Friday, 18 November 2011

The Forewarning

The Forewarning, which received its premiere showing last week, is trumpeted as Exeter’s first independent feature film, a claim which immediately invokes feelings of local interest and pride in a city not necessarily known for great cultural achievements. What it certainly is for its writer, director and producer Andy Robinson and the dedicated team which he gathered around him, is a labour of love. Andy strove assiduously over a period of six years to make this film, starting (and ending) with a budget of bugger all and filming and editing in the cracks of time available between holding down a full time job and raising his daughter alongside his wife, to whom he formally apologised before the premiere (a playful apology only, since she has offered vital support and encouragement throughout). The film follows the parallel lives of two focal characters, David Matheson and Sam Beaumont, whose lives are seemingly disconnected but whose paths vector in on each other during the course of the film. David has received a heart transplant after years of poor health, and it seems that there may be some supernatural agency at work, a vestigial presence which has somehow remained inherent in the physical blood and sinew of the organ. This guides him towards some mysterious purpose in a life which has otherwise lost itself in directionless drift. The story is about the matter of the heart, in metaphorical as well as medical terms, and Andy uses the supernatural elements to quietly examine the effects of death on the living. Both the main characters live in a numb hinterworld of loss, in which they exist in a state of self-doubt and negation. David is haunted by a strangely calm doppelganger, a still, self-possessed figure dressed in an immaculate suit of angelic white. It remains an ambivalent figure, frightening for him in its strangeness and its intimations of death, but never directly threatening. Sam’s ghosts manifest themselves through the digital fragments which are left behind in our highly technologised age, pixillated phantoms caught on mobiles, voice messages from beyond the grave. Her partner leaves a trail of cryptic crossword clues which lead to places connected with the progress of their lives together; everyday locales which are now haunted places in which associative memory has accumulated like an age-grown patina of moss or lichen. For other characters, different associations conjure up the lost. David’s mother grows emotional at a picture of a chalkboard covered with complex equations calculated by her deceased daughter in law. They are an outward expression of a part of her self which she finds beautiful and true, a mind which comprehended the essential order of the universe.

The well-tailored ghost
Both Sam and David are alone in the world, isolated figures disconnected from everyday human interaction through grief, anxiety and fear. Andy creates subtle connections between these lonely characters throughout the film, without having them actually meet. Both visit the cathedral green. Sam puts herself through a punishing session on an exercise machine treadmill, a neat metaphor for a life stuck in exhausting stasis. David enjoys his newfound health by running along the ordered concrete planes of the Exe flood channel, the ghost-presence of his donor subliminally suggested by his replication of the reflexive gesture of tapping the top of an aluminium post as he passes it. Whilst Sam spends much of the film seeking the answers to a crossword which leads her on a journey across town and through her life, David quietly and unobtrusively provides the solution to his mother’s Times puzzle, suggesting that he may prove instrumental in the reconnection of her fragmented emotional self. The whirligig static eddies and whorls of static on an untuned TV screen also seem to form a conduit between the two, as Sam presses her hand to the chaotic visual noise. It looks like it might push through to some other side, in the same manner that Jean Marais pushed through a mirror into the world beyond in Cocteau’s Orphee. The scene also recalls James Woods’ intimacy with a mutable TV screen in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. An associative cut to David’s sudden startled awakening implies the disturbance of some porous membrane through which the two are connected – the thin walls between the chambers of a heart, perhaps.

A life in pieces - the fractured self
The story makes much of the play of chance, counterbalancing themes of science and superstition in a Nigel Kneale-ish fashion. The keyring, which is the slowly revolving focus of the very effective opening credits sequence and which plays an important part in the story, is a twisted and tangled ball of metal wire which resembles a model of an electron particle cloud - a higher order emerging from seemingly chaotic motion. The tossed coin which lands on its edge (an impressively realised effect) points to a universe in which stranger complexities multiply beyond the simple binary choice of heads or tails. David’s wife was a scientist, which leads to the introduction of the ideas of quantum physics and parallel universes. The potential branching of alternate realities from the divergent outcomes of every moment is essentially a theoretical expression of the age old balance between the operation of fate and the shaping of one’s own destiny, which is central to the story.

There is also a definite sense of spiritual yearning in the film, a desire to find meaning beyond the manifest physical realities of the world, but not within the traditional religious traditions. Sam and her partner drank at the George’s Meeting House, a pub converted from an old 18th century Unitarian chapel, although they never went there on a Sunday, in deference to his parents’ beliefs. Sam also discards her St Christopher’s medal, which is a kind of parallel keepsake to the atom cloud keyring, after her partner’s death, a rejection of the idea that any power might reside in it, and of the faith which it embodies. The cathedral is a looming presence in several scenes, and (without wishing to divulge too much) the notion of self-sacrifice is, of course, central to Christianity. Even the book which Sam unpacks from the box of her partner’s belongings, Arthur C Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, is in keeping with this sense of yearning. It’s central idea of elevators ascending through the heavens and into space tinges his usual hard SF rationality with a hint of mysticism.

Influences - Rod Serling's Twilight Zone
The introduction of the strange into the everyday (or the rendering of the strange in everyday terms), often as a reflection of the troubled psyches of its protagonists, was also characteristic of the 60s TV series The Twilight Zone. Andy acknowledges its influence in the surnames of his principal characters, Matheson and Beaumont. These pay homage to Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, two of the show’s finest writers (speculating that the Christian names make reference to Sam and Dave, the duo who sang Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming is probably taking things too far). The programme also informed his decision to film in black and white in order to recreate some of the same sombre monochrome atmosphere. Beaumont’s own life ended tragically as he was ravaged with a mysterious illness which destroyed his mind and body, leaving him dead at the age of 38. The shadow of death which hangs over the film, and David’s own fear in the face of his fragile health is perhaps informed by this, as well as by the dark tenor of and air of angst and paranoia pervading much of Beaumont’s fiction. On the other hand, the romanticism which often comes through in Matheson’s episodes is also present. Andy certainly captures some of the quiet eeriness of the show, as well as the centrality of character to its storytelling, its exposure of deep-rooted anxiety, longing and fears. You can imagine the camera point of view swinging around at the end of the film to pick out the sports-jacketed figure of Rod Serling, hands clasped before him, informing us in his unmistakeable clipped and crisply articulated tones that Sam and David have found what they searched for; not in the centre of Exeter, but in the heart…of the Twilight Zone.

The dark imagination - Charles Beaumont
The film, for all its eeriness and supernatural trappings, is at heart a romance, however. Albeit one in which the objects of affection are largely absent. It’s an unashamed tearjerker in places, evoking strong emotions. In this, it is greatly assisted by the restrained and affecting performances of its two lead actors, Richard Perry and Marina O’Shea, as well as by Rebecca Crookshank’s warm and sympathetic portrayal of Jo, David’s old university acquaintance who helps him in his attempts to uncover his destiny. They, and Andy, avoid melodramatic histrionics, keeping instead to a more controlled display of feeling – subtler, more effective, and much more difficult to act, I should imagine. Andy pulls back from the overwhelming expression of Sam’s sorrow when the trail leads back to her old house. His camera discretely observes her collapse to her knees in the teeming rain from an upstairs window, the raindrops on the pane standing in for her tears, with her calm voiceover telling us that some things are just too painful. A passerby stops and stoops to ask her if she’s alright, a small act of everyday kindness which makes the scene all the more moving. It’s in the tradition of scenes in the movies in which rain symbolically conveys strong emotions, from the climaxes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Blade Runner (which perhaps unwisely spells the symbolism out in its ‘tears in the rain’ speech) to the more restrained shots of raindrops running down the windows in In Cold Blood, expressing the feelings which the character cannot articulate. Was it fortunate happenstance that the skies opened on the day of shooting, or did Andy patiently wait for a suitably sodden day. I suspect the latter is probably the case.

The lines of fate
An incidental pleasure for residents of Exeter is the imaginative use of locations. The cathedral and its surroundings exert an inevitable gravity. We also get to see the Mill on the Exe cycle bridge, with its oversized grinding stone acting as a suspension counterweight; the leafy parkland of Heavitree cemetery; the steep and narrowly precipitous stone steps by the side of the catacomb slopes (very much in the style of The Exorcist); the reflective shard of the Riddle Book sculpture, with the clone town blandness of the high street an appropriate site for a hallucinatory nightmare; a quiet backroad with a pillarbox embedded in the wall, symbolic of a sense of permanence, solidity and home (all the things which Sam has lost); the cool and rational interior spaces of the Peninsular Medical School; and the elevated platform of Polsloe Bridge station (halfway to Heaven?) from which the railway track dips and rises in a straight, predetermined line, heading towards the estuary and coastline. There are also many visually inventive details, which reflect Andy’s keen and cineliterate eye and his (Orson) Wellesian delight in mastering the medium. He even manages to make the Sidwell Street arcade, one of the shabbiest areas of town, look interesting with a carefully framed deep focus shot lining its tiled pillars up alongside each other. The shot from ‘inside’ the pillar box, looking out at Sam peering in, is effective in itself, and also serves to convey the idea of an unreachable place, of frustrated attempts at communication between realms which are nearby but separated by a seemingly unbridgeable gulf. The scene in which David talks of his past, and of his shame at proving unable to rescue his wife from drowning, is played out in a room in which the light from a table lamp with a moving ‘propellor’ lampshade casts strobing shadows onto the ceiling, enhancing the hypnotic feeling of being held by vital revelation. It’s reminiscent of the effects of motion created by the devices of early pre-cinema, praxinoscopes and zoetropes, which is suggestive of David’s digging deep into the buried recesses of his psyche to excavate suppressed and painful memories. Throughout, Andy’s framing is precise and carefully thought out, the result of a painstaking and perfectionist approach.

Before the film’s premiere, Andy modestly proclaimed that the film was a collaborative effort involving many of those present in the audience, cheekily and pre-emptively going on to add that ‘if you don’t like it, you’ve only got yourselves to blame’. Whilst this is true, there’s little doubt as to who is the controlling auteur here – the writer, producer and director and no doubt provider of tea and biscuits as the occasion demanded. So here’s to you, Mr Robinson (sorry, I just had to) and to the next project.

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