The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (2017)

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Went over to Islington with M on 15 October to watch a live screening of The Cabinet as part of this event series celebrating and reconstituting the church organ. Adam Wiltzie performing a live score with half an orchestra. The space is octagonal, with pews curved round like a lecture theatre; the musicians were not sunken but lit and raised onstage, with a huge projector screen above showing the film.

What immediately became apparent – perhaps unsurprisingly – is that the score would follow not the rhythms and tempos of the individual actions onscreen. Overall it wasn’t far from Stars/Winged Victory territory with the pacing and the interweaving of live and synthetic instruments across swooping peaks and troughs. What AW nailed was tracking the emotional progression of a scene or a section, which sounds like an unremarkably desirable analytical exercise, but it’s actually quite rare in my experience of silent film scores (Nosferatu was a particularly frustrating lowpoint). In this it was productively alternative to the almost Mr Bungle-style generic and instrumental handbrake turns of the colourised youtube version of The Cabinet that M and I watched originally.

The other overriding impression was that the score was in some way not illustrative of the film itself but of our reaction to the film. This is obviously connected to the notion that it tracked our emotions as we received the film rather than the film’s movements as it was broadcast to us. I think it’s also connected to the almost equivalent staging given to the orchestra and the film (the poster above suggests that the film was almost anonymously subordinate to the music, or the composer). Like watching the film with the musicians – I could see the conductor had a tiny screen in front of him that showed the film in sync with the projection, so that he could keep time without craning upwards.

With this effect, points of disjunction between the macro-arced music and the micro-moving visuals frequently became quite suggestive. I remember well the first appearance of Caligari, painted in both a Shakespearean artificial-dramatic sense and a very literal wardrobe one, glowering cross-eyed and painful. The music was near an ecstatic peak; it seemed to be marvelling at the capacity of humans for wordless expression, expressivity which seems simultaneously campy and sincerely sinister today after 97 years. The feeling that the film was reaching out to us across that century was enhanced by a sound that could only be standing alongside us, looking backwards.

The film is great and always has been, but I found myself concentrating more on the score (M and I left babbling at cross-purposes about the two aspects of the performance; she picked out moments of discontinuity from our previous viewing [convincing ourselves that Cesare really did strike down decisively at Jane in her bead {what a scene this is though, with the receding dress like ectoplasm}; noticing new resonances like the chalked X across Cesare’s sweater vs the crossed arms of Francis’ straightjacket]) Still, it was an amazing setting and an unforeseeably satisfying artistic combination.

M made me this framed Caligari printout for my birthday. It’s an original German poster. The figures look more like Gorey waifs than chiaroscuro clowns. The rippling typography gives it a kind of futurist feel, too, above the angularity of the big top and the leaning top-hats. I really like it but she was having none of it.

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Everywhere at the End of Time – Stage 3 (2017)

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: A First Reaction (I am not minded to spend my evenings typing as well, ok?)

With a drastic left turn, this is the first time the album artwork in this series has created a properly constructive link with the music. The form behind the shapes and mess has become almost indecipherable; your mind is drawn away from the base towards the gorgon coils and the daubed darkness. It’s teasing at the fringes of appreciation: the first track is a good example of this idea, with its briskly spinning but still tuneful strings swaying behind the sped-up blurting horns. The experience of believing that your reaction and enjoyment is as usual, struggling against too-tangible reminders of depreciation. Agree with the slightly snotty Norman review’s point about LK riffing on the almost cheeky continuity or similarity of Caretaker projects here – like a desperate clawing at the most solid memories (standards from An Empty Bliss bustle against riffs on previous EATEOT cuts until they become confusedly inseparable; titles like “Libet Delay” and “Aching cavern without lucidity”). There’s even some sickly self-similarity over onto the second side, including the final track, which goes down like a sinking titanic.

The A-side, at least, departs from the more lucid explorations of departure on Stage 2 (the excursions into nocturnal trepidation in particular). This is more cerebral, locked-in. There is a greater emphasis on noise and fuzz, particularly the illbient gramophone echoes towards the end of the first half: self-interrupting blass bluster like Ahnnu tones slipping out of their groove. Penultimate track on this side is a willy wonka hallucination of dangling bells, like B1 which shivers with unease beneath a dusty surface. Illbient is a particularly interesting and novel comparison here which brings up the sensation of the Caretaker as a sort of residually parallel hip-hop instrumental project (pulling chopped samples from the darker ages of jazz). Does create the sensation of intoxication rather than memory degradation at points.

Tracks like the last one on the first side and even B1 and B2 are quite straight-laced, departing from the narrative (but for B1’s hypnopompic abortive conclusion). Feel like I’m being outflanked, looking for consonance with the past where there perhaps isn’t any. B2 does revive the haunted ballroom with its piped, miasmic piano jaunts. The percussive skipping at the end was a real shock that segues perfectly into the wailing Gorey absences of B3 (a silent tap on the shoulder; the still-terrifying dream in Amour).

B6 is “An empty bliss beyond this World” which projects that project’s lullaby melodies through that thick, haunted-ballroom fog. Quietly ties in the cautionary luminescence from the beginning of the B-side, too; with some tumbling tones that sound like they’re from a xylophone or the mall at the end of Eyes Wide Shut after everyone’s left. The night-feverish “Libet Delay” constitutes the first real hit of poignance at the impending demise of the Caretaker project (making me realise that this had been lacking in the series’ actual music until now). This one’s emblematic, at least of the album that I expected.

Lacks the arc and structural conspicuousness of which made that instalment one of my highlights of this year. Despite a clear constructive strategy, it’s harder to see this as a standalone piece because of its context within the series (and the fact that it follows what I think are two more satisfyingly distinctive projects), but this is probably his most overtly personal release, and it features some of the standout textural explorations of this series in its forced intermixture of source and slippage. Typing is helping in my abandoned house on a Friday night.

Etched information in the central space after the grooves is almost illegibly small this time, like he’s goading us to play the B side first (an experiment for another day). You just have to remember that the later side is the one whose label’s grey shades can only be distinguished while they spin.

Probably the My Struggle: Book 4 of EATEOT.

7

Stockholm My Love (2016)

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Mark Cousins’ feature debut, I believe.

To reduce it to what I know: an awful lot of stuff in here about exile and witnessing. NC’s initial attitude is almost one childishness – she is “bunking off school” by neglecting to give a lecture on architecture, a confession she addresses to her father in these early scenes. She hides in the mist (and, childishly, behind her hair in some of the closeups) but I think the film attempts to convey not avoidance but self-scrutiny. The beginning of her story has its roots in her father’s experience as an immigrant and her own history growing up in a borrowed environment: “it’s as if I’m not allowed to be here.” The central trauma itself – the death of an old Swedish man on the bumper of her car exactly one year ago – is a living wound, “more here than here” – a paradox which simultaneously evokes preoccupation and relegates actual, contemporary lived experience, which elsewhere seems “distant” in all directions. Later, at the passage that perhaps forms the crux point about which her journey of self-absolution/acceptance pivots – a trip to an occluded woodland church – she relates the Bible’s story of real-life cities built to house accidental killers, residual like “refugees” in muted worlds.

Some interesting play with perspective. A full range from grainy, Inland Empire handycam to crystal slow-mos. I thought I’d nailed it when my general early impression of skateboard videos appeared to be validated by a visit to a park, but in retrospect this range puts me more in mind of upmarket vlogs, particularly Casey Neistadt’s. This makes sense given the blend of diaristic (essayistic) confessional and aleatoric hymn to the city, and it’s an approach that puts MC and his film right in the present, which keeps the experimentation feeling fresh. What is less fresh is the interplay between the narration and NC’s onscreen presence; her acting is extremely impassive (to some extent called for by her character’s emotional state) which makes it hard to connect her even to such an impassive script. There are a few moments where she briefly breaks into actual speech, which feel incongruous to a telling extent.

I did enjoy spending time with the city (which is listed as cast in the opening credits). There’s a good breadth between ambience (sometimes timelapse, at points interestingly [as above] aleatoric, where observed extras appear to be unwitting) and textural particularity. And a soothing, if not exactly unforeseeable, jog through the city’s history and the national character which is expressed in its persistent lines and regularity, its quiet social optimism and atmosphere of responsible freedom. It made me want to live there.

Distinctive but wobbly.

6

The Golden Notebook (1962)

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First time with Doris Lessing.

For the most part reads like it was written at a thousand miles an hour. Ideas and abstractions pressed through a filter of lived experience (although a central theme is the 20th Century inheritance of Dickensian “telescopic philanthropy;” Nikhil’s aversion to Levinas on the grounds that the most crucial modern ethical exchanges are conducted over massive geographical and experiential distances). Another theme is the dissolution of meaning within words, its porous packaging; this dealt with equally urgently through the wrangling with party communism and the conversational mannerisms detected with a hypersensitive diagnostic ear (occasionally cross-examined, as on RN 153 “the roles we play, the way we play parts”).

Despite the escalating and intoxicating focus on mental processes there’s a consistent eye for empirical beauty. Anna pictures her memories of “the smell of dust and the moonlight” above a friendly gesture and an “overgrateful response” as moments from a “slow-motion film.” (115) Foreshadows her later feverish dissociation and troubling capacity for schizoid self-observation, coming in the form of a projectionist replaying memories in a dream. Before this, on the downward slope – a pervert hovering nearby in the underground and by fruit stalls – she sinks into “the tart clean smell … [the] faintly hairy skins,” becomes “immune” to his gaze. (345) Experience as refuge. TGN‘s relationship to the everyday is dizzying and shocking: it’s narcotic but also a prison house. It is the everyday gothic, particularly and most acutely as a portrait of the single mother – the figure who, Saul insists, is hidden behind every locked English door – that needs to be dwelt on: it is dizzying and shocking (see 298, “the disease of women in our time”) It is a way of seeing and I want it to sink in.

A is devout in shirking self-dramatisation (135), continually checking herself (sometimes redacting herself) in a way which runs entirely counter to Knausgaard’s attempts to respect the weight of experience as it is experienced, while constantly lapsing into free writing. Two pages later she looks back on time “like beads on a string,” a “lazy memory”. Barthes’ codes; again this is undercut by the later examination of self-writing, the projectionist replaying select details to show her what she has missed. The first BN entry concludes:

I read this over today, for the first time since I wrote it. It’s full of nostalgia, every word loaded with it, although at the time I wrote it I thought I was being ‘objective’. Nostalgia for what? I don’t know. Because I’d rather die than have to live through any of that again. And the ‘Anna’ of that time is like an enemy, or like an old friend one has known too well and doesn’t want to see. (150)

TGN is not a book with crescendos (despite the protracted one at the end, I think), but one clear highlight is the end of the second section of the BN, with its heartbreaking revision of her experience (326). “I must pull myself together”.

Prologue stresses a) the central conceptual importance of splitting or disintegration, b) the formal importance of the intertwining diaries, the metafiction.

I see Ella, walking slowly about a big empty room, thinking, waiting. I, Anna, see Ella. Who is of course, Anna. But that is the point, for she is not. The moment I, Anna, write: Ella rings up Julia to announce, etc., then Ella floats away form me and becomes someone else. … (404)

I thought of Kathy Acker’s Devoured By Myths: “I wanted to explore the use of the word I, that’s the only thing I wanted to do. So I placed very direct autobiographical, just diary material, right next to fake diary material. I tried to figure out who I wasn’t.” See the nightmare on 229-30, the nightmare of identifying with the fiction.

Splitting, then: DL’s vision of the novel as “a function of the fragmented society” is ever more relevant. (75) Reportage and connection (this probably the most powerful literary statement – though it is central to the politics, as on 155). Self-division is seen as bleakly valuable in the context of constant disappointment, of “the great sin”:

It’s not a terrible thing … to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of doing something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. (242)

I read that one a few times. Of course the central accusation, Tommy’s suicide attempt – the reported trauma to rival the unspeakable one of Michael’s abandoning her – frames splitting as an accusation. (247)

Shelley’s Queen Mab in the hallucinatory flights.

I want to return; I want to psych myself up and read it all in two days.

9

Love Is The Devil (1998)

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First time with John Maybury. A study for a portrait as much of George Dyer as it is of Francis Bacon – which is great, because Dyer’s is a fascinating story. The film this put me most in mind of was Fox and His Friends: the complex antagonism of the bonds that bind the couple, against the gaps which divide them, stretches their mental states in painful directions until one of them really snaps. Keeping GD relatively centre-stage is appealing because it bolsters the comment that FB really didn’t acquit himself well personally in this period: their sadomasochistic dynamic is cruelly inverted away from the bedroom, with FB and his cabal of cackling grotesques bullying GD into dependency and internal destitution. FB describes the liberating ecstasy of entirely abdicating one’s will in the service of another man, but the tragedy of the bigger picture is that people can’t stay irreducibly small forever.

The film’s other strength is its refraction of GD’s mental decline through improvised Baconian imagery (the artist’s estate wouldn’t permit JM the use of any of his actual work). It suggests that Bacon was a feeder, witnessing his visions vicariously. GD’s haunting premonitions of abstracted destruction – a man hunched and bloodied all over with a handkerchief hat, slipping off a beam into darkness – evokes William Blake’s sketch of soul of a flea. Other ice-bath moments of second sight include a narcotically shot nightmare (awakening No!) and a shrinking into darkness which reminded me of Glazer’s effects in Under The Skin. I could have handled more of the feverish effects, either as A Field In England-style psychedelics or Jarman’s absurd vignettes.

Jacobi is uncanny, visually, as Bacon, and revels in a revolting Capote-esque haughtiness hammed up with affectations towards tragedy. Next to Craig’s gurning fits of convulsions his painterly reveries come off a bit Simon from Spaced at times. The highlight is a patiently shot morning routine, with toothpaste giving way to polish for hair and extensive make up, figuring Bacon’s self-fashioning as congruent with his art. His shakespearian interior monologues form intriguingly illustrative if sometimes opaque interludes.

Like Jarman it’s very visual, and the script is at times a little stiff. Not sure I was entirely happy with the accents on show either.

Great score from Ryuichi Sakamoto.

7

The Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

9

Dunkirk (2017)

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Christopher Nolan is getting better at writing beginnings. The hijacked aeroplane sequence is probably the best part of TDKR, while about 40 minutes in here I was expecting D to be his best film. Fionn Whitehead’s character provides a focal point for the tension between individual and mass, emerging out onto the beach which should represent a salvation but which actually proves to be a purgatorial nightmare (a French soldier had drily wished him luck on his way). There’s a chilling wordlessness to his character matched by the eerie perpendicular queues snaking towards the waves like a Gormley piece or like groynes permanently embedded to stop the sand drifting away down the coast. The first of the set-pieces – a mad rush to get a wounded soldier onboard a departing steamer – is a nail-biting high which also works some moral complexity into the predicament of the two central infantrymen (the ethics of saving another vs saving yourself).

This opening stretch is also the strongest on a new side of CN: mass movement. Really some Kurosawa-level observation, particularly with shifts in attention among the huddled soldiers on the mole, noticing the enemy fighter overhead in ones twos then all at once. I’d say, though, that the standout here is a moment of statuesque silence: a drifting destroyer with ranks of soldiers like plastic toys, crammed and staring faceless towards us from a distance. Adding to that sense of purgatory, there is something very deathly about these apparently salvaged men.

Thought about Priestley, reassuring himself that the pastoral Britain of the past was “the real truth” that would survive the temporary nightmare of the war. He also covered Dunkirk (from Paper 6):

On 5th June 1940 he told BBC radio audiences that the most “characteristically English” aspect of the rescue journey across the Channel was the role played, not by the navy’s standard machinery, but by “the little pleasure-steamers,” at which we’ve laughed “all our lives,” and onboard which we have seen “the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock.” The literal nostos [OED “a homecoming or homeward journey as a literary subject or topos”], the returning home of Epic heroes, is figured as a scene from childhood, an example of the strangely permanent banality of British holiday tradition overcoming the temporary chaos of the war.

Dunkirk is very obviously a “homecoming” for the stranded soldiers, from a British perspective, but Priestley figures it as achieved through a resurrection (a reapplication) of the “past” Britain which thereby conquers the nightmare. In D, the nightmare of Dunkirk – for at least the middle 50% of the film – is that it wasn’t a simple evacuation, rather an abortive and constant returning to the beach: FW’s infantryman is spewed back onshore after being capsized (he watches individual soldiers try and fail to escape on dinghies) while Cillian Murphy is taken back against his will after being rescued by Mark Rylance on a civilian mission, a physical analogy to his traumatised, shellshocked psychological condition. Of course D ends with Churchill’s famous reinvigorating speech, which stresses the reality that war is not linear but cyclical with the need for mass military redeployment. The sense of returning, of failure to escape, is particularly strong here though (it being an underlying theme that CN excavates and examines quite comprehensively) for the fear of failure: the Dunkirk story is so miraculous – in a way captured by CN’s film – that we still can’t quite believe it.

It’s interesting, therefore, that CN decided to neglect personal histories and instead embellish his own imagined scenarios: terrified young soldiers waiting for the incoming tide in a beached hull; a bomber pilot (the profligate and touchy son from the BBC’s War and Peace) trapped in a stuck and sinking cockpit; a lone Spitfire struggling to land in time on a French beach. As mentioned with CM’s physical shell-shock analogy, these predicaments are usually illustrative of broader experiences, as well as being paced and interwoven dextrously enough to contribute to the ever-mounting tension. Hans Zimmer does a lot of this leg-work, too, with one of his best scores: taut and swooping, held together by a near-constant ticking.

I’ve seen complaints about CN’s characters; D is certainly his least character-driven film. He has discussed this as an intended approach:

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? (Wiki)

I personally found their relative, often near-silent anonymity to be appealingly general for a topic apparently impossible to cover across its breadth of individual stories. Nevertheless, Mark Rylance is the standout as a principled and pragmatic civilian volunteer; CN is right to compare FW to a young Tom Courtenay (his expressive blankness is quite Long Distance Runner); and Harry Styles actually puts in a commendable shift as a panicked francophobic infantryman.

There are a handful of moments when that cyclical frying-pan-to-fire structure creates visual similarity, with the threat of drowning recurring particularly often, but these tend to emphasise the difficulty of escape rather than create any stale repetition. The only major problem I had with D was the patchy script. It was apparently CN’s shortest screenplay by about half; what we do get is usually engaging and often poignant but occasionally overly-romanticised and sometimes quite flat. D really works better as physical spectacle. There’s no shortage of marmite patriotic energy, especially in the final stretch, but while I don’t really go for marmite I think CN appreciates the story at its civilian rather than national level. D therefore should sidestep any accusations of coldness, despite being dependably technically amazing (see the dogfights and capsizing ships in particular). Haven’t seen Interstellar yet but I’d still confidently put him up with Cuarón at the front of the pack for contemporary western blockbusters.

8