Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Oppressiveness of a Place

The Stone Tape (1972 Peter Sadsy adapted from Nigel Kneale's play watch here.) is a British horror sci-fi hybrid television play, mostly studio shot. Sexism and racism abound and over the top, macho television acting of this era is hard to take seriously now it's been mocked so wonderfully in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. But, as is so often the experience of horror films we have to tolerate a certain amount of the truly dreadful to reach the true dread. I first saw The Stone Tape in Brighton in the amazing Cinemateque independent cinema.

A group of scientists have been housed in a haunted renovated Victorian mansion to research into new recording media. One of the scientists, Jane Asher, witnesses the ghost of a maid who walks up an old stair case but screams in horror when she reaches the top. This starts a Blue Peter style, ernest investigation by the scientists. Their hypothesis is that the actual Victorian stone has recorded a psychic resonance and the ghostly appearances are the stones playing it back. Or rather the recordings are activated by the human 'receiver', the playback is unmaterial and exists as physical or energetic matter in the stones which is only manifest at the register of perception. Sensory perception is the stage which is missed out. (A nod here perhaps to Gibson's projected idea about implants which would enable us to see virtual worlds. Experience via intraenus drip as it were.) Their final desired result is to find out how the stones record events, if they can do this they can produce the most outlandish and lucrative recording format ever to reach the modern shelves. If they can harbor this means of recording they can conquer the media market. Sadly, they manage to wipe this signal but Asher's character discovers another signal underneath, as she tries to discover its source she dies with terror. Also, consider Brainstorm (1983 Douglas Trumbull) where Christopher Walken's character discovers a means to record his experiences onto tape to play back to others via inventively called 'The Hat'. The highlight being the 'sex tape' which is made that kills a 'viewer' from sensory overload. In each instance the researchers go too far. The message seems to be that all too often humans push too hard and die as a result of 'playing god'. Any findings that do arise in the films are either coveted for the arms trade or for consumerism.

Video format warfare was rife in the early seventies, for years Britain had lagged behind Japan in video tape development. In 1969 Sony released the widely used broadcast U-matic format which is still just about being used as the cheap good quality duplication format in industry today. In someways the film touches on the anxiety of the 'black magic' ability of video to record. Its technology is not visible like film's, which respectfully and comfortingly records a frame of the scene in front of us. Film's materiality is stable and reassuring. Video was a shift from visible technology of film to the virtual and the unseen. Here the ghostly presence stands in for the haunted video tape, by finding a way to control it the researchers exert their power over the unseen. So effectively they are finding a way to create their own ghostly presence (in their data recordings) of a ghostly recording (i.e. the signal which the stones occasionally broadcast) which in turn is an image of a ghostly happening (the death of the original unlucky maid); recordings of recordings of recordings. But Jill (Asher) discovers another signal beneath the maid's screams. A more chilling and terrifying sound, that only she can hear.

But aside form all of this, what I find compelling about the film is the idea that a room could preserve the memory of a traumatic event in its very materiality. The Stone Tape story is a crude homage to the idea that a psychic resonance can remain in a place long after the angsty inhabitants have left. But what is the cause? Is the psychic resonance an actual psychic entity which can be recorded physically, or is a psychic resonance simply resurrected by the effect of its materiality: its architecture; location; the local weather; the visitor's knowledge of its history? In seventeenth century Church St in North London, near where I live, land was bought to build houses. The material for the bricks was gathered from the ground here and then bricks themselves were produced on this site. These bricks were then used for the buildings constructed on the land. Some traces of these walls are still evident. So here, people literally were surrounded by traces of past lives. Interestingly, the Stone Tape theory is a term used by paranormal investigators to describe the research into residual hauntings rather than beliefs on the actual metaphysical properties of stone.

But the remaining impression of the film is of the confused theories and the way you can't really work out what the scientists believe. If you unravel it then the final supposition is that the signal has recorded the memory of an entity some 7,000 years old. An entity which resided deep past excavations of excavations. An unnameable terrifying primordial force which once encountered kills the listener with shock. This serves as a metaphor for many concepts. But I think the film gives us the option not to think too much. It strives to find a shape for a force beyond rationalisation. I think it is effective in this. The green ghostly smokey shapes, choric growling merged with abstract electronic sounds and scifi red blobs are subtly rendered, and firmly nod to structuralist film. Asher is seen climbing to the top of the staircase, which we learn had no real function and was built as a folly. At the top as she tries to escape the source of terror she falls into a void. I refer you to my Winchester House post. There seems to be a history of people living in terror of 'the others'. The staircase reminds me of how Sarah Winchester may have built anomolous architectural spaces to fool the spirits of Native American Indians, killed by the Winchester rifle, who persecuted her. Asher then replaces the maid and her cries are 'played over and over again'.

Jane Asher also makes cakes. Her cake decorating book Party Cakes (1982) has uncanny pictures of her cake designs. Maybe its the scale of cakes which is not quite right as is the way often with amateur miniaturisation.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Secret Beyond The Door Fritz Lang 1948

Fritz Lang's The Secret Beyond The Door is a take on the Bluebeard story by Charles Parrault in fifteenth century France. Bluebeard married a young wife and forbade her to use the key he temptingly gives her to open a secret room in his mansion. Why have all his previous wives disappeared, why does she marry him at all knowing this? of course she unlocks the room and discovers BB's true identity, a knife wealding lady dismemberer: arms, legs and blood litter the room like a butchers. What's the fascination with testing a ladies instinct to be curious? The Bluebeard story seems to be saying that beyond 'curiosity got the cat' that a man has a right to his secrets and a lady better get used to that now - and resist the desire to interfere -- just get away woman SHOOO! Pah! what a load of old tripe. What the advocates of this kind of myth didn't realise was that ladies have MUCH better things to do with their time than snooping around. A n y w a y Lang's film is gem none the less. Dear Joan Bennett, how I love her, the leading lady here: Celia Barrett Lamphere. We see her many times throughout the grand era of the silver screen, my favourite is her invocation of head witch Madame Blanc in Argento's Suspiria. She falls in love while on holiday and doesn't really 'get to know' her beau until they get home. Not until her wedding reception does she get the guided tour of her new pad. She is mortified to realise that hubby's habit for collecting rooms is a bit dark. He likes to reconstruct the spaces where men have horribly killed their wives and questions whether the rooms themselves had caused the aberrant behaviour or the evil was always there in the vicious beasts. All very macabre - but this is also coupled with his odd psycho twitching when he smells lilac. Its not looking good girlfriend! But, putting her best foot forward she plays amateur psychoanalyst, a favourite late forties past-time. Unlock his secret she must and where better to start than with the room he has said she must never enter. She's smart and gets a cast of the key, breaks in and oh, oh dear - she wishes she hadn't because the room is a replica of her bedroom, she runs over to the window, pulls back the curtains - brick. You guess the rest - the films quite hard to get hold of so lobby your local arthouse cinema to show it. You can see a clip of it here.

Again this gives texture to my favourite quandry of whether architectural spaces can have a psychic resonance, a melancholia that leads to brooding. I can feel a Stone Tapes blog in the pipeline. I'm also intrigued by films whose spaces are both a metaphor for the psychic state of its inhabitants and the sites of their acting out of their traumas. Psychoanalysis and the whole development of the unconscious as a psychic place heralded the rethinking of criminology. The late forties dramas sit on the cusp of the essentialist moralistic noir era of the thirties and forties and the forward thinking modern psychological thrillers of the early fifties. Another example of how cultural forms, including theatre and film, become testing grounds for new social ways of being. Arguably, Joan Bennetts face carried us through this transition.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Bricklaying for Bergson

As I've noted in previous posts, the architectural uncanny is a metaphor and often the arena for intimate states in literature and film. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000, Pantheon) involves parallel narratives and arguably parallel universes. There are several realities that the book suggests. A young man, Johnny Truant, finds a study of a documentary written by Zampano, who is blind, in his new apartment. This film is the legendary work filmed by Will Navidson. He made the film under abstract and strange circumstances. As we learn about these circumstances we become closer to the psychology of the young man. There are also letters from Johnny's mother and transcripts of interviews by Karen Navidson, Will's wife. These different worlds are visualised by the use of the layout of text on he page. Text may appear in a square shape with footnotes, or a page may just contain a few words. the words and the relationship to the space of the page resonates with the way the people in the films are resonating with the architectural and psychological spaces they inhabit.

The content of the Navidson story documentary interests me most. The Navidsons move into a house, they are a married couple with young children. As they embark on DIY they realise the inside measurements of the house from furthest wall to furthest wall are not equal to the outside measurements, they are bigger. It seems that the house has started to grow. This idea is not new, but this is no tardis. The house has agency and grows at its own pace, the inhabitants, unlike our beloved doctor, have no control over this expansion. Oh how the Islington property developers would swoon! No need now to knock down treasured council estates. But this creeping growth, like a cancer is deeply disturbing and seems to reflect the couple's relationship more than effect it.

A door appears, a corridor starts to grow, a set of stairs leads down into a pitch black labyrinth. Navidson and his brother set out to explore, the tone of the documentary suggests a Scott like headstate, as he heads into the void. In moments of pressure couples writhe around in their own vomit. This surely is the privilege of intimacy, the ability to go there into the abject, to absorb this lack which is too full and suffocating, and to navigate back out together, sometimes with little more than the knowledge that together, neither will get lost or stuck their forever. A mutual acknowledgement of their own mess, and a restoring to order. Lovers are the ultimate horror film directors.

The book throws into question the reliability of any text which professes to be non-fiction. The psychological quandry Danielewski seems to be obsessed with is the idea of the endless mind, the endless perceptual shifting created by a psychotic hermeneutics, freefalling interpretation.

So far, I think the thread which connects all these spaces and the intimate relationships which they house is the idea of the ambiguity which must be at the heart of intimacy. Intimacy brings two people as close as possible, physically and mentally, we say 'I know him inside and out' but the truth is we never can, and even if we could by some feat of telepathy, our own internal voids pervade. The endlessness of interpretation, the never really knowing, the void, the unreliable narrator, paranoia, the space that isn't itself. If a relationship is about the space between two people then the knowledge that that space can never be measured or controlled can result in morbid ambiguity or a revelling in the instability of giving up control. Here the uncanny is the ambiguity of interpretation. More to come. Next up, Fritz Lang.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Gregor Schneider, German sculptor, inherited his family house in Reydt and this became the site of major reconfigurations and rebuilding. Visitors to the house or Haus u r spoke of rooms built within rooms, evidence of the false wall spilling out like guts for them to see. Or a glazed window that had a brick wall behind it for a view, or crawl spaces through which to get to another room. One room spun when you were inside it, delivering you to a different part of the house on your exit. I visited Totes Haus u r at the at the Venice Bienalle in 2001.For this he transported 150 tons of the Reydt house, 24 of the original rooms, brick, doors, frames, staircase and rebuilt a dwelling of sorts within the German Pavilion. Again in this space Schneider left the evidence of his DIY but this did not undercut the uncanny tension. What he created wasn’t just a mental puzzle, but this home was something more cloying and sinister. Visitors could go in groups of ten, signing in I felt a trepidation that I might not leave. The main trigger for this unease was the smell, old libraries, basement cupboards, garages, a stale inexplicable human odor. Fine touches like air holes bored into the doors of locked cupboards, both suggested old larders but also the site of Poe torture chamber. The decor, mostly white walls, red floors, basic furniture called up images of a soft room in a mental institution.

Schneider could have just finished the work by making these gestures of building and rebuilding. In this way it would be hard to see him as just artist, but more obsessive compulsive eccentric. But many gestures are the result of careful orchestration and the expectation of an audience. It’s a fun house with scares, reference to gothic literature and film and phantasmagoria sideshow. But not in a stylish way, more in a way that goes back to the idea of the obsessive compulsive persona at the heart of the activity. He is more like a teenage boy waiting for Mum and Dad to return from work, who might unknowingly turn there attention to the bucket of stagnant water under the kitchen sink, and be a bit freaked out by the prosthetic disembodied hand floating on the surface. This is picked up on in his work Die Familie Schneider, a work in Whitechapel London 2004 with Artangel.

More to follow

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Location, Location, Location

I'm thinking about the connection between the film Burnt Offerings
Dan Curtis 1976, The Mystery of Winchester House, Gregor Schneider, this blog's namesake House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielowski and one of my all time favourite films The Secret Beyond the Door Fritz Lang 1947. The architectural uncanny is well trodden ground and I am beginning to look for new pathways on this subject. So here goes.

In Burnt Offerings a house seems to feed on the psychological demise and breakdown of its inhabitants. Over time various families move in, go a bit mental and then leave in various states of disrepair. The house however seems to enjoy an entire renovation on their departure, exterior walls become blindingly bright again, roses bloom in the front garden, lawns glow.

Winchester House is the legacy left by Sarah Winchester, San Jose, 1840 - 1922. She married William Wirt Winchester in 1862, manufacturer of the famous Winchester rifle: 'The Gun That Won The West'. After her husband died she began work on her house, and didn't stop until she died. With her fortune, estimated at $20,ooo,ooo she built and rebuilt her small eight roomed Victorian house. 160 rooms remain, including 40 bedrooms and two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 window panes, 17 chimneys. Sarah valued her privacy, and there is no account of why she spent her life in this way. One theory is that she felt an immense sense of guilt for all the deaths caused by the Winchester gun, and that these spirits of the dead led her to build rooms to house them. It's believed she saw a medium after her husband's and her daughters death who said that their deaths were the revenge of the spirits of the American Indians and Civil War soldiers who had been killed with Winchester rifles and Sarah was next. To appease them she had to build them a house, and communicate with them for orders on how to build it. She built a seance room in the house and did practice Spiritualism, so this is not an impossible theory. The constant reconfigurations are thought to be a means to dupe and confuse bad spirits who haunted the house and by extension, Sarah. In the documentary, 'Mrs Winchester's House' (KPIX-TV, USA, 1960), Lilian Gish sums it up: 'Some of it can be explained in simple terms. Any building that is changed or constantly remodelled is bound to be odd; the short steps were to ease her arthritic legs; the passageways and doors that go nowhere are reminders of demolished wings or earthquake ruined doors. But try as one can, there is no explaining the size: the incredible sprawl of the hundreds of rooms, the miles of corridors, the unearthly quality of the the thousands of doors and windows and the rooms behind them. The real answer may be that most of Sarah died back in Newhaven, that day she buried her husband.' I like to think of her behaviour as a kind of OCDIY.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Moral Panics

Lots going on at present. I'm going to give a paper on the child witch panic in Nigeria at the Moral Panics conference at Brunel University in December 2010. this promises to be a great conference. The panel strands are :
• Environment & Risk
• War & Terror
• Lifestyle & Health
• Crime & Deviance
• Immigration & Security
• Economic Crisis & Political Scandal

I'll be presenting a paper entitled Witchcraft Children: Scapegoats and Scepticism I plan to address the moral panic about children accused of being witches in West Africa as well as discussing the difficulty of prosecuting the people who accuse these children.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cine Excess

Cine Excess is a cult film conference which is held in London every Spring. The conference includes screenings, panels and a Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. Last year Dario Argento was the guest of honour. I was lucky enough to ask him a question and was given a long, seductive response in Italian. I was shaking, I thought I was going to pass out - what a fan! My fellow delegates will remember that I did pass out and was hospitalised later after an allergic reaction to a food colouring in the cocktails I had necked - I'm never going to touch an 'Open Wound' again.

I've been involved for the last three years and have given two papers on Nigerian Evangelist cinema. African Horror-Trash: Recycling and Transmogrification was my offering for Cine Excess II and Unearthing Nollywood Filmmaking Practice was my contribution last year. This paper is being developed into a chapter for Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television edited by my Brunel colleagues Milly Thompson, Leon Hunt and Sharon Lockyer. This book will published by I. B Tauris next year. Last year, for the Corporeal Excess: Cult Bodies conference in May 2010 I wrote on the function of dance in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank.

Live Love and Give as Good as You Get, Body as Non Place in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.

In this paper I will look at the treatment of dance in Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank. I will argue that Fish Tank is far removed from other dance dramas that have a downtrodden teenager at the heart of them. These have been neatly placed in a subgenre ‘Dance Prole Dance’ mentioned in Owen Hatherley’s blog ‘Sit Down Man You’re a Bloody Tragedy’. He is referring to feel good films where dance functions as a means to redeem the working classes and lumpenproleteriat from their bleak existence, such as: Billy Elliot (dir Stephen Daldry 2000) The Full Monty (dir Peter Cattaneo 1997) and Flashdance (dir Adrina Lyn 1983). Specifically, they are liberated from the woes of unemployment due to the demise or instability of the material industries that previously supported them. Here ‘proles’, against all adversity, find a means for their self-expression that allows them a sense of worth usually reserved for the creative classes. In the Full Monty a group of men are disenfranchised as a result of closing steel works in Sheffield. In Flashdance, Alex, also a steel welder, seeks to ‘rise above’ her work as a physical labourer. Similarly, Billy Eliot is growing up in the middle of the 1984 Miner’s Strike and headed for unemployment if he stays in his fast changing area.

Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize 2009, Fish Tank tells the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis). She is fifteen and lives in an estate in Essex, near Tilbury. She lives with her younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and her Mum (Kierston Wareing). From the start, Mia is portrayed as a stropy and angry girl who thinks the world is against her. She is right; her best friend has dumped her and her Mum slaps her around. With only a move to a referral unit on the horizon, Mia takes solace in dance. She breaks into a flat on her estate with a bottle of Strongbow, her portable stereo and practices urban dance while looking out onto the bleak semi-rural landscape. Then Connor (Michael Fassbender) moves in, her Mum’s new boyfriend. He takes them all out into the countryside, shows interest in Mia’s dancing and encourages her to apply for a job as a dancer. He also lets her rehearse her dance moves in front of him. It seems that Connor will be the answer to all their troubles. He has a job, a car, and seems to care. The film ends with the family fragmenting. Arnold provides no happy ending. The exposition sets us up for another story about the poor dancer made good, but Mia’s fate turns out to be the opposite of Billy Elliot’s.

In Daldry’s film, Billy (Jamie Bell) is caught up in an argument between his father (Gary Lewis) and his middleclass dance tutor (Julie Walters). In one scene, Billy performs what has been called his ‘angry dance’ where Billy’s instinctual desire to dance erupts against his will, he’s just ‘gotta dance’. He dances along the tops of walls high on the brow of his street, claustrophobically lined with terraced houses. His manoeuvres are highly skilled, acrobatic and energised. Dance here is conveyed as something that can bring you closer to the gods. It is also a leveller, a means to express our ‘natural selves’. Billy enjoys a metaphysical union of body and music in a Dionysian ritual.

In Fish Tank, Arnold creates a detailed picture of how Mia reacts to her world. Dancing does not bring Mia closer to the gods or self-awareness. More, the film uses dancing to show just how far from this ideal she is. Mia’s awkward dancing is her outlet; she drinks, dances and lives out the Billy Elliot dream in her head. Mia watches videos of street dancers on You Tube in the internet cafĂ©, or studies R and B videos on a music channel on her television. She absorbs and then mirrors, her moves are an abstraction of gestures mimicked from the screen. At first the film seems to be setting the scene for a happy ending. Mia will get her dancing job, Connor will move in, the family unit and faith in humanity will be restored. But what is made clear is that although Mia does take her dancing seriously she is not a good dancer. She imagines she is dancing like the people in the videos but Arnold shows us that she actually isn’t. So in this way I would suggest that Mia is exposed as a simulacrum. Her dance steps are empty movements reduced to geometries. She expects her fate to be like Billy Elliot’s because she has seen that on the screen. But the narrative suggests her real world offers no hope, sentimentality is dispensed with in the events that ensue, Mia’s is a nihilistic landscape.

There is also another way Arnold treats physical experience in the film. Her cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s trademark is to use an extremely shallow depth of field. A thin sliver of focal depth will pick out surfaces for a brief moment. For example, when Mia breaks into a travellers’ yard she finds an old horse tied up. This is the horse which she later tries to free, obsessively returning despite warnings from the travellers and threats from their dog. We see just her hand in frame caressing the horse’s side, its skin shivers and focus is pulled to follow the movement. We see a similar treatment of sensual experiences throughout the film. When Mia falls asleep on her Mum’s bed, after being told to clear off while the adults party, Connor picks her up and takes her to her room. As he undresses her the action of the scene suggests he has an ambiguous motivation. Mia is on the edge of adulthood and his tender removal of her clothes is both fatherly and sexual. These motions are picked up in the shallow depth of field, while the rest of the image, subdued in colour, melts into a blur. Or when Connor asks her to smell his aftershave, the brief interaction unfolds in slow motion as she breaths in the fragrance on his neck. When he asks her what she thinks of it she brittles, and tells him it’s like ‘fox piss’. In these instances, Arnold is working with a visual language which suggests a burgeoning desire and the playing out of the rites of passage. But the narrative does not make for any romantic exploration of these themes. This trajectory begins but does not play out. More, the cinematographic language combined with the narrative content reinforces the opposite. Mia needs to touch to find the boundaries of herself by focusing on these sensual interactions. She explores with her fingers but just touches the surface. This touch is a fragment that soon passes. As if she has anterograde amnesia, Mia has physical experiences but these make no lasting impression. Portrayed as empty, she can only exist as surface. Arnold suggests that like the bleak landscape they live in these characters are shells, driven to move in a pattern of repetitive cycles - of touching, trusting for a moment and then going on the defensive, until they reach out to touch again.

This is reinforced by the pivotal scene when Mia shows Connor her dance routine she has made up for her audition. He shows her support, but his behaviour borders on flirting. Mia’s Mum is asleep upstairs and Mia and Connor sit in the curtainless living room; sodium yellow street light pouring in. Here, Mia’s dancing acts as a prop to explore the fascination Connor and Mia have for each other. It creates a reason for him to ask her to sit next to him and to subsequently initiate sex. As Mia shows him her routine the scene is loaded and amorality abounds. After this there is a sequence of physical exchanges. Connor leaves Mia’s Mum, Mia works out where Connor lives, she discovers that he lives with his daughter and wife; she abducts his child who nearly drowns due to Mia’s carelessness. After the child is returned, soaked to the skin, Connor hunts down Mia in his car, when he reaches her he slaps her. Here the characters are portrayed as animals acting out revenge and basic animal instincts. Again for no higher cause. Connor gets off and Mia is still a potential Jon Venables.

It could be argued that Arnold is just suggesting that there is a limited range of behaviours exhibited by the uncivilized working classes. But as I have suggested above, Arnold presents a more detailed shape in the character of Mia. More, the film is an unravelling of the ‘dance prole dance’ subgenre particularly the idea of the body as an ally. In the films I have mentioned before, the body assists the aspiring dancers on their road to success. Here, Mia’s body sometimes allows her to experience a glimmer of hope: the pleasure Connor offers her may have some substance, she feels like she is a good dancer, and maybe the people at her audition will think so too. But the classic ‘dance prole dance’ audition scene is turned on its head as the film draws to a close. We can see it coming, but Mia seemingly doesn’t. When she arrives at the try out, set in a seedy club, it is clear that the organisers are looking for ‘adult’ dancers. Mia finally recognizes that her dancing has a use value, but only as part of the sex trade. The hope promised by her hyperreal experience of dance videos shatters. In her past films, specifically Red Road, she provides an ending that undoes all the dark nihilism that precedes it. Thankfully this doesn’t happen in Fish Tank. However, at the end of the film Arnold provides an uncanny break with realism that while being unredemptive, conveys a certain warmth. When she is about to leave for Wales, Mia stands at the doorway of the living room and watches her Mum dancing to Nas’ ‘Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die.’ ‘Well fuck off then!’ her Mum offers. Mia goes up to her Mum and starts to dance with her, the younger sister joins in. For a moment they all dance to a routine, in time together. It is possible that Mia and her Mum may have danced together in the past and that this is an old routine, or one they both remember from a music video but appears to be unlikely. Hal Hartley films and Hollywood musicals come to mind during this dance sequence that is spontaneous but seems rehearsed at the same time. I would say here this scene hovers between realism and the symbolic. However, this scene intrigued me because while it is uplifting, it offers no sentimental confirmation of meaningfulness of existence. Mia’s fate remains the same. This little dance with her Mum does not undermine the depressing reality that preceded it. I would suggest that if we get any sense of redemption it is from this very break with realism. Here for a moment the family are transported to the reality of the musical - a place where dreams do come true. The family are for a moment let off the hook by a formal trick. Arnold doesn’t transport the family to dance heaven in the narrative (in that Mia doesn’t get a perfect dance career, she’s not a good dancer, and the family isn’t unified by her success), but she does transport them into an imaginary world for a moment with the form of the film (the world of Singing in the Rain or Flashdance). This does not come across as sentimental because the break creates an alienating distancing from realism. We are aware of the images as representation and construction and at the same time we are reminded of the vibrant illusion that cinema and television can create. With Fish Tank, Arnold seems to be joining in with a trend in the negative portrayal of the peripheries of cities, either in the exurbs or in the suburbs. She suggests that the people here live in a non place, a lifeless area with no jobs or anything to do, no ‘community’ or leisure centre. This place is a sprawl - edges are unclear, as dual-carriageway runs into estate blocks - runs into marshes -that turn into the Thames Estuary. Within this space her characters lose their own parameters of self and find themselves in cycles of trying to find their physical boundaries and then giving up hope again. It’s a bleak picture of their existence, but so perfectly executed that the bleak and the beautiful cross paths and repel and attract each other in equal measure.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Lost London: Explorations of a Dark Metropolis

In April Robin and I took part in a conference at Sheffield Hallam University 'Lost London: Explorations of a Dark Metropolis'. Academics and academic artists from the disciplines of architecture, literature and film met over a two day period. Iain Sinclair gave the keynote speech. It was a good couple of days, I especially liked paper on the way London had been used as locations for British Sci Fi TV by Jonathan Bridle (Sheffield Hallam University) '"Tunnel Visions": The London Underground in British Science Fiction Television' and talk on London cemeteries Gian Luca Amadei (University of Kent) '"Urban Burials”: Discovering the Role of Burial Grounds within the Planning for Twenty-First Century London’, oh yes - and Robin's paper/performance on London physical and psychic spaces which exist outside nomenclature: '"The Bike Cemetery": Ethics of Representation in Contested Territory'. I gave my film Empty Orchestra a first airing. This project, as many of you who know me will remember with a wry smile, is a labour of love that I've been tinkering away at for more years than I will ever admit - in between doing other things. The link to the film is here.

I Believe

Red Velvet Curtain Cult is a great initiative founded by lili Spain and Sarah Grainger-Jones. They have curated and performed in live art events in many wonderful locations, Whitechapel Gallery included (see my next blog for a write up of Voyeur which took place in Dec 2009) Earlier this year Robin and I took part in their event I Believe, Tales from the Edge of Everything. We knew we'd be performing at the De La Warr Pavilion the Modernist utopian pleasuredome. The DLWP website says it was: 'Commissioned by the 9th Earl De La Warr in 1935 and designed by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the De La Warr Pavilion was the UK‘s first public building built in the Modernist style.' After a traipse through dying town Bexhill, the site provides unexpected euphoria. Once past the unselfconscious charity shops and unconscious winos and care in the community fall out, you are confronted with an overwhelming expanse of sea and sky. The horizon is an anomaly to dried out London eyes. A brief period of aclimatisation and then you are fully ensconsed in the modernist vision.

We started thinking about work and since Rohmer's film I'd been fascinated by the Green Ray, although it was Jules Verne book of the same title that drew us in with his wide eyed tale of a magical green ray that might be seen on the horizon, just after the last moments of the sunset. So it is told, only faithful lovers can see the green ray. This led us to thinking about green lasers and rave culture and then on to Robin's idea that we should read out cut up rave anthem lyrics. In the final performance the insipid pronouncements of belief in Cher's 'Believe' or D:Ream's 'Things Can Only Get Better' are read out by a man and a woman holding green heart balloons.

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air

I know I can count on you

You can walk my path

You can wear my shoes

Cause I've had time to think it through

And maybe I'm too good for you, oh

And there's no turning back

I need time to move on

I need love to feel strong

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air

Things can only get better

Can only get, can only get

We didn't decide which lines we'd read out before, so we were surprised by the story which seemed to develop, then unravel. It was a conversation between a couple, the push pull of belief in the romantic ideal and the sheer domesticity of relationships. It was also a stream of consciousness, the plurality of lovers' speak, the mundane and the indecipherable. It was funny too, we both looked quite a pair, Dadaist Mike Leigh.

This was set against a spectacular backdrop, the architectural drama of the building and our own set up: a green rave laser and a hazer. Even on a small scale the green light was bright and compelling. We created a smoky, enchanted, dense space to speak into, and Robin had made an amazing soundtrack of a distorted trance track, footsteps in a club toilet, toilets flushing.

At the end of the performance we went up onto the roof of the the DLWP and let the balloons go. To me the metallic green balloon is an envious heart and the embodiment of spectacle. Also the child's lost balloon, after a moment of distraction the child lets go. Or it's a gift to the sky, the night and the void, an offering; an allusion to something beyond. But once the balloon has disappeared out of sight, we are left. Sea and sky and magical rays illuminate our lives, but in the end we just have our selves, our corporeality.

There's an interview with me and Robin about the piece in East Magazine

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology

I'm delighted to be contributing to The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology which is published by Strange Attractor Press and edited by Virginie Selavy editor of Electric Sheep Magazine. Electric Sheep is an online magazine which publishes articles on deviant cinema of all kinds. I have written an article called Carelessly Kept which closely analyses Helen Ukpabio's film End of the Wicked, a cult example of Nigerian Evangelist Cinema, with reference to belief in witchcraft. This title has two meanings for me: it points to the negligent and reckless way children who have been stigmatised as witches are treated in West Africa and also to a very everyday domestic way of being, which is seen to be threatened by those who believe that children can be witches. To expand, witchcraft believers think children can threaten them and cause them harm with the simplest of means. They can take an item from the home, a discarded shoe or a cotton bud left on the side of the sink and take this to their nightime underworld of the coven. This object can then be used to stand in for the owner, like follows like and by the laws of contagion an action performed on the object, burning, stabbing, can cause a related pain to the owner. This sinister reading is seen as the most likely reason for obejcts going missing, things not going to plan, unexplainable behaviour. This is the symptom of a moral panic about children believed to be witches and has led to brutal ritual abuse and abandonment of African children. More to follow.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

So Truly Real

Creepy doesn't touch the sides when it comes to these dolls. The manufacturers hawk them on the promise of 'An astounding new level of realism in a So Truly Real baby':

The slightly mottled, translucent look of a newborn's skin is achieved through skillful hand-painting. Hand-applied hair, whispy eyelashes, and tiny, handpainted fingernails and toenails complete the illusion of life.

One of the most eerie things about the dolls is that they come with their own hospital bracelet. I've still got mine somewhere, a tiny authenticating memento. An object which stands in for a whole period of time I will never remember, does it prove I'm real? What's the appeal of these dolls, their novelty? Do lonely women buy them as a hobby? A hobby which gets out of hand as they hope to catch a glimpse of their baby in their peripheral vision, where they can pretend for a moment that Cherish is quietly breathing away, warm and safe in the haven that's been created. The makers also supply 'Little Umi' first baby Orangutan in the L'il Bit of Lovin Collection. This one perhaps for those who don't want to invest in the fad of adopting alive Capuchin monkeys well fleshed out in the documentary My Monkey Baby (2009 dir Lynne Alleyway). In this series it appears that the monkey stands in for the child. God help anyone who refers to the monkey as a monkey. One couple is mortally offended when a cafe owner refuses to seat and serve them. This kind of reaction serves as a punctum to the illusion they have created. Little girl monkeys are dressed up and make-up and nail varnish is applied and become little girls who will never grow up and go to the prom. Or for that matter who will never come home pregnant, with a drug habit or with an unsuitable boyfriend in tow. The baby monkey encapsulates the fantasy of childhood. So there is a sadness and a safety in the owners' desire for these creatures. Here the monkey is at once a reminder of the uncontrolable and at the same time the picture of safety and buttoned down desire. This is a bizarre process of removal where monkey doll stands in for monkey real live pet/doll standing in for real live human. Our fantasies here are a sprawl.

Saturday, 16 January 2010


I saw Burn at the Berlin Bienale in 2005. It's by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Joley (2002 16mm 10 mins) The occupants of the house do nothing as the house burns around them. Its beautiful and makes me think of the Corman's Fall of the House of Usher, Argento's Inferno. I can't find anywhere to see the film online which is a shame.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A life cut short

Walking around Abney Park in the snow. The grave stones and monuments seen clearly now the leaves have died back. The white ground the same colour as the sky. I am drawn to the picture I took of a pair of broken columns. For many reasons I am put in mind of the symbology here: a life cut short. I think of people who died suddenly, without warning. Leaving behind those who will never meet them and only have a sense of them through other's memories. I think of the video I was shown recently of a cemetery in Haiti, a different way of honouring the dead. A chaotic maze of layered blocks, columns, claustrophobic streets, like a catacomb above ground. Tombs built up high and tottering, tiny spaces to squeeze in between and no sense of the edges. In a corner a set of bones and a shrine, black and smoky, a heavy lid pulled back and a pool of ritual water, a fathomless well. I wonder if the cemetery is still there in the form I saw it on the screen, or whether the mausoleums have crumbled, now a ruin for the dead. This is uncertain to me at present but I know for sure that in other areas people were trapped in rubble, some got out, others did not. Many have lost their homes and friends, family have gone.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010