I really like this song (and video) by sydney band la suffocated. both music and visuals accurately depict the feeling of a night out in sydney some time from 2008 to now, but with a feeling of mystery and magick potential that’s often absent in reality, or at least – as this track suggests to me – invisible, signs regularly concealed to the point of obliteration. here, exagerration and refiguration of the banal (pokies, designated smoking areas, public transport) reveals a truth that would have been impossible without the falsity (often a truth of documentary too).
Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur 2016 (photo by Timothy Fernandez)
Last year, I was lucky enough to drive North up the California coastline with some friends, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, passing through – among other places – Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Big Sur. The rugged, wild coast was like nothing I’d really seen before: Big Sur, in particular, was like an inverted and distorted version of the Australian (New South Wales) East coast way back across the Pacific, but even more untamed, intense, extreme, and just “big”.
When my parents took the same journey a few months later, they – being old hippies themselves – visited City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and my dad picked up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, which he passed on to me. Although Kerouac had never really appealed to me before, I found time to read this one recently and to my surprise, I loved it: the usual bluster and machismo of Kerouac being greatly tempered in this novel by his world-weariness (and apparent psychological decline) at the time of writing, as well as by the imagery of the Sur itself – the immensity of nature carrying with it the ability to dwarf any petty, writerly concerns. For the most part, glorified descriptions of drinking, smoking and treating women as objects are replaced by descriptions of sloping pine forests, wooded cliffs, clear streams, and all of it crumbling into the endless, roaring sea (a presence in the novel that becomes either liberating or terrifying).
Me and a friend looking way out into the world, Big Sur 2016 (photo by Timothy Fernandez)
Reading Big Sur, it got me to thinking: why is it that Kerouac’s cultural significance has dropped off so hard from one generation to another? Plenty of baby boomer / gen. X readers will readily mention him – and the Beat generation in general – as either a favourite or at least a touchstone, but among my peers (myself included) not many can be bothered, or if they/we are, there’s something glaringly irrelevant about all that On the Road style stuff.
One answer as to why seems to be the blokeyness of it all, the aforementioned machismo, but I don’t think this completely answers the question of the waned relevance of the Beats (as evidence, see the prevalence of blokey, misogynist art – same as it ever was). Rather, I think a more direct reason is that the Beats don’t really have a modern grasp on what it is to be beat: how distant and impossible the notion of dropping out or being “on the road” feels. Liberation outside of society, or even the notion of writing as a tool of liberation or emancipation (social or personal) is very distant. In 2017, the idea of wanderlust – of being able to quit the rat race – of following passions at whatever cost, seems completely impossible in the face of work, money, rent, and diminishing returns on all three.
In Kerouac’s Big Sur (written towards the end of his life), revelations and escapes are neutered and come to nothing: epiphanies dwindle, euphoria waxes and wanes. San Francisco, city of lights and drunkeness, infringes time and time again on the peaceful wooded escape, the Waldenesque fantasy. At the story’s end, the ultimate revelation visited upon the author isn’t spiritual or social insight but the author’s friend telling him to calm down and take things as they come, to not be so serious about life. This seems to me why Big Sur makes more sense to a modern reader: the tiredness, the thwartedness of it all. Only the irreducible sea provides refuge, and even this is difficult, inhuman, and wavering.
With the end of the world potentially approaching at the bidding of a paranoid racist, I figured it was a good time to check out the apocalypse according to another paranoid racist: namely, everyone’s favourite Hitler-apologist, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft hated and feared the Other probably even more than the Trump-Bannon set but he has the distinction of being a much better writer and also using the words “eldritch” and “recalcitrant” a lot more. Yesterday, I snuggled down with a flu and a block of chocolate and watched (non-psychopath) John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness: not a direct adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s works but one that, I’d argue, is all the more effective for it. Ol’ H.P. is notoriously difficult to pin down in film and Carpenter manages to do so in the manner of all adaptations – that is, by breaking from the source material in fealty to the visual medium (see also The Shining, American Psycho and Don’t Look Now, all films that “betray” the original text and end up being much closer to the spirit of the work than a straight, nervous retelling could ever be). It’s the notion of the visual medium, and the logic of film itself, that I was left with after watching this movie.
A quick Google / Rotten Tomatoes search for the film reveals two things: firstly, a predominantly negative set of reviews for In the Mouth of Madness, with reviewers calling it disjointed, confusing, and confused. Secondly – and more recently – you notice a small but passionate set of people refuting these original reviews and calling the flick a masterpiece and one of Carpenter’s best. I’m overwhelmingly in agreement with the latter parties, and reading some of the negative reviews, you can only wonder who the fuck could watch this and not be incredibly impressed by its completeness, its style, and its functioning as – dare I say it – a perfect whole. Negative reviewers for this film strike me as the kind of old-world dorks who’d feel the need to list Man with a Movie Camera as their “favourite film of all time” and suggest that irrelevant trash like Breathless has any meaning for a modern audience. But I digress.
Like I said, common themes in the negative reviews are a confused script and an attempt to point out “plot holes”: i.e. the film occurs in flashback but contains scenes that do not involve the narrator. Once again – how someone could watch a film concerning the blurring of fiction and reality, madness and sanity, belief and truth, and come away with trying to pick out a mealy-mouthed technicality like that is literally beyond me. I’m not saying such a criticism couldn’t be made in general: I’m saying that the structure and theme of In the Mouth of Madness excludes the possibility of such nit-picking. The film is complete to the point of negating plot-holes or inconsistencies, as the film is about perception and fiction itself. It succeeds where so many works of art – filmic or otherwise – fail, in that it works entirely according to its own logic: the logic of film, the world of film. This is both implicit in the structure and explicit in the themes: a set of values and structures beyond the work itself is not just negated – it isn’t even implied. The work itself is everything: it exists, in a way, in a vacuum; its own constellation of meaning and signification.
To avoid sinking even deeper into vagueness, I’ll give a potted outline of the film: Sam Neil is John Trent, insurance claims freelancer turned padded-cell resident, submitted to strait jackets, shadowy hallucinations and, worst of all, the music of the Carpenters. It turns out that Trent’s road to the asylum began with investigating the disappearance of pulp-novelist Sutter Cane on the behalf of his publishing house, who eagerly await his new manuscript, “In the Mouth of Madness”. Trent’s search leads him out of Manhattan and into deepest New England, to the supposedly fictional town of Hobbs End. Themes from Cane’s writing begin to manifest in the real world, blurring the chain of causation between writing and reality / reality and writing, and eventually revealing a plot to overwrite reality with fiction. By the time Trent realises the gravity of the situation, he too is enveloped in the plotline – or maybe he always was. Repetitions, caesuras and ellipses in circumstance lead Trent to discover that his existence (and everyone else’s) is predetermined and inescapable. In a truly classic John Carpenter ending, Trent leaves the (now deserted) psychiatric hospital and wanders an apocalyptic, deserted New York, ending up in a cinema showing the film adaptation of “In the Mouth of Madness”: a seemingly endless loop of the film we’ve just watched. Onscreen, Trent bangs a table and screams “this is reality”. Off-screen, in the empty cinema, Trent roars with demented laughter. Fin.
If this still sounds vague, it’s because the structure of the film is truly a hall of mirrors: origin point of fact and fiction is consummately blurred and we the viewers become interlaced with the fiction in a manner so subtle that it’s hard to extract how. We too are watching “In the Mouth of Madness” / In the Mouth of Madness, and perhaps the flick that Trent views at the film’s end will also include the scene of him watching the film, laughing maniacally. Images refer back to themselves, signification reverberates and grows without reference to any externality. This is the kind of horror that Jorge Luis Borges identifies in Hamlet’s play-within-a-play and Scheherazade’s retelling of the bridging story of the 1001 Arabian Nights (throwing the entire story sequence into an infinite loop): involving the viewer in a sequence of fiction that they can neither conceive of nor escape. This isn’t a lack of logic or coherence, but the intonation of a logical sphere beyond articulation, beyond our grasp: the logic of the Lovecraftian Old Ones that lurk at the edges of In the Mouth of Madness, and perhaps at the edges of the magic of film itself – hallucination, dream, reality.
the good people over at the Mechanics’ Instutute Review published a story of mine online last week, “After the Event Takes Place”. check it out here.
I think about August Strindberg’s play Easter fairly often. I first read it when I was about eighteen, at a time in my life when I really enjoyed reading a play in a single sitting, usually in the afternoons. I lived in a room above a bookstore that received the full brunt of afternoon sunlight, and I’d sit there with the curtains drawn drinking strong coffee that I’d only just learned how to brew, half naked and sweating profusely. There was something oddly psychedelic about the whole setting, although it’s hard to pinpoint why – I think a large part of it, beyond the inhuman heat and my intolerance for caffeine, was that it was a time in my life when I first realised (and realised in a bodily, visceral level) that life is just irreducibly strange (even when not that strange at all, on the surface) and that the mere fact of being and existing can be heavy. “The great fragmentation of maturity” was a line I read at the time from (I think) Henry Miller and it made and makes a lot of sense: the moment of shattering, where you begin to understand that life doesn’t loop back or stand still or tie itself up, but instead, just goes on…
Anyway, I digress. Easter was one of the plays that I read in this period, and for such a simple story, it’s never left me. The action of the play takes place over (surprise) Easter, and the central theme is of the main characters (in particular the young man Elis) struggling with the guilt they carry from past actions, and the suffering they go through as these things are remembered and relived. The chief conduit for this recurring suffering, and the emblem of this theme, is the old enemy Lindkvist, who stalks the outside of the characters’ house, remaining shadowy and unseen until the end of the third act. Lindkvist has old scores to settle with the family, but it’s not anything he says that causes pain – it’s his mere presence: his shadow falling across the windows is enough to invoke, in the long-suffering Elis, all the horrors of the past that reach their fingers into the present day.
Knowing only a bit of Strindberg’s biography, it’s hard not to see something of self-portrait in Elis: his paranoia, fearfulness and suffering seem to mirror the playwright’s own tortured attitude towards life and equal feelings of victimisation and guilt. It’s the sense that no skeleton stays in the closet for long, that no accounts remain unsettled – indeed, this “settling of accounts” is a recurring metaphor for guilt in the play: not just the real monetary debts owed to Lindkvist, but the “spiritual” debt following on, and the wider sense of accounts and debts as is invoked by the religious holiday itself.
As an unseen force, Lindkvist makes a powerful character, but even more striking is when he does appear onstage to resolve the drama and effectively end the play. By act III, all suspicions and anticipation of sadness and pain have come to a head, and there is a sense that what has been sowed will finally be reaped: Lindkvist’s knock on the door comes as a terrible omen. However, this isn’t how things turn out. Lindkvist is forgiving and kindly, and arrives only to relieve Elis and the others of their guilt: to wipe clean the slate, and to allay all fears.
This, I think, is the most compelling part of the play. There’s something almost naive about this unlikely scenario of absolution: something almost painful in Lindkvist’s deliverance from fear. It reads like an imagined, timeless moment – the eschatological Easter Sunday, maybe – where all fears are proved false and all hopes are realised: a moment craved for in secret, whispered in dreams, where the many fragments of life come together again, where all ends meet, and where salvation is offered unreservedly to all we sinners. It’s framed by a religious feeling in the play, but to me the scene with Lindkvist goes deeper:, almost to something childlike: the desire to be cradled, to be absolved of all pain and frailty, to be told that everything is alright.
I caught a repeat of the final episode of Father Ted last night, “Going to America”. While most laugh-track comedies of the 90’s, no matter how on-point, seem more dated than relevant, Father Ted still seems fresh – or, when dated, not in a way that’s detrimental to the laughs. Part of this could be the nostalgia I have of the show from childhood, but I think it’s mostly the quality of the acting and chemistry between the actors, the clever jokes, and the irreverent setting. All of this is on display in the finale, and it’s one of the best episodes – yet there’s a strangely elegiac note to the whole thing, an extended sense of requiem that runs beneath the episode. After all, Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted, was dead within a day of filming: the movements on-screen are some of his last.
I found it hard no to think of Barthes: he is dead and he is about to die. He lives on, yet he is gone. Frank Kelly, too, who played Father Jack, died this year – eighteen years to the day that Morgan died. There is a feeling that ghosts linger around the episode: that past, present and future converge here.
Intonations of death haunt “Going to America”: one of the first shots is of a man on a ledge, who is last seen towards the episode’s end on a bus, the light fading, mournful music playing, as it drives into a foggy ether. Kurt Cobain is invoked. A game of Snakes and Ladders leads the suicidal father down the snakes every time.
Even the title and theme of the episode seems to speak of an ending, a loss. “America” seems to function like Kafka’s “Amerika”: not so much as the real place but as a beyond, as the edge of the world. Father Ted’s delayed goodbyes to his people recalls not only the pain of death and of leaving but of Irish migration to the New World, the unlikelihood of ever seeing loved ones again . In a more spectre-like reading, perhaps “America” serves in the same manner as Michael Haneke’s Seventh Continent: death embodied as place.
The final sequence of the episode involves the Father quitting his travel plans to return with his people to his (now empty and desolate) parish: a desperate change of mind and a return to the living. A dreamlike quality haunts these final moments: eulogy for the show and for the man. The final shot eschews laughs, or any obvious emotion at all, as the camera zooms in on Dermot Morgan’s blank face. He is dead, he lives on always, and he is about to die.