Monday, 13 October 2014

STANLEY KUBRICK: genius on tour

The sign for the Paris leg of the Kubrick exhibition, at Cinémathèque Française, uncannily brought to mind the famous ‘monolith’, the mystery at the heart of his best known and most revered film; 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intentional, no, but it signalled the right note of portent for this extraordinary show which, to date, British film fanatics have not had the chance to see.

I was fortunate enough to stumble across the show in Paris in 2011, and though reviewers should always be sparing with hyperbole, it was a show remarkable enough to get me on a place to see it again, this summer, in Krakow.

For the Kubrick aficionado, the show is a space in which to dream, but even for those less familiar with his work, it delivers something very special. The show was created by Deutsches Filmmuseum, but in association with the Kubrick estate, which means that the curators were able to assemble an unrivalled collection; the sheer quantity and variety of exhibits on display combine to offer multiple pathways into Kubrick’s films.

Extras on the set of Spartacus, each with a number so Kubrick could make miniscule adjustments to every one from behind the camera.   
There will be something here to fascinate you; for the technician there’s the installation showing the front projection sequences on 2001 were put together, or the specially commissioned Zeiss lens which allowed Kubrick to shoot Barry Lyndon by candlelight. For the screenwriting nerd there are complex diagrams of schedules and shooting scripts annotated in Kubrick’s own hand. 

For the design junky, there are the mannequins from the Korova milkbar (A Clockwork Orange), or a model of the war room from Dr Strangelove, the work of Ken Adams, the man responsible for the most stylish of early James Bond sets.

Some of the most engaging items are letters; both from Stanley Kubrick to his many collaborators, and those received by him, often from detractors; a Mrs Dobbs from Florida wrote to express ‘protest, utter dismay and complete disgust after viewing the despicable movie made by you and shown at our local theatre last week’ (and that wasn’t even about A Clockwork Orange as you might expect, but Dr Strangelove).

But it was the ephemera from 2001 that stopped me in my tracks. We’re given the chance to get up close and personal with an ape suit from the Dawn of Man sequences. Completely terrifying: the aggression modelled into the ape’s face brings back memories of that ‘primogenital’ murder, as one of our distant ancestors discovers the first tool, and that tool is a weapon. Next to the ape, the helmet of Dave Bowman’s space suit. It takes an effort of will to look at this icon and remember that it is not real, and that it never went into space. Kubrick employed two ex-NASA scientists on the movie in order to get this, and countless other aspects of space travel, accurate. Such was Kubrick’s drive for perfection.

That perfectionism is legendary; stories about the dictatorial auteur abound. There is a similarity to Hitchcock in this regard; Hitchcock was the British director who went to work in America, Kubrick was the American who came to work in the UK, both shared an absolute belief in control and detail. Hitchcock, for example, claimed never to need to look at a script once shooting had started, he knew it by heart by the time that first day of principal shooting came by. What that allowed him to do was focus on how he was going to get the best from his actors, from his cameraman; he already knew what shots he was going to ask for.

Like all legends there is an element of truth to it, and an element of fiction. What’s clear from the items on display is that Kubrick possessed an intense desire to get it right; to get what he wanted on film. Making films is a complex business, in order to get exactly what he wanted he sometimes went to extreme lengths. He once said that the reason that so many bad films were made in Hollywood was not that people wanted to make bad films, that there were many well-intentioned people trying to make good films. The reason they make bad ones is that the problem, as he put it, ‘lies in their heads, not in their hearts’. By which he meant that it’s the entire structure of Hollywood that mitigate against good film-making. To break through this takes an enormous feat of will.

But what’s also clear from the show is Kubrick’s gentler, human side; for example in utterly polite, considered responses to the Mrs Dobbs of the world. Here is a man, after all, who during the production of 2001 was so concerned that IBM might be offended by what he was doing that he wrote to reassure them of his good intentions.

Like Hitchcock, Kubrick was also intensely aware of the fact that form can create content. The restrictions of a structure, the limitations of budget, far from limiting the artist can paradoxically sometimes lead to greater creativity. To take just one example; the original intention for the sequences at the end of 2001 were for us to actually ‘meet’ the alien presences behind the monolith. As shooting wore on, and overran, there simply became a pressing financial need to finish the movie. Arthur C Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Kubrick put their heads together, and instead of actually seeing these aliens, we are left with the mysterious ‘Star Child’ sequence, which I can’t help feeling is an utterly more successful end that the original might have been (if you felt the anti-climax when little grey men wander out of the awe-inspiring ship in Close Encounters and you might agree).

Kubrick, to the New York Times in 1968 on 2001: A Space Odyssey;

“Essentially the film is mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific literal interpretation.”

I said above that reviewers should avoid unnecessary hyperbole, and yet I still have to say that this is not only the best exhibition about film that I have seen; it’s probably the finest exhibition of any kind I’ve had the chance to experience.

If you’re interested in seeing the show, well, sadly for those on British shores it now moves further away; to Toronto, but even that might be worth the trip. After that, you’ll have to go to Seoul. At some point, surely, it must come to Kubrick’s adoptive home; so write to your MP, Christiane Kubrick, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever it takes to get this most absorbing of shows to come to town, and sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

'Where' I write...

This post first appeared in The Guardian

As a writer, there’s a process that somewhere occurs in your head; a collision between the fantasy space of your imagination and the outside world, in the form of the things that have directly or indirectly inspired your book.

Marcus Sedgwick, author in his shed (but is he?)

Much of the time, this collision occurs while I’m actually in my writing shed, putting words on virtual paper. The space in my shed I see as an exterior manifestation of my imagination – at any given time the walls are heavy with clippings, doodles, photos and words all connected to whatever book I’m working on. And yet, I’m aware that while writing, I might be physically in my shed, but some part of my mind is travelling again, to those places that inspired the story.

A room of one’s own
The Ghosts of Heaven is a book of four quarters, each set in a different time, and a different place, and with a different mood. What connects them is the image of the spiral. This is a book that has taken me a long time to write; what follows are some photographs of the places that gave birth to various elements in the book.

A cave on a hillside. 

This hillside cave happens to be in Snowdonia, but it doesn’t really matter – I liked the primal feel of the place. I took this photo with a long exposure, which accounts for the streaks, which I like; it gives it a sense of the mysterious. Whispers in the Dark is the section of the book set in the prehistory, and features a girl on the cusp of making the connection between a mark on a cave wall and the spoken word; when she does, she will effectively have invented writing.

(Modern) spiral rock carvings, near Lausanne, Switzerland.

The spiral is one of the six groups of forms known to archaeolgists as entoptic shapes, perhaps derived from natural illusory shapes ‘seen’ by the eye in the absence of light. They can be found in the artistic creations of our most distant ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago.

‘Fairy tree’, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall. 

The section of the book called The Witch in the Water takes place in a Yorkshire dale in the early 18th century. The witch-hunts were more or less over by this time but this story focuses about a very late episode in that dark history. A couple of years ago I was teaching a creative writing course at the wonderful Arvon Foundation, and feeling like a fraud because my own writing wasn’t going well at the time. On a walk in the valley one afternoon I came across this tree. I don’t know if it’s really called a fairy tree, but it ought to be. Folklore is full of the concept of things passing through gateways and boundaries, and if the local people didn’t see this tree with its ‘hole’ as a magical entity, I would be very surprised.

The valley at Lumb Bank, home to one of the Arvon Foundation’s beautiful centres. 

The part of the book called The Easiest Room in Hell is set on Long Island in the 1920s. This part of the book evolved from an interest I’d developed in the derelict insane asylums (as they used to be called) of North America.

This is one of those that have been saved, or part of it anyway. What was once the Danvers State Hospital (Massachusetts, US) is now a swanky apartment block. One wonders about the dreams to be had in such a place.
With a nice touch of serendipity, I discovered that many of these old hospitals had spiral staircases in them, central to the theme of the book. Here’s one of them; the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, New York, which contains a beautiful staircase. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but there are some amazing ones on the net, both as the building is now, and in its derelict state before renovation.

Here’s one of these old hospitals; the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, New York, which contains a beautiful staircase. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but there are some amazing ones on the net, both as the building is now, and in its derelict state before renovation. 

This part of the book is also heavily influenced by that most maligned of American writers; the creator of dark fictions and occult beings, H.P. Lovecraft. I made a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to see both his family home, and his grave marker; which bears the kind of inscription we can but aspire to.

H P Lovecraft’s childhood home, Providence, Rhode Island, US.
Lovecraft’s grave marker reads simply with his name, dates and the legend “I AM PROVIDENCE”. Like many other fans, I left a quarter behind as a token. 
The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed in this asylum in Salem, OR.
The hospital at Danvers, like this one above in Salem, Oregon, on the other side of the States, are two examples of Kirkbride hospitals. The brainchild of Dr Thomas Kirkbride, he envisaged a whole new approach to the care of the mentally ill, a key part of which was the architecture of the hospitals themselves; light, airy and with room to remain human.

The hospital in Salem, famous as both the setting and later filming location of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another hospital that has been saved – it’s now a social heritage museum.

Inside a derelict psychiatric hospital, Long Island, New York. 
I decided to make up a Kirkbride of my own, setting one out on the distant shores of Long Island – part of Kirkbride’s plan was to move away from dark and grim places in the city to sites in the countryside where the open air and healthy aspect would have a beneficial effect on the patients.

The shores of Long Island. 

I can’t show you pictures of the inspiration for the remaining quarter of the book, called The Song of Destiny, since it takes place aboard a ship venturing into deep space. The ship is the first voyage travelling to colonise a new planet.

Instead, to finish here’s a spiral staircase, this one from the Pantheon in Paris. Spiral staircases are some of the most beautiful architectural creations, be they simple, or ornate, and for me, they are the ultimate metaphor.

All photographs: © Marcus Sedgwick

My new book The Ghosts of Heaven is available at the Guardian bookshop

Monday, 15 September 2014

The oldest story in the world

What is the oldest story in the world? How can we possibly know what the first story was? What would it have looked like? Would we recognise it as a story, and would anything in it mean anything to us today?

These are questions that in all probability cannot be answered definitively, but I'm going to try to make a case here for what the original story was, and then (eventually) talk a little about my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven.

It might seem like an impossible task to go so far back in time - it's even hard to find the original version of stories that we know, or think we know, well. This is something I found out when writing My Swordhand is Singing. I was trying to find the oldest vampire story, the very first one. In terms of printed, published books, it's relatively easy to drift back before Stoker, Le Fanu, and even Polidori and Byron to Ossenfelder's poem The Vampire of 1748, but once we realise that since all these tales were inspired by existing folk stories, it becomes much harder to pin down their origins. I followed vampire stories back to their origins in Eastern Europe, but the truth is that vampire-like stories have been told in most cultures, all around the world, since time immemorial (what a great phrase - "unremembered time").

Looking at really old stories, like Bible stories, we might think we know roughly when and who wrote them - for example, Noah and the flood, until we learn that that story was based on an even older flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, of Mesopotamian legend. This story is based on sources that are over four thousand years old according to some.

The tablet in the British Museum recounting the story of Gilgamesh and the flood.

And once we start to discover that many cultures around the world have some version of a flood story, we might begin to wonder whether that's just coincidence or whether there was a indeed a great flood event, or events, that inspired people to tell these kinds of tales. We might also start to realise that we have probably been telling the same stories over and over again, throughout our history, recast in different ways, depending on the times in which we're living.

There's nothing wrong with that, and nothing so amazing about that, in itself, but I do love the implication of this idea; that stories we know well today have unbelievably ancient origins. Let's look, for example, at stories from Greek mythology, such as Theseus and the Minotaur, or Orpheus in the underworld. We know that the Greeks began to write their stories as long as 2,700 years ago, but once again, that many elements were based on even older stories from earlier cultures. What the stories of Theseus and Orpheus have in common is the notion of a journey into a dark space, in order to confront death. As they say, the Greeks had a word for it, and that word is katabasis. But once again, we find that the Sumerians had beaten them to it; Gilgamesh himself made a voyage to the underworld on his quest for immortality.

What's striking here is that these are not just old stories that we get told in primary school and then, unless we become an archaeologist, anthropologist or Assyriologist, forget all about. The proof of that is to be found in the number of modern retellings of a story like Orpheus in the underworld; from the 13th century Breton 'lay' Sir Orfeo, to what is regarded to be the very first opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, through to modern times; Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (which gave us the tune now known commonly known as the can-can), to Jean Cocteau's film trilogy, even to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge which (with a nod back to Offenbach) the director saw as a being a parallel to the ancient Greek story - the hero has to enter the 'underworld' (in this case, Montmartre during the Belle Epoque) in order to rescue his doomed love.

Why do such stories last? Why are they so powerful? For me, it's all to do with Darwin. Just as species thrive or fail under the pressures of natural selection, so must stories; the good ones survive, the weak ones are told no more. What makes a good story is of course an question for another day, but one essential element must be that they tell us about ourselves in some way. They tell us what it is to be human, to experience human emotion, and so on. It's a fair assumption then that the old stories that stood the test of time are ones which directly related to our experience of being human, to our earliest and most primal emotions and fears.

So what is the oldest story? What does it look like? I'm guessing that it looked something like this:

As we sat around a fire-pit, there must have been some powerful primal experiences that we were driven to encounter, and one of them will have been to venture into a cave. We know that many early hominids lived in and around caves. Our earliest examples of art are the extraordinary paintings of places such as Chauvet, Altamira, or Blombos, where engraved ochre dated to as old as 100,000 years before the present day has been found.

Chauvet, France

Altamira, Spain

Blombos, South Africa
We needed the cave, as a place of safety and of shelter, and yet, venturing in for the first time must have been always been a tense moment of fear; what would be found inside? A cave lion? A bear? Or perhaps, nothing, and a new safe place to camp would have been welcomed.

Think of Theseus venturing into the dark labyrinth to fight the beast inside. Think of the connotations of the cave as being the entrance to the underworld, and Orpheus venturing to confront Death itself. Think of a stone age homo sapiens entering the dark cave, to return triumphant, or to meet a terrible death. That story must have been told and retold, round the fire-pit, since the very earliest days of Mankind.

If you're still with me, here's a video that captures the flavour of The Ghosts of Heaven, one quarter of which is set in the world I have just been describing; a stone age community. Since it's now known that a lot of the cave art was made by juveniles' children and teenagers, the section of the book called Whispers in the Dark takes a young woman as the hero, a young woman who is on the verge of doing something vital to the development of our species. She's about to make the connection between the spoken word and a mark, be it a mark on a cave wall with a piece of charcoal, or in the sand by the fireside. When she does that, she will have made the first steps on the road to the development of writing, and without writing, there can be no civilisation. Writing enables us to do several things; it allows us to pass meaning on to people either distant in space, or in time. It enables us to remember. It enables us to instruct, to educate and to copy: and copying is essential to civilisation too, because without copying we could not build on what our ancestors had achieved before us, something that is the utmost foundation of civilisation.

So here's The Ghosts of Heaven:

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Don’t call it glory

Some thoughts on writing a story for Walker Books' anthology The Great War. This piece first appeared in Carousel magazine.

In 2005 I published a novel set during the First World War; The Foreshadowing. Set in 1916, the denouement of the novel takes places during an engagement of the Battle of the Somme. This, and the novel in general, required me to do a lot of research, but about halfway through this period of reading and travelling and learning about the war, I had a sudden crisis: I don’t know exactly what brought it on, but I know when and where it happened. I was staying the night in a converted monastery in a small town in Picardy, having gone to scout the locations in the novel, when I had a nightmare. In the dream, the souls of the dead from the war rose up and were angry with me: how dare you turn our suffering into your pale fictions?! We were those who died; you will now profit from it! They railed at me and shouted curses; it was a truly disturbing dream.

Awake, the next day, I realised what it meant – I’d been feeling uneasy for some time about what is, after all, the essential act of a writer: to take truths, and make lies of them. Paradoxically, we do that to use those lies to tell truths, truths about life, but in the case of writing about the war, I felt anxious over the way as a writer of war fiction I had immersed myself in an ocean of awful things. As you read about war, it’s so easy to get swept along in the pornography of horror: as you learn about this horrendous battle, or some specific death, as you shudder from the comfort of your armchair about gas attacks, and lice, and amputations, and drowning in mud, it’s easy to become addicted to finding out just one more awful, awful thing.

I finished that book, however. It was too late to do otherwise, and I just tried my best not to glorify any aspect of war, at all, in any way. I also swore that I would not write on the war ever again. I was also immediately distrustful of novels that ‘use’ the Holocaust as a way of engendering absolute bad into the story. What worse horror can there be than the Holocaust? How easy then to give your book the power it might otherwise lack? This is a big subject and I have limited space here; let me just acknowledge that this is a complicated issue, but one that I feel strongly and very uneasy about.
I turned down three other requests to write a story about the First World War for publication in 2014. I finally agreed to Walker’s invitation, thinking it sounded a bit different from other more obvious projects, but even then, I was on the verge of picking up the phone two or three times to pull out.
The essence of the problem, in addition to the easy pornography of horror that I describe above, is this: war is senseless. Episodes of conflict do not have neat beginnings, trajectories, and endings. In short, they are not stories. But to make them work as a story you have to give them all those things. Francois Truffaut, the great French director, famously said, ‘you can’t make an anti-war film.’ What he meant is that any attempt to ‘storify’ a war turns it into something that it isn’t: neat, satisfying, conclusive, even if it’s saturated in horror and anti-war rhetoric. There are perhaps a couple of exceptions; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is almost without plot. It doesn’t follow a narrative arc; it does as close as job as possible to catching the senselessness of war.
Deciding I had left it too late to let Walker down, the challenge remained of how to write a war story when war is not a story. My solution was to find a way to talk about all these things but still, I hope, have a story that captured the reader.

It’s very important, when discussing such potent subjects, that we don’t get dragged into simplistic and divisive arguments – these are complex issues and complex arguments must be given space. It’s my fear that certain quarters of the media and of government are already using the centenary with relish to foist jingoistic emotions onto us. Feelings that should have died a hundred years ago as the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas got stuck in the mud of France and Belgium. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t remember. We absolutely must remember. But how we remember is vital, and that’s why I chose the title of my story for this anthology: Don’t Call It Glory.