The Edge Is Where The Centre Is

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Design by Rob Carmichael.

“I am afflicted by images, by things that are seen, pictures of things. They are extraordinary, momentary, but they stay with me.” (David Rudkin, 1964)

“The pattern under the plough, the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment.” (Rob Young, Electric Eden)

Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, is one of the key films in the pantheon of what has been called The Old Weird Albion. A radical archaeology of Deep England, a work of dark pastoral, a praise-song to anarchistic transformation, as militant a rejection of imperial identity as Lindsay Anderson’s If…, it culminates with perhaps the most euphoric revelation in British cinema: “My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure!”

The Edge Is Where The Centre Is, the first book devoted to this visionary and never-commercially-released film, has at its heart a rare and far-ranging interview with Rudkin (b. 1936), a writer who for more than fifty years has, in the words of Gareth Evans, “charted a vast topology of viscerally-realised primary narratives for our troubled times”. It also features new essays by its editors — Gareth Evans, William Fowler and Sukhdev Sandhu – that explore the film’s status as a radical horror film, an experimental topography, a work that anticipates subsequent political debates about Englishness. (more)

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What could be more essential than a book (and poster) devoted to my No. 1 Cult Thing Of All Time? My copies are already on order. Even better, this is a publication from the same team—editor and designer—that produced The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale last year, a celebration of another British television dramatist that sent me on a full-scale re-viewing of Kneale’s major works.

There’s no need to enthuse about Penda’s Fen when I did all that four years ago but there’s a couple of points worth making in the light of this publication. The first is that it’s surprising that a wider reappraisal of Rudkin and Clarke’s film has lagged behind the resurrection of so many other British TV dramas, especially those that deal with rural horror, those that share a mythic resonance or impart an atmosphere of dread. Surprising because almost all the recent resurrections—the BBC ghost films (one of which was written by Rudkin), Robin Redbreast, The Children of the Stones, etc.—are primarily entertainments with little subtextual meat on their bones. That’s not to say that a subtext can’t be found if you apply the usual academic tools but Alan Garner’s adaptation of Red Shift is one of the few films of this school that has much going on under the surface.

Penda’s Fen doesn’t need a subtext when so much of its polemic is out in the open. It’s one of the most interesting of these films in being so directly political on several levels at once, even when it’s also being directly metaphysical: a call for disobedience and nonconformity on a sexual as well as a social level that (unlike Ken Loach et al) manages to generate a succession of indelible images.

This leads to the second point, the comparison made above to Lindsay’s Anderson’s If…. The similarity between the two films has always been unavoidable for me when If…. is another film that sits at the top of the cult list (see this post). Both films share a rejection of school and society, and also share an approach to sexuality that was very unusual for the late 60s/early 70s. The difference between the two films lies in their conclusions: If…. ends with riot and massacre, and while this may be a cathartic moment Lindsay Anderson wrote in the published script: “It doesn’t look to me as though Mick can win. The world rallies as it always will, and brings its overwhelming firepower to bear on the man who says ‘No.'” By contrast, Stephen in Penda’s Fen defeats his mental demons. If the final shot is of him walking down the hill into darkness we can at least feel he’s on his way to a better life. “Cherish the flame.”

The Edge Is Where The Centre Is is limited to only 200 copies so if you’d like a copy I’d suggest you place you order now.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Afore Night Come by David Rudkin
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
If….
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Enter the Void

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It’s taken me a while to see this but the long search for a genuinely psychedelic feature film is over. That’s genuinely psychedelic not in the debased sense of a handful of garish or trippy visuals, but in the full-spectrum expanded-consciousness sense for which Humphrey Osmond invented the term in 1956:

I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents [psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, etc] under discussion: a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision. My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind-manifesting.

Other films have given us flashes of this kind of unfiltered experience—Chas’s mushroom trip in Performance (1970), for example—or attempted to relay LSD states through Hollywood conventions: The Trip (1967) and Altered States (1980). Then there are inadvertently psychedelic moments such as the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Some of the most successful works from a psychedelic perspective have almost always been abstract, micro-budget films such as those made by James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Ira Cohen and others. But until very recently no one had attempted to combine the narrative-free intensity of abstract cinema with a film narrative that would warrant placing psychedelic experience at the heart of the story. I was hoping A Scanner Darkly (2006) might do it but, good as it was, it didn’t really get there. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void is the film that gets everything right.

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Linda and Oscar.

The narrative is a simple one (Noé calls his story a “psychedelic melodrama”): Oscar, a young American drug-dealer living in Tokyo smokes DMT, trips out for a while then goes to exchange some goods with a customer in a small club called The Void. While there he’s shot and killed in a police raid. His disembodied consciousness leaves his body and for the next two hours wanders the streets and buildings following his beloved sister, Linda, and his friends while they cope with the aftermath. Later on he starts to re-experience memorable (and traumatic) moments from his life. The Big Signifying Text in all of this is introduced in the opening scene: The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oscar hasn’t read much of it so his friend Alex quickly relates (for the benefit of the audience) how the book describes what happens to the soul between the moment of death and rebirth into a fresh human body. A few minutes later we’re with Oscar experiencing this very process in dizzying, miraculously-filmed detail. Flicking through my own copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (OUP, 1960) one paragraph in the introduction had particular relevance:

The deceased human being becomes the sole spectator of a marvellous panorama of hallucinatory visions; each seed of thought in his consciousness-content karmically revives; and he, like a wonder-struck child watching moving pictures cast upon a screen, looks on, unaware, unless previously an adept in yoga, of the non-reality of what he sees dawn and set.

WY Evans-Wentz

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This is your brain on drugs: the DMT trip.

Continue reading “Enter the Void”