I’ve rarely written poetry. Songs yes, poems not so much. I can’t remember what was going on in the first few months of 2001, or why I felt it necessary to commit these three short verses to a word processor and save them. They read like break-up poems, though who was breaking up with whom I really can’t recall.
my sense of dread is small it’s not impending like a train rather, it trails behind me like a length of wet, grey wool where now and then it snags in things, and tugs harder at my cuff.
nothing distresses me more than when a person takes a question mark and without consent they straighten it so from love? making love! another bend now my u-turn.
it is broadly encouraged is it not? for lovers to make a gift of the moon for my part I’ve managed the craters the airlessness and the cold when what I wanted to give was the brilliancy and orbits I planned to devote. but if we cherish the moon on account of its surface on account of its beauty on account of its knocks I’m left wondering now about craters about what else might be given when two worlds collide.
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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.
“I started off by painting some foliage and flower shapes onto tracing paper, cutting them out, placing on a light box and photographing them. I meant the results to be shadowy and rather gothic, but they turned out rather different. Perhaps because it feels like full-on summer here in Berlin this week, and perhaps because I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock the other night, the photos have more the atmosphere of a languorous sunny afternoon in the garden – not what I set out to do at all. I was so seduced by the colour palette of Picnic at Hanging Rock, I’ve let the images go in this direction…”
“On reading the title “Dance of the Happy Shades” I immediately thought of shadows, and the shades of tones in the shadows, rather than shades of greys and colours. I thought of the subtle tones in a desaturated situation, like during twilight, one of my favourite times of day. Still, I needed a relatively strong source of light to create the shadows. Also, I was looking at translucent rather than solid objects, to get more nuances in the tones, as well as texture – translucency and texture being also some of the things that most inspire and attract me. I tried and looked at few different things, including rereading “In the Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki, and watching the Zhang Yimou’s film “Shadow” – an amazing film. In the end, it was the moving reflection on the wall of three glass flowers I made few years back standing on my mantelpiece that I wanted to do. I was originally going to paint them with the Chinese ink and brush technique, but I started sketching them out in colour pencil and rather enjoyed the process, and the result was close to my idea.Pencils on hot press watercolour paper. 84×60 cm.“
“I’ve got two quite different responses this week. Firstly, one very silly gif. This was inspired by a friend, when I asked her, ‘What do you think of when I say ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’?’ she responded, ‘I just see a dude dancing in shades.’ Her response made me think of an older gent embodying a Dad-joke of sorts…”
“The second idea that came to mind was old Disney style – Fantasia – but instead of brooms and the like, it was floor lamps, with shades. (It’s a tenuous link, I know!). I hadn’t fully worked out how I could animate the idea (plus I left it too late anyway) but that didn’t mean I couldn’t embody it somehow! So here’s a silly storyboard of some dancing floor lamps! I put together a quick animatic – it’s not as motion-filled as I’d like, but I hope it gets my daft idea across a bit better. Haha!”
Inspiration came from Alice Munro’s Walker Brothers Cowboy, the very first story in Munro’s Dance Of The Happy Shades. In it, a little girl and her brother are too hot and listless in the back of their father’s car. They play I Spy to pass the time:
“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours. Grey for the barns and sheds and toilets and houses, brown for the yard and fields, black or brown for the dogs. The rusting cars show rainbow patches, in which I strain to pick out purple or green; likewise I peer at doors for shreds of peeling paint, maroon or yellow.”
I wanted to evoke the languor of a similarly long hot day and the way lethargy encourages you to look for escape-routes in ordinary and over-looked places – like the peeling paint on a garage door, which if you squint, might come to resemble some glinting sea or exotic terrain. With the exception of a few sound effects purloined from the BBC SFX archive, the majority of sounds in the film were recorded in an around the rather careworn seaside town I call home. At risk of sounding bossy, grab some headphones for a suitably immersive experience. “
“My Rorschach ancestor mirrors himself and transforms in both vertical and horizontal directions. It was fun to add a little nonsensical creation to my days.”
He seems friendly enough, this presence of the past, shifting languorously as if drugged by sun light shining in his eyes after a thundering rain
In truth his voice is seldom called upon—an apparition furniturial, fixed impermanently in corners and along walls
His dance contains unpredictable undertones—the hours move around him as his buddha smile glimmers knowingly in the dark
“I found a photo of the author of Dance Of The Happy Shades, Alice Munro from 1971, a couple of years after the book was published. I thought it would be nice to add some colour to it. While it was possible to find photos from a few years later that I could reference for eye colour, skin tones, hair etc, I still feel there’s a large degree of fiction in this, or any other colourised photo. Where the photo was taken, what time of day, what colour clothing all became something imagined without proper sources. This is an interesting contradiction for me, because by trying to bring something to life, it actually makes it more like a woozy loose memory. I’ve been doing something similar with old family photos recently, and have been able to test the memories of elder relatives in the photos for details. While a modern sheen of colour makes the image feel more appealing, I often wonder if the photos are more meaningful in their original state.”
“My mind went straight to ballerina dancers and wanted to capture them in a loose style, and was thinking of black and grey shades. So I did some small charcoal sketches of ballerina dancers as an initial response while sitting out in the park… I moved them into Photoshop and did some tweaking and painting to make them fit into a more complete image.”
“I was thinking of a very exuberant Flamenco Dancer wearing a fabulous skirt of happy, bright and gaudy layers. I painted on Yupo paper for the woman’s figure and used scraps of silk and net individually twisted and bound for her skirt. I enjoyed the whole task very much and it definitely made me want to do a happy dance!”
“Originally, I wanted to respond to a couple of quotes within the book, make some kind of lively piece with dancers and muted colours, but after reading up on Orfeo ed Eurydice, I decided instead to look to the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. Not only did it relate to this Kick-About prompt, but also to another project I’ve been working on. Right now, it’s called “So, this is life?” and involves a goddess in the stars being banished from the heavens and forced to live among humans. I’m basing the characters on constellations and Greek mythologies, so Hades was perfect. I’m still working out kinks on the story but the basic world-building is the “constellation” gods and goddesses watch over whatever humans were born under their star and act as lore keepers for them. When the humans die, they must journey to Hades and the constellations hand over their lore to Hades. This current design of Hades is the first iteration. He’s bound to change as I develop this concept further.”
“I am absolutely loving these Kick Abouts! It has completely opened my eyes to the possibility of doing quick little ‘micro shorts’ – and this time I decided to give it a whirl for a film of sorts. For the Metropolis prompt, I was drawing and animating the creative responses using a particular set of Photoshop brushes that are always my go to. I was in my bathroom and opened up my medicine cabinet, and just as I did, the light from outside was shining into the window and through a crack of the medicine cabinet door. It created this brilliant concentrated brush stroke of dancing illuminating light that mimics one of the brushes I love to use in Photoshop. I took out my phone and filmed myself opening and closing the medicine cabinet door over and over again, as I knew this would not last long because of how pinprick precise the light was in that moment. I realised I could work with the videos to produce something for the kick-about, so I started to play.
A lot of what is going in the film fell into place through experimenting by mixing all the videos together, playing with blend modes, light, shadow and shapes. The song is Grey Drops by Sergey Cheremisinov. When listening to Cheremisinov’s unique pieces I always imagine something odd and intriguing coming to life, something with a lot of texture. I envisioned things moving in the shadows that shouldn’t move. The best thing about creating like this is something magical happens by itself; as I was swinging the medicine cabinet door, I noticed it looked like the light was giving way to these phantom spectres that were projecting part of themselves away and then consuming it again with every swing of the door. Everything started to intensify as I edited the film together, and then a story started to flourish.”
“Dance of the Happy Shades is a title as evocative as it is elusive. In an attempt to understand the mystery and make the shades dance, here is a little series of blindingly colourful, expressionist and illusionistic photographic manipulations.”
“It all turned about-face after the start. The studio’s sense of itself took over. Nuances I set about exploring ended up as grey-scale shades flowing from colour. HB pencil, on Artistico Fabriano 640gsm hot pressed. 77cm x 56cm. 24 hour drawing.”
“I was going through some old paperwork when a photo fluttered to the ground, one of me as a child, which prompted a rush of memories. I found other photos, of other times, and I tried to set down in words the feelings and images they evoked. I recalled sounds, music, voices, and wanted to find a way to combine images, words and sounds to share with others the emotions they aroused in me. I don’t have the technical knowledge or skills to create what I envisaged – but luckily, I know a man who does! We talked for a long time about the ways and means, of shape and substance and then he took my words, my images, my memories, and between us produced the following short film.“
“Optimism isn’t my comfort zone, but it was lovely to work more abstractly and suggestively than usual. I’ve never read Dance of the Happy Shades, but the title alone suggests to me the movements of grass fields, dappled sunlight and a shifting summer breeze. This is the best I can do to evoke Van Gogh. Unfortunately, the grey British skies did not imbue my blood with a great talent for evoking the beauty of the sun!”
Courtesy of Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, we have our new prompt – a short sequence from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). In common with all previous kick-abouts, you’re invited to respond to the new prompt in anyway that gets your juices flowing, and if you’ve enjoyed this third creative run-around and you want to get involved, then crack on!
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.
“I’ll be honest… I couldn’t connect with the painting itself so, I ended up going down a more literal word association route. There was just something whimsical about the idea of the moon in a little bottle, like it was something homemade and stowed on a higher power’s kitchen shelf or something. Plus I learned a new AE trick in the process!”
Time was when you only had to worry about sleeping with a pistol and a silver bullet by your bed once a month. It was a chore, but, well, once a month, most people could handle and attacks were rare in the city anyway. That was two years ago. Everything has changed – everything!
I remember seeing the first batches of the Supermoon stuff on the shelves in the corner shop; ‘Like the Moon in a Bottle’ the advertising said. People laughed, and we bought some, drinking it for dares int the local woods. Everyone was telling us kids it was so dangerous, that it should be banned and we shouldn’t touch it, so what else were we going to do? Government ministers and various ‘experts’ dismissed the stuff as a hoax, said it was just soda water, marketed by charlatan looking to fleece the gullible. Just a few weeks later, though, and stories began to emerge on the news; odd, gruesome killings, usually in remote parts of the country.
Still no need to worry, they told us, it’s a one off, a ‘lone wolf’. Then, very quickly, the truth emerged. Supermoon WAS like the moon in a bottle, it really DID make werewolves transform into their wolf self with just a mouthful, at any time, even in broad daylight and a week away from a full moon.
Then the authorities started to take it seriously; hunting for the makers, the labs, the factories, the supply lines. But it was too late. There was so much of it out there by that time. The werewolves had got hold of litres of it and the havoc and devastation they were causing was like something from a movie. Things fell apart in a matter of days. The cost of silver went up to 7000% times that of gold, wars broke out to take control of the silver mines, communities turned on each other. Rumours and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, weird cults sprang up; crazy people wanting to get bitten, join the emerging new power, get out of their mundane little lives and have an adventure – and they got bitten all right.
We’re the lucky ones, we keep being told. Mum and dad took us all to one of the compounds and made it in just in time.
But we don’t sleep much. We thought were were safe here behind the 3m thick concrete bunker walls and the gun towers but things aren’t going well. It seems the werewolves are getting smarter and working together. We heard that the compound down south near Southhampton has fallen, that they got in somehow. How can this be happening?
No, we don’t sleep much, and we all have a pistol by our bed with a silver bullet. It’s the new normal.
So, who’s up for another kick-about in the park with jumpers for goal-posts? We have a brand new prompt, courtesy of Emily ‘Sun-In-A-Jar’ Clarkson, and a new submission date. See below – and if you’re looking at this thinking you’d like to get involved too, get in touch and we’ll sort it.