Sunday, 16 March 2014

Weird, warped and running wild. In the town of Twin Peaks, it's best just to go with the flow...


Like many relationships, this one begins and ends in the bedroom. 

My first visit to the Washington town of Twin Peaks came when I was just 13, staying up late to savour the show’s super-fashionable quirkiness on my 14-inch black and white TV. Twenty-three years on and the return trip is thankfully more vivid in our Blu-Ray age: as crisp and bountiful as the waterfall which hypnotises you during the opening credits. Sweeping the audience away is the duty of any good TV drama, and Twin Peaks doesn’t disappoint.


Like the murky river which prefaces each episode, watching the show is like drifting up a dark, meandering waterway, carried along on the gentle crescendos of its theme tune; the serene, soporific love ballad Falling. The dreamboat in question is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who arrives in town to smoke out the killer of local beauty Laura Palmer, and eventually goes native by ditching the G-man suit and donning a woodcutter’s wardrobe. 

Dale is a lovable parody of your traditional TV cop, his deadpan delivery and perfectly-sculpted hair make him a kind of cuddly T-1000, a benevolent crime-fighting machine whose arsenal includes endless amiability, superhuman attention to detail and preternatural Tibetan calm. He’s at home in Twin Peaks: a thumbs-up man-of-the-people who embodies the show’s cheery, accepting tone.


There is an abundance of warmth here: co-creators Mark Frost and David Lynch enthusiastically satirise the goofy foibles of small-town America. Together they knit a homemade patchwork quilt of oddball characters both stereotypical and left-of-field, from the endearingly two-dimensional good guy Sherriff and his village idiot sidekick, to the big, bad businessman who relentlessly chomps on a phallic cigar and his vivacious, trouble-seeking daughter, for whom the adjective ‘sexy’ is woefully faint praise.

Despite their outward banalities, the town’s inhabitants all seem to possess hidden depths, like they’re intertwined with some weird psychological ecosystem rippling below the town’s surface. The mystery of Laura’s death is the Hitchcockian MacGuffin through which we glimpse this deeper malaise: a Gordian knot of buried secrets, tortuous pasts and inexplicable neurosis, encased in a labyrinthine plot that often feels like you’re dropping pebbles into the deepest of wells, waiting for a reciprocating sound that never comes.


Naysayers dismiss Lynch as a purveyor of weirdness for weirdness’s sake, an artist whose chief insight into the human condition is that, aw shucks pardner, it really is a strange world.  But as Dale would earnestly tell you while devouring a donut, this misses the point. Sometimes the best and most authentic thing to do, both as artist and detective, is to nurture your irrational side, which in Dale’s case is a nightmarish dreamscape of sleazy bordellos, pasty-faced giants and gyrating, gibberish-spouting dwarfs.

It’s one of the show’s best piss-takes (and Twin Peaks is blissfully funny) that the investigative work is informed more by surreal imaginings than hard factual evidence, a neat endorsement of Lynch’s idiosyncratic, intuitive filmmaking style. Perhaps the most symbolic character therefore is orchid enthusiast and pathological recluse Harold Smith, a frail, damaged petal of a man who refuses to step into daylight lest he suffer a convulsive fit.


Ultimately, Twin Peaks is a show all about turning inwards. On one level it’s a playfully comic probing of a closed, insular community that can’t look beyond itself, full of people who seem happiest when gingerly traversing the bizarre landscape of their own minds. And then on another it’s a startling psychological horror, creeping steadily under your skin before tearing this membrane asunder with scenes so frightening they’re branded indelibly on your brain.

Alas, like many nightmares (and great TV shows), this one doesn’t know when to stop. Midway through the second season, Twin Peaks commits narrative hari-kari, self-destructing when Laura’s killer is revealed so the tantalising air of mystery is forever polluted. I don’t want my TV shows to jump the shark: I’d much rather the shark dragged me prematurely into unfathomable depths where there’s no such thing as dramatic closure.

When the end credits roll in one of the show’s turgid tail-enders, and Laura’s face vanishes from my screen for the final time, I find myself wishing I’d never found out what happened to that angelic, troubled and eminently corruptible young lady. This would have been infuriating, for sure. But it would have been more intriguing, more authentic, much more Twin Peaks.


In typical David Lynch style, the show continues off screen though, bubbling away in my own head like a pot of Dale’s beloved fresh coffee. I switch off my bedside lamp, close my eyes and let the blackness rush in like flood water. After a while, I picture that waterfall again and recall its wild, primitive energy, swirling with suggestiveness and throwing up countless red herrings. 

Then I slip gently below the waves, floating down to a murkier yet far more satisfying space. It’s a realm where not everything has to be explained, nothing is ever what it seems and some mysteries never will be solved. After all, when being kept in the dark is this much fun, why bother swimming back to the surface?

This article originally appeared in the March-April 2014 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Library of Birmingham and its lovely air of the unnecessary


“Are you looking for anything in particular?” asked the guide with cheery hospitality as he welcomed me into the Library of Birmingham’s thronging foyer. His convivial tone and bright blue waistcoat gave him the air of a jolly concierge-cum-publican, satisfyingly warming his back against a glowing hearth of effusive civic pride.

Everyone’s welcome in a library of course, that cosy, egalitarian heart of a community. And Birmingham’s centrepiece for knowledge could certainly do with thawing out after the cold, grey modernism of its previous incarnation. Frostbitten citizens rejoice: the fire of invention is back with a spectacular new 31,00 square metre cultural cauldron, opened under a blaze of publicity in the first week of September and drawing crowds ever since like moths to its Promethean flame.

Photo: Christian Richters www.christianrichters.de

As England’s second city slashes its public purse, this £189 million muscle-flex (commissioned before the economic downturn) now looks like a bold, provocative move. The feel-good factor is sorely needed in Birmingham though, and the library is happy to oblige: a self-conscious shot in the arm for a metropolis chronically short of self-esteem. Any institution which uses the noun-preposition-place formula to christen itself is one bent on self-aggrandisement. Sure enough, the Library of Birmingham pulses with high-mindedness and a lofty ambition to kick-start a new cultural renaissance; a kind of West Midlands equivalent of Brunelleschi’s Florentine dome.

Centrally located near the Symphony Hall, Repertory Theatre and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the library delivers a huge defibrillating surge to the city’s artistic bosom. Vitality and togetherness scream at you from its imposing steel frieze, a multiplicity of interlacing giant circles symbolising community, canals and the Jewellery Quarter, and which harmonise nicely with the city’s other urban icons, the 1965 Grade II-listed Rotunda and the aluminium discs emblazoning Selfridges’s curvy exterior.

This is flashy, confident architecture, with a stick-your-chest-out swagger echoed at a microscopic level by the bulbous typeface peppering the library’s literature. Francine Houben, the building’s architect, believes libraries are the new cathedrals of our age. And when contemplating her new conception from a distance, you sense this pious influence at work. This is a building with one eye on the sacred, the resemblance of the aforementioned steel circles to barbed wire less a warning to keep away and more a plea to cherish what’s inside.


Underneath the frieze is the main shell, essentially three enormous boxes reducing in footprint the higher they climb: aspirational mega-steps culminating in a shrine to that deity of literature, Shakespeare. This glittering, golden halo is reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, and appropriately so. For there is more than a touch of William Blake’s famous poem about the whole endeavour, representing as it does a new world of mental fight rising from the post-industrial quagmire.  

Cross the threshold and the spiritual vibe continues: the interior has the personality of an ebullient preacher eagerly gathering people to his flock. The portentously-titled Knowledge and Discovery Floors and the diplomatically-coined Contemplation Room all evidence a neediness that this library should be all things to all people. Coexistence is its raison d’être: the creation of a universal, pan-cultural realm where 900-year-old historical archives sit comfortably alongside touch-screen digital technology, social networkers mingle with solitude-seeking bookworms, ambitious entrepreneurs seek business advice and health-conscious citizens check their blood pressure.

A place for everything, and everything (not quite) in its place. Plurality is paramount, plus a little bit of discord too, from improvised Russian opera to random clusters of exotic vegetation. Descending to the open-air amphitheatre reveals the sound of Mussorgsky rising sonorously to the skies from the concrete bowels of Centenary Square, the bass-baritone’s wardrobe merrily partaking in the coexisting spirit (fur coat, Hawaiian). Ascend higher and two Le Corbusier-influenced rooftop terraces (one a strenuously-promoted ‘Secret Garden’, whose fecund array of horticulture reminds you more of Bellamy than Burnett) open up vistas previously exclusive to big-spenders at the city’s two skyscraper hotels.

Photo: Christian Richters www.christianrichters.de

Back inside, the central Book Rotunda is a grandiose deference to the library’s classical shape, yet one sliced by swishy, illuminated escalators and surrounded by socially-conducive, pebble-like seating, assembled with just enough insouciance to ward off stuffiness. This is a ‘people’s palace’ say its makers, a grand, collective community vision epitomised by the gigantic digital gallery on the ground floor, which beams out portraits of local residents on continuous loop. That’s not the only thing on the walls: you can almost hear the sound of popularity-courting ideas hitting the 45,000 square metres of painted surfaces to see what sticks.

To the purists, such dynamics may seem disconnected, almost schizophrenic. None more so than at the building’s summit, where the golden cylinder bisects into the Skyline Viewpoint (complete with empowering digital toposcope) and the Shakespeare Memorial Library, a painstaking reassembly of John Henry Chamberlain’s 1882 interior. A delicate rummage through the latter’s oak-panelled cabinets unearths a wonderful discovery too: a 1908 edition of The Tempest by Dickens’s publishers Chapman and Hall, full of pre-Raphaelite-style illustrations and held together with ad hoc flaps of partially degraded sellotape.


Absorbing the Bard’s swansong tale of loss and restoration is a sweetly ironic experience. Visitors do seem under a spell at this library, modern-day Ariels and Calibans (everyone’s welcome) bewitched by a brave new world. Yet it’s a spell that comes not from the books beloved by Prospero, but from something more ethereal. Indeed, reading a book seems positively antiquated here, the volumes of text incidental furnishings to the grand views, pervasive daylight (Le Corbusier again) and dizzying, vertiginous ascensions.

No, the real power comes from space not substance, absence rather than presence. Watching people watch the library is an object lesson in how easy it is for your eye to wander away from the donut and onto the hole. Visitors drift underneath the Book Rotunda in a mood of hazy uncertainty, eyeballs swooning, necks-a-craning, reposing only to stare into more unchartered space or fidget ponderously on the sculpted, primary-coloured chairs. The Library of Birmingham is a truly energetic place, but it’s an energy that feels diffuse, disparate, and on reflection, rather invigorating.

Photo: Christian Richters www.christianrichters.de

The concept of space is becoming ever more fluid and mercurial in the digital age. Work and home are blending together, the public and the private coalesce in social media, and much of what brings us together can no longer be seen or touched in a tangible sense, existing in an ever-expanding ether of binary data and storage ‘clouds’. 

So it seems poignant such a physical monument to space has been created with such gusto: an expansive, communal bolt-hole in a world where access to knowledge is being continually condensed into the miniature and the portable. The fact that the library’s real treasure trove is inaccessible to the public (60% of its books are in an environmentally-controlled secure storage area) only adds to the sense of space being vacated, liberated, a blast of the great wide open in a society increasingly fixated on the compact and the compressed.

The library is no longer a centralised community resource. It doesn’t need to be. Rather it’s something more nebulous, a kind of monumental walk-through art installation, filled with a lovely air of the unnecessary into which the claustrophobia that suffocates so many libraries has gloriously evaporated. This is an emotional rather than a practical space, a dissolved experience rather a unified one. As in The Tempest, what’s not there is more important than what is there. Perhaps libraries really have become such stuff as dreams are made on.

Photo: Christian Richters www.christianrichters.de

My play’s final act is one of pure reactionary zeal: looking for a book. It takes surprisingly longer than expected. So when I finally leaf through its magnolia-tinged paper I take my time, savouring its magic realism. The story is The Library of Babel by Jorges Luis Borges (a self-consciously constructed moment, in a monument to self-conscious construction), named after the most infamous architectural folly of them all. I meander leisurely through this deceptively oppressive tale about an infinite library of everything, and learn how the human need to categorise knowledge eventually morphs into mysterious open-endedness.

Like the protagonists in Borges’s story, Birmingham, its people and its library are all searching for their place and context in a vast, complex and relentlessly-changing world, confronted at each turn by a myriad of choice and competition. This building is a symptom of such unease, but also its joyful, affirmative celebration, signifying not so much a conclusive, self-contained full stop but a huge, regenerative question mark. The library is unlimited and cyclical, concluded Borges’s narrator, a place where your search for answers ultimately returns you to where you started: wiser, reinvented and ready to enquire again.  

The library is back. The wonder is back. Are we looking for anything in particular?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The year of living fictitiously


Turning forty is one of life’s dreaded landmarks; that watershed moment when we supposedly become grumpier, less employable, less energetic and things just don’t work as well as they used to.

Yet anyone entering their fifth decade this year (step forward Leonardo DiCaprio, Penelope Cruz, Christian Bale and Joaquin Phoenix) should console themselves with the fact that their birth year yielded a rich crop of movies that have defied the ageing process – a heady combination of edgy vitality and acid cynicism that’s matured beautifully over time like the finest Californian vintage.  

It was easy to be jaded in 1974. This was the year the mother of all modern-day political scandals reached its lamentable conclusion with the resignation of Richard Nixon. Everyone grew older more quickly after Watergate, residual childhood naivety and faith in authority painfully expunged by the whitewash at the White House, a sad confirmation that deceit is power’s chief currency.

White house down: The culmination of the Watergate saga 

Political conspiracy and the fictions it perpetrates are the motors driving The Parallax View, the story of a nefarious organisation brainwashing people into becoming assassins. Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is the vaguely counter-cultural journalist on the trail of the truth, foiled by the sinister machinations of The Parallax Corporation, a malign, impenetrable force personified by the blank, stony faces which stare through the audience in the movie’s opening and closing frames.

Although tonally confused and simple-minded in its depiction of evil, The Parallax View (and its brazenly non-commercial climax) still makes engrossing viewing forty years later, emblematic of a zeitgeist in which paranoia and distrust reigned supreme, and where people imagined more feverishly than ever that they were passive pawns in a much bigger and darker game.

Access denied: The opening shot of The Parallax View

Delusion and control were explored with diabolical relish in 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola, the mastermind behind two Nixonian anti-heroes destroyed by their failure to trust: Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather Part II and snoopy soundman Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in The Conversation. The latter is an anally-retentive forty-something loner in a solitary world of insidious technology and pervasive echoes, finally undone by a Machiavellian corporate world and his own corrosive insecurities. 
     
Equally pessimistic in its depiction of power is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a starkly cynical portrayal of a country being drained of virtue. Californian overlord Noah Cross (John Huston) is the corrupt, grandfatherly villain exerting a pernicious grip over people’s lives (and the film’s narrative), systematically raping the earth just as he once raped his daughter. Chinatown’s vision of America is one where heroism is ultimately a dead-end, and the only way to survive is, in the words of its leading man, ‘to do as little as possible’.

The sound of solitude: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in The Conversation

Such apathy was played for laughs too. The absurdity of the action man is brilliantly lampooned in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which hard-luck black man Bart (Cleavon Little) saves the town of Rock Ridge from the inept plotting of a power-crazed attorney general (yep, another corrupt public official). An inspired mix of ludicrous bigotry, sophisticated slapstick, Brechtian asides, silent-era homage and scatological fart jokes, Blazing Saddles is a joyful comic extravaganza that’s still in tune with the sardonic spirit of the times.

In the film’s coda, Bart’s rousing farewell ode to justice is met with a gleefully derisive cry of ‘bullshit’ from the townfolk. No bother, he seems to think, before heading off into the sunset in a Cadillac to join The Man and (you suspect) collect his cheque. The film’s most memorable scene is when the climactic punch-up crashes through the fourth wall and onto the Warner Brothers lot itself, a sly insinuation that the powerful historical myths on which America has built its self-image are, quite literally, a joke.
  
The past as playground: Mashing history in Blazing Saddles

Surrendering ourselves to fantasy is the sweet sensation flavouring Celine and Julie Go Boating, Jacques Rivette’s sublime three-hour send-up of cinema and reality. Two young women embark on a meta-fictional, time-travelling odyssey through a secluded Parisian mansion, absorbing themselves in a cryptic family soap opera to which they repeatedly return until they become its own authors.

Like Blazing Saddles, Rivette’s film is a love letter to the power of movies and how they invade our lives: a story bewitched by the self-perpetuating nature of story itself. Both films are ingenious in the way they imply looking at the past is the ultimate form of moviemaking, a totally imagined place where everything is up for grabs.

Time travellers: Julie (Dominique Labourier) and Celine (Juliet Berto) 

1974 is my own Parisian mansion, I think: a fictional landscape on which I superimpose my own narrative picture, like a filmmaker orchestrating a complex, panoramic crane shot, or someone middle-aged re-examining their past through the distorted lens of hindsight.

There’s no shame in it, I suppose. In cinema, as with life, some things do get better the further you move away from them, a sense of perspective and possibility broadening just as the finer details of reality slowly dissolve away. So if you’re turning forty this year, be of good cheer. Getting old doesn’t have to mean getting real. As any ageing moviegoer will inaccurately tell you, they really don’t make them like this anymore. 

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2014 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Let there be light... and a bit of popcorn too


'No, that’s God. He just thinks He’s Stanley Kubrick,' is the punch line to an oft-repeated joke about the legendary filmmaker’s notorious omnipotence on-set. Über-fastidious in his style, commanding creative carte blanche and with organisational powers to rival a military general, Kubrick is the epitome of Director as God, the all-powerful and all-knowing movie genius who bends the celluloid cosmos to his will.

'To make a film is to create an entire universe,' is how Ingmar Bergman once described the art of directing. Kubrick’s most famous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a stellar example. In this spectacular two-and-a-half-hour lightshow, we journey from the dawn of man to the final frontier, explore the secrets of creation and watch celestial orbs align in glorious symphony under Kubrick’s supremely confident baton.

Miracle of creation: The finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001 is quintessential auteurism: the belief that certain directors are the chief creative force behind any film, artists who overcome the crass commercialism of the system to impose their own personal vision on a movie, in much the same way a painter or novelist is the sole author of their work. This is a very sexy theory. Auteurism gives film the kudos of high art, so we speak of directors like they’re Picasso or Tolstoy, which in turn generates head-nodding, chin-stroking approval from audiences eager to be sprinkled by the stardust of artistic sophistication.

Yet it creates a false divide too, between these supposedly ‘artistic’ movies – where An Important Director Has Something To Say - and ‘commercial’ ones, which purely entertain. This is a sad elitism that neglects so many great filmmakers whose talents lie not in single-mindedness of vision, but in their ability to coax the very best from actors, writers, editors and cinematographers. 
 
Shooting star: Kubrick on the set of Dr Stranglelove (1963)

No one knows what Michael Curtiz stood for as an artist, yet that didn’t stop him from helming Casablanca to near-universal adoration. The same goes for Victor Fleming, who wrestled the double-headed hydra of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind in one single year. And Steven Spielberg even, who made the yin and yang of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in a similar time span.  

Such versatile craftsmen aren’t auteurs. Unlike Kubrick, I’m unsure who Spielberg is and what he stands for as an artist. But like Fleming and Curtiz, he’s some kind of magician, a conjurer of great cinematic spells who marshals and manipulates the talents of those around him, before stepping back behind the curtain, revealing nothing about himself except his supreme ability to put on a show. And isn’t that an art in itself?

If ever a Wiz there was: Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Art as magic show, and the question of whether authorship really matters, are the central themes of F for Fake, a 1973 film essay by Orson Welles. In the film’s pivotal scene, Welles describes the French Gothic cathedral at Chartres as the ultimate example of collaborative art: ‘the premier work of man in the western world, but one without a signature.’ The people who made it are anonymous, Welles says, now part of what he calls ‘the universal ash’. ‘Maybe a man’s name,’ he concludes, ‘doesn’t matter that much.’  

A work of art is a work of art, regardless of who made it. If it’s truly successful, it will transcend its creators to speak afresh to future generations in different ways, in the same way 2001 and The Wizard of Oz still resonate today. These two movies sit poles apart on the artistic-commercial spectrum, but this spectrum is an artificial construct anyway, one that says more about our needs as viewers than the intentions of those behind the camera.

A con in the can? The opening credits of F for Fake (1973)

In his landmark essay The Death of the Author, written the year before 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, French academic Roland Barthes argued the true creator of a text isn’t the author but the reader. 'There is no other time than that of the utterance,' he wrote, 'and every text is eternally written here and now... the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination.'

Put simply, art has no meaning other than the ones we as viewers ascribe it. For every film we watch, we are active participants rather than passive observers, creating and fashioning our own personal interpretations from the material before us. After I watch The Wizard of Oz with my daughter, we recreate the movie around the house, cinematic authors shaping our own version of Barthes’s eternally written here and now. ‘Home’ and ‘courage’ are all in our minds I tell her, so as long as she imagines she’s wearing her ruby slippers, there really is nothing to fear.

No signature required: Chartres Cathedral at night-time

Movie-going is ultimately subjective: what you make of it is the only thing that matters. Centuries from now, when today’s directors have long since dissolved into the universal ash, it’s the one thing about the art form that will remain truly divine. Much like Chartres Cathedral, cinema stands tall as a grand, collective experience in the dark, illuminated from within by the ceaseless, glowing candles of everyone’s unique, creative light.    

This article originally appeared in the November-December edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Depravityville USA, born and raised


When I was a small boy, I starred in movies. The scripts were my own, the set was my parents' backyard and the audience a row of terraced houses backing on to our fence. It was a safe, insulated world, so different to the fantastical dramas I was creating in my mind’s eye; homegrown, childish substitutes for adult experiences yet to come.

Suburbia is fertile soil for moviemakers, not just imaginative five–year-olds. Buried under the calm, leafy veneer are the seeds of classic dramatic tension; the place where urban meets rural, public becomes private, adults clash with children, and complacency is gnawed away by fear.

Suburbia by Leonard Koscianski (2001)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is built on this conflicting duality. Set in the ‘typical American town’ of Santa Rosa, the two main protagonists are cousins called Charlie: one a young girl (Teresa Wright) from the Western small town, the other (Joseph Cotten) an older man from a city in the East.

Parallels are repeatedly drawn between them; the younger thinks they share a telepathic bond. Yet Charlie senior is a complex, anguished murderer; Charlie junior the wide-eyed sleuth who must turn on her soul mate. What follows is a psychological duel across the picket fences, where good-natured innocence confronts dark, cynical experience, or what the film’s coda calls ‘the world gone crazy’.

Innocence in peril: Alfred Hitchock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Small-town madness returns unforgettably in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), where innocence and experience are as polarised as the ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattoos on Robert Mitchum’s knuckles. Playing maniacal preacher Harry Powell, Mitchum insinuates himself into the family of widower Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) to steal £10,000, using fake religious zeal to hoodwink a gullible, sleepy community.
   
Only the youngsters John and Pearl see through the facade: a generational clash underscored by astonishing visual lyricism. Shadowy, expressionistic lighting frames the sinful, adult world of the town and bedroom, while dreamlike, bucolic vistas depict the unspoilt countryside where the children flee to safety.

Preacher of death: Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955)

For The Night of Hunter is more fairy tale than thriller: it pines for simplicity, naturalism and the uncontaminated beauty of youth. There is a palpable aversion to sex in the film, not just in Harry’s disgust at ‘perfume-smellin’ lacy things’, but in its portrayal of neon-soaked adolescent courtship and dysfunctional marriages worn-out by time.

Sex revolts a young Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). In the violent overture to this brilliant suburban slasher, Myers murders his sister moments after she’s enjoyed her boyfriend. The misogynistic wound is reopened fifteen years later, when he returns to the neighbourhood to butcher a fresh slew of sexually-maturing females.

Only single babysitter Jamie Lee Curtis (the one who safeguards innocence) survives his silent rampage. Halloween’s closing sequence is a baleful montage of family homes as crime scenes. In this kind of place, the film says, evil can come from anywhere, unleashed by long-buried childhood traumas for which future generations will be punished.

Coming of age: John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

The ultimate man-child tortured by his past is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), the beer-swigging psychotic at the dark heart of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). In the film’s primal scene (or scream?), Frank devours gas while sexually assaulting Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and indulging his babyish fetish for the titular fabric. Looking on from the closet, that place where we like to hide things, is Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachan), the child-like voyeur on the periphery of adulthood.

Blue Velvet is a masterpiece of suburban strange: so much is mysterious and unexplained, like seeing the world through the eyes of a confused child. But it’s a very traditional story. Jeffrey the adolescent fantasist enters the world of adult experience, succumbs to temptation, yet ultimately finds redemption; a tarnished knight who still can see blue velvet through his tears.

Adult to child: Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet (1986)

That other fantasist is all grown up now: he doesn’t play movies in his parents’ backyard (except when his three-year-old daughter demands it). His attitude to cinema has matured too. I grew up loving the dark, sensational thrill of the movies above. Now I love them because of what they teach you about growing up – and why it’s a fine line between those who make it and those who don’t.  

In life, nothing is what it seems: that’s the lesson every adult learns. But as any film fan or seasoned suburbanite will tell you, the truth really is out there, past the surface presentation, beyond the threshold and in those dark, screened spaces behind the curtains.

You just need to watch more closely.  

This article appeared in the September-October edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

No one puts the fear of God into you like Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velásquez


It’s like you’ve walked into the job interview from hell. Straightaway you feel under scrutiny, those two lead-shot eyes boring implacably into your soul. The face in which they’re grounded is unforgiving, contemptuous even, the outward expression of a career built on ruthless deeds and sharpened on the grinding vicissitudes of Vatican politicking.

He’s an elderly man, yet his posture speaks of repressed energy. Tense and distrustful, he crouches back into his papal throne, observing you closely, detecting whether you’ve come to flatter him, worship him or destroy him; a shrewd, searching intelligence as crisp as his scarlet robes.

The eyes have it: A detail from Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650)

If someone asked me what’s the most powerful work of art I’ve ever seen, then Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velásquez, hanging in Rome’s Galleria Doria Pamphliji, would be a prime candidate. Because power is the subject of this 114cm x 119cm oil on canvas – who has it, how it’s used, what it takes to preserve it, and what it does to those who wield it. 

When it was painted by the Spanish master in 1650, the sitter was one of the most powerful people on the planet. Leader of the world’s largest organisation of people, and self-styled God’s Chief Representative on earth, Innocent X was someone who spiritually guided millions of needy souls, yet could (and would) crush ambitious cardinals with a single, ferocious glance.

Servility is a natural reaction when you look at the picture; part of you wants to cower in supplication. This is the fear of God expressed through a concentrated shock of red pigment: a haunting advertisement for the sheer might of the Holy See, and a red-blooded warning to all Catholics that they should watch their step, lest they forsake salvation for fiery damnation. 

Suspicion incarnate: Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velásquez (1650)

Yet as much as it’s designed to instil fear, the portrait’s brilliance lies in its depiction of someone who’s ultimately consumed by it. Innocent X (on this evidence, never was a pontiff more inappropriately named) was 75 years old when this was painted, a religious grandee facing the end of his life. A sense of impending mortality ripples through the picture, from the anxious, embittered face to the withered, claw-like right hand, the sign of a man struggling to keep his grip on things inexorably fading away.  

The claw analogy is telling. Despite his twilight years, you suspect this aged pontiff is still capable of frightening things. Inflame his wrath and he could suddenly spring from his sedentary position, ripping out your jugular with predatory efficiency. 

Nothing is more dangerous than a scared animal on the defensive – and there’s something about Innocent X that seems so very defensive. Perhaps that’s why Francis Bacon, in his abstract re-imaginings of Velásquez’s painting, saw this Pope as some kind of tortured spirit, permanently on display in a zoo-like prison, a ghost tormented by the unforgiving machinery of power.

Trappings of power: Study after Velásquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon (1953)

The test of any leader is whether he or she is liberated or incarcerated by responsibility. And confinement is the signature mood of Velásquez’s painting. Just as the viewer feels trapped by the subject’s gaze, Innocent X seems trapped by his status. Perhaps he couldn’t endure the long, drawn-out scrutiny of sitting for a portrait, fearing the Spanish genius may see into his soul, exposing the naked truth beyond the immaculate presentation?

Like Velásquez’s masterwork Las Meninas, this is a painting about seeing and being seen, about watching and reacting to power, and contemplating what this does to those involved. How should I be perceived? What message will this send out? Do I have it in me to do the unpleasant things this job demands?  How easily will this all slip away? Should I trust those around me, who must surely crave what I have craved my entire life?

Man in the mirror: Velásquez’s Las Meninas (1656)

Perception is the curse hanging over all powerful figures; paranoia the weakness that dehumanises them. Yet Velasquez’s picture finds its true 20th century equivalent not in Josef Stalin or Richard Nixon, or even in the work of Francis Bacon. Rather, it comes in the satanically dark cinematography of Gordon Willis in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather Part II

Sitting alone in the long, lonely shadow of so much spilt blood, the young Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) grips his chair, pondering the grisly necessities of his position with deathly vacant eyes; a  man haunted by the last murder he ordered, yet simultaneously relishing the next one.

“You can kill anybody”: Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II

“Too true to life,” said Innocent X when he saw Velásquez’s picture: a fitting tribute to the artist’s unerring psychological accuracy, plus a poignant admission that the more powerful some men become, the more like prisoners they feel. 

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphilj had ascended to the highest plane of power known to man. But this portrait suggests that when he reached the summit, he discovered his new kingdom was one of trepidation and loneliness, with only the thunderclouds of encroaching death to keep him company.  

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” wrote Thomas Gray in Elegy Written in a Church Courtyard.  Velásquez’s portrait is more than a flashy showcase for papal power, or an icy warning to its viewers that they must toe the line. 

It is an admission of universal human vulnerability; the sad truth that when you get more, you sometimes feel less. Above all, it’s a grim reminder that all authority is fragile, and no matter what our aspirations, whether as pope or pauper, we all end up in exactly the same place.   


Saturday, 13 July 2013

TraumaVision presents...The Atrocity Exhibition


Fifty years ago this November, a Dallas dressmaker recorded the twentieth century’s most infamous home movie. From his vantage point in Dealey Plaza, Abraham Zapruder used his 8mm Bell and Howell camera to record the moment an assassin’s bullet splintered John F. Kennedy’s head like a ripe coconut across the back of his presidential limousine.

The horror of the 26.6 second film screams at you still; part historical document, part nightmare (it was shot on Elm St, after all). For this wasn’t just amateur journalism, this was reportage that spawned fiction; an unintentional snuff movie inflaming a firestorm of conspiracy theories that have burned themselves into our psyche ever since.

Nightmare on Elm Street: Frame 372 of the Zapruder film

In his assassination epic JFK, Oliver Stone used the Zapruder film to ‘prove’ a coup d’etat. In the famous ‘back and to the left’ scene, he replays and dissects the footage obsessively, wallowing in the dispersing fragments of brain and skull, using the gruesome trajectory of Kennedy’s head to argue for a mythical second sniper.

But this is about more than ballistic science. ‘Back and to the left’ is the essence of JFK as a movie (and some would say Stone’s entire oeuvre), in the way it morbidly relives the trauma again and again to find some kind of coherence and meaning within the bloodshed, like a patient suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because what are conspiracy theories except the neurotic symptom of an over-stimulated society unable to deal with tragedy? Such national traumas have always been fertile territory for filmmakers, from DW Griffith romanticising racial oppression and the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of Nation, to the mythical poetics of Vietnam classics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter and the agent provocateur politics of Farenheit 9/11.

Counter-myth: The grassy knoll assassin in Oliver Stone's JFK

These films are not just revisionist histories. They’re traumas in themselves, cathartically dispelling or revelling in the events they portray. Stone admitted his intention behind JFK was to create ‘a counter-myth’ to the botched Warren Commission report, ingeniously blending fact, fiction, speculation and hyperkinetic visuals into a three-hour paranoid rant that’s as seductive as it is bogus. 

All these trauma films have a similar counter-mythic quality. How many Ku Klux Klan rides and helicopter sorties were performed to the euphoric strains of Wagner? Did any Vietcong actually play Russian Roulette with their captives? And was Baghdad really such a paradise before the missiles struck? Arrogant, pretentious and overblown, these scenes are also exceptional cinema, so well-made that they have the perverse effect of distancing us even further from what Colonel Kurtz called ‘the horror’.

Visionary violence: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now

The image consumes the event; it absorbs the latter and gives it back as consumer goods,” is how philosopher Jean Baudrillard described this pattern. In his essay The Spirit of Terrorism, he described the biggest of all national traumas, 9/11, as a fusion of “the two elements that fascinate 20th century masses: the white magic of movies and the black magic of terrorism... the spectacle of terrorism imposing the terrorism of spectacle.”

It’s an incendiary argument, but one that’s chillingly accurate about the way we voraciously consume images of distress in today’s society. 9/11’s ‘terrorism of spectacle’ achieved a kind of dramatic closure ten years later when President Obama watched the real-time execution of Osama Bin Laden. And who didn’t want to watch the action themselves, savouring the conclusion of this narrative arc as justice was meted out to the world’s most wanted man?


The more trauma is packaged like entertainment, the more palatable it becomes; napalm can really smell like victory. And by definition, aren’t we creating a dark appetite for the next trauma, so we can ghoulishly reanalyse it, Zapruder-style, in the theatre of cruelty that is 24-7 rolling news?    

“So far am I in blood that sin will pluck on sin,” said Richard III in Shakespeare’s play, itself a theatricalised reassessment of national upheaval. The pervasiveness and immediacy of media violence is making trauma junkies of us all, voyeurs who pluck obsessively on sin after sin in search of fresh sensation.


In the last half century it’s been smouldering napalm, hijacked death planes and bullets fired from a book depository. Tomorrow, who knows? But we do know the next projectiles will strike globally and instantaneously, thanks to the fibre optic cables and wireless connections of our digital age. 

Such technology has become a new kind of hypodermic needle, channelling an insidious flow of binary code into the bloodstream of our civilisation, leaving nothing in its wake except our grim desire for the next hit.  

This article originally appeared in the July-August edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema