The Silence

For a long while, Ingmar Bergman was one of those filmmakers I’d heard a lot of people praise, but didn’t know much about, aside from a single viewing of his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, on TV. I set about watching a number of his films, and in the main they weren’t quite what I expected. (I’m feeling ready for a re-watch, for a better take on him.) Only one clicked with me, 1963’s The Silence, a dream-like and unresolved narrative whose characters, world, and story seem haunted by something unnamed, and which in turn came to haunt me. It seemed more like a Robert Aickman short story, replete with surreal and menacing tensions, than anything else I’ve seen.

Two sisters, Ester and Anna, along with Anna’s young son Johan, are travelling by train through an unnamed European country. Ester is ill, coughing blood with a strangled, silent cough into a handkerchief, and they decide to stop so she can rest. The remainder of the film takes place in and around a seemingly massive, and mostly empty, hotel, in a country whose language none of the three main characters understand, and where the tensions between the sisters come to a head. Eventually, it’s decided Anna and Johan will continue, while Ester remains behind.

So, what are the tensions between the sisters? Ester, the older, is a literary translator, and we only need to witness her strangled-to-silence coughing to know how much she represses her body’s physicality. She’s both jealous and judgemental of the more sensuous Anna’s love life, including the love of her son. One interpretation (offered by Woody Allen in his foreword to Bergman’s autobiography) is that Ester is “the head”, the intellect, and Anna is “the body”, but this, I think, is to play into the sisters’ own trap. Ester is cut off from her body, but tortured by the absence of what it can provide. She longs to have physical contact — with her sister, her nephew — but can’t achieve it, and later confesses how repugnant she felt sleeping with men to be. “I wouldn’t accept my wretched role,” she says, of being a wife, a mother, a man’s lover. “But now it’s too damned lonely.” Perhaps the best illustration of Ester’s relationship with her body is when she turns on a radio while lying in bed. We only see her hand in the shot, and when lively music comes on, her hand dances on top of the radio, obviously enjoying it; then her head comes into shot, taking over, and the hand is forced to change the station to something more somber, more intellectual, and the dancing stops. She chain-smokes and chain-drinks, as though trying to stifle her body’s need for sensation. Whether her illness is an expression of her desire to be cut off from her body permanently, or is her body forcing her to pay attention to it — at several points, it literally cuts her off, leaving her choking for air, in what for me is the most frightening moment in any film I’ve ever seen — is one of the unresolved aspects of the film.

Anna, meanwhile, enjoys bodily pleasures — she likes bathing, she likes food, she likes wearing nice clothes, she likes caressing her son, herself, and men. Ester’s prurience and judgement makes her feel guilty for enjoying these things, but perhaps she’s forced into playing them up in front of her older sister, acting the role of the sybarite, as the two push each other to opposing extremes. Neither, then, is “the head” or “the body” — they’re too fully rounded as characters for that — but their unhealthy relationship forces them into these restrictive and self-damaging opposing roles.

For me, the film is not so much about the sisters’ conflict, as their dual influence on the boy, Johan, and his attempts to integrate these corresponding aspects of himself. He enjoys the physical contact with his mother, but is also intellectually curious, which is Ester’s territory. His warring sisters, though, provide no help in learning how to integrate the two, nor how to deal with the third element the film confronts him with: male sexuality.

Whenever Ester looks out of the hotel’s window, she sees an emaciated donkey pulling a cart, as though to remind herself of her own illness-wracked body. When Johan looks out of a window — either of the train or the hotel — he sees tanks. When he ventures into the hotel’s corridors, he takes his toy pistol. It all starts to seem a little Freudian, with him as the little boy, wielding his little pistol. And the world he enters, when he ventures out into the hotel’s corridors, is oddly fairy-tale-ish, as though it’s there to teach him how to deal with his little-pistol boyhood, before it becomes a dark and powerful tank-like masculinity.

What he finds are seven dwarfs (performers at a local theatre) and a giant (the hotel steward). When he shoots his cap-gun at the dwarfs they pretend to die, then invite him into the room and put him in a dress, as though to teach him to temper his manhood. One wears a chimpanzee mask and jumps up and down on a bed comically, perhaps asking him how much of an animal he wants to be. The boy wanders off and comes across the kindly giant of a hotel steward, who also puts on a comical performance, pretending to teach a sausage a lesson before biting its head off, as though to remind the boy how a man should keep his sexual urges in check. Elsewhere, the boy looks at a massive painting of the centaur Nessus taking Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, on his back — a scene which will lead to an attempted seduction or rape, and ultimately to Heracles’s own death. Johan is clearly fascinated by the painting, but when Ester mentions horses when talking to him of what’s going to happen in the coming summer, Johan says he’s scared of them. It’s perhaps the animal part of himself he’s talking about.

Ester suggests he read to her. The book we’ve seen him reading is Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, whose Byronic hero is single-mindedly intent on seducing women (is this really a suitable book for a boy of his age?). Johan at this moment looks outside and sees a tank in the street, as though to remind himself of the fear of his own sexual role, and instead of reading to his aunt, retreats further into childhood by putting on a Punch & Judy show. Punch kills Judy, then gets scared and (as Johan explains) starts talking in a funny language. Is the Punch & Judy show enacting what he’s starting to feel is the role of a man, culturally-implied by Nessus and Lermontov, to abuse women? Or perhaps it’s broader than that, and the tank made him think of death, and Judy’s death reminded him of Ester’s illness, and it’s losing her he’s afraid of.

“I’ll draw you a nice picture,” Johan says…

All of this is only lightly suggested, and none of it’s fully resolved. So much of the film remains dream-like, even after several close viewings. And perhaps that’s because The Silence, ultimately, has its origin in a dream, as Ingmar Bergman says in his autobiography:

“I am in an enormous, foreign city. I am on my way toward the forbidden part of town. It is not even some dubious area of ill repute with its steaming flesh pots, but something much worse. There the laws of reality and the rules of society cease to exist. Anything can happen and everything does. I dreamed this dream over and over again.”

The film, at one point, was to be titled “Timoka”, the name of the city the sisters stop in; at another time, it was to be “The Silence of God”. I think a lot of the film’s power comes from the unspecific nature of the title. Calling it “Timoka” might have made it sound like a political allegory (and some contemporary reviewers did read it as an allegory of the Cold War). Calling it “The Silence of God” would have made it sound as though the whole mess could be, and ought to be, blamed on a creator. (Ester does at one point, in the midst of her illness’ worst paroxysms, beg “Dear God, please let me die at home”, but we never learn if that prayer is answered or not.) Calling it simply The Silence leaves it open to so many interpretations that it takes on a generalised existential quality: silence as the human condition. There’s the silence of the unspoken tensions between the sisters, and the silence (or inability to communicate) between people generally. Contrasted with this, there’s a positive silence, in the way some things can be communicated without words: Johan’s playing with the dwarfs and the hotel steward, Anna’s seduction of a café waiter (to whom she says “How nice that we don’t understand each other”), the universality of music (it’s the only thing Ester says that the hotel steward immediately understands, along with “Johann Sebastian Bach”, whose music even Anna says sounds nice, in a rare moment of accord). There is, of course, also the silence of death, and the silence of Ester’s distressingly breathless choking, her soundless gasping for air. There’s the silence of Ester’s loneliness, too (“All this talk… There’s no need to discuss loneliness…”). At several points in the film — which doesn’t have a musical score — a fast ticking plays over the soundtrack, like a sort of intensified silence. The ticking of mortality? It comes to each of the major characters, though at one point might be mistaken for the sound of the hotel steward’s fob watch. What does it all mean?

“What does it all mean?” is still my attitude to The Silence. It’s a film with a perhaps bottomless well of meanings. As Robin Wood has written in his book on Bergman:

“One watches the film almost emotionlessly, as if paralyzed, and comes out feeling that one has experienced very little. Then hours—or even days—later, one comes to realize how deep and disturbing the experience has been…”

Bergman influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. Johan wandering the corridors of this unnamed hotel in single-point perspective reminds me of Danny in Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; the bizarrely-dressed dwarf troop in league with a young boy can’t help reminding me of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; and there’s more than a touch of David Lynch about the whole thing. (Plus, Bergman’s probably singlehandedly responsible for all of Woody Allen’s non-funny films. The intentionally non-funny ones, anyway.)

The Silence seems to me like a Symbolist work of art, something like Munch’s The Scream, perhaps, with which it shares an archetypal purity and ambiguity. Munch’s central figure with the wailing mouth — is it screaming, or hearing a scream, or screaming to drown out a scream, or mouthing a scream it can’t produce but can hear? And what of The Silence — the silence before a scream, the silence after one, the silence in longing for one? To all this, perhaps the best answer is — …

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Escape to Witch Mountain

Kids with psychic powers have become a bit of a theme on Mewsings, one that often goes hand in hand with kids-as-aliens (The Midwich Cuckoos), kids-plus-aliens (Chocky), kids-from-the-future (Sky), and kids-as-the-next-stage-in-human-evolution (The Tomorrow People). If nothing else, kids with psychic powers are often treated as aliens (or less than human, anyway) because of their differences (The Institute, Stranger Things, The Morrow books), and as a result their stories are often about a quest for a new home where they truly belong (The Chrysalids, Morrow) or at least an escape from the dehumanising situation where they’re being held (The Institute, Stranger Things).

I realised recently that my first encounter with the idea of psychic kids was probably Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. It’s an adaptation of Alexander Key’s 1968 novel of the same name, and was a fairly successful film at a time when, I’ve read, Disney was in a bit of a creative and commercial slump. Certainly, it’s fondly remembered, and coming out as it did a short while before Star Wars would have meant it was a science-fictional kids’ film on hand to feed a generation of suddenly science-fictionally hungry kids, which must have helped.

I’ve long thought of the kids-with-psychic-powers “boom” of the 70s and 80s as being driven by the youth-centred social revolutions of the late 60s, as the theme packs in so many hippie ideas, ideals, and preoccupations, from the (literal) empowerment of the young and the villainisation of the establishment, to a belief in dormant psychic powers, beneficent aliens, and the desire to escape from a materialistic society. The theme was around before then (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was 1955, Zenna Henderson’s People stories were in magazines from 1952), but I think of it as being driven into the wider culture of films and TV thanks to creators inspired by, or at least touched by, those late-60s ideals.

I don’t really associate Disney with revolutionary ideas, though (the exceptions seem to be more about the fight against individual tyrants than criticising the socially-sanctioned tools tyrants use, such as King John’s exorbitant taxation in Robin Hood, or the Master Control Program’s restrictive security policies in Tron). And I don’t think either of the first two Witch Mountain films (Escape was followed by Return from Witch Mountain in 1978) have much in the way of social comment to make, and by the time of the 2009 reboot, Race to Witch Mountain, any elements that were once revolutionary (the fact that the government is the film’s main villain, for instance) had by then become so established as to be conventions rather than convictions. But they’re fun films, and still contain almost all of the elements of the other kids-with-psychic-powers stories I’ve mentioned.

This may make it look like Return from Witch Mountain is somewhat hauntological… It’s not.

Escape to Witch Mountain starts with siblings Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage after the death of their adoptive parents. Tony can move things with his mind (though he generally has to be playing the harmonica to do it), while Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and with animals, and has precognitive flashes. Although they have a conversation about the need to hide their powers so as not to be ostracised, they don’t make much of an attempt to do so. Confronted by a bully and surrounded by the other kids in the orphanage, Tony thinks nothing of blatantly using his powers to win the fight. And none of the kids (except the defeated bully) seems to care much. But the film isn’t really about the alienation of being different, it’s about how fun it would be to have special powers. The main villain, greedy millionaire Aristotle Bolt, wants to use Tia’s precognitive powers to increase his already excessive wealth, but it’s only towards the end of the film, when the kids’ flight has led them to more rural areas, where a hick sheriff and hunting-mad locals think that because the kids are headed for Witch Mountain they must be witches and can be shot rather than captured, that there’s any real sense of danger.

In the book, Tony and Tia are more evidently different. Both have light-coloured hair, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Their story in the book is a bit more grim (the orphanage is run by a cynical matron, and the fight with the bully involves a home-made knife), the main villain isn’t a rich capitalist but a communist agent, and Tia can’t speak except telepathically to her brother and animals. They are helped first by a nun, then by a Catholic priest, Father O’Day (who is turned into widower-with-a-camper-van Jason O’Day in the film).

Tony and Tia’s powers seem to have no limits in the films. There’s none of the sense, as with Stranger Things’ Eleven’s nosebleeds, that using their powers takes something out of them, and by the second film Tony is using his telekinesis to keep multiple people and heavy objects flying in different orbits all at once, as well as lifting trains and trucks and a massive weight of gold, and can even perform technically demanding tasks such as meddling with electronic circuitry, or making a car window reflect enough sunlight to blind his pursuers.

Although released in 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain feels like an early 60s film. The kids are trusting of all adults, are sweetly innocent (left to themselves, they use their powers to put on a telekinesis-powered puppet show), and the perils are mild. There’s a reassuringly trustworthy adult to parent them through most of their journey. Return from Witch Mountain feels a bit more 70s, though largely in the surface details (the music — funky wah-wah’d guitar and rock flute — and the fashions — Tia’s very sharp, very red, short trouser suit — for instance), and the few touches of 70s grit are highly Disneyfied. (Tia, for instance, is helped not by a reassuring adult but a denim-clad street gang of kids, though they’re a gang who only think of themselves as tough and streetwise, while clearly being anything but, and are quick to realise that really they want to go to school.) Both films were directed by John Hough, who also directed Twins of Evil for Hammer (and in the second film he’s joined by Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as his villains).

Things have certainly changed by the time of the 2009 remake of Return, Race to Witch Mountain. The idea of alien visitors with psychic powers has picked up too much cultural baggage, and this is very much a post-X-Files, post-Close Encounters film, with hazmat suits, media interest, plenty of references to conspiracy culture, and a Terminator-style alien robot assassin to make up for the lack of visual cool in the two alien kids looking just like humans. The main difference in feel to the previous two films is that the kids — called Seth and Sarah this time — feel very much like aliens. They speak in stilted English, know a lot more than the humans that help them, and are emotionally distant for most of the film. (They also have different powers from Tony and Tia. Sarah can read anyone’s mind, while Seth can alter his molecular density, to pass through solid objects or become solid enough to stop a car. He doesn’t have telekinesis, though.) The point of audience identification now isn’t the kids, but what the SF Encyclopaedia calls the “action hero as exasperated dad”, in the form of harassed cab driver Jack Bruno, played by Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film isn’t about being a kid who’s different and has cool super powers, it’s about being a single dad, having to juggle a low-paid job, a regrettable mob past, and a pair of demanding teenagers (alien teenagers, no less). It feels less like a kids’ movie, more a movie about having kids.

The Witch Mountain films (and there were a few other TV remakes, including one intended as a pilot for a series that never got made, as well as a jokey Blair Witch take-off directed by Ike Eisenmann (Tony from the original films)) don’t really say anything new or profound about the kids-with-psychic-powers theme, and in fact do a very good job of not including any of the deeper or more painful aspects of these stories (that it’s all a metaphor for being a sensitive, alienated child in a world that doesn’t really care, as exemplified by Carrie). But they were certainly part of the popularising of the idea, preparing a generation of kids to absorb the deeper themes of the likes of Chocky, ET, and perhaps from them to The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and so on.

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Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?

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