Motifs in mind: daydreaming and escapist inspiration

For anyone still moved by other times & placesa ramble on their role in the everyday

Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve tried to explore something which would draw together all the eclectic strands of those things which capture my imagination. They extend into my domestic life: each time I made a house into a home, it was not a look I was seeking to achieve (as in our century’s ‘look’ that competes and seeks approval) but an atmosphere, something I could be transported by. It’s never been the time I am living in, and ideally I’d be able to hop between 1967, 1637, 1937, with maybe the odd bit of 1814, 897 and so on. Yes indeed, a carriage crash of design on the toll road.  

I know this sounds a bit grand, but my mind is a library of such atmospheres – scenes in books or films are not recalled in words but are felt. (Sure, all this will sound like something from Pseud’s Corner.) Sometimes the particular quality of the light or turn of the weather will send me to some glowering seventeenth century landscape, cider apples in the air, beeswax wafting through an oak door, the crackle of wood on the hearth.

Heat from a baked pavement might invoke a TV memory of a US city I’ve never been – distilled polaroid gold, a coffee-diesel bath of warm air, an oscillating bassline catching sky-high sun in the glitter pulse of cars on distant freeway, going where?

Just a glazing of frost and a finch squeaking on a bit of yew and I’m indoors with Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, a tang of woodsmoke, butter sliding off a muffin, amber light on old stone. I’m going to call these motifs – I’m sure there’s an official term, but that will do for a short ramble.

In a way it’s like a dog surveying a scene, contemplating the unremarkable, then wagging its tail for no perceptible reason. So why try to analyse the pleasure, which like most academic thought ultimately leads to a definition that dulls the magic?

I’ll quote this scene from the TV series The Durrells where the prosaic Leslie, who likes shooting animals, is talking with his sister Margo and articulates his role as a matter-of-fact foil for his family:

Margo: “Why are you so worried about the play?”

Leslie: “You’re all so artistic. I see… ‘a tree’, you lot see…”

Margo: “Broccoli. Trees look like upside down broccoli.”

…which is a neat puncturing of the concept of the artistic soul, but what if Margo had said, “I can hear hounds, there’s a figure through the acorns – I can hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat of fear…” where would it have come from? The Ladybird Book of Charles II?

Miss Bianca, Margery Sharp, illustration Garth Williams

A few years back I thought my imagination grew from children’s literature, but I think I have read more of it as an adult. At 10 years old I was trying to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles for example (before it got taken away). Maybe I felt all grown up after I’d finished Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books and went straight for the dour, tragic Victorians.

The worlds presented in a lot of young adult novels are often chaotic and unformed (thinking, for example, of Alan Garner or Penelope Farmer). But they also invite things to happen, quests for belonging and reinvention, or simply, change – characters running to escape the banal and mundane, the once weird and now weirder world of grown-ups where some odd reason to judge, to smirk, deny or destroy is just beneath the skin.

Is there an audience of grown-ups out there still hungry for Ambrosia like Billy Liar, disenfranchised and disappointed, still hoping to find something more through the back of the wardrobe? Should we be embarrassed?

Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar, 1963, struck by ill-timed motif visitation

There are pleasurable motifs we carry with us and I think they’re essential to our sense of wellbeing, cinematic flashes of images and experiences internalised from reality or art. They can be used, if we want, to ‘create’ with our own filters applied.

And of course, there are unpleasurable motifs – things that stifle, doubt and procrastinate, and darker places.

From Mary Shelley to Richard Jefferies, from the cult series Survivors of the 1970s to 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale right up to The Walking Dead (oh yes, Fear the… as well) I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions.

But visiting dystopian futures on screen or in novel has lost that playfully gothic frisson of unsettlement. Science fiction is an outdated term because stock fantasies are a reality, weaving their way into our lives like mutating tendrils from John Wyndham’s pen. We peer into our near future with Black Mirror or Years and Years. But where once it was reassuring to return from these nightmares, we’re now putting the kettle on with predictability now dearly-departed and anything seems possible.  

‘Look ahead of winter, let the breath of summer into you’ (Lyric, Julianne Regan)

Did we choose our motifs at an impressionable age? Do we know where we found our fascinations? Are we more than the product of those who shared their imaginary worlds, those authors and screenwriters who showed us Herne the Hunter or that strange things happen when the wolves are running? I’d like to think we came into the world predisposed to the things that move us.  

Is this ‘childish imagination’ a virtual reality overlay? Are we summoning these atmospheres from our personal motifs to challenge us (overcome our fears, the monsters under the bed) or enhance our reality, whether we want it simplified or decorated, or to realise ourselves and our possibilities, or just to feel some magic among the mundanity?

Somewhere I have the germ of an idea that this might be about noticing and recognising. In reading or watching a story we absorb what are, after all, other people’s experiences. If they strike a chord, as motifs they become part of our own consciousness.

This is part of the act of reading fiction, to download the working of another’s mind, though in film an actor can do the same with barely the flex of a facial muscle or the shift of an eyelash. In this shared consciousness, there are connections from our own experiences (those ‘oh, you feel like that too’ moments). To continue a theme, we might be Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven (the one who can “perceive the past, present and future through visions and time travel with ease”).

I’m not for a moment suggesting there is anything supernatural here, just using the ‘visionary’ trope to explore how a response to external ‘art’ becomes an internal experience which is ‘not real’ – as in not first-hand experience – but it becomes part of us, hidden until we notice and recognise it again, like the lamp-post from Narnia outside a branch of Aldi.

These motifs serve to remind us that things have been and will be, which is affirming, whether from light or dark. And so we end of up with a form of faith, a belief in the power of the imagination.

It would be great to hear if others enjoy a bit of time travel in the course of the everyday, or get transported in unlikely places when a motif is triggered…

Photographs copyright WhistlesintheWind

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Properly rediscovered: 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd

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It’s heartening to see John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd getting a well-deserved reappraisal, with some fairly glowing reviews for the restored version released in cinemas this Spring:

“One of the most entrancing and elemental landscape films ever shot in these isles, thanks in large part to Nicolas Roeg’s peerless cinematography and Schlesinger’s decision to cram the soundtrack with folk songs and country dances.”
Time Out

“What is striking, almost 50 years on from when it was made, is its extraordinary craftsmanship and its emotional intensity… This is not one of those handsomely mounted but stilted period dramas that is stifled by the fussiness of the costume and production design… Schlesinger’s film has a raw, elemental charge. It manages to portray rustic life without seeming quaint.”
The Independent

“The Hardy adaptation that really captured the scale, beauty and menace of the landscape, and all its colours and moods.”

“Christie carries the film with her own insouciant vulnerability. A classic.”
The Guardian

“Quality oozes from every pore.”
The Times

“Splendidly lusty fare, its feet deep in the mud of the English countryside, its head in the lens-flared glare of a dreamy tragi-romantic sky.”
The Observer

Not so long ago critics would dismiss the film as swinging-sixties style tacked onto Hardy’s Wessex – to the casual observer, perhaps not unfairly. The popular notion was that The Kinks had name-checked Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in ‘Waterloo Sunset’ in the year of release (something Ray Davies denied: “It was a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world”).

Filmed in Dorset in the autumn and winter of 1966-1967, it’s not surprising Schlesinger’s film didn’t translate well to a Hollywood expecting a Dr Zhivago epic. After all, Schlesinger wanted to “dig out the dark spiritual side of Hardy… with verisimilitude”. As any Hardy aficionado will appreciate, this could be tantamount to setting your picnic in a crypt.

The restoration has been supervised by its cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (who in 1967 was yet to be the lauded director). At nearly three hours, it does demand a little of the viewer, but it’s a truly beautiful film, with a lush Oscar-nominated score from Richard Rodney Bennett, and the superlative casting of Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.

Perhaps its renewed appeal owes something to Schlesinger unearthing the landscape of a Victorian past in 1967, to clash with the hipster faces of Britain’s gentle, modish revolution. You could say Schlesinger’s film is now an uncontrived landmark, part of a timeline that tracks how we’ve looked to the landscape for authenticity: whether then, in the face of a ubiquitous ‘sixties scene’, or now, in the face of rampant capitalism.

And contradictions of style and substance – are they not the very heart of Bathsheba’s dilemma?

Released throughout the UK – see here for screenings.

Below: things to be grateful for in 2015 include the film now getting the poster it deserves (above), and not this excrescence from 1967:

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Firelit effigies: Thomas Imbach’s ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (2013)

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In exploring the mindset of a figure clouded by legend, this Swiss-made retelling has a beautiful atmosphere. It uses shore, mountain and forest to depict Mary’s psychological terrain; puppet effigies twitch in firelight with folk-ritual precision, and Elizabeth is a constant presence, never made flesh – she is paint or puppet or a glimpse of doppelganger.

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Central to the story is Mary’s court musician and advisor Rizzio. With shades of Hamlet’s ghost, he lends another layer of tragedy to a treatment based on Stefan Zweig’s Maria Stuart with its key notes of suffering and fallibility.

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There are beautiful sequences of Scottish landscape which the director captured himself (though most of the filming was in Switzerland).

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As Mary narrates the letters she writes to Elizabeth, it’s a deathly, rough-hewn and unresponsive backdrop. At her moments of dislocation, the camera flees wraith-like over sea-washed shores or broken forest paths.

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Camille Rutherford captures Mary’s isolation, besieged as a powerful woman, long before she is imprisoned by the English queen, with a grace that captures both youth and regality. It’s a stark, European perspective which shuns Hollywood excess, with a layer of modernity that lies with ease.

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Many sequences foretell a life of imprisonment, with gunmetal-grey lattice and winter’s branches, failing winter light and a cooling sun.

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The years as a prisoner are beautifully distilled to a vision of purgatory: a crown woven with the fabric of her being, stained like Lady Macbeth.

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Mary Queen of Scots is a film that haunts and ebbs and flows. It’s not going to appeal to anyone seeking a history lesson, either gritty or lavish: it’s a theatrical, dramatic sequence of legendary events filtered through a poetic vision of inner life.

It’s released on Region 2 DVD now and also on Amazon Instant Video.

Rediscovered film gem: Tam Lin (1970)

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Roddy McDowall’s 1970 retelling of the Ballad of Tam Lin, like its counterpart The Wicker Man, had a troubled release and was destined to rot away in a vault. It was Martin Scorsese who rescued and restored a print for VHS in the 1990s.

A delayed release in the early 70s (as The Devil’s Widow) dated the mod look and it was dismissed by critics: a surface glance might file it away as a swinging vision of camp Hammer Horror.

For a start, its lead is Ava Gardner, in one of those difficult horror roles given to pre-1960s stars – navigated to perfection by Deborah Kerr in The Innocents but usually always ending in disaster never mind how hard the trying (an example might be Joan Fontaine’s 1966 effort The Witches with its promising village setting).

But it’s actually quite a witty, intelligent film with some really beautiful cinematography and solid performances. As McDowall’s first and only film as director, it’s brimming with ideas and techniques, some of which aren’t exactly successful (cue a particularly awkward and entertaining stop-frame segment), but it all adds up to a fascinating spectacle to enjoy on many levels.

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McDowall appears to have taken the original material seriously: the locations and landscapes are authentic, filmed around Selkirk in Scotland – specifically Ettrick Forest and Tranquair House. The soundtrack features songs by electric-folk icons Pentangle, including a superb version of Tam Lin, and a couple of beat arrangements apparently supervised by Stanley Myers (who orchestrates girl-with-the-sun-in-her-hair embellishments elsewhere).

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What the world looks like through the Devil’s Widow’s sunglasses.

That’s not to say Tam Lin isn’t awash with late 60s stylistic excess, but these exaggerated visions of modern are eery in themselves, and contribute to the success. It’s not nostalgia any more, but a glimpse into the axis-tilt of a parallel universe, an acid-filter processing metaphors for experimentation and otherness. McDowall apparently called Tam Lin a swansong for the sixties.

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An early role for Withnail and I’s creator Bruce Robinson (right) as Ava Gardner’s jilted (and typically well-spoken) elf.

The cast includes many familiar stalwarts of British Cinema (in later years, if not at the time). We’ve got Sinead Cusack, her father Cyril, Magpie‘s Jenny Hanley (OK, not exactly a cinema stalwart), Fabia Drake and Joanna Lumley…

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Joanna Lumley setting a blueprint for a career. When the Devil’s Widow gets a little irritated with her coven, Lumley announces, deadpan, “Life is an illusion therefore nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”.

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The Fairy Queen’s cavalcade weaving through the Scottish borders to her castle: at Halloween one of her elves/imprisoned mortals is given as a tithe to hell…

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The first indication that Tam Lin is going to be quite a trip: Jenny Hanley and Ian McShane playing frisbee. In slow motion.

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If this vision had evolved on a different path to the 21st century, John Lewis would advertise similar glockenspiel and cocktail frenzies instead of barbecues. Hang on a minute, they do, don’t they?

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Stephanie Beacham (as Janet, the vicar’s daughter in brown and heroine of the original ballad) delivers a puppy to a member of Ava Gardner’s coven: “She’s not having him! She’s doped or something!”

There are, however, many qualities that make Tam Lin a classic of folk horror, modernity giving way to the ancient in the best traditions of its golden age.

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The hills of time…

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The village, with ‘local’ people…

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The place of simple, certain things.

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A beautiful transitional still.

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Fabia Drake as a wisewoman – her measured, taciturn look would later grace ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ and ‘A Room with a View’.

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Ian McShane’s Tam Linn (or Tom Linn for the 60s) is, like any self-respecting 60s hipster, a photographer.

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Under the surface…

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Janet finds her double-headed rose, a key feature of the folk tale, in a grocer’s barrow.

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One of the many misted or sunlit views of bridges on the borders.

And then the magic begins…

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Tam Lin
has been released as a Region 1 DVD in a restored print.

Joan Fontaine – missionary of gothic

Followers of WhistlesintheWind will know that Jane Eyre and Rebecca have come up a few times in posts, usually exploring the gothic allure of rambling houses – the kind that are as much a character as the inhabitants themselves. They are both fascinating, now intertwined novels, and one actress lived both in the 1940s.

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Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock from Daphne du Maurier’s novel

As a child in the 1970s and into the 1980s, sunday afternoons in winter often found one of the great ‘old’ black and white movies on our TV screens. It was here that a big part of my imagination was forged, leading me to later spend hours immersed in epic Victorian novels and their later successors, joining the characters as candles flickered in stone-built hallways, along oak bannisters, or where lanterns gleamed in winter light over mist-hung moors or ragged coasts.

Jane Eyre (1944)

Joan Fontaine, who died this week, played both Jane Eyre alongside Orson Welles and the second Mrs de Winter with Laurence Olivier. Both films remain classics today; Hitchcock’s Rebecca will never be matched, and the 1944 version of Charlotte Bronte’s novel still has great power (and is also faithful to its setting – I can’t ever forget the Yorkshire scolding from Grace Poole as Jane explores the attics: ‘What art tha doin’ up ‘ere – get thee dahn!’).

Fontaine’s performances are restrained, nuanced, yet charismatic, and have carried the films along through the decades. So WhistlesintheWind here salutes her, missionary of gothic, 1917-2013.