This business of photographing fields in as painterly ways as possible began at the beginning of the lock-down with a late afternoon trip to walk among improbably yellow fields of rapeseed. The challenge was capturing how it felt to be out there in that moment – overwhelmed by landscape and overloaded by a sort of greediness/desperation to keep the shifting effects forever. A few simple strategies helped produce more immersive results, like always omitting any obvious markers of distance or scale, and putting the focus far off at the edge of things with an eye to melting away the detail.
After the fields of gold, there came the scratchier grasses at Oare, followed by the ox-eye daisies, milky and glaucous in the thinning sunshine. Sometime later, we would visit the orderly blue of a wheat field and then an unexpected crop of blue-beaded flax. But it was our trip to the meadow at Knave’s Ash that really inspired my greed for in-camera impressionism. The weather wasn’t great, the sun buried behind an unwashed soft-box of cloud, and yet, as I viewed the resulting photographs later that night, I experienced a proper sugar-rush of delight and satisfaction. Something had happened at Knave’s Ash, a serendipity of light and breeze, and colours so numerous and soft, I couldn’t believe my luck. You can thank this set of photographs for everything that happened next, the zealous pursuit of specialness in other unadopted spaces, the continuing quest to transform something often-seen into landscapes ‘galaxical and vivid’ (so described by poet and fellow blogger João-Maria), and I’ve been lost to this pursuit of ‘painting with fields’ ever since.
When Francesca Maxwell put forward the title of a book by Rebecca Solnit for our most recent Kick-About, I smiled. The prompt A Field Guide To Getting Lost seemed ready-made for an individual looking for a jolly good reason to push these images further. More than this, here was an opportunity to counter one of the systemic failures of these images – their respective failures of movement and of sound – for how can any of these stubbornly still images hope to express the whiffle of the breeze playing across the stems and tassels of all this grass, or the hungry way my camera and I turned about in an up-against-it chase of fleeting light and restless composition? How to convey the different moods elicited by these different fields and by all the associations gathering around their images – the dissolving and dematerialisations at Knave’s Ash, the fibre-optic swish-and-swizzle at Hart’s Hill, and the meditative tapestries at Boughton Scrub..? Make a film was the answer. No, wait. Make three films!
Bringing the meadow of Knave’s Ash into some semblance of movement was a simple job of long cross-dissolves and a suitably atomised choice of music, courtesy of Kevin MacLeod. The job here was mimic as sensitively as possible the diffusion of the images. When it came to trying to articulate the very different feel of Hart Hill, I had but a single guiding reference: Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care (1949), an animation created by painting and scratching directly onto the surface of the film in the service of giving visual expression to the jazz music of Oscar Peterson. My thinking around this film was less to evoke the ‘outdoors’ but rather the ‘indoors’ of my efforts to snaffle-up every last dart, arrow and filament of barley.
I know we were very lucky to find Boughton Scrub. A part of me suspects it only appears when you’re not looking for it, and if we went back to that peripheral place, we’d only find the sewage works and no evidence of those ox-blood coloured rumex spires or clouds of luminous thistle-flowers. For all the common-or-gardenness of the grasses and wild flowers in this scrubland, there was an unreality about this landscape. Even as I stood among it all, I knew it wouldn’t last, that I had to move quickly to steal as much of it for myself as possible. It was almost too colourful, more like some coral reef or martian landscape. The more I looked at the resulting photographs, the more they resembled zoomed-in details from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights or like luxurious, too decadent wallpaper, or like tapestries hanging in the quiet chambers of some chivalraic folly. Meanwhile, my mind’s ear kept playing me lutes or harps, my mind’s eye showing me some soft-focused Burne-Jones maiden walking unhurriedly between the voiles of flower.
It will appear unseemly when I admit I have now watched the resulting film many times. I just find it immensely relaxing, cooling, quietening. I do not watch it admiringly, rather I just like going back there in the knowledge that it’s gone.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a 2009 German language film shot in surgically precise black and white. The time is 1913, the place is a small, isolated German village named Eichwald, and the narrative evolves around a series of unexplained acts of cruelty and malice perpetrated against the remote, rural community.
In common with Haneke’s Hidden (2005), The White Ribbon is purposefully ambiguous. Motives are never laid bare and pointed fingers fail to skewer definitive targets. In this way, the film refuses easy categorisation, but for this viewer, at least, Haneke’s menacing exploration of shame, reprisal and complicity continues a fine cinematic tradition of paedophobia: stories that evince or seek to evoke a visceral distrust or dislike of children.
The mark left by a trip-wire used in a booby-trap, The White Ribbon (2009)
A mysterious fire, The White Ribbon (2009)
The Baron’s son is thrown in the river, The White Ribbon (2009)
While The White Ribbon determines for its audience neither motive nor culprit for the violent acts, it certainly doesn’t dissuade us from thinking the worst of the neat, straight-backed children who inhabit the village – they who gather watchfully outside doorways and windows to enquire ever-so politely about the well-being of the individuals hurt in the film’s mysterious accidents and brutalised in off-screen beatings. There is something insincere about the children’s sincerity, something too knowing about their curiosity, their demeanour reminiscent of scientists coming back to observe dispassionately the outcome of inhumane experiments. This may ultimately be an example of Haneke’s game-play, in that the audience is tempted by the director to foreclose on further discussion and apportion blame – and in so doing make issue of our intolerance for incertitude and preference for scapegoats.
I’m not alone in fearing the children of remote, rural Eichwald. The school teacher, who narrates the events of the film, comes finally to suspect the children of unwholesome activities. His hypothesis is met with indignation and disavowal. Hardly surprising: the idea children can be so wilfully malign always elicits public outcry – especially in cases where children abuse or kill other children (and children are victims of violence in The White Ribbon). One need only namecheck Mary Bell and James Bulger to know children who kill present society with an idea too unpalatable.
Mary Bell at the time of her arrest.
James Patrick Bulger being led away to his death.
It is Eichwald’s pastor with whom the school teacher shares his misgivings, who reacts predictably with horror. There is, however, something too strident about this puritan’s refutation. The pastor is appalled by the premise that the village children (his own among them) could be responsible for the violence, but not, I suspect, because he finds the school teacher’s theory unimaginable, but rather because he can imagine it perfectly well. Author William Golding evidences no such squeamishness. Golding’s 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies, in which a community of English schoolboys stranded on an island descend into savagery, is a celebrated reposte to the idea that children are wired more benignly than adults.
A school boy savage, from Lord Of The Flies (1963)
Whereas Golding suggests none of us are beyond the thrall of atavism – children especially – Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) makes the case that evil derives from specific genes or ‘bad seeds’. Rhoda Penmark, aged eight, is the bad seed of the film’s title, a child-killer and sociopath, and as a subplot reveals, the granddaughter of a female serial killer.
Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed (1956)
LeRoy’s film is an adaptation of a 1954 novel by William March. The novel’s original ending – in which Rhoda’s mother attempts to kill her daughter with sleeping pills and then shoots herself, only for Rhoda to survive, free to kill again – was much too nihilistic for the censors. The spectacle of a child psychopath going unpunished contravened the Hays Code, which insisted films had a solemn moral duty to show ‘crime didn’t pay.’ The film’s ending was duly revised, with the mother now surviving her suicide attempt and Rhoda being dealt a lethal blow by a bolt of lightning. Ultimately then, Rhoda is given the mother of all spankings by the father of all fathers. Not content with this sledgehammer-subtle deus-ex-machina, a post-ending coda shows the mother spanking Rhoda, so as to further reassure audiences and restore too in the minds of worried moms and pops the efficacy of their own parenting. I can only wonder what changes the Hays Code would have demanded of Haneke’s The White Ribbon – a film in which children are violent, crimes go unpunished, motives remain elliptical, parenting is largely abusive and bolts of cleansing lightning are in conspicuously short supply.
Rhoda gets spanked by her mother, The Bad Seed (1956)
If the children of Eichwald have a ring-leader, it is the passive-aggressive Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), whose resemblance to Rhoda Penmark might encourage us to believe in the existence of genetic templates for evil after all. Klara is as blonde and outwardly wholesome as LeRoy’s sociopath, but as dead-pan as Wednesday Addams, whose morbid fascination with injury and accident Klara may also share.
Klara is confronted by the suspicious school teacher, The White Ribbon (2009)
It is Klara who is responsible for one of the film’s acts of violence that is attributed without equivocation. Klara is the pastor’s eldest daughter who, in falling short of her father’s puritanical expectations, has been made by way of punishment to wear the titular white ribbon on her arm. While the white ribbon itself is symbolic of purity, the wearing of it announces moral deficit and failure. Following further public humiliation by her father, Klara kills the pastor’s pet bird in reprisal and revolt. That the bird itself is caged is surely significant, for Klara is likewise denied the full expression of her nature by the repressive structures of her father’s world. As significant is the means by which Klara first mutilates and then displays the pastor’s bird, making from its corpse a mockery of a crucifix. Fathers of all kinds are punished in Eichwald.
Klara’s revenge, The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon‘s temporal and geographical context encourages us to lend chilling significance to the idea of a generation of children learning to flex their muscles with impunity and address their resentments with violence. The school teacher’s opening narration suggests plainly that, like him, we might seek to connect the social microcosm of the troubled village and the macrocosm of twentieth century European history:
“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell you of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
If The White Ribbon is ‘about’ the incubation of fascism in Germany, then Klara and her tribe are not simply bad apples, but bitter little acorns from which something truly monstrous will grow. The film’s title may, of itself, be an example of grim foreshadowing, as Ian Johnston suggests, “The shaming white ribbons worn on Martin and Klara’s arms project associations into the Nazi future, both the Nazis’ armbands and the badges of shame (yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) used in the camps.” (Johnston, 2010) Of Klara and her cohorts, Alan Nothnagle makes this grim prediction: “These terrorists in waiting are around ten or twelve years old, and as such are too young to participate in World War I. No, instead of experiencing the disillusioning meat grinder of attrition warfare, this lot will instead soak up the dying Empire’s “victory” propaganda and later join the Freikorps, the Storm Troopers, and the Nazi Party. In 1933 they will be around thirty years old and will form the backbone of the new regime.” (Nothnagle, 2009)
Hitler Youth Propoganda Poster
In Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning Cabaret (1972), we encounter another beautiful blonde child whose implacable resolve gives us one of cinema’s most truly chilling scenes. For all its apparent ambiguity, The White Ribbon is no less clear in its message: we should fear for our children, in so much as they are manipulated easily, controlled and abused, and we should be in fear of our children for the self-same reason – or as singer-song writer Tracy Chapman puts it more simply, ‘Bang Bang Bang.’
Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret (1972)
The afterimage of Hitler’s youth permeates another peadophobic classic, The Village of The Damned (1960), based on John Wyndam’s science-fiction 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Here too, we encounter a tribe of precocious moppets all with startlingly blonde hair and glacial, impeccable manners with scant disregard for the feelings of others.
The glacial blonde children from The Village Of The Damned (1960) > Hitler Youth Propaganda poster.
At least the mums and dads of Midwich have got aliens to blame for their wayward offspring – and not a serial-killing encoded gene. In this instance, their creepy kids are the hive-minded, telepathic progeny of an extra-terrestial intelligence. Likewise, when their sullen five year old starts acting-up in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) Richard and Katherine Thorn can at least take comfort from the fact of finding themselves at the heart of a global conspiracy plotting to see the antichrist installed on his earthly throne.
Damien Thorn, the antichrist as a child in The Omen (1976)
In these peadophobic fright-fests, the parents are squarely not at fault – external forces are at work. These children are monsters of (super)nature not nurture. Not so in The White Ribbon. Haneke’s children are Larkin‘s children – fucked up by their mums and dads and by the alienating ideologies of adulthood. As Ryan Gilbey observes, “If the children are the perpetrators of the violence, it is their elders who have nurtured these dubious talents. The villagers’ child-rearing techniques, based on instilling guilt and inflicting pain, are shown to be incendiary” (Gilbey, 2009) It’s even possible to see the acts of violence perpetrated against the village as projections of the adults’ otherwise unexpressed resentment. The village is festering with grown-up grievances, unvoiced, neutered by puritan restraint and the tugging of forelocks. Haneke’s refusal to name and shame gives the various attacks and accidents a near-supernatural quality, as if they’re being visited upon the village like portents, which is further encouraged by the inclusion of a child character who appears able to prophecise the episodes of violence in her dreams. Notice Gilbey’s choice of the word ‘incendiary’, which seems particularly apposite considering the way in which The White Ribbon‘s cruelties ignite without warning – as if the pent-up negative energies building up in the village have found an ‘out’, striking people down like the lightning that incinerated poor Rhoda Penmark.
The notion of children expressing or acting out the repressed rage and frustration of their parents surely finds its apotheosis in David Cronenberg’s 1979 body-horror chiller, The Brood. In what can only be described as Freudian tour-de-force, Cronenberg introduces us to a monstrous mother figure capable of giving birth to ‘rage babies’ from a cancerous womb appended to her stomach. Like the monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), the mother’s snarling off-spring are the progeny of her id. They are hatred and jealousies made flesh. Springing from the mother’s own repressed feelings of resentment, her vengeful brood act upon her most violent fantasies, committing brutal acts of murder about which the mother herself remains unaware.
The Brood‘s romper-suited ‘rage babies’,
Meanwhile, the non-synonymous issues of childhood sexuality and the sexualisation of children by adults have never been more freighted, confused or conflated. This is another way in which children have come to terrify us – something the Chapman Brothers, for example, know well and are keen for us to confront and interrogate.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000), 1995
Haneke’s The White Ribbon is as unflinching in exploring our disquiet around children and sex. In one acutely disquieting scene, Klara’s brother admits reluctantly to his father he’s been masturbating. In response, the pastor tells his son an appalling lie about another boy in another village who died a horrible malingering death as a direct result of the same nocturnal activity. If this sounds far-fetched, consider this: according to the Journal of Religion and Health at one point, “two thirds of all human diseases, medical and mental, were attributed to masturbation” (Patton, 1986).
The pastor’s son wears the white ribbon during his cross-examination, The White Ribbon (2009)
As a further deterrant, the boy’s hands are tied with knotted ropes to his bed so he might sleep through the night without succumbing to the evils of onanism. Here, what is normal, healthy and ubiquitous about childhood sexuality is equated with pestilence and moral decay, the prospect of a ‘sexual child’ so unseemly, so immoral, that the physical abuse and enforced incarceration of a boy by his father is deemed preferable, curative, and ‘more proper’.
Another child tied to a bed by religious men in an effort to prohibit further ‘self abuse’ is Regan MacNeil in William Freidkin’s The Exorcist (1973). True, twelve year old Regan is possessed by an ancient, foul-mouthed demon, but that the abject corruption of her soul should manifest as an episode of female masturbation leads some to interpret The Exorcist as resonating so powerfully with audiences, less because of how it depicts an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil for a young girl’s soul, and rather more because it twangs parental anxiety in regard to the secret sex lives of their pubescent children.
Meanwhile, back in Haneke’s bleak little village, the doctor is abusing his daughter without conscience, even going so far as making a gift to her of his dead wife’s earrings so that his moral trespass might be elided still further. In Eichwald, the sexuality of its children is both refused and exploited. It becomes a thing of horror – for them, for us. Hypocrisy abounds; a man alienates his son from the province and pleasures of his own body in an obvious act of guilt and self-loathing (are we seriously meant to believe that the pastor has never masturbated?), while another adult with responsibilities of care and rehabilitation abuses his daughter with breathtaking indifference to his crime.
The doctor abusing his daughter, The White Ribbon (2009)
Another peadophobic film shot through with peadophiliac disquiet is Jack Clayton’s masterful adaptation of Henry James 1898 ghost story novella The Turn Of The Screw. In common with The White Ribbon, Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is a strange and ambiguous film and shares too a narrative predicated upon the spectacle of precocious, implacable children intent seemingly on out-manoeuvring their adult wards. A very prim and proper governess, played by Deborah Kerr, is charged with looking after Miles and Flora, siblings who may – or may not – have fallen under the malign influence of two dead former employees, who, while living, were locked into a darkly passionate and notably indiscrete love affair. Ostensibly, The Innocents is a film about creepy country houses, restless ghosts and possession, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t the cosy stuff of fireside yarns. For all its billowing curtains and gothic trappings, The Innocents is as discomforting about the issue of children, sex and sexualisation as any Chapman Brothers mutant (and a good deal more elegant).
Miles and Flora in The Innocents (1961)
Supernatural possession aside, the film hints that the two children have anyway witnessed sex-acts between the two lovers. The governess fears the two children ‘know too much.’ Certainly, Miles is a little too mature for his years and even flirtatious towards his governess. In a scene more lastingly shocking than Regan MacNeil masturbating with a crucifix, Miles kisses his governess on the lips. This isn’t a goodnight kiss. This isn’t a wholesome kiss. No, this kiss between a male child and a grown woman is something else entirely. Kate Bush’s suitably spooky song The Infant Kiss, inspired directly by this scene, has lyrics that make explicit the lingering suspicion that the Governess herself – and not a ghost – has developed her own unnatural obsession with Miles.
Say good night-night
I tuck him in tight.
But things are not right.
What is this? An infant kiss
That sends my body tingling?
I’ve never fallen for
A little boy before.
Just a kid and just at school.
Back home they’d call me dirty.
His little hand is on my heart.
He’s got me where it hurts me.
Knock, knock. Who’s there in this baby?
You know how to work me.
All my barriers are going.
It’s starting to show.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
I cannot sit and let
Something happen I’ll regret.
Ooh, he scares me!
There’s a man behind those eyes.
I catch him when I’m bending.
Ooh, how he frightens me
When they whisper privately.
(“Don’t Let Go!”)
Windy-wailey blows me.
Words of caress on their lips
That speak of adult love.
I want to smack but I hold back.
I only want to touch.
But I must stay and find a way
To stop before it gets too much!
All my barriers are going.
It’s starting to show.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
(Don’t let go!)
In the film’s final scene, which earned The Innocents its x-certificate, the over-wrought governess kisses the dead boy on the lips. Clayton’s The Innocents is as mischievous as Haneke’s film in refusing to coalesce in terms of ‘what happened’ or ‘why’. The innocence or otherwise of Miles and Flora is left undecided, while the culpability of the various adult characters in so influencing them is held up for enquiry. All theories are kept in play and so The Innocents, like The White Ribbon, is free to unsettle audiences indefinitely.
The infant kiss from The Innocents (1961)
So what finally do I think of Eichwald’s children above and beyond the film’s exquisite unheimlich effect that situates Klara and her cronies alongside the likes of Miles, Rhoda and those Midwich cuckoos? What can I conclude from the peadophobic trend explored here of which The White Ribbon is another example, which in different ways seems to prove that we are, at best, ambivalent about children, and at worst, afraid of them?
If you watched all the way to the end of that scene from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, you would have heard one character say to another ominously, ‘You still think you can control them?’ Strictly, he’s referring to the rise and rise of the Nazi party as exemplified by the angelic fascist and his hymn to radicalisation, but this character’s doubt applies to children more generally. This could be Haneke’s pastor, admitting finally (if only to himself, if not to the school teacher) that for all his teachings, Klara and her brother are consolidating their own identities in spite of him – without him. Stripped of its socio-historical meaning, Tomorrow Belongs To Me is the anthem of all children. Tomorrow is theirs. Children know we’re only so much dust given momentary breath and that power, control, judgement and influence will be theirs in time. This is what Klara knows when she’s saying nothing. This is what the children of Eichwald know. This is their secret and it’s a simple one; time is on their side, not ours. All children have to do is wait for the ruling class of adults to grow old, lose traction, and die. This, of course, makes them our next bright hope for the future – and our enemy.
The children of Eichwald, The White Ribbon (2009)
Nothnagle, Alan, Horror film of the decade – “The White Ribbon”, http://open.salon.com/blog/lost_in_berlin/2009/12/27/horror_film_of_the_decade_-_the_white_ribbon
Patton, Michael S., Twentieth Century Attitudes Toward Masturbation, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol 25. No 4, 1986 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01534067#page-1
Gilbey, Ryan, The White Ribbon, http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2009/11/white-ribbon-haneke-european
Author’s note: Originally published here in August 2013, I was prompted to revisit the article again in light of the recent Alice Neel-themed Kick-About, in which a number of the participating artists, including myself, produced work examining some of the societal expectations around motherhood and children. I also wanted to share it because I’ve been struck by the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic is reiterating some of the themes explored here; we are acutely worried about the future prospects of our children and seek to protect them from returning too early to school. We worry too children will become the unwitting agents of our own destruction – carriers for the virus, bringing it back through the door, infecting the old, the vulnerable and the shielded. Politically, the young are both courted and curtailed, a sure sign their power is threatening. Notice how Greta Thunberg is othered by her most powerful critics, framing her as a Midwich cuckoo not quite of this earth and bent on some malign conspiracy to topple the existing world order…
Synthesis is a magic trick, the way seemingly disparate things activate each other before drawing together more tightly to produce something whole and new. It’s the busy brain, seeing patterns, asserting them, refusing disparity, giving shape, form and meaning where there was none… and it’s always a relief when it happens!
I’d never heard of Alice Neel, whose 1932 painting, Symbols, was the prompt for our most recent Kick-About. The image felt freighted and quietly fraught, meaning abounding at a certain pitch, with the ensemble of symbols speaking to female experience and our expectations around it. A bit more research later, and it became clear the dissonance radiating from Neel’s nude doll was far from unique in her art, that childhood, children and parenting were oft-visited sites for Neel’s thematic unease.
Degenerate Madonna (1930) > Untitled (1982) Sam and Richard (1940) > Sam and Hartley (1945)
A number of Neel’s paintings made me think of many of the female characters who inhabit the short stories of Shirley Jackson, a writer whose fiction throbs with suppressed terror, panic and raw frustration of ordinary people. Jackson isn’t a sentimental writer, very far from it, her characters compressed by social conventions around their roles as wives and mothers. A favourite story of mine is Colloquy (1944), the shortest of stories, in which an agitated Mrs Arnold is in conversation with her doctor about her husband’s erratic behaviour. As the story progresses, Mrs Arnold is unable to make the doctor register her feelings meaningfully, and what is sane about her emotional reaction to the march of modernity is served back up to her by the doctor as hysteria.
“Mrs. Arnold,” the doctor said, coming around the desk, “we’re not going to help things any this way.”
“What is going to help?” Mrs. Arnold said. “Is everyone really crazy but me?”
“Mrs. Arnold,” the doctor said severely, “I want you to get hold of yourself. In a disoriented world like ours today, alienation from reality frequently–“
“Disoriented,” Mrs. Arnold said. She stood up. “Alienation,” she said. “Reality.” Before the doctor could stop her she walked to the door and opened it. “Reality,” she said, and went out.
Colloquy was first and foremost in my mind when I began writing the short monologue for Quite Normal. I wanted that patrician condescension and awful powerlessness. I wanted it as bleak as Jackson’s stories are bleak.
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads have just been re-visited by the BBC. I remember watching them on television when they aired originally back in the late 1980s and how powerful they were, not least because they required you to really look, really listen and really connect. There was something discomforting and challenging about being that intimate with a character, being so inside their experience.
But if I’m being 100% honest, it was another famous monologue I was thinking about in terms of how to approach making this film: ‘Mother’s’ monologue from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a film that plays in my head most days in some secret flickering way. I knew my character wasn’t a villain and she certainly isn’t mad – that’s the whole point – but this scene in Psycho is essentially a monologue supported by a sequence of still shots; after the high-jinx of the shower scene, we get this relative immobility, this watchfulness, this simpler act of looking and listening.
There’s also the final moment following mother’s monologue when Hitchcock super-imposes her dessicated face over Norman’s face; the resurgence of the predator, of impulses vile and violent. There’s a moment in Charly Skilling’s performance of the Quite Normal script that achieves a similarly chilling effect, when she says “I don’t suppose for one minute when she looks at her baby she worries like I worry” – where just for a second we hear, not anxiety, but curiosity about her own propensity for terrible cruelty.
The decision to use stills was a practical one – I don’t have access to a video camera right now – but one of the most satisfying and disinhibiting things about the Kick-About is the way it compels you to turn limitations into purposeful visual strategies. Confining myself to using imagery culled from mid-century magazine advertisements meant I could co-opt all that gendered baggage around (im)perfect lives, (im)perfect smiles, (un)wholesomeness, and the tyranny of idealisation. I re-photographed all the imagery direct from my laptop screen, re-framing it, hunting out the noise, pushing the colour, pulling the colour, and courting perspectival distortions.
But why set the film at the dentist?
I’ve always been haunted by the idea that my brother and I robbed the calcium from my mum’s teeth – that as babies, we were parasites (and for many years afterwards I strongly suspect!). Even today, mum fears the dentist, having had her crumbling back teeth removed at a time when dentistry was a more medieval interaction. Of all the different elements combining to tell this story, it was this detail about teeth around which everything coalesced with a satisfying snap. It was the symbol I was looking for, the visual means by which to tell a story about the various invasions visited upon women by baby-making in all its phases.
From the director, Matthew Harmer: “Inside Time is a look at the experience of lockdown that isn’t about headlines or statistics but about the small, simple ways in which it has perhaps transformed us, taught us something about time, about ourselves inside time. About how it stopped the clock for all of us.
The film is a product of The Shooting From Home Project, which I started back in March 2020, shortly after the lockdown began in the UK. I realised there must be loads of filmmakers, like me, stuck at home with no work, lots of time, and professional camera equipment just sitting around gathering dust, so I thought I would start a project to try and create something inspiring and beautiful out of the situation. With help from The Smalls and their filmmaking community, we collaborated with over 25 filmmakers from around the world, each giving us a glimpse of how they spent this unprecedented moment in time.”
When it came to my parenting, my step-dad had one solemn rule: I was never ever to tell him how certain things in his favourite movies were accomplished. Accordingly, behind-the-scenes documentaries were forbidden. My breathless chatter about puppets, animatronics and green-screen wizardry were quickly curtailed. For my step-dad, movies are real, dialogue arriving in the actors’ mouths spontaneously and as required. Special effects are nothing of the sort – they’re documentary footage. For this reason, watching a good film with him is one of my great pleasures; watching him watching movies returns me to the powerful magic of cinema.
That said, I think even my step-dad would enjoy Daniel Jewel’s wonderful The Secret World Of Foley, for though it certainly lifts the curtain between appearance and reality, it’s a backstage secret serving only to re-magic the illusions of cinematic storytelling.
I am always left invigorated by this short film. It never fails to get me off my arse.
Some exciting news for myself and the whole team who worked together so tirelessly on Red & The Kingdom Of Sound in and around our actual day jobs! Our award-winning, globe-trotting animated adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra has just been added to the LA Shorts International Film Festival YouTube channel!
“LA Shorts International Film Festival ranks among the most prestigious and largest international short film festivals in the world. The festival is accredited by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Now in its 24th year, LA Shorts is the longest-running short film festival in Los Angeles.“
Directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, Solipsist is as arresting as it is difficult to categorise. It’s the film David Cronenberg would make if David Cronenberg was big into craft, or it’s a Frank Oz cheese dream.
What I relish about this film is the way it combines physical costumes and puppetry with green screen/cgi augmentation, which produces some wildly uncanny effects and a proper sense of ‘a happening’. For your interest, I’ve included the ‘making of’ video, which is delightful, in so much as it showcases a lot of technical wizardry – and also some reassuringly lo-fi aquatic feather boas.
The nice thing about participating in the fortnightly Kick-About is the gentle pressure it applies to respond in new ways to new prompts. When Gary Thorne proposed ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ for the Kick-About #3 prompt, I experienced that initial moment of creative freefall, known less poetically as ‘having no ideas’ – or rather feeling no immediate connection to the words or the images they evoked.
I remember very well the sort of helpless flapping around of students when first confronted with a new brief and how their anxiety would frustrate me, arguing how the state of ‘not knowing’ is what adventure feels like – but here I was, flapping a bit myself! In an instance of ‘physician heal theyself’, I did a bit of research (okay, I googled Gary’s prompt) and quickly understood ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ was in fact the title of a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. A few clicks later, and I was reading one of Munro’s stories, and it’s as I’ve already said in the kick-about preamble: Inspiration came from Alice Munro’s Walker Brothers Cowboy, the very first story in Munro’s Dance Of The Happy Shades. In it, a little girl and her brother are too hot and listless in the back of their father’s car. They play I Spy to pass the time:
“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours. Grey for the barns and sheds and toilets and houses, brown for the yard and fields, black or brown for the dogs. The rusting cars show rainbow patches, in which I strain to pick out purple or green; likewise I peer at doors for shreds of peeling paint, maroon or yellow.”
But inspiration is rarely a linear thing. Arguably it wasn’t Alice Munro or even Gary’s prompt that first inspired me to undertake this exercise in ‘slow cinema’, rather it was the old garage door I’ve been walking past every day for years. I’ve always loved its brick and mustard scales, and the way the colours cook and crackle under the heat of the day. It was this remarkable/unremarkable garage door I saw most vividly when I read about the little girl playing I Spy in Munro’s story.
The old garage door
The other big influence is surely the lock-down itself, or rather the new quality of looking and listening we’ve all acquired over these strangely attenuated days. Torpor has restored vivacity to our otherwise over-looked surroundings as we’ve rested our eyes and our minds, our ears detecting new strata of sounds, once stifled by the percussion of the rat-race. I took the camera on our long evening walks, hunting out interesting surfaces that I might otherwise ignore, reminding myself of similar behaviours as a child when I collected the prettiest pebbles from the beach (usually only to find them much less fascinating when they’ve lost the glossing of the sea). The images that go on to feature in the film derive from beach huts and brick walls, from careworn sheds and even an old corroded cannon. What I liked about these images was how quickly they transformed themselves into seascapes or aerial photographs of far-off geographies. Perhaps this is what travel looks like when you can’t go anywhere.
With the exception of a few sound effects purloined from the BBC SFX archive, the majority of sounds in the film were recorded in an around the rather careworn seaside town I call home. Fragments of three songs feature in the work too, the first being La Pastoura als camps arranged by Joseph Canteloube, one of his Chants d’Auvergne, so chosen because this song soundtracks the longed-for moment when my husband and I will arrive again at the old house in France, bringing with it the neat line of poplar trees, the yellow roar of sunflowers, and breezes dry and warm. The second song, Carey, by Joni Mitchell, is what a Summer holiday sounds like when you’re young and time extends away from you in a haze of non-commitment, and Ella Fitzgerald’s Get Out Of Town is as languid an expression of longing as you’ll find anywhere. Elsewhere in the film, I noodle about on a guitar, which I recorded next to an open window to fold-in as much ambient noise as possible.
What began with a prompt with which I was totally unfamiliar has resulted in a piece of work that feels entirely personal and familiar. This might be expressed more simply by admitting I didn’t know what I was doing until I’d done it.
A photo of the original Dewback from Fred Pearl’s scrapbook
Back in May, 2002, I was asked to make a short documentary on Fred Pearl. Fred Pearl worked for the toy manufacturer, Lines Brothers, as a model maker of dolls and toys in their factory. He went on to make a wide range of models for films, and set up his own model making business, Art Models Ltd., producing models for further films, television, museums and exhibitions. Arguably the most well-known of Fred’s creations were for the original 1977 Star Wars, including the Dewback, as glimpsed on the planet of Tatooine.
A stormtrooper riding the Dewback in Star Wars (1977)
“Art Models Ltd. was a specialist art-fabrication company owned and managed by Fred Pearl, located in Wimbledon, about 20 miles from the studio at Elstree. They had previously done work for the industry including speciality costumes for Space: 1999. Fred Pearl and his small team (which included his daughters) were hired to build full-size, practical set pieces of both the Jerba (named for the small island in Tunisia where the Mos Eisley scenes were filmed and the creature appeared) and the Dewback. Two Jerba creatures were built, and one Dewback.” Continue reading here.
Fred Pearl with C-3PO artifacts circa 2005
What struck me most when making the film was ‘the sense of an ending’ – that Fred Pearl’s world was facing an extinction event ushered in by computer generated imagery. His workshop – a wunderkammer filled with relics from a fast-fading age – was an amazing space, an ark for dinosaurs literal and figurative.