Thursday, 27 January 2011

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs


Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is another of director Guy Maddin’s delirium dreams, a fevered piece of personal myth-making which has no place for the dull reproductions of realism. Maddin’s cinematic reference points tend to hearken back to the silent era and the films of the 30s which followed on from it. It was a period in which Hollywood and other national cinema cultures created extravagant, self-contained fantasies which showed no interest in directly reflecting the reality of the world beyond the soundstage doors. In films such as Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg, Maddin creates his own pastiche of the visual surfaces of silent cinema. Black and white cinematography, with the occasional blush of washed-out tinting; fogged lenses cast a hazy halo around the edges of the frame; Montage and superimposition of images, which combine to heightened expressionistic effect; exaggerated performance styles and camera placements and angles which emphasize their broad gestures; and intertitles carrying exclamatory dialogue and emphatic interjected comments.

Reflective moments in a purple haze
Having said all of that, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs displays none of the above. Like its predecessor, and Maddin’s prior collaboration with regular screenwriting partner Gorge Toles, Careful, it is bathed in vivid, hyperreal colours, rich combinations far gone along the spectral path from their simple primary origins. Everything here is rich and artificial, and accompanied by the ceaseless chatter of the arch and theatrical dialogue. Maddin’s primary filmic influence, as he mentions in the commentary, is Josef von Sternberg, in particular his extraordinary historical fantasia The Scarlett Empress. There is also the feel of a dubbed middle-European film from a slightly later era (the mid 50s through to the early 70s), maybe from somewhere like Czechoslovakia or Austria. The dialogue was all post-synched. Indeed, in the case of Ross McMillan, who plays the protagonist, Matthew, this post-recording was parcelled out to another actor entirely (Peter Glahn), which Ross was none too happy about. The post-recording results in a disjuncture between word and gesture, a distancing effect which further enhances the sense of unreality, of a world set apart. It’s an effect which Maddin presumably deliberately sought to create, as it is certainly in perfect conjunction with the mood of the film. The accents are also wildly and emphatically disparate. Maddin refers to a ‘choir of accents’, and points to the example of The Scarlett Empress, a film whose voices of the Russian heartland range from unadulterated New Jersey to Marlene’s travel-inflected German. He points out that his cast have their origins all over the map. Ross McMillan comes from Edinburgh (granted, we don’t actually hear his voice, but nevertheless…); Shelley Duvall is from Texas; Frank Gorshin from Pittsburgh; Pascale Bussieres is French Canadian; RH Thomas Lithuanian; and Alice Krige has perfect received stage English, although she was born in South Africa. They are all encouraged to play up their idiomatic idiosyncracies. Shelley Duvall drops her g’s, enunciating her final n’s in words such as huntin’ and farmin’; Gorshin growls and barks out steel town vowels; Bussieres and Krige use their accents to accentuate the fey, unworldly glamour of their characters; And Thomson declaims imperiously in clipped, Teutonic tones, every inch the cruel von Sternberg dominant male in his black, quasi-military outfit.

Pierre Louys - lost in fin-de-siecle dreams
The primary influences on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs are literary and artistic rather than cinematic, however. Maddin talks about how he was immersed in the literature of the Decadants at the time, and in particular the fin de siecle writing of Pierre Louys. Louys was a good friend of Claude Debussy, who composed two pieces at the turn of the century around his work. The first was the Trois Chansons de Bilitis in 1899, three songs for soprano with piano accompaniment, taken from Louys’ poetry. The Chansons de Bilitis were Louys’ sensual reveries of Sapphic love set in an idealised, sun-drenched ancient Greece which was more a reflection of contemporary fantasies of sexual liberty than a depiction based in any real historical location or custom. A classical dream of the French fin de siecle mind. Debussy returned to the collection for Les Chansons de Bilitis in 1901 (known separately as Six Epigraphs Antiques), providing musical interludes to 12 spoken passages. These are gorgeous pastoral pieces, scored for two flutes, two harps and a celeste; an ensemble purpose built for hazy reveries. In the recording which I have, Louys’ verses are read in an understated murmur by Delphine Seyrig, the French actress who was one of the anonymous figures placed artistically in the frame for L’Anee Derniere a Marienbad, the object of Antoine Doinel’s youthful adoration in Truffaut’s Baisers Volees, and the decadant aristocratic vampire in Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness. She’s an absolutely ideal narrator for the piece, and her voice casts a mesmeric spell even if you don’t understand a word of French (which might even prove an advantage). The narcotised and drowsy atmosphere of Louys’ verse suffuses the world of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. This world is also given an almost constant underscoring by composer John McCulloch, which is very much in the style of Debussy (La Mer in particular), and of the lush moods of the late romantics.

Moreau interiors
Maddin also mentions a pilgrimage which he made to the Musee Gustav Moreau in Paris shortly before shooting began. The lighting and colour of the film betray the influence of Moreau’s palette, what the director calls his ‘jewelled tones’, as well as of his fantastic subject matter, rendered in shimmering and radiant visionary form. The preternatural clarity of the colour-drenched skies also bring to mind the magic hour landscapes of Maxfield Parrish, or the blurred horizons of Turner’s sunsets blossoming over reflective water. Knut Hamson’s Pan is cited as a further literary influence, particularly in the context of the dream hunting sequences, and the rather obvious phallic play with cocked rifles. The casual removal of a lobster from the tidal bed in which Matthew lies with Alice Krige’s wood nymph prompts Maddin to claims that he emulated Gerard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist and immaculately camp gesture of taking his pet crustacean for a walk on a blue silk lead, although he only exercised it around the set, rather than through the Palais Royal gardens in Paris. The deliberately artificial interiors and tastes favoured by Des Esseintes, the solitary protagonist of JK Huysmans’ A Rebours, are also mentioned as being germaine to the world of the ice nymphs.

Solti's cluttered lair
That world is the island of Mandragora, to which Matthew is returning after years spent in prison for an unspecified crime. He has a passionate shipboard encounter with a beguiling woman who appears as the embodiment of his romantic ideals, and whom he feels assured he is fated to meet again. Arriving on the island, he goes to visit his sister Amelia (played by Shelley Duvall), who owns an ostrich farm. Her assistant, Cain, is a voluble and rough-mannered farmhand who fears that Matthew’s return will endanger the tacit agreement he has made with Amelia which will see him inherit the farm. Frank Gorshin gives a performance of wild-haired eccentricity which recalls his manic cartoon capering as The Riddler in the 60s TV Batman. Matthew encounters the mysterious forest nymph Zephyr (played by Alice Krige) who leads him, possibly in his dreams, to her sea cave bedroom, where they make love as the tide rises suggestively around them. All the island’s activities are overseen by the arrogantly aloof, wooden-legged Dr Solti from his gothic mansion, which is cluttered with occult paraphernalia and equipment part scientific, part thaumaturgical. His companion is Juliana, the woman who had so bewitched Matthew aboard the ship during his ocean voyage back home. Solti is the magus of this island. He masterminds the ‘god-game’ of the story, to use the term included by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, manipulating the other characters with a cruel and disdainfully indifferent intelligence. Clute quotes R.Rawden Wilson (author of the formidable sounding ‘In Parmenides’ Shadow: Explorations in Play, Game and Narrative Theory’), who writes ‘in a godgame, one character (or several) is made a victim by another character, superior in knowledge and power. Caught in a cunningly constructed web of appearances, the victim, who finds the illusion to be impenetrable, is observed and his behaviour is judged’. It’s a narrative form which has existed at least since the tales of classical mythology, and pretty much sums up the plot structure of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

Tidal bed
The cast is fascinating and deliberately disparate in appearance and acting style. The mixture of accents has already been noted. Alice Krige plays one of her distracted, lamia-like characters, a supernatural femme fatale whose haunted features are both enticing and subtly disconcerting. She looks (as much through acting as appearance) as if she is halfway between worlds, and liable to drag unwary souls with her across the threshold. She has become the actress of choice when it comes to portraying the uncanny , both for arthouse directors such as the Brothers Quay (in Institute Benjamenta) and for more mainstream supernatural fare such as Ghost Story back in the 80s, and the more recent, game-based Silent Hill. Pascale Bussieres as Juliana seems to have been transplanted from an Italian film from the 60s or 70s. She has the look of Monica Vitti in an Antonioni film (or, indeed, in Modesty Blaise), of Marisa Mell in Danger: Diabolik, or even, from a later date, Ornella Muti in Flash Gordon (which is possibly more in keeping with Maddin’s oeuvre). Shelley Duvall reprises the gawky innocence of her Olive Oyl from Robert Altman’s Popeye, although Maddin and George Toles also mention her performance in 3 Women, one of Altman’s ‘dream’ films from the 70s. This is evident in the bright and brittle flow of her chatter, which acts as a shield against the casual cruelties of the world (and its inhabitants), allowing her to harbour her own comforting illusions. Her steep descent into mental dissolution also echoes that of the outwardly dominant (and domineering) character of Millie who she plays in Altman’s film.

Taking tea with ostriches
The tone of the performances, and of the film in general, wavers wildly between sincere and intense romanticism and wickedly cruel camp mockery. This is exemplified in the scene towards the end in which Matthew offers up his dead dog to the parting Juliana. The pathos and emotion of the scene is utterly undermined by the deliberately comical flopping of the mutt’s patently unreal head, which is combined with a whine which sounds more like a weary ‘let’s get this over with’ sigh. Maddin and Toles both chuckle heartily at this moment, so it’s bathetic laughs are clearly intentional. The decorous nature of Amelia’s ostrich herd, each of which has a ribbon neatly bowed around its neck, and the ridiculous fussiness of her picnic outfit also make it clear that writer and director are having a great deal of fun. This balancing of heightened romanticism and mocking absurdity, the sudden shift from the sublime to the ridiculous (and the blending of both in some scenes) is difficult to successfully achieve, and the uncertainty of tone might put many viewers off. At the same time, it would be a shame if the film were seen merely as something at which to snigger and sneer and view with a wholly ironised sensibility. I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it with such enthusiasm if I felt that to be the case.

Mandragora, the land of the ice nymphs, is in fact another name for the mandrake root which emphasises what were once considered to be its magical properties. The mandrake was perceived to be the form of a nascent human figure (due to the bifurcation of its roots into what looked like limbs) and it was said to scream as it was pulled out of the earth. A tiny, mewling mandrake makes an appearance in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. These miniscule root homunculi were said to have been seeded beneath the gallows by the last involuntary ejaculation of the hanged man. Dr Solti claims that Juliana was the offspring of his collected sample of such effluvium inseminated by a notorious local whore. It’s a calculated and outrageous play in his manipulative game, its veracity highly doubtful. The mandragora was said to help greatly in increasing fertility, and also to possess powerful narcotic properties, promoting a deep, waking sleep. It’s certainly an appropriate name for the world of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

Edible titles
The fervid mood of this world is immediately set by the opening titles, which are spelled out against a magenta subsoil in what looks like an artful assemblage of fig roll biscuits. The whole backdrop looks fit to scoff down, in fact, although a sugar rush, e-number mania and nausea would swiftly ensue. The cameras slowly panning descent through this colour saturated substrata, as well as the subsequent plunge from a star speckled sky through layers of air and earth, suggests that Mandragora may be a subterranean world (as Maddin and Toles imply in the commentary), a jewelled Pellucidar or long-subsided Atlantis. Toles had originally set the story against a Nordic background, more in keeping with the setting of Knut Hamson’s Pan from which it took its initial impetus. The self-contained world of the imagination which he eventually created is more in keeping with the decadent sources which he and Maddin cite, however. These writers prized the extravagantly artificial over the directly representative.

Vermillion cliffs
Mandragora is nothing if not artificial. It’s a beautiful stage-set world which, in the tradition of A Company of Wolves and Kwaidan, revels in its artifice. The colours of this world are all vivid purples, lime greens, turquoise blues and buttercup yellows. A lemon drop sun hangs on the horizon between sea and sky, and the cliffs are the deepest vermillion (presumably eroded by wind and water, carried along shore by tidal drift, and deposited to form vermillion sands). The endless midsummer haze is filled with a soft, downy snow of feathered seeds, a sun sparkled drift of dust motes (‘as if Liberace were shedding dandruff’ as Maddin amusingly observes), and the occasional angled hatching of warm shafts of rain. The sense of a drowsy midsummer of suspended time, in which life is like a waking dream, draws comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s summer films. In Summer Interlude, Summer With Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries, the briefness of the northern season of warmth and light makes it all the more precious. At the end of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the characters remaining on the island do indeed find themselves huddling in an ice-bound cavern, huddled against the long, dark winter. There are obvious parallels with A Midsummer Night’s Dream too, with its meeting of the everyday and the supernatural, and its more benevolent games and deceptions, couplings and lessons taught and learnt.

Obeisance before the goddess
Given the general trajectory of most decadent literature, it’s no surprise that the fate of the characters in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (and indeed in most of Maddin’s films) tends inexorably towards disaster, delirium and death. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Dr Solti has unearthed and re-erected a statue of Venus, which become the tutelary spirit of the island, standing sentinel at its borders. It seems to magically radiate the infectious forces of love and desire, and both Dr Solti and Zephyr make obeisance before it. The intensified romantic yearnings which she embodies and which fill the summer air as thickly as the drifting seed lead to complex and highly charged entanglements, cross currents of feelings which soon devolve into their dark forms of jealousy and hatred. The evolution of need into detestation is illustrated by the magically animated skulls of the twins now stored in Dr Solti’s morbid collection of curios. These inseparable companions had grown to despise each other in life, but couldn’t bring themselves to part from one another. Finally, one drove a spike through the other’s cranium. The power of their hatred has persisted beyond the grave, however, and if their skulls (one with spike still protruding) are placed facing one another, they will slowly rotate to avoid even this cold and bony intimacy. Grand passions create the conditions for tragedy when thwarted or manipulated. It was always going to end in tears – a petty Gotterdamerung: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

Twilight falls

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Weird Tales for Winter


It’s time once more to gather round the fireplace or its notional equivalent and listen to a tale or two which will raise a cold shudder in spite of the comforting warmth, and give pause before you peer through the curtains to look out into the night beyond. Resonance fm is playing host for a second year to some Weird Tales for Winter on Johnny Mugwump’s Exotic Pylon show. These combine words and specially tailored sonic atmospheres in a symbiotic partnership which nods to radiophonic programmes of old. William Hope Hodgson seems to be the writer who is the focus of the season this year. The Gateway of the Monster is one of his Carnacki stories, from the Carnacki the Ghost Finder collection. Carnacki is a detective of the supernatural, whom Hodgson was encouraged to create in the wake of the huge success of the series of stories written by Algernon Blackwood featuring the psychic investigator John Silence. Carnacki, a consummate modern rationalist, sometimes discovers non-occult explanations for the cases in which he becomes involved, but rest assured, that is not the case with this story. It is a classic haunted house mystery, and in true MR James style, the manifestations here are far from spectral, and are intent on delivering much more than a mild frisson of fear. Hodgson’s novel The House on the Borderland, published in 1908, is a remarkable blend of genres which could happily inhabit the blurred boundaries of the New Weird today. Beginning as a haunted house story, it expands into a Wellsian scientific romance in which the evolutionary and cosmological perspectives of time unfold, leaving the protagonist in a state of existential shock at his insignificance in the great scheme of things. Scientific romance, about which Brian Stableford has written with lucid clarity in his book Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890 -1950 (currently going for £216.23 on Amazon if you’re interested – why the overly precise sum of 23p, I wonder?), is the fictional stream which originated with HG Wells and fed into the genre of science fiction which developed in the American magazines in the 20s. As with other British scientific romances of the period, Hodgson’s novel is still haunted by the implications of Darwin’s theories, and by the expanded horizons and understanding of the world and the universe opened up by other Victorian scientific discoveries. With its devolved human pig-men, it also perhaps bears the influence of Freud. There are echoes of decadent and symbolist literature and art here, too, the horrors and embodiments of existential fears unconscious manifestations of the underlying uncertainties and gloomy presentiments of the age.

WF (William Fryer) Harvey, whose story The Clock is included here, is best known for his story The Beast With Five Fingers, the classic disembodied but ambulatory hand story, filmed in a much altered form with Peter Lorre in 1946. It’s a story which manages the rare trick of being both unsettling and funny at one and the same time. The scenes in which the protagonist obsessively attempts to corner the scuttling hand in the library, as if it were an invading mouse, are as amusing as the finale is horrific. Harvey was seriously injured in the First World War, as a consequence of going out to rescue a fallen comrade, and never recovered his health. Although possibly too glibly facile, it’s difficult not to find traces of the horrors of the trenches and blasted battlefields in the psychological torments of his haunted characters. The contributors to Weird Tales steer clear of MR James, who is perhaps too much the default choice when it comes to English supernatural fiction. There are still many lesser known tales that have so far eluded adaptation, however, and it might be good to have an unadulterated corrective to the bizarre meddling inflicted on O Whistle and I’ll Come to You on tv over Christmas. MR James is present in the form of his translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Shadow, however (which presumably means he had a working knowledge of Danish). This is a very dark tale, a variation on the theme of the double, and is about as far from Danny Kaye and Thumbelina as it’s possible to get. It’s also a very apposite fable for our unreflective age of surface appearances and world-weary cynicism.

Wilhelm Pedersen's illustration for The Shadow
The music, or soundscapes, are provided by an interesting group of people, most of whom I confess I had not heard of before. The Outer Church look really interesting, and have a splendid blog site, which includes Joseph Stannard’s very personal tribute to Trish Keenan, which, in relating his two meeting with her, manages to encapsulate what made her so special to so many. Misty Roses, who are providing the soundtrack to WF Harvey’s story, have been described in The Wire in terms of The Associates, which is not an oft-made comparison and definitely makes them sound worth hearing. Johnny Trunk is involved, following on from his intriguing collage of 70s BBC sound effects recordings broadcast on radio 3 over Christmas. The Advisory Circle and Moon Wiring Club both provide the atmospheres for the Carnacki story in a collaborative combination which has yet to come together in the Ghost Box Study Series EPs, but which perhaps might now happen in the near future. It all sounds perfectly in tune with these dank and drear days, when we turn inwards and drift down into deeper and darker levels of our inner landscape. So let’s gather round the hum and glow of our screens and listen as the tale inexorably unfolds.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Landings: Re-Viewing the World

Landings: Re-viewing The World
13 © Simon Faithfull
Courtesy: Animate TV
Landings: Re-Viewing the World, the latest exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, brings together three animators and film-makers who look closely at details of our world and transform them, making them seem alien and strange. At the same time, their work retains some degree of familiarity, which gives that strangeness a disorientating giddiness. The first film you come across upon entering the gallery is Simon Faithfull’s 13. This begins with the sketched outline of a dog’s head, prone and with eyes closed, whining in troubled sleep. The journey which follows can be seen as the dog’s dream, a flickering memory outline of an oft-made journey, its elements floating in a weightless, somnambulistic drift, apt to dissolve into a granular dust of formless motes at any moment (as indeed they do). The dog’s dream is of a journey along the A13, back to Barking (hoho), a route with which Faithfull is presumably familiar himself. He has assembled the animation from sketches he made on his PalmPilot (a small, hand-held computer, I believe) as he walked along the side of the road. Given that this is not a route which gives the slightest thought to the pedestrian, this brave and foolhardy act in itself leads to a removed and mildly bewildered perspective. The simple and childlike outlines, blockily pointillist as if made by a large virtual crayon, are limitations set by the technology used rather than by the draftsmanship of the artist. They suggest the limited mental capacity of the dog, and this progression of images, of hazily familiar landscapes and landmarks, thus becomes rather poignant. They could be the output of a crude dream-recording device (such as the one featured in Wim Wenders’ Until The End of the World), the clunky prototype of magic technology, here tested on a pitiful laboratory specimen. But aside from such fancies, these touchingly innocent images are the dog’s attempts to comprehend the complex and inhospitable world around it, roamed by all these strange metallic beasts, speeding by on their round legs. This poignancy is underlined by the occasional bit of musical accompaniment, simple and understated keyboard chords overlaid with guitar lines which echo the plaintive whine of the dog with their smooth, plangent pedal steel-style bent notes; Concrete country and eastern ambiences.

The A13 stretches from the East End of London, making its usually traffic-choked way along Commercial Road, skirting Limehouse Basin and the East India Docks, flying over the Blackwall Tunnel approach and past Plaistow and East Ham, and rushing out towards Essex. Familiar sights appear in their phantom outlines in Faithfull’s journey. The Ballardian concrete flyovers; the Mecca Bingo hall, grandiose in its old cinema building, a union jack flying atop the roof making its seem like some royal castle; Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, the jutting mass of its top floor service rooms on top of a shaft separate from the main body of the building giving it the look of a fossilised concrete dinosaur; and Bow Creek passing underneath rushing traffic at Canning Town, its muddy flow towards the nearby Thames captured in a few flickering lines. Some of the flats in the Balfron buildings have in fact been rented to artists in a special scheme set up by the housing association, Poplar HARCA, which currently own it. I wonder whether Faithfull is one of those who took them up on their offer. As the journey progresses, there is a sudden inversion, the black outlines on white background switching to their negative reverse. It’s a simple yet magical moment, night suddenly descending on this automotive landscape. The darkness seems appropriate for this environment, and everything seems more natural, attuning itself to the dog’s dreamscape. Throughout, the car has floated above the road and passed through other cars and buildings, its outlines shifting and phasing. It’s an insubstantial ghost, the dog’s ideal form, in which he can pass through this landscape as if it were an open field. For one brief moment, we see a dog racing across the roads, which provide no obstacle to its speeding pelt. For just a short span, the concrete world becomes insubstantial, an immaterial superimposition, and the dogs are free to roam the plains once more.

Landings: Re-viewing The World
Without You © Tal Rosner
Courtesy: Animate TV
Without You by Tal Rosner is a video piece transformed through editing and collage into a kinetic blur of ever-shifting patterns. The camera initially observes scenes from the urban interzones with static indifference. Modern warehouse buildings of grey corrugated metal are iced with primary coloured eaves, which only serve to emphasize their unalloyed functionality and utter impersonality. They exist in those areas on the edges of towns and cities which are wholly devoid of character or distinctiveness, and are designed to be so. This is where drifts of detritus accumulate and no-one really cares to clear them up, and car parks stretch to the horizon around human cattle-shed workplaces. Having surveyed such apparently featureless environments with a dead and noncommittal eye, Rosner swoops in to take in close-up details of the buildings. He then sets them in motion, creating swift, rhythmic realignments, splicing and juxtaposing different elements. Diagonals intersect with horizontals, bright colours contrast with each other, and surface details such as rivets on metal provide texture and regular pattern. The remixing and shifting of these individually dull elements works to hypnotic effect (although it has to be said, this might have been even more effective on a larger screen). At one moment, they fall into boldly outlined grids, partially filled in with lozenges of primary colour which stand out against an otherwise blank background, like a Mondrian painting; at the next, they unfold into the shimmering striations of op-art fields. Then they are kaleidoscopically shaken once more to form new configurations. The natural life of these barren hinterlands also makes its scraggy presence felt, throwing shadows of a more awkwardly irregular form against the screens of human manufacture. These shapes cannot be so easily accommodated into abstract patterns of shifting geometrical order. You can imagine David Attenborough, emerging from around the corner of some B&Q barn, whispering in voice-over ‘even here, life has found a hold’. Through skilful editing and mixing, Rosner has manipulated the source material in such a way as to find visual interest and energy in the most unpromising of environments.

Landings: Re-viewing The World
Proximity © Inger Lise Hansen
Courtesy: Animate TV
Inger Lise Hansen’s three films were the highlights of the exhibition for me. Shown on a large screen in a darkened gallery temporarily walled off from the rest of the building, they were mesmerising in their effect. Hansen uses a time-lapse camera, more commonly employed to capture the growth of vegetable empires, to track with aching slowness and at low-lying level across landscapes with wide-open expanses of sky. The resulting film is then flipped over, and the world turned upside down. The ground becomes a sky of massive solidity, a chthonic cave roof lowering over a ground become airy and insubstantial, a medium of constant change. The contrary motion of both new ‘sky’ and fast-shifting ground caused by the slow, ground-level tracking of the camera creates a dizzying and disorientating effect. These feel like new and alien worlds which Hansen has discovered for us.

The three films here were shot at a beach in Jutland, Norway, atop a department store roof in Linz, Austria, and in Murmansk, Russia. The Jutland film, Proximity, is the simplest, given the relatively unchanging nature of the environment Hansen has recorded. Changes in weather and light are marked, however. Beach and sky below are suddenly lit up or crossed by a wave of shadow. Showers occasionally wash in and dapple the lens with raindrops. The Linz film, titled Parallax, prowls around the monumental, unidentified outcroppings on the department store rooftop. They might be the housings for lift mechanisms, for heating systems, or for who knows what. It’s best to leave them as vessels for the imagination. Their blocklike, constructed forms in the foreground contrast with the mountainscapes which make up the background. Hardy tufts of grass blow in a pixellated wind, as if this were in fact some tundra environment, the built structures part of a remote oil or gas refinery. This was my assumption before reading the exhibition notes. A tame and ordinary setting has been made strange, rendered inhospitable and inhuman. The Murmansk film, Travelling Fields, is the most recent and perhaps the most impressive. The camera eye makes its slow and steady surveillance sweep across bleak and depopulated plains, which are crossed with lines of roads and telegraph wires, their symmetrical order indicating manufacture. They are also seeded with copses of crumbling high-rise apartment buildings. In the foreground of the scenes with the high-rises, there are regularly spaced concrete struts, the foundations for some building long gone, or maybe never built. They hang down from the concrete sky like the ragged root ends of tower blocks, the rusted brown of their protruding steel frame rods trailing organic offshoots. We get to see the surfaces of some of these pendant concrete stalactites close-up as the camera glides smoothly by. The right angled, flat-planed surfaces have been given sculptural form by weather and time, their cubist cast giving way to a more natural, granite face, pitted by wind and chiselled by ice-cracking. These are inverted megalithic sites, their carefully aligned sarsens testament to a civilisation which has faded away or been destroyed. Only these stark memorial stones are left as clues from which future archaeologists will attempt to divine its nature. Snow falls up to the solid grey sky and then down towards the cloudy, fast-flowing ground, as though this is a world in which gravity has become subject to sudden reversals. Occasionally, a dark, vaguely insectoid form scuttles hurriedly across the frame in the near distance. Some life remains here.

Hansen composes some beautiful landscape shots elsewhere, which become almost abstract in their topsy-turvy state. Telephone wires strung between poles describe a receding perspective of upward sweeping arcs. Aerials protrude like small, bristly shrubs. A long, straight road bisecting the centre of the plain looks like a runway, an acceleration track from which cars take off for the downward plunge to earth. This upending of landscape is such a simple idea, and yet, when combined with the speeded time of the photography and the slow tracking of the camera, it sets the imagination off on such rich associational paths. It brings about a disassociation of accustomed perceptions, which allows new ones to take their place. The atmosphere is also greatly enhanced by the low rumble and throb of the underlying soundscape (rather reminiscent of Eno’s On Land), which perfectly complements the images. The exhibition continues until 26th February, during which time there will be a screening night (on the 24th February) of animated films, including works by Andrew Kotting (who made the wonderful Gallivant) and David Shrigley. Meanwhile, re-view your world, and let your perceptions be turned upside down.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Trish Keenan


I still can’t believe it. What devastating news, particularly for those closest to her. Broadcast have been that special band for me for years, ever since I heard The Book Lovers back in the mid 90s. How could I not love a song with that title, which ushered you ‘down the aisles/Along the titles where you run your eyes’. Imparting such a sense of mystery and sensuality to browsing and reading points to the heart of the band’s appeal. Such a joy in learning, in making connections between things, was one of the things I loved about Trish, too. She was from an ordinary background, but followed her intellectual instincts and discovered for herself a broad cultural universe, which encompassed the spectrum from the popular to the abstruse and avant-garde. Such an autodidactic gathering of influences, free from an assumed canon of the great and worthy which tends to be absorbed within certain social and educational backgrounds, meant that she was genuinely enthusiastic about her discoveries. As a result, the music can encompass experimental elements, both in terms of sound and lyrical content, without sounding remotely pretentious.

I picked up many recommendations from reading and listening to interviews with Trish and James. Her enthusiasms ranged from Gertrude Stein and automatic writing, through the music of The United States of America and the Radiophonic Workshop, to the Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (she provided some sleeve notes to the Finders Keepers release of the soundtrack), Jonathan Miller's 60s tv Alice in Wonderland, with its languorous Ravi Shankar score, and the 70s children’s tv fantasy Sky. The mixes which she and James (and Julian House) provided on the website introduced me to some wonderful things, including Carl Orff’s Musica Poetica, Tom Dissevelt’s poppy 60s electronica and Ennio Morricone’s early soundtracks, including the sublime Invention for John. Such a profusion of ideas, and the evident delight taken in them, made for music which was intellectual but always alive. Trish had taken to talking about psychedelic experiences resulting from an intense response to sound rather than from the ingestion of drugs. A more genuinely rebellious approach of concentrated engagement than the usual tired excesses of rock’s macho self-mythologising, and one which reflected her interest in a pop music centred around a more female perspective (for which she created her benign ‘white witch’ for recent performances). Her vocal style was restrained, with a distanced formality, exuding a coolly seductive quality. It sounded at times as if she was half singing to herself. Many of the melodies had the feel of lullabies, or of songs sung whilst engaged in other activities. I can imagine her replacing Sandy Denny on the cover of The North Star Grassmen and the Ravens, gently crooning whilst sorting out seeds into their drawers for next year’s planting.

The recording I heard of the December concert in Australia sounded so relaxed. The music from this latest incarnation of the band, just Trish and James, sounded like it had reached its ideal form, completely natural and poised for the progression to new forms and styles. Their interest in soundtracks was to have borne fruit in their proposed collaboration with Peter Strickland on his follow up to Katalin Varga. They were to have played Animal Collective’s ATP festival and, who knows, release the new LP which had been so long in the offing. So much to look forward to. Broadcast, and Trish, have been at the centre of my musical universe for so long now, and they’ll leave a great void. It will be a while before I can bring myself to listen to the music again, but it will be a lasting legacy which I will always treasure. I shall miss her greatly.