Category Archives: my past

Living in the future

I was going to be an astronomer. This was going to involve a lot of sex.

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Living in the past

I asked for, and got, Porcupines by Echo & the Bunnymen and Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, both of which first appeared in my life about 1983; the first via Radio 1, the second thanks to Stephen Sharkey, who had heard it on the radio and was never the same again. Should I have got over all this by now?

The Liverpool links are that I was there at the time, that’s where the Bunnymen are from, and Terence Davies made what was for me particularly apt use of the Mahler in Of Time and the City.

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I was a teenage Ballardian

Rusty radio telescope, outside Cambridge

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Why he will never be a Conservative

Me too.

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Of Time and the City

Went to see Of Time and the City by Terence Davies on Sunday. I never know quite what to make of his films. The first one I saw, Distant Voices, Still Lives, in 1988, I reviewed for the university newspaper. “This is how to make films,” I wrote. “Cinematic concentrate. It’s an autobiographical picture of the lives of a Liverpool family in the forties and fifties; as remembered at the funeral of the violent and tyrannical father, then as the family ages and the children get married. If this sounds unpromising matter for a yarn, then you have in fact struck on the film’s weak spot. Its considerable strength, on the other hand, comes from Davies’ direction; the scenes succeed in the chronological disorder of memory; user-friendly features such as introductory and explanatory bits and references to other scenes are scornfully eschewed. The effect is exposure to the dramatic, emotional and aesthetic content of each scene in undiluted essence. The brew is not so strong and bitter as in Davies’ previous black-and-white Trilogy; but what does it profit him to distil it to such a purity if he will not add a tinge of soul?”

I think I have become less pompous in the past two decades. Not much, though.

I saw Distant Voices, Still Lives again a few years ago (when it was on at what we must now call the BFI Southbank even though it is still the national film theatre (just as there are no longer any hospitals, only NHS Foundation Trusts and University Teaching Health Campuses). I felt much the same. It’s a succession of beautifully staged and observed moments, indeed just like the sounds of memory whispering in your head, drenched in a quantity of sentiment that makes sense when you hear Davies explain, as he did last Sunday, that the happiest period of his life was between seven, when his violent and tyrannical father – “I’ve been in therapy so long even my analyst hates my father” – died and his mum and nine older brothers and sisters could begin to live properly, and eleven, when he began to desire men and in some way consequently lost his faith.

Since then, it seems, he thinks his life has been a disaster. No wonder his ears strain for the echoes of the tunes of his childhood. No wonder the classical music and poetry he discovered as an adolescent seems to have become a sort of liturgy hard-wired into his soul, always the same, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bruckner, always the same, known cadences, to return to again and again and again, to contemplate again and once again learn the same lesson as before.

Which is why I think Sukhdev Sandhu is being too harsh – that is, when he’s not being plain stupid:

The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives play like art-house versions of Bread.

Odd that he closes his review accusing Davies of snobbishness. I think he’s missing the point. The reason Davies opens his film with celebratory, rising crane shots of the magnificent neoclassical St George’s Hall, not hiding the now-embarrassing triumphant imperialist statues that surround it, and the equally grand library and art gallery across the road, and zooming in on a detail of the hall’s huge metal doors that I’ve never noticed before – “SPQL”, a variant on the motto of the Roman Republic with L for Liverpool instead of R for Rome stamped on the end: the reason for all this is not to satisfy the “regional PR” motivation that Sandhu gives the film, but to show how a poor boy from Liverpool could come to dream of grandeur. Davies follows this with the cold, gold lavishness of a Catholic church interior, the candles, the Latin, and you can see why only Mahler and the sonnets could fill the gap that God left.

Peter Bradshaw is rather fairer:

Its effects are forthright and arguably unsubtle. Davies hits you with Housman and Eliot. His musical choices are familiar, and the images and newsreels he selects are not novel in any strict sense of archival discovery. But the juxtapositions deliver an intravenous jolt of rapture and sorrow, all at once.

Putting the Resurrection symphony over shots of poverty, dereliction and hopelessness is not subtle, but it makes some points that are hardly ever made. For one thing, it says that classic high culture is not the preserve of the higher classes and is not all about delicate sensibilities and posh ladies in fluffy dresses prancing about on stage like dressage horses and people in black wearing angular glasses sipping white wine while striking a pose in front of a painting in a white room. For another, it says that mythic, overwrought, overripe soul struggles may have been invented by the Romantics but they’re still with us, and however risible they may seem in a Mahler exegesis they’re pretty real to the people who experience them.

Typical Liverpudlian self-pity, you, or Boris Johnson, might think. You might say the same thing about Boys From the Blackstuff. More kindly, you might talk about Celtic melancholy. You might, more realistically, think of a provincial city sinking into pointlessness over decades before waking up to find itself haemorrhaging on Thatcher’s operating table. Maybe we might be forgiven a little self-pity. Maybe Terence Davies might be forgiven his narrow little world of memory and The Classics in return for his astonishing frankness and for being one of the few people around who seems to take film seriously.

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Black, Lynch and Rothko

When I was at primary school a teacher told my class that there was no such thing as black paint or ink or dye: anything that was called black would, if you looked hard at it, turn out to be dark brown or blue or some other colour. Because black is not a colour, it is the absence of light, so it’s not something you can make. You can’t make an absence. If you say you can, you’re just playing with words or not expressing yourself properly.

When I used to do photographic colour printing – which you had to do in a totally dark darkroom, with no safelights, just a little glowing green light floating in space to tell you where the “expose” button on the enlarger timer was, and your memory of where you put the box of printing paper and the scissors and where the door handle was – I liked standing there with useless eyes. It wasn’t black, of course. I could watch the coloured dots and squiggles writhing about like tadpoles. When I read about photons popping in and out of existence in a vacuum, seething, as quantum physics says they do, I think about those coloured dots. None of the darkrooms was completely light-tight, though, so after a minute you’d begin to see cold white wedges where daylight was leaking in. A minute more and you’d see a bit of the wall lit up by the light. It would seem incredibly bright, but I knew that if the roof was suddenly taken off I’d be blinded. Then I’d think about how you can see a single candle flame at a distance of several miles on a very dark night, or so I had read. About how your eye can register a single photon of light.

I’d think about black velvet, the blackest thing anyone seemed able to think of. Or soot, the mattest thing I had ever seen. Or the black powder I used to make paint with.

Disappointingly, I had also found out that matt black isn’t as black as glossy black. But glossy black always exists alongside specular reflections, pretty much the brightest things you can look out without hurting your eyes.

A film editor once told me that to represent blackness in film, the frame had to have some light in it. She said there was a certain maximum ratio of dark to light. It was obvious, when I thought about it. You’re looking at a cinema screen, a highly reflective surface in a room with at least a couple of emergency exit lights on. If you film a coal cellar at night, you’ll get a negative as clear as it can be. If you make a print from it, you’ll get a print as opaque as it can be, which is not totally opaque. Run that print through a projector in a cinema and you’ll be allowing the minimum amount of light possible onto the screen – the projector light shining through nothing but film black plus the exit lights. But that’s still some light. Enough to see that the screen is a light-coloured rectangle, much brighter than than the curtains and walls around it. The same thing happens with video monitors. Turn them off and you see how unblack they are.

To represent blackness, you have to prevent the viewer’s brain from dwelling on the true lightness of the screen. You need to distract it with some kind of image, force it to accommodate a tonal range wide enough for it to see the darkest tone as black, give over enough of the screen to the lighter tones so that the brain doesn’t disregard them as simply a bright light, so that it looks for detail in them and adjusts its awareness of brightness levels accordingly.

Once I’d started to think about the problem of blackness in film, I began to notice how David Lynch’s films go much further than most in representing pure, unrelieved blackness. At moments of transition, we are led into a glimpse of total blackness, a vertiginous velvety blackness: when Fred Madison goes down an unnaturally dark corridor in his apartment in Lost Highway, or, in Mulholland Drive, when Betty turns the corner in her aunt’s apartment, and just before the dead Diane is found in her house, and as we fall into the inexplicable blue Alice-in-Wonderland box, and when the movie director Adam orders “Kill the lights” before kissing the notably and glossily brunette Camilla on set, or behind the diner after Diane has put the contract on her. Flirting with darkness.

A poem, or incantation, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks suggests that darkness allows a passage across otherwise unbridgeable gulfs:

Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me

The mystical. Which brings us to Mark Rothko. “Black-form painting” No.1, I think. A more glazed black next to a less glazed black. Which is the real black? Is either? Between them, as if by accident, a strip of a lower layer of still blacker, matter black is visible. To see that as anything other than real black, you would have to try quite hard not to look at the other, lesser blacks. The same trick that the cinematographer and print grader uses; while looking from one black to another, our gaze has to trip over that crack into what we cannot see as other than real black.

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Sacred

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