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.

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