Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Lonely Legacy of the Gentleman Ghost (or) M.R. James at the BBC

In the annals of the spooky and the halls of the haunted, few names command as much respect as M.R. James. Considered one of the masters of the Ghost story – a different beast from the ‘horror story’ mind – James’ work has flittered and gibbered across the literary and cinematic landscape sine he first wrote his short stories in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the late 60s and 70s the BBC began adapting his work as part of a one-episode a year ‘series’ that came to be known as ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’. While possessed (pardon the pun) of their share of flaws, these stories nevertheless remain among the most ambitious attempts at atmospheric television ever produced. Unnerving rather than shocking, ghoulish as opposed to ghastly, they have been recently released on DVD and are worthy of a visit.

James was an academic, a member of that dwindling race of bent and bespectacled men wrapped in tweed and woolly sweaters, stalking libraries and sunlit chambers twinkling with dust. His stories are vast landscapes speckled with lonely, overeducated bachelors who are perhaps too curious, and possessed of too much free time, for their own good. The title of ‘A warning to the curious’ the 1972 BBC adaptation, can stand as a plot summation of most of James’ work, but a certain predictability doesn’t detract from this story’s quality. An out of work middle-aged man comes to the desolate coast of East Anglia, searching for a long-lost pagan crown, only to find himself menaced by a spectral guardian. In between the expected story beats there is a pulsing heart of unease, due in no small part to the quality of performers, and of the production. 

The cinematography is superb – a slow tableau of grey beaches encased beneath frigidly blue skies, their hollow vastness broken only by the occasional crumbling church steeple. The players of the story are often made tiny and fragile in the framing of these expanses, yet the reliable stable of British character actors ensure we sympathise with their fates.

The spooks, and this is true of all of these adaptations, work better as vague presences rather than explicit menaces. The BBC of the time was famous for the wobbly special effects of programs such as Doctor Who, and the producers of this series, aware of their limitations, chose to keep the ghosts offscreen as much as possible. Just as well – in many episodes (such as the otherwise nearly perfect ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’ of 1968) the ultimate reveal of the spectre is the story’s most glaring shortcoming (Bedsheets? Really?).

As the 70s progressed, the episodes began to dig deeper into the James canon, picking out some of his lesser-known tales. James, despite being the almost archetypical ghost story writer, had a tendency for featuring some very untypical ghosts. Indeed, they are less pale, bloodless phantoms and more…somethings…that squirt and clamber through the narrative, their natures and limitations unnervingly unclear. The somethings of ‘The Ash Tree’ are particularly well realised, with their tell-tale cry, resembling a baby’s whine for milk, inspiring shivers long before they make their appearance. The something of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ is also notable: sometimes flapping about like a bat, yet leaving a slimy trail like a vast slug, yet in appearance it may (or may not?) be no more than an unassuming hooded monk. This is a well-paced and well-performed episode, helping us forget that its plot is virtually identical to ‘A Warning to the Curious’.

The last three episodes of the series (76-79) abandoned James for one Dickens adaptation and two original stories. Yet the shadow of M.R. James dominated the memory of this very unusual series, inspiring several latter day ‘homages’ by the BBC in the 2000s. 

James was placed at the very end of English rural era, when ghosts occupied isolated farmlands and wind-swept desolations. The ever expanding cities and the urban transformation of the country more or less spelled the death-knell for such stories, as fewer and fewer young folk grew up knowing the particular panic of hearing a branch crack while walking alone on a moonlit country road, or seeing a strange figure pursue you along the blustery coastline. Today our fears tend to be focused on the flesh and blood rather than the spectral, with recent horror cinema in particular focusing on knife-wielding madmen, or zombies (a popular stand-in for the average person’s not-unreasoned terror of the rush-hour crowd). The wilderness that the English ghost once inhabited has been physically reduced and has largely been abandoned by the popular imagination. 

This abandonment might explain the bitterness and rage exhibited by James’ ghosts – they are excessively vindictive, for example, and even returning their treasure/seeking out religious protection/escaping their territory may not be enough to quell their wrath. They saw their time was nearly up, and decided to take as many of the bastards with them as possible. Still, whether as taken as ‘warnings to the curious’ or as relics of an age when a tale of terror was almost…genteel…these stories and their BBC interpretations are particular somethings indeed. 

Well played, well shot and most importantly well told, they are proof that the old-fashioned spook story hasn’t quite yet given up the ghost. 



Sunday, October 28, 2012


  "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a wildly ambitious film with a fabulous central child performance. It's a shame that its creators thought they were too good to buy a tripod. A magic-realist account of poverty, environmental disaster and prehistoric monster attack, 'Beasts' follows 6-year old wild child Hushpuppy, who lives in an old trailer atop a tree in the wetlands somewhere in the southern states. When their community is flooded after the polar ice-caps have melted, Hushpuppy has to deal with her crumbling hometown and her very sick father. A sort of mythologizing of Hurricane Katrina, "Beasts" is best when in CU on Hushpuppy or her father's faces, both of whom are outstanding first time actors. On the other hand the charming local community becomes increasingly less charming when you realize their stock reaction to any problem is to get collectively drunk, and the prehistoric monsters, despite a great build-up, eventually only play their part. Worst of all is a hand-held camera that consistently distracts from some beautiful cinematography and storytelling - one gets the impression that the cinematographer had a few too many hits of the moonshine himself. Still, this is a very unusual film with some wondrous elements - take a few pills for motion sickness and strap in.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Purple Man Living in the Closet is Not a Metaphor

It's all a big mess, you see. A huge, terrific mess, and it can never be fixed.
The stage goes dark with a crack, as a lightbulb falls to the floor. A man in the great tower of STUFF on stage right begins fiddling with gears and levers, but only seems to generate sparks. In the flashes of fitful illumination, human beings dressed in white briefs and long fur coats scurry amidst the wreckage like exposed cockroaches. A set disintegrates with every step of the performer, beginning with a door crumbling inwards as an ever-so-tired worker comes open. A man flees from a falling pile of boxes over thirty feet high. And there's this man, in a purple dress, who just wants to get back to the one man party he's hosting in the closet.

It's a strange, dark and terrible world made flesh on stage, you see, but in these days of panic and uncertainty it all feels so terribly familiar. There's no music that isn't beaten out by gibbering performers on the backs of tables, and a vast silence is felt, vast and bloated and waiting, just beyond the chaos so well choreographed downstage. Tunnels of light are forged with a few flickering spots here and there, and performers tend to be lit for their shapes rather than their expressions. What expressions we do see are always those of fear. Well, except for the purple man. He has his own miniature disco ball in the closet and he's doing fine.

It's not all kooky silent French madness, though it certainly is that. There is much comic timing and much laughter (monkeys like to laugh at other monkeys in pain), and there is so much detritus falling about that you are a bit shocked that no one gets conked in the head. A woman has gravity reverse on her out of sheer belligerence, and men in coats bury her under furniture for convenience. A vast and terrible war is played out between paraplegics over a glass of water. What does it all mean? The title translates to 'suddenly', and that's how it is, isn't it? All your proud and noble efforts, and along comes an ass with a wheelbarrow to take away the glass of water. 

Maybe it's a bit long, and maybe it's a bit shadowy and, as some sorts in the seats around me commented, it's very French. I dunno. While I was watching those poor benighted fools onstage, I was reminded of the joy of seeing limbs flail amidst dim lights, and shapes descend into vast caverns beyond easy sight. I wished to rush onto stage and hug them, for the desire to be among them, and dig through their junk. Hope persists, but it has begun to gnaw, I admit.

All that aside, it was a sight, oh yes it was. I was struck, as the lights (really) rose and the public twittered to itself, how one voice was heard to sneer "Yes, but all that could be done by anyone with a lot of hard work."

As if that were an insult.

The show was L'Immediêt by Camille Boitel, and here is were you can see it:

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Year in Time

Gromley here, students of the mystic arts!
And so a year has passed. A year rambling, work, tangents and most mighty explosions of creativity! The heavens have been shattered, the earth has boiled, the seas turned red and cats have developed opposable thumbs. Destiny has been thwarted, and fate embarrassed. Nothing was, and everything shall be.
Not that it all makes a lick of difference of course because NO ONE WROTE ANYTHING DOWN.
That's right. Verg was a little electric kindle of nervous energy at the progenation of this blog. "The People," his hiss, "The Wonder!" he cackled! I rubbed my hands with glee (though I rub my hands without cease, for they be stitched together most thoroughly) and Mumbles picked up a crowbar and started smashing the car windows in. All was as it should be. But what happened? What was the ruin of our mighty scheme?
   Our Doom had a name and it was BELPHEGOR.

   That's right, fellow devotees of demonology. Belphegor needs no introduction to the likes of you. Nor does he need an introduction to the hordes of cloying "Belphegor - the Death/Thrash/Metal Band", whom dominated the millions of pages of google image I had to wade through to uncover the image above. But enough of this! Belphegor is real, and he had his brown-encrusted claws around our hearts for the last year.
   Belphegor, you see, is the demon of sloth. No great deed gets done within his kingdom, not when there are billions of hours of distraction available at such pits of despair as, or when utterly pointless games may be played and won for no other gain but the loss of a few more hours to suffer through before death ( He makes mannequins of our flesh, and polymer-cheese slices or our souls. He is BELPHEGOR, and were he not trapped on that toilet with an eternal case of heavenly-inspired constipation, he would not just kick our allegorical asses, but rend them to the very atomic fibers. Fear the coming of the Satanic Suppository that will free Belphegor, my children! Flee from the Toilet Paper of Tantalus that will cleanse his bowels!
   Thus drowned in self-loathing, indifference and home-sickness did we loose a year, a year!, of our lives to that foulness you see above. That year is irretrievable, and the Reaper draws closer with every moment spent on the electric siren that is the net. Even now, Verg and the rest of us struggle to be truly free of his machinations - a struggle, I fear, that will last yet for many decades.
   But wait! There is hope. Like the Serpent of Midgard itself, our body wriggles and stretches within the icy realm of Belphegor's influence. Inspired by friends, family and our own perverse dreams, we come to blink, scratch our eyes and awaken. We move again!

   As part of our methodology of discipline, Verg, Mumbles and I are determined to post one of these rambles every week. They may be dull. They may be useless. No one may be listening. But the route to success is littered with bizarre activities and we, my friends, shall be bizarre!
   So stay tuned! Harken onto our struggles! Defeat and death, of Victory and (eventually anyway) death, lie before us! Strike up the trumpets! Call out the guard! Release the hounds and feed the monkey! The days have just begun!


Gromley says: Haphaestus Hegemony!