Sundial and Mile End Purgatorio

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The Black Tower.

I ought to have devoted this post to The Black Tower (1987), John Smith’s short and sinister film which I linked to at the weekend. It was good to watch it again after seeing a TV screening (no doubt the only one) on the UK’s Channel 4 in 1988. It also reminded me of the two shorter films linked here, both of which were also shown on Channel 4 a few years later in Benjamin Woolley’s excellent Midnight Underground series. All three films are linked by their London locations and their different solutions to the perennial problem of the micro-budget filmmaker looking to make the most of limited resources.

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Sundial.

Smith’s film is the more substantial work, and of particular interest to those looking for examples of weird (or horror) cinema that avoids Hollywood cliches. The Black Tower combines static views of an unusual building with voiceover and sound effects to turn a mundane piece of architecture into a growing menace. Using a voiceover to craft a narrative from unrelated shots has always been a useful and flexible technique, especially if money is limited; Peter Greenaway did this with all of his early films, and it’s an approach also favoured by Patrick Keiller and Terrence Malick.

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Mile End Purgatorio.

Guy Sherwin uses the same technique for Mile End Purgatorio (1991), an East-End riff on Dante, Hamlet and the Bible, with words by Martin Doyle. William Raban’s Sundial (1993) has no voiceover but it follows The Black Tower in making the Canary Wharf tower the centre of its attention, the fixed point in the passing of a single day. Sherwin and Raban also show how much can be done with a single minute of film.

Dunsany’s highwaymen

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The Pledge.

As mentioned last week, the BFI’s DVD of Schalcken the Painter includes as extras two short films by other directors. Edward Abraham’s The Pit (1962) is an adaptation of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum which is creditable but lacks the sustained malevolence of Jan Svankmajer’s version. The second film is The Pledge (1981), a 21-minute adaptation by Digby Rumsey of The Highwaymen, a short story by Lord Dunsany. This is unusual for being one of the very few film adaptations of Dunsany, Rumsey being responsible for two others: Nature and Time (1976), and In the Twilight (1978). Since this is a low-budget work it’s no surprise that the story is a historical piece rather than one of the florid fantasies so beloved of HP Lovecraft. A trio of highwaymen decide to rescue the hanging body of their former comrade and inter it in a bishop’s tomb. (The bishop’s bones, they decide, can go in the earth.) The story is so slight it’s more of a curio than anything, and would probably be better seen along with with the other Dunsany adaptations. Of note is a typically jaunty score by Michael Nyman, while Nyman’s later collaborator, Peter Greenaway, assisted with the editing. If nothing else, Greenaway would have appreciated the film’s macabre nature.

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Illustration for The Highwaymen by Sidney Sime.

The original story appeared in Dunsany’s 1908 collection The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories. The Internet Archive has a scan of the entire book with illustrations from Sidney Sime’s prime period. The depiction of the scene at the gibbet is a lot more atmospheric than in the film but then that’s the advantage of the illustrator: there’s no need to worry about a budget.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Schalcken the Painter revisited
The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
Sidney Sime paintings
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
Sidney Sime and Lord Dunsany

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.

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A TV Dante by Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway

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More cult stuff from Ubuweb, you lucky people. Being a big Tom Phillips enthusiast I’ve been watching A TV Dante (1989) for years, having taped the one and only broadcast of the series. I also bought the accompanying booklet (below).

This ambitious program, produced by the award-winning film director Peter Greenaway and internationally-known artist Tom Phillips, brings to life the first eight cantos of Dante’s Inferno. Featuring a cast that includes Sir John Gielgud as Virgil, the cantos are not conventionally dramatized. Instead, the feeling of Dante’s poem is conveyed through juxtaposed imagery that conjures up a contemporary vision of hell, and its meaning is deciphered by eminent scholars in visual sidebars who interpret Dante’s metaphors and symbolism. This program makes Dante accessible to the MTV generation. Caution to viewers: program contains nudity. (8 segments, 11 minutes each)

Given the nature of the collaboration, this can’t be compared to many other TV productions. Greenaway wasn’t staging a drama, he was using the TV screen as a flat space like a moving painting, or a series of diagrams and connected symbol systems. The division of the screen has a parallel in some of Phillips’s paintings (and his artist’s book of the Inferno) and makes use of Phillips’s familiar stencil lettering. There are actors: as mentioned above, Sir John Gielgud took the role of Virgil, with Bob Peck as Dante and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Beatrice. And there are recurrent motifs: triangle, concentric circles, cardiograph displays, Muybridge animations and so on. “Footnotes” were provided by a company of experts who appear in small inset panels to comment on the text while it’s being read. Phillips himself is one of the principal commentators since it was his translation being used.

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Peter Greenaway’s feature films have never interested me very much, I prefer him when he’s doing things like this which probably explains why I like Prospero’s Books, his version of The Tempest; much of that film’s approach seems to have been developed from A TV Dante. It’s a shame that only eight of the Cantos were filmed in this way. There were plans to film all thirty four using other directors (with Greenaway to return at the end) but this endeavour took place at the end of the period when Channel 4 was still a haven for unusual arts projects. Regime change subsequently charted a course for the lowest common denominator. And with the two leading actors now dead it wouldn’t be possible to resume the project. In the end this doesn’t matter too much. What remains is an introduction to a perennially fascinating book and an example of how television could—if someone had the courage—ditch the clichés of drama documentary and try something genuinely new.

The official Tom Phillips website
The Tom Phillips blog

Previously on { feuilleton }
John Osborne’s Dorian Gray
20 Sites n Years revisited
The last circle of the Inferno
20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips

20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips

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Tom Phillips has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists and he’d certainly be my candidate for one of the world’s greatest living artists even though the world at large stubbornly refuses to agree with this opinion. Phillips’ problem (if we have to look for problems) would seem to be an excess of talent in an art world that doesn’t actually like people to be too talented at all (unless they’re dead geniuses like Picasso) and a lack of the vaunting ego that propels others into the spotlight.

Phillips is predominantly a painter but a restlessly experimental one. On my journey through the London galleries in May I visited the National Portrait Gallery, a rather dull place mostly filled with pictures of the rich and famous by the rich and famous. There were two Tom Phillips works on display in different rooms, inadvertently showing his artistic range: one, a fairly standard (if very finely detailed) portrait of Iris Murdoch, the other a computer screen showing a portrait of Susan Adele Greenfield which manifested as an endlessly-changing series of 169 processed drawings and video stills. One work was static and traditional, the other fluid, contemporary and completely unlike anything else in the building.

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