Archive for category Film
In 1956, Alain Resnais created a 20-minute long film entitled Toute la Mémoire du Monde (All the World's Memory) that beautifully mixes documentary information with a fictitious style of filming and editing. What I just wrote is however symptomatic of a prejudice according to which documentary should tend towards objectivity in an attempt to capture the "truth" of what they are filming.
Intensely fascinating or tedious twaddle. Given my propensity for enigmatic French nouveaux romans and their cinematic equivalents you can guess which side I come down on.
Visually it is stunning, in a chilly way. The ornate mirrors and labyrinthine corridors, that extraordinary garden, the statues, Delphine Seyrig herself. The music is intense and overpowering, the acting stylised and static. The setting is a hotel, or a spa, possibly, but not certainly, in Marienbad. They – X and A - met here last year, or have never met before.
Alain Robbe Grillet, who wrote the screen play, describes the film thus:
The whole film … is the story of a persuading: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words. And if his persistence, his secret conviction, finally prevail, they do so among a perfect labyrinth of false trains, variants, failures and repetitions. … In this sealed, stifling world, men and things alike seem victims of some spell, as in the kind of dreams where one feels guided by some fatal inevitability, where it would be as futile to try to change the slightest detail as to run away. (Introduction to the screenplay, p. 9)
This is very much in keeping with the Robbe-Grillet manifesto. For him the text is the world, not a description of the world. The notion of a novel or a film having ‘something to say’ is profoundly boring:
When a novelist has ‘something to say’ they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. … They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this’. (Paris Review, spring 86, no. 99, interview with Shusha Guppy)
However, the director of the film is Alain Resnais, whose films have plenty to say. In Night and Fog he worked with the poet Jean Cayrol, whose powerful closing words, a call to awareness, would seem to be the antithesis of Robbe-Grillet’s approach. He fuses memory and imagination, and in the labyrinth of barbed wire, searches for and confronts the Minotaur, the monster, hiding in its heart. Hiroshima mon amour deals with the viewer’s reaction – ‘some of us see nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing. Others see everything. Everything. That is the point’. A whole sequence of films deal with trauma and memory and whilst others may seem more directly to address political or ethical concerns, Last Year at Marienbad does see ‘some of the concerns and tropes of Resnais’ earlier engagements with trauma, pain and death return … in various transposed forms.’ (Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, p. 85).
Perhaps the tension between the two Alains is at the heart of Marienbad’s enigmatic power. The viewer is invited by Robbe-Grillet to let themselves be carried along by the extraordinary images, the voices of the actors, the soundtrack, the music, the rhythm of the cutting, the passion of the characters, and describes it as a film ‘addressed exclusively to his sensibility’ rather than turning to ‘clumsy systems of interpretation which machine-made fiction or films grind out for him ad nauseam’ (Robbe-Grillet, p. 13). However, whilst it is certainly possible to be swept along by the the film in the way he recommends, it is almost impossible not to start trying to solve the puzzle. After all, a repeated motif in the film is that of games, and the winning of games, and the game of interpretation is too tempting to resist. And Resnais himself summarises the film with a question – ‘qui a raison?’. For Resnais, the protagonists in his films are real beings. They have their own lives, ‘latent, mysterious’ (Kline, p. 86). But realism doesn’t exclude ambiguity – what Deleuze calls a cinema of undecidability.
It’s difficult, knowing how far apart the writer and director were in their conception of the film (despite some of Robbe-Grillet’s statements on the subject), not to read the film in the light of this. When the images on screen often contradict the usually authoritative sounding voice-over, perhaps what we are seeing is Resnais asserting his vision of the film against the screenplay, which was so minutely detailed as to seemingly leave Resnais little room to manoeuvre, intruding on his territory with instructions on camera movement, lighting, etc. Robbe-Grillet describes the film as ‘in fact the story of a communication between two people … one making a suggestion, the other resisting, and the two finally united , as if that was how it had always been.’ However, Resnais has introduced into that narrative ambiguity that would seem to undermine that clear resolution. We do not see X and A leave the hotel at all, let alone together. They seem to meet, at the appointed hour, without speaking to each other, barely looking at each other, and walk very slowly and stiffly away from the lobby and out of view. Neither has any luggage though the voice-over has told us previously that she ‘packed a few things’. And if they do leave the hotel, it is only to get lost, forever, in the garden, alone or together.
The two Alains did not work, strictly speaking, together (ARG wrote the screenplay with minimal intervention from AR, and AR did the filming without intervention from ARG), and do not see the film in the same way. One intriguing sidelight on this is that AR used a recording of ARG reading his screenplay to guide the male actors. But not Delphine Seyrig. ARG himself has said that Resnais is A (Seyrig’s character). Certainly, there would seem to be a link between A and Elle (the woman in Hiroshima mon amour), both appearing to be traumatised, repressing memories.
X speaks in imperatives – Come here. Come closer. Follow me. Listen to me. Remember. I’ve come to take you away. You know …. that we are going to leave. A pleads, denies – No, it’s impossible. No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t know what happened then. No! You’re making it up. I don’t know you. No, it’s too far… Please. Let me alone… please… For pity’s sake! He is insistent – possibly to the point of rape. She seems traumatised, fearful. Her pose is characteristically with one arm across her body, her hand on her shoulder – a defensive posture, which at moments is almost cowering.
He asserts his memories, but increasingly doubts them, questions his own recollection – ‘no, that can’t be right’.
Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay calls for a scene where A is raped by X. Resnais refused to film this. The rape is suggested in X’s voice over – ‘I took you, half by force’, and then denied – ‘Probably it wasn’t by force’, but without complete conviction. He is trying to persuade himself as much as her here, that he did not use force. The question hangs in the air. Certainly he is forceful and she is afraid. She keeps her distance, ‘as if on the threshold, as if at the entrance to a place that was too dark, or too strange …’ She seems to show the classic symptoms of trauma, the continual reliving of the wounding experience.
So, how do we interpret this strange film? Are they all in fact dead, and the hotel is a sort of ante-room to the afterlife? Is the hotel peopled by automata, and X alone has autonomy, memory, and perspective? Does he have to seize the moment when the automata are able to move, to betwitch A into life, identifying/creating a past for her? Or is X aware of his status as a character in a film, imprisoned in the screenplay? Thus he starts to direct A, rather than merely describing things to her. He rejects one scenario (where she is shot) as ‘not the right ending’. Paradoxically, as Luc Lagier says in his documentary, we have a film that is closed in upon itself, but open to a seemingly infinite number of interpretations.
My own particular interests focus on trauma and memory, on the labyrinth which is such a powerful motif in the films and novels of the postwar period (Resnais’s labyrinths of barbed wire in Night & Fog, or the corridors of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Toute la memoire du monde; Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth amongst other works, and of course Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps…), and on W G Sebald’s engagement with the film, and the place, in Austerlitz, and in his poetry. In ‘The Year Before Last’ he writes:
The match game
was meant to decide everything.
The gleaming parquet floor
stretched before us. All round us
were mirrors, guests, motionless -
and in the middle you
in your feather boa. Hadn’t
we met once before?
In a taxus maze?
On a stage? The perspectival
prospect, pruned hedges,
little round trees and balustrades,
the palace in the background?
So, having been tinkering with this blog post for months already, I am pretty certain I’m not yet in a position to leave Marienbad. Bleston, all over again.
Tess Jaray, A ‘Mystery and a Confession’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn/Winter, 2002/3), 137-9
T Jefferson Kline, Screening the Text (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)
Luc Lagier, ‘Dans le labyrinthe de Marienbad’ (documentary featured on Marienbad DVD)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, interviewed by Shusha Guppy, Paris Review, 99 (spring 1986)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, trans. Richard Howard, Last Year at Marienbad: a cine novel (London: John Calder, 1962)
W. G. Sebald and Michael Hamburger, ‘A Final Poem: Marienbad Elegy’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn-Winter, 2002/3), 125-32
Freddy Sweet, The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais (UMI Research Press, 1981)
Emma Williams, Alain Resnais (Manchester UP, 2006)
2012, for me, has been the year of the blog. The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced. I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude. And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views. On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and Diane Magras. To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!
The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out. But my own experience has been entirely positive. Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff. I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew. This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.
So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:
- John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
- Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
- TV : Homeland - plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen. Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics. Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising. The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!). Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
- I’ve been reading Proust. A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond. I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described. There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough. I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
- New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
- First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of – Hans Fallada, Alexander Baron, Haruki Murakami and Wilkie Collins.
- Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak House, but I need not have worried. Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
- Theatre - Geoffrey Streatfeild in both Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
- Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green. Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
- Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.
2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally. The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk. And that justice seems finally to be within reach now. Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.
And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life. The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning. We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.
So – onward to 2013.
No resolutions as such. But anticipations and aspirations -
- Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
- Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
- Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff. Lots and lots.
- Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
- Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
- Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
- Continuing to be an utter geek
- Listening to as much music as possible, with as eclectic a range as possible
- Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
- Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing. Going on and on.
- Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend
Phew! No pressure then.
Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits. Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.
There’s a perception that we’ve been flooded with cinematic treatments of the Nazi Occupation of France in the decades since it ended. There have been a fair few, it’s true, but what’s interesting is the way in which those treatments have changed over the years.
At the Liberation, the notion of France as a nation of resisters was a vital part of de Gaulle’s strategy to unify a country perilously close to civil war. Of course, there was a purge – women who’d collaborated horizontally were publicly shamed, and there were trials, and some executions. But a surprisingly large number of those who were complicit in the implementation of Nazi race laws and in the deportations ended up in positions of responsibility in post-war France.
All of this has been talked about a great deal, it’s true, and one might think that it’s all been said, that everyone knows now who was complicit, and how and why, as well as who did resist. But fictional and cinematic treatments of the era have gone through different phases, each adding a layer of complexity and richness to our understanding.
The most recent films to contribute to this process have been two about the Vel d’Hiv round up (The Round up, and Sarah’s Key), and two focusing on particular clusters of resistance activity. I’ll come back to the Vel d’Hiv in a future blog.
What’s particularly striking about the two recent films about the French Resistance is that in these cases, the resistance was not, strictly speaking, French. Robert Guediguian’s Army of Crime starts with a roll call of names, each one followed by the words ‘mort pour la France’. The names are Armenian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, some are difficult to pronounce, and the speaker stumbles for a moment, and goes on. We see them on their way to imprisonment, ‘trial’ and execution and then we go back to see how they became martyrs for a country to which they did not belong.
But the Army of Crime – so called after the Nazi poster which aimed to alienate the populace from the resisters by emphasising their criminal acts and their foreign origins – was made up of people who had very little to lose. From the start of the Occupation, as Jews, and/or Communists, many of them refugees from parts of Europe which had fallen earlier to the Nazis, or from other persecutions, they knew they were targets. Some of them joined the armed struggle due to some personal confrontation, others after their families were swept up in the round ups and deported. They fought and died for an idea of France, the France that they had seen as a refuge, even whilst that idea was being betrayed, as they were.
For the resisters in the new film, Free Men, it really wasn’t their war. As Moslems they risked being rounded up only if they were mistaken for Jews and could not prove otherwise, or if they were involved in communist workers groups. But the Paris Mosque was a place of refuge both for Moslems who were involved in the resistance, and for Jews. The scale of this activity is not known – estimates vary wildly – but it seems clear that the head of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, instigated and supported the production of false papers for Jews, and the use of the building itself as a hiding place, whilst maintaining outwardly amicable relations with the authorities.
It’s a story that’s even less known than that of Missak Manouchian’s Army of Crime. After all, the Nazis publicised the latter rather effectively with the poster – which far from having the effect they intended, became a focus for solidarity and protest. The clandestine publication Lettres Francaises reported in March 1944 how the ten images on the blood-red background attracted a silent crowd:
‘At length, and solemnly they saluted dead friends. In their eyes there was no morbid curiosity, just admiration, sympathy, as if they were our own. And in fact they were our own, because they were fighting alongside thousands of us for our country, because it is also the home of liberty. On one of the posters, over night, someone had written in capital letters a single word: Martyrs. That is the homage of Paris to those who’ve fought for freedom’
Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard wrote poems about L’Affiche Rouge, and there were earlier films, though one screenplay was rejected on the grounds that these foreigners gave the wrong image of the Resistance.
Free Men isn’t the only film to tell the story of the Moslem resistance – Mohamed Fekrane’s Ensemble came out this year too, though it hasn’t reached the UK yet.
Army of Crime had a very powerful resonance in the context of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee rhetoric that is spewed out by sections of the press here and across Europe, as does the story of Moslems risking their lives to save Jewish lives. These young men from North Africa are the brothers of the Allied soldiers in Days of Glory, which told of their part in the liberation of France, and their betrayal after the war by the French government.
If Free Men had less emotional heft than Army of Crime, it’s not down to the story. It’s to do with the leading character. Manouchian and his group were from the start politically engaged, passionately committed to the struggle, with a sense of the wider European context – the Armenian genocide, the Spanish civil war. They’re articulate and charismatic. Younes at the start is a black marketeer, willing to spy (rather ineptly) on the activities at the Mosque in exchange for an official blind eye being turned to his business dealings. He’s nudged unwillingly into the resistance by his cousin, who’s already actively involved, and by his realisation of the danger faced by his friend Salim, a Jew passing as a Moslem. Little by little, he’s drawn in until he is risking his life for the cause. The problem is that as a focal point for the narrative he is somehow a bit blank, passive, lacking in real depth.
He reminded me, in fact, of Lucien – Lacombe, Lucien. Louis Malle’s ‘hero’ is an accidental collaborator – a combination of pure chance and his own naivety and vanity put him in a position where he can bring down local members of the Resistance which had rejected his bid for membership. He’s an ambivalent and ambiguous character, and his portrayal has been controversial, because Malle refused to resolve the ambiguities. When Lucien shoots a German soldier and escapes with his Jewish girlfriend, did he do so to save her from deportation, or because the German had taken something he regarded as his? If Younes had not been so powerfully drawn to Salim, would he have allowed himself to be drawn into the Resistance?
Lacombe Lucien is a powerful film because of this opacity, which prevents us from taking refuge in simplistic polarities. Malle’s film, which appeared in 1974, not long after Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, opened up the possibility of more complex narratives of the Occupation. In Free Men the really interesting characters – Salim, Leila and the Imam himself – are sketched in as we focus on Younes, who we barely know better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning.
Nonetheless, it’s a gripping film, a story that needs to be told. We’ve moved since the Liberation from the Gaullist myth of the inextinguishable flame, through the exposure of collaboration and complicity, towards a celebration of the real rich diversity of that struggle against barbarism.
G. Austin, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction (Manchester U.P., 1996)
H. Frey, Louis Malle (Manchester U.P., 2004)
R. J. Golsan, Vichy’s Afterlife (Nebraska U.P., 2000)
N. Greene, Landscapes of Loss (Princeton U.P., 1999)
L. D. Hewitt, Remembering the Occupation in French Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
A. Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (Cambridge U.P., 1989)
P. Jankowski, ‘In Defense of Fiction: Resistance, Collaboration and Lacombe, Lucien’, Jnl of Modern History, 63, 3 (1991), 457-82
P. Kael, ‘Lacombe Lucien’, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/416-lacombe-lucien
S. Lindeperg, Les écrans de l’ombre (CNRS, 1997)
C. Nettelbeck, ‘Getting the Story Right: Narratives of World War II in Post-1968 France’ , Jnal of European Studies, 15 (1985), 77-116
C. Nettelbeck (ed), War and Identity: The French and the Second World War (Routledge, 1987)
A. Rayski, L’Affiche Rouge (Mairie de Paris, 2004)
H. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Harvard U.P., 1991)
- Free Men – review (guardian.co.uk)
- New film highlights remarkable story of Paris mosque director who saved hundreds of Jews from Nazis (timesofisrael.com)
I first heard about this film when it featured in Sheffield’s DocFest programme last year, but didn’t manage to see it, and have been looking out for it ever since. So much about that brief blurb rang bells for me. John Akomfrah himself is a Ghanaian, born in 1957, so the same age as Ghana (and as me). The theme, migration, is one that fascinates me, and in particular the response of my home country to the people who’ve arrived on its doorstep from all over the world, those who’ve been invited, those who’ve come here in hope, those who’ve come here in desperation. And I love the idea of exploring this through words, sounds and images drawn from sources as diverse as those people.
The images are powerful and beautiful, whether they are of wintry Alaskan landscapes (‘a cold coming they had of it’) or of Ugandan Asians stepping off the plane, of solitary anonymous figures dressed in primary colours against the whites and greys of winter, or in black against the urban industrial or dockland settings. The words, though often familiar (from Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer) are thrown into an unfamiliar light by being set against these images, and against the soundtrack which blends industrial sounds with music from Purcell to Part to Bollywood soundtracks. This intertextuality and interweaving creates ambiguities, jarring juxtapositions and unexpected contextualisations. As the Guardian review commented,
it suggests that stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms. In doing so, it invites viewers to reflect on the labels by which history – especially diasporic history – is framed and categorised.”It’s important to read images in the archive for their ambiguity and open-endedness,” Akomfrah argues.
John Akomfrah says (in an interview with Sound and Music):
I thought often whilst watching the shots from the 60s of an earlier migrant, Horace Buck, from Michel Butor’s Passing Time. Horace is an African in Bleston (Manchester) in the early 50s, isolated from what would seem to be his fellows because they are mostly from Sierra Leone, and he is not (we do not find out where, his story starts as he arrives in England, just as that of his French counterpart does). Horace and Jacques are drawn together because both are isolated exiles, and Horace’s bitter, sardonic, smoky laugh punctuates the narrative, as he introduces Jacques to the bars and arcades that he frequents, where his money is welcome but he is not. He is a generous man, insistent on offering Jacques his hospitality, and even securing lodgings for him, but his generosity and dignity are constantly met with rebuffs. The landlady he finds for Jacques can’t know that he was involved as she regards all of his kind as ‘black devils’. Jacques’ friends are at best uneasy and at worst openly horrified at their association. Horace finds solace in the arms of a succession of English girls and in the music of his harmonica, and, possibly, revenge in minor acts of arson. There’s no polemic here, no overt social commentary (less so than in Butor’s later work on the USA, Mobile, where he uses the texts of treaties with the Native Americans, amongst other found sources, or in his collaboration with composer Henri Pousseur, which uses protest songs). Here too, as in Akomfrah’s film, the story of this exile trudging the streets of a dismal city, is intercut with mythic narratives, of Theseus and the Minotaur, of Cain and his brother, of Oedipus and his father.
So many of Akomfrah’s images are in my mind now. The empty icy landscapes and the faces, hopeful, anxious, resigned. The voices too – patrician tones reciting Shakespeare – ‘this sceptred isle’ – Leontyne Price and Paul Robeson, a West Indian migrant speaking of the gulf between the paradise he hoped for and the reality he encountered. Polyphony.
Trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xegOksDquyo
In response to Stuart Heritage’s article in this week’s Guardian Guide, I have no intention of defending the indefensible (i.e. Twilight). And I haven’t yet seen the first episodes of the new series of True Blood, The Walking Dead, or Being Human – Heritage may, for all I know, be right that all of these have exhausted whatever value they had. However … I do rather mind being stereotyped by my love of these shows. For the record, I do occasionally wear a black t-shirt, but I do not practice witchcraft, do not have either a cat or a Tumblr site (que?) and if I did I would neither dress one as a butler nor call the other Elysian Moonquaver. And I do not accept that I have to choose between dressed up cats and Robert Pattinson or forswearing the whole genre.
I fully intend to continue to despise the wretched Twilight and to regard Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the absolute high points of television drama, and to love True Blood (madly over the top, and, yes, featuring some rather fetching topless men), and the Brit equivalents, Being Human (can it survive the departures of Mitchell, George and Nina?), Misfits (can it continue, after that frankly rather gobsmacking final episode?), The Fades (will there be another series?).
It all goes back to Buffy. Not, for me, to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror. Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King. Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that. The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline. Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake. For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.
I am, in general, less fond of zombies. Vamps – in the worlds created by or inspired by Whedon – are conflicted, capable of both savagery and love, and so can be interesting. Zombies per se are not. As Heritage points out, they basically just shuffle around, slurp brains and shed body parts. However, zombie drama is not fundamentally about zombies, it’s about surviving in an apocalyptic landscape, with a mindless and relentless threat always out there, and about how human beings act together and apart in the face of that. It’s about the fragility of civilisation – it’s no accident that The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later use the same opening dramatic device as Day of the Triffids, as our hero, waking in a hospital bed, is thrown into the midst of the post-apocalyptic chaos without any warning or preparation, and has to try to find allies, and figure out what it takes to survive. The Walking Dead gets its scares from the zombies, but its drama from the beleaguered human protagonists. Buffy required us to learn the plural of apocalypse – she saved the world, a lot – but the zombie drama requires us to face the terror of a world where no one saved us.
Fundamentally, all of these dramas, like Stephen King’s novels, deal with the sense that there is something bigger than the stuff of our everyday lives, and that people are making moral choices in the face of those bigger questions, about which side they’re on. In other words, what it means to be human. To quote the eleventh doctor, ‘Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is’.
Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen. See http://slayageonline.com/ for academic takes on the Buffy/Whedonverse.
A very incomplete list of some of my favourite apocalypses not mentioned above: Stephen King – The Mist, Cormac McCarthy – The Road, John Wyndham - The Chrysalids, Chris Marker – La Jetee, Barry Hines – Threads, P D James – Children of Men (and the rather different but also excellent film thereof), Liz Jensen – The Rapture