Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Green Man

Recently I visited Norwich Cathedral, intrigued by the fact that it possesses more medieval bosses than any other church in Christendom. In total over one thousand sculpted and colourfully painted scenes from the Bible are depicted upon its ceilings, including many examples of  the 'Green Man' in its cloisters.

The Green Man is an elusive figure in Christian iconography. Often portrayed as a man with foliage spouting abundantly from his mouth or peeping from behind vegetable growth,  lurking or hidden from immediate view, there is no real explanation as to why this clearly pagan symbol frequents Christian churches.

Its been proposed that the Green Man  represents the natural cycle of mortal life, birth and death, or perhaps is the spirit or god of the yearly renewal of life; no-one really knows why this pagan symbol can be found in many Christian churches; its mythological meaning has been lost in the mists of  time and  scientific literalism. Equally intriguing is the fact that during the iconoclasm of the Reformation, when images of God, the Saints and the Virgin were gouged, defaced and broken in many Churches,  images of the Green Man remained unscathed. 

Norwich Cathedral did not escape from the iconoclasm of the Reformation. Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656)  described the events  which took place in 1643  at  Norwich Cathedral thus-

'Lord, what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows and graves... and what a hideous triumph on the market-day before all the country, when, in a kind of sacrilegious and profane procession, all the organ-pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had been newly sawn down from over the Greenyard pulpit, and the service-books and singing-books... were carried to the fire in the public marketplace; a lewd wretch walking before the train in his cope trailing in the dirt, with a service book in his hand, imitating in an impious scorn the tune, and usurping the words of the litany used formerly in the church... the cathedral open on all sides ... filled with musketeers.. drinking and tobacconing as freely as if it had turned alehouse.'

Colour along with number is  primordial of all symbols and a vast subject to discourse upon.  The colour green is  associated with naivete in colloquial speech and more importantly, with ecological awareness and  the growing political movement for the responsible care of the planet.

The psychologist C.G. Jung associated the colour green with  life, hope and the sensation function, quoting the alchemical tract Rosarium philosophorum (1550) thus-

O blessed green, which givest birth to all things, whence know that no vegetable  and no fruit appears in the bud but that it hath a green colour. Likewise know that the generation of this thing is green, for which reason the Philosophers have called it a bud.' 

All of which gets one no closer towards understanding why the mysterious symbol of the Green Man can be found in many Churches in England and throughout Europe!  

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

During the week-end I viewed again, 'The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes' (2005) directed by the brothers Quay.

The Pennsylvanian-born twins, Timothy and Stephen Quay (b. 1947 ) are best known for their short-length, highly original animation films. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1969 they have been based mainly in London.

The sources of the brothers Quay's influences and references are diverse and esoteric, including much from East European culture, in particular originating from the art, film-makers, graphic designers and writers of Prague, such as the film-maker Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006), the authors Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and animator Jan Svankmajer (b.1934).

In their short animated film 'The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer' (1984) homage is made to the Czech pioneer of stop-start film animation. It also features a re-construction of a fantasy character by the illusionist painter, Archimboldo (1530-93) entitled 'The Librarian'. Archimboldo was a favoured Court painter of Rudolph II (1552-1612) the Holy Roman Emperor who was fascinated with alchemy and whose Imperial court attracted talents such as the English occultist John Dee.

The curious artifacts in museums such as Rudolph II's 'Wunderkammer', along with medical collections and psychiatric art-work as well as obsolete mechanical contraptions also feature as inspiration at the court of the Quays. Lesser esoteric artistic projects have involved their creativity in the world of television advertising in which their distinctive animation is instantly recognizable.

The brothers Quay second full-length film incorporates all the strangeness of their peculiar and bizarre automaton with a fine supporting cast and a near surreal plot. The film opens with a quote by the Roman historian Sallust: "These things never happen, but are always." Its an enigmatic and multi-layered story which concerns the fate of a famous opera singer Malvina van Stille (Amira Casar). On the evening before her wedding to Adolfo, (Cesar Sarachu) whilst singing an aria from Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus entitled, 'For so he gives his beloved dreams',  she seemingly dies and is abducted by Doctor Droz to his remote Mediterranean villa, cum sanatorium, where she is revivified. Near-mute, veiled and hypnotized, she remains under Dr. Droz's spell. The mysterious character of Dr. Droz has echoes of Prospero, Svengali, Caligari, Mabuse and Frankenstein all rolled into one. Acted by Gottfried John, a German actor who frequently appeared in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films, the mad genius of Dr. Droz is portrayed with a droll, dry sophistication. Dr Droz is also the sinister master of a small gang of robotic odd-job men at his villa who at turns are gardeners, henchmen and stage-performers. Droz invites a piano tuner named Filberto (Cesar Sarachu in a dual role) to his Villa, to inspect his seven hydraulically operated automata, while also preparing to stage a 'diabolical opera' unlike any other with Malvina performing.

Early in the film there is an allusion to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a force of nature which rumbles ominously in the back-ground to the disturbing automata Filberto is challenged to maintain. The piano tuner is distracted from his task by the seductive attentions of the beautiful maid, Assumptia (Assumptia Serna). It is however Filberto's fatal attraction towards Dr. Droz's silent, veiled patient, Malvina which proves to be the nemesis of his eventual, astounding fate.

As ever with the brothers Quays rich pot-pourri of sources and references are involved. The plot of Adolfo Bioy's novella, 'The Invention of Morel' and Jules Verne's story, 'The Carpathian Castle' are both cited as literary influences upon the plot. However, like the Surrealists before them, the brothers Quay exploration of the workings of the unconscious psyche, along with show-casing their highly-original creativity is foremost among their artistic preoccupations. The crowning artistic glory of 'The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes' is that the clockwork, cogs and strings of the Quay's strange automata and puppets feature as an integral part of the film's story.

In a short scene featuring one of the brothers Quay marvellous automata, the grinding teeth and writhing tongue of a grotesque figure occurs in Filberto's dream, a highly suggestive allusion to the distorted and unconscious perspective of the senses whilst asleep. In fact 'The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes', like several of the Quay's animation shorts, contains a succession of dream-like images which can react upon and disturb the complacency of the viewer's unconscious psyche.

Described as 'a hermetic vision which is as beautifully seductive as it is chillingly inaccessible, with mise-en-scene like a baroque painting by an Old Master', by one film critic, don't expect to see a film with lots of action, dialogue and a simple plot to follow. Do however expect an exquisitely photographed, rich in tonal palate, well-acted film in which fascinating animation is featured, all conjured by the brothers Quay. It's a film which may well leave you wondering about the nature of illusion and dreams and which may engender a fascination, not unlike one of Dr.Droz's automata which compels one to return to view its surrealistic tale again! In brief, as time will surely demonstrate, a 21st century master-piece of cinema!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The City of Lost Children

'The City of Lost Children' (1995) is a highly imaginative blend of fantasy, science-fiction and fairy-story by the French film-makers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Set in a dystopian world of steel-grey docklands and a phosphorescent green sea, the action involves a semi-robotic gang of one-eyed henchmen called Cyclops who kidnap children for the evil Doctor Krank (Daniel Emilfork) to 'feed' upon their dreams. The crazy doctor Krank is the resident of a sea-rig laboratory along with Uncle Irvin, a disembodied brain who floats in an aquarium and six identical cloned brothers, amazingly filmed and acted by Dominique Pinon.

When Krank's hench-men the Cyclops, kidnap the young brother of circus strong-man One (Ron Perlman), he unites with Miette (Judith Vittet), the ring-leader of a gang of children who are the enforced subjects of sadistic and conjoined school-mistresses, to rescue him. The blossoming romance between the adult strong-man One and the nine-year old orphan heroine Miette is particularly touching, challenging and transcending taboo notions of relationships between child and adult.

Together Jeunet and Caro conjure up an imaginative and claustrophobic landscape in which sets, special effects, photography, fast narrative pace and performances equally contribute to a brilliant film. It's a self-contained world in which lugubrious fog-horns, low-tech mechanisms and humorous sequences of cause and effect occur. Among the many inventive special effects throughout the film the sight of a Titanic-sized ocean-liner crashing through dock-lands, is particularly stunning.

Not unlike Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil' (1985) and their earlier collaboration, also set in a dystopia, 'Delicatessen' (1990) Jenet and Caro's artistic agenda is in essence a discourse upon the world of appearances and the loss of soul in the modern world. As the credits roll the sound-track features the distinctive voice of Marianne Faithfull singing, 'Who will take your dreams away?'

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Plums are just about ripe now. They are another fond memory of childhood summers spent with my Grandmother.

My garden still has the statutory two fruit trees planted by a progressive City Council for every tenancy almost nearly 60 years ago. The pear-tree is a bit decrepit now, but one can't imagine social-housing planning planting fruit-trees for tenants anymore. However the Norwich Labour Party's fruit-tree scheme was more of a remedial measure to ease the malnutrition and poverty of the working population. For although the City of Norwich can boast of being England's second City circa 1400-1700, historically it has also for centuries been recorded as one of the lowest paid regions of the UK.

Peacock and Speckled Wood

After a month of overcast, rainy weather, summer and butterflies return! The gaudy and gorgeous peacock Inachis io loves to feed on buddleia.

In contrast to the peacock's bold markings the camouflage of the speckled wood Parage aegeria tircis, snapped in my garden today.