Thursday, 25 April 2013

Comrades and Pre-Cinema at the Bill Douglas Centre

The lanternist and the moon - Comrades

I had a good look around the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture up at the University of Exeter last weekend, on one of a select few Saturdays on which it is currently opening. Located on the periphery of the campus in the Old Library, where unloved books go to gather dust, yellow and slowly fall apart in a warren of strip-lit underground levels, it’s not exactly prominent or conspicuously inviting. But it is worth seeking out and investigating, piled high as it is with a rich variety of memorabilia spanning the history of cinema and its antecedents. The collection is the fruit of several decades of assiduous antique and junk shop combing by the Scottish film-maker Bill Douglas and his lifelong soulmate, emotional support and companion in creative exploration Peter Jewell. Their collection began in a fairly modest way in 1961, shelves gradually filling with books on the cinema, and the silent period in particular. Other objects associated with the movies and their marketing soon formed a further, rapidly accreting layer above this scholarly bedrock. It was not long before every space in the flat which the two shared in Soho from the mid-60s onwards was taken over by their impressive personal museum, as can be seen in the 1978 interview conducted there, which is included as an extra on the BFI Comrades dvd. Jewell estimates that they eventually amassed some 50,000 items, a testament to the mutual passion for the moving image which had brought them together in the first place. Jewell, whose family home in Barnstaple was a regular residence for Douglas, a welcome retreat from the unsupportive and wearying hustle of the London-based film industry, donated the collection to Exeter University following Douglas’ death from cancer in 1991, at the terribly premature age of 54.

Bill sets up the praxinoscope
Making your way downstairs, past the posters for gaudily coloured science fiction b-movies, silent films starring half-forgotten screen sirens and lengthy variety bills with cinematographic spectacles just one more novelty act, you discover what was, for Douglas, the heart of the collection, and the core of his own private obsession. The bunker-like conditions are appropriate here, since this really is a hidden hoard of magical delights. The hushed atmosphere and sense of being hermetically sealed off from the daylit world, together with the fact that I’ve never encountered another living soul down here, make you feel as if you are trespassing into some sacred, forbidden chamber. This is the room in which Douglas’ pre-cinematic devices and toys are displayed – early means of projecting images, creating the impression of movement or depth, or producing illusionistic effects which play upon visual perception. Here you’ll find phenakistoscopes, kaleidoscopes, filoscopes, stereoscopes and a large green mutoscope, better known as a What the Butler Saw machine (and yes, you can crank the handle and have a leering look at the casting couch scene flickering by within). Douglas was particularly fond of the praxinoscope, an ingenious and beautiful moving image toy invented by the Frenchman Emile Reynaud in 1876. This consisted of a revolving barrel with a strip of successive images fitted around the inner rim. These would be reflected on the mirrored facets of the central hub, illuminated by a shaded candle, which gave a convincing impression of movement to whatever figure or object was depicted. Douglas’ excitement at taking out his own praxinoscope from its wooden box in the 1978 interview is charmingly evident. Too polite to foist his toy on his interlocutor, he is nevertheless delighted when asked to demonstrate its workings, and goes about its construction and operation with the proprietorial pleasure and educative zeal of someone showing off their pride and joy, revealing their hidden passion. As he points out, this was an experience which could be enjoyed communally, everyone gathering around to gaze into the mirror, anticipating the shared dreams of the cinema. Indeed, Reynaud invented a theatrical elaboration of the praxinoscope, the Theatre Optique, which he unveiled to a Parisian audience in October 1892. This allowed for his figures to be projected via a system of reflective mirrors onto the rear of a screen, their movements played out against a magic lantern slide backdrop. Douglas also demonstrates how the different speeds at which the barrel could be revolved, or the way in which it slowed down led to a contemplation of nature of motion, and the manner in which it is observed.

The 'lanternist' demonstrates a thaumatrope disc in Comrades
Also in the collection are thaumatrope discs, with images on either side which merge when the attached strings are wound and then released to rapidly spin around. It’s an example of the persistence of vision which is key to the experience of cinema. The best known example, with the bird on one side becoming incarcerated in the cage on the other, is used in Comrades as a visual representation of the fates of the Tolpuddle martyrs who are the subject of the film. One of Eadweard Muybridge’s multi-camera motion picture studies of movement from the 1880s is included, a succession of photographic images which have proved amenable to later cinematic animation. One of the unrealised scripts which Douglas worked on towards the end of his life, Flying Horse, was based on Muybridge’s experiments and the tragic events of his life. There’s a hand-cranked Lumiere camera prominently placed in the centre of the space which effectively marks the beginning of cinema, and to a large extent the eclipse of the entertainments which surround it. Also prominent is a selection of magic lanterns and the delicate, hand-painted glass slides which threw luminous, candlit scenes onto screens or living room walls. A travelling lanternist, his appearance drawn from the 19th century prints and engravings, played a central part in Comrades, and the magic lantern prop made for the film takes its place amongst original models.

The lanternist in the rain - arriving in Tolpuddle in Comrades
Douglas and Jewell dedicated a great deal of time and effort into expanding their collection, particularly during the lengthy periods when Douglas found work hard to come by. His semi-autobiographical trilogy comprising My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home, funded by the BFI’s production board set up in the 1970s, won him awards and critical plaudits (some of these awards on display here), but didn’t lead to offers of funding for further films. It would be almost a decade before he got to make his intimate historical epic about the Tolpuddle martyrs, Comrades, years during which he became a respected and well-loved teacher of direction at the National Film and Television School. After several delays, partly caused by a serious falling out with the initial producer, Ismail Merchant (there was never any way that Douglas was going to make a decorous Merchant-Ivory production), he finally started shooting his film in September 1985, having finished his script in 1980. His fascination with pre-cinematic optical entertainments found a significant place within the script, and provided a series of formal devices which reflected on the way we perceive the world, and the manner in which images are used to tell particular stories. Douglas and Jewell were both huge fans of silent cinema, and had read widely on the subject, in addition to seeing screenings of as many films from the era as they were able. Douglas’ choice of modern classical composer Hans Werner Henze to write the music for Comrades was made on the basis of having heard his score for Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed. There’s a letter written to Henze in the corner of the museum dedicated to Douglas which attests to this. The influence of silent cinema on Comrades can be felt in the way that the images are left to tell as much of the story as possible. The contemplative concentration on expressive faces and gestures shows an affinity with Carl Dreyer, as well as with his spiritual descendants Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman.

George Loveless' lantern slide portrait from Comrades
Comrades bears the subtitle A Lanternist’s Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and What Became of Them, which appears separately on the screen to give it particular emphasis. It’s the kind of wordily descriptive title which might indeed have appeared painted on the side of a travelling showman’s hoarding or bill poster. The lanternist appears as a witness in the opening scene, looking on from a distance as machine breakers disguised as women are cut down in cold blood by redcoated cavalry who sweep down on them from the hillsides. Lugging his magic lantern equipment on his back, he becomes a news vendor, travelling from village to village. As he cries out as he enters the village of Tolpuddle, he charges a penny for the entertainment, but ‘all the news is free’. The first image we see in the film is a blazing white solar disc, which is slowly eclipsed by a dark circle. It could be seen as a lens cap being placed over the projector, a blocking off of light which also symbolises stories left untold, histories unrecorded. The rest of the film, with its variety of visual storytelling devices embedded within the frame of the cinema screen which will be the ultimate development of their illusions and shadowplay, can be seen as a progression towards the full revelation of those hitherto untold or ignored stories. And the delight which the toys or entertainments bring shows that those lives are filled with magic, joy and love as well as toil, misfortune and exploitation. Douglas’ use of pre-cinematic devices goes against the realist grain, introducing a deliberate element of non-naturalistic imagery which makes it clear to us that we are being told a story. He also departs from British social realism by insisting upon hope, rather than having his characters ground down by the depredations of the world in which they live. He makes the Methodist preacher George Loveless the central character of his tale, and views him as a man of uncomplicated goodness and quiet determination. He is aided in this by a beautifully measured performance of great warmth from Robin Soans. Douglas saw Loveless (a wholly inappropriate name for the generous and universally liked character presented here) as a saintly man, commenting in a talk he gave at the Bridport Film Society in October 1987 that he ‘couldn’t see any evidence of anything he did against any form of human life…he only gave to human kind’; As good a definition as any. He is not interested in exposing some dark side to his character. In this too – allowing for a character to be merely and simply good and kind – he went against the grain of British film-making at the time.

Blossom and Decay - the book and print seller's window in Comrades
The lanternist is played by Alex Norton, who brings a great stillness and alert presence to a character who is essentially an observer, an outsider who gradually becomes involved with the lives of those he encounters. He makes periodic appearances throughout the first half of the film. He provides us with an introduction to the socially and economically segregated world of Tolpuddle, linking the elegant grandeur of the country house, with its gentile manners and conspicuous display of wealth, and the village, with its spare cottages and muddy paths, which appears even more starkly bare as he enters it during a filthy downpour. The contrasting reception he receives in each environment marks a clear moral division between the two. We are initially denied access to the country house, viewing his approach to the local lord from the darkness outside, his pitch for a performance seen in the form of a shadow puppet play, figures rising and circling around one another in silhouetted outlines thrown onto the backlit curtain. This shadow show, symbolic of social exclusion, is repeated in variant form later on in the film, when the wives of the arrested men are only able to see their trial through an obscuring pane of frosted glass (another device designed to eclipse the story), turning everything into a vague blur of movement. Other illusionistic pictures or toys are associated with exclusive or elitist environments in which George Loveless and the other villagers meet with deceit or dismissal. The book and print shop in Dorchester has a print in its window called Blossom and Decay, which can be found in the Bill Douglas Centre, in which two young children full of blooming health, pose with a cornucopia fruits, glasses of milk, bouquets of flowers and huge loaves. Viewed from a distance, however, these details form the image of a skull, a grim memento mori pointing to their, and the observer’s inevitable end. In the Tolpuddle mansion, meanwhile, there is a picture of a sailing ship which, when viewed from another angle, turns into a portrait of an unsmiling cavalier (the two being painted on obverse sides of pyramidally raised rills). He looks down on the viewer with a disdainfully appraising air, as if he doesn’t really approve of the person gazing up at him from their disadvantaged position. One of the Tolpuddle villagers gives him an appropriate arm gesture in response, which we can almost imagine being accompanied by a Carry On ‘up yours’ raspberry.

Children's pictures - attic lantern show
Cutting away from the illuminated window and its shadow play, a baying of hounds gives a shorthand aural indication of the rude rebuff of the lanternist and his proffered entertainments and his unceremonious subsequent ejection from the premises. We momentarily see the him outlined in profile against the huge bright disc of the full moon, as if he were framed in the glare of his own projecting light. It gives him a noble, almost heroic appearance, far from the mangy cur he’s just been treated as, a subhuman creature fit only to set the dogs on. In the village he pauses by the window of George Loveless’ cottage, suffused with the low radiance of his humble hearthfire. In this dim but homely interior, he makes hand shadow puppets by the light of the moon against the interior wall for the Loveless’ children. It’s a direct inversion of the scene at the big house – shadows created from the outside, through an open window, rather than cast from within a veiled interior. His welcome here is warm and open, quite the reverse of his treatment at the big house. The fact that we often see his magic, made from shadows and light, from a child’s eye perspective indicates that Comrades is in a sense a children’s version of the Tolpuddle martyrs’ story. It views things with clarity and simplicity, and draws clear divisions between right and wrong, and has no place for shades of moral ambiguity. It asks us to view the world from a fresh and innocent perspective, to cleanse our minds of world-weary cynicism. Entertainments and stories for children are also capable of conveying harsh truths which are often elided in the ‘adult’ version. The lanternist shows a slide of ‘three little soldier boys’ who go to war to a wide-eyed gathering in the gloom of the village hall loft. With a sharp rap of his tambourine to conjure a cannonade, he abrubtly jerks one of the slides to the side, making their startled heads fly off – a shocking piece of subversive anti-militarism for impressionable young minds.

Meetings in ancient landscapes - Maiden Castle
Later on, the lanternist frightens the children on a foggy night by capering wildly behind the village hall, his shadow looming large on the stony screen of the windowless sidewall as he bangs and rattles his tambourine, striking it against himself and into the ground. In the ghostly light glowing through the billows of mist, he takes on an almost demonic cast. This mercurial, sprite-like side, full of playful capriciousness, gives him an air of otherness, and prepares us for the transformations he undergoes throughout the film. He is like a figure from a folk tale, a wanderer who arrives at a village from the wide world beyond and may not be entirely what he seems. The folk-tale aspect of the story (which is allied with its children’s storybook qualities) is also reflected in the evocation of the spirit of place, of the particular setting within which the tale is told. This being a story of agricultural labourers, the land plays a centrally important part. Douglas frames the Dorset landscape beautifully, making painterly compositions of ploughed soil, autumn wheatfields, rolling pasture, glinting sea and chalky Purbeck cliff and winding, flinty trackways. Ancient earthworks and chalk figures also figure, with Douglas’ camera looking down on the Cerne Abbas giant and up at the ramparts of Maiden Castle (shot in what he referred to as ‘God’s light’). This furthers the sense of the film as folk tale, with the characters rooted in a landscape which is steeped in accreted legend and history, sculpted by age-old human habitation. It places Douglas within the neo-romantic lineage of painters like Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. It also suggests a natural affinity between man and landscape, a connection with the contours of local geology and geography which can be followed down the generations, and which is now being eroded away.

The lantern show of spectacle - Doubtfire’s Famous Diorama
We encounter different incarnations of the lanternist as the story unfolds, all played by Alex Norton and in all but one case peddlers of optical entertainments or diversions. The form is mutable but some essence remains the same. His recurrent presence as an onlooker and impish commentator gives the film its own internal persistence of vision, as well as the self-reflexive sense of a story being both recounted and recorded. When the actual lanternist takes his leave of Tolpuddle, and has a few parting words with George Loveless, he tells him that because of him he is ‘a changed man’. The warmth of his reception in the village, where a ragged and penniless itinerant such as himself has found such generous hospitality, has led him to feel a direct involvement in the labourer’s cause. No longer will he be a passive observer. His political awakening comes about all through human contact and kindness, with all the fellow feeling that it engenders. Responding to the sincerity of his feelings, Loveless tells him ‘go then, and make a union of lanternists’. It’s an idealistic vision of a unionised future which allows for creativity to be freely realised and adequately rewarded, and is to an extent no doubt a rueful reflection on Douglas’ part of his own struggles within the modern ‘lanternist’ industry.

Sergeant Bell's Raree Show

...and what lies inside
The lanternists’ departure makes way for successive incarnations (some of which have already appeared before he heads off into the world to spread the news). He is the stout, union-jack waistcoated proprietor of ‘Doubtfire’s Famous Diorama’, whose extravagant and noisy theatrical spectactle, akin to the grotesqueries of the French Fantasmagorie (an impressive mock-up of which I remember from the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank), employs sophisticated moving lanterns alongside frantically busy stagehands, and offers ‘a journey to the Antipodes’ – a presentiment of the curiously onlooking Loveless’ fate. At the village fair, the gaily if grubbily uniformed Sergeant Bell brings along his Royal Raree Show – a fold out stand bearing a wooden box with two round peepholes opening on to a diorama of the garden of Eden, in which an African Eve is transformed, et in Arcadia ego-style, into a bony death. This raree show was based on an 1839 print which the film’s prop, together with Alex Norton’s ‘sergeant’, brought to life. It can now be found amidst the authentic period pieces in the Bill Douglas Centre, as can the Edenic diorama. When George Loveless is driven through the streets of Dorchester after his arrest, on his way to his cell, the lanternist turns up in the guise of a destitute vagabond, huddling in a recessed stairwell. Reduced to passive observer once more at this bleak point in the story, the camera focuses on his eye, which looks through the straight iron railings at the curved spokes of a passing carriage wheel. This contrast of static and still, straight and curved lines creates a strobing op-art effect, a bedazzling impression of contrary motion such as that which can sometimes be seen in early cinema. Once sentence has been passed and the men have gone from the village, the lanternist turns up as a mysterious visitor looking out from the interior of a coach. He beckons the children over and shows them a thaumatrope disc, the toy which contains a single image on each side of a disc which are combined when it is rapidly twirled on the attached strings. His is the old bird and cage favourite. He points out the bird and the cage on their reverse faces before spinning it around and incarcerating the one in the other. But his underlining of their initially separate states offers hope that the men will once more be free, and will return home. It turns out that he is bringing money gathered by sympathisers for the support of the wives and their families.

Journey's end - the panorama runs out
The long voyage to Australia, as foretold in Doubtfire’s Diorama, is recreated in the form of a painted panorama, the camera gliding steadily over it to give the impression of movement. When we’ve passed Africa, India and Van Dieman’s Land to drop anchor in Botany Bay, we see the lanternist as ship’s captain, selling the moving panorama we’ve just seen to one of the overseers rowing over to transport the convicts to their harsh new world (‘for just one penny you can put the world in your pocket’). This panorama can be found stretched out on the wall in the Bill Douglas Centre, the eye reproducing the film’s interlude as it scans its elongated transglobal span. The behemoths and trident bearing Neptunes which populate the pictorial representation of the sea journey suggest that we are now entering the land of myth, a part of the story which is more sparsely documented, and therefore reliant on imaginative expansion. The narrative also fragments at this point, the comrades disunited and becoming the centre of their own separate stories. The lanternist turns up in the shelter of a wooden cubicle in the scorching midday sun of the outback desert, his spyhole turning his overseer’s hut into a camera obscura. His failure to see the inverted image of the chained convict labourers projected on the wall as they approach his box, pick axes raised, means that it will become his splintered coffin.

Revolutionary silhouettist - decapitating the portrait
He turns up again in a colonial governor’s house as a prim and powdered silhouette portraitist, dextrously cutting the outline of James Fox’s aristocratic profile with his scissors, finishing it off with a snipped decapitation which sends it tumbling to the tabletop. By a tropical shore, adjacent to the surreally twisted forms of a petrified forest, he appears in the eccentric guise of Gaviotti, his caravan proclaiming his ‘Celebrated Steam Heliotypes and Solar Mezzotints’. With his steampunk proto-camera, he takes pictures of the Aborigines, recording another untold layer of history. In his developing shed, his glass plates hang like delicate windchimes, clinking together with a gentle clinking susurration. The Aborigine, standing posed within his own sacred landscape, forms a direct link with the convicts and the land from which they have been wrenched. His image is reproduced on the plates which hang in the shed alongside that of one of the Tolpuddle transportees, a picture which brings them back together again when another of their number sees it. These images fade before our eyes, however. The Aborigine, who is left obediently posing by a tree, is left to fade from his own story. The transportees meet beneath another tree, and also fade from the land, leaving little trace of their temporary presence, returning home to resume their own interrupted stories.

Lost pioneer - Gaviotti's steampunk camera
Our final view of the lanternist returns him to his original guise. The men are free, and receive a ceremonial welcome home in a grand hall which looks a little bit like a cinema. They line up on the stage as if to give us their curtain call bows. And there in the wings stands the lanternist, now smartly dressed and in possession of a three lensed triunal lantern. A technological progression in the art of magic lantern projection allowing for added layers of movement and more impressive special effects within the backdrop slide, it means that the tale can now be told more fully and with even greater visual impact. Douglas had originally intended to create a similar effect of cinematic progression by filming the Dorset scenes in black and white with a compressed ratio before expanding into widescreen colour for the scenes set in the vast open vistas of the Australian landscape. The lanternist takes a bow as he is given credit for telling the story ‘through the power of optics and magical transformations’. When Michael Hordern’s progressive reformer and campaigner for the martyrs’ freedom notes that ‘it was almost as though he’d been present throughout’, Alex Norton’s lanternist gives a knowing straight to camera look, all but tipping the audience a wink. The final shot is of a bright white disc, wiping out the eclipse with which we began. The lens cap is now off and the story has been recounted in full. We end with magic lantern slide portraits of the Tolpuddle martyrs, footnotes alerting us to their subsequent lives in true Hollywood biopic style. The slides are there to be used again (and you can see them in the Bill Douglas Centre), the story retold until it is transformed into exemplary myth, the village becoming as much a part of the legendary landscape as the Cerne Abbas Giant or Maiden Castle.

His final bow - the lanternist with his 'Triunal' projector

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Broadcast in Shindig Magazine

The cover of the latest edition of the music magazine Shindig, whose tastes generally tend towards 60s psychedelia, is this month graced by a photo of Trish and James from Broadcast, circa Tender Buttons, looking appraisingly down at the camera eye, a painted wall of words forming a cryptically semi-legible backdrop. It’s the first step in locating the band within a broader history, allying them with a continuing stream of adventurous music which seeks to marry pop melodicism with avant garde and experimental sounds and techniques and poetic lyrics. Psychedelia, if you will, although the retro connotations of the term ill suits the music which Broadcast made, which, whilst drawing on many influences from the past, was always resolutely forward looking. Small side pieces folded into the main article pinpoint some of the music which fed into Broadcast’s evolving sound – The United States of America above all. There’s also a short article on the 1969 White Noise LP An Electric Storm, a collaborative effort bringing together Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the Radiophonic Workshop with the young American musician David Vorhaus. Another big inspiration for Trish and James, it was, as she observed in Broadcast’s Invisible Jukebox article in the September 2005 edition of Wire magazine, slightly marred by the intrusion of ‘orgy vocals’. There’s an obvious element of sadness in the implication inherent in appearing in a magazine devoted to the glories of bygone days that the band are now a part of the history upon which they drew. Trish’s death at the beginning 2011 effectively brought the ever-evolving musical adventures she and James had shared, together with their fellow travellers, to an end. But in the interview which is the centrepiece of the issue, James reiterates the promise of material recorded for the album intended as a follow up to Tender Buttons (a full-force Broadcast album as opposed to the fruitful collaboration with Julian House’s Focus Group on the Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP) being forthcoming at some future date, when he is entirely satisfied that it has reached a suitably finely tuned state to stand as the fitting tribute which it will inevitably partly be viewed as. The article is titled The Children of Alice, which also points to a continuation of the lineage: James has been recording and will be performing under that fitting name in a trio which includes longtime friend Julian House, alias The Focus Group, and Roj Stevens, a former Broadcast compadre who has more recently recorded an excellent album on the Ghost Box label (its percussive and slightly abrasive electronic palette sounding like it wouldn’t have been out of place on Tender Buttons, or indeed on the faux library music of the Microtronics mini-cds). The choice of name references Trish’s love of Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Miller’s 1966 version of Alice in Wonderland, and its suggestion of continuation, rather than a new start with a new individual perspective, is hugely heartening. If Trish is the girl who left Chelmsley Wood to go down the rabbit hole, then it seems that the spirit of her brave explorations into the hidden continents of the imagination is to be honoured, and further expeditions mounted. The Children of Alice will release their first recordings as part of the Devon Folklore Tapes series on June 1st, and will be performing at the Deerhunter/Atlas Sound ATP festival in Camber Sands in June (and you can see a clip of Trish singing with Bradford Cox during an American tour over here).

In one of several capsule side pieces bracketing the main article, Dan Abbott offers a ten best of Broadcast list. James and Trish’s methodical approach to recording and perfectionist attention to detail means that any such list is bound to be highly subjective. The time and care taken to craft each song on each album means that their records were few and far between but uniformly strong. There could be any number of top ten combinations. Abbott chooses a representative selection, reflecting the different phases of the band’s development, and the various aspects of their sound and songwriting. Clearly a committed fan with a broad and deep knowledge of their oeuvre, his choices tend to direct us away from the obvious, but always with a colourful and frequently poetic description which imagistically summarises why he considers it essential. How can you not immediately want to hear a piece whose ‘notes hang suspended like stars glimpsed through gaps in a magic fog as it slowly engulfs an unsuspecting night-time city’. Wonderful stuff, and entirely apt for the track in question (and I’m not going to tell you which one it is, either – you’ll have to guess, or buy the magazine). I’m happy that he’s chosen Arc of a Journey, one of my favourites from the Tender Buttons LP. It’s one of Trish’s most evocatively allusive lyrics, summing up science fiction landscapes with a few carefully chosen phrases, the simple, yearning melody backed by atmospheric and refreshingly non-generic electronic sounds which suggest they’ve learned something from their collaboration with the BEAST (the Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre) on the Pendulum EP.

Lists by their very nature invite response and suggested additions, however. So, if you insist: Book Lovers was my introduction to the band, and its shifting minor key arpeggio, suggestive of the 60s harpsichord sound which managed both to have a flavour of the antique and to inhabit the kinetic bustle of the present, drives it on irresistibly. The lyrics, full of bibliophile sensuality and excitement at book learning, are a statement of intent, with an unapologetic ‘it’s not for everyone’ pointing to their determination to pursue their own winding and idiosyncratic path. The melancholic instrumental addendum is gorgeous, a long drawn out sigh, both satisfied and a little sad, marking the closing of the storybook. Echo’s Answer follows the literary trail, with lyrics quoting Tennyson’s Echo’s Answer, as used in Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Its languorous pace is typical of a number of Trish’s daydream songs. Illumination from the Extended Play Two EP has a quietly ecstatic feel, with a rich mix of electronic sound textures over propulsive bass (which has an echoing concrete shadow throughout) and a gently rolling swell of drums giving it an epic, orchestral sound. It’s the baroque frame supporting a beautiful folkish melody, with visionary lyrics of great power (‘wait, the growing stem of time/waits poisonous outside’ is a striking opening couplet) expressing the autonomy of inner worlds, and a chorus of soaring wordless vocals. Poem of Dead Song, also from the Extended Play Two EP (both are collected on the Future Crayon compilation of EPs) has another lusciously melancholic opening section, beginning this time with wordless vocals. With the soft, bell-chords of the synths sounding behind her, the strike of the initial chime burnished away to leave only glinting resonance, it sounds like Trish singing to herself whilst walking back home along silent night streets. An abrupt shift in tempo and key takes us into what is not so much a chorus as a different plane of the song, refracting against the initial passage at a subtly off-kilter angle. Words come to the fore, although the muffled vocalisations continue with a crooning harmonisation in the distance. A solemn invocation calls on transformative powers, offering a hopeful vision of a clear path ahead.

Valerie, from the HaHa Sound LP, is essential, a perfect setting of Lubos Fiser’s main theme from Jaromil Jires’ 1970 Czech surrealist fairy tale film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The film became intensely personal to Trish, as she reveals in her sleeve note to the soundtrack album, released a few years back on the Finders Keepers label, and now happily repressed on vinyl with the original green poster design replacing the bloodstained daisy on the cover. It was a work of art to which she immediately felt instinctively attuned. It suffused her psyche so comprehensively (‘I became Valerie’, she notes of the experience of listening repeatedly to Fiser’s music) that such an appropriation seems entirely natural, the melody and lyrics a deeply affecting reflection of her inner life, as expressed by her sense of connection with the images on the screen. Hawk, which ends the album, flies along on a steady, ratcheting wooden pulse, two notes tic-toccing along at a nimble pace. Sparse synth arabesques are plucked out in reverberant harpsichord tones at regular intervals. Trish sings in a low register, the melody restrained in its emotional range. The words, intoned as much as sung, are imbued with a mythic feel. There’s the sense of a steady flight through the upper air, looking down on an ancient tundral landscape, progress measured out in the rushing beat of a strong and wide wingspan. The song sounds like a precursor to the ‘what you want is not what you need’ one chord Mongolian lute kosmische freak out with which Broadcast would end their concerts in the post-Tender Buttons period.

Tender Buttons, the title track of the LP which James and Trish made as a duo, draws on the linguistic play of Gertrude Stein, and finds Trish delighting in alliterative connection and the assonant qualities of words, creating striking contrasts or surprising associations through semi-random conjunctions of sound and meaning. The slithering, fast-picked guitar spattered over the firm supporting frame of the looping bassline sounds like Lou Reed in the early Velvet Underground days, or a stuttering passage in a Sonny Sharrock solo, a preface to the eruption. Black Cat, always a concert favourite, returns us to Alice’s subterranean or beyond-the-mirror dreamworlds. The repeated refrain ‘curiouser and curiouser’ is given its own distinctive inflection, the emphasis laid on the last two syllables. The electronic backing has a fizzing, roughly burred edge, which makes it sound as if it’s going to combust into smoking flame at any moment. This provides an added sense of tension, contrasting effectively with the measured vocals. The Focus Group collaboration Witch Cults of the Radio Age is a collage of song and sound fragments, which makes individual tracks harder to isolate and highlight. I See, So I See So, with its incantatory worlds and vocals, always stuck in my mind, though. The ‘solar on the rise’ lyric reminds me of Kenneth Anger’s films (as did the short films which accompanied the album), with Trish as a dark-haired incarnation of Marianne Faithfull in Lucifer Rising. It seems designed to sung on the rounded crest of an iron age burial mound or hill fort to mark some significant winter conjunction (in ‘magic January’). Finally, In Here the World Begins, from the Mother Is the Milky Way tour cd, is another low-key Pagan hymn, with lyrics of meditative self-reflexivity (‘a dream within a dream’) which fold in upon themselves before expanding outwards once more. The synths here sound like some plucked zither reverberating in a watery cavern. It was punctuated on stage by the most luminous synth lines from James, glowing with summery solar warmth. Trish would step lightly up and down the stage in front of a spotlit and back-projected screen, her shadowed form growing huge and then diminishing again as she did so. It’s a blissful and utterly entrancing lullaby, with all the acceptance of paradox and mystery often found in children’s songs (as in ‘life is but a dream’, cheerfully chorused in nurseries and libraries across the land as the concluding sentiment of Row, Row, Row Your Boat). Well, those are some of my favourites. Others will assemble a completely different set. All are equally valid.

Julian House is an abiding presence throughout the magazine. In his guise as a graphic designer with a distinctive, instantly recognisable style, he has produced to double page title spreads: One for the Broadcast article, featuring collaged fragments of Trish’s publicity and cover photo portraits, some outline cut-outs, some cropped and squared off; the other for an article on the dubious pleasures of 70s Italian giallo films, an imaginary poster in the period style of the one he designed for Peter Strickland’s recent film Berberian Sound Studio (and there’s an article on Broadcast’s soundtrack for this, too). Getting into the profundo rosso spirit of things, its steeped in shades of deep red. House is also interviewed in his role as joint chairman of the Ghost Box parish council, along with Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly, or the vicar of Belbury). Once more, he voices his indifference to the cultural pontifications filed under the unwieldy theoretical heading of hauntology. The Focus Group’s forthcoming LP, The Electrick Karousel, is previewed, apparently offering us numerous nuggets of ‘baroque psych’. It also features the magic trio of House, Roj and James on several tracks. The children of Alice are coming out into the world in many different guises.

As if all this weren’t enough, there’s also an article by Trembling Bells’ head Alex Nielson (a regular contributor of accessible and insightful reviews to the Wire), who shines a light on the post-Incredible String Band LPs of Mike Heron. I remember his Smiling Me With Bad Reputations album with vague fondness (sadly, it fell victim to one of my periodic Record and Tape Exchange purges many moons ago). My teen self particularly enjoyed the track with Pete Townshend and Keith Moon, glorying under the Beefheartian title Warm Heart Pastry. It seemed a surprising change of direction, before you recalled the move towards a heavier rock sound on the latter and little-loved Incredible String Band LPs. A news item at the beginning of the magazine has alerted me to the fact that Trembling Bells are returning to the Exeter Phoenix on 20th July. After their previous visit with Bonnie Prince Billy, they are teaming up on this occasion with the aforementioned Mr Heron, together with his daughter Georgia Seddon.

Night Ferry (1976)
Another article surveys the modest pleasures afforded by the Children’s Film Foundation from the 50s through to the 70s, which have grown in charm with the passing of time (I can’t say I ever saw one while I was actually a child). They now offer an insight into a more innocent world, which seems separated by a gulf greater than the few intervening decades would suggest. Watch the London Tales collection released by the bfi (it’s in the Devon library system if you’re from these parts), and in particular the widely roaming attempts of three schoolchildren to set up their own rag and bone round in The Salvage Gang, and you’ll see a city which simply no longer exists (and you’ll find yourself straining to pick up background detail passing by during the children’s trip on the top deck of a routemaster – a modern variant on the turn of the century ‘phantom rides’). Night Ferry (1976) is also fascinating, with its young punk protagonists in unglamorous back street settings in south west London reflecting their time and place with an unforced realism rather undermined by the preposterous (but fun) Egyptian mummy heist plot. The opening scene, in which one tyke tries to evade apprehension having trespassed into a busy railway marshalling yard to retrieve his toy glider, is particularly hair-raising. It has all the cringing tension of a public information film, with a shockingly violent accident just waiting to happen. The boy is seen hopping out of the way of oncoming trucks, and running in the narrow space between a stationary line of wagons and another approaching train. It’s inconceivable that such scenes would be filmed today, even if marshalling yards still existed. More treats for trainspotters (sorry, rail enthusiasts) come in the form of extensive footage, both in platform and onboard, of the night sleeper service from Victoria to (via Sealink) Paris and Brussells, just a short while before it was scrapped. I look forward to the release of the Weird Adventures CFF collection forthcoming from the bfi, which includes Powell and Pressburger’s 1972 swansong, The Boy Who Turned Yellow.

All in all, this edition of Shindig seems to be especially constructed to meet the needs of the average Broadcast fan, and thus can be considered essential.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Samuel Palmer, Simeon Solomon and the Camden Town Group at RAMM, Exeter

Samuel Palmer - Self Portrait
The new selection from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s art collection on display in the downstairs gallery includes some paintings which will be familiar to Exeter citizens who have visited regularly over the years. But there are also some new acquisitions which are being displayed for the first time. Chief amongst these is Samuel Palmer’s After the Storm, a late watercolour from 1861. This was painted on the North Devon coast, with a perspective looking out from Lee Bay. The mountainous outcropping of Castle Rock rises above the sheer cliff face in the middle distance, like a shattered tower keep at the foot of the Valley of Rocks, which leads up to the clifftop town of Lynton. The jutting headland of Foreland Point protrudes in the distance, a more solid echo of the clouds hanging above. These provide an element of Romantic sublimity, a touch of Alpine awe found closer to home. Palmer uses magic hour tones to lend his seascape a stained glass luminosity, the deep blue of the sea contrasting with peaches and saffron yellows of the after sunset horizon with which it is edged. This colour saturated seascape has a melodramatic narrative imposed upon it, as if Palmer were trying to bring his work into accord with Victorian pictorial conventions. A ship has foundered on the rocks, and a lifeboat is being heaved across the shore towards the sea, its crew preparing to row out and rescue any survivors still clinging to the wreckage. One of the lifeboatmen is embracing his young son as he is called by another young man whose hand is raised, summoning him to join the vessel as it is launched into the breaking waves. His wife stands to the side, body tensed with anxious anticipation, hands nervously wrung or firmly clasped in fervent, supplicatory prayer.

1861 was a terrible year for Palmer. His 19 year old son Thomas, to whom he had devoted all of his attention after the death of his daughter at the age of three, and in the face of his own stagnant artistic career, died after a short period of consumptive illness. It’s difficult not to see this tragedy reflected in the emotional parting of father and son which is the dramatic focus of After the Storm. The magic hour sunset light was typical of Palmer’s work, along with atmospheric moonlit night settings. There is, indeed, another late watercolour from 1865 with the title The Golden Hour. After the Storm, in common with the rest of his watercolour work from his middle and late periods, lacks the visionary intensity and sense of numinous presence characteristic of the paintings he produced whilst living in the North Kent village of Shoreham in the seven years between 1827-34. The Darent Valley, or the ‘valley of vision’ as he called it, provided him with the perfect stage backdrop for the realisation of his ideal spiritual landscapes. From it, he projected an Arcadia protectively bounded by the soft, feminine curves of sheltering hills and the rounded, piled up ranges of cumulus clouds, and lit by the silver sickle of a harvest moon, the copper disc of a lowering sun or the warm evening glow emanating from welcoming cottages and churches. These Edenic settings are peopled by figures languorously working in the fields, sheaving and bringing home the golden harvest or lounging about beneath bountifully burdened apple trees. It was a dream, of course, but a glorious one, a landscape suffused with what Palmer saw as a divine spirit. Unfortunately, his non-naturalistic, visionary paintings found no more favour with the public, patrons or the art establishment than had the work of his friend and inspiration William Blake (who came down to visit him in his Shoreham house towards the end of his life).

Scenes from the valley of vision - The Magic Apple Tree
Palmer saw his rural idyll as a retreat from the industrial expansion of the London on the outskirts of which he’d grown up. His solution was to look back to an idealised past, as it would be for the Pre-Raphaelites some years later. It was a past which included a reverence for old masters like Durer, Fra Angelico and Leonardo, soundtracked by Elizabethan English composers like Purcell, Tallis and Gibbons, and with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as its key literary work. But the ideal world which he constructed in his imagination and superimposed on his magical valley clashed badly with the distinctly unromantic realities of the rural labourer’s life in the early nineteenth century, which was a matter of grinding poverty and backbreaking toil rather than mystical communion with the cyclical progress of the seasons. The Captain Swing riots of 1830, a spontaneous reaction across Southern England to a failed harvest, depressed wages and the threat of widespread unemployment posed by new agricultural machinery, punctured Palmer’s dreamworld. Its radiance was already waning as the economic reality of his own commercial failure led to increasingly desperate poverty. An inheritance, which had sustained him for some time, had eventually dwindled away. Frustrated that visionary imagination, intensely personal artistic activity and spiritual idealism were turning out to be forces insufficient to transform his life and the indifferent world about him, he grew increasingly reactionary, retreating into narrow religious conservatism and judgemental hellfire condemnation. The 1832 Reform Act, which took tentative steps towards widening the voting franchise in the country beyond the landowning class, raised his ire and led to him proselytising for the Tories in apocalyptic ‘death of England’ fulminations which were dismissed, if they were noticed at all, as the ravings of a crank.

A Letter from India (1859)
He calmed down once he got married in 1837 to Hannah Linnell, by which time he had left the valley of vision and returned to London, having reluctantly relinquished his Darent dreaming. Hannah was the daughter of John Linnell, a successful and wealthy painter who was also a friend and patron of William Blake. Palmer had got to know Linnell in 1822, when he was still a teenager, and the older, well-established artist had guided him towards forming his own individual style and tastes. He was to prove something of an ogre as a father-in-law, however, loudly voicing his strongly held views and never forgetting to remind his son-in-law of his failure as an artist, both commercially and, in his opinion, aesthetically. Palmer remained humiliatingly beholden to him financially, and it was Linnell who funded a journey to Italy in the wake of the marriage. He steeped himself in the art of the area, consciously adapting his landscape painting to a more classical style, shorn of visionary stylisation, in an attempt to gain wider acceptance, and to hopefully earn a living with which he could support his family and gain some degree of independence. His watercolours from this point onward still have a vivid eye for the numinous qualities of landscape, but they are of a different, more prosaically Romantic tenor to those of the Sharpham period. In later years, he would look back with nostalgic yearning to his days in the magic valley of vision. His regular travels to Devon and the West Country, which began in 1833, suggest that here more than anywhere he managed to recapture something of the enchanted spirit which had illuminated those fast receding days. Paintings such as Mountain Landscape at Sunset (1859), The Good Farmer (1865) and The Dip of the Sun (1857) set the shadowed contours of Dartmoor landscapes before rubescent sunset sky backdrops. The Brother Home From the Sea (1863) and Robinson Crusoe Guiding His Raft Into the Creek (1850) locate their dramas of arrival or return in front of the limestone cliff arch of Durdle Door in Dorset, the jutting spar marking the furthest westward cusp of the curve of Lulworth Cove beyond. A Letter from India (1859), meanwhile, places another narrative within a North Devon landscape. Castle Rock and the Valley of Rocks are viewed from the opposite direction this time, and from an inland perspective. The sun sets below the ocean’s rim, setting the clouds on fire, and the crags of Lundy Island protrude above the watery horizon like the phantom city of Ys risen from the depths.

Simeon Solomon - Night (1890)
Another new painting on display is Simeon Solomon’s Night, a small watercolour painting from 1890. Solomon was born in 1840 in Bishopsgate in East London, on the edge of the Spitalfields area which was home to a large Jewish immigrant population in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Solomon was the youngest of 8 children born to orthodox Jewish parents. He clearly grew up in an environment which encouraged artistic expression, since his brother Abraham and sister Rebecca also had successful careers as painters. Night features a dreamy face in profile, eyes gazing outwards but lost in inner absorption. It is garlanded with light blue poppies, and a bird’s wing of the same colour sweeps back above the ear in a streamlined suggestion of flight. Liquid, light-blue swirls seemingly exhaled from nostrils or mouth, or inhaled from the intoxicating incense curling from the poppy’s dark stamen, are like the vapour trails of dream, and the contours of the billowing grey cloak the expanding shadow of night which this mythic figure trails in its wake. Solomon signs his picture with his characteristic serpentine double S transfixed with a straight line topped by a downward curve. Short strokes rising from this curve are suggestive of radiant flames or beams of light, as if this is some sort of ceremonial torch. It’s a signature symbol which looks like a tattoo. Night bears a definite resemblance to the work of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, both in the androgynous appearance of the dreamer, and in the poppy motif. This recalls Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, his memorial portrait of his dead wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante’s muse, in which the poppies carried down by a bird alludes to her opium addiction. This is no incidental similarity, and certainly not a case of stylistic copying. Solomon had met Rossetti back in 1857, and through him got to know Burne-Jones and the poet Algernon Swinburne. All four were very close and in the early 60s were pioneers of the Aesthetic style, both in their art and in their lifestyles. The flow of influence and ideas between them was mutual and benefited all in finding their own individual style and thematic preoccupations. Burne-Jones may have partly derived the pallid, androgynous subjects of his later work from Solomon’s sensual dream figures. Of these figures, the poet and art critic Arthur Symons commented that ‘these faces are without sex’ and that ‘they have brooded among ghosts of passions till they have become the ghosts themselves’.

Solomon photographed by David Wilkie Wynfield
Solomon was particularly close to Swinburne, and illustrated two of his most controversial works, which remained unpublished until after his death: Lesbia Brandon, his erotic novel and The Flogging Block, his mock epic poetical paean to flagellation. Swinburne in turn wrote two more restrained poems inspired by Solomon: Erotion and At A Month’s End. It was Swinburne’s work in particular which was the object of a swingeing and hugely destructive attack on Rossetti’s circle by the critic Robert Buchanan in 1871, in which he decried what he described as ‘the fleshly school of poetry’ for its moral turpitude. The ruling powers, both cultural and political, were determined to clamp down on such liberal expressions of desire. The Paris Commune was enjoying its chaotic and brief anarchist ascendancy over the channel, and the Victorian establishment was not about to tolerate the assertion of individual liberties beyond those which were endorsed by the state, which might in turn expand into demands for greater political liberty. Burne-Jones had already experienced censorious ire over his painting Phyllis and Demophoön, which had been exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society and attacked for indecency. The dreamy homoeroticism of much of Solomon’s work, and the suggestive androgyny of his subjects (sometimes dressed in priestly robes) made them another target for the repressive forces of conservatism. His alliance with the flamboyant Swinburne, who was recklessly liable to flaunt his transgressions, increased his vulnerability to attack. In 1873, he was arrested for soliciting in a toilet near Oxford Street, found guilty of illegal homosexual acts, and sentenced to 18 months hard labour. Fortunately, an acquaintance managed to use his influence to suspend the sentence, and he got away with a period of police supervision. The man who he’d been having sex with, a 60 year old stablemaster, was not so lucky. He had to serve out his 18 month sentence, as well as facing the ruinous social repercussions.

Simeon Solomon - Self Portrait (1860)
The echoes of Oscar Wilde’s martyrdom in his 1895 trial are inescapable. Wilde espoused an aesthetic brand of utopian socialism in which the transformation of society would free people from the strictures of time and narrow convention and allow them to express themselves in whatever artistic manner suited them. The wide reporting of the details of the trial, and the repugnance which was stirred up destroyed his public persona as the spokesperson for Aestheticism, and left the movement, with its potentially radical worldview in ruins. Wilde served out his sentence, at least partly involving hard labour to which he was utterly unsuited, and it broke him physically and spiritually. Solomon may have evaded imprisonment and labour, but he still had to face the social opprobrium, verging on hatred, with which any gay man, designated a sexual criminal, was burdened at the time. He fled to France, but was arrested again for having sex with another man, and on this occasion did serve out a three month prison sentence. The year of 1873 opened an unbridgeable fissure in his life, and effectively ruined him. Galleries and patrons were no longer interested in his work, and his friends, the fickle and self-interested Swinburne included, turned their backs on him. Only Burne-Jones, outwardly less of a flamboyant rebel than Rossetti and Swinburne, stood by him. He turned more and more to alcohol, and fell into destitution, until finally he was obliged, in 1884, to take up residence in the St Giles Workhouse in Bloomsbury. At he lowest ebb, he was reduced to begging on the streets. But despite such desperate circumstances, he continued to work, producing small scale visionary paintings, and chalk sketches and pen and ink drawings of angelic heads. Night is one such. The artistic spirit simply refused to be crushed. A lot of the works from the 90s have a melancholy air of escaping into interior dreamworlds. Dreaming sleep is a recurring theme, retreating from harsh reality into blissful imaginative reverie. This is reflected in titles such as The Moon and Sleep, the Healing Night and Wounded Love, and Night Looking Upon Sleep her Beloved Child.

Solomon's grave in Willesden Jewish cemetary
Solomon’s art fitted in perfectly with the Decadent phase of the Aesthetic Movement, the fin-de-siecle 90s of the Yellow Book and the Savoy, the Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome. Solomon anticipated the spirit of this age, with his dreaming androgynes and blurring of the rigid parameters of sexuality. His influence can be seen not only in the palled figures of Burne-Jones, but in the limpid and dandyish fops and angels of Charles Ricketts and Aubrey Beardsley. Solomon was something of a cult figure to this new generation of aesthetes. He was collected by one of the chief intellectual forces behind Aestheticism, Walter Pater, and by its public figurehead, Oscar Wilde. Wilde was particularly upset to lose his Solomons in the sale of his belongings made necessary by the personal and cultural disaster of his trial. Solomon may have fallen on hard times, but his work retained a devoted coterie of admirers. There were tow major retrospectives in the immediate wake of his death: an exhibition at the Baillie Gallery in London in 1906; and a book, Simeon Solomon: an Appreciation by Julia Ellison Ford, published in New York in 1908. It’s clear, therefore, that the value of his work was recognised at the time, even if it would subsequently fall into obscurity once more, eclipsed by his better known contemporaries, whose scandalous activities provided more colourfully and acceptably entertaining versions of the wild bohemian life. Obviously, such appreciation would have been of immeasurably greater use to Solomon had it been forthcoming whilst he was alive. But the lingering taint of scandal, together with his slow plummet into the netherworld of underclass destitution, meant that people were reluctant to be publicly associated with him, particularly after the Wilde trial. He died in 1905, still in the workhouse, five years after Wilde’s passing. It’s strange to think that his last works were produced whilst the first stirrings of twentieth century modernism were making themselves felt on the continent, currents which would first be recognised and drawn upon in nearby Bloomsbury and Fitzroy Street. Although Solomon had long since moved away from the Judaism which had formed the subject of many of his early paintings, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, where you can seek out and lay a poppy or sunflower upon his grave.

Walter Bayes - Victoria Station, London, Troops Leaving for the Front
Another new picture here is Walter Bayes’ large scale 1915 painting Victoria Station, London, Troops Leaving for the Front. Bayes was a founder member of the Camden Town Group, which formed around Walter Sickert, its presiding elder. It replaced the Fitzroy Street Group, which had met and exhibited in the house and studio space of 19 Fitzroy Street in Fitzrovia, the area of narrow Georgian streets north of Soho. Bayes was the intellectual of the group, writing art criticism for the Athenaeum magazine and supporting himself by teaching at the Westminster School of Art. He was less in thrall to the colourful stylisation and formalism of the continental post-impressionists than the other Camden Town Group members, and painted in a more conservative academic style. He did follow his friend Sickert’s example in choosing unusual and sometimes counterintuitive perspectives for his subjects, however. But his Victoria Station might as well be in a different world form that portrayed by Camden Town fellow Charles Ginner in his 1913 painting Sunlit Square, Victoria Station (this produced in the same year as his Clayhidon, also on display in the RAMM gallery). Bayes’ palette is muted, in keeping with Sickert’s dark, smoke-stained non-primary colours from his dimly lit music hall and Mornington Crescent interiors. The stone arch beneath which the soldiers pass forms a foreground frame within a frame. It’s brooding mass, topped with an ornamental keystone, has the heaviness of ceremonial architecture, and there is a fateful sense that these men are filing through a gateway of doleful significance, a presentiment of memorial monuments later to be erected in their collective name. The drab olive khaki of their uniforms makes of them a largely unindividuated mass. Only the red coat of a woman walking arm in arm with her man and the small red circle of a cap which hangs on the barrel of an erect rifle stand out, adding defiant touches of distinctiveness, reminders of the world beyond military uniformity. The cap on the barrel is a poignant variant on the traditional nursery rhyme image of the knotted pack on the end of a stick thrust over the shoulder of the innocent traveller heading out into the world for the first time. The interior of the station into which the men are trooping in their haphazard group is dark and wreathed with ragged palls of locomotive steam. A suspended bulb provides an angular cone of dim illumination, which fails to penetrate beyond a narrow radius. Although perhaps viewing with the benefit of historical hindsight, there seems to be a highly symbolic dimension to the painting. These men are entering the baleful shadows of a netherworld which will carry them with regimented and timetabled efficiency beyond the land of the living.

Charles Ginner - Clayhidon
Two more familiar works from the museum’s collection on display are from fellow members of the Camden Town Group, the aforementioned Charles Ginner and Robert Bevan. Both are connected with Clayhidon Farm on the Blackdown Hills in Devon, near the Somerset border. Both stayed there in the years before the war, sketching and painting the farm buildings and routines and the surrounding landscape. These paintings are displayed in their centenary year, both having been created during a 1913 visit. Charles Ginner’s Clayhidon exhibits his carefully measured and meticulously built up technique and style. Fields, trees and the roofs, walls and chimneys of the farm buildings are marked out with thickly layered lines of paint, the whole composition divided into strongly distinct ‘pieces’; it’s like a stained glass window or a surface of ornamental marquetry. The oil paint is applied with careful evenness, and the overall impression is of static order, a gelid atmosphere, as if the scene were filtered through the heavy, humid air of a long summer afternoon. With such solid and firmly girdered construction, it’s not surprising to learn that Ginner trained and for a while practised as an architect, before devoting himself to his art. He was born in France, growing up in Cannes, and was educated in Paris, so he could claim a close connection to the source of the post-impressionism which the Camden Town Group aimed to translate into an English idiom. Quite the opposite of the stereotype of the wild bohemian artist, he was a quiet, self-contained and rather conventional batchelor, who kept regular working hours throughout his life. He was very close to his fellow Camden Town Group members Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore, and was deeply affected by their early deaths. He nursed Gilman through a bout of influenza, which proved such a killer after the war, but both subsequently caught pneumonia in the early winter months of 1919. Ginner survived, Gilman didn’t. Ginner lived alone from then until his death, in his house in Pimlico, in 1952, a man increasingly out of his time. He never stopped working, however (and received a commission as a war artist in the second world war). Indeed, his life seemed to have been his work.

Robert Bevan - Devonshire Valley No.1
Robert Bevan’s Devonshire Valley No.1 similarly divides the landscape into discrete blocks of colour, although they are not so firmly delineated here. The characteristic Camden Town colours of muted mauves and magentas and light and dark olive greens are prominently used. Bevan is more free and expressive with his brushstrokes than Ginner, particularly in the wavering lines of the foliage to the left of the frame. His composition is a lot less rigidly controlled, edges allowed to blur into that which they outline. The impression is less of a heavy summer’s day than a hazy spring one. If Ginner’s work shows the influence of Van Gogh, then Bevan’s is more in tune with late Monet (who was still painting at the time, of course) and Cezanne. Bevan had also studied in Paris, and had stayed for a while in the artists’ colony at Pont Aven in Brittanny in the 1890s. This was a hugely fulfilling time for him, during which he met and got to know Gauguin, producing several sketched portraits of him in his books. Unlike Ginner, who was principally an urban artist, Bevan preferred the rural life and the depiction of rural subjects. He painted on Exmoor between 1895-7, and after marrying a Polish woman, Stanislawa de Karlowska, in 1897, made a number of trips to her home country in the early twentieth century. Here, he sketched and painted rural life in and around the villages in which he immediately felt at home. He was quite mature in years by the time he hooked up with Sickert and his circle. Sickert invited him to join his Fitzroy Street group after seeing some of his pictures exhibited in the first Allied Artists Exhibition in 1908. It was the first time he’d received significant recognition for his art. An inward man lacking in self-confidence and belief, he’d frequently doubted his talents and the worth of his endeavours. His wife, Stanislawa, was firm and constant in her encouragement, however, and it was largely due to her support that he persisted in his artistic career. He was a founder member of the Camden Town Group, and his subjects whilst in London generally centred around cabs and omnibuses, and horses and the world of the stables on the periphery of the city. This was a world in its twilight years, the era of horse drawn transportation already increasingly supplanted by the spread of electricity and the insidious invention of the internal combustion engine. Bevan’s choice of the stables as a subject for his urban art suggested that his heart lay beyond the boundaries of the city. He felt particularly drawn to the farm at Clayhidon, and returned on numerous occasions throughout the 1910s. Eventually, he bought his own cottage nearby – Lychetts in Bolham Valley in the Blackdown Hills. Devon was his own version of Palmer’s magic valley. And it was in Devon that he passed away in 1925. The paintings he produced in the area which he made his home remain amongst his most personal, and his best.

There's an excellent archive site providing extensive information on Simeon Solomon, with plentiful illustrations, over here, as well as a good general article (with pics) at the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture site over here.

Friday, 5 April 2013

John Boorman at the BFI

There’s an interesting cinematic jumble of objects from John Boorman’s six decade career on display at the BFI Southbank at the moment. This coincides with a season of films which includes his daughter Katrine’s new portrait of her father, Me and Me Dad. Family has always been important to Boorman, and his children have featured in several of his films, most notably in Excalibur, in which Katrine herself performed Igrayne’s provocative dance and young Charley gave the boy Mordred a memorable edge of childish cruelty. The season culminated with Boorman being awarded a BFI fellowship. It’s good to see him thus rewarded, since the imaginative richness and colourfully idiosyncratic invention of his work demonstrates that there’s more to British cinema than doctrinaire social realism and exquisitely costumed historical drama. Boorman dovetails the native romanticism of Powell and Pressburger with the continental modernism of Antonioni and Godard, and also draws on a strain of British mysticism which later expanded to encompass the Ireland which he made his home.

Walker's stride - Point Blank
This mysticism was exported to America for his existential gangster picture Point Blank (1967). For this, he transformed Los Angeles, a distinctly unmysterious location of conspicuous surfaces, into a haunted landscape. Both Lee Marvin and the flyovers, modernist apartment blocks and cubist storm drains are made to appear insubstantial and dreamlike, in spite of their concrete solidity. In part an abstract study of Marvin’s physical presence, his character, appropriately named Walker, becomes a grey-suited ghost drifting through an unreal city with no centre. It’s as if he were lost in some outer puragatorial circle of a no-man’s land between life and death. Boorman became good friends with Marvin, and took him off to the Pacific islands of his traumatic wartime experiences for the cathartic filming of Hell in the Pacific. When Marvin died, his wife Pam offered Boorman the choice of a single item of his personal effects as a token of remembrance, and he chose the pair of brown brogues in which Walker crossed the interstices of LA. In the film, they create a gunshot ricochet when he strides with unstoppable intent down a long corridor, a sound which is mixed musique concrète style on the soundtrack to create a layered, echoing rhythm marking the inexorable approach of nemesis. It’s one of the classic movie walks, and one which I feel compelled to emulate whenever a suitably resonant length of enclosed corridor presents itself (and if a pair of swinging double doors at he end allows me to sweep them open in a dramatic Patrick McGoohan as Number 6 gesture, then so much the better). One of the brogues is present at the BFI in all its size 12 glory, a firm base upon which Marvin’s monumental frame was once planted, a physique capable of projecting both brutish menace and an elegant and elegantly controlled choreography of movement and posture onscreen.

A poster for the 1965 Dave Clark Five film Catch Us If You Can gives a breezy indication of Boorman’s roots in swinging sixties British cinema. Dave Clark’s beat combo may have been a second division version of The Beatles, but Boorman emulated the freedoms which Richard Lester brought to the use of camera, sound and editing, and also followed him in casting a surreal eye over the British social landscape. This was a period in which cinema began to pull away from the theatrically-derived realism of the kitchen-sink movement and allow itself a bit more imaginative breadth and formal playfulness. Boorman, who like many British film-makers of the period started out making documentaries for the BBC, would never look back. He avoided the dominant British realist mode, with its suspicion of imaginative expansiveness or Romantic extravagance, and set about making a series of fantastic and allegorical films in the late 60s and 70s. Even when he made his later political films, an air of mythological struggle removed them from the ordinary. This might explain why the likes of Beyond Rangoon and Country of My Skull have failed to find favour, critics seeing them as overly schematic. They present recent history in fabular terms, using old storytelling forms with their clearly polarised divisions. As a result, there is a certain confusion in terms of style, content and intention.

Boorman made several significant forays into the SF and fantasy genres in the 1970s. Deliverance can be seen as a horror film with an allegorical framework, and offers a less extreme blueprint for the ‘endurance’ subgenre which is so prevalent at the moment. Its forested wilderness setting is the first of several such landscapes which form the symbolic environments of his films – the jungles of Beyond Rangoon and The Emerald Forest and the oak woods of Excalibur being further examples. Humanity’s fall from harmony with nature is a recurrent theme, the fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden. Even when Boorman turns to telling his own childhood tale in the impressionistic wartime reminiscences of Hope and Glory (1987), the meandering upper reaches of the Thames provide a thread which connects the young boy and his experiences with a Piper At The Gates of Dawn style mood of nature reverie. It’s a mood which evokes an innocent childhood spent in the Garden whilst the world beyond burns and splinters. Such archetypal concerns bear comparison with the work of Terrence Malick, although Boorman’s films never share the overt religiosity with which it is increasingly suffused.

Zardoz (1973), often derided and summarily dismissed with a sarky remark about Sean Connery’s costume, is an example of what was sometimes described by science fiction critics at the time as science fantasy (it might now be defined as falling within the cross-fertilizing generic hybrid term The Weird). Science fantasy would be applied to the kind of works produced by Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny or Michael Moorcock – science fiction seen through a mythologically-focussed, Tolkienesque lens. A certain amount of pseudo-rationalisation (post-apocalyptic tribal primitivism, the ‘magic’ of remnant technologies, and alien ‘ogres’ and ‘dragons’) removed them from the fairy-tale worlds of secondary realms whilst retaining their general tenor. The old tales wearing new clothes, essentially (an analogy which Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany self-consciously played with in novels like Lord of Light and The Einstein Intersection). There may not be anything particularly profound in the division of the far future humanity of Zardoz into brutal primitives and immortal decadants, a divergence echoing the Morlocks and Eloi of HG Wells’ Time Machine. But the mythological storytelling is bold, a recasting of age-old tales of men and gods, with a self-reflexive sense (as in the later Metamorphoses iterations of Greek myths) of such tales being consciously cultivated, shaped and sustained. The Irish landscapes are stunning, and add to the feel of timeless myth, and the visual design, a fusion of the traditionally rural with a dream of futurity, are colourful, ambitiously epic (especially the giant floating face of Zardoz – literally an incarnated godhead) and as imaginatively intoxicating as the best SF literature. The poster on display here has the metallic, sharply-bladed lettering of the title which looks like the kind of graphic design used for band names on 70s album covers (designed to be traced out onto exercise books or canvas satchels). This is appropriate enough, since the film has a slight air of the prog rock concept album about it.

Penthouse angel - Exorcist II:The Heretic
Boorman’s sequel to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), further explored his fascination with the mythological strata upon which the rational, technocratic surface of the modern world lies. He pulled the idea of demonic possession back from the clichéd Satanism of Dennis Wheatleyesque pulp terrors, conjuring shamanistic flights of the spirit instead. He introduced a channelling of the supernatural through scientific means in the manner of Nigel Kneale, and played with philosophical and metaphysical notions deriving from Teilhard de Chardin positing the evolution of a world consciousness. Boorman had been given the chance to adapt and direct the original Exorcist movie, but had turned it down, considering the story to be ‘repulsive’, little more than ‘a film about a child being tortured’. His belated follow up was to be ‘an antidote, a film about goodness rather than evil’. Regan becomes a herald of a new breed of enlightened and compassionate being who will bring healing to the world. She also represents a new and intuitive spirituality which will need no priestly hierarchy to intervene between the personal and divine. Significantly, vital passages of the story take place beyond the western world. It is from an African shaman, another healer, that the priestly protagonist learns about the nature and attraction of evil, and is given the key to exorcising the lingering influence of the demon Pazuzu. We discover that this panglobal spirit is particularly drawn to individuals who radiate a powerful and influential aura of active benevolence, an aura which it tries to block and snuff out. This spirit of the air is memorably envisaged as a buzzing locust, whose chittering flightpath we follow as it ‘infects’ all around it, transforming its fellow creatures into monsters of rapacious appetite and forming them into a ferocious black swarm. Evil is given an entirely different face, reflecting primal fears of famine, pestilence and resultant conflict largely alien to the mindset of the industrialised world. Boorman would increasingly turn to non-western settings for his later films, which also addressed questions of global politics – films such as The Emerald Forest, Beyond Rangoon, The Tailor of Panama and Country of My Skull.

Fantastic landscapes - Exorcist II:The Heretic
The stage bound sets representing the dramatic Ethiopian landscape – high plains scarred with deep ravines, temples carved into wind-sculpted bluffs and fantastic cities resembling constructs of bleached and scoured bone – have a heightened, dreamlike quality which deliberately rejects realism and creates the impression that the priest’s journey is spiritual as much as physical – a journey into a mythic inner landscape. It anticipates the final scenes of Excalibur, which were also shot on a stage set. They are soaked by the blood red light appearing to radiate from the flat disc of a setting sun which resembles the one set up by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in 2003 for his Weather Project. Boorman’s individual approach in Exorcist II was bound to disappoint an audience who simply wanted more pea soup puke, adolescent swearing and po-faced Catholic invocations of medieval deviltry. Whilst there is much to enjoy in the film, Boorman’s visions were not always realised with great clarity or coherence, and he was certainly not well served by the somnambulistic performances of Richard Burton and Linda Blair in the central roles. For many, the Heretic of the subtitle was Boorman himself, who had tampered with a formula whose replication was the sole purpose of the blockbuster sequel. Its box-office failure was the greatest sin in the eyes of the big Hollywood studios, and at this point they and Boorman parted company. His mystical approach drew the film away from the essentially visceral nature of its predecessor which, for all its brooding religiosity, was more concerned with body than spirit. It was that physical element which had made such an impact on audiences in 1973, and when they found that it was lacking here, they swiftly lost interest.

The film Excalibur (1981) remains Boorman’s most explicit realisation of his mythological preoccupations, and is represented in the exhibition by two key props: the grail and Merlin’s silver skull cap. Boorman had long wanted to make a film drawing on the Arthurian matter of Britain. He had made a semi-documentary film for the BBC in 1966, The Quarry, which was set around Glastonbury and centred on the artistic struggles of a sculptor named Arthur King. He had also worked on a proposed modernising adaptation of John Cowper Powys’ massive 1932 novel A Glastonbury Romance, in which the grail myths attached to the locale are central. When he suggested a film about Merlin to United Artists, who had financed his previous picture, Leo the Last (1969), they offered him the alternative of adapting Lord of the Rings (to which they owned the rights) for the screen. Its patchwork composite of British, Celtic and Norse mythology and folk tale appealed to him, and he worked on producing a script which both encompassed the grand narrative sweep of Tolkien’s story and solved the many technical problems involved in realising this fantastic secondary world in a believable fashion. This script is on display in the cabinet, its open pages a tantalising glimpse of an unrealised epic. In his autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, published just as Peter Jackson’s trilogy was coming out, he is generous in his praise for The Fellowship of the Ring, modestly concluding that his version would have been meagre fare in comparison.

Boorman was particularly interested in Merlin, and envisaged him as a timeless trickster figure. Incarnations of the trickster archetype turn up as central characters in several of his later films, too, appearing in The General, The Tailor of Panama and The Tiger’s Tail. Interestingly, all of these are played by Irish actors (Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama and Brendan Gleeson in the other two), perhaps reflecting the popularity of such figures in Irish folk tales and legends. It also provides the perfect mythological type to represent contemporary economic prestidigitators. Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Merlin is extraordinary. He represents him as eccentric and mercurial, veering wildly between the buffoonery of a fool and the gnomic wisdom of a seer. At one moment he is an approachable companion and confidante, at the next a dangerous and unknowably alien being, scarcely human and only briefly passing through the mortal world before departing for someplace beyond. Excalibur is one of those films which I saw and wholly absorbed as a teenager, and from which I periodically quote various of Merlin’s many memorable lines, like some Python or Withnail bore. My favourite is probably ‘a dream to some – a nightmare to others’, the first part delivered with murmured intimacy, the second bellowed with declamatory ferocity, arms flung out like a bird suddenly taking wing.

A dream to some - Nicol Williamson as Merlin
The silver skullcap is central to the look of Boorman’s Merlin, a great example of a costume prop providing the visual cue to the nature of a character. Boorman had wanted to give Merlin an ageless, hermaphroditic appearance by having him appear with a smoothly shaven head, but Williamson, a notoriously egotistic actor, balked at such a demand. The skullcap was an inspired compromise, created by Terry English, who also fashioned the armour. It gave Merlin the appearance of a John Dee figure who, like the Merlin of TH White’s The Once and Future King, spanned the ages, walking through centuries of time. With the polished chrome of his gilded pate glinting in the sun, he looks like an androgynous android or alchemist, ancient and futuristic at one and the same time. The reflective metallic walls of Camelot seem to draw on this simple but symbolically resonant piece of signature headgear, and also have the feel of being magically out of time, a moonage Biba daydream.

The end of the quest - Perceval brings the grail to Arthur
The grail is a simple vessel, with no conspicuous ornamentation. The centrality of the grail quest to the latter part of the film points to Boorman’s interest both in the Wagnerian variations on or derivations from the theme (both directly in Parsifal and indirectly in the Ring Cycle) and in Jung’s interpretation of it as a symbol of humanity’s search for enlightenment and a sense of sacred unity connecting the self with the universe. Also on display are the costume sketches for the suits of armour which encase the central characters in heraldic carapaces. The design of the helmets in particular provide the outward projections of their inward compulsions. Uther’s is dark and ferally wolf-muzzled. Arthur’s has the curved beak of a griffin, with short spikes studding the brow like newly sprouting horns. Lancelot’s has a pure platinum sheen with nobly erect dragon’s ears at the side. Mordred’s is a mask haloed with brattish golden-boy curls, the lower edge accentuating Robert Addie’s sullen aristocratic pout. Eschewing villainous black, it is a Louis XIV sunking visage suggestive of a new and tyrannous dawn.

There is also a costume design sketch for Sarah Miles’ outfit from Hope and Glory, a fine piece of replica 40s fashion, with the attached woollen fabric sample demonstrating the attention to authentic detail. At the far end of the display, there’s a mystery costume, unidentified by accompanying label; a dress made of squares of fabric loosely sewn together. It could be from Excalibur (but isn’t as far as I’ve been able to determine) or from one of his films set in the present day. It could even be from the 70s rustic peasant chic of Zardoz, cinematic representations of the future always tending to reflect the fashions of the era in which they’re made, no matter how much the designers try to make it otherwise. This mystery dress serves as an appropriate symbol of the timeless qualities of myth which Boorman has striven to capture in all its myriad forms.