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.