surrounding figures on the wall. They are cast by the Bedlamites, but they could equally be those of a more spectral audience, watching and weighing her actions from a more ineffable plane. Sidney corrects Master Gray, the visitor, who assumes that she is a new warder, informing him that she is an inmate, and that ‘she is an angel in this darkness’. We have already seen her enactment of this symbolic role as the lady with the lamp, venturing into the darkest of shadows to soothe away the pain and terrors of the night.

Early motion pictures
Sidney explains what she can do via crude illustrations doodled at the corners of the law book which he has been pretending to study, and which form an animated flick book. It is a very primitive kind of motion picture, but Sidney has visionary notions as to how he might expand on these rough beginnings. ‘If I could only get a light behind these pages, I could throw them large as life upon the wall’. And so he dreams of the medium through which the audience initially watched Bedlam, anticipating the birth of cinema some 130 years before the event. Gray, the parasitic producer who appropriates other people’s creative labour, immediately sniffs the potential financial gain to be made from the idea, speculating as to how ‘one could charge admission’. The idea of the movies as business is made clear, with the attendant dimension of exploitation. It is difficult not to suspect that Lewton is producing his own mildly Hogarthian portrait of the studio tyrants who attempted to interfere with his work at RKO. His hated head of department at the time was Jack Gross, a surname not too far removed from Gray. The cinema, even in early dream form, is an uneasy marriage of commerce and art, an unequal union characterised by bickering and a laying down of the law by the dominant, finance-providing partner. Todd is once more cast as the slaving screenwriter as Gray suggests ‘you could even tell the story Todd’s writing that way’.

The calculating producer - exploitation cinema
The cinema is a natural extension of the Vauxhall Garden spectacles, the masques full of stage magic and mechanical illusion. Todd could even be writing the story we are currently watching as it unfolds before our eyes, the self-reflexive tale which tells itself. It’s a rather dizzying aside, one which momentarily leads us to distance ourselves from the action and become aware of ourselves as spectators of a mechanically produced and projected work of art. Sidney ends this playfully modernist reverie with a reminder that ‘it’s because of these pictures that I’m here’. Creativity, genius and madness are close bedfellows, and the truly innovative can, in its very newness and initial incomprehensibility, be taken for simple derangement. Sidney’s signature ‘crazy’ catchphrase kicks in to end the exchange and effectively discredit his ideas. Gray excuses himself with an embarrassed cough, having been infected with the excitement of Sidney’s mad dreams: dreams which he fed off for a few intoxicating moments. In a reactive gesture, he reflexively reasserts his power by threatening the mute Todd with a withdrawal of support for his family should he fail to deliver the next chapter by the stipulated deadline. The power of the moneyman calling the shots. Todd is a ghost writer, unheard and unseen in the world beyond the walls, his voice stolen for another’s ventriloquial purposes. It’s

Dreams of travel - Nell and Dan
Nell is still asking about the trowel, thereby alerting us to its continued narrative import. She approaches Dan the Dog, who crouches down below a picture of a ship sailing on ocean waves, a manifestation of his romantic dreams of travelling to far off places. He makes a sweeping romantic gesture, offering to build her a wall. It’s a rather redundant offer, given that they are surrounded by confining walls, but we are reminded of the Quaker ideal of building the foundations of a new society. It’s a promise of constructive action, made as an apparently empty gesture, which is realised in an ironic form at the end of the film. Dan will indeed help to build a concealing wall with the trowel. Meanwhile, his romantic outburst is an indication of a new confidence, his outspread arms an unfolding from his cowering crouch. Sidney responds to Nell’s continued enquiries about the trowel with the diplomacy of one used to dealing with delusory behaviour. When the presence of madness is assumed, the distinction between the real and the illusory becomes less clearly defined. Nell wonders if she is indeed going mad, but with a self-deprecatory laugh which expresses the opposite, a sense of self-discovery through meaningful activity. This is a different sort of madness, a spirit which possesses her and fills her with purpose. When she suggests that she is doing all of this for the benefit of ‘people who don’t even know I’m trying to help them’, Sidney tells her ‘they know’. The effects of and responses to the actions in which one is intuitively engaged area not always immediately apparent. She has to rely on her sense of the rightness of what she is doing – to have faith.

Refusing to flinch - the dog stands up to its master
Sims enters and makes to strike Dan, but the young man no longer cowers like a dog. He has gained in strength through his acquaintance with and acceptance by Nell, and his assistance with her labours. Sims pushes him aside, but such a resort to brute force where previously a mere gesture would have sufficed carries with it an admission of defeat. His sarcastic compliment to Nell contains within it a threat of permanent incarceration and a reminder that she is still under his power. ‘What wonders you will not accomplish in a lifetime’, he sneers. He offers her ‘a pretty chamber’ in which to sleep as a reward for her efforts, a mocking reminder of her former accommodations. It is, of course, a poisoned gift, a new trial to test her ideals. She is to be left in the room in which the bestial ‘tiger’ man is caged. Sims’ duel with Nell has progressed to the level of ideological conflict. He may have defeated her in the social arena, but this is not enough for him. She troubles him on a more metaphysical level, and he needs to discredit the benevolent view of human nature which she professes and has begun to translate into action. His bitterness and suppressed rage roil beneath the surface as he spits back at the challenge to his comfortably misanthropic worldview. He is placing her with the most savagely animalistic of his inmates to demonstrate ‘that all those mawkish theories you learned from the Quaker are lies. Men are not brothers, men are not born good and kind. Even the mindless are savage and must be ruled with force’. It is a statement of belief made with sufficient force, with an underlying trace of desperation to indicate that it has come to define his nature, and is something which he needs to defend in order to justify his life. It is the outward expression of his own fearful soul. Putting Nell in the cage with the tiger man amounts to an extreme test case.

Inarticulate pain - trying to remember
‘Gentle him with a word’ he taunts. ‘Conquer him with kindness’. This is in fact exactly what Nell does. She slowly approaches this huge man, made more frightening by the shadowy conditions in which he is kept. She calmly faces him, looking up into his eyes, and says ‘my friend, you do not wish to hurt me, nor I you’. He has emerged from the shadows from which we have previously seen him ferociously lunging, and he no longer seems like a vicious beast. We can now see that his face is filled with pain and confusion. He cannot talk, but is desperately trying to articulate some half-formed idea or explanation, making sounds which never quite cohere into language. ‘I will listen to you’, Nell tells him, indicating an openness to communication which goes beyond words. She doesn’t pressure him, but empathetically voices his bewilderment for him. ‘I know you’re trying to remember’, she says. ‘Someday you will. You will remember’, she re-iterates with supportive conviction. He makes a supplicatory gesture of gratitude, of relief at this recognition of his fractured but still present humanity, which Nell grants him once more. The camera looks out from the interior of the cage to focus on Sims, who is framed by the bars. The prison suddenly appears inverted and, as with Hannay’s surreptitious visit earlier, it is momentarily unclear who is on which side of the confining bars. Nell and the tiger have found connection and release whilst Sims is left alone with his comfortless worldview. His face is filled with the hateful knowledge of defeat. He must retreat to plan his next move.

Inverted prisons - the jailer jailed
The next scene switches to the outside world, and a return to the printers press. As the place where words and images are prepared for general promulgation, this is the democratic heart of society. Here are gathered Varney, Hannay and Wilkes. Each wears contrasting headwear which reveals something of their character and social position. Wilkes’ tricorne hat is raffish, with brocaded brim, the affectation of a dandy with means. Varney’s is of a similar style, but without the decorative filigree, a more down at heel dandy. Hannay’s Quaker hat is simple and plain, without the folds or embellishments of Varney and Wilkes’ tricornes, its broad brim shading the wearer from the ungodly glare of the surrounding city and its manifold vices. These are the three very different men who are working towards freeing Nell from her arbitrary imprisonment. Wilkes was indeed instrumental in revising the law which allowed the government to issue General Warrants based on a particular offence (usually involving sedition) to be issued for the arrest of unnamed individuals. This was an action at least partly prompted by the initially successful outcome of his own arrest and trial over the publication of issue 45 of his North Briton magazine. Wilkes, who has obviously been brought up to date on Nell’s disappearance, observes that ‘apparently Sims fears an investigation. Men have rid themselves of unwanted wives by that sweet expedient’. The means of dealing with personal and political trouble are one and the same, with the personal and political often indistinguishable anyway. Sims seeks to ‘forestall criticism through imprisonment’. This criticism, coming from Nell, also embraces the personal and political, threatening not only his social and professional position but also his view of the fundamentally adversarial nature of human existence.

Men with hats - and a common purpose
Wilkes’ comments about the ‘sweet expedient’ with which men dispense with and silence their wives shows that he’s not exactly a beacon of morality when it comes to sexual politics. Wilkes was well known for being a rakehell and prolific womaniser, and was a member of the infamously debauched Hellfire Club, which had its out of town headquarters amongst the erotically landscaped gardens of Medmenham Abbey and West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire. Wilkes himself wrote about the symbolism of West Wycombe's gardens in the Public Advertiser in 1763, rather betraying their supposedly secret nature. He commented on the Parlour of Venus, located beneath the Mound of Venus, noting that it was designed to resemble ‘the same Entrance by which we all come into the World, and the door is what some idle Wits have called the Door of Life’. Perhaps these are the kinds of country retreats to which Lord Mortimer was planning to retire with Varney. Dan Cruickshank, in his Secret History of Georgian London, notes that ‘they remain an outstanding example of the libertine vision of antiquity, a perfect fusion of nature, the classical world, ancient British traditions and virtually ungoverned sexual encounter’. Even the National Trust, current owners of West Wycombe, acknowledge this aspect of their property. Wilkes also co-wrote, around 1754/5, a pastiche of Pope’s Essay on Man entitled Essay on Woman. This took satirical and deliberately obscene (and, potentially more seriously, blasphemous and libellous) aim at the prominent cleric the Reverend Dr William Warburton, whose self-promotion and naked ambition had irked Wilkes and, more particularly, his fellow author Thomas Potter, a typically wayward son of the clergy (in this case the Archbishop of Canterbury). Wilkes’ efforts to get this scabrous piece of lewd and lubricious verse published led to a tragic-comic trial in 1764 (3 years after the period in which the film is set), during which passages were read out in the House of Lords. As is the way with official condemnations of and outraged expressions of disapproval over ‘obscene’ art and publications, this resulted in the Essay receiving massive publicity and a far wider circulation that the handful of copies for friends which Wilkes had originally intended. It was his prosecution (for libel and obscenity, but not in the end for blasphemy) for the publication of the Essay on Women, which trailed with it further citations of the royal baiting issue no.45 of the North Briton magazine, that led him to a four year exile in France followed by a two year term in prison. It’s a perfect example of the way in which sex and politics were intricately entwined at the time; and indeed, in all times, power and desire tending to closely orbit one another.

Erotic landscape - The mound of Venus at West Wycombe Park
The libertine Wilkes muses on the character of Nell, ‘with that bright quick mind of hers’, which makes her ‘saner than either a politician or a Quaker’. His feelings for her are a blend of admiration and desire. He grasps his lapels and delivers a politician’s speech, patriotically painting England as a land in which laws operate to protect the common man. It’s as if he is rehearsing for a parliamentary address. He switches back to an informal and light-hearted vernacular as he pledges to get Nell out ‘in a twinkle’. We fade from his reassurances to Hogarth’s Bedlam etching, the last plate from the Rake’s Progress which offers a rather less rosy view of England. This final use of the print which is the centrepiece of the entire film is an indication that the story is reaching its climax. As far as the protagonist of the Rake’s Progress, Tom Rakewell, is concerned, of course, Bedlam is where his tale finds its woeful and permanent end.

Reading Smart - disputing The Word
Squatting on the floor of the main hall, a man reads with excited and tongue-tripping semi-coherence from a battered book to a wild-haired woman who violently demurs from its declarative verses, shouting ‘that’s not right’ after each line. The words have a definite biblical cadence, and are in fact taken from Christopher Smart’s lengthy and ecstatically visionary poem Jubilate Agno. Smart was confined in St Luke’s Hospital asylum in Bethnal Green between 1759 and 1763, during which time he wrote the poem. He had only his cat Jeoffry for company, to whom he dedicates several verses, such as ‘For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements./For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer./For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede./For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick/For he can swim for life./For he can creep.’ The poem wasn’t in fact published until 1939, when it appeared under the misleading title Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song From Bedlam. As with Sidney’s dreams of the cinema, it often takes time for the value of the art of the ‘insane’ to be recognised and appreciated. Smart’s poetry certainly fits in surprisingly well with the declamatory modernist verse of Eliot and Pound, and would be the perfect anthology partner to some of Allen Ginsberg’s work. The lines which Wallace, the reader, quotes are ‘Let Hull, house of Hull rejoice with Subis a bird called the Spight which breaks the Eagle's eggs’, ‘Let Scroop, house of Scroop rejoice with Fig-Wine - Palmi primarium vinum. Not so - Palmi-primum is the word’ and ‘Let Hollingstead, house of Hollingstead rejoice with Sissitietaeris herb of good fellowship. Praise the name of the Lord September 1762’. Taken out of context, they have the authentic sound of the meaningless babble of self-absorbed madness.

Christopher Smart - the 'mad' poet
The disputation between Wallace and his vocal audience, Betty, centres on the nature of the ‘word of truth’, which she insists is peace, as she makes a violent grab for the book. Their pointless altercation is a vignette of religious and political conflict, and the power of words to rouse men to violence based upon barely understood ideas. The paradoxical nonsense of fighting for peace only truly makes sense in a madhouse. Bedlam, like the ship of fools in The Ghost Ship, contains a representative panoply of human behaviour and belief, her cast in warped caricature which throws its underlying absurdities into sharp relief. Thus far, we have encountered figures representing art, religion, the law and politics. It’s a similar satirical inversion of the varied manifestations of society and the establishment to be found in Hogarth’s Bedlam print, with its bishop fools, naked monarchs, musicians playing cracked compositions and scientists looking up through the wrong end of a telescope.

Tamed tiger - Nell and her guardian
Nell becomes the arbitrator in this dispute, coming along to stop the squabbling. ‘We were fighting over truth’, they proudly announce, as if this somehow gives their bickering an inherent nobility. They are like naughty children who have been caught aping the behaviour of adults. ‘Wiser people than you have fought over it’, Nell wryly observes, making explicit the connection between Bedlam and the world beyond its walls, its illuminating refraction and magnification of accepted social and political norms. Nell is now accompanied by the hulking figure of the giant from the cage, her tamed tiger. His release from confinement is testament to the effectiveness of her attempts to communicate with him. It also suggests an uncharacteristically humane gesture on Sims’ part. The tiger man’s freedom is necessary in terms of the narrative, and the disjuncture in the consistency of Sims’ character is perhaps best left unexamined. He has certainly not experienced a sudden and revelatory change of heart, as we shall soon see.

No comments: