I remembered this film like a dream from my early teens. I had no recollection of its title, or of who directed it, but knew it starred Mick Ford and Trevor Howard, and that it involved the unconventional apprenticeship of a young to a half mad, half visionary old dreamer, who believed he could fly, in the remote outreaches of the sparsely populated Irish heartlands. It remained lodged in my subconscious to surface every now and again, offering tantalising images and fragments of story. Ford standing shivering beside an old petrol pump in the middle of nowhere, by a road narrowly winding across moors and between mountains. And Howard curtly rapping out commands and questions with a barking patrician rudeness, hair wildly tufted and eyes staring with unblinking fixity. The idea of an ancient, hubristic fable played out in the modern day obviously proved lastingly resonant for me. Seeing it again after so many years, I was surprised at how accurately my partial memories of the landscape and the two central characters had proved to be.
Urban drifter - Mick Ford as JonasThe film was directed by Alain Tanner, a French filmmaker better known for his realist dramas, generally adopting a left wing view of the world. Light Years Away was released in 1981 and titled Les Anees Lumiere in French. The Mick Ford character was called Jonas, a name which had been used in Tanner’s 1976 film Jonas, Qui Aura 25 Ans En l’An 2000 (Jonas, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000). This was set in 1968, and centred around the lives of a group of men and women living in a rural commune. The young child Jonas provided the focus for their ideological hopes for the future, for the then magical prospect of the turning millennium. If we can assume a link between the two films, and take Ford’s Jonas to be the communally raised child of 60s hopes and dreams, then the year is now 2000, and the utopian ideals of the era have failed to cohere and take root. To confuse the issue, Tanner went on to make a further film about the grown up Jonas, this time on the actual cusp of the millennium: Jonas et Lila, A Demain (1999), which has no relation whatsoever to Les Annees Lumiere, but is explicitly a sequel to Jonas, Qui Aura 25 Ans En l’An 2000.
Getting off to a bad start - Trevor Howard as Yoshka PoliakoffTrevor Howard was in the twilight of his career at this point in time, and his character in Light Years Away was one of a series of mad, irascible eccentrics which he played with relish. He was perfectly cast the previous year as the title character in the film adaptation of Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End radio monologues, ranting and bawling at his unfortunate servants, Mrs E and the ‘wrinkled retainer’ Scrotum from the hallways of the crumbling ancestral pile. His character Yoshka in Light Years Away is a little more restrained, although still tyrannical and not visibly exhibiting conspicuous signs of sanity. He also lives amongst ruin and squalor, with the decaying remnants of a former life all around him, but he has no servants (until Jonas turns up). His manor is now much reduced, an old garage which has long since ceased to function as such, stranded by a bypassed country road. It’s a brave performance by Howard in a largely unsympathetic role, for which he has to strip down to the waist and stand covered in blood and feathers, and maintain a level of dishevelment and physical disregard mixed with absolute self-conviction throughout.
Punk shelterMick Ford seemed to embody the British post punk spririt on TV in the late 70s and early 80s. In Light Years, we see him waking from a night spent in a concrete bus shelter, the words Punk and Sex Pistols graffitied like protective charms above his huddled form. In Jack Rosenthal’s play The Knowledge, he even gets to sing the punk pop title song (‘you’ve been to umpteen colleges, but don’t know what the knowledge is’). His characters were young working class men who exhibited a curiosity about the world and its workings, and a determination not to be press-ganged into lives of soul-destroying conformity. In The Knowledge, he is one of several would be London cabbies. He begins as a rather hapless and clueless innocent, lacking in any sense of worth or self-belief, and is guided into action by his wiser, more forthright girlfriend. The hard won lessons of the knowledge (the memorisation of every London street and public building) provide the path towards wisdom, an urban form of enlightenment. In Alan Clarke’s borstal drama Scum, initially banned as a TV play, he was the philosophising non-conformist, refusing to bow to attempts at institutional depersonalisation. He remained defiantly and heroically cheerful, and openly questioned the brutality of the regime, thus ensuring that this brutality would be more intensively directed at him.
Landscape with Red VanIn Light Years Away, he plays Jonas, whom we first encounter disconsolately working in the dingy hole of a Dublin bar. Here he has a brief exchange with Trevor Howard’s character, Yoshka Poliakoff (a nod perhaps to the writer and director Stephen Poliakoff, whose film Caught on a Train, based around an encounter on a trans-European journey, had been broadcast in the BBC2 Playhouse slot the previous year). With his Eastern European name and Jonas’ South London accent, these are two people who have clearly wandered from their places of origin. Jonas’ transient job and accommodation suggest that he is unsettled, just drifting through. The large bronze samovar squatting on the table in Yoshka’s small room abutting the garage’s hangar shed points towards Russian or Eastern European heritage, transported from the continent. His bright red breakdown van, which has provided a splash of vivid primary colour against the browns of the rocky scrubland and the dark greys of the skies through and under which he has travelled to reach the city, looks like it would be more at home as part of a circus caravan, rather than parked by the ruined and rusting garage from which we saw him head out at the start of the film. It’s a further signifier of his difference, his alien, outsider status. He mingles with the grimly taciturn and self-absorbed daytime drinkers and asks Jonas whether he likes it there. Jonas answers noncommittally, but it is evident from his slump-shouldered body language and dead eyed dullness that he detests it.
Hope filled arrivalLater, Yoshka visits him in his squalid, decrepit squat in a row of condemned housing as he lies in bed. He enters only to leave him a book, which we have earlier seen him annotating, underlining certain passages. Jonas fails to turn up for work, and the following day he finds it impossible to muster a decent excuse, instead telling the landlord what he really thinks of him and his establishment. Having thus cut himself adrift, he fixes on the address which Yoshka had written in the book, and decides to interpret it as an invitation. He sets off to find him, hitching and hiking into the middle of the wild and mountainous Irish moorlands, finally taking directions from a barman in a tiny village, who tells him that the old man is completely mad. Walking the narrow, open country road to the garage, he finds it to be a dilapidated semi-ruin, little better than the slum he left behind. A tide of scrap from wrecked cars is shored against a large weathered and rusting shed, with a couple of small attached offices converted into provisional living space. Yoshka is not at home, so Jonas takes shelter in an old caravan and, weary from his travels, falls asleep. He is woken by the old man, who is abrupt and dismissive, berating him for sleeping whilst waiting for him, and mocking his attempts at explaining himself, belittling him at every turn. He denies that the book was meant as any form of invitation, tells him that he is of no use, and turfs him out. Jonas is not so easily dissuaded from his instinctive quest, however, and makes his way to an isolated cottage some miles away. Here he meets Betty (Bernice Stegers), and asks her if he can buy food and a present for Yoshka, telling her that he lives with him. She looks at him with an appraising eye. She evidently knows the old man, and views him with a familiar contempt, not lacking in a certain warmth, and suggests that a pig would be an appropriate offering. Jonas cradles the squealing creature as he trudges back to the garage. It will become his closest companion in the coming days, a comforting, living presence to ward off loneliness and despair. Yoshka greets his return with curt interrogations, asking ‘what do you want with me’, and parroting his ‘I don’t know’ response back at him with brusque disdain. He asks ‘what can you do?’, to which Jonas self-effacingly replies ‘nothing special, but I can learn’. He is allowed to stay, squatting in the caravan.
Surveying the wreckageThe relationship develops along the lines of a Zen master instructing his pupil, leading him towards understanding and enlightenment. The pupil has to meekly accept all the rudeness, physical privations and seemingly pointless tasks to which he is subjected. Jonas senses something about Yoshka, some magical quality or enigmatic, hidden wisdom which makes all of this worth enduring, even though he periodically resists, and bursts with barely restrained rage and frustration at various points. He initially sets himself to clearing the mountain of scrap, the world’s detritus, uncovering the more or less intact cars beneath, in order to impress Yoshka with what he can do. Subsequently, the old man sets him a series of pointlessly arduous or aimless tasks, which seem more tests of endurance and will than purposeful action. He shows scant gratitude, but offers small rewards as a result – food and invitations into his meagre living rooms. Jonas has to sort the scrap out into separate piles, bringing a semblance of order to chaos, even though Yoshka has no intention of doing anything with it. He cleans up the filthy petrol pump, and is obliged to stand by it in all weathers, waiting for cars which seldom pass and never stop. When a van does eventually pull up, he discovers that the pump has been empty all along, and the driver has merely stopped to mock him. Yoshka relates a dream in which all the cars in the scrap yard gleam in the sunlight, goading Jonas into polishing them over an exhausting period of three days. He then picks out the one hopelessly decayed hulk amongst them, which is nothing but a brittle carapace of rust, and launches into a tirade, telling him that he has failed and must return them all to their previous corroded condition. This proves too much for Jonas, who tips over into madness, setting the whole lot on fire, with himself at the centre of the conflagration.
PlantedHe first makes a real connection with Yoshka earlier on when the old man excitedly tells him that he’s heard that a storm is approaching. The two sit in the cab of the breakdown van as it rages above them, passing a bottle of vodka between them and watching through the rainwashed windscreen, exhilarated at such elemental violence. Jonas also strikes up a friendship with Betty, and they take solace in each other’s physical company. She had also lived with Yoshka, but he had thrown her out after she had grown too inquisitive about what he was up to in his shed, and sought to discover his secrets. Yoshka acknowledges their past when he sees her with Jonas, but denies that he threw her out, and warns him that he will have to leave if he sees him with her again. We have brief glimpses of what goes on in the sacred, forbidden place to which Betty had tried to gain access, and from which the sounds of screeching birds can be heard outside. We see Yoshka feeding and talking to a vulture and an owl, a solitary old man in a holed cardigan whose only friends are the birds. When he emerges, scratched and bloody, from the shed, he waves away Jonas’ concern, and gets him to dig a hole in the garden. Here he is planted for three days and nights, his head sticking above the topsoil like an anthropomorphised cabbage, blithely oblivious to the world about him. When he cries out to be dug up, Jonas is astonished to discover that his wounds have healed. Jonas, meanwhile, talks to his pig, with which he seems to have a natural affinity. One day, it goes missing however, and he is horrified to discover that Yoshka has slaughtered and roasted it. He is invited inside to join in the feast, and accepts, perhaps thinking that this is the old man’s way of getting him to cast away his own piggish nature, and to turn his thoughts to higher things - to aim for the sky rather than root about in the earth.
Guarding the cursed pumpAfter he has burned himself in the car wreck conflagration, Yoshka brings Jonas inside to recuperate in his bed, and gives him a book on eagles to read. ‘The birds are my teachers’, he confides. When he is well, and filled with his new knowledge, Jonas is sent off to find an eagle, the one key bird which Yoshka’s wild menagerie lacks, and one which holds key secrets. He travels across the country until he is guided to a mountain, where a poacher has his hideout. They stalk a golden eagle together, and net it, and Jonas takes it back in a thick sack, chloroformed into passivity. When he arrives, he finds Yoshka sitting motionless, staring unblinkingly into space. For a moment, he thinks he’s dead, but he has fallen into a trancelike state, his consciousness having retreated into blank stillness until he has almost become part of the landscape – halfway to transforming into a suggestively shaped outcrop of rock. Jonas later relates his own moment of enlightenment, when he felt dawn rising and ran out to the fields, and felt the brilliance of light filling them, and the shadow beneath, all sense of self emptied away as he felt himself a part of the world and the universe beyond. But the sense of ecstatic connection fades as his mind starts whirring again. At another moment, he tells Yoshka ‘suddenly I understood why you’d knocked on my door and why I’d come here’. But when Yoshka asks him to elaborate, he smiles and says ‘I couldn’t tell you’. The two have reached a rare level of intimacy, and Jonas is now beginning to move beyond his teacher.
AtrocityWith his quest for the eagle successfully carried out, Yoshka now invites Jonas into his shed to share his secrets and help realise his dreams of flight. He has built a large pair of Leonardo-like wings, brown canvas stretched across a light steel frame. When the weather forecast predicts another stormy night, he prepares for take off. Jonas is horrified to discover him in his hangar, stripped to his waist and covered in the blood and feathers of his birds. He has killed them and smeared himself with their torn innards in a ritualistic attempt to absorb their spirit, to bathe in their souls. It is a horrific act of obscene barbarity, a violation of nature. His hubristic obsession with taking to the air and becoming like a bird has led to him attempting to force his will upon the natural world, through mechanical and occult means. The eagle, however, has escaped his murderous attentions and flown out into the wilderness beyond. Yoshka straps on his wings, and covers his face with a woollen balaclava, walks through the hangar doors, opened at last, and launches himself onto the winds. He flies off into the night, with Jonas watching his departure from below. The next day, the police call at the garage, and take him to the point several miles away where the old man has crashed. His eyes have been pecked out, and Jonas sees the eagle watching from a nearby outcrop. He has paid for his attempt to claim dominion over wild forces.
FlightJonas travels back to the city, where he discovers from Yoshka’s will that he is to inherit the garage. He meets a dancer in a bar, and tries to persuade her to come with him, to share this new life with him. She’s having none of it, though. She has her own life to live, she tells him, disabusing him of his tendency towards impulsive romanticism. But unlike Yoshka, he feels the need for female company, and has no need to hide his secrets, to guard them as if they will be stolen, some essence vampirically drained off. He shares the stipulations of Yoshka’s will with the dancer, and they both delight in its strange, cryptic instructions. The will offers a programme of mental exercises couched in terms poetically vague enough to suggest a guiding intelligence whilst actually directing the individual towards bringing their own imaginative and creative resources into play. It’s rather like some of the text based compositions created by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and the musical branch of the Fluxus movement. These left the music open to the improvisational interpretation of the performer, whilst continuing, in typical classical terms, to insist on the primacy of the composer as the controlling force. Stockhausen offers prompts in his Aus Den Sieben Tagen compositions of 1968 such as ‘play a sound, play it for so long until you feel that you should stop’, ‘play a vibration in the rhythm of your molecules’, ‘play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space’, and ‘slowly move your tone until you arrive at complete harmony and the whole sound turns to gold, to pure, gently shimmering fire’ (an invocation of synaesthetic vision). Yoshka leaves Jonas with such inward directives as ‘penetrate the sound of your own name’, ‘in the forest one tree is yours, find it’, and ‘swallow the light’ – all of which lead to the ultimate revelation that ‘truly, truly everybody is the universe’. The dancer, having heard Jonas’ half-amused reading of these epigrammatic enigmas, and his subsequent ruminative reminiscences, remarks ‘he’s a strange one, but he’s got magic’.
A man's best friend - fellow piggish spiritsJonas returns to the garage and hauls open the shed hangar doors. The shadowed interior is still an avian charnel house, with scurrying rats feasting on the rotting remains. Jonas turns on a large fan (a wind machine for testing Yoshka’s wings) at the back to blow out the putrid air and clear the carpet of feathers away. He has a momentary glimpse of Yoshka, a spectral vision looking on with benign approval. But he’s gone in the flash of an eye. Jonas is overcome with a sudden surge of joy, and runs outside to somersault onto the ground and roll in the mud. He is happy to remain rooted to the earth, identifying with his pig’s happy, simple spirit rather than with the savage, aloof birds of prey and carrion whose essence Yoshka had attempted to absorb. The pig was not such a base creature after all – and Jonas’ attachment was not necessarily something which he had to progress beyond. He will not fall into the same hubristic trap to which Yoshka was prey, attempting to master natural forces and violently mould them to his own ends. He will not become another in the lineage of Icarus.
Civilisation and wild nature - the petrol pump plinthJonas rises from his joyful roll in the mud, and looks about him, intuiting an observing presence. ‘I see you’, he shouts, and the camera slowly pans across the mountainous tide of scrap, past the corroded, corrugated iron shed, drawing to a halt at the petrol pump. The eagle perches on top of it, sharply alert and with wings spread, ready for flight. It is a creature of the wilderness at its wildest, posed in talismanic glory atop the metallic plinth which stands in symbolic representation of the modern industrialised world and all its dependencies. It is the empty shrine besides which Jonas had stood in watchful attendance for so long. The eagle has now replaced the Shell sign, the facsimile of natural form. The garage has become a threshold place, an outpost filled with the signs of mechanised automotive culture, now wrecked and useless, rising at the edge of wide expanses of moor and mountain. It is on the borderland of wilderness and civilisation, between outer and inner worlds. Jonas can now stay and become its resident attendant, guardian and potential guide, or he can move back out into the world with a renewed sense of his self and his connection with it. The choice is his. The eagle waits and watches to see what he will do.
Enlightenment - under the gaze of the eagle