Friday, 19 October 2018

The Question in Bodies, parenthesis: April (2018)

I'm not really experienced in writing about theatre, especially the sort of theatre that hinges on you not knowing the ending, that depends upon a transformative revelation. While spoiling the twist of a movie is often not a deal breaker, the twist in a theatrical performance, which is still a one-time personal event in a way that a TV show or a movie cannot be in 2018, is sacred. I remember that episode of Toast of London where Steven Toast is on the radio being interviewed about being in a Famous Long Running Mystery Play, and blithely gives away the ending without even realising he's done it, and it's funnier if you know how hard theatre people try to keep stuff like that under wraps.

When Hermetic Arts – Carrie Marx and Chris Lincé – produced Unburied earlier this year, more than one person who saw it quipped on social media about the one big rug pull of the show, which is understandable, because it's a really great, brutal rug pull, but also a literal spoiler, in that it only works if you don't know about it, because otherwise you're ready to jump at any point to avoid the yank of the rug from under your feet, and that doesn't just spoil the twist, it unbalances the whole play, because you're so busy waiting for the sudden movement of the carpet, you're engaging with everything else with suspicion and that damages the experience of the show.

So, in writing about Hermetic Arts’ new show, April, I have to be really careful in ways that I'm not used to be. I was invited to see it by Carrie and Chris, and went down to London for its first performance this last Sunday (the second performance is this Sunday, 21st October, at the Old Red Lion, Islington, as part of the London Horror Festival).

Carrie plays April, a ghastly and vapid New Age positivity guru with a YouTube channel, a figure somewhere halfway between Poppy and Teal Swan, and the show is framed as a live seminar; there's some hilariously awkward audience participation involved.

It's not a spoiler to remind you that the show is part of the London Horror Festival, and that in some way, horror will intrude. And throughout the show, April raises and thwarts the audience's expectations as to how this will turn into a horror story, and where it goes in the end is unexpected and horrifying, painful and tragic.

April repeatedly says to the audience, “The body is weak,” and her work is to find a solution, an escape to that through positive thinking. And the absurdity of some of her tactics (and some of her inspirations – there's a pop culture figure who you'll not think of the same way again) both obscures the tragic horror at the heart of it, and makes it all that much worse. The body is in fact central to our identity, and things that affect our physical makeup change who we are. The body is weak, but the body is integral to who we are. Poppy, referenced at the beginning apparently for laughs, is more of an influence on April than she might originally appear, and the horror of Poppy and the horror of April travel in parallel directions.

And I'd love to unpack that further. But I don't think it would be fair. So to summarise, the body is weak, and we are our bodies, and the self is a whole, and fractures of the body and fractures of the spirit are more interlinked than we might care to believe. And the solutions or shortcuts that are supposed to circumvent the traumas we routinely face in the business of living can have seductively horrible consequences. And April is about that.

I saw the first performance, and I admit that it had some rough edges, and parts that didn't quite hang together as tightly as they could have. But another thing about theatre is that it's fluid. No two performances are the same, because in the theatre, the audience participates, and because that conversation between performer and audience allows for refinement of the performance.

I enjoyed April, because it's exactly the sort of identity horror I respond to. But if you go on Sunday, and I'd recommend you do if the idea of identity horror intrigues you, you won't see the exact show I did. There's something intriguing in that. I can't tell you all the secrets of a thing that you can't experience in the same way that I did. You won't see the show I did. But I still can't tell you. Horror theatre is a theatre of secrets, but the secrets you'll learn are your own.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Question in Bodies #20: It Mattered to That One

Evolution (2015)

(This post comes with a content warning for discussion of child abuse. As usual, spoilers abound.)

You've probably heard some variation of the inspirational fable about the little boy who's walking along this beach that's covered with washed up starfish, and every so often he stoops over and picks one up and chucks it back into the sea, and some adult comes up and says, in the way that adults only ever talk to kids in inspirational fables, “What are you doing, kid? There are too many starfish here to save! How does it matter?” And the punchline comes when the kid picks up another one, throws it into the sea, and says, “It mattered to that one.”

Which makes a powerful and important philosophical point about the value of small kindnesses. I like that one. It's one of my favourites. I've used it myself more than once.

And of course, as is the case with all the best parables, which are by nature improbable, it is flawed if taken strictly literally as a narrative. Because of course, it didn't matter to the starfish, because starfish are utterly alien. There's no brain in a starfish, just a collection of nerves and ganglia spread out among its arms, and around its mouth, so that even if you could ascribe the thing with consciousness, it's not a unity, but a collection of joined and sometimes competing consciousnesses that grow and sometimes split, and regenerate lost components of the gestalt. The experience of a starfish is probably impossible to imagine.

I wonder if Lucile Hadžihalilović had this story in mind when making Evolution. The starfish, both in terms of its alienness and the value of throwing one back, is the thematic image that defines the film.

Monday, 8 October 2018

We Don't Go Back #89: I go to sleep before closing my eyes

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) (1970)

Because I touched upon most of the Important Films quite early in this project, when I didn't know what I was doing with it, I feel I gave some of them short shrift. Which is why I gave The Witch, Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General second goes. My original piece about Valerie was quite good, I thought (it has one glaring error in it, which is going to be fixed in a second edition, though), since it was almost as oblique as the film. In many ways that piece on Valerie was the first one where I thought, actually, you can do something more interesting than just say whether you liked it. But still, I reckon Valerie deserves more. Valerie will always deserve more.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Question in Bodies #19: I Keep Thinking About Iwona Petry

Szamanka (1996)

All of this is preamble: Szamanka is a film that hasn't been given a certificate by the BBFC. I don't know why. It might simply be that a distributor never took it up over here rather than the BBFC refusing to classify it, for example. But it is quite an extreme film, and it features a lot of graphic – not pornographic, mind – sex. It's consequently quite a hard film to find in the UK, at any rate. And it's not a cheap one. I will nonetheless be giving away plot points, because this isn't, as usual, a review, but you shouldn't feel you can't read this if you haven't seen it. In fact, I went and sourced a copy of Szamanka after having read Kier-La Janisse’s equally spoilery analysis in House of Psychotic Women, which is a book I cannot recommend highly enough, and which made me really, really want to see the film in the first place, spoilers and all.

If you're in the UK, your chance of having seen Szamanka is pretty small anyway. Which is all by way of an unapologetic acknowledgement that yes, there are spoilers, but since it's hard to find, don't worry about that, and anyway, it's such a delirious film that even having spoilers doesn't really make a difference, and anyway, I might convince you that you have quite good reason not to want to see it. Regular readers will know that this is a The Question in Bodies post, so the usual warnings about discussions of trauma, abuse, sex, consent and that stuff apply. You don't need a post about a film you haven't seen ruin your day, so if you think it might be distressing, stay away.

After the cut, I'll begin.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Subordinate to the Spray-on Cobwebs

Sleepy Hollow (1999)


(This post was requested by Thaddeus Urban, who backed the “Whistle and I'll Come to You” tier on the surprisingly successful We Don't Go Back Kickstarter, where I promised to write about a film of the backer's choice. Thaddeus very kindly picked a film that's at least partially on topic, and about which I'd have much to say. Which was a relief, let me tell you.)

One of the criticisms that I often level at Tim Burton is that at some point he went from making movies to making Tim Burton Movies, by which I mean that the tics of his style overwhelm everything else, that they became about certain things that recur, over and over. There is a feeling of sweet decay to a Tim Burton Movie, that its gravestones are decked in spun sugar and spray-on cobwebs, and the gothic excess is accompanied by quirky comedy. Danny Elfman is there, too, making sweet spooky-ooky choral flourishes. A Tim Burton Movie (as opposed to a movie made by Tim Burton) is lush, and overwrought, and reassuringly creepy, and often includes this big, heavy subtext about parents and familial dysfunction, and if it's an adaptation where this isn't explicit, that subtext will be added, even if it's not there to start with. Take the bizarre backstory and coda in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), where Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp, as it so often is in Tim Burton Movies) is messed up because his dad, a dentist (Christopher Lee) put him in elaborate Heath Robinson dental appliances and disowned him due to him wanting to be a chocolatier.

Funny, isn't it though, that the charge I laid at the door of his Planet of the Apes was that it wasn't Tim Burton enough? I complained that Burton's trademark aesthetic had been abandoned, and I saw that as evidence that he evidently didn't care about the film, since the marks that make it his were largely absent. So what is it then? The bloke can't win: either he gets you playing Tim Burton Bingo, or he's not being Tim Burton enough. I mean, what is it about films like Beetlejuice (1988) or Ed Wood (1994) that makes them so much more satisfying than a film like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Or for that matter Sleepy Hollow?

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Written in Water #22: The Miracle of the Sparrows


All I have to show you is this bird
I made with fingers, spit and clay.
I breathed on it like Jesus had, I heard,
To make it come alive and fly away.


At the end of the Gospel of John, the evangelist writes,
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
John 21:25
I've always liked that as an ending. It feels like a recognition of the shortcomings of the story's form and an assertion of validity in a humble, eloquent way. There are other versions of Christ's story, the evangelist is saying, and they are no more or less valid than this one.

Friday, 7 September 2018

The Question in Bodies #18: I'd Love to Tell You, But You Aren't Ready for the Truth

Poppy (2014-present)

Poppy, if you don't know, is a pop star. Poppy is a fictional character, with a storyline of sorts. Poppy's most recent single, “Time Is Up”, begins with Poppy more or less declaring herself something other than human.
In the factory
In the sterile place where they made me
I woke up alone
Dizzy from the programming
Have I been wiped again?
Oh my God, I don't even know
Over the next three minutes, she declares herself a harbinger of the extinction of humanity over a four to the floor backing of the whitest techno, courtesy of collaborator Diplo. I mean, in terms of actual quality and cultural importance, it's pretty much the 21st century version of Zager and Evans’s “In the Year 2525”, but it's also the most Poppy thing ever.