Friday 2 February 2018

We Don't Go Back #77: A Dark Song (2016)

Magic is different things for different people, but essentially practitioners of magic, however you conceive it, have for most of history divided into two broad traditional groupings: the basic everyday anyone-can-do-this-if-you-have-the-knack practice of witches and mediums (and also certain sorts of Christians, but even to say this gets you in deep trouble, so let's pretend I didn't); and the difficult, not-for-everyone kind that requires you to be able to put in a vast investment of time and money (and the proverb is right, they're the same thing) and academic study, the work of magic for the people who used to have sole access to Hermes Trismegistus and The Testament of Saint Cyprian the Mage. And there was always an implicit class divide, generally.

Of course this isn't even a hard and fast rule, and it doesn't begin to approach how complex it gets when you factor in religion and its trappings and the ways faiths relate to, appropriate and reject the different sorts of magic, but it's a good enough place to start.
Because this isn't so much how it is now. In the second half of the twentieth century, the socially constructed lines between the different sorts of magic, poor people magic and rich people magic, essentially collapsed. So you had folks like Gerald Gardner, wealthy and educated people who worked hard to rehabilitate witchcraft, and on the other hand, in the early 70s you could get cheap mass-market editions of Crowley and Dion Fortune and books about Western ritual magic on a three for a quid deal from an advert in the Sunday Express.

Recently there's been a bit of an occult revival, or at least there has been as far as the public consciousness of the occult is concerned. And I'm not pretending it's mainstream exactly, it's not that half of the sixteen year olds you meet right now are into witchcraft, it's more that about half of them know someone who is. It's visible.

And in a big part, the groundwork for these circumstances was laid by Peter Carroll, whose books Liber Null and Psychonaut, published a few years either side of 1980, gave us chaos magic, which is, to reduce it to an almost ridiculous level, a DIY anyone-can-do-it approach to sigils-and-chalk-circles ritual magic. A couple of popular comic book writers got into it, for example, and hid magic stuff in their popular comic books, and at some point that gradual momentum hit the sort of tipping point where someone can post a comic strip guide to chaos magic on DeviantArt and tens of thousands of people can download it. And so we're in a cultural place where anyone can have a go at magic, and the tools are easy enough to find. 

And that's a long-winded but useful way to introduce Liam Gavin's film A Dark Song. Because it's a film about the practice of magic, and the consequences of magic, and while I'm not sure how successful it is, it is undeniably magical in its structure and the way its plot unfolds.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is a bereaved mother, who spends her life savings on an isolated house in North Wales, and the services of Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), an irascible ritual magician. Together they plan to perform the Abramelin Ritual, an elaborate high magic rite that enables one, as per Golden Dawn types like S L MacGregor Mathers, to contact their Augoeides, their Holy Guardian Angel. Meeting your Holy Guardian Angel is not easy (in Crowley's version of the ritual, you have to build your own magic room with a specific sort of floor and decor, and meditate for something like three hours a day, every day for six months to even have a chance) and I've got to think that you might as well just, you know, work to get the stuff you want.

Unless it's something you can't work for, like the voice of a dead child. 

Solomon and Sophia seal themselves away in the house, and start the ritual. It has very specific rules, things they must not do, things that they must not shirk from.

And in summary, it doesn't work, and then it does, and the conflict of the film lies in how it doesn't work, and how it does, and how the conflict of the characters, who are respectively named after mythology's most proficient magician ever and the ultimate goal of all of the most proficient magicians ever, drives that.

Is the ritual as presented in the film an accurate representation of the one Mathers translated? Well, it can't be. The Abramelin ritual according to Mathers is pretty repetitive and not conducive to film, and A Dark Song works very hard to make the thing cinematic, and it solves that problem by making the film a parable of magic, a mystery play.

Solomon is a deeply unsympathetic character. He's the occult version of the worst sort of nerd, a mean-spirited know-it-all, a patronising bully of a man. The sort of bloke who stinks of cat piss and stale cigarette smoke. He responds to every question he's asked with the brutal impatience of a geek who is mortally insulted by the thought that this woman might have the temerity to think she knows anything about this stuff. His stuff.
And of course his attitude to Sophia as a woman is appalling. He abuses her physically and emotionally – when he finds she has lied to him about what she wants from the ritual, he constructs an atonement ritual that ends with him drowning her in a bath and then bringing her back with CPR. There's a horrible scene about half way through where he exploits her trust just so he can see her naked and masturbate in front of her. She realises what he's done immediately and it's not long after this that Solomon has a terrible accident that he recognises as the action of fate, as a sign that Sophia will succeed. He should go to a hospital, but that would end the ritual prematurely, and it's too late to end the ritual, and he might be able to survive, he resolves to keep going knowing he could die of an infected injury that could have been treated. For all that he loudly complains about Sophia shirking and failing, it's Solomon who fails on the criterion of the ritual's stringent rules of purity, and he fails on the more important test of being a baseline human being. But Solomon is, even though he's a pretty revolting person, wise enough to know this, and he accepts his fate. This is crucially not a redemption: there's no forgiveness for him, he just accepts what's coming to him. He doesn't repent; he just takes the quid pro quo. He knows he's damned and sees no point in fighting it (edit: and later in the film, as reader Donovan Stringer has pointed out, we will – briefly – see proof positive of that). 

The final part of the film enters the realms of the fantastical. It's weird, there is one specific scene that I found immensely disturbing, but it's not the scene that you'd think, and much of what makes it disturbing is I think personal to me, and my own fears; I don't think, as horror films go, A Dark Song is supposed to be all that scary. Rather, it's a meditation on grief and on magic, the shape of magic. As I said, it's a sort of occult parable – you can't tell a story about magic and call the primary characters Sophia and Solomon without making some sort of a point, and I think that initiatory storytelling is part and parcel of fiction about magic (for some reason, I was reminded of Dion Fortune's novel The Sea Priestess, which bears little resemblance to A Dark Song, other than its a narrative where the protagonists do a magical ritual, but which is about magic and is a work of magic in its own right). It's an authentic part of the game. 
But as was the case with The Witch, the more authentic you try to be, the harder it is to be authentic, and I've seen at least one person express disappointment with the portrayal of what is supposed to be a real (however you imagine "real") magical rite. But I think the whole film actually is the rite, that the filmic text itself is in some way intended to be an occult working, a mystery play if you will, and I think that the film's ending bears that reading out.

Does it work? I honestly don't know. I mean I know a little bit about this stuff, about enough to watch it and think, "Yes, I see what you did there," but I don't think I got a buzz from it as such. For a film like this to work, you need to be able to sympathise with the characters, and while I get that Solomon's trajectory is supposed to be from low-life to figure of sacrificial wisdom (which is absolutely not a redemption or an awakening of conscience, just an acceptance of consequences), I don't think the script really sells that change. And Sophia (like the real spirit of wisdom) is supposed to be mercurial and ever changing, so that you keep making wrong assumptions about her which are later disabused, but the fact is, she's not really that good a person either, and again the final transformation into someone good – lead into gold, if you will – isn't sold to us by the script.
And part of  that is to do with how the format of the film – two people who hate each other locked in a space, with little variation except at the beginning and the end – limits how much you can show of who these people are, so that everything has to come out of a very limited set of interactions between people who don't like each other and have literally nothing in common except a desire to do this ritual. And outside of the initiatory intention of the film, that means the story is, for all that it's atmospheric, well shot and very well played, sort of thin.

But what A Dark Song undeniably is, is magical. It is an account of a magician's visionary journey, and if the characters are just phantoms, I can't help wondering if that's because they're supposed to be.

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