Ella Fitzgerald singing To Keep My Love Alive is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
My ex never rated Ella Fitzgerald. He found her vocal seamlessness anodyne, preferring the gravel of Dinah Washington, the rasp of Etta James, the smoke of Sarah Vaughn. He found Ella too polite, too popular, too ubiquitous, desexed. For all of that, as a gay man of a certain age whose identity had been criminalised until 1967, he nonetheless relished Fitzgerald’s success, the ‘in-plain-sight’ contrariness of her huge popularity; as Frank Rich noted about Fitzgerald in The New York Times in the days following her death in ‘here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.’
True enough, Ella Fitzgerald and her great American Songbooks are too often the taken-for-granted soundtrack to cookie-cutter coffee-shops, the many colors of her superlative recordings rolled together like so much brown Plasticine – which is why hearing Fitzgerald sing To Keep My Love Alive is always such a subversive surprise.
Composed by Richard Rogers, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, To Keep My Love Alive is a song entirely dedicated to the various grisly mechanics of the murdering of husbands. This is a ditty for psychopaths characterised by audacious clever rhymes and a complete lack of conscience, delightfully free of moralising or any kind of comeuppance for the narrator. Specifically, when Ella sings To Keep My Love Alive it is like discovering your favourite auntie, school teacher or ample, smiling dinner lady is a serial killer. In this way, Ella Fitzgerald is hands-down the perfect performer for this nicely nasty little song.
I’ve been married, and married, and often I’ve sighed “I’m never a bridesmaid, I’m always a bride.
I never divorced them, I hadn’t the heart Yet remember these sweet words, “’till death do us part”
I married many men, a ton of them Because I was untrue to none of them Because I bumped off every one of them To keep my love alive
There is a perverse logic here I recognise; not the bumping-off part (my ex-partner is alive and well despite our various disagreements), but the idea of hastening the end of something before the end itself can disappoint. Fitzgerald is killing her husbands, not for their inheritances (though we can presume from their knighthoods they are not short of a bob or two), but in a selfless act of self-defence. She is protecting the ideal of romantic love from the indignities of long-term intimacy; from the farts and the floaters and the acid-reflux; from the balled tissues on the nightstand with their gooey soft-centres; from the baggy y-fronts and even baggier ball-bags, from the hairy soaps and varicose veins; and from the creeping somnambulism of routine and suppressed red-mist rage at all the snoring, at the chewing, at all the breathing. Rodgers and Hart’s heroine would rather her husbands dead than disappointing.
As a small boy, I was the same about holidays. Buoyed by the prospect of all the long days of freedom ahead of me, I’d be bonny and bouncy at the outset of my holidays, but come the mid-point of my week, my mood would bruise. Next thing, I’ve already re-packed my little suitcase and I’m sulking powerfully, now actively trying to hurry the holiday to its dreaded conclusion by refusing to participate in the present.
Sunday afternoons were the same. Christ, they’re still the same; it’s 4 pm on a Sunday and I want the weekend dead and buried so I won’t have to endure the awful ticking down towards the inevitability of Monday. I want things dead, not dying. The long days of late August can grip me similarly, as I whip on my widows weeds even as the sun still blazes and ample opportunities remain for loafing and lotus-eating. I’ve lost count of the number of pleasant experiences I’ve killed off prematurely simply because the prospect of them ending is worse, wringing the lovely necks of parties, blithe company, and sunny days to see off the misery of denouement.
Sir Paul was frail, he looked a wreck to me At night he was a horse’s neck to me So I performed an appendectomy To keep my love alive
Sir Thomas had insomnia, he couldn’t sleep at night I bought a little arsenic, he’s sleeping now all right
Sir Philip played the harp, I cussed the thing I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing And now he plays where harps are just the thing To keep my love alive To keep my love alive
I thought Sir George had possibilities But his flirtations made me ill at ease And when I’m ill at ease, I kill at ease To keep my love alive
In what was a case of life imitating art, I bit my mum’s hand while watching Jaws. Grizzled shark-hunter Quint was seconds away from meeting his sticky end between the foam teeth of Spielberg’s rubberCarcharodon carchariasand mum had the temerity to put her hand over my eyes to shield me from the ensuing gouts of blood. I bit her to make her take her hand away – which she did. I wanted to see the nuts and bolts of this horrible thing. This was death made for looking at. This was death as spectacle. To Keep My Love Alive, however whimsical, is likewise in a tradition of storytelling that delights in the presentation of the destruction of the human body for our entertainment. It is a tradition based not on shock, but on anticipation.
Sir Charles came from a sanatorium And yelled for drinks in my emporium I mixed one drink, he’s in memorium To keep my love alive
Sir Francis was a singing bird, a nightingale, that’s why I tossed him off my balcony, to see if he, could fly
Sir Atherton indulged in fratricide, He killed his dad and that was patricide One night I stabbed him by my mattress-side To keep my love alive To keep my love alive To keep my love alive
To Keep My Love Alive doesn’t end with our merry murderer being found out and carted off to the nearest insane asylum. This isn’t a whodunnit. We know very well who is doing what to whom and we’re being invited to enjoy their terrible behaviour. More than this, we are being invited to look forward to the next death-dealing ingenuity. The structure of the song quickly establishes there will soon be another murder, and then another, and now another, and we welcome warmly each inventive tableaux. Slasher movies know this. Director Richard Donner knew this when he made The Omen. The Final Destinationfranchise made millions of dollars because it knows this. These successive games of death are never games of if, or even really of who. There are always games of how.
Twenty years after To Keep My Love Alive was penned, Edward Gorey published The Gashley Crumb Tinies, his 1963 ABC of children’s mortal accidents. In common with To Keep My Love Alive, it takes a conscientious moral effort to reinstall the fact of Gorey’s subject-matter being about terrible things happening to innocent individuals. It takes effort because, truth be told, we don’t care. We don’t care because we are ghoulish. Because we love gallows humour because we need it. We like it when the unspeakable is spoken. More than this, we approve. We like it when our artists, writers, and filmmakers think, say and do the things we know we shouldn’t think, say or do. Edward Gorey dispatches luckless children for our pleasure and we feel only sneaking affection for his macabre alphabet. Ella Fitzgerald murders husbands and we smile and clap and tingle admiringly at her liberty to behave so appallingly.
Passion Animation Studio’s viral sensation, Dumb Ways To Die (2012), is where Rodgers and Hart and Edward Gorey meet in a sweet venn diagram of music-driven fatalities. Again, we have a simple song with a simple structure, distinguished by some fantastic word-play, and all in the service of powering along a sequence of appalling deaths designed to entertain. (Oh yeah, there’s also an important message somewhere in here about railway safety from Metro Trains in Melbourne, Victoria). If you know this charming little ditty already, you won’t thank me for resurrecting it. If you don’t know Dumb Ways To Die, I apologise in advance for the way it will now burrow into your brain, where it will worm snugly alongside To Keep My Love Alive and reside there stubbornly for days.
The Last Time I Saw Richard is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I was introduced to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album, Blue, when I was a first year undergraduate at art college. Maybe this is when everyone first hears the album? It certainly reads like a cliché now I’ve written it down.
The person who brought Blue to my attention was an older female student, a formidably assertive ceramicist, who was bisexual long before it was a thing and gave zero fucks what people thought of her. This was back in the early nineties, so my copy was pirated for me on a plain silver disc covered in the big indelible loops of the ceramicist’s hand-writing. I don’t know why this warm, generous, hot-headed woman thought I needed this album. Obviously I was walking about the place with a Joni Mitchell-shaped hole in me, as conspicuous to everyone else as a really bad hat.
Whatever the reason, Blue arrived with me, gifted by someone older and wiser, by someone who lived and worked in London, someone who’d travelled widely, someone less inhibited, someone with more notches on their bedpost, someone trailing more damage, someone bigger, someone braver.
The first thing you notice is how immediate it sounds, as if this is music not reaching you from some recording studio in 1971, but from a more intimate pocket of space.
I like every song on Blue. If it wasn’t June, I’d just as likely be enthusing about River, ‘the greatest, saddest Christmas song of all time’, and if I was tousled and sunburned from lounging too long by the pool, I’d be likely banging on about Carey, ‘the greatest summer holiday song of all time’.
The Last Time I Saw Richard is the final track on the album, the one that leaves you in silence, the one that makes reaching for another song or album feel as unseemly as buying a puppy moments after burying your dog. The song is just three short verses long; two people sitting across from each other in a bar, one of whom, Richard, is chiding the other’s romanticism and predicting for her only disillusionment. Richard’s companion suspects Richard ‘protests too much’, that his heart, though buried beneath bitter experience, lives on no less hopefully, and she points to his choice of songs on the establishment’s jukebox as proof.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68 And he told me, “All romantics meet the same fate someday Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café “You laugh,” he said, “you think you’re immune Go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you All those pretty lies, pretty lies When you gonna realise they’re only pretty lies? Only pretty lies, just pretty lies”
He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed Three buttons and the thing began to whirr And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie And she said “Drink up now, it’s gettin’ on time to close.” “Richard, you haven’t really changed,” I said, it’s just that Now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are Dreaming, listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet When you gonna get yourself back on your feet? Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet
The Last Time I Saw Richard is filmic, which is surely why it springs to life so readily in my mind’s eye. I love the description of the barmaid in her fishnet stockings. I understand everything I need to know about this supporting character; the wilt of her bowtie, the aching of her feet, her impatience with couples and their intense conversations familiar to anyone who has worked behind a bar or waited tables; someone’s life is falling apart and all you’re thinking about is slipping your feet out of your shoes.
The images which accompany this song in the picture palace of my head are pilfered from Edward Hopper, a blending of Nighthawks (1942), Automat (1927), New York Movie (1939) and Night Windows (1928). The era is wrong, but everything else feels right. This affinity is as much to do with the brevity of Hopper’s paintings as it does with their isolated subjects. Mitchell’s three short verses allude to entire lives and complex emotional realities. They find their visual counterpart in the cropped glimpses of Hopper’s compositions; both offer views fleeting as they are meaningful.
After Hopper’s paintings, it’s another room I see, the bedroom of the student house I lived in for the duration of my degree. The house itself was unremarkable, rather awful even, situated in an estate populated by smugglers – not the whiskery Cornish sort, but the sun-burned, bald, brick shithouse kind with fleets of transit vans stacked with stolen fags. As art students, my housemates and I had little in common with our neighbours, except in one regard; like them, we didn’t have a proper job between us either.
The first thing I did after moving into my student house was paint my room’s old granny wallpaper with terracotta emulsion. Terracotta was having a moment, likewise anything with moons and stars on it. There was nothing to be done about the purple carpet in my room, except, Stockholm-syndrome style, grow to love it. Luxury of luxuries, my room had a double-bed, old and soft and a disaster-zone for vertebrae. I had a duvet cover of tiny flowers in shades of custard, biscuit, and the brown-pink of sticky-plasters. My room faced West. On sunny evenings, the terracotta walls blazed (my purple carpet too) and my double-bed would bake. I was conceited enough to think, by letting the plangent chords of The Last Time I Saw Richard escape freely out of my open window into the broiled air of the estate, I was providing a service to the world-at-large. I liked to imagine the song inspiring moments of respite, reflection and fugue, similar to the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when an entire prison is transported by Duettino “Sull’aria”. In reality, these plangent chords were as short-lived as mayflies, swatted from the air by the rich imbroglio of noise from our neighbours’ front gardens, where smugglers sunbathed in deck chairs, drunk as lords and ribald as vikings.
Young people like to think they’ve discovered sex, much to the twinkling amusement of everyone older than them. It must be the same when young people discover Joni Mitchell, but in my defence, there’s something more subtle to express here; sometimes you arrive at something you understand in your sinews, not because your own experience aligns with it. It shouldn’t be possible to feel pangs of nostalgia for an experience who’ve never had, and I was hardly built in the image of the characters populating Joni’s songs; I wasn’t shot through with all that super-8 sunlight. I wasn’t a restless traveller, beach-comber, spontaneous road-trip taker, or world-weary disillusioned lover. In no one’s imagination was I a carefree soul, and yet, I found Blue‘s songs recognisable, none more so than The Last Time I Saw Richard.
Richard got married to a figure skater And he bought her a dishwasher and a Coffee percolator And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on And all the house lights left up bright I’m gonna blow this damn candle out I don’t want Nobody comin’ over to my table I got nothing to talk to anybody about All good dreamers pass this way some day Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes Dark cafes, only a dark cocoon Before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away Only a phase, these dark cafe days
A rare phonecall between my father and I takes place in the grim, dim hallway of that same student house with the flaming terracotta room upstairs. I’m lonely and dissatisfied in ways not completely visible to me. I’m not sure I’m on the right degree course. I’m not sure I’m on the right path. I’m not sure I’m living the life I want to. I’m not sure of very much it seems. Dad tells me to buck-up. Dad, a hard-working self-made type, shrinks the vagaries of my formless existential angst by reminding me that happiness is the quest for ‘a bigger sofa, a bigger car, and a bigger house’. I need to wake up, move on, get real, grow up. This is the last time I solicit his advice – just in case he’s right.
I think about this telephone call when I hear The Last Time I Saw Richard. The song returns me to the white-hot frustration I felt at the fatalism of my dad’s counsel. I transpose our telephone conversation to a Hopperesque bar, with my father and I sitting on opposite sides of a table; he tells me I’ll soon learn what he’s learnt and that it’s time to put away childish things. I remind him of the paintings of his I’ve seen from when he was a young man – the dinosaurs, and the Biro bats on his old satchel.
A few years later, I go to a barbecue hosted by one of my friends from art college. I’m as poor as a church mouse and can’t really afford to be socialising, but there will be other people from college at the barbecue and I’m looking forward to seeing them again. It’s fun for a short time, and then I’m holding a piss-poor excuse for a hamburger listening to multiple conversations about London house prices.
On the train journey home, I stare out at the houses neighbouring the railway line. The Last Time I Saw Richard plays in my head. It’s because I’m thinking about Edward Hopper, and all the big/little stories going on inside these houses. More specifically, it is the lines about Richard’s coffee percolator and his house with ‘all the lights left up bright’ going round and round. We’re all Richard now, I decide miserably, thinking back to the barbecue and its utter banality. I cast glances around the carriage at all the hollowed-out men and women staring out of windows. Now I’m thinking about the final lines of the final verse, as the song’s narrator doubles-down on her refusal to go this same way, even as the chords, the vocal performance, and the shape of the song lead us to suspect it’s already too late, that she is Richard too, and if not yet, then one day soon.
When I listen to The Last Time I Saw Richard, I see the paintings of Edward Hopper. I see my student room and all that took place there. I also see this awful barbecue and how awful we were, chatting boringly, our not-much younger selves looking on with withering disdain.
When I listen to The Last Time I Saw Richard I make and re-make promises, swearing I’ll ensure my eyes will remain as ‘full of moon’ as I can manage. I’ll do the job of Joni’s narrator too, challenge Richards when I find them, prove them wrong and re-enchant them. I’ll do this for myself too, and when it’s difficult, like it’s difficult now, I’ll try and remember what is temporary about dark cocoons and what is transportive about Joni’s gorgeous wings.
Street of Crocodiles is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Back when I had a pudding basin haircut and jumble sale clothes, I pestered my parents for a Purple People Eater.
The Purple People Eater was a toy in which the aim of the game was to rescue a clutch of small plastic people from underneath the titular monster, which was a rubbery blob with a valance of tentacles sitting over a battery-operated mechanism. In what essentially was a pimped-up version of the old wire loop game, you had to feed the little plastic people back out of the mouth of the Purple People Eater while avoiding whatever bit of the mechanism that would otherwise cause the rubbery blob to startle very suddenly into growling, flashing life.
I wanted a Purple People Eater more than anything and I was beyond thrilled when I got one – and then I played with it. I tried to enjoy myself. I wanted to enjoy myself, but the truth I dared not name was simple; my Purple People Eater scared the living shit out of me, and not because of the way it looked, for I was the sort of boy who happily spent his pocket money on giant rubber centipedes. What frightened me was the prospect of my Purple People Eater coming so shockingly to life, the horrid jolt of it, this jump-scare in-waiting. The Purple People Eater scared me, not because it was horribly alive, but because it was always about to be.
A child hopes and dreams their toys are alive. This same child fears it’s true.
This contradiction lives on in my fascination for the Brother’s Quay 1986 stop motion animation, Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of a short story by Bruno Schulz peopled by broken dolls, forlorn clockwork toys, and mannequins.
Freud’s theory of the uncanny is used to explain the special queasiness we save for humanoid effigies, for the puppets, the dolls, the mannequins and the waxworks, and as explanations go, it feels right. The cultural unease we reserve for this category of objects is special because it is an unease we’ve known before. It is not surprise we experience when, as sensible, right-thinking grown-ups, we’re compelled to glance twice at the ventriloquist’s dummy, but familiarity. As children, we knew very well to regard our person-shaped playthings with a degree of ambivalence. We knew an act as simple as turning off our bedside light could reveal the Janus-faces of our poppets, our moppets and our beloved unblinking homunculi. When we experience the uncanny as adults, we are returned to that precautionary knowledge and we don’t like it much; few adults care to confront gladly the frailty of their hard-won rationalism.
The trope of the scary toy has been bludgeoned into harmless hokiness by all the many horror films that seek to press this ready-made button. I am immune to the likes of Chucky and to Annabelle. I watched the 2012 adaptation of The Women In Black in a mild state of annoyance, feeling cheated out of a more complex experience by the gratuitous shots of sinister toys. When I want my button pressed, I return to Street of Crocodiles, and not to the animation’s many sightless dolls or mannequins, but to the monkey toy with its skitter of cymbals that looks out at us from within its grubbied vivarium of glass and which comes so suddenly to life. In these moments, I’m back in my room in the house of my childhood kneeling opposite my Purple People Eater, wishing it into life, wishing it dead and gone, agonised by indecision and suspense.
Street of Crocodiles feels like a monument to childhood trauma – mine, yours, the directors – like we’re looking through the keyhole into a counselling session in which the filmmakers have been asked to play with toys with which to enact, exorcise or inflame some private psychic injury. I feel positively voyeuristic when watching the Quay’s animation, like I’m peering at their most private things, at the oblique treasures of two disturbed hoarders. To view Street of Crocodiles is to open a secretive door into a secretive cabinet laid out with secretive objects, all of which are substantively mundane, but in the status awarded them by dint of their fastidious presentation, I know them to be magical, dangerous, and of obsessive importance. I’m quite comfortable admitting I do not know why we are shown so often the strange meeting of two skeletal arms, which appear to create some kind of shock or tremor when they touch. What to make of the ice-cubes that unmelt, or the precise importance of the pocket watch filled so unpleasantly with a sphincter of raw meat? Often times, I feel as nonplussed and blinkless as the puppet character himself. There is a visual language here fraught with significance I haven’t been invited to share. This is not a criticism. It feels just as meaningful and true to experience things that cannot be understood. My gaze is frustrated. I look and I look, and like a visitor to a foreign country, I see many meaningful things the meaning of which I cannot know.
Acts of looking characterise Street of Crocodiles. Our own journey through these streets is pinned to the investigations of an unnamed stop-motion puppet, whose design is the answer to the never-asked question that wonders what would happen if the venerable gentlemen of horror, Peter Cushing, was spliced with some cautious long-legged insect. Reluctance, shame and curiosity all combine in the behaviours of this character, who is often shown hesitating on the threshold of some darker door or deeper ingress. Dressed as he is in a tail-coat, it’s like watching a mini-me Dorian Gray creeping his way into the opium dens and fleshpots of some Stygian London backstreet.
When I lived in Dalston, I was enchanted by Abney Park Cemetery that was just up the road in Stoke Newington. One of the ‘magnificent seven’ of London’s great cemeteries, Abney Park is lent further romance on account of it having once been abandoned to nature. I walked there one morning to take a series of moody black and white photographs, drawn to capturing on 1600 film the fright-wigs of desiccated ivy sported by some headstones, and drawn too to having my button pressed by all those watchful marble angels who may, or may not, have been moving out of the corner of my eye. It was an ordinary week day, the sun shining, the liveliness of Stoke Newington Highstreet a short distance away, but in this truly remarkable place, the atmosphere won out, and I moved through a timeless sequestered world of green gothic shadow. I didn’t know it then, but the cemetery was a popular cruising spot, and as I departed from the cemetery’s more formal pathways in search of moodier vignettes, I became aware of the keen, watchful presence of other men waiting silently on the edges of the cemetery’s more secluded spaces.
I recall this episode because, in their tingling mix of curiosity and caution, the thirsty men of this once-forgotten cemetery and the Street of Crocodiles’ Wildean protagonist feel one and the same. In the animation, the character’s ingress into the street of crocodiles begins with him loosening a knot in a near invisible line of thread. Then, in ways we never truly understand, this thread activates unseen apparatus that clear the way for the puppet to enter into a scenario he is both fascinated by and nervous of. He wants to go further, but he worries. He wants to explore, but at what risk?
When I think about those bold-bashful men in the ruined London cemetery, I also see them reaching out to pluck with their fingers at some otherwise unseen connection, as mysterious to some and shadowy as the mechanisms at work in the street of crocodiles.
Schulz’s street of crocodiles shares with Abney Park its double-coding. It is both what it is and also what it isn’t. Schulz lavishes description on the interior of a tailoring shop and its tailor, and we soon learn that this establishment and staff offer services of a very different stripe, though inside leg measurements are common to both. Schulz elides the precise nature of these backroom activities, but we can guess. The Brothers Quay are a little more forthcoming, as the same sequence in the tailor shop moves from dancing pins and coloured scarves to unsettling tableaux of a sexual nature. We watch as the shop’s retinue of fussing, broken dolls approximate an erect penis with orbs of meat and pins. An abandoned glove and sprout of pubic hair stands in for a vagina. We must assume these carnal alter-pieces are emblems for every shade of debauchery, but far from seeming rude, erotic, or illicit, I always find them poignant. Watching the dolls interact with these naughty artefacts, with their little hands and hollow heads, is like hearing children using terrible swear words the transgressiveness of which they don’t really understand, or like watching children shave with daddy’s razor or wearing mummy’s pearls. It makes for a peculiarly sad and queasy spectacle.
Desquamation, deriving from the latin word desquamare, meaning ‘to scrape the scales off a fish’, is the word describing the shedding of our skin. None of us like to think too long or too hard about what comprises the dust collecting on the surfaces of our homes, but to watch Street of Crocodiles is to fairly relish in the stuff. In what might be called ‘the poetics of desquamation’, Street of Crocodiles makes a fetish out of dander. Every scene is flocked with particles of one sort or another, glass frosted with non-specific granules, screws pushing their way out like mushrooms through thick coverings of mulch… But what is Street Of Crocodiles if not a world of cast-offs? Toys, light-bulbs, screws, the worming of snapped rubber bands, all things once useful, once vital, now fallen like flakes from the usage that previously gave them purpose.
Street of Crocodiles always gets me thinking about the coils of my own hair collecting unnoticed in corners of my house, an errant toe-nail clipping, or light powdering of my former-skin, these bits of me made abject and disturbing only on account of their new separateness. Watching Street of Crocodiles encourages me to feel sorry for my detritus. It hardly seems fair or reasonable to evince so much distaste for what are harmless fragments of myself.
Ultimately it’s this that affects me most when watching Street of Crocodiles: not, in fact, the unheimlich spectacle of that amber-eyed monkey with its spasm of cymbals; not the cruisy explorations of the ever-watchful puppet who seeks out the tailor shop with all its pornographic secrets, not even the film’s extraordinary elevation of grime. No, it’s the powerful melancholy of the piece. I’m less disturbed by scenes of sightless dollies fashioning testicles from steak and more so by the other little doll in the animation who only has a light bulb for a friend. It’s this same friendless little doll that seeks to gain the attention of the animation’s main character with little flashes of a hand-held mirror, and who sits in the dust with only a scurry of screws for company. At one point we see a creature comprised seemingly of light bulbs, as caged behind glass as the amber-eyed monkey, who seems trapped in some bleak Sisyphean task. The tailoring dolls, at first so fastidious and busy, wind down suddenly, their cogs showing, their limbs windmilling uselessly, slowly, slowing.
At the end of the animation, the puppet protagonist escapes the street of crocodiles, leaving all these lonely, broken and abandoned things behind, and it always feels like someone sneaking away from the aftermath of febrile house party, where every room is now filled with broken ornaments, fly-blown food, and the sediment of behaviours unsuited to daylight.
Black Narcissus is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger from the novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus (1947) charts the trials and tribulations of an order of crisp Anglican nuns seeking to establish a Christian outpost high in the Himalayas in the sensorial environs of the Palace of Mopu, a former brothel. Suffice to say, it doesn’t end well.
In what is likely an instance of false memory, I can almost definitely recall the first time I saw Black Narcissus, or perhaps more truthfully, I can imagine easily the prickly transgressive sensation the film would have likely produced in me when I first watched it as a child.
I’m going to choose to remember it this way, me sitting in front of the telly on some rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m tempted to describe the soothing percussion of the rain against the window and the soporific heat of the gas fire, but I’d almost certainly be embellishing for effect, though again, these details sound likely.
What I can say with more certainty is there is no way I could have understood what Black Narcissus was actually about, not back then. Black Narcissus is a film where much of what transpires between the characters is carried not by their dialogue but by the glances passing between them, or by their spatial relationships, or in what the camera chooses to include in the frame. This movie is a movie about sex, but if you don’t know what sex is yet, much of what drives the characters in the film to behave towards each other in the ways they do is hopelessly cryptic. If your balls haven’t dropped, neither will the penny.
Anyway, I was likely sulking darkly in one corner of the settee after discovering the titular ‘black narcissus’ wasn’t in fact a villainous sorcerer in a Sinbad film or, better still, the name of a spaceship. No, this was an old British film about serious unsmiling nuns, their thick white robes hanging on them like pastry, their hands ringing bells, their hands wringing, and all of them getting upset suddenly, shrilling and flapping at each other like gulls, until one of their group puts on a red dress and suddenly all hell breaks loose…
While I couldn’t have understood the psycho-sexual polarities tugging at the characters of Black Narcissus, I would have been wide-awake to the film’s peculiar atmosphere, my antennae pricking up, jangled by the film’s vibrato. Like all children who sense they’re on the cusp of some forbidden act or experience, I likely soaked it up with horrid dread and pleasure. The BBC might have decided to screen Black Narcissus in the middle of the afternoon, but I knew it wasn’t suitable for me. It unsettled me in ways I couldn’t name or identify – and I liked it.
I’m reminded now of a weird little episode at my secondary school when a group of girls started doing Ouija boards in the toilets. I was thirteen or thereabouts and for a short period of days, there were outbreaks of hysteria and fainting fits, teachers marching red-eyed, wet-faced girls along corridors to sit with them in small rooms. I’m reminded too of a school trip to the Isle of Wight where we shared rooms of punishingly uncomfortable bunk-beds. One night, a large group of us all crammed into the same room, where we told each other horrible true stories about ghost hitchhikers and dead baby-sitters, until the tension between us was so high, so feverish, it felt as if the air itself might ignite with pulsing purple sparks. Anyone coming into that room would have reeled on their heels from the high funk of our stewing hormones – fright, flight and fucking all swirled together – only we were all too young to fuck or even want to fuck, but there it was, rattling away at us anyway, just as the wind in Black Narcissus blows so unceasingly through the corridors of the palace of Mopu…
Today, the pleasure I derive from Powell and Pressburger’s startling film increases with every viewing. I admire its singularity. I’m always surprised it even got made. As the film moves towards its stranger terrains, I have to remind myself Black Narcissus was made in 1947. I understand a BBC remake is due imminently, but I’d rather Darren Aronofsky got hold of it because in pitch, tone and subject-matter, it already feels like one of his movies. I can only assume Black Narcissus was a very personal work for Powell and Pressburger, that Godden’s story was some private itch they wanted to scratch.
Back when I was a university lecturer, I would every year screen the Blu-ray restoration of Black Narcissus on the big screen of the lecture theatre, as part of a programme of films for undergraduate students in support of their project on production design. I would look forward to this opportunity to see Jack Cardiff’s pellucid cinematography writ-large and likewise hear Brian Easdale’s richly impressionist score through the lecture theatre’s array of surround sound speakers. I would also dread screening Black Narcissus because I knew my students would hate it, and if not hate it, then meet the experience with indifference, which was worse.
And largely my students did hate it, yawning throughout like baby birds and rustling the wrappings of their smuggled snacks with pointed impatience. Black Narcissus left my students cold, unmoved by the plight of all these fluttering nuns and seemingly unimpressed by the various devices contrived by the filmmakers to ensure the characters’ physical surroundings compounded and communicated their libidinous turmoil. There is a particular private pain in offering up a favourite thing only to have its preciousness met with strained forbearance.
One of the most celebrated scenes in Black Narcissus comes when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) very deliberately applies scarlet lipstick to her mouth while Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) looks on, aghast. Sister Ruth has just relinquished her vows and is getting ready to quit the convent for what she hopes is a bunk-up with the disreputable Mr Dean, played by David Farrar. From the outset of the film, Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh have been locked into a battle of wills and this is Sister Ruth’s final disavowal of Sister Clodagh’s authority. She’s had it with God too.
Following one screening of the film, I asked my students for their own thoughts on the lipstick scene. No forty-something male tutor really wants to spell out to a roomful of twenty-year olds how the reddening of a woman’s lips can be read as semiotic short hand for a sudden rush of blood to the labia, so I didn’t. Hoping someone would say it for me, I asked, ‘So what does it mean when Sister Ruth applies her lipstick?’ Finally, after a long silence, a single student put up their hand and answered, ‘That she’s getting ready to go out?’ As answers go it was inarguably accurate, but when I went on to suggest Sister Ruth might as well have been pointing a neon arrow at the absolute readiness of her vagina to receive the rugged attentions of Mr Dean, the lecture theatre fell silent.
I referred next to an earlier conflict between the two nuns in Sister Clodagh’s office, where they argue about Mr Dean. The subject of the scene is the two women’s unspoken desire for him, and the rivalry now firmly established between them for his attentions. Resolve is weakening, vows are wavering, sap is rising, and there on the table between the two warring nuns we see a hand bell, its handle making for a conspicuously phallic silhouette. ‘Obviously, it’s a cock,’ I said to my students. ‘It’s the idea that dare not speak its name. Powell and Pressburger are putting the delicious spectre of Mr Dean’s manhood in plain sight. It is the return of the repressed! The forbidden phallus!’
There is nothing quite like the deepening, abyssal silence a roomful of bored post-prandial students can produce when they’re thinking their tutor is a tragic perv.
But I’m not imagining it. Sexualised imagery is everywhere in this film. It’s on the walls of the old palace in the form of frescos depicting the voluptuous forms of the prostitutes who once inhabited its chambers. Every now and then, the camera will cut to one of these paintings to remind us of the inadequacy and folly of repression, these curvaceous painted ladies looking on at the nuns’ histrionics with what we take to be great amusement. There are naked statues too, which the nuns cover with dust-sheets, but as Sister Ruth runs gleefully from the palace to be with the object of her desire, we see one of these statues drop its veil completely. By this point in the story, everything else is slipping too, everything else is being laid bare.
As the film begins its third act, which will soon end in horror and in tragedy, we’re treated to a super-saturated montage of spring flowers and blasts of Easedale scores. We’re treated to the image of a magnolia tree, its branches near-indecent with their weight of flowers, which are rudely flushed and upright – and what are flowers if not the showiest of sex organs? What are plants if not outrageous exhibitionists? Powell and Pressburger aren’t simply informing cinema-goers of a change in the season, they’re waving great bouquets of genitalia at us. This isn’t just a magnolia tree, ladies and gentlemen, and those pinkish waxy goblets with their closely-guarded anthers and pistles are not blooms, but rather a cavalcade of up-for-it private parts. Nature is rudely unapologetic – colour is life! – but we’ll soon see too how colour will likewise augur death.
Should we be in any doubt that flowers are being used as part of the film’s symbolic schema as another substitute for the pleasures of the flesh, we need only look to the character of good old reliable Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), whose job it has been to prepare the grounds around the Palace in readiness for a vegetable garden. In another of the film’s ‘big moments’ that centre around smallish things, Sister Clodagh discovers Sister Phillipa has gone rogue. She has been seduced away from the proper productive pragmatism of her carrots and potatoes, preoccupied instead with the onanism of beauty, with the frills, folds, and sticky, honeyed stamens of a flower garden. Earlier in the film, Sister Clodagh notices Sister Phillipa staring out at the mountainous horizon in a fugue state. By way of explanation, Sister Phillipa complains ‘you can see too far’. She is becoming unbounded and her inner life newly expansive.
And there’s all the other richly Freudian stuff too; the great big horns that blow, and the big bell that rings with its heavy thudding clapper, while below it, Sister Ruth, who may already be mad and probably sick with some unspecified water-born virus, wraps her pale thin hands around the thick cord of the rope and tugs and tugs and tugs while wearing another of her secret transportive smiles…
In one extraordinarily candid scene, Sister Clodagh is spirited back into one of her memories by the distant sound of a barking dog that interrupts the silence of the chapel. She remembers taking part in a fox hunt, riding side-by-side with her beau across the open country. The music is orgasmic suddenly with the ululation of male and female voices. We likewise hear the thundering of hooves and the baying of the hounds. This is blood-sport, something primitive and savage reconfigured as civilised grown-up recreation, but make no mistake, this is primal, sweat-flecked exertion. Sure enough, when we cut back to the ever lovely Deborah Kerr, who we know very well has been remembering the way it felt to grip the musculature of her steed between her thighs, we see how her lips are glossier, her mouth parted. In truth, I’m always a little bit shocked by this sequence. It finds the prude in me, not least because Deborah Kerr is so very straight-laced, but also because the meaning is crystal clear; these are images coming to us direct from Sister Clodagh’s wank-bank.
… and with that observation, the silence of the lecture theatre prolongs unbearably, as I realise that this year, like every year, Black Narcissus is no one else’s favourite thing and all its lurid, febrile charms have gone unnoticed and under-appreciated. To be honest, I feel the same about wine. The label promises an avalanche of cherries and grace notes of elderflower and all I get is vinegar.
Black Narcissus is often categorised as a melodrama, which is short-hand for ‘a woman’s picture’, and is one of those descriptors that drips with disdain. Unlike ‘science-fiction’ or ‘the western’, melodrama it is not just a word for the collection of tropes most associated with a type of story, it’s a judgement on those tropes too. If something is described as melodramatic, the implication is the feelings on show lack authenticity, that they are performative and needy and attention-seeking. One of the very special things about Black Narcissus is the way it eschews authenticity for the heightened language of a dream. Famously, the film was shot almost entirely at Pinewood Studios, with sets, miniatures and glorious matte paintings by Walter Percy Day combining to produce a unique sense of place – or should that be ‘non-place’ or ‘unplace’, because we’re never in any doubt that the Palace of Mopu is a heady confection, an idea of a place, a fantasy of a location.
The otherworldliness of the Palace Of Mopu is core to the mechanics of its story, as the colourless Sisters of Saint Faith are over-stimulated by the Technicolour hyperrealism of their new surroundings. We’re told the water is effecting them, likewise the sound of the drums reaching up to them from the jungle below that robs them of their sleep. The wind refuses to calm, and, as Sister Phillipa complains, the air itself is ‘too clear’.
One of the most magical sequences in the film comes right at the beginning, as a disembodied camera takes us on a tour of the Palace of Mopu, while the disembodied voice of Mr Dean introduces us to the setting. Narration gives way to ethereal singing, a choir of ghosts, and always we hear the wind and see it animating faded slips of once-colourful fabric. We meet the caretaker of the palace, Angu Ayah, (May Hallat) and watch her dancing alone through the different rooms of the palace, reliving the heyday of her service, which we can only assume included re-arranging the scatter cushions after glorious orgies and giving zero-fucks about who was doing what to whom.
At one point, Mr Dean says of Angu Ayah, ‘She is the caretaker. She has always been the caretaker’ – or words to that effect. When I hear that I’m always reminded of the very final scene of Kubrick’s The Shining, when we realise Jack Torrance has ‘always been at the Overlook’, and the Palace of Mopu and the Overlook Hotel draw snugly together as grandiose mountain-top locations bedeviled by ghosts.
The lighting in Black Narcissus is extraordinary. It’s one of the principle reasons I liked showing this film to would-be animators because of the permission it gave them to use light and colour as boldly.
The film’s showiest moments come at its climax when the real world rationale for all those oranges, yellows and reds is sunset and sunrise. Symbolically, the colour transforms the rooms of the Palace of Mopu as arousal might change the saturation of human skin. There is a warming up, a blushing, a creeping of intensity mirrored by the pulse of the story, which by this point is quickening towards its climax. Here again we see the futility of repression – the impossibility of stoppering up the heat and hue of a natural phenomena.
So otherworldly does the film become, there is one scene that better resembles a painting from a book of fantasy art, or a forgotten still from Mike Hodge’s Flash Gordon (1980). We see Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean walking together close to edge of the vertiginous cliff that will later prove so deadly, and in the void beside them, we see a swirling nebula of blue and orange clouds. If you subscribe to Freud’s iceberg model of the human mind, with the conscious mind as the tip, the preconscious mind as the middle of the iceberg, and the unconscious mind as the greatest mass concealed away in the depths, it’s possible to view this phantasmagorical seascape as evidence that the rational world is sinking fast and soon to be submerged.
Less showy, but no less impressive, are all the many close-ups of the nuns’ faces themselves. Deborah Kerr is near-translucent in head shots of exquisite monochrome. Right at the opening of the film, we meet the strict mother superior who sets things in motion when she dispatches Sister Clodagh on her mission to Mopu. Her own close-ups are mesmerising to me and when seen on blu-ray, utterly pristine. It’s as if you could push your fingers through the thin membrane of the television screen and run them over the dry corrugation of her lines and wrinkles.
It’s easy to ‘queer’ Black Narcissus. Any film that pivots around a same sex community where the thought of ‘doing it’ is fraught will speak to LGBT audiences of one stripe or another, though it’s deeply unfashionable now to align gay experience with stories that end with tragedy. This is likely another reason why Black Narcissus always failed to resonate with my wonderfully gender and identity-fluid students, for whom the repression of self must seem like a terrific waste of time and energy.
It would be revisionism on my part to suggest with any authority that this film ‘spoke to me’ as a gay man before I knew I was a gay man. To be honest, the film never makes me identify with the suffering of the characters, but with their longing, which isn’t quite the same thing. I can always feel the huge effort it must be taking those nuns to ‘not’ look at Mr Dean, who will insist on walking about the former-brothel in the very shortest shorts and with his shirt wide open. The film presents his flesh as spectacle, objectifying him delightfully at every opportunity. Whenever Mr Dean sits himself down, we are required by dint of camera and of framing to look upon his shapely hairy thighs and the furriness of his forearms. His chest hair is thick and showy.
In one scene, Mr Dean makes his entrance wearing only his shorts and shoes and we’re treated to that rarest thing, a largely naked man surrounded by clothed women. The camera invites us to gawp at him – how can we not? – and the tension so created between us looking and the nuns ‘not looking’ is as palpable as it is perfect.
Black Narcissus is difficult to categorise – except when it’s not – and the film is at its most conventional at the end, when this peculiar movie manifests plainly as a horror film. The last ten minutes of Black Narcissus always feel incredibly contemporary to me because they read as a slasher flick. By now, all semblance of realism has been abandoned, as the colour red bleeds into the set and the Palace of Mopu reveals itself to be a gothic castle. Sister Clodagh is alone and imperiled. Spurned by Mr Dean, mad, bad Sister Ruth of the fuck-me lipstick and the red dress, has returned to the palace to murder her nemesis. The stage is set, and now the camera prowls and glides in exact choreography with Easedale’s music, and I’m always riveted. As a child, all of this would have made perfect sense to me – not why things had come to this moment, but how I was supposed to feel about it. I was afraid and I liked it.
But Black Narcissus isn’t a slasher movie. More accurately, it’s a haunted house movie, and when viewed in this way, the film is reassuringly familiar and not so peculiar after all. We have an old empty property with a bad reputation and a group of overly optimistic new tenants taking up residency there, ignoring tell-tale signs that all is not well, and which point to strange forces already at work. Then, one of the new tenants, who is presented from the outset as more susceptible than the others, slowly becomes the focus of the haunted house’s energy, and ultimately its vessel, and then there are monsters.
The horror genre is synonymous with physical metamorphosis, with bodies being invaded and changed, by werewolf bites or alien DNA, or by disfigurements or mutilations. When we talk of the history of horror, it is often a history of its monster-makers: Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce, Dick Smith… It’s a history too of technologies, of prosthetics, of animatronics, of glove-puppets smeared with KY jelly to look half-decent in front of the camera. I never hear anyone talking as readily about the transformation of Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus, but people should be, because it is genuinely spectacular and properly unsettling – and achieved simply, through make-up, lighting, framing and through Kathleen Byron’s unique physicality.
When we do catch glimpses of Sister Ruth in the film’s climatic stalking scenes, she is an angular thing of spite and shadows. At one point we see her scuttle away up some stairs with the awful speed of a furtive spider. She is inhuman now, and when finally she makes her entrance in readiness to push Sister Clodagh to her death, Sister Ruth has been whittled into something appallingly skeletal, her eyes ringed red and her hair curled like wet black worms against her white face. She is possessed. She is death, a wraith, a ghoul.
Notice I haven’t set out all the established caveats around this film; that it is absolutely a colonial fantasy that makes cartoons out of people of colour (at least two of which are white actors in blackface). In respect of its depiction of the indigenous people of the Himalayas, it has all the nuance, sensitivity and accuracy of an episode of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The film’s association of female libido with mental dysfunction and hysteria continues a fine old tradition of monstering sexualised women, and similarly sub-dividing women into saints and sluts. Black Narcissus is awkward and creaky in all these ways certainly and before I screened the film for students, these remarks would be made, and following the screening, student-led symposia would follow on orientalism, the colonial gaze and feministic critique.
But still I wanted to show it, despite its flaws, and I continued to show it, despite its reception, because I genuinely think Black Narcissus is special. It’s an art film. It’s a weird film. It’s a beautiful film and, for all that creaks about it, it’s at times a startlingly modern film.
At the very end of the film, Sister Clodagh and the remaining nuns leave the Palace of Mopu. Sister Ruth is dead and the colonial project is over. Sister Clodagh looks up and we see the Palace vanish behind the clouds. It’s as if it was never there, the events that happened there consigned to a dream or nightmare. I’ve always felt this final shot confirms the directors’ intention that the reality of the film was always unstable or to be put into question; that we spent our time in a largely fantastical place.
I’m always left thinking about the Palace Of Mopu as the credits roll. Like some Freudian Brigadoon, I like to think it reappears whenever another group of repressed proselytizers need their foundational principles jangled and shaken. And Angu Ayah is still there, of course, old, yes, and witch-like certainly, but otherwise unageing, and dancing, and the wind, of course, the wind always blowing.
Introducing M.F.T. or ‘My Favourite Things’ – an as-and-when feature wherein I’ll be bringing together a ‘few of my favourite things’, which are unlikely to include cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, but might include a few brown paper packages wrapped in string if those same brown paper packages contain a bunch of 1970s horror movies on VHS…