Dark River (2018)

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unfortunately and eerily shortsided throughout. of the past 18 months’ creeping provincial dramas about familial trauma and the patriarchal structure of british farming communities, featuring maltreated dogs at the beginning and climaxes with shotguns in the rain, it’s the second best. but not by far.

there’s a great cut near the beginning from a flashback sequence at the waterfall, which introduces a sense of alice being separated from her past rather than rejoining it, to a shot of her silhouetted against a night skyline with a torch on the way home, which resembles bergman’s danse macabre. where the levelling showed a process of natural and moral exhumation, dark river shows how survivors can yet remain buried with their experiences.

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Red Road (2006)

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The film that slotted Arnold between Wheatley and Barnard in my trinity of today’s daring British filmmakers.

Interesting to go backwards to this after American Honey. The latter has pressure points of peril where Star inches through scenes of nauseating tension under the eyes or hands of quietly terrifying men. Red Road starts out as a drama of voyeurism, with the CCTV control room appearing both space-age and prefigurative of Black Mirror and NSA/GCHQ news.

Jackie’s journey out into the world at her fingertips is a sinking-in as if into quicksand; reminded me both of Scarlett Johansson’s excursions in Under the Skin and Jeanne Moreau’s slow spiral through Rome in La Notte, with the danger of the former crossing the psychogeographical dimensionality of the latter, the Red Road high rises looming Bradburyesque above bruised and battered Glasgow.

Interesting to watch after In The House: the filmmaker’s compulsion to ‘recreate’, re-stage influential traumas? (Jackie sees the human stories behind her screens) A desire to reach back into the past and correct course. That peril in American Honey is the quicksand that pulls Jackie in. The film becomes a lot braver, more physical, the kitchen sink a lot dirtier (Katie Dickie’s performance gains great depth here, too). There’s a sickening sense of parenthood in Jackie’s relationship to her situation, like she’s trying to undo some perverse birth. The denouement shows us the wan and cold world of the present day, the truths that have always been there.

Fund the arts.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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