Film: Vertigogo (2022)


Back when I was teaching an undergraduate course, one of my yearly highlights was a screening for students of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the big screen. There are many showier reasons for enjoying this film, but I always loved the Saul Bass-designed opening titles – those simple horizontal lines sliding in across the frame with such urgency, while Bernard Herrmann’s score propelled them along. Working with a few simple elements – dots and dashes, lines and ellipses – I set about producing an affectionate fantasia on some Bass-inspired themes for my response to The Kick-About No.49.




MFT #14 Wake In Fright (1971)


Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake In Fright is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.

As a self-styled horror-snob, I spend most of my time experiencing disappointment at much of the current fare. My sensibilities around what is horrifying are actually pretty strict, and my ability to suspend disbelief has waned. I’m no fan of excessive violence, or the spectacular aesthetics of ‘gorenography’, or the supernatural, as it relates to cobwebs and castles, and their canonical creatures. I love dread, which is a heavier feeling than suspense, and nothing to do with people walking around in houses with the lights off.

Dread is the feeling a really good horror film puts you through, and leaves you with. A good horror film clings to your clothes. I remember watching the first Final Destination movie in some big old London cinema – a fine, fun film and easily quaffed – and then, for days afterwards, found myself imperilled by every scaffolding tower and passing car, and later, in the privacy of my bathroom, by every pair of vanity scissors. One of the few dud-notes in that particular movie is when they visualise the ‘angel of death’ as a sort of shadow or blemish – we surely didn’t need that – but a good horror film should accomplish this same thing; a ‘reaching out’ to imprint on our lived realities.

Wake In Fright achieves this for me, and then some, even though Kotcheff’s film is not a horror film at first glance, and while the world of its story is full-bodied antipodean, its dreadfulness feels native, a nightmare cut from Phil-shaped cloth.

Nothing about the film’s slim plot suggests it should resonate so personally: an enervated school teacher, teaching in the parched environs of the back of beyond, sets out on a trip to Sydney, where he plans to spend his two week Christmas vacation with his girlfriend. The teacher alights at Bundanyabba, the mining town from where he’s due to catch his flight to the big city, and with time to kill before he leaves in the morning, he goes for a beer in one of ‘The Yabba’s pubs. What ensues is not your usual The Hills Have Eyes fare, in which a more obviously educated and ‘city-fied’ character is pitched tooth-and-nail against the atavistic savagery of the local population. What Wake In Fright shares with that film, and likewise with Deliverance, Straw Dogs and Duel, is what it tells us about the fragility of civilisation and the frailties of manhood.



Rather like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, whose own largely nightmarish adventure begins with the consumption of a potion with powers of reduction, John Grant’s trip down the rabbit hole begins with a single beer, bought for him by the Yabba’s local policeman, Jock Crawford.

Crawford is an imposing character. Grant, who is as pretty as Peter O’Toole, is presented altogether differently. The interior of the pub is unambiguously confrontational; working men drinking together, Grant moving between them, an outsider, as in an unfamiliar face, but different too in terms of class and the sensuality of his features. The pub is rammed, but Crawford singles him out once, and insists on buying Grant a beer, then watches him drink it. This scene reminds of me of the ways in which boys at school would have to smear new shoes, blooding them if you like, finding their shine insufferable. This scene is about class, but it’s also about homoeroticism – and not the good kind. Crawford is drawn to Grant because he is too handsome, and in this way, in this context, unmanly, and so the noticing of him is unmanning. Grant produces a visual tension in this place, his contrast with the other men obvious. He is a tall poppy, or should that be pansy, and here comes Crawford, the alpha, to buy him a beer and supervise its consumption, to see if Grant is ‘man enough’ after all; to see if he is ‘one of us.’

Even at this early point in the film, I feel the grip of claustrophobia. I think about my teenage years, and all the beers I’ve accepted when I haven’t wanted one, accepting one because I know it would say something about me if I didn’t, those alarm bells ringing at Real Men HQ.



Peer pressure isn’t one of those phrases that necessarily fills us with horror. We perhaps think of it as more of a nudging influence, more likely to result in us buying something we don’t want, or taking up smoking, getting an ill-advised tattoo, or accepting a beer in order to fit in. This is likely why Wake In Fright isn’t marketed as a horror movie, in which the malign influence at work is group think, but were we undecided what Kotchek thinks about the benumbing effects of cultural homogeneity, the director soon makes his feelings clearer still: suddenly, a siren goes off, and every man stops drinking to observe a collective act of remembrance for Australia’s world war one soldiers. The ritual is presented as sinister and dehumanising, a moment of mass zombification. Twitchy and bewildered, Grant falls in line accordingly, coerced into strict observance by the ubiquity of everyone else’s behaviour.

I feel the same way about this moment in Wake In Fright as I do about the last night of the proms, or clapping like seals to to show our appreciation for nurses in lieu of paying them. I feel the same way about Come On Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Baggy Trousers by Madness, or rather the way both songs transformed the dance floors of my youth into temporary ‘no-go’ areas, because this was the music mobs of straight men felt able to dance to without breaking whatever rule had otherwise kept them glued to the bar. Grant’s discomfort mirrors mine around the wearing of remembrance poppies. It’s not the act of respect-giving or the imaginative act of empathy that gives me pause, but rather the panoptical coercion of having to present as respectful. Wake In Fright presents its own ritual of remembrance similarly, not as an opportunity for the individual to imagine the lives and losses of soldiers, but as an opportunity to fall in line. When I watched Wake In Fright most recently, this particular scene made me think of Conservative politicians sneaking union jacks into their every television appearance, and weighing in on what national museums can say or do about their statues. Kotchek presents nationalistic obedience as innately sinister – because, innately, it always is.



Wake In Fright is a fish out of water film, wherein the fish is middle-class and metrosexualised, and the parched environs of The Yabba are working-class and and hyper-masculine. Some of the film’s other othering effects are more common-and-garden. The Yabba itself is presented as intrinsically surreal and solipsistic, as any new place might be expected to feel to the outsider, its various customs abstruse and its inhabitants odd and unknowable. We’re treated to a short, terrifying shot of Father Christmas; an old man gawps vacantly, and the woman on the reception desk of Grant’s hotel is as rude and flat as a wax mannequin, albeit one who is melting in the heat, dipping her fingers in water and applying it to her face in a gesture striking us immediately as breaking some public/private wall. She may as well have her fingers dipping below the elastic line of her knickers.




But John Grant’s long day’s journey into night truly begins when he involves himself in raucous game of gambling back in the shadows of another drinking establishment-come-restaurant, the rules of which are simple; money is won and lost on the tossing of coins marked with a cross. This is another scene that captures brilliantly the strangeness of male culture, for even though the mood of the game is raucous, and opportunities for theft are rife, some long-established, if unspoken, gentlemen’s agreement keeps everyone in abeyance. From the outside, the game comes off as feral and unregulated, but their are decencies being afforded here and a rule of law maintained. More tripwires for the unwary and the unmanly, I think, as I watch the school teacher make all the wrong choices, losing all his money on the flip of painted pennies. At one point, the camera treats us to a single shot of the hot white spotlight illuminating the gaming arena; I’m always reminded of that other antipodean film about civilised folk ill-prepared for the brutal environment in which they find themselves lost; in Nick Roeg’s Walkabout, the close-ups of the blazing sun are treated similarly, the heat whining mosquito-like on the soundtrack.



Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too childish, too unsophisticated, too queer, but when, come the morning after his disastrous dalliance with this big boy’s game of pennies, John Grant is next shown lying completely naked on his hotel bed, I’m always shocked by the spectacle of it. I think to myself, ‘Oh grow up, Phil! It’s just another man’s arse’, but then I think to myself, ‘But why this shot and why now?’ After all, there are any number of ways to play this same scene, any number of ways to communicate how this character has been stripped of his costume of respectability. Ultimately, I can’t help feeling as if this man’s body is being displayed, not least because he’s got that vintage porn star’s tan, which further objectifies his bum cheeks by lighting them up for all to see. I don’t know if I’m supposed to find this moment titillating? The truth is I do. Then I get to thinking, if I’m a bit confronted by this other man’s prone nakedness, what about all the red-bloodied straight men in the audience? How discomforting for them, how unwelcome. After all, real men are not supposed to look upon each other’s bodies in this way (even thought the history of popular cinema is a the history of male flesh presented as spectacle: Tarzan, all those sword and sandal epics, Stallone, etc). I’ll concede there is a long and noble tradition of academic types dressing up their erotic pleasure as subjects for great seriousness and meaningful debate, but anyway I’m going to argue this one scene is key to understanding what is really going on in Wake In Fright.



That John Grant has a sexy, metropolitan girlfriend waiting for him in Sydney is the reason he embarks on his journey to the Yabba in the first place. Interestingly, the girlfriend never exists in the film as a contemporaneous character; she is a picture in his wallet, and what might be a memory of a day at the beach, in which boobs and beer are twinned. For this viewer at least, there is something hyperreal and processed about this memory, like we’re watching an advert instead. Nothing about this moment is particularly convincing, and what it really reminds me of is the way I would thumb my way through those discarded pornographic magazines that somehow found their way into school from railway sidings. I’d want something about these scenarios to strike me as convincing, or as credible, but they never would, just as this moment of heightened heterosexuality in Grant’s imagination feels freighted with artifice and overly self-consciousness.



The women of Wake In Fright are either mythically sexual, as in the case of Grant’s girlfried, or waxen and disembodied, as in the instance of the hotel receptionist; or, in the case of the character of Janette Hynes, an off-centred hybrid of both.

After Grant accepts a beer from Janette’s father, a gnomish, unpleasant man who, like every other male character in the film, bullies Grant into accepting ‘another beer’, the teacher ends up returning to this other man’s home. Grant is now broke, his options limited, and this should feel like a moment of Samaritan-style kindness. That instead it feels Faustian is another example of the Wake In Fright‘s special peril. In this film, hospitality is always coercive, where someone buying you a drink is a spider wrapping you in silk.



Janette, meanwhile, is bored and expressionless, largely invisible to the men around her. In addition to inviting Grant into his house, Janette’s father is visited by two local working men, miners both, thick-set, thicker-headed, and ‘out out’ on an all-day binge of relentless beer-drinking. With their hairy chests and brawny bodies, Dick and Joe are cocks-of-the-walk, but they are as disinterested in Janette as her father, and so she turns her attention to the beautiful stranger, and little wonder. Grant engages her in conversation. He is attentive and discursive. He is sensitive.

Their decision to continue their more intimate conversation outside, away from the boorish interactions of the menfolk, results in the decision they should have sex. Nothing about their particular chemistry makes this seem inevitable, although it is obvious from the outset that they will. The sex they go on to have is awful. As Janette readies herself for ravishment, with a squirming fervour speaking to agonies of loneliness, Grant rolls off her and vomits up his guts. I suppose we are to make from this no more than Grant is ‘too drunk to fuck’, but I can’t help read this disastrous encounter as him rejecting something he cannot stomach. In this moment, I am flashed backwards to what is phony-seeming about his imaginary girlfriend. It returns me to the way Grant’s naked body was served up so gratuitously. Not so much ‘too drunk to fuck’, I think, but too closeted.



It is with the arrival of Doc (played to sweaty perfection by Donald Pleasence), that Grant’s evening deteriorates further, with Grant waking up to find himself at Doc’s tin shack, where Pleasence seeks to assuage the teacher’s roaring hangover with a frying pan brimming with minced kangaroo.

Doc makes for strange and stressful company, off-kilter, yapping, a disgraced doctor and alcoholic, living out on the edge of civilisation and broiling greasily beneath the heel of the sun. As he follows Grant about in his yard, invading the other man’s space, watching his guest urinate, Doc produces an energy at once hard to pin down, but also completely recognisable – to anyone, that is, who has ever felt themselves alone in the company of someone with whom some kind of sexual contact is on the cards. The push-me-pull-you between these two characters reminds me of moments from my own adolescent life, those fraught, taut episodes in which a male school friend has come around to the house, to watch a video maybe, and we’re alone on either end of the settee, and something is off because something is on. I recall a gardening job one sweltering day, moving bags of shingle into the back garden of an unlovely terraced house in an unlovely town. I had someone helping me, an acquaintance really, and not even that, but off came our shirts, the two of us sweating and stinking, our bodies close and getting closer as the job wore on miserably. Resting again, the two of us talking, making jokes, the other guy suddenly put his shirt back on, some membrane between us thinning or spoiling, my eyes dipping perhaps, slipping.

The sexual tension between Grant and Doc is not of this delicious kind, humming sweetly like a chiming fork. It’s all the sour notes instead. There’s a grimace to it, a squalor, an incipient abuse of power, and it’s only going to get worse, and it does.



In common with other films of the 1970s and early 80s, Wake In Fright‘s notoriety originates from the fine line it walks between fact and fiction. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) sets itself up as a real historical event; Cannibal Holocaust (1980) includes images of animals being butchered. Snuff (1975) is entirely fictional, but wants you to think otherwise, while Faces of Death (1978) does include footage of fatal accidents. Wake in Fright is nothing like these grubbier examples, but it does include a protracted kangeroo hunt, in which actual footage of the shooting and killing of kangaroos is mixed with staged elements.

Grant’s initiation into bona fide masculine culture, which began with all those glasses of beer he didn’t want, continues apace as he joins Doc, Dick and Joe on a kangaroo hunt. In a scene of blatant homoeroticism (while in no way being homoerotic), we’re treated to the spectacle of the hunters castrating kangaroos, the scrotums of which are of commensurate size and heft as those of the men themselves. While watching Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, in which a cowboy castrates a bull with his bare hands, I was reminded of these scenes from Kotcheff’s film; of the way in which these men rush to touch the impressively large and hairy gonads of another powerful male, but only as a prelude to destroying them.

In pure cinematic terms, Wake In Fright‘s kangaroo hunt is transformed into expressionistic flashes and tableaux by the swinging light of the hunter’s searchlight, which they use to mesmerise their marsupial quarry. Not content with shooting them, one of the hunters goes hand-to-hand with a kangaroo in an absurdist facsimile of a street-side brawl. Grant is required to make his kill too, to be bloodied, to pass, and while we’re shown the teacher gurning happily, pissed, shooting guns, accepted finally, we know very well he is spiralling into the abyss, monstered by his masculinity and the price of performing it to the satisfaction of his peers.



After the hunt, Doc, Dick, Joe and Grant find their way to some out-of-the-way pub marooned on the edge of a great sea of scrub and nothing. There is more drinking to be done, and I watch this moment with a growing sensation of asphyxiation, imagining my own secret scream if I were likewise trapped in this nightmare of consumption. I’m reminded always of those tableaux glimpsed in airport terminals, groups of men already getting into their first pints, preloading their stag-dos. Maybe I’m just envious of their stamina? Maybe I’m as boring as I sound? Maybe I’m afraid, if I were to start drinking at 7am in an airport pub, I too might find myself covered in blood, a pair of kangaroo’s testicles cooling in the palm of my hand.

Not content with drinking themselves into oblivion, Dick and Joe wrestle each other, rolling about in the dust, their arms about each other, their constricted faces mere centimetres apart. It is impossible to not superimpose the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates from Ken Russell’s Women In Love. It seems the kangaroo hunt was foreplay, but with no sanctioned means of discharging their inflamed libidos, Dick and Joe fall to the ground in each other’s arms. I recall here the anecdote from the set of Russell’s film, wherein Reed and Bates went their separate ways before their scene together, in order to ‘sort themselves out’, so guarding against the horror of any conspicuous displays of arousal. I recollect a moment in my own life, back when I was a sixth former, an outbreak of ‘bundling’ sweeping the common room that saw the young men in my friendship group (myself included) falling to rough and tumble, our bodies knotting together against the thin leatherette cushions of the common room furniture. As Dick and Joe wrestle in the dust, I can’t help think, ‘Oh, just fuck why don’t you?’, which I suspect was a sentiment not too far from the minds of some of the girls in that same sixth form common room, looking on at our plain-sight sublimation of wanks and other kindnesses with small knowing shakes of their heads.

Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence’s character falls into an existential monologue about the barbarity of humankind (like we need reminding, given what we’ve been sitting through) and Grant, a stranger to himself but more recognisable now to everyone else, falls finally into unconsciousness. As the other men continue to fight, Doc smashes up the bar, flinging chairs and howling. It seems the only way this night will end for these men will be in other acts of terrible violence, and so it does, in a fashion.



Grant’s night ‘out with the boys’ concludes with him back at Doc’s shack, where the two men engage in some horseplay of their own. More drink is consumed, only this time the imagery is urophiliac, the two men messing themselves with amber liquid, splashing it around, wetting together like two farmyard animals. Then Grant’s shirt is off, and Doc is leering and laughing and touching and grappling, and while the specificity of the act that takes place between them is left to our imaginations, we know very well something did.

On waking – in fright, we presume – Grant dresses quickly. We’re treated to a shot of Doc wearing his gruesomely stained vest as a tube-dress, I guess because the director wants us in little doubt as to how blurred things have become for the film’s protagonist – or unblurred, arguably, as the painful light of day reveals the more abject realities of sexual desire. This final violence is an interesting one, not least because it inspires Grant to try and murder Doc with a shotgun. It is problematic to suggest the worst thing imaginable is a homosexual act, which is to fall in-step with Steve McQueen’s Shame, where we are encouraged to believe that film’s protagonist is only truly morally bankrupted after we see him being done unto in a gay club. I’ll argue instead, for a closeted man trying to ‘pass’, a homosexual act is likely the worst thing imaginable, and so the final violence here is enacted against Grant’s image of himself.



In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Freud identifies déjà vu as one of the phenomena likely to elicit this special category of unease. In one of Wake In Fright‘s finest episodes of dread, Grant, desperate, begs a lift back to the big city from a truck driver, whose vehicle has the word Sydney emblazoned on it. Grant climbs on board and sleeps, but when he next wakes, the truck driver announcing, ‘We’re here,’ Grant discovers, to his disbelief and horror, the truck driver has driven him all the way back to the Yabba.

What is most unsettling about déjà vu is the creeping feeling we are doomed to repeat something, that instead of our lives building towards knowledge, new wisdom and growth, we are otherwise trapped in a particular setting or state of mind. What is most unsettling about Wake In Fright, a film not short on such moments, is how it ends: with a series of shots mirroring the opening of the film, as we see Grant returning to Tiboonda, his dust bowl home with its dust bowl school. Given the nature of his adventure, the way it peeled him from his skin and stripped him bare and quivering, you might presume Grant irrevocably changed. You might think it quite impossible for this man to go back to his old life, knowing what he knows and having done what he’s done, but Wake In Fright proves otherwise. Apparently, it is possible to fall, beer-first, into the dark heart of masculinity, to be made over into the semblance of acceptable male norms via alcohol and terrible violence, to be shown, in no uncertain terms, the barbarism of gender norms and their cultural presentations, and then, this short time later, just pat yourself back into shape and continue pretending. If you read this film as being about the agonies of a terminally closeted man, Wake In Fright is frightful indeed.



Throwback Friday #91 The Old French House, Tableau (2009)


A different take on the old French house for this Friday’s trip in the time-machine. This image from 2009 looks like the aftermath of some terrible row or marital stand-off, when, in fact, it’s nothing of the sort, just a moment captured between two people. Seconds later, my husband and I were probably laughing at some rubbish joke (his, not mine obviously). As it stands, there is a richness of the light and shadow here, and a tension in the tableau, and a filmic vibe that puts me in mind of the paintings of Edward Hopper.


The Children Of The Night Part 1 (2021)


Originally, I was going to write a short story by way of a response to The Kick-About No.39, and I even got as far as committing to a rough outline, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak, and I couldn’t make it happen in time. The prompt comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the count is talking about the baying of the wolves beneath the moon, but I was never truly scared by vampires and the like. This was due in part to my fascination with the nuts and bolts of horror – its trappings, its effects, and its preoccupations.

The early horror actor Lon Chaney, was known as the man with a 1000 faces, on account of the ways he transformed his face for his performances in films such as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927). Inspired by Chaney’s lo-fi monsters and the lurid short stories of the Pan Book Of Horror, I set about producing a series of self-portraits.

The way in which the resulting images were produced involved conscious use of my webcam, as opposed to my digital camera, courting the particular effects of low-light levels and low-resolution. I was going for something nostalgic, what it was like as a small boy catching glimpses of disturbing things on small, poorly-tuned black and white televisions.

I wrote the captions to further enrich these imaginary moments, ranging across a host of hoary old tropes and cliches familiar to me from those wondrous and tawdry Pan Books of Horror and countless old movies. That said, for all my obvious enjoyment in producing these portraits, one or two did leave me glancing uneasily over my shoulder…



Fundus @ Motus Imago / Showcase of Shapes, Puppets & Moving Things


Fundus was a collaboration between myself and Deanna Crisbacher, a short abstract film comprising images I’d produced for The Kick-About No. 30. Fundus has been selected for Motus Imago, a new film festival going by the subtitle, a ‘Showcase of Shapes, Puppets & Moving Things’ – which I’m very happy about. Fundus is indeed a ‘moving thing’, but what sort of a moving thing I’m not sure! This is from the festival organisers: “Motus Imago – Showcase of Shapes, Puppets and Things in Motion, operates in the scope of programming artistic projects that operate in a vast interdisciplinary field, in the scope of multiformat manipulation, from puppet theatre to moving image. Through works that move between current and traditional techniques, dramaturgies and animated forms and animation cinema. It values the experimental nature of artistic works for adults and children and is presented with a set of educational actions that will take place from October 2021 in Aveiro.” Sounds like fun! Thanks again to Dee for the wizardry, and to The Kick-About community for giving me the get-up and go to keep doing stuff and sharing it.




Scars (2021)


I’ve got a number of scars on my forty-six year old body; the ubiquitous BCG crater on my arm, a hernia scar from when I was a tiny baby, a ‘hole’ between my eyebrows where I picked a chicken pox spot, and more recently acquired, a scattering of other facial scars following a particularly nasty attack of shingles back in the late winter of 2013. You might call these dents and puckerings my ‘souvenirs’ of the wear-and-tear of being alive.

One of my favourite scenes in Jaws (1975), is the sweet, funny moment when grizzled shark-hunter Quint compares war wounds with the more academic oceanographer and shark expert, Matt Hooper. The two men trade stories about the various different ways various different things have taken lumps out of their respective flesh, leaving them with anecdotes written into the surfaces of their bodies. Meanwhile, Chief Brody looks on, deciding against sharing his own battle scar, because, we suspect, his ‘souvenir ‘ is unlikely to impress. I know how Brody feels. With this in mind, I’ve imagined myself as being as colorful a character as Quint, and with just as many stories to tell about terrifying encounters and near-death experiences, and all of them leaving their mark on my body. These imaginary encounters derive from the spectacular dangers of my adolescent life, or rather from my formative confrontations with a host of larger-than-life fictional perils found in paperbacks and on VHS cassette tapes.

If you’re wondering if my commitment to producing original work for The Kick-About is so great, I was happy to maim myself in the name of art, prepare to be a bit disappointed. These scars are faked obviously, but not produced digitally, but in a much more old-school way: the application of latex adhesive to my skin with a washing-up sponge. That done, you can then fold and pinch your latex-stippled skin together to produce some realistic looking areas of damage. My knowledge of this technique is born from a love of old-school horror films and hours spent in front of a mirror, as a child, using whatever I could get my hands on to emulate various monsters of the silver screen.




MFT #12 Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers (1956)


Don Siegel’s 1956 science-fiction film, Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.

I can’t recall when I first saw Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers – most likely on BBC2, opposite the six o clock news, when I was nine or ten, which was where, and when, they always scheduled science-fiction b-movies, as a welcome refuge for boys like me; from the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the spectre of nuclear annihilation, and Margaret fucking Thatcher.  

I wonder if, to begin with, I was a bit underwhelmed by Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, in that it lacked the giant slugs of It Came From Outer Space, the big-brained mutant of This Island Earth, and the tentacled-head-in-a-fishbowl from Invaders From Mars.  I’m going to say it probably did. I can also say with confidence that, unlike those showier movies, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers changed my relationship to cinema forever.

But it wasn’t the experience of watching Invasion of the Body-Snatchers that catalysed my transformation from consumer of images to avid cryptographist. It was the experience of reading about it.  As my interest in horror and science fiction films intensified, I started to spend my pocket money on books about them, principally because I could seek out glimpses of the many and various films I was otherwise too young to actually watch.  And while Invasion of the Body-Snatchers certainly lacked the rubbery bug-eyed delights and flying saucers I thought sure were the canonical stuff of all the most entertaining science-fiction movies, it was a film the people in my books liked to write about a lot.

This was what I learned: in addition to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers being a low budget black and white film about hive-minded pod people from another planet and their sinister bid for world domination, it was also a commentary on the anxiety felt by Americans in the face of communist ideology. Okay, so, I didn’t know what communism was, even less so ideology, except that it had to something to with Russian spies and the colour red. 

Confusingly, as I read more about Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I learned the film might also have something to say, not about communism, but about McCarthyism, which was another word I didn’t know, but learned about soon after. Further readings, in different books, suggested the threat against mankind in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers wasn’t coming from the furthest flung regions of space, but from within the magazine pages of Homes & Garden; that the awful sameness spreading from person-to-person wasn’t communism, or the chilling effect on expressions of difference produced by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pernicious witchhunts, but the homogenising effect on the human condition of jolly, post-war consumerism.

I’m reminded of the old joke: when is a door not a door? When it is a jar.  When is a film not a series of images projected at twenty-four frames a second onto a flat surface? When it is an expansive, dimensional vessel encompassing competing strains of sociological meaning.

Though I didn’t really understand everything I was reading about in relationship to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, a lesson was learned, and it was two-fold; not only could black and white movies about imperialistic alien vegetables tell us something truthful about the emotional realities of individuals living in the real world, but also that interpretation was not the intellectual project of fixing meaning in place, but the art of enjoying competing truths.

As improbable as it sounds pretentious, I really can trace my intellectual awakening to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers; from here, the early beginnings of my understanding of politics, the scaffolding of our lived realities, largely invisible to children, but very far from irrelevant to them; from here, the beginning of an understanding about the various different ways our freedoms might be imperilled – from within and from without; from here, the idea a person’s difference could be considered precious, a characteristic to be protected; from here, the tingle of unease for any large group of people laying definitive claims to a single mode of existence. 

Invasion of the Body-Snatchers also taught me films were unavoidably articles of social history, that however future-looking or historical or interplanetary, movies are marinaded in the times of their production; that the surface of a film is a mirror, in which we find the values of the people who made it.

In this way, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers gave me the confidence and conviction to spit in the eye of various teachers and later, academics, who would have me and others believe there was no value in something as popular as genre, no truth-telling power, no insight; that the only culture with the power to cast light on the matrices of human behaviour are those within the realm of finer things.  


A boy runs from his mother, who is ‘not’ his mother.

Wilma is convinced Uncle Ira is ‘not’ Uncle Ira.

A doppelgänger is discovered as it assumes the form of its victim.

A doppelgänger transforms in the darkness of the cellar.


Invasion of the Body-Snatchers begins at the end; with our hero, Dr Miles Bennell, in custody in the emergency room of a hospital; wild-eyed, Bennell is trying to convince a psychiatrist he is not a lunatic, and so recounts the events leading up to his arrest.

And events begin simply enough: a boy running in mortal fear of his own mother. Soon after, we meet Wilma, cousin of Dr Bennell’s love interest, Becky Driscoll, who is convinced her Uncle Ira is ‘not’ her Uncle Ira.  Meanwhile, the sun shines, and Uncle Ira cuts the grass on his neat front lawn, and the town of Santa Mira looks as pretty-as-picture, with its neat, white wooden houses, neat, white picket fences, and neat, white families. Oh, how these first small pangs of wrongness delight me, the chiming of these minor chords in an otherwise happy-clappy melody; the way they say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’, like watching the filter on someone’s #Livingmybestlife Instagram feed glitch-out for a second to reveal a stray dog turd.

Maybe cinema has conditioned me to regard small, pretty towns inhabited by smiling people as inherently dishonest and keepers of secrets? Maybe I only think this way because Invasion of the Body-Snatchers taught me to think this way, or maybe Invasion of the Body-Snatchers is the just outward expression of something I’ve always known to be true? We think of myths as stories, but I wonder if myths are the stories we recognise as truth? Santa Mira is but one of many small towns whose inhabitants are actually conspirators or monsters or both.  I’m thinking of the leafy streets of Stepford, and the painted streets of Summerisle. I’m thinking about Seahaven Island, and the Village from The Prisoner, the ice-cream-coloured neighbourhood of Edward Scissorhands, and every other dystopic conurbation.

Anyway, we soon learn the boy’s teacher and Uncle Ira have been hollowed out by extra-terrestrials, who are making a tremendous effort to keep up appearances. I suppose this is what I’m talking about when I think about all those towns and villages that so inspire distrust in me, or the way another person’s exquisite manners give me reason to be wary of them; I think to myself ‘so much effort’ and then, ‘for what?’ and then, ‘why?’, and then ‘I think they doth protest too much’. I do know of people who ‘just want everything to be nice’ and they’re always the bloody worst of us, because in my experience ‘by nice’ what they really mean is ‘repressed’ and ‘silent’ and ‘servile’.


Dr Bennell and Becky look out at the ‘normal’ streets of Santa Mira.


Whenever I re-watch the unfolding horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I’m reminded of a warm evening spent with old friends around a table on the scruffy candle-lit terrace of an old French house. We were playing a hypothetical game of Room 101, nominating our least favourite things to be cast into Orwell’s oubliette.  The conversation began lightly enough, and my suggestion for banishment was John Lennon’s Imagine. I loathe Imagine musically because it is a dirge, and also because, lyrically it is about as profound as a souvenir tea towel, as profound as The New Seeker’s I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing, only markedly less catchy.  My choice confused my companions, and as we wrestled with it, the tone darkened.  I railed against the glib utopianism Lennon offers, finding in it only the nascent trappings of fascism – and not Orwell’s dystopian hell hole of conspicuous boots brought down conspicuously on faces, but Huxley’s Brave New World of insensate, perfected bliss. Imagine is every pod person’s sing-a-long, a love-song to frontal lobotomies.


The discovery of the seed pods in the greenhouse.


I likewise relish Invasion of the Body-Snatchers for its hokier trappings, principally, its central premise that the human race might be victimised, then vanquished, by plants. Maybe like all small boys at one time or another, I had a venus-fly trap, having begged my mum to buy me one.  I was instantly disappointed by the diminutive size of my fly-trap, and also disappointed when I killed mine after feeding it a single strand of frozen mince. The idea of carnivorous plants fascinated me – still do, and while the alien pods in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers do not predate on the flesh of their victims, they feed on us nonetheless, absorbing the likenesses of their subjects while their subjects sleep. 

The film’s scenes in the greenhouse, in which our heroes witness the birthing of their dopplegangers from rubbery seed pods, remain gruesome all these years later, evoking a horrid fascination for prodigiousity familiar to any gardener.  Recently, I’ve been propogating spider plants by cutting off the scintillas of baby plants and poking them into water, where now there are white, worming roots, as these decapitated little off-shoots strive busily to survive; like the time, I was re-potting a large podophyllum, which, when at last liberated from its pot, trailed with it what looked like masses of white spaghetti.  Consider too the bamboo roots once growing under our garden path, resembling exactly the mad result of an experiment to splice a giant millipede with a human spine.  Let’s call this category of horticultural unease the ‘vegetal uncanny’. Anyone who has opened a kitchen cupboard, to find at the back of it a long-since forgotten potato, bristling with roots the translucent milky-yellow of an overly long toenail, knows what this is.  In Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the bodies of the soon-to-be-replaced are found in darkness in the self-same way; down in cellars, secreted in the boots of cars, and inside them, the horribly busy pods.


The pods begin to hatch in the greenhouse.


From where I sit as I write this, I can see out of the window of our spare room and down into the narrow street below.  A few weeks ago, I was looking out and I saw a lone woman walking rather aimlessly in the street. I noticed her trainers and heavy brown coat.  She looked tired in an unremarkable way.   She’d just left one of the houses on the street and didn’t look like she knew what to do next.  I recognised the woman, having sat across from her in pubs on various occasions pre-pandemic, and then talking with her directly one day outside another pub in the summer of 2020, just after lock-down restrictions had been eased.  On this occasion, the woman wanted to talk about COVID. Specifically, she wanted myself and anyone else in earshot to join the ‘march against masks’ being organised in London.  Fascinated, I talked with the woman further, and it soon became clear the woman was ‘anti-mask’ because she was of the firm belief that COVID was an elaborate, precision-engineered Trojan horse, its insides crammed tightly with illustrious conspirators; Bill Gates, naturally, but also ‘the Rothchilds’, various media tycoons, including the chieftains of the BBC, and the World Health Organisation, and many more. I remained kind and curious during our exchange and continued to ask for clarifications on the specific goal of the beautiful conspiracy and what ‘success might look like’ for the sinister elite.  The woman couldn’t tell me. She just knew the end of the world was nigh, and like some Cassandra, all she could do was move from stranger to stranger, asking them to take a leaflet. 

Days later, another friend in the town told a story about meeting the same woman in the supermarket, their conversation largely mundane until she informed him the vaccine was part of plot to murder the human race. 

One of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers most chilling moments is when Dr Bennell returns to his hideout, after leaving Becky alone for a short time, to discover she too has succumbed to the alien conspiracy, and is now a replacement. The woman he once knew is gone, hollowed out by an alternate societal paradigm.


Dr Bennell’s moment of realisation, after kissing Becky Driscoll’s doppelgänger.

The seed pods are harvested and distributed.


This cuts to the knotty horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.  There I was, looking out of my window, watching the woman in the heavy brown coat walking down the middle of the street, and thinking to myself, ‘The pod people have got her.’ I even started wondering what she’d been doing in this other person’s house just moments before. I had a very clear image of the woman stowing big green seed pods under beds, in the shed, in the greenhouse, just as, in the film, the alien menace is seen growing, harvesting and distributing more pods throughout the land. The problem is, the woman in the heavy brown coat thinks the same about me. 

Let’s compare dehumanisations for a moment. I pity this individual because, it seems crystal clear to me, she’s surrendered her autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind existent between the nodes of social media. The woman pities me because it seems as clear to her I have surrendered my autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind broadcast by ‘the establishment’ and its media. 

In the final moments of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, just as it seems likely the psychiatrist is going to consign Dr Bennell to the nearest institution, another patient arrives at the hospital, who was involved in a collision with a truck – a truck carrying giant seed pods! Hurrah! In the nick of time, Bennell’s outlandish tale of alien conspiracy is authenticated by a third party and his sanity vouchsafed. Phew! This was not, however, the intended ending for the film, which instead concluded more grimly with the existing scene of Dr Bennell running into a road busy with traffic, screaming like a mad person, screaming, ‘They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!’ The producers felt this ending was too dark, too depressing, too downbeat, not least because it first destabilises the world as we know it, and next withdraws the comfort of a happily definitive ending.

When I think about the woman in the old brown coat, I also see her running against the traffic, shrilling, ‘They’re already here!’ and everyone driving past, ignoring the crazy person.  But there have been many times this past year, when I’ve felt like running into the streets, gripped by fear and frustration, railing against the decadence of the COVID-is-a-Hoax brigade, against the baroque fantasy of the QAnoners and their tribes; against the likes of Trump and Johnson, against the maddening populism of the UK and elsewhere, against the hollowing out of facts over the primacy of people’s feelings‘The end of the world is nigh!’

And there it is, the creeping, perfect terror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – not alien invasions, not sentient vegetables from beyond the stars, but the more prosaic personal dread of being thought of as mad when you’re 100% certain you’re not.


‘They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!’


Spotlight #5 Deanna Crisbacher


When I needed someone to help me transform a series of digital photographs of local rural landscapes into a range of vivid far-off exoplanets for our most recent Kick-About challenge, I contacted my friend and former student, Deanna Crisbacher.

Dee and I have worked together on a series of animation projects, including Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, Spectrogram and Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans. In all these instances, Dee moved heaven and earth in support of the projects, her work characterised by meticulous attention to detail, pristine visuals, expansive technical know-how, and a formidable work ethic.

In addition to inviting Dee to collaborate on the exoplanet project, I also took the opportunity to catch up with her for a longer conversation about her life and times and the continuing impact of the ‘new normal’.


The ten planets of Wanderer (2020), created by Deanna Crisbacher


Phil: It’s potted history time, Dee. So you graduated back in 2018… what happened next?

Dee: Things for me were extremely hectic post-graduation. I had begun applying for jobs a few weeks prior, so by early August I was attending interviews at a few studios around London. During this time I was preparing to fly to the US for my annual family visit, but that year I was also going to Vancouver to volunteer at the SIGGRAPH conference.

Phil: What’s SIGGRAPH?’

Dee: SIGGRAPH (ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) is a yearly computer graphics and technology conference that showcases the latest technology and computer graphics for film, TV, video games and more. This includes anything from visual effects software used to create films by Pixar, Marvel, etc. to artificial intelligence and 3D printing. A huge array of companies such as Google, Industrial Light & Magic, Disney, Nvidia, Microsoft, EA Games, Weta, Sony and many more participate to exhibit, share and educate others on upcoming technology. What is really cool about it is it’s not just about visual effects or films, but also video games, coding, hardware and more abstract art applications. There is SIGGRAPH North America and SIGGRAPH Asia that each takes place once a year in different cities around the world. As a student volunteer it was a great way to meet people in the industry, apply for jobs, get special insight into the developing technologies, and to get showreel feedback.

It was hard managing all of this at once, especially because I had several interviews at a company called The Flying Colour Company (TFCC) and the day before my flight to the US they offered me a job as a Trainee Visual Effects (VFX) Artist. I needed to head into London to collect paperwork that day on short notice. It was stressful, but very exciting. I then took a little time off with my family, went to Vancouver to volunteer and meet some amazing people at SIGGRAPH, before returning to London to begin my new job. Since then I’ve learned how to use Autodesk Flame, but also helped integrate more 3D work into TFCC’s workflow.

Phil: Autodesk Flame sounds like you were being taught how to use a military-grade flame-thrower or similar! Without getting too technical, what is Autodesk Flame and how does it fit into making tv shows and film?

Dee: Autodesk Flame is a compositing and VFX software. Flame gives VFX artists tools to blend live action footage with other pictures, video clips, artwork or 3D CGI assets to create the final image. For example, a VFX studio may be given footage that was filmed in front of a greenscreen. We will then use Flame’s tools to replace the greenscreen with whatever the director wants in the background…such as a cityscape. We can also use Flame to do things like remove safety wires, add gore, remove crew members from reflections, replicate crowds, adding rain, inserting television screens, adding 3D assets like helicopters, changing lighting and so on. The possibilities are almost endless really. The name is a little deceptive…although we can also add fire using it if we have the right assets for the job! It has been intimidating and overwhelming at times but very rewarding and fun. I’ve gotten to work on some amazing shows like Killing Eve, Peaky Blinders, Years and Years, Baghdad Central and more. I’ve learned so much during that time; I look forward to learning more in the future.

Phil: Ooh, Killing Eve – expectations around shows like that are immense. Do you have to sign non-disclosure agreements? And what is it like living with spoilers etc? Do people try and wheedle out plot points from you or try and trip you up? (Of course, I wouldn’t try and do that, other people I mean).

Dee: Yup! That was a pretty huge part of getting hired and all of the paperwork involved. I can get into major trouble if I leak anything, so I often don’t even talk about what I am actively working on. I tend to wait until it is airing on TV before I say ‘hey I worked on that!’. That can be tough with shows like Killing Eve, where we have worked on multiple series so when a new series is confirmed people assume we are working on it. I have had a few people try to get some spoilers out of me before. It can be tough especially if you’ve never watched a show that you are working on, such as Peaky Blinders for me, so sometimes what I see I don’t even know I’ve seen a big plot point. So it’s just safer to not talk about it till it’s been aired! But for shows I do watch, it does sometimes ruin the surprise… but it’s also fun trying to piece disjointed shots together. We don’t get things in chronological order so it doesn’t always make sense.



Phil: Your graduate film, When, is largely autobiographical – tell us something about what it means to make such a personal piece of work.

Dee: I think it means being willing to explore yourself even if you do not like what you find…and being honest and transparent about it. It takes a willingness to be open and vulnerable to others, strangers and friends/family, about topics that are very deep, personal, and sometimes painful. I think there also needs an understanding that even though it’s personal to you, others may not be interested. They may not like it, not be interested in it, or just straight out reject it. I think it takes a willingness to face that sort of rejection but remain true to your goal. To me, it was worth feeling a bit uncomfortable to encourage people discuss these complex topics.

Phil: Were there moments when you thought, nope, I’m not going to share that? Did you have second thoughts at all?

Dee: Yes, anything that involved other people I either didn’t share or had second thoughts about sharing. Involving my family members, especially if I couldn’t ask for permission, made me wonder if they would want to be part of it or not. I never want to cross a line when it involves others’ privacy, since they may not want to have their part of the story told and it’s not in my right to violate that – also some of the more ‘serious’ stuff I decided to just hint at more than explicitly say, which I think is enough.



Phil: When has a very specific look. Can you tell us a bit about some of the creative decisions around the film?

Dee: One of the main things I wanted to achieve was the uncann, rather than horror. So I didn’t want to go for a standard ‘evil dark hospital’ theme. I wanted it to be recognisable, but not quite right. Realistic but distorted and fractured, like how it felt when I was ill. That also feeds into the sound design, where there are recognisable sounds, like fluorescent lights flickering or crowds of people, but to also take pieces of that and morph it into something very unsettling. The same goes for the narration vs the distorted whispers. I wanted there to be a thread of realism disrupted by the concept of ‘illness’ that makes it become unfamiliar.

The theme of hospitals also played into the graphic design of the project. There is an interesting similarity between medication prescription labels and nutrition labels. Numbers and nutritional information played a huge part in my illness, so including that obsession with numbers and a deep need for complete control was important to portray in the look of the project, to show how stark and life-draining that experience was.

The choice to use archived footage was an important one, because there needed to be a break out of that stark place to show the audience that it is a true story, with real people, feelings, and experiences behind it, that while it is not a horror film, neither is it a story that ends with a ‘happily ever after’. It was really difficult to figure out a way to incorporate them into the film, but I think it helps get across that fractured nature of it and the real lives behind it.

Phil: When went on to win many awards at film festivals; I know you were interviewed about it and did a few talks around mental health as a result. Were you surprised by the reception of the film?

Dee: I knew it had potential, since my second year film, Dysmorphia, seemed to strike people in a sort of similar way. I also knew it could totally flop, given how open I tried to be about everything and how untraditional the art direction was regarding animation. Depending on the situation, people cower away from these difficult topics when faced with them directly. I think if I had made the film a few years ago, perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten the same recognition since now mental illness is a more openly discussed. But the stories I started hearing from people about their experiences with eating disorders specifically surprised me. I find that while people are more open about mental illness in a general sense, eating disorders are still not talked about much. Given how abstract it was as well, there was a risk of people not ‘getting it’ so I’m glad that it made sense to people.




Phil: What is it about CGI/VFX that speaks to you as an art form?

Dee: I think it’s the world-building aspect of it. Granted, technically every art form is ‘world building’, but I find CG can bend reality in a way that feels more tangible. It’s a difficult medium to work with, but that is part of what makes it so satisfying when you achieve what you want, even if it’s somewhat of a compromise. Everything you do is a sort of puzzle; there are endless ways to create things using CG and VFX, and learning new tools is really fun and exciting. It’s a strange mixture having extreme control at times, but zero control at others. Sometimes the lack of control provides even better results, which is why I really enjoy simulations despite how frustrating it can be too.


A break-down of some of the key shots Dee created for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)


Phil: Okay – so you’re going to have to talk a little about what you mean by ‘simulations’ and where they fit in terms of VFX etc…

Dee: When I talk about simulations, I’m referring to anything involving particles or volumes (smoke, fire) but it can also involve liquid, shatter/destruction and cloth creation. These sort of effects need to be simulated by the software, meaning they take in a math formulas based on real-life physics such as gravity in order to create a realistic outcome. For example, when simulating an explosion Maya takes into consideration the temperature, velocity, and density settings to calculate the colour, luminosity, speed, transparency and movement of the explosion. You can also add wind, turbulence and other factors to further art direct the look of a simulation. The beauty of it is that it is totally random, it needs frame 1 to calculate frame 2 and so on… but that also means it can be unpredictable and time consuming. You can tweak things, like making gravity more or less intense than in real life, but it is largely a guessing game. But that is how you get more realistic results since it uses real-life calculations and formulas!

Phil: What has been your experience of COVID-19 so far, and likewise, the ‘new normal’?

Dee: It’s been a struggle. In one respect it’s been nice not having to commute…it ate up 3 hours or more of my day during the week and was also pretty expensive. So having that extra time and saved up money has been nice. However I find it’s been difficult in other regards… I miss being able to discuss work with my peers. Sat at home, it’s not as easy to ask for help or feedback when you’re alone. It also takes a lot longer to share work back and forth and feedback can be confusing when no one is there to point at the screen and go ‘there is the problem’. I really miss seeing how other artists work and what they are working on. I do admittedly feel I get more done though, since those sorts of conversations don’t happen now. It’s also more of a struggle to remember to stop working…it’s very easy to say ‘just one more shot’ and before you know it, it’s 10pm or later…but it has little consequence because you are already home. But in the long run with overworking like that, I’ve found burnout sets in very quickly if I’m not careful.

Phil: Lockdown meant the end of lots of film and tv productions – what has the impact been on your sector: you can only produce VFX sequences for stuff that has been filmed and made available to you, right?

Dee: That is correct. Luckily at the time lockdown first happened, the productions we were working on either had finished filming or had enough material to fill in the gaps. So once we finished doing the VFX for those productions…that was it really. We are still waiting on shows to get back to filming so we have stuff to work on but until then it’s just a waiting game. I know some other VFX and games studios are up and running again but it depends on what is being made. Some commercials for example are pure VFX/CGI… and same for games I suppose. It’ll be interesting to see how filming adapts to this new post-COVID world to ensure everyone stays safe.

Phil: Who and what inspires you and recharges your creative batteries?

Dee: Several people I met at SIGGRAPH I follow on sites like LinkedIn and Artstation inspire me, I like seeing where people go and how their careers and talents progress. Seeing art in general encourages me to create my own art. Ryan Barry is a good friend of mine now, we share art with each other regularly and have also began experimenting with ‘style mashups’ between his drawings and mine. He also does 3D work, more so for video games rather than film and TV so it’s interesting to see the process he goes through vs me.  



Here are a few other talented artists I met at SIGGRAPH and try to keep in contact with/follow:

Regarding other artists that I follow online, here are a few:

I’ve had more time to do some reading during lockdown and I enjoy taking different characters, worlds, or ideas and imagining what they’d look like or personify as. Normally I’d get a lot of inspiration from my co-workers and the different productions we are working on…but during this pause I’ve tried to keep up to date with what developing software and technologies are out there, which makes me excited for future learning. I also really love seeing any behind-the-scenes footage/articles about film and games. I really miss going to movie theatres though. Regarding specific films that comfort me…I’d definitely say Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is what got me interested in art and filmmaking in the first place. So times where I feel I am struggling to feel motivated I watch those movies or the behind the scenes features. I find it exciting and fascination how much goes into making a film, and how much love and dedication is poured into some productions. The same goes for the original Star Wars trilogy. The innovation and creativity that was needed to problem solve makes me feel inspired and hopeful. Especially since “we didn’t know how to achieve this, but we tried our best to figure it out” is a common theme from junior artists to the directors. I know I often feel that way, so knowing that pretty much everyone in the industry feels this at some point is comforting.

Phil: When you’re not producing CGI work, what other creative outlets do you have? I know from your Twitter feed that you paint, for example…

Dee: So I do create some CG work on my own, more experimental stuff or things that I want to make in order to practice. However, behind CGI I also do like to draw both traditionally and digitally. I often find I prefer the basic structure of my traditional sketches and doodles so I’ll bring them into Photoshop and paint over them. I’ve mentioned as well that I have begun doing some style mash-ups with my friend, Ryan Barry, so that’s been a fun side project. I also try practicing some traditional clay sculpting, basic needle felting and baking if I don’t feel like drawing. I used to write short stories and poems as well, but I sadly haven’t done that in a long time now. But my creative interests are always changing so maybe I’ll get back to that!


deannacrisbacher.com


Short Ride In A Fast Machine (2020)


After the long, slow, sleepy life-cycles of the Kick-About#8’s cicadas, I felt we needed a bit of clatter, percussion and forward velocity in the mix. I knew just the thing, unleashing John Adams fast machine and setting it rocketing off into the bloggosphere. You can see the full range of work Adams’ music inspired here – everything from adorable little witches riding steampunk brooms to strange abandoned industrial sites in Berlin.



I’ve long been fascinated by the creative quest to visualise music and have been involved in a bunch of projects endeavouring to do just that. Some of these projects have been all about the pure subjectivity of music, so not an attempt to divine some universal visual language originating from a particular composition, but rather to celebrate the differences in the way a community of artists might ‘see’ music. Another project sought to crystallise music into physical forms. Working alongside whizz-kid, Ethan Shilling, another approach was to find an alternate, but precise language by which to abstract music still further, and use this abstraction to drive the mechanics of animated simulations.

It was to Ethan to whom I turned again to meet the challenge of the KickAbout#9, who took Adams’ Short Ride and converted it into a spectrogram – a visual transcript of the whole piece assembled out of its assorted frequencies.


Short Ride In A Fast Machine as a spectrogram.


I knew I didn’t want to fiddle too much with the resulting spectrogram, otherwise what was the point of producing it? That said, my over-riding feeling in response to the spectrogram itself was in direct opposition to my emotional experience of the music originating it. If anything, the spectogram has a distinctly calming effect. (Indeed, in his comment on the Kick-About, fellow blogger João-Maria suggested the spectrogram reminded him of the moonlit Seine, and now I cannot see it otherwise!). This changed when I divided the spectrogram into quarters. All at once I felt I was looking at POV shots of someone plummeting past Fritz Lang-inspired skyscrapers or views from great glass elevators speeding up and down. To be honest, once my brain had connected these images with the POV of falling people (a very short ride!), they in no way felt representative of Adams’ music, the energy and aliveness of it, and perhaps this can only be expected if you take something as dimensional as music and flatten it into a monochrome 2D strip!



Then how to restore the colour and light-fantastic into this clever/fascinating/boring strip of data? And what is that tickle of association in my brain, triggered again and again by the horizontalism of the spectrogram, by its flaring rectangles and bright little squares? Oh yeah…



Maybe this is where it all comes from – that compulsion to pull light and image out of music? One day soon I’ll finally do it, commit to discussing my love affair with this film, but until then let me just come right out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) burned a bloody big marvellous hole in my head when I first saw it as a nipper. Those final rhapsodic scenes – with the mothership, the singing lights, and that rainbow-coloured graphic equaliser-thing – woke me up to image and music – and to fast machines powered by music too. So, with a nod and a wink at Spielberg’s science-fiction classic, I tried a couple of colourised versions of the Short Ride spectrogram to go some way to linking the image back to the idea of music, momentum and technology.



My restlessness continued however, as I still waited for the clunk-click that accompanies the moment you arrive at something you’re truly convinced by. I fiddled around with the idea of ‘the machine’, taking the spectrogram and collaging it digitally to produce something with the semblance of cogs and moving parts. I started to get something interesting – something that reminded me of another film a little less celebrated than Close EncountersAt The Earth’s Core from 1976 starring Peter Cushing and Doug Mclure! I could see the barbed head of that movie’s mechanical mole machine – and that’s where I left things, because Adams’ music is very clearly not the sound of a giant drill-bit chewing through rocks!




But something about that cheesy b-movie with its drilling machine brought me to Luigi Rossolo’s 1911 futurist painting, The Revolt, with its forward thrust of heat, noise and energy; and something about The Revolt associated with the opening credits to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) – and my exhilaration in response to them as a wide-eyed child (I get goosebumps even now, so perfect is this combination of soaring score, heroic typeface and sound design!); and from Superman‘s title sequence, it was another short cognitive jump to Kubrick’s celebrated stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, this is the stuff! This is what my short ride in a fast machine needs in order to leave the ground!


The Revolt, Luigi Rossolo, 1911

Opening titles from Superman, Richard Donner, 1978

The Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968


So in the end it was actually very simple: first, you turn Adams’ Short Ride In A Fast Machine into a spectrogram, which you colourise suitably to suggest heat, light and sizzle, and then you steal from Donner and Kubrick and give the whole thing some cinematic swoosh.



MFT #6 Dr Frank Poole’s Shorts


Dr Frank Poole is a character in Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated, technically-breathtaking think-piece, 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968). This is a film I admire very much, but one of my favourite things about 2001 are Dr Frank Poole’s shorts. Here’s why.

A year or so after finishing my A-levels, I learned something surprising about one of my former English teachers. In addition to her passion for the works of Shakespeare and so forth, she was also writing pornographic fan-fiction under an online pseudonym. This was all such a long time ago, the internet was in its infancy, but nonetheless, the teacher in question was charting the ongoing adventures of Walter Skinner and Alex Krycheck and disseminating her stories on niche web-based forums.

You only need to know two things about Walter Skinner and Alex Krycheck, the first being they are both supporting characters in the science-fiction/paranormal show, The X-Files, the second being they are both heterosexual male characters in the show and at no point in any episode do they fuck.

But not so in the stories written by my former-English teacher. In her fiction, Walter Skinner and Alex Kyrcheck cannot keep their hands off each other. In her stories, Walter Skinner and Alex Kyrcheck are positively priapic, with no detail spared, however anatomical, however anglo-saxon, however gymnastic.

This was my first encounter with slash fiction, a literary subgenre deriving its name from the / between whatever same-sex fictional characters are engaging in graphic sexual relations with each other, as in Skinner/Krycheck. Slash-fiction is said to originate with Kirk and Spock, that while a large proportion of Star Trek‘s famously loyal audience were nestled on their settees enjoying the utopian charms of Gene Rodenberry’s rosy view of a federation of planets, another demographic within that same loyal audience were intuiting something no less progressive – an oblique sexual frisson between William Shatner’s impulsive captain and Leonard Nimoy’s cool, logical science officer, consummated ‘off-screen’ in the imaginations of amateur writers and their readers.

When Roland Barthes proclaimed so famously, ‘The author is dead’, he meant it wasn’t to the originator of a particular text we should look for its definitive explanation (be it a book, a play, a film, tv show, photograph or whatever), but rather to the consumers of the text, its audience, us. What follows from this is there are as many meanings to something as there are recipients for it; that anything we produce produces a multiverse, and if meaning is a palimpsest, then to try and fix, limit or arrest interpretation is to tilt foolishly at windmills.

All of which brings me back to Dr Poole’s shorts.



I’ve watched 2001 – A Space Odyssey many times. I screened it for students every year – the whole thing – which always took some pedagogical resolve. With its long takes, overture and intermission, thin-dense story and narrative opacity, 2001 is no one’s idea of an effortless viewing experience. Kubrick’s crystalline visuals, soaring classical score and weighty cosmic ambitions would always have to compete with the pointed rustling of crisp packets and performative sighing, which was established undergraduate code for, ‘When will this fucking film end?

But Kubrick isn’t interested in entertaining us exactly. His interests lie in producing the conditions for expansiveness and contemplation. 2001 slows us down so we can think about the images on screen and the ideas they comprise. In the precision of its slowness, in its insistence we keeping looking at something even beyond what is truly comfortable, 2001 is an exercise in accessing some other state, in the same way staring at any one thing for a long period of time encourages the mind to project itself elsewhere.

I don’t know when it happened, which screening of my many screenings in particular, but at some point, as I floated freely in the space Kubrick created for me, I apprehended something new about the film. I began to read some of its visual messaging differently, discerning an alternate text, adding things up using the abacus of my own identity. I figured something out (and no, not the ending of 2001, never that), and since that moment, I can no longer ‘unknow’ what I think I know about 2001, or unsee how I’m seeing things, and now what I think I know about 2001 is this: the film’s middle section, entitled Jupiter Mission – Eighteen Months Later, is not only a prescient cautionary tale about Artificial Intelligence, but also a gay love triangle between two scientists and a super-computer, or put more succinctly: Dr David Bowman / Dr Frank Poole / HAL 9000.


Discovery crew member, Dr David Bowman

Discovery crew member, Dr Frank Poole

HAL 9000


My erstwhile English-teacher and amateur pornographer was convinced the writers of The X-Files were complicit in twanging gently at the libidos of the show’s fanbase, sprinkling episodes with homoerotic breadcrumbs so as to draw audiences more deeply into forming binding emotional attachments to their characters. In this way, she argued the ‘queering’ of Skinner and Krycheck was not in fact projection or distortion or superimposition, but rather an act of co-authorship. 2001 is hardly about human relationships at all, which is why it makes for such antiseptic viewing for some audiences. 2001 is about human existence, which isn’t the same thing. It’s when the film does focus on people I start to put this film together differently, because one character’s on-screen presentation is different to the rest.

We are actively encouraged to objectify the character of Dr Frank Poole in a way conspicuous and distinct from any other character in 2001. We are invited to enjoy the act of looking at him, who we first encounter running around the Discovery’s centrifuge. The camera drops low in front of Dr Poole, tracking backwards, keeping time, and we are directed in this way to stare up at his crotch – and I do. I suspect we all do. The view is an exceptionally good one. How can we not enjoy the spectacle of Frank’s muscled thighs? When the camera shifts, we follow along behind him, his round solid buttocks perching attractively just above the bottom edge of the frame. We need only substitute Frank in our imaginations with a female scientist to certify these framing choices are classically objectifying. If a woman were running around Discovery’s centrifuge in just her gym-shorts and a tight t-shirt, and the camera so instructed us to look at her genitals and then again at her bottom, we would appreciate very well this was the male gaze in action. We also see Frank jabbing the air as he jogs, shadow-boxing. In this way we are told Dr Frank Poole is no egg-head, hot-house-flower or etiolated academic. He is athletic, strong, masculine, and with his fine head of thick black hair, Dr Frank Poole is our man’s man, our matinee idol, an obvious sex object treated obviously.



A short time later, Frank reclines on a sun-bed of sorts in just those same short white shorts, his white socks and white running shoes. While this scene continues Kubrick’s fascination with presenting the likely realities of space travel, it is also an opportunity to present Dr Poole’s very nearly naked body. It’s another long scene, our eyes given little else to do but rove. At one point we cut to a tighter shot of Frank looking across at the tele-viewer, where his parents are wishing him happy birthday. This framing couldn’t be more sensual. We study his pretty lips and tan-coloured nipple. We apprehend his slumberous eyes. This is a lover’s view of Dr Frank Poole. Hell, we’re nearly watching this guy sleep, and we all know how loved-up you have to be to do that.

The next time we meet Frank, he’s eating from a tray of pureed space food dressed in a white towelling robe. He is freshly showered after his exertions and languid tanning session, relaxed, un-uniformed, free-balling. What is it about the humble white towelling robe that speaks so directly to the nakedness underneath it in a way other sorts of clothing do not? Indeed, there is even something a little Hefner-esque about how relaxed Frank looks in his dressed/undressed state.



When I consider these introductory shots of Frank, his on-screen presentation – the crotch shots, the spectacle of his thighs, arms and torso, the proximity of his lips to the screen and that soft warm disc of nipple – I wonder whose gaze is (de)constructing him so? Mine certainly – I admit it freely – but I’m inclined to think about Kirk and Spock too, the way in which the contrast of their differences drives the engine of their homoeroticism. Like Kirk, that playboy with the perennially torn shirt, we know Frank Poole has a swinging dick and his handy with his fists. Like Spock, Frank’s human companion on the Discovery, Dr David Bowman, is configured in opposition. Bowman is presented as more cerebral, more sensitive (he is an artist, drawing the other crew members asleep in their pods). There is something of the android about him – a hint of Zuckerberg – and in this way, Bowman is closer to HAL, an affinity reciprocated by the super-computer, who engages with Bowman more often than with Frank, and always more revealingly. I’m compelled to conclude Bowman is repressed, careful and cautious in a way that makes him different to Frank Poole. We can’t easily imagine Dr Dave lounging about the place in just a loosely tied dressing gown.

Sometimes I think the camera watches Frank in the way it does because this is what it’s like to be David Bowman, who is living in intimate proximity with someone he desires. It’s like a flat share when one roommate insists on walking about in just his pants or bath towel, which is normal for him and non-sexualised, and speaks to the comfort he feels in his own skin and his confidence in its display. Dave Bowman is the other room mate, the tidier one, the more controlled one, for whom these everyday flashes of thigh are utterly arresting, troubling even. A secret like that can transform even the most ordinary activity – jogging, sun-bathing, eating dinner in a dressing gown – into giddy high-points of erotic fascination.



But maybe I’m wrong about this? I even think I might be. My hypothesis assumes David is repressed and Frank is unaware. I’m assuming this is a relationship forged out of denial, of secret-looking, out of a love that dare not speak its name. Oh dear! How old fashioned of me, how formulaic! Maybe David and Frank are not homoerotic together, but just homosexual? During the scene where Frank is having his sun-shower, his parents say, ‘Give our love to Dave’ or words to that effect. This implies affection for, and familiarity with, the idea of Frank and Dave being associated as a pair. It speaks to an existing long-term relationship. It implies Dave has met Frank’s family – more than once. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967. 2001 was released the year after. In the film, the year is 2001, but it is a future imagined by someone in 1968, so maybe Frank and Dave have sat together on Frank’s parents sofa as husbands, wearing matching Christmas jumpers and drinking eggnog? Maybe this relationship isn’t the furtive raw material of fervid slash-fiction, but an actual same-sex partnership presented unremarkably as the future we could and should have had?



So to whom might the film’s objectification of the masculine belong, if not to Dr David Bowman? Who else might be zoning in on the exhibited flesh of the Discovery’s resident pin-up, Dr Poole? Who else other than me?

Scopophilia describes the pleasure derived from looking at objects of eroticism as a substitute for actual participation in sexual relations. The HAL 9000 is the Discovery’s fey-sounding, red-eyed cyclops who has been programmed with a semblance of emotions to ensure it interfaces as effectively with humans as possible. The question remains how human is HAL, or put another way, how flawed, how petty, how jealous, how irrational? If HAL knows everything about everything, he will know about sex. If HAL is hooked up to the sum total of human knowledge, we can safely assume HAL is a consumer of pornographic imagery, pornographic imagery being one of humanity’s most prodigious data-sets. Might we assume HAL is likely to experience simulations of arousal too, and thus simulations of sexual frustration at his lack of corporeal agency? HAL is imprisoned in his voyeurism. HAL can only look. HAL cannot consummate. HAL is impotent.



We already know HAL identifies closely with David, whose flatness of expression and measured behaviour mirror the computer’s own. We can also intuit Dr Frank Poole is less comfortable around HAL. Later, Frank will say as much too. Ultimately, this is what I figured out that day in the darkness of the lecture theatre, while behind me, thirty or so undergraduates rustled their crisp-packets in protest at another of Kubrick’s longueurs: HAL is in love with David Bowman. It is a cerebral connection, a Platonic, rather superior sort of love. HAL’s relationship to Dr Frank Poole is of a more provocative kind. You see, I think it’s HAL watching Frank’s crotch while he jogs around the centrifuge in his short white shorts. It’s HAL who looks on while Frank suns himself. It’s HAL pushing the camera to fixate on Dr Frank Poole’s face, on the configuration of his lips. This is the computer’s gaze, the red eye of a hopelessly disembodied scopophiliac.

As I write this down, spelling it out, I’m reminded of the last dissatisfying scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where, after the film’s rapturous powers of ‘showing-not-telling’, a handy psychiatrist sits us all down and ‘explains’ the lurid plot. He tells us Norman Bates kills Marion Crane because he feels sexual attraction towards her, but that it is his ‘super-ego’ – ‘Mother’ – who intervenes so bloodily. Marion is killed because she produces a powerful effect in Norman’s erotic imagination, installing a glitch in his otherwise urbane and gentle programming. Norman kills because he cannot consummate, and he cannot consummate because, at his most basic level of programming – his motherboard, if you will – he disapproves of something as human as fucking. In this, HAL and Norman share more than just their love of peeping. As Marion did for Norman, Frank does for HAL, confronting him with the thing he wants but cannot have. HAL experiences arousal, frustration, resentment, shame. Ultimately, the spectacle of Frank reminds HAL he is ‘imperfect’, that he is human.

Oh, and of course, HAL is betrayed. David, the platonic object of HAL’s affection for a human being, and Frank, the erotic object of HAL’s disaffection for the human body, conspire together to unplug him. The two men squirrel themselves away in one of the ship’s pods to share their unease about the onset of HAL’s erratic behaviour. This meeting always feels so wonderfully illicit to me, charged with danger and with intimacy. Unfortunately, HAL is as adept at lip-reading as he is at playing chess and we are treated to a sequence of intimate shots of the two men’s mouths, which always manages to remind me of the split-screen antics in the Doris Day / Rock Hudson rom-com Pillow Talk. And how this betrayal must burn! Not only are the two most significant men in HAL’s life conspiring to deactivate him, they do so while sitting so very closely together, looking into each other’s eyes, that small pod filling with their exhalations, their lips but a short distance apart…



By way of reprisal, HAL conspires to separate the two men, and when Frank is alone in deep space, HAL puppets the robotic claws of one of the Discovery’s pods and snips his air supply, sending his body whirling away into space. A short time later, HAL refuses to let Dave back on board, after he goes out to collect Frank’s corpse. In one of cinema’s most celebrated displays of passive-aggression, HAL refuses to ‘open the pod bay doors’. Hell hath no fury like an AI scorned.



I do wonder what my former English teacher would make of all this? Would I get an A for effort, or an F for the effort of straining to make this fan theory cohere credibly? I certainly haven’t been rude enough to earn any gold stars in the category of slash fiction. I’ve more likely just revealed a dimension of my own character, or shown myself to be unfailingly trivial in the face of so portentous a science-fiction narrative. I may just be admitting that, having seen 2001 so many times, I’ve succumbed to doodling in its margins to pass the time, an activity really not so different from rustling a packet of crisps. Anyway, why apologise? According to Barthes, I am where the meaning of 2001 begins. But, in one last evidenced-based bid to demonstrate how this portion of Kubrick’s film might also be a story about a scopophiliac super-computer driven to kill the object of his own self-loathing, I offer this – HAL’s secret song, which only begins to play as Dr David Bowman goes about shutting him down…

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,
I’m half crazy, All for the love of you…”