Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The Two Roberts on film, Arthur Berry on show

stillYes! At last! The 1959 Monitor Ken Russell short film, “Scottish Painters”, is available, complete and online – here, two thirds of the way down the BBC’s page marking the boys’ Edinburgh National Gallery retrospective, just finished. Sadly, you didn’t read it first here; in fact, the film’s been up since the start of February, and, to my shame, I hadn’t even noticed, so many thanks to Jack Doyle for the nudge.

Here’s a direct link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02j4ps1/player

I have a definite but indistinct memory of watching this in 1959 – the MacBryde sequence, with the Satie soundtrack, in particular. I would have been ten years old. Half a century on, it’s extraordinary to see the Roberts breathing and moving, to hear MacBryde’s remarkably gentle and meditative voice, and to see a familiar canvas or two in mid-progress. The cart in the opening and closing sequences seems a bit of a Russell contrivance, but what the hell – this is an absolute gem.

(Much more here regarding The Roberts on the “Colquhoun & MacBryde” pages tabbed up above.)

berry bookOn a parallel theme, news arrives from Barewall Gallery in Burslem of a significant show of Arthur Berry and L S Lowry starting in late July at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley and running till next January. (Nothing up yet about this on the PM & AG’s own site.) This will be the first major showing of Arthur Berry since a retrospective of 1984. I know that Berry rated the paintings of the Matchstick Man, but personally I could happily lose the Lowry here; Berry was the far greater talent. Though if it takes the Lowry populist peg to hang this on, to remind Potteries folk of Berry’s remarkable legacy, so be it.

That legacy includes his writings, most valuably his plays. I recall with great pleasure Dr Fergo’s Last Passion at the Victoria Theatre in 1979. When the Doctor’s gormless assistant Klondyke launched into a tearful song about his lost tortoise – “Me toytoy’s gone an’ ‘e wunna cum wom …” – my wife and sister-in-law, Stokies both, became quite literally helpless with laughter, for a considerable period.

(Use the “Arthur Berry” tag – tag cloud on the right here – for more Berry-related posts.)

In the Temple of Lost Marbles

Nothing recent here, I know. Apologies. (Energy has been spent elsewhere, on my other blog, which readers of this one are unlikely to find of interest.) Image222But a recent shopping trip Up North brought an opportunity to gawp at the Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester’s jaw-dropping acid-classical Xanadu of kitsch. Mancunians perhaps have grown blasé about their local outbreak of Delirium Tremendous, but for the rest of us the obvious question is: was there ever a moment in the late ‘nineties, when this shopping centre was built, when an opium reverie blended from bits of De Chirico, Dali, Alma-Tadema, Piranesi and Robin Ironside was actually the expected flavour of the weekend retail experience? Because if there was, I must have missed it. So the next question has to be: what on earth were the Trafford’s architects and designers on?

Maybe this has something to say about our troubled perceptions of The Past in the run up to the Year 2000 – the Trafford as fin-de-millénaire panic gone large. It certainly involves a late, disturbingly decadent, and Image243hallucinatory version of neo-classicism, drawn less from Praxiteles than from Canova. Unaccountably meaningless and garbled murals jostle with palm trees, real marble Caesars, golden fountains, distant obelisks and massy Egyptian colonnades – more post-ancient than post-modern, in fact. Then, for good measure, just when you think you may be coming down, streets out of Old Beijing and New Orleans lure you into a vast, starlit, subterranean eatery done out like an ocean liner complete with swimming pool. Only the iceberg is absent.

Despite the unrelenting and unsettling oddness of it all, it seems unknowing, as if irony was not the intention and this was someone’s sincere idea of quality for the masses. The occasional statue would be unremarkable in a shopping mall, but here the sheer, overwhelming weight of pastiche and incongruity topples the whole installation off at a tangent in the direction of the astral plane. Can you tell that I’m impressed? I’m not sure that any photo can really contain the Trafford’s Full-on Bonkers Effect, but here’s a gallery of fifty snaps from my (rather pre-modern) phone. Click for the slide show and dip into the trip!

Flânerie and loss on the 43 bus: Jessie Dismorr and Rosemary Tonks

‘It is possible that we are being led by different ways into the same prohibited and doubtful neighbourhood.’

Jessie Dismorr, ‘Promenade’, 1915

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

The new Flashpoint online magazine has a useful piece by Francesca Brooks on Jessie Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, whose artworks and writings can be found extensively on my pages up above. Brooks focuses pretty much entirely on Dismorr’s two urbanist prose poems published in 1915 in Blast 2. Her tie-in of Dismorr with Guy Debord and the dérive is apt and necessary; we can easily overlook the romantic roots of situationist thought, and the dérive is derived from Baudelairean flânerie. Brooks’s bracketing of Dismorr with Virginia Woolf is viable, if a little elastic. A closer relation to Dismorr’s poetic urbanism might be Hope Mirrlees’s explosively modernist poem Paris of 1919;  Mirrlees was well acquainted with the Woolfs (whose Hogarth Press published Paris), so there’s the link to Virginia if you want it.

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

But perhaps we can also relate Dismorr to the later British Baudelairean and flâneuse Rosemary Tonks, whose work has been subjected to a rediscovery following her death in 2014. (Not too great a stretch; Tonks was published by the mid ‘fifties, and the distance between Dismorr and Tonks is less than that between Tonks and today.)

To illustrate the relation, here’s a juxtaposition of two journeys by Dismorr and Tonks, each on the upper deck of a London bus. First, from Dismorr’s venture aboard a number 43 with her annoying suitor ‘Roderigo’, in ‘June Night’ of 1915. (This was an inward journey. The 43 route ran from Muswell Hill to London Bridge.) Roderigo is later left on the bus, as Dismorr wanders London on foot, abandoning the romantic, protecting male and pioneering the occupation of metropolitan spaces by the lone emancipated woman.

‘No 43 bus, its advertisements all lit from within, floats towards us like a luminous balloon.  We cling to it and climb to the top. Towards the red glare of the illuminated city we race through interminable suburbs. These are the bare wings and corridors that give on to the stage. Swiftness at least is exquisite. But it makes me too emotional. Amazing, these gymnastic agitations of the heart! Your blindness, my friend Roderigo, is your most intelligent attribute.

Claude Flight, 'Descent from the Bus', 1927

Claude Flight, ‘Descent from the Bus’, 1927

The Park, to our left, glimmers through strips of iron. Its lawns of antique satin are brocaded with elaborate parterres, whose dyes are faded beyond recognition. Dark as onyx with rims of silver are the little pools that suck in the dew. The tea-kiosk of whitened stucco is as remote as a temple shuttered up against the night. My desires loiter about the silent spaces.

We stop for passengers at Regent’s Corner. Here crowds swarm under green electric globes. Now we stop every moment, the little red staircase is besieged. The bus is really too top-heavy. It must look like a great nodding bouquet, made up of absurd flowers and moths and birds with sharp beaks. I want to escape but Roderigo is lazy and will not stop warbling his infuriating lovesongs. Ribbons of silver fire start into the air, and twist themselves into enormous bows with fringes of tiny dropping stars. Everybody stands up and screams. These people are curious, but not very interesting; they lack reticence. Ah, but the woman in the purple pelisse is too beautiful! I refuse to look at her when she stares round.

It is hot for a night in June. “Che, che, la donna.” Roderigo, you have a magnificent tenor voice, but you bore me. Your crime is that I can no longer distinguish you from the rest of the world.’

And here is a bit of Tonks’s comparable solo London bus trip (route number not given) in ‘An Old-fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’, published in 1967:

‘I was sitting upstairs in a bus, cursing the waste of time, and pouring my life away on one of those insane journeys across London – while gradually the wavering motion of this precarious glass salon, that flung us about softly like trusses of wheat or Judo Lords, began its medicinal work inside the magnetic landscape of London.

The bus, with its transparent decks of people, trembled. And was as uniquely ceremonious in propelling itself as an eminent jellyfish with an iron will, by expulsions, valves, hisses, steams, and emotional respirations. A militant, elementary, caparisoned Jellyfish, of the feminine sex, systematically eating and drinking the sea.

I began to feel battered as though I had been making love all night! My limbs distilled the same interesting wide-awake weariness.

We went forward at a swimmer’s pace, gazing through the walls that rocked the weather about like a cloudy drink from a chemist’s shop – with the depth and sting of the Baltic. The air-shocks, the sulphur dioxides, the gelatin ignitions!’

But another, quite different point of contact between Dismorr and Tonks is their abrupt and near absolute abandonment of writing. After some vicious comments in The Little Review of 1919 Dismorr‘s poetry underwent a 15 year hiatus and the following year she suffered a nervous breakdown. In the late ‘seventies, after a series of personal and health crises, Rosemary Tonks repudiated her writings entirely and began a largely solitary religious life, sparking literary chatter of a ‘vanishing’.

In Tonks’s poems the urge to ‘escape’ had already motivated her urban wanderings:

‘It is among the bins and dormitories of cities …
That one goes to gormandise upon Escape!’

But this lifestyle was marked by a deep and growing self-disgust –

‘… if you knew the exotic disgust that grips me
After another bestial night
As we come in, broken …’

– and a consequent crisis of the sense of self:

‘And afterwards you’ll live in no man’s land,
You’ll lose your identity, and never get yourself back, diablotin,
It may have happened already, and as you read this …
Ah, it has happened already.’

The urge to escape the existing self – whether through boredom, despair or disgust – can visit any of us. In this Age of Choice we believe that it is our right to be free of it, and are furnished with a variety of means to that end, ranged along the safety spectrum: a new hair style, moving house, body modification, transvestism, multiple personality disorder, dissociative fugue, suicide. While for the writer there is the option to write about something different in a different way, to become a different writer and so a different person. Or even to reject writing itself.

bedouinIn Tonks’s case a double standard seems to operate. With the best will in the world Neil Astley’s introduction to Bloodaxe’s new Tonks Collected, Bedouin of the London Evening, betrays some pejorative assumptions about Tonks’s post-writerly life – ‘self torturing’, ‘socially challenged’ and so on. OK then for Rimbaud, Tonks’s model as a poet, to abandon writing and disappear into an African sunset when gun running or whatever he got up is seen as modishly edgy. Not so acceptable somehow for the elderly Mrs Rosemary Lightband neé Tonks to be handing out translations of the Bible at Speaker’s Corner, or (most unforgiveable of all)  incinerating her priceless collection of Oriental artefacts, which she had come to regard as dangerous and undermining idols. But what do we really want here – a miserable writer or a happier human being?

As Astley reveals, Tonks’s single minded reliance on the love of God freed her from healers and mediums, from sleeping tablets, from depression and from fear. So what if she characterised her bouts of depression as Satan’s attempts to undermine her? Perfectly reasonable, for such they were and are, if the term ‘Satan’ is to have any useful meaning. And birdsong and great music were for her positive influences direct from God? Well, that’s undeniable.

Though if the gain was hers and the loss is entirely ours, it is, to be fair, a real loss. An apposite message about Tonks arrived recently from Robert Worby, of Radio 3’s Hear and Now:

‘Last night I had a powerful, resonant dream about her. I found myself in a disused library that seemed to be part of something like a church institution: a WI meeting place maybe. It was dilapidated with books and papers scattered about the floor. As I wandered around I found copies of Tonks’s books and what seemed to be handwritten manuscripts. I was flabbergasted; I couldn’t believe my luck. I collected them together with the intention of taking them away but an elderly lady politely announced that I wouldn’t be able to do that; all the materials had to stay in that room; they weren’t being thrown away.’

I can’t deny that I very much recognise this dream narrative of recovery. We are all antiquarians these days. In the disused and labyrinthine libraries of our longings lie scattered the many dusty manuscripts of our misplaced desires. But they don’t all bear our handwriting. It is the writer alone who owns the absolute liberty to jettison or burn her own pages, without fear of retrieval.

Veritasse vincit omnia

In the latest Hereford Diocese magazine I came across a full page ad for “Veritasse,” a website offering Christian art, so I took a look. I know I’m a cultural snob, but I do find something deeply disturbing about their insistence on the “positive” and the “uplifting”, especially when that translates into 57 varieties of soft edged but luminescent clouds, doves, sheep, flowers, waterfalls etc., no matter how competently executed. On the other hand, they do invite submissions from Christian artists, and that’s me, sort of, and Veritasse does appear to be a big success. Or a bigge successe, even.

So I emailed over half a dozen graphics I’ve been working on recently (click to enlarge), with a pleasantly worded request for feedback:

A week on, and no response.

Yes, I know I’m being unnecessary, but there is a real issue here. How has the content of much of what passes for contemporary Christian art become so – well, infantilised? This isn’t Catholic kitsch, which is better understood as a form of folk art. (Nor is it analogous to say, modern praise music, often derided, but where the use of worthwhile popular forms has enabled much excellent popular Christian song writing, e.g. Stuart Townend.) I suppose the roots of this sort of imagery were in Victorian populist evangelical pietism, but it’s hard to figure just when “Christian art” got so utterly blanded out.

Aside of the icon revival, which seems in danger of short circuiting into its own form of kitsch, some sort of recapturing is demanded. But what form should it take?

An imperishable inheritance

in parenthesis

While we are still re-living WW1, something apposite for this Easter Day – David Jones’s 1937 frontispiece to his In Parenthesis.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The noble vision of John Currie

A trip to Stoke (up Hanley duck, specifically) has reminded me of the wealth of stuff at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, not least the jaw dropping collection of British ceramics and a chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard. And currently in pride of place in the art rooms is John Currie’s marvellous The Supper, dated to 1912-14.

the supper

Dollie Henry as 'The Witch'

Dollie Henry as ‘The Witch’

Potteries-born Currie, trained as a ceramics decorator, was a little older than his fellow “new primitive” Slade painters Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer. (“Primitive” in the Italianate sense, that is.) His volatile and disturbed relationship with model and mistress Dollie Henry collapsed into nightmare in October 1914 when he shot her dead and turned his gun on himself. Mark Gertler, his close friend and himself a later suicide, was deeply traumatised by this tragedy. No monograph on Currie has yet been done, but his story was covered in Sarah MacDougall’s 2002 biography of Gertler, passing into David Boyd Haycock’s popular A Crisis of Brilliance. Among Currie’s stately female portraits, which are on the whole very close in temperament to Gertler’s, is The Witch, an unmistakable image of flame haired Dollie; superficially, this carries mere sexist charm, but on more careful consideration the attraction-repulsion projected into the face is psychologically troubled.

'Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.' Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

‘Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.’ Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

Over two dozen Curries survive in public collections, mostly at the Potteries, which could furnish a room full, and should, but doesn’t. His work touches the trends of its day: a bit of Brittany, some soft cubism, post-Impressionist colourings, and so on. But the group angularities, diagonals and rhythms of The Supper are aligned with the human abstractions of Bomberg and Roberts, and suggest the way Currie might have travelled had he survived.

Self portrait, 1905

Self portrait, 1905

It is a noble vision of the coming Kingdom. There is a strong hint of the Last Supper in the group around the table at the back, not least the Jesus-ish features of the central figure to the top left of the head of the dark haired woman in the foreground; are she and her blonde companion meant for Mary and Martha? This is society as common-wealth, as table, as agape, but agape here comprehends eros; the embracing couple at lower right seem intended for Dollie and Currie. This is the way things could be, could have been, but were not and are not. We are invited to trust that it is the way they will be.

Bulletins from Nowhere

Predictive spelling on your phone is just low level annoyance, but predictive writing, as Stephen Hawking recently warned the world, will soon drag us all to Cybergeddon. Or will it? Will the technology really take over our thinking, or is Hawking in science fiction mode?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

I often use my Amazon Kindle Fire to email. As on many devices, its keyboard flashes up the word it thinks I’m typing, along with a few more or less likely alternatives; it then offers the next word in the sequence, again with options – some sensible, others baffling. Generally I ignore the lot, but today I thought I’d try tapping with the flow, to see what the Kindle might have to say for itself. Below are the five short messages that it wrote.

The rules of my experiment are simple: generate a message subject, or the first word in a sentence, by randomly tapping the keyboard and selecting a ‘corrected’ suggestion. Choose subsequent words by their suitability for the syntactical flow, and not for their meaning or prominence. (Not always possible, so syntax is often erratic.) Insert a full stop / exclamation / colon when the grammatical structure touches ground. End the message when things seem to short circuit.

fireThis makes for a rather disquieting form of automatism. My own recent phrasings flow back to taunt me, but mangled up with elements of some sort of alien Kindle in-house uber-content. As a result, names may be familiar: ‘Delancey’ is the evil property empire involved in the Wolverhampton sculpture campaign that occupied too much of my time last year, while ‘Jack November’ is the stage name of German chanteuse Daniela Moos, whose work I much like. Or worryingly not so: ‘Chris Dodd’ and ‘Chuck Schumer’ turn out to be US democratic politicians of whom I’d never heard but whom Amazon obviously thinks I need to reference. But who the hell are ‘Guv’, ‘Tzu’ or ‘Dr Congo’? ‘Guv’ crops up with significant frequency in these messages; I imagine him as primal, slightly threatening, something close to Eliot’s Sweeney character.

Compared with the more exuberant artificially generated texts left on my site by spammers – see an earlier post – these little bulletins are narrow and oddly depressing. The writer appears to be some sort of unsuccessful small time agent. His style is almost telegraphic. He is nervous and his content often repetitive, as if to compensate for having too little to report. He has obviously been sending these bulletins for some years and is now reduced to going through the motions for the sake of his meagre allowance. Most of what he has to say is about who’s not talking to whom about what.

Though occasionally there are incongruous or alarming flashes: ‘Civil war is a real concern.’ Really? A very British Civil War though, judging by his mention of the Church of York volunteer infantry division.

The tone of the messages is curious, but not quite what I expected. I can’t see too much here to worry Hawking, though ‘Children are all the same’ is an interesting assertion, and you have to admit that ‘Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise’ is one stirring slogan … Hectic fix!

 

Fig leaf and Delancey

No one else has been corrected. Guv and Delancey phoned round the press releases that the sculpture will not be returned. OK with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton archive for now, if you can shed some light on this when I get back. Guv and Delancey sent it, the anarchist and a guy who worked with the illustrations. Guv to me: but I’ve never noticed that vinyl exists. I’ve just moved house temporarily to Ironbridge and red has faded away.

Tzu and Delancey don’t seem to be meaningless. Chris Dodd and Delancey phoned the same thing today anyway. Text file to me. Yet another example of the past few weeks since I enquired and Delancey sent it to me. Dieter and Delancey don’t talk about this.

Guv and red hat enterprise and a few days can’t access the folder.

 

City

It’d be meaningless and a bit like facing death. Text of the letter shows that the legalities and Delancey sent it to me. Rich and Delancey phoned to the line between a few weeks ago and I have been confused by the same thing today. Guv and Delancey don’t talk about this.

City officials said that the same thing as a few days ago when the sculpture will be returned. Dr Congo and Delancey phoned to the technology and a guy who worked with the culture’s move will not be able to reply till Saturday.

Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise!

 

Juju

Chubb was given a statement by Macbride. Finnegan and Delancey sent it to the verse in the Midlands Today report. Children are all the same. Xavier and Delancey phoned the same time. Dr John Edwards has faded away for the same thing. Jack November and Delancey sent it to me. Cheers!

 

Such a guy

If you can shed some light on this when I get back, hope to be meaningless. Use of the stick – to me that is beyond impressive. DVD availability for the image is interesting: on the image is a bunch of ten modern railway covers.

Chuck Schumer cut off the image of the past. Crude prices for the offer of a guy who is interesting to me. Obviously this is not sure. Civil war is a real concern. Both are all over again in the Midlands. UK’s largest sites are all over the place.

 

Oh!

Rustic to me, true to the technology of electronically capturing and red hat enterprise, the sculpture will not be returned from home. Scientists have been confused by Archer and Delancey. Tzu and Delancey don’t know why. Tzu to me: you may be meaningless. Guv to me: Church of York volunteer infantry division. You can shed some light on the same lot of people who worked with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton.

I fix the problem here. Audio files and folders in the Midlands News first time in the same time. Sufi to me: Guv and Delancey don’t know why we should have been confused by the same thing today.

Hectic fix! Third parties in the Midlands so won’t tell me.

Transport for London demolishes Paolozzi murals

The news has just come through from artlyst that Transport for London and architects Hawkins Brown have gone ahead with the demolition of several of the wonderful Paolozzi murals at the Tottenham Court Road tube re-build, despite massive opposition and the attempted intervention of the 20th Century Society. Beggars belief. When will these clowns realise that art in the public domain is a public asset and not their private toy?

TFL Demolishes £100,000 Eduardo Paolozzi Mosaic Arches At Tottenham Court Station - ArtLyst Article image

Read about it at artlyst here.

pressoffice@tfl.gov.uk

mail@hawkinsbrown.com

eBaying off the life work

A while back, in a post on Alan Wycliffe Wellings, I lamented affectionately all the eBayed leftovers from life drawing classes, most headed, ultimately, for that great gallery at the landfill. I’m not being snobby; I’ve been clearing out folders full of life drawings myself, and it’s nearly all gone in the bin. (A great sheaf of drawings featuring male models went long ago to a gay friend; I’m not sure exactly what purpose they may currently serve.)

Yes, I’ve haunted some life rooms in my time. It’s a valuable discipline; it’s important that we continue to construct images, by observation, out of marks, especially when fine art degree courses now seem to award the photographic image a monopoly of virtue, as if it were somehow more authentic. When the reverse is clearly the case.

But life work can be bloody aggravating. Most classes I attended were cluttered up by annoying geriatrics (and I speak as a pensioner myself) who signed up year after year, but whose work never improved in the least. And who hadn’t the least intention to improve it.

Some, frightened of the scale and verticality of the easel, disdained it, laying flat their A3 pads on unnecessarily massive donkeys plonked right in front of the model. God forbid they should ever have been obliged to wrestle with a side or back view, and heaven strike down any optimistic and tactless tutor who tried to confiscate their HB pencils and get them onto charcoal. Some routinely chattered all session through about where they would be going on holiday this year and what they’d had for tea, making concentration impossible for everyone else, but coming on all victimised if ever asked to pipe down. I stalked out of the last class I ever did, after asking the worst offender if he’d mind shutting the **** up, and that’s not like me. Well, not much, anyway.

The high point of this purgatory involved a donkey codger who huffily refused the most basic guidance on matters of proportion, and whose drawings, as a result, were always hilariously top heavy. Redrawing and re-erasing the model’s legs week after week, he finally solved his problem by sketching her into a pool of water from the mid-thighs down. This lateral thinking was much admired by his mates.

Anyway, here’s pretty much what I’m left with. (Click to enlarge.) The girl pushing out her bum is Natalie from Aldridge, who was the best model ever. The upside down reclining person is a pleasant woman whose name now escapes me, but I did leave out her breast tattoo and nipple ring. (I’ve found that piercings are a distraction when you’re trying to even out your attention across all parts of the body. Male models with a Prince Albert should definitely be banned.) The big canvas with two figures involved a mirror, of course.

Rimg0018Actually, the two single figure images are currently up for grabs if anyone’s interested – go here and here. They start at merely a tenner on – you guessed it – eBay …

Brando and Eliot in shadows

My brush with Brando was gratifyingly bizarre. I was helping to run a college cinema club; shortly before one evening showing, there was a phone call: Marlon Brando was in the area filming (news to us), and would he be able to see our film? Was this a hoax? But no, a couple of minutes before kick off a young man appeared who claimed in a stateside accent to be Mister Brando’s fixer. Passing across a slab of notes he explained that the great actor and his party were outside. Only one thing: the lights should go down just before his entrance; Mister Brando preferred to go incognito.

"Mistah Washizu - he dead."

“Mistah Washizu – he dead.”

Brando (his profile dimly recognisable) and entourage filed in as arranged. They sat in the semi darkness of the front row, speaking little and in low voices, only among themselves. We were showing Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. At the end, after Washizu, Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character, had undergone his spectacular downfall, punctuated by more arrows than a single human frame might seem able to accommodate, the lights were kept down while they left the same way. Later the college porter told me that on his way out  Brando, at the head of the line, had paused before the massy mediaeval oak of the college gate, and had stroked it with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. To a man, his entourage had followed suit. The porter had been amused not so much by his original gesture as by their sycophantic mimicry.

The great oaken gate had presented itself to him, perhaps, as a signifier of Albion, of ancient wisdom, of a more authentic, pre-American world, a world maybe not too far from feudal Japan.

This was (I think) in 1969. Brando’s career was in a strange place at that time. What could he have been filming over here? I’ve no idea. (This was too late for Pontecorvo’s under-rated Burn!, I think, which in any case was filmed partly on the continent, and not in the UK.)

Brando in shadow

Brando in shadow

After seven years, Brando was back mumbling in the shadows, this time as the largely invisible Colonel Kurtz on the set of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Millions of words later, we are still not much clearer on quite why the filming went so famously pear shaped (as if we care), but in an interview Dennis Hopper has said that Brando’s refusal to be filmed with him came after he had ranted at Brando in a cinema in the Philippines where cast and crew had gone for a night out. Interestingly, from my viewpoint, they had chosen to see Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, featuring Toshiro Mifune.

As the rows rumbled on, Coppola and Brando abandoned the Apocalypse script and improvised Kurtz’s dialogue. Brando may or may not, as alleged, have prepared himself by reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse was based, but he seems to have found his way around T S Eliot. It’s well known that Eliot’s epigraph to The Waste Land, at least in draft, was the death of Heart of Darkness’s Mr Kurtz, prototype for Brando’s Colonel Kurtz:

“… He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”

In early 1922, Eliot had returned to London from a spell under the shrink in Lausanne – “… an aboulie [aboulia, loss of motivation] and emotional derangement” was his self-diagnosis – clutching a wadge of pages for Ezra Pound to hack and snip into something resembling a coherent poem. “The horror” was the first bit into the bin: “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation,” grumbled Pound. Eliot sniffed back that “It is much the most appropriate I can find, and somewhat elucidative.” “Do as you like about Conrad,” snarled Pound, but the passage was cut anyway.

Pound also axed 90% of the original “Death by Water” sequence, leaving few hints of Conrad in the finished Waste Land, though there is still a dripping echo in the sweating river and drifting barges on the turning tide in the “Song of the Thames-daughters” in the “Fire Sermon” section. Both The Waste Land and Apocalypse Now were a mess, a mass bubbled up in chaos and derangement, warping out of control, both requiring merciless chopping down into something the shape of poetry.

Eliot got his own back by prefixing his next poem, The Hollow Men, with an equivalent but more cryptic quote from Heart of Darkness – “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

Coppola may have allowed the camera to pass knowingly over copies of Eliot’s other sources for The Waste Land – Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazer’s The Golden Bough – lying around rather posily in Colonel Kurtz’s shadowed den, but it’s The Hollow Men that Brando / Kurtz reads brooding in the shadows, in a sequence largely cut, Pound-wise, from the film as released [link below]. (It has sometimes been noted that this otherwise complete reading of the poem omits only the epigraph “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”, in order to avoid an unfortunate reality loop; as a fictional character about to die, Colonel Kurtz can hardly read about the death of another fictional character on whom he himself is based.)


It seems to me that in this reading Brando strokes the words with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. As Anglified American, Eliot has come to represent the man transplanted to the authentic waste land, a discoverer, like the Kurtzes and now like Brando himself, of a far older wisdom, of primal vision. We touch the ancient wood, we feel the immeasurable truth of it, and, with a cry like a whisper, we suspect the horror.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers