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

1 comment:

JenDoh said...

Thank you for this excellent film analysis. Superior writing for a superior subject.