A third set of panoramic stills from my short stop-motion film, Ink (2021), which, unlikely as it now looks, captured the interactions between black marker pen and rubbing alcohol on the surface of a 20cm x 20cm white ceramic tile. A number of the images in this collection remind me very strongly of the sublime horror of the footage of nuclear bomb tests.
A second set of stills from Ink (2021), evoking expansive skyscapes and vast coastal land masses.
On the cusp of the new year, I wanted to avoid any further musings on 2020 as they might relate to the pandemic, not least because I suspect the ‘new year’ is going to feel a lot like the old one – at least for a while. Instead, I’ve gathered together all seven ‘Lost In Fields’ films as my swansong to a strange, slow year that was not without its simple pleasures and rich in moments of beauty.
A seventh short little exercise in seeking to evoke a particular place and time through the simplest means of image, movement and sound. Our trip out to the nature reserve at Oare, Faversham, Kent coincided with a wonderful sunset and pellucid moonrise, our slow shamble among the tall feathered reeds and every-which-way grasses accompanied by the haunting trill of curlews. As the light faded further, the landscape just fell away into tawny softness. It was other-worldly out there. I hope this short film expresses some of that.
Getting Lost in Fields is a series of little films prompted into life by the Kick-About #6, which saw me attempting to evoke the rhapsodic sensations of being out and about with my camera in the fields of Kent during the Spring lock-down. I didn’t know there would be a fourth film – or indeed a fifth, but there’s something simple and satisfying about combining these impressionist photographs with Kevin MacLeod’s evocative musical miniatures. I didn’t know there would be a second lock-down either, and this new film results from two very peaceful afternoons spent walking along the Tankerton seashore at the outset of the new restrictions, with just the sound of the waves for company and the dying of the light.
John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is one of my favorite things. Here’s why.
If Halloween was a cake it would be a cake without lashings of chocolate ganache or hidden centres of jelly sweets, or tall strata of sponge in the rainbow colour of unicorns. It Halloween was an item of clothing, it would be something simple, cut sparingly from some all-natural textile. If Halloween was a song, it would have been laid down in the fewest takes possible, with no auto-tune, no vocoder, and no melisma.
The idea of a ‘classy’ slasher film is absurd, as ‘slasher films’ are fundamentally exploitative thrill rides and no better than they should be, but Halloween is, ahem, a cut above the rest.
As I’ve aged, my tolerance for horror cinema has shifted. I could watch any amount of on-screen violence as a Clearasil-dabbed teenager. For the most part, I swerve spectacles of excessive dismemberment now, and a feature of the horror films I’ve come to canonize is they’re largely bloodless affairs.
My other intolerance is for zombies. I’m not talking about actual zombies (though I’ll admit some fatigue with them too). I’m talking about the legions of modern horror films that look and behave like horror films, but are actually hollowed-out meat-puppets, vapid storytelling experiences strung together from carbon copies of other, better examples of the genre. These films are only horror films because the music and the lighting and the violence and the slick marketing are telling us they are. I am fiercely impatient with horror films in which characters walk around in the dark for prolonged periods of time, searching out some jump-scare, some sudden, glitchy walking thing or zooming pale face. These automated suspense-dispensers are to horror what aspartine is to sugar, as if ‘turning off the lights’ is some surefire way of putting the umami into a horror film’s secret sauce.
Of course, Halloween has its fair share of dumb characters walking around in the dark, and I guess we have the extraordinary success of Carpenter’s movie to thank for all the ‘dumb characters walking about in the dark’ that followed it, but Halloween‘s especial powers to frighten derive from its sensitivity, not for shadows, but for daylight. It’s here, in the sunshine, that Halloween makes its move from exploitation flick to the stranger stuff of myth, from cheap-trick to the truly more spookier realm of archetype.
Halloween’s day time scenes look pristine, Haddonfield’s pavements, paths, and big white wooden houses kicking out all this soft matte light, as if the film stock itself has been cut with some fine silvered powder. At other times, the light is honeyed, catching in the hair of Halloween‘s young and beautiful cast, and showing up all those Instagram filters for the synthetic pretenders they are.
If someone were to ask me ‘how I’m doing?’, as my mood pertains to the events of 2020 – and especially the prospect of heading into winter and the shrinking effect of a likely second UK lock-down, I’d likely say I was doing fine. I’d likely say I was prepared for the narrowing, for the darker days to come, and yet, in readiness to write this blogpost, I re-watched Halloween, and something about its onscreen capture of light made me ache. My reaction was due in part to that weird vicarious nostalgia for a time I never lived though and a place I never knew, what you might call the Super 8mm phenomenon, but mostly it was a strong visceral reaction to those moments in Halloween where the film grain holds the setting sun.
But hey, all this poeticism is well and good, but you don’t watch Halloween for the sun-flares. You watch it to be afraid, and while the film’s third act is where you’ll find all the screaming, running, stabbing and falling, this is not for me where the fear lives.
The early sunlit scenes of Halloween are as menacing as anything in horror cinema. These are long, slow shots in which nothing much happens; leaves scud across pavements, a girl in white woollen tights leaves her home, a girl in white woollen tights walks to school; the road is wide, the lawns green, but the overall effect is as if some invisible ether is slowly filling the frame. It certainly looks sunny here and everything looks fine. Everything looks safe. Everything looks normal, but we can’t feel fine, we can’t feel safe, and we know, despite the evidence of our eyes to the contrary, that nothing about this place is normal. There is malice in all this pristine clarity, and this is one of the less trumpeted achievements of Halloween, less trumpeted because it’s none of the ‘scary stuff’ that comes later. These early ‘unremarkable’ scenes produce exquisite feelings of the uncanny – that rarest, most delicate fear. This is the emptied sunlit horror we find in the paintings of De Chirico, it is Halloween‘s mystery and melancholy of the street.
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’, Giorgio De Chirico, 1914
Halloween isn’t the first horror film to understand the special powers of daylight for producing the conditions for a really good scare. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) establishes the template John Carpenter goes on to deploy for Halloween‘s finest moments of unease – daylight and distance.
While The Innocents takes place in a classical haunted house, with Deborah Kerr’s increasingly harried governess gliding about its rooms at night by candelight, it is the pastoral sunlit scene down by the lake packing the most powerful punch. When the spectre of the previous governess manifests suddenly among the tall reeds, there is only sunlight and stillness, and how it chills.
The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, 1961
Halloween plays this same demure trick three times to increasingly pleasurable effect. Distracted during class, Halloween‘s final girl, Laurie Strode, looks out of her classroom window to see a figure in a white mask watching her from the other side of the road. That we can hear the teacher talking away in the background about the ‘personification of fate’ lays in some of the film’s more metaphysical ambitions. She doesn’t know who this figure might be or what he wants with her. Later, walking home with her friend, Laurie sees the same figure standing at the end of a long run of neat hedging. Once at home, Laurie is in her room upstairs, at which point she sees the figure again, who is this time standing silently among the bright flapping sheets of her washing. No thunder claps, no jump scares, no cheap-tricks, and no ‘lights off’ – just the dreadful pricking of these three small slivers of wrongness.
A few years ago, I was riding in the back of someone’s car, driving past homes in some ordinary place of terraced houses and paved front gardens. It was morning, or it was afternoon, some mundane greyish day. I happened to look out of the window and saw a bare-footed woman walking away from the road up through the narrow gap between two houses. The bare-footed woman had no head. It was daylight. I saw her clearly, if fleetingly – a woman in a long dress, her arms hanging loosely at her side – a woman with no head. I sat bolt upright in my seat, my head whipping around to continue looking, to be certain of what I saw, but more houses slid past and the moment was over. I’m pretty sure the woman did have a head. I think something about the play of light between the two houses and the angle of the woman’s body in relation to my own combined to produce this disturbing effect. Anyway, this is what I tell myself, but just for a moment, I had that appalling jigsaw-feeling, that a piece of the world had been jammed into the fabric of reality the wrong way up – but made somehow to fit.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a 2009 German language film shot in surgically precise black and white. The time is 1913, the place is a small, isolated German village named Eichwald, and the narrative evolves around a series of unexplained acts of cruelty and malice perpetrated against the remote, rural community.
In common with Haneke’s Hidden (2005), The White Ribbon is purposefully ambiguous. Motives are never laid bare and pointed fingers fail to skewer definitive targets. In this way, the film refuses easy categorisation, but for this viewer, at least, Haneke’s menacing exploration of shame, reprisal and complicity continues a fine cinematic tradition of paedophobia: stories that evince or seek to evoke a visceral distrust or dislike of children.
The mark left by a trip-wire used in a booby-trap, The White Ribbon (2009)
A mysterious fire, The White Ribbon (2009)
The Baron’s son is thrown in the river, The White Ribbon (2009)
While The White Ribbon determines for its audience neither motive nor culprit for the violent acts, it certainly doesn’t dissuade us from thinking the worst of the neat, straight-backed children who inhabit the village – they who gather watchfully outside doorways and windows to enquire ever-so politely about the well-being of the individuals hurt in the film’s mysterious accidents and brutalised in off-screen beatings. There is something insincere about the children’s sincerity, something too knowing about their curiosity, their demeanour reminiscent of scientists coming back to observe dispassionately the outcome of inhumane experiments. This may ultimately be an example of Haneke’s game-play, in that the audience is tempted by the director to foreclose on further discussion and apportion blame – and in so doing make issue of our intolerance for incertitude and preference for scapegoats.
I’m not alone in fearing the children of remote, rural Eichwald. The school teacher, who narrates the events of the film, comes finally to suspect the children of unwholesome activities. His hypothesis is met with indignation and disavowal. Hardly surprising: the idea children can be so wilfully malign always elicits public outcry – especially in cases where children abuse or kill other children (and children are victims of violence in The White Ribbon). One need only namecheck Mary Bell and James Bulger to know children who kill present society with an idea too unpalatable.
Mary Bell at the time of her arrest.
James Patrick Bulger being led away to his death.
It is Eichwald’s pastor with whom the school teacher shares his misgivings, who reacts predictably with horror. There is, however, something too strident about this puritan’s refutation. The pastor is appalled by the premise that the village children (his own among them) could be responsible for the violence, but not, I suspect, because he finds the school teacher’s theory unimaginable, but rather because he can imagine it perfectly well. Author William Golding evidences no such squeamishness. Golding’s 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies, in which a community of English schoolboys stranded on an island descend into savagery, is a celebrated reposte to the idea that children are wired more benignly than adults.
A school boy savage, from Lord Of The Flies (1963)
Whereas Golding suggests none of us are beyond the thrall of atavism – children especially – Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) makes the case that evil derives from specific genes or ‘bad seeds’. Rhoda Penmark, aged eight, is the bad seed of the film’s title, a child-killer and sociopath, and as a subplot reveals, the granddaughter of a female serial killer.
Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed (1956)
LeRoy’s film is an adaptation of a 1954 novel by William March. The novel’s original ending – in which Rhoda’s mother attempts to kill her daughter with sleeping pills and then shoots herself, only for Rhoda to survive, free to kill again – was much too nihilistic for the censors. The spectacle of a child psychopath going unpunished contravened the Hays Code, which insisted films had a solemn moral duty to show ‘crime didn’t pay.’ The film’s ending was duly revised, with the mother now surviving her suicide attempt and Rhoda being dealt a lethal blow by a bolt of lightning. Ultimately then, Rhoda is given the mother of all spankings by the father of all fathers. Not content with this sledgehammer-subtle deus-ex-machina, a post-ending coda shows the mother spanking Rhoda, so as to further reassure audiences and restore too in the minds of worried moms and pops the efficacy of their own parenting. I can only wonder what changes the Hays Code would have demanded of Haneke’s The White Ribbon – a film in which children are violent, crimes go unpunished, motives remain elliptical, parenting is largely abusive and bolts of cleansing lightning are in conspicuously short supply.
Rhoda gets spanked by her mother, The Bad Seed (1956)
If the children of Eichwald have a ring-leader, it is the passive-aggressive Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), whose resemblance to Rhoda Penmark might encourage us to believe in the existence of genetic templates for evil after all. Klara is as blonde and outwardly wholesome as LeRoy’s sociopath, but as dead-pan as Wednesday Addams, whose morbid fascination with injury and accident Klara may also share.
Klara is confronted by the suspicious school teacher, The White Ribbon (2009)
It is Klara who is responsible for one of the film’s acts of violence that is attributed without equivocation. Klara is the pastor’s eldest daughter who, in falling short of her father’s puritanical expectations, has been made by way of punishment to wear the titular white ribbon on her arm. While the white ribbon itself is symbolic of purity, the wearing of it announces moral deficit and failure. Following further public humiliation by her father, Klara kills the pastor’s pet bird in reprisal and revolt. That the bird itself is caged is surely significant, for Klara is likewise denied the full expression of her nature by the repressive structures of her father’s world. As significant is the means by which Klara first mutilates and then displays the pastor’s bird, making from its corpse a mockery of a crucifix. Fathers of all kinds are punished in Eichwald.
Klara’s revenge, The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon‘s temporal and geographical context encourages us to lend chilling significance to the idea of a generation of children learning to flex their muscles with impunity and address their resentments with violence. The school teacher’s opening narration suggests plainly that, like him, we might seek to connect the social microcosm of the troubled village and the macrocosm of twentieth century European history:
“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell you of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
If The White Ribbon is ‘about’ the incubation of fascism in Germany, then Klara and her tribe are not simply bad apples, but bitter little acorns from which something truly monstrous will grow. The film’s title may, of itself, be an example of grim foreshadowing, as Ian Johnston suggests, “The shaming white ribbons worn on Martin and Klara’s arms project associations into the Nazi future, both the Nazis’ armbands and the badges of shame (yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) used in the camps.” (Johnston, 2010) Of Klara and her cohorts, Alan Nothnagle makes this grim prediction: “These terrorists in waiting are around ten or twelve years old, and as such are too young to participate in World War I. No, instead of experiencing the disillusioning meat grinder of attrition warfare, this lot will instead soak up the dying Empire’s “victory” propaganda and later join the Freikorps, the Storm Troopers, and the Nazi Party. In 1933 they will be around thirty years old and will form the backbone of the new regime.” (Nothnagle, 2009)
Hitler Youth Propoganda Poster
In Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning Cabaret (1972), we encounter another beautiful blonde child whose implacable resolve gives us one of cinema’s most truly chilling scenes. For all its apparent ambiguity, The White Ribbon is no less clear in its message: we should fear for our children, in so much as they are manipulated easily, controlled and abused, and we should be in fear of our children for the self-same reason – or as singer-song writer Tracy Chapman puts it more simply, ‘Bang Bang Bang.’
Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret (1972)
The afterimage of Hitler’s youth permeates another peadophobic classic, The Village of The Damned (1960), based on John Wyndam’s science-fiction 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Here too, we encounter a tribe of precocious moppets all with startlingly blonde hair and glacial, impeccable manners with scant disregard for the feelings of others.
The glacial blonde children from The Village Of The Damned (1960) > Hitler Youth Propaganda poster.
At least the mums and dads of Midwich have got aliens to blame for their wayward offspring – and not a serial-killing encoded gene. In this instance, their creepy kids are the hive-minded, telepathic progeny of an extra-terrestial intelligence. Likewise, when their sullen five year old starts acting-up in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) Richard and Katherine Thorn can at least take comfort from the fact of finding themselves at the heart of a global conspiracy plotting to see the antichrist installed on his earthly throne.
Damien Thorn, the antichrist as a child in The Omen (1976)
In these peadophobic fright-fests, the parents are squarely not at fault – external forces are at work. These children are monsters of (super)nature not nurture. Not so in The White Ribbon. Haneke’s children are Larkin‘s children – fucked up by their mums and dads and by the alienating ideologies of adulthood. As Ryan Gilbey observes, “If the children are the perpetrators of the violence, it is their elders who have nurtured these dubious talents. The villagers’ child-rearing techniques, based on instilling guilt and inflicting pain, are shown to be incendiary” (Gilbey, 2009) It’s even possible to see the acts of violence perpetrated against the village as projections of the adults’ otherwise unexpressed resentment. The village is festering with grown-up grievances, unvoiced, neutered by puritan restraint and the tugging of forelocks. Haneke’s refusal to name and shame gives the various attacks and accidents a near-supernatural quality, as if they’re being visited upon the village like portents, which is further encouraged by the inclusion of a child character who appears able to prophecise the episodes of violence in her dreams. Notice Gilbey’s choice of the word ‘incendiary’, which seems particularly apposite considering the way in which The White Ribbon‘s cruelties ignite without warning – as if the pent-up negative energies building up in the village have found an ‘out’, striking people down like the lightning that incinerated poor Rhoda Penmark.
The notion of children expressing or acting out the repressed rage and frustration of their parents surely finds its apotheosis in David Cronenberg’s 1979 body-horror chiller, The Brood. In what can only be described as Freudian tour-de-force, Cronenberg introduces us to a monstrous mother figure capable of giving birth to ‘rage babies’ from a cancerous womb appended to her stomach. Like the monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), the mother’s snarling off-spring are the progeny of her id. They are hatred and jealousies made flesh. Springing from the mother’s own repressed feelings of resentment, her vengeful brood act upon her most violent fantasies, committing brutal acts of murder about which the mother herself remains unaware.
The Brood‘s romper-suited ‘rage babies’,
Meanwhile, the non-synonymous issues of childhood sexuality and the sexualisation of children by adults have never been more freighted, confused or conflated. This is another way in which children have come to terrify us – something the Chapman Brothers, for example, know well and are keen for us to confront and interrogate.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000), 1995
Haneke’s The White Ribbon is as unflinching in exploring our disquiet around children and sex. In one acutely disquieting scene, Klara’s brother admits reluctantly to his father he’s been masturbating. In response, the pastor tells his son an appalling lie about another boy in another village who died a horrible malingering death as a direct result of the same nocturnal activity. If this sounds far-fetched, consider this: according to the Journal of Religion and Health at one point, “two thirds of all human diseases, medical and mental, were attributed to masturbation” (Patton, 1986).
The pastor’s son wears the white ribbon during his cross-examination, The White Ribbon (2009)
As a further deterrant, the boy’s hands are tied with knotted ropes to his bed so he might sleep through the night without succumbing to the evils of onanism. Here, what is normal, healthy and ubiquitous about childhood sexuality is equated with pestilence and moral decay, the prospect of a ‘sexual child’ so unseemly, so immoral, that the physical abuse and enforced incarceration of a boy by his father is deemed preferable, curative, and ‘more proper’.
Another child tied to a bed by religious men in an effort to prohibit further ‘self abuse’ is Regan MacNeil in William Freidkin’s The Exorcist (1973). True, twelve year old Regan is possessed by an ancient, foul-mouthed demon, but that the abject corruption of her soul should manifest as an episode of female masturbation leads some to interpret The Exorcist as resonating so powerfully with audiences, less because of how it depicts an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil for a young girl’s soul, and rather more because it twangs parental anxiety in regard to the secret sex lives of their pubescent children.
Meanwhile, back in Haneke’s bleak little village, the doctor is abusing his daughter without conscience, even going so far as making a gift to her of his dead wife’s earrings so that his moral trespass might be elided still further. In Eichwald, the sexuality of its children is both refused and exploited. It becomes a thing of horror – for them, for us. Hypocrisy abounds; a man alienates his son from the province and pleasures of his own body in an obvious act of guilt and self-loathing (are we seriously meant to believe that the pastor has never masturbated?), while another adult with responsibilities of care and rehabilitation abuses his daughter with breathtaking indifference to his crime.
The doctor abusing his daughter, The White Ribbon (2009)
Another peadophobic film shot through with peadophiliac disquiet is Jack Clayton’s masterful adaptation of Henry James 1898 ghost story novella The Turn Of The Screw. In common with The White Ribbon, Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is a strange and ambiguous film and shares too a narrative predicated upon the spectacle of precocious, implacable children intent seemingly on out-manoeuvring their adult wards. A very prim and proper governess, played by Deborah Kerr, is charged with looking after Miles and Flora, siblings who may – or may not – have fallen under the malign influence of two dead former employees, who, while living, were locked into a darkly passionate and notably indiscrete love affair. Ostensibly, The Innocents is a film about creepy country houses, restless ghosts and possession, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t the cosy stuff of fireside yarns. For all its billowing curtains and gothic trappings, The Innocents is as discomforting about the issue of children, sex and sexualisation as any Chapman Brothers mutant (and a good deal more elegant).
Miles and Flora in The Innocents (1961)
Supernatural possession aside, the film hints that the two children have anyway witnessed sex-acts between the two lovers. The governess fears the two children ‘know too much.’ Certainly, Miles is a little too mature for his years and even flirtatious towards his governess. In a scene more lastingly shocking than Regan MacNeil masturbating with a crucifix, Miles kisses his governess on the lips. This isn’t a goodnight kiss. This isn’t a wholesome kiss. No, this kiss between a male child and a grown woman is something else entirely. Kate Bush’s suitably spooky song The Infant Kiss, inspired directly by this scene, has lyrics that make explicit the lingering suspicion that the Governess herself – and not a ghost – has developed her own unnatural obsession with Miles.
Say good night-night
I tuck him in tight.
But things are not right.
What is this? An infant kiss
That sends my body tingling?
I’ve never fallen for
A little boy before.
Just a kid and just at school.
Back home they’d call me dirty.
His little hand is on my heart.
He’s got me where it hurts me.
Knock, knock. Who’s there in this baby?
You know how to work me.
All my barriers are going.
It’s starting to show.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
I cannot sit and let
Something happen I’ll regret.
Ooh, he scares me!
There’s a man behind those eyes.
I catch him when I’m bending.
Ooh, how he frightens me
When they whisper privately.
(“Don’t Let Go!”)
Windy-wailey blows me.
Words of caress on their lips
That speak of adult love.
I want to smack but I hold back.
I only want to touch.
But I must stay and find a way
To stop before it gets too much!
All my barriers are going.
It’s starting to show.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
(Don’t let go!)
In the film’s final scene, which earned The Innocents its x-certificate, the over-wrought governess kisses the dead boy on the lips. Clayton’s The Innocents is as mischievous as Haneke’s film in refusing to coalesce in terms of ‘what happened’ or ‘why’. The innocence or otherwise of Miles and Flora is left undecided, while the culpability of the various adult characters in so influencing them is held up for enquiry. All theories are kept in play and so The Innocents, like The White Ribbon, is free to unsettle audiences indefinitely.
The infant kiss from The Innocents (1961)
So what finally do I think of Eichwald’s children above and beyond the film’s exquisite unheimlich effect that situates Klara and her cronies alongside the likes of Miles, Rhoda and those Midwich cuckoos? What can I conclude from the peadophobic trend explored here of which The White Ribbon is another example, which in different ways seems to prove that we are, at best, ambivalent about children, and at worst, afraid of them?
If you watched all the way to the end of that scene from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, you would have heard one character say to another ominously, ‘You still think you can control them?’ Strictly, he’s referring to the rise and rise of the Nazi party as exemplified by the angelic fascist and his hymn to radicalisation, but this character’s doubt applies to children more generally. This could be Haneke’s pastor, admitting finally (if only to himself, if not to the school teacher) that for all his teachings, Klara and her brother are consolidating their own identities in spite of him – without him. Stripped of its socio-historical meaning, Tomorrow Belongs To Me is the anthem of all children. Tomorrow is theirs. Children know we’re only so much dust given momentary breath and that power, control, judgement and influence will be theirs in time. This is what Klara knows when she’s saying nothing. This is what the children of Eichwald know. This is their secret and it’s a simple one; time is on their side, not ours. All children have to do is wait for the ruling class of adults to grow old, lose traction, and die. This, of course, makes them our next bright hope for the future – and our enemy.
The children of Eichwald, The White Ribbon (2009)
Nothnagle, Alan, Horror film of the decade – “The White Ribbon”, http://open.salon.com/blog/lost_in_berlin/2009/12/27/horror_film_of_the_decade_-_the_white_ribbon
Patton, Michael S., Twentieth Century Attitudes Toward Masturbation, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol 25. No 4, 1986 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01534067#page-1
Gilbey, Ryan, The White Ribbon, http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2009/11/white-ribbon-haneke-european
Author’s note: Originally published here in August 2013, I was prompted to revisit the article again in light of the recent Alice Neel-themed Kick-About, in which a number of the participating artists, including myself, produced work examining some of the societal expectations around motherhood and children. I also wanted to share it because I’ve been struck by the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic is reiterating some of the themes explored here; we are acutely worried about the future prospects of our children and seek to protect them from returning too early to school. We worry too children will become the unwitting agents of our own destruction – carriers for the virus, bringing it back through the door, infecting the old, the vulnerable and the shielded. Politically, the young are both courted and curtailed, a sure sign their power is threatening. Notice how Greta Thunberg is othered by her most powerful critics, framing her as a Midwich cuckoo not quite of this earth and bent on some malign conspiracy to topple the existing world order…
Synthesis is a magic trick, the way seemingly disparate things activate each other before drawing together more tightly to produce something whole and new. It’s the busy brain, seeing patterns, asserting them, refusing disparity, giving shape, form and meaning where there was none… and it’s always a relief when it happens!
I’d never heard of Alice Neel, whose 1932 painting, Symbols, was the prompt for our most recent Kick-About. The image felt freighted and quietly fraught, meaning abounding at a certain pitch, with the ensemble of symbols speaking to female experience and our expectations around it. A bit more research later, and it became clear the dissonance radiating from Neel’s nude doll was far from unique in her art, that childhood, children and parenting were oft-visited sites for Neel’s thematic unease.
Degenerate Madonna (1930) > Untitled (1982) Sam and Richard (1940) > Sam and Hartley (1945)
A number of Neel’s paintings made me think of many of the female characters who inhabit the short stories of Shirley Jackson, a writer whose fiction throbs with suppressed terror, panic and raw frustration of ordinary people. Jackson isn’t a sentimental writer, very far from it, her characters compressed by social conventions around their roles as wives and mothers. A favourite story of mine is Colloquy (1944), the shortest of stories, in which an agitated Mrs Arnold is in conversation with her doctor about her husband’s erratic behaviour. As the story progresses, Mrs Arnold is unable to make the doctor register her feelings meaningfully, and what is sane about her emotional reaction to the march of modernity is served back up to her by the doctor as hysteria.
“Mrs. Arnold,” the doctor said, coming around the desk, “we’re not going to help things any this way.”
“What is going to help?” Mrs. Arnold said. “Is everyone really crazy but me?”
“Mrs. Arnold,” the doctor said severely, “I want you to get hold of yourself. In a disoriented world like ours today, alienation from reality frequently–“
“Disoriented,” Mrs. Arnold said. She stood up. “Alienation,” she said. “Reality.” Before the doctor could stop her she walked to the door and opened it. “Reality,” she said, and went out.
Colloquy was first and foremost in my mind when I began writing the short monologue for Quite Normal. I wanted that patrician condescension and awful powerlessness. I wanted it as bleak as Jackson’s stories are bleak.
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads have just been re-visited by the BBC. I remember watching them on television when they aired originally back in the late 1980s and how powerful they were, not least because they required you to really look, really listen and really connect. There was something discomforting and challenging about being that intimate with a character, being so inside their experience.
But if I’m being 100% honest, it was another famous monologue I was thinking about in terms of how to approach making this film: ‘Mother’s’ monologue from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a film that plays in my head most days in some secret flickering way. I knew my character wasn’t a villain and she certainly isn’t mad – that’s the whole point – but this scene in Psycho is essentially a monologue supported by a sequence of still shots; after the high-jinx of the shower scene, we get this relative immobility, this watchfulness, this simpler act of looking and listening.
There’s also the final moment following mother’s monologue when Hitchcock super-imposes her dessicated face over Norman’s face; the resurgence of the predator, of impulses vile and violent. There’s a moment in Charly Skilling’s performance of the Quite Normal script that achieves a similarly chilling effect, when she says “I don’t suppose for one minute when she looks at her baby she worries like I worry” – where just for a second we hear, not anxiety, but curiosity about her own propensity for terrible cruelty.
The decision to use stills was a practical one – I don’t have access to a video camera right now – but one of the most satisfying and disinhibiting things about the Kick-About is the way it compels you to turn limitations into purposeful visual strategies. Confining myself to using imagery culled from mid-century magazine advertisements meant I could co-opt all that gendered baggage around (im)perfect lives, (im)perfect smiles, (un)wholesomeness, and the tyranny of idealisation. I re-photographed all the imagery direct from my laptop screen, re-framing it, hunting out the noise, pushing the colour, pulling the colour, and courting perspectival distortions.
But why set the film at the dentist?
I’ve always been haunted by the idea that my brother and I robbed the calcium from my mum’s teeth – that as babies, we were parasites (and for many years afterwards I strongly suspect!). Even today, mum fears the dentist, having had her crumbling back teeth removed at a time when dentistry was a more medieval interaction. Of all the different elements combining to tell this story, it was this detail about teeth around which everything coalesced with a satisfying snap. It was the symbol I was looking for, the visual means by which to tell a story about the various invasions visited upon women by baby-making in all its phases.
With Jean Cocteau as our guest referee, little wonder the Kick-About #4 was a game of magical doorways, shadowy thresholds and nebulous reflections. This time we have Alice Neel as our muse, whose uncompromising paintings have, hardly surprisingly, prompted a range of provocative impressions from our motley crew of up-for-it creatives. Happy browsing.
“This painting really intrigued me, so I took time to read about the story behind it and the symbolism within it. Alice Neel painted Symbols in response to her husband leaving her, taking their daughter with him. When I look at the doll and glove on the table, I see things that were left behind by the daughter when she left, little items that were once insignificant, now a symbol of what has been lost. There are discussions on how the inclusion of the cross and apples represent Eve, perhaps suggesting Neel sees herself as the the destroyer of her own Garden of Eden – her family. In my piece, I wanted to take the symbols that stood out the most to me, and using Neel’s style, create a new piece. The doll to me is a symbol of childhood, the cross a symbol of sacrifice, the apple and leaves representing Eden, now lost.”
“I decided to do some monoprints and had several tries where the prints just weren’t matching the vision in my head for this challenge. Finally, in frustration, I mixed some fabric ink I had with the printing ink on a small metal rolling plate and had that moment of excitement when I pulled the paper off the plate. The two inks weren’t really compatible (even says so on the bottles!) and the effect was much closer to what I was looking for – much closer to Alice’s experience, I think. Alice Neel’s biography is fascinating and she lived a difficult life as a woman artist, receiving popular recognition only later in life. She painted unvarnished, unflinching portraits of her subjects and from what I read, never compromised on that.”
“When I saw the prompt for the next round of the Kick About I was intrigued. I didn’t know this painting or this artist, so I started Googling and found out more. I looked at the painting again; there was an unsettling mixture of childhood and adult references going on. The painting started to trigger thoughts and memories of my own childhood…”
“I initially mistook the doll in the painting for a voodoo doll, which sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit warren. I surfaced on an article about cunning folk; practitioners of folk magic and divination in England from medieval times up to the early twentieth century. They learnt their craft through spell books called Grimoires, which taught how to create magical objects such as talisman and amulets, other magical spells, and how to summon angels and demons.
Cunning folk however were usually employed in order to solve specific problems, such as missing property, or malevolent witchcraft.
With an East Anglian tradition of cunning folk in my area, I decided that gave me licence to have a go at some millennial magic.
Two of the practices which proved popular against witches were voodoo dolls, and witches’ bottles. I felt a bit funny about voodoo, so I opted with the more friendly sounding witches bottle.
If a witch had placed a curse on your home, your local cunning folk would help you create a witch’s bottle to capture the evil in your home. The folk would produce a bellarmine jug, which the victim was required to either urinate in, or place rosemary, red wine and pins. This would then be buried in the furthest corner of the house, or under the hearth. The purpose behind the objects was that after burial, the bottle would capture and contain the evil, the pins would impale it, the wine would drown it, and the rosemary would send it away. I’m not sure why they needed the urine sample.
Putting a modern spin on ancient problems, I moved house recently and have been having problems with the builder. Rather than read through some tedious warranty documents, I thought it would be easier to use the witch’s bottle to sort out permeated outer walls and safety glass guarantees, and also perhaps throw in a tiny bit of a curse.
I made a crude jug from a pack of air drying terracotta, which it turns out is very difficult to shape, and carved the building faults I want to resolve into the sides, then slapped some black paint on it, to draw the badness in. I then added the red wine, some rosemary and some wood screws (no pins available), opting out on the urine. I live in a flat which doesn’t have a hearth, so I settled for burying the bottle in a pot in the corner of my balcony.
As of the time of writing, there hasn’t been any change in the outer membrane of the house, and I can’t say if the builder has suffered any sudden misfortune, but it’s early days and I remain hopeful.”
“A short film inspired by the various portraits Alice Neel painted of babies and young children that reveal an unsentimental image of motherhood. Quite Normal was likewise inspired by the experiences of my own mother, whose teeth my brother and I stole as babies. Sorry about that, mum!
“Replacing the objects in Alice Neel’s “Doll and Apples” 1932; I’m referencing two contemporary issues: COVID 19 and human damage to the natural world (under subheading ‘Victims of Circumstance’)….scattered like (tea) leaves on the page…and thus looking into an uncertain future.” “Plastic Soldier with Woodcock Wings”. Charcoal and Graphite on Fabriano.
“Strangely, I’ve actually been thinking about Alice Neel a lot lately. I’ve been meaning to watch the doc on her life and work for about a month, and so when this kick-about prompt showed up, I jumped at the chance.
I don’t want to say too much about my piece apart from I hope it expresses something of Neel’s own work. In these recent lockdown months, I’ve been surrounded by people battling deep crisis. This painting is about a singular evening during the lockdown when some of those crises boiled over.”
Watch Jordan paint live at twitch.tv/jordan_buckner
‘On discovering Neel’s painting embodies a personal, traumatic experience, I have explored the themes of motherhood and loss.’ 3D Sketch – logs, saw dust, chewing gum, tights, 126 x 98 x 40cm
“Alice Neel’s doll painting reminded me of my dad’s basement, where I would spend a lot of time as a young lad with my cousins making up scary stories in the dark…”
“I wanted to approach Alice Neel’s painting in a different way than I had done previously. The inspiration for this 3-D collage came when I was cleaning out some papers and came upon the paper insert for the Evanescence cd “Fallen”. The cover photo of Amy Lee seemed to echo the face of the doll Neel had painted.This was music my younger daughter played over and over in her adolescence, and it was fun to go to YouTube and pull up the songs. I still like them. Maybe I even like them more now. Amy’s voice is a force, and she can be way over the top. But the gothic flavor of the music seemed also apt to the painting.
I think Neel is addressing her struggle as a woman, a mother, an artist, a person constrained by family and cultural circumstances. She lost her oldest child to her husband’s family who considered her an unsuitable mother. The life she chose was not easy, but she never gave up her need and her right to make her art. Must a woman be only a virgin mother or a childless whore? And why should gender determine who we are or what we can be at all?“
upon my end I shall begin–
I’m going under
I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems
without a thought without a voice without a soul
the truth drives me into madness,
my spirit sleeping somewhere cold
no one’s there–
never was and never will be
save me from the nothing I’ve become,
return to me salvation
maybe I’ll wake up for once,
fallen angels at my feet
let me stay,
bow down and stare in wonder
I know who you are–
the goddess of imaginary light
“Whereas the artist Alice Neel had a rather sad life with the loss of her two daughters, I have decided to reflect on the symbols of my very happy creative life, and also that of my great aunt. She too was called Alice and was the 5th of 7 children, born 9 years before Alice Neel in 1891. Her father died when she was about four and somehow the family survived in a male-dominated society through two world wars.
What do myself and great aunt Alice have in common? Well, we both love to make things. She was a milliner and I have inherited her milliner’s block – a strong solid oak symbol of stubborn perseverance if ever there was one! I decided to try and make a hat on it. I attached lots of my crochet pieces I’ve made over the years. These are in the style of Irish crochet, where lots of motifs are joined together. Irish crochet began in the famine years of the 1840s and became a symbol of life and hope for the Irish people, especially women, to help make ends meet. Hats off to you Aunt Alice!”
TJ and Jo Norman
“Through collaboration, we fuse sculpture with animation, exploring theatrical aspects of using characters and stories, in conjunction with symbolic real-world materials. This quick turnaround piece plays with Neel’s imagery and themes; apples, dolls, loss and rebirth.”
www.tjnartists.com / #tjnartists
“When I first looked at Alice Neel’s “Symbols”, it struck me how crushed, how hopeless the figure seems. Yet her make-up is intact and immaculate. It got me thinking about why women wear make-up and what impels us to literally put a “good face” on things, even when things are anything but good. While I was musing, I was experimenting with some freestyle crochet and the following is the outcome of both musings and experiment.”
“As I was working on the face, I was struck by how the reverse told it’s own story. In particular the finished eyes are those of a woman on the edge. On the reverse, they look scratched out…“
“Looking at the source image I felt quite disturbed, which fitted very nicely with my current interest in Absurdity and a recent reading of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I proceeded to layer both domestic and made elements from around my home in order to create a sort of cross section of where I am at. All topped off with, and I think you will all agree, a very lovely frame from Wilko.”
Many thanks to kick-abouter, Francesca Maxwell for our brand-new prompt, which takes its title from the book by Rebecca Solnit. See below for our new jumping-off point and submission date. Have fun and see you all again on the other side and get in touch if you’ve enjoyed the showcase and fancy a run-around too. Whatever it is you’re doing creatively, there’s room for you here.
Our previous kick-about together was a game on the theme of happy shades, which originated a showcase of reflective, nostalgic and mediative responses. Phil Cooper’s Orpheus-inspired prompt has led some of us at least down some shadowier, more mysterious paths, as we consider alternate worlds and the allure of leaving this one.
“The sea is often described as a mirror and the mirage (Fata Morgana) on the horizon is literally looking/entering into another space. These are caused by layers of successively warmer air (shown as horizontal lines) working like a series of eyeglass lenses. It is a world that does not exist but is utterly real to the viewer.” Pencil on Fabriano. 56 cm X 56 cm.
“A Saturday stroll in the blistering summer heat turned into search for other-worlds and distorted realities, which I found in the ripples and reflections of the Ooka River in Yokohama. My final stop on this little solo journey was a lovely park that sits on the edge of Yokohama harbour. I’ve always found the waves and colour of the ocean here completely fascinating. It’s like staring into a thick undulating soup, and it was here where not so long ago the ill-fated Diamond Princess was moored up, quarantined, and its unfortunate passengers cut off from the outside world. It was as if it too had gone through the mirror where things would never quite be the same again.”
“This response evolved from the idea of Opheus entering into an eternal dance of seduction with death. The folds start to talk about ideas around the eternal, where there is no beginning or end just what happens within the unfolding of the middle. Hence the title ‘…and…'”
“As long as there have been mirrors, humanity has wondered what they are really seeing in them – spirits, shades,(usually not so happy) or alternate universes. We gaze in the mirror – and we muse. And being human, we muse about how such mirror worlds might affect us personally.”
“I attempted to illustrate the moment where Orpheus entered the underworld to save his wife ‘Eurydice’. Orpheus stands readying himself for what’s to come as the the dark forces of the underworld surround Eurydice in the depths. This sparked all sorts of possible dark scenarios to illustrate, but I went for a poster-like iconic angle to enhance the drama and jeopardy for the hero of the piece.”
“Mirrors and reflections often feature in my work, but I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to approach the mirror as a portal. I first tried a collage but it seemed too busy. The folded Rorschach paintings I do are already mirrored, so I decided to try that approach.
As often happens, this was not the painting I had in mind when I began. Although the paint didn’t layer the way I envisioned, it took on its own life in the process and I followed along. This is the second painting I’ve done using handprints…perhaps the start of a series?”
circles drumming, spiraling,
held opposite by
here and there
to now—remaining whole yet
existing as both
ancient songs—myths returned as
what will always be
“I began by looking at an old children’s book called The Mirrorstone (Michael Palin, Alan Lee and Richard Seymour). In this story a boy walks through his bathroom mirror, and what I like about it are the illustrations, which include holograms. With this in mind I used some mirror card for my shapes and made shadows using some black organza material from my stash. The pink card is actually sparkly, but this was very hard to photograph and get the same effect. Lastly I drew around my hands and stuck some chiffon over them for a more ghostly look.”
“I knew exactly what I was going to create when I saw the new prompt… Twas the night before my birthday and I was sitting out in the tiny garden in my previous London apartment. I was drinking red wine and smoking a cigarette and frankly feeling rather shit – not sure if it was the birthday blues or if it was an amalgamation of other things, but my neighbours behind my house were having a party; they recently installed some outside lighting that surrounded their roomy garden in a blazing warm hue that lit up the brick of their apartment like a beacon in the night. In my garden there was a full length mirror perched against a rickety garden shed that was full of art supplies and spiders. The light from the neighbour’s garden was reflecting brilliantly against the mirror – it looked otherworldly placed against the black shed and darkness of my garden, as if the light didn’t belong in the darkness. I thought to myself, I wish that was a fucking portal so I could step through it, leave this place and see some happy faces. The neighbours next door continued to dance and sing into the night.”
“A few weeks back, I discovered a large stagnant pond in the woods, its water black, viscous and a little sinister. All this talk of magic mirrors and portals to the underworld saw me hurry back to this enshadowed pool, as haunted and obsidian as any scrying mirror…”
“This has been some challenge, having chosen the mirror’s reflection as focus throughout, with three quite different self-portraits beneath this final slightly worrying impression of entering a hot (not tropical) world. Too late for dodging the inevitable, I suspect.” Oil on board 20cm x 20cm.
“Mystic portals and doorways to other realms have often appeared in my work. I guess that’s why I chose the clip from Cocteau’s Orphée for the prompter’s this week; to me, they represent imagination, dreams, and promise.
I made the images by painting 2D elements on card, setting them up on a table-top with a painted background and then photographing them. It was all pretty low-fi; the lighting is a little torch, a candle and my iPhone, and I used a few basic photo-editing apps to add atmosphere and texture. I enjoy seeing how the painted shapes transform during the photographic process. It sometimes falls flat and occasionally something quite satisfying emerges. I’d like to continue to develop these ideas; add sound perhaps, or use video to introduce movement.”
“I have finally finished Orpheus. This is the second version. I must confess I am using these Kick Abouts as experimental ground, trying techniques and styles very different from my usual. Probably because I am working on a topic and with a story, I don’t usually do that in my paintings, I let images, feelings and random thoughts settle down in images and try to capture them. Only when I design for work I follow stories where there are characters and environments detached from me. For this one I used my usual abstract painting style and superimposed a baroque doorway from Puglia; an olive tree, aside from the Mediterranean feel it also represent longevity and, with the flowers, life renewal and Orpheus looking through his fingers at Eurydice who then has to turn back. I used Acrylics Inks on hot pressed watercolour paper. 30 X 40 cm.”
“The first thing I thought of was “mirror neurons” – which are special neurons found (so far) only in primates and birds that activate either when the animal does the behavior or they see another animal doing the same behavior (mirroring them). No one knows why we have them or truly what function they serve, although there is much speculation. It was fun to get out some of the science images I’ve saved over the years for this collage.”
“I did go back and do another interpretation of the theme in collage – inspired by the line ‘and in it, I see an unhappy man.’”
“Went a bit pencilly on this one, I wanted to capture Orpheus at the moment where he mourns the loss of Eurydice, the light of the surface world Illuminates him as the omnipresent darkness of grief and the underworld threaten to consume him.”
With thanks to fellow Kick-About artist, Kerfe Roig, I’m happy to announce the brand-new prompt for our fifth run-around together, Alice Kneel’s 1932 painting, Symbols. See below for the painting, and for our new submission date, and if you’re reading this and want to join our (very) loose collective of intrepid creatives in our continuing mission to make stuff we otherwise might not make, just get in touch.