Tuesday, 13 November 2018

'Wonderland', film 1999.

'Wonderland', 1999, Film and Soundtrack: Michael Winterbottom, director; Michael Nyman, composer.


Michael Nyman's soundtrack digs deep into a core of aching sadness at the heart of British urban life. Nadia (Gina Mckee, actress) wanders the streets of London, after another doomed, anxiety-ridden blind date. Cold, objectified images are sped-up, merging with the music, to suggest (despite her bleak environment) a universe of possibility inside this woman.

Illustration 1: Wandering the streets ...

One innovation of the score is the naming of each section ('Nadia', 'Franklyn', 'Molly' ... ) after a different person in the story. An 'Unnamed' movement presumably represents a yet-to-be-born child, a new entry into the harsh surroundings that the film depicts.

Illustration 2: 'Wonderland'; film poster and soundtrack cover.

The soundtrack also provides a second narrative 'voice', or perspective, describing the inner-life of each character; and the movie is strongly evocative of my own memories as a twenty-something in the nineties. In an important scene, Nadia takes an undignified bus journey home, having been used for easy sex on what she'd thought was an ideal date. There's an identifiable cruelty to this situation: as it contrasts the hopes and dreams of one thwarted individual with the vagaries of city life, in all its indifference.

Illustration 3: An undignified bus journey ...

What's striking is the tenderness of the music, which seems to be set against abrasive imagery (shot in a 'vérité' style on lightweight cameras, in real locations). Combined with the sensitive use of close-up, and Gina Mckee's face/performance, Nadia's pain is made transparent, as she struggles to control her breakdown in a public space. It's a moment of beauty that the film retrieves from a desperate world.

Illustration 4: Nadia's pain ...

Friday, 9 November 2018

Egon Schiele: 'The Family'.

Egon Schiele's 'The Family', 1918 (Belvedere Gallery, Vienna).

Illustration 1: 'The Family'.

I saw a reproduction of this painting when I was a teenager, and became obsessed with Schiele's use of line. He evokes, in the viewer, a hypersensitive awareness of touch. In describing the contours of the human form, the body is represented as an exposed object; its presence seems to make an incision in pictorial space. Schiele's mastery of contour-line, however, also transmits enormous emotion and pathos:

Illustration 2: 'Self Portrait', 1914.

Having since viewed 'The Family' in a gallery space, I was struck by its compositional authority. I see it as Egon Schiele's great attempt to resolve the problem of alienation, and of human separateness, that is pervasive in his earlier work.

His family group are joined, like Russian-dolls, in a sequence of interlocking forms: but they've been placed inside a cradle of darkness; each face is pointing in a different direction. The self-examining gaze of the father can be read as a self-portrait, and as a complex comment on masculine or parental uncertainty:

Illustration 3: 'The Family' (detail).

However, Schiele shifts the emotional centre elsewhere, toward the representation of a mother's face (with her expression of profound sadness and ambivalence):

Illustration 4: 'The Family (detail).

This marks an unexpected transition. By focusing attention away from 'the self', Schiele sacrifices his isolating sense of anxiety to a higher unifying principle: that of shared intimacy.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

'A Streetcar Named Desire'.


Madness, Sounds and Poe.

1) Tennessee Williams (1911-83).

In the opening scene of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1947), Blanche DuBois describes her sister's ramshackle New Orleans' apartment as follows: 'Only Poe! Only Mr Edgar Allan Poe! - could do it justice!'. Unconsciously, she invokes a spectre of Gothic fiction, which may be a subtle background presence in this play.

2) Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49).

The acknowledgement of Poe - Williams's great nineteenth-century literary precursor - feels more than cosmetic; in particular for that author's correlation of insanity with aural disturbance. Roderick Usher (in 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 1839), morbidly sensitive towards noise, becomes cursed by the scratchings of his sister - buried alive - attempting to claw a way out of her tomb. In another story, an unnamed murderer is driven mad by the beating of his victim's heart, long past the point of that individual's death: 'The disease [madness] had sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute' ('The Tell-Tale Heart', 1843).

3) 'The Fall of the House of Usher', illustrated by Harry Clarke.

4) 'The Tell-Tale Heart', illustrated by Harry Clarke.

In 'A Streetcar ... ', the suicide of Blanche DuBois's young husband reoccurs as a series of sense memories (shock waves and sound waves), that convey her palpable nervous disorder and descent into mental chaos. She describes a sound 'that goes relentlessly on and on in your head' (Sc. 9), a mixture of gunshot and a polka tune, the 'Varsouviana', both heard at the location of her lover's death. Later, background songs combine with 'inhuman voices' (Sc. 10), and the cry of a train: all 'echoing' and 'reverberating' (Sc. 11) the fragmentation of her personality.

5) Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951).

Central to the Gothic tradition is a concept of decay. For a male author, Williams creates an astonishingly perceptive and empathetic representation of female sexuality on the downturn. 'Miss DuBois' is conscious she is over thirty years old and that her looks are fading. This sense of imminent death emerges, pathologically, as its obverse - desire (from Thanatos to Eros): manifested in her promiscuity and abnormal attraction to young men.

Poe writes (in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'): 'True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?'. His positive view of mental illness, as a gateway to acute insight and heightened sensory experience, seems to be reiterated in 'A Streetcar ... ', particularly its final scene (Sc. 11). Blanche DuBois had sought refuge in her sister's home, situated (ironically) at 'Elysian Fields', which becomes, instead, a place of abjection, as she begins to psychologically unravel. Religious references abound: a Madonna in a painting; a soul taken to heaven; and cathedral chimes. Caught between the dangerous carnality of her physical surroundings and the 'cynical detachment' of institutionalised psychiatric care, Williams presents his character's doomed romanticism (and retreat into insanity) almost beatifically - like a rite of purification.