Sunday 1 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #25: Red Shift (1978)

Of the last four subjects in the We Don't Go Back project, one was great but honestly pretty tough to write about, one was disappointing, one was unpleasant in all the bad ways, and one was just godawful.

I have a guest post in hand (and a really magnificent one at that), but that'll come on Monday, because I kind of felt funny about kicking off 2017 with someone else's writing. What I really needed to get us up and running again for a new year was a film that's just good, and which gives me something to write about. Thank the heavens for Red Shift.

Red Shift was written by Alan Garner, adapted from his own novel, and directed by John Mackenzie.
Tom (Stephen Petcher) is 18. He lives with his mum and dad in a static caravan in Rudheath in 1978. He's intelligent and sensitive, and hints are made that he is epileptic. He reads a lot. He has a girlfriend called Jan (Lesley Dunlop), and she and her family are about to move away to London. She's going to university down there to train as a nurse and they're about to begin negotiating how to continue their relationship. While they're on a day out together, they go to the top of Mow Cop, and find a stone-age axe in the chimneystack of a ruined house, which they treat as a sign of their love. It doesn't work out. Tom's heart is broken.
Thomas and James.
Thomas Rowley (Charles Bolton) is about 18. He is intelligent, sensitive, and epileptic, and when he fits, he has visions. He is married to a young woman named Madge (Myra Frances) in Rudheath, and in 1643, his community hole up in a church under the leadership of John Fowler (James Hazeldine) hoping to escape a raiding force of Irish Royalists. While digging, Thomas finds, half-buried, the stone-age axe, which he thinks is a thunderbolt, and which Madge sees as a sign of good luck. But the Royalists come, and Fowler proves a coward. Madge and her husband have to depend on the man Madge left for Thomas, Thomas Venables (Michael Elphick) to survive.
Macey (Andrew Byatt) is about 18. He's a soldier. He is intelligent, sensitive, and epileptic, and when he fits, he has visions and goes into berserk warrior rages which his commanding officer Logan (Ken Hutchison) happily manipulates. He's part of a Roman auxiliary, forcibly conscripted as a child, and stationed near Rudheath some time around 120CE. He owns the axe, ancient in his time, and uses it as a weapon and tool. After an attack by locals leaves his unit all but gone, Macey, Logan and two other men desert, holing up on Mow Cop. But they fail to take into account that Mow Cop is sacred ground, and they can never leave. The local tribes can't kill them while they're on the hill, but they know they wouldn't last a day if they left. Macey's companions decide to hold hostage the priestess (Veronica Quilligan) – who is identified with the goddess – and rape and hamstring her. Macey, although cowed by the other men, has no part in it, and eventually he helps her to rid the hill of his brutal comrades.

At the centre of each phase of the story is the stone axe, and the location of Mow Cop, a high, ancient ruin, plays a central part in all three lives.
Lesley Dunlop gives the best performance in the film.
"I wonder how many people have come home here," Jan wonders. "How many babies. How many fires have been lit. How much of everything." And here is the thing. Mow Cop isn't a wild place. Britain doesn't really have any. Every inch of the isle has been stood on.

Ed Lord, in his book Modern Madness (p.116-7), cites a story about an anthropologist named Hugh Brody who in 1976 brought an Inuit man named Anaviapik to the UK. Anaviapik was unimpressed with London, and after a while, his host thought it might help to take him on a tour of the English countryside. The Inuit man could see no difference. All he could say on seeing the fields and hills of Norfolk and Suffolk was, "It's all built."
The axe.
He was right. The countryside of Britain exists in a weird place where it carries the weight of millennia of settlements. Its story has been overwritten dozens of times, an earthly palimpsest haunted by human history. And yet we still fear it, still don't really control it. We make a distinction between rural and urban. It is close to us, has our handprints on it, and yet it is far distant, its mysteries lost in time. And history is like that, even history in living memory. We efface human remains with more human remains (consider the central thesis of The Stone Tape: that the ground records, and that new tragedies record on a new layer).
Macey and his goddess.
And among those who have lived on Mow Cop and lit fires there and had babies are Thomas and Macey.

When Tom says, "This is us. This is honest," as he and Jan stand on Mow Cop for the first time, what he doesn't realise that the "us" is the connection between him and two past selves, both of whom look forwards in time to him, and one of the worst moments of his young life, which will play itself out before us.
Thomas: I've seen him many times. I know all about him. Is it me?
Thomas wonders if he is Tom, and while the film allows you to draw your own conclusions there, it's as valid an interpretation as any.

Jan has been unfaithful. You never get the impression that Jan is a bad person, though. It would be really easy to just have her be a villain, or to be self-serving, or small, but Garner doesn't allow that and Lesley Dunlop's performance is beautifully pitched. And of course, it's rarely as simple as throwing over one person for another, although we would often like to frame it that way. Relationships aren't so simple. She's cheated on him with an older man, and given to this man, the German wine grower, in ways that she has not with Tom. She communicates the repeated impression that she's constantly trying to find the right moment to tell Tom the truth. But of course, the moment never comes. And Tom's frustration and smarts express themselves as prickly arrogance and flippancy. When Jan, calmly furious at Tom's objectification of her, his cheapening of her, says "it would like to go. It has a train to catch," you know she's just as right to be hurt as he is.

At the beginning, Tom's father makes lobster and serves it with white wine. Jan can tell him which year it is. Tom's dad,  a regimental Sergeant Major, says, "Only good thing to come out of Germany," and Jan chokes on her food, throwing up outside. "Seafood. It gets me sometimes," she repeats to Tom and his parents, verbatim, a story she's just gotten straight with herself. It's easy to miss stuff like that on a first watch, hints to something beneath the surface that seem so casual. And it seems hard to imagine an audience in a world where this would only ever be broadcast twice and where no video recorders were to be had picking up on the payoff to this moment, which is not especially signalled all that heavily. And consider also: how many modern dramas would expect you to put up with three major characters, all with the same name?
No blood.
But I think that in the present we are so used to watching TV in a certain way – casually, inattentively, and most of with the expectation that we can rewind and watch it again – that we forget how we used to watch it. I remember as a kid, the caricature of people staring, slack-jawed at the screen, hypnotised. But the truth is, what we were doing was watching closely. We watched attentively, and TV was made to be watched attentively because one go was all you got. Nip out for a cup of tea or a wee and you could lose out (at least the adverts on ITV served a purpose).

In a lot of ways, this is sort of a sign of Red Shift as a period piece. The modern day segment of the piece is, now, just as much of a dramatisation of a historical period as the Roman and Civil War segments. The working class teenagers I work with wouldn't recognise Tom as representative of a world they're part of. The idea of parents disapprovingly interrogating their late-teen children as to whether they've had sex or not is alien. More depressingly, Tom, precocious and erudite as he is, with his physics and Greek tragedies, comes from that short age, now gone, where a working class kid could have a chance to have a better education and maybe even go to university. He hitchhikes to London from Rudheath. He writes letters (and a plot point in the disintegration of his relationship with Jan depends upon his mother intercepting Jan's letters and reading them).
Madge won't let him smash it.
Red Shift's subtlety, its refusal to spoonfeed, can lead you to miss altogether what the connection is between the three young men. Yes, they all have the axe pass through their hands, but the connection between them is deeper, stranger. Macey and Thomas see Tom's future, and do not understand it. But everything they do leads to him. Macey buries his axe. Thomas hides it in his chimney stack. And at the end, the abandonment of his relationship with Jan, he sells it to a museum. All of them go to Mow Cop: Macey hides out there. Thomas builds a house there. Tom decides it is a place where he can go with Jan. Tom confronts Jan at the church where villagers are massacred in Thomas's time. And Macey and Thomas see Tom. They see the final act of his breakup with Jan. Quick cuts between Tom and his historical counterparts suggest that they can see his story unfold, in front of them. But always the silver and blue, always the lights. That vision recurs.

Because for all that their worlds are violent, for all that they're bound up in history, the central mystery of Tom and Macey's lives is the broken heart of a young man standing on a railway platform.

Every mundane heartbreak is a life's mystery, an event of history. 
The further away it travels, the more it fades.  
Tom: I need a red shift. I need to see. The further they go, the faster they leave. The skies are emptying.
He's talking about the way that light changes, seeming more red the more it moves away from you and the further it gets. He wants to understand Jan's distance, to see her differently now that she is far away from him. He's talking about the way that the older we get, the more people we lose.

But he is also the subject of a red shift, as, far away in time from the other men and continually moving further away, the visions of his life become less and less comprehensible to those left behind in time. On a more mundane level, Red Shift makes much of Mow Cop's proximity to the M6. Through a blurred filter, the cars that carry people far away look like receding stars in the night. And of course the ones leaving us are red. And every one carries a life, a story, travelling away from us.

In The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley says, "every man and woman is a star," which is pretty good coming from him, stopped clocks and all that. But it's true. Each life shines out and the further away it moves from us, the more faint the light, the redder. We leave the past behind, and the past sees our fading light, just as we see the future become ever further away. As Tom leaves Jan behind for the last time, he turns and looks. Someone is watching him leave.

Red Shift is one of the most heartbreakingly sad things I've ever seen. Is it folk horror? Well, it's not horror. It seems to me that a lot of the things in the folk horror sphere aren't strictly horror, if there's anything I've got out of this project it's that. But it's a strange, sad film, and for all that parts of it are desperately dated, it is beautifully acted, beautifully directed, and the truth at its centre of heartbreak and loss, that stays.