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SHAMEN OF DISCONTENT OR THE REVENGE OF THE MIRROR PEOPLE: A Detective Story In Four Acts
When I appeared in The Falconer, the second of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit’s strangely convoluted film trilogy about hidden cultural memory and its avatars, I found myself sucked into an underworld of allusion, repetition and false trails. I resurfaced seriously damaged, but no sooner had I done so than Mute hired me to go back and solve the still uncracked enigma of the project.
ACT I: The Corpse in the Editing Basement
Inside the London mediascape one might hear the not quite fictional docudramas of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit dismissed as essays in cultural incest. That is, if anybody involved with the electronic prison that is contemporary television actually deigns to mention them. Exiled to graveyard shifts on Channel 4, Sinclair and Petit’s films The Cardinal and the Corpse, The Falconer and Asylum have met with ongoing and studied indifference from the very people who bankrolled the projects – culminating in the failure of the commissioning editor of the last to even come and watch the finished version. Yet ironically, as Sinclair himself points out, this willful forgetting perfectly duplicates the content of the films themselves.
More of an accidental collision than a trilogy, the three works blend fiction and documentary to trace, revamp and recover the directors’ heroes of the reforgotten – writers so obtuse that their reputations, like anti-matter, defy the laws of gravity. The films are a montage of images and sounds in which Petit’s video footage is occasionally supplemented by reels of out-of-date super 8 stock. The Cardinal and the Corpse, which kicked off the cycle in 1992, was made with a regular TV crew on the insistence of Channel 4. In the next two, however, loose camerawork is overlaid with Dave McKean’s computer graphics. Both The Falconer and Asylum are anti-narratives about doubles and echoes. The stories run backwards, repeat, fold in on themselves and are interrupted by bursts of white noise (courtesy of Bruce Gilbert). Asylum piles up images and soundbites; it conjures complexity through the simple expedient of linking divergent worlds. Pseudo-surveillance footage is cut against vox pop interviews with Marina Warner, Ed Dorn, James Sallis and Michael Moorcock. The material is constantly twisted and thrown into a loop. One minute the notions of the Byronic hero and fatal woman from Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony are being aphoristically collapsed into the silent figure of photographer Francoise Lacroix (light bends as it approaches Lacroix; she is always and already playing herself); the next moment viewers are confronted by a dialectic of distantly related imagery drawn from American slasher movies. Throughout runs the promise that something is being tracked down: memory, perhaps, or history, or the meaning of the films themselves. We’re never told.
The full implications of participating in a Sinclair project are unlikely to be understood by anyone who is called upon to do so. A bizarre amalgam of a gangster and a deconstructionist, he invites representatives of the reforgotten to present mythological versions of themselves to Petit in his role as evil cameraman and collector of souls. The grotesque resonances recorded on film are reworked until the subjects under investigation are morphed into a state of permanent non-existence as far as recognition goes. As a result, the subculture of the reforgotten takes on the aspect of an underworld of interconnected ‘agents’ (most of whom are personally acquainted with each other – hence the cultural incest tag), into which investigators are drawn and swallowed with alarming regularity.
Over the years I’ve met nearly everyone featured in Sinclair and Petit’s films. I was even called upon myself to perform a paranoid rant in The Falconer. Now, though, I wanted to turn investigator: to discover how far this convoluted mirror-world of life doubling art doubling life extended, and if it was possible to escape it.
It wasn’t. In retracing Sinclair’s retracings, in recovering his recoveries and unearthing his suppressed links, I ended up chasing my own tale and investigating my own investigation.
ACT II: Haven’t we met before?
When I finally tracked Sinclair down to a quiet street in south-west Hackney, he mythologised the process of making Asylum. Listening to him was at times disconcertingly like talking to myself. This is not an altogether surprising state of affairs given that within Asylum he’d taken on the role of paranoid novelist which had been allotted to me in The Falconer. Since Asylum he’d slipped into a role whose contours were formed by the task of editing the film, his memories remodelled on lines auto-suggested by the long hours of intellectual labour he’d put into the project. “From the point of view of working with Chris Petit on Asylum,” he told me, “it was particularly strange because it had got to the point where he was almost agoraphobic. He had to work at home, so he was really bunkered down with a hired suite in which to edit. Channel 4 were forever more remote. Keith Griffiths, the producer, we didn’t see from beginning to end. So we were carrying out this mysterious project that became very much like the film. We didn’t know what level of actuality we could grant it, since it didn’t seem to be in the faintest bit real. It felt like a conspiracy.”
I tracked back to The Cardinal and the Corpse. Upon completion in 1992, Sinclair told me, this project immediately disappeared into a black hole of total obscurity: “The commissioning editor blanked it. He couldn’t even understand the credits, so the programme was just pushed out and ignored.” The Cardinal was sold to Channel 4 on the back of Petit having made a successful documentary about air hostesses and the growing critical acclaim for Sinclair’s work as a novelist. It was a pirate project successfully smuggled into the corporate media world thanks to assorted TV bosses wrongly imagining the programme would be a presenter-led talking head trip through heritage lowlife. Instead they got a bunch of maniacs shouting each other down and spinning off in several different directions at once. The film featured a good number of the perennially reforgotten, including Alan Moore, Emanuel Litvinoff, Alexander Baron, Robin Cook, John Latham and Michael Moorcock. However, the show was stolen by two used book dealers called Driffield and Stone. Naturally, trendy London media types had never heard of these unsavoury flim-flam men, and had no use for them.
Sinclair and Petit had to wait six years before The Falconer was screened by Channel 4 in 1998. The Falconer was supposed to pick up from where The Cardinal left off, but was hijacked by a man named Peter Whitehead and the convenient backlog of images with which he blitzes anyone who shows the slightest interest in him. Depending on which version of Whitehead’s life you got (and from whom), he was either an underrated underground film-maker (Wholly Communion/Tonight Let’s Make Love In London &c.), a self-proclaimed occultist, a self-published novelist or (only slightly less plausibly) the man whose testimony led to the jailing of top pot smuggler Howard Marks. Sinclair recalls packages with fresh revisions of Whitehead’s past arriving daily throughout the film making process. “The material for The Falconer was gathered over a period of two years,” he told me, “and this was followed by a spell of intense editing which included a lot of refilming and redrafted voice-overs.” With a multiplicity of competing voices and presences, The Falconer became a series of minor set pieces and portraits of people hung on the utterly bogus structure of an investigation into Whitehead’s auto-mythology. At one point we even see him on a TV chat-show claiming to have copulated with live falcons – at which point McKean sends a computer-animated falcon-woman in to caress the outline of his image.
The innocents who appeared in The Falconer – including both Kathy Acker and myself – had no idea how their monologues would be doctored. Neither, apparently, did Sinclair and Petit. Allegedly, the two film-makers found out as they went along that Francoise Lacroix looked fantastic when she walked across the screen, but her voice was so quiet it didn’t register on their sound equipment. My own motor-mouthed performance was supposed to represent a serious attempt at portraying a paranoid schizophrenic who believed the absurd conspiracy theories he was spouting. However, I played my semi-scripted role for laughs, and the way I let rip with ridiculous inventive about some sinister (and entirely fictional) occult activities of the Royal Family created a film within a film.
The problems that beset the film became its content too. When Francoise Lacroix decided she was sick of the endless filming and went off to Norfolk to work on a series of landscape photographs, Chris Petit’s girlfriend Emma Matthews got sucked into the picture (more cultural incest). Matthews had already been hired to edit it, so it was decided she’d be sent out after the missing story and that her search for it would form the action for the film’s last section. Her mission was to pretend she was unable to trace the absent Lacroix, who’d temporarily relocated to Cromer. Then, at some point after signing a release form, Peter Whitehead got cold feet about the entire project. The most visible result of this was a rather hysterical account of the film by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. However, Sinclair tells far stranger tales: “Historic Scotland got on the phone to Keith Griffiths and said they’d been called by a man who’d informed them that there’d been black magick rituals enacted at Callanish stone circle involving incest and child sacrifice. They took it completely seriously and said a major investigation would have to be launched. This was all stemming from Whitehead, who said that he himself had done this ceremony to draw down the cosmic Falconer, and in his view to cause those mysterious Chinook crashes that occurred nearby shortly afterwards.” In the film, Whitehead is shown swinging dead prey to lure falcons above his head at the Callanish stones – and this, supposedly, is also powerful magick that makes planes malfunction and UFOs materialise.
Asylum echoes and paraphrases The Falconer as if the films were doubles or twins: Emma Matthews is still searching for the missing Lacroix, Marina Warner and Ed Dorn stand in for Kathy Acker, Michael Moorcock takes the place of Peter Whitehead. “We got Asylum launched on the back of The Falconer,” Sinclair confided to me. “The Falconer started life as an Arts Council project. Channel 4 became entangled because they decided to involve themselves in the series of cultural research films of which it was originally a part. The Falconer was an accidental project for Channel 4. However, Michael Jackson made speeches saying this was the way he wanted TV to go. The subtext being that he wanted cheap television, people going out with video cameras and making films for very little money. He didn’t really want something as complex or expensive as The Falconer. I’m not sure if the people who commissioned Asylum understood this. In the original scripts we presented for Asylum, it was portrayed as us visiting Michael Moorcock in America and dealing with the theme of exile. Somewhere along the way the American poet Ed Dorn came over here and did a reading, and I just thought he’s really good, we’ve got to have him in it. So we got Ed Dorn and as usual the story invented itself.”
ACT III: “There’s just one thing bugging me, Mr. Sinclair…”
As I interrogated Sinclair, I began to suspect that there was another suppressed link at work here. Sinclair readily admitted he’d written a short book for the British Film Institute about Crash (he’d been commissioned to explicate David Cronenberg’s movie of that name, but his real focus was the novel by J. G. Ballard on which the flick was based). Moorcock, who is the shadowy, shamanic figure tracked in Asylum as a portal into the underworld of the reforgotten, was also the editor who first published Ballard’s prototype car sex fiction in the sci-fi digest New Worlds back in the nineteen sixties. When pressed Sinclair confessed: “Moorcock told me anecdotes about his period of collaboration with Ballard which were quite striking and gave an interpretation of the book Crash which I hadn’t really thought of. So as I was assembling the very cut up form of my book about Crash, the same ideas passed over into Asylum. In a way, I was doing to Mike what he had done to Ballard.”
I put it to Sinclair that his BFI book Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-mortem on J. G. Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of Fate’ might be read as suggesting that Moorcock was the inspiration for Ballard’s manic visionary Vaughan (a man who gets his jollies re-enacting car crashes involving the rich and famous). ‘Between the lines,’ he replied shiftily, ‘there is this sense that Moorcock led a wild life and that Ballard came from the suburbs to visit him. I don’t think that in terms of the writing of Crash Ballard was actually basing Vaughan on Moorcock, but for my own reasons I chased this Vaughan theme. The Heathrow footage in Asylum is a version of Crash made for pedestrians. It goes through the same territory as Ballard but on foot, and that’s quite funny because I see a lot of parallels between Chris Petit and Ballard. Petit’s novel Robinson is a very Ballardian book. His feature film Radio On is also very Ballardian. In a way Asylum took Chris back through that same territory but on foot.”
Just as I thought I was getting somewhere, possibly even extracting some specifics from the notoriously evasive Sinclair, he shifted perspective and changed the points of reference. Vaughan (or was it Moorcock?) became the All-American serial killer and inspiration for a thousand slasher films, Ed Gein: “You couldn’t get at what Moorcock was through hearing him talk. He is very isolated and his conversation comes in these huge loops and twists that go backwards and forwards over the same memories. It rained all the time we were at Moorcock’s place. It was pitch dark and Chris was completely burnt out listening to Mike talk, so I said to Linda Moorcock as we left: ‘Just get a couple of shots on your camera.’ She took this shot and he pulled this face, and I looked at it and I thought: ‘This is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ I didn’t set out to get this shot but once I had it, I recognised where it fitted. Moorcock became this figure stashed away in a house in middle America, which had a reading in terms of slasher movies and serial killers. I think Mike is a very genial person, but to arrive at that darker side was interesting because it is there in his fiction.”
ACT IV: Lost in the Hall of Mirrors
Sinclair kept presenting me with variations on the theme of Asylum being a mirror, or double, or echo, of the lives of those implicated in it: “Nobody knows what is fiction and what is documentary fact any longer. We’ve had people making documentaries that were actually faked. Asylum caught the backlash of this by doing the opposite. Channel 4 didn’t know who Ed Dorn was. They had vaguely heard of Marina Warner. Moorcock was pretty much forgotten for them, but he began to get some publicity because of his new novel King of the City. Who or what he was they had no idea. Channel 4 wanted proof that everything we said about Moorcock was true, when Mike’s whole life has been entirely to do with inventing versions of himself that are mythical. The commissioning editor made four separate appointments to come and see the finished film and never turned up to any of them. I simply don’t understand the kind of thinking that leads someone to commission a film without wanting to support it. However, that mind set fits very well with the paranoia of the film.”
Thus while liberal pundits bleat on about postmodern culture being too knowing, the champions of the reforgotten are perhaps rather slyly suggesting that our world isn’t ironic enough. Amid the relentless onslaught of ambiguities, contradictions and omissions, the value of Asylum is easy to miss. Sinclair and Petit are shamen of discontent. Their shameless repetitions amount to a strategy of anti-provocation. They’ve diagnosed our culture’s relentless drive towards closure as a pathological trait and are administering a cure. The dense texture and unabashed referentiality of their work results in it being ignored as an affront to those who believe that dumbing down is the best way of responding to increasing market segmentation. The message of Asylum and the various works that preceded it, if they can be said to have a ‘message’ at all, may or may not be ‘sod the market’. Regardless, Sinclair and Petit’s film work can certainly be seen as radical process that won’t easily be recuperated into marketing spin. As a procedure of resistance this is considerably more sophisticated than the ‘fuck you’ attitudinising that connotes ‘cutting edge’ status in the mass media. Forget yoof TV, pseudo-realist drama, pharmaceutical fiction – for Sinclair and Petit video is a feedback loop. Memory is the big resource. There’s no beginning, there’s no end, it goes on forever...
This piece was first published in Mute #19, October 2000.
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