Escape from Prison Island: Screener
This month, Ella goes to the movies
The month opens with fire in the sky unfurling into electric anemones and daisies and palms. I’m standing somewhere beneath the squat of Alexandra Palace with my sister and her boyfriend and she’s squealing sounds that land somewhere permanent in me.
Then I’m in Victoria Park thinking about Mary Shelley while a giant monster with bolts in his cartoon neck burns for hundreds of strangers. Or I’m at a pub in Barnsbury or dancing under a noose in Stratford with an acid taste in my mouth. I dye my hair more nonsense colours and run into old friends and all the while I’m skittishly happy.
Writing about the month ahead feels like trying to gather air.
I can forget the sprawl of my big ass city in this emulsion, until i’m surrounded by dazed gays and be’piercing’d bleach-streaked fishnet angels somewhere miles from home.
One sun blanched lunchtime and I’m outside the Church of the Order of St. John’s square. I’ve eaten a sandwich and I’m trying to clear my head. Thoughts pile up. The paving stones are covered in cross-legged 20 and 30 somethings. They’re smoking and wearing baseball caps and different coloured lanyards dangle from their necks.
Anyway they’re all in the sun like gathered turtles or good dogs and I think of some half-imagined scene in The Graduate. Benjamin and Elaine in a Berkeley quad. Great futures in plastics.
Throughout the month I can’t stop listening to this one Charli XCX song. It contains all the haunted mall tricks of vapourwave (echoey resonance, metallic clangs) and a resignation that I like a lot. I end up thinking a lot about nostalgia, thanks in no small part to the “Not a cell phone in sight. Just people living in the moment. Wish we could go back” copypasta scrambled around Twitter. The video for 1999 is a fairly accurate scrim through the culture I took for granted as a teenager and a moment I’d happily go back to, or resurrect in some better semblance of now. At least ‘now’ in a generalised sense. I fantasise about throwing my phone into a body of water every time I pass one. But then, how would I record that experience and Share It With Friends?
I wouldn’t mind more sugary 90’s/00’s nostalgia, decade distillation as genremash, as in Stranger Things. I’m sure it’s not far off, something made in the palette of a Sneaker Pimps press pic. How it is as how it was.
I’ve always been a sucker for heavy stylisation and so it is with an open heart that I go to see Suspiria on Halloween night and Mandy a week or so later. Both are excellent and I notice that everyone criticising Suspiria does so on fairly spurious ground, with a piety that suggests something quite interesting.
But it is Mandy that is the better movie. Suspiria is a strong attempt at recontextualisation with respect to the kitsch of its forebearer but Mandy razes the screen. You exude a cosmic darkness one character says. It glowed from within, says another, strange and eternal. The first half is sweetly haunted by what’s to come as Mandy and Red live in rare hermetic bliss. The second is testament that “killing me won’t bring back your honey”. Each part is balanced by a florid sense of supernatural desolation. And somehow, it’s very funny too.
Then Nic Roeg dies and I watch Eureka. Not only a luminary of British cinema but a cleric of the beloved church of Weird Little Pagan Island With Eldritch Tendencies, Roeg’s films sit alongside UK gothic greats like Seance On A Wet Afternoon, Black Narcissus and The Wicker Man (which Don’t Look Now was released with as part of a stellar double bil). I’ll miss him, mystic Nic.
Back in 2009 I spent an odd amount of time on my own on England’s south coast. I would catch the train to Eastbourne or Hastings and walk along the beach or drift through fish and chip shops, antique stores and arcades looking for something to happen. There was an exhibition at the then newly opened Towner Art Gallery that left an impression on me. It was about magic and modernity.
I don’t know.
It’s this mastery of the strange and dark and inexpressible that I like so much. A cinema of unseen things. And a part of this is the way Roeg messes with time. In this respect, he shat all over fellow time mage Tarkovsky, that favourite of every impressively out of joint lowzone skeptic wannabe with auteur-grandeur pretensions. Tarkovsky, the director people desperate to be taken seriously like to believe we don’t understand. Well, we do and Tarkovsky is FINE but Nic Roeg is pure esemplastic Screen.
One earlier Sunday I smoke one of my Dad’s cigarettes in a pub garden and we talk about the films we’ve watched lately as he shifts from foot to foot (here my phone autocorrects foot to door, appropriately) and I chirp about the power and breadth of horror as a genre hellbent on exploring the sticky immaterial lifeblood mess of more mundane realities. The Gothic tradition. Nods to slaughtered Greeks. Haunted mirrors for passing through. I’d just wanted Hereditary and half of a Shirley Jackson adaptation.
Never been my thing he says
That’s cuz u don’t like dealing with emotions, I say, but Sci-Fi [which he does like] and the gothic, or horror at least, they’re brethren genres! Alien is just horror in space!
That’s not true he says, I watched The Sand Pebbles and it was all about romance and tragedy! A steamer on the Yangtze river and Steve McQueen sacrificing himself for his love for Candace Bergen.
I don’t think that counts as horror for most people I say.
The day before this we spoke on the phone and he told me about a Tunisian camera operator who came out of an abusive relationship and spent a year in therapy too. She ‘got into some spirituality stuff’ he couldn’t get with. It’s the best he can do for me on the subject and it’s more than enough for now.
The patchwork and the backwork.
Whenever I visit home he’ll sit me down in front of a screen and show me somewhere between 3 and 10 minutes of several films he thinks I should see. Sometimes this is infuriating. Sometimes it’s him trying to tell me things he can’t find words to say.
You don’t need to watch Citizen Kane for this shit. The wiki stub will tell you that all your chasing gold or blue checkmark adulation gets you is a dumb sled memory and a broken snow globe. It’s the same for Jack McCann, even if he did never make a nickel on another man’s sweat.
Tracy tells a judge the truth. Mandy laughs the laugh.
Pageantry and social flush melt. Life lives in the spaces between. Sometimes it’s a kicking jubilance. Sometimes it’s in the teeth. You take what you get before the credits. Eureka.
ELLA PLEVIN is a writer and contributing editor for Spike based in London. A new installment of her online column "Escape from Prison Island" will be published every last Wednesday of the month. Last month she went trick or treating beyond the veil.