Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Tuesday, 17 July 2012
Friday, 15 June 2012
Clive Barker's dark fantastic masterpiece Nightbreed will always have a place in some black corner of our heart. Officially unavailable in the UK to this day, we have fond pre-internet memories of the ex-rental VHS arriving from a rare video mail order service, and eagerly plunging ourselves into Barker's world of underground magick, graveyard sexuality and monster politics. In Nightbreed, the vilified flesh-eaters and perverted undead of Midian are our heroes, while the backwater authorities and David Cronenberg's ice-blooded serial killer psychiatrist are the true forces of darkness. The Nightbreed, in all their grotesque and wondrous deviance, are the hunted and persecuted refugees of the banal, roused by the reluctant Boone (the Boreanaz-esque Craig Sheffer) to rage against normality.
Little wonder then that when presented with Barker's original 155 minute cut of the film in all its splendour, studio Morgan Creek panicked and ordered the film to be decimated, re-cut, restructured and refocussed, ultimately losing over an hour of footage and a great deal of coherence. It's a testament to the irrepressible strength of the idea and spirit of the film that the cut we can seek out today retains so much of what was intended and still stands as a classic, as much aligned with Anger and Jack Smith as it is Hellraiser, and unfairly neglected in the debate around fantasy, horror, queer cinema and British filmmaking (Barker hails from Liverpool).
The work prints of the original cut of the film were lost to time, and the re-cut version performed poorly on release. Plans for the film to be the first of an epic trilogy, a macabre Lord Of The Rings for the late 20th century, were shelved. It seemed the only hints of what might have been were to be found in Barker's source novel Cabal and in online clouds of fan speculation - until two years ago. During a clear-out of his own production office, Barker came across two dusty old VHS tapes - tapes that contained the lost footage in its entirety.
When news of the discovery broke, Occupy Midian was formed to campaign for a release of the extended cut. Petitions were mounted amid defiant rhetoric that can't help but echo the spirit of the film. An inspired Barker committed himself to the project, using the degraded VHS footage to reassemble the film in its original form. The resulting Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut was screened at horror-con Days Of The Dead on June 10th to edge-of-the-seat anticipation. A screening tour is now underway to raise funds for a future release - and it is to this full release that Occupy Midian has turned its attention.
But it would be a mistake to think of The Cabal Cut as a retrospective presentation of Nightbreed as it should have been at the time. The very fact that the new footage is sourced from darkened, worn VHS, welded to the glossy high definition print that saw the light of day, immediately marks the film as something even more Other than it was conceived to be, something approaching the experimental. The trailer fuzzily hints at a fuller, more immersive journey into the world of the Nightbreed than we were given in the original, all the more so because it is visibly old. This story belongs to the past, a time capsule containing the essence of what was once a bold rebellion but can only now be seen as a last stand - of the Nightbreed, of Barker (who has to date only directed one more film), of imagination. The tale of The Tribes Of The Moon, in all their dark fabulous monstrosity, here passes into myth, unearthed and rendered in murky video static, aged documentation of a forgotten people and a near-forgotten spirit. The reassembled cut will never play local arthouses, but will resonate across conventions, basement screenings and midnight gatherings of the un-faithful. A film commissioned by mainstream studio heads as a monster blockbuster will will surely now find its home in the Underground as a true and pure work of protest.
Sunday, 3 June 2012
Thursday, 19 April 2012
From The Pictures #5
In his excellent article 'Anywhere but the Home: The Promiscuous Afterlife of Super 8', Exploding Cinema's Peter Thomas argues that the adoption of Super 8 by successive generations of filmmakers "cannot be rolled up as simple nostalgia or dead technology fetishism." The article was reproduced in the first issue of My Obsolete Future, a zine produced and edited by Emmaalouise Smith to accompany her mayday screening programme last year at The Shoreditch. It's easy to see why she found a resonance with Thomas' contention - her films validate it entirely.
Working almost exclusively on film, Emmaalouise's shorts are hand crafted - self exposed, processed and cut alone in dark rooms and on editing desks. She fashions her images and sequences from the idiosyncracies and anomolies that the medium throws up: hair, overexposures, black frames, scratches, so that we are aware when watching her work that this is film as film, a self contained object, a capsule. But it is not nostalgia, the past nor longing for it. Instead the grain and skipped frames come from a hazy present, midnight conversations and daydreams shone through the projector gate.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon opens with a manifesto effecting that there are experiments but no mistakes. The film has a historic air in its depiction of a very Victorian pastime and grainy monochrome tones but the period feel is offset by a pop soundtrack and hectic editing of the image and the elements that comprise it. Shadows swell and bathe the frame, unfocussed lights dance across the séancers as they place their skinny hands in a circle. The film is contemporary London gothic, creepy and immediate.
Emmaalouise's films are interested in bringing out texture, both using the physical film (employed particularly well in her collaged Brakhage-esque stage projections for Kate Nash, appropriately titled It Looks Like...) and in the images recorded onto it. The Midnight Pen Pal opens on a dimly lit room where a woman is using a typewriter. She walks ot her kitchen in half-light, her shadow moving across the textured wallpaper and onto the flat white lino. The sound of the typewriter mixes with an ambient synthesizer and a faint echoed voice reading, perhaps from the letter we're seeing composed. Another woman is shown, writing in a notebook. The camera moves towards a front door basking in early hours shadow, later revealed from the outside to be a striking cerulean blue. The paint strokes are almost touchable. The film is a psychodrama, full of hints at connections between the women that inhabit it and the images of communication between them. The camera finds the ephemera of their lives - pink cigarettes, plastic telephones, shoes. There are echoes of Vivienne Dick and, in these objects and affections, a sense of make-believe, of dressing up to assume roles and identities. The past is recalled but remains past, transformed into new expressions.
As well as producing films herself, Emmaalouise is also a curator, having incisively programmed the monthly Short Film Sessions at Rich Mix last year and launching the less regular My Obsolete Future - "a film concept which re-introduces long lost aesthetics as well as welcoming the future of DIY ethics" - a perfect summation of Emmaalouise's own work.
THE PICTURES: You work almost exclusively with analogue materials and media. What do you prefer over more modern techniques? Could you describe your production process?
EMMAALOUISE SMITH: I think a lot of people forget that modern techniques aren't really techniques in themselves - we wouldn't have the majority of the technology we have nowadays if it wasn't for the traditional approach and obsessive development of classic film and photography, and I think modern-day/everyday are really lacking in any speciality and emotion when it comes to visual mediums - especially with the mass-produced 'look' both amateurs and professionals seem to strive for... it's so easy for people to pay a couple of quid and get a 'vintage' iphone app, or to to use Photoshop. Colleges and Unis love Photoshop because it gives them something to teach, you can't teach kids how to take good photographs, but you can teach them about Photoshop. I've been there, I've learnt Photoshop, and almost been brainwashed with the 'skills' they say every photographer should have. But looking back, at any photo I've taken in the past where digital manipulation has been involved - and I don't like it - it's not me and it's not what I was trying to do when taking the photograph. I guess Photoshop is for people that have always wished they could draw.
I don't want to be one of these really dismissive people that will completely swear by either film or digital, I think I've been that person before and it's not healthy in a creative way - you end up too angry, argumentative and in rants most of the time... I can 'work' digital and see the ease that some people would enjoy, but for me now, I wouldn't choose anything less than film - both moving image or stills. I work alone most of the time, and in the dark. With the types of equipment I use (or want to learn to use) I often end up working a complete bodge job to get the look I want. Working with film is one thing, but I'm completely fascinated in making things completely by hand (mainly because I find it hard to pass my work over to someone else to finish or rework). I much prefer to see something from start-to-finish and know that it's mine. I work with a lot of Super 8mm equipment, I hand-process my own rushes and telecine my own footage on a 70s toy projector (because I can completely control the finish) or I work with a man in East London who also spends a lot of time in the dark. I've specialised in 16mm film, and love the history behind the stock - particularly old Bolex films and European cinematography. I've recently started working in a colour stills darkroom, and again, seem to be working against-the-clock to develop my own style with it, before paper becomes too hard to come by, but overall I just work at a constant rate of personal experimentation - a lot of people that want to be artists these days want everything given to them on a plate, and it's those people that never get anything done... I'll spend a week trying to order some rare camera batteries just to use a particular camera I've got my hands on, or spend hours hand-drawing on film stock for my own amusement, and a lot of my work will never be seen by anyone's eyes apart from mine, but I'm not going to stop.
TP: A lot of your work centres around issues of idenitity, particularly self-identity, when you yourself feature in the films, or when there are monologues or external music on the soundtrack. Would that be correct to say? Is that a conscious thing, or is it more an organic thing coming from your process?
ELS: It would be correct, and I am quite aware of it, but when I look back on my work I see it as more of a scrap-book or diary into the past few years, and I don't think it's either deliberate or indeliberate, because I don't particularly like my image being recorded in a pretentious way, I just think I can learn a lot about observation and image capture if I can experiment with myself or my 'image' on a particular day - and I know how to look into a lens as well as staring down the barrel myself. It's like when writers say 'write about what you know'... Another reason is because it's sometimes very hard to get things done when relying on other people, or being let down by people with no lasting motivation. I love collaborating, and have found people (although very few) that I can instantly 'click' with to make something 'work' and I really enjoy the strictness of working together with someone. But I'm completely happy to write, direct, shoot, model, edit, record sound and produce if I need to...and then face the decision of how to write my name in the credits when it comes to it...
TP: What is your favourite moment (or moments) from your films?
ELS: For me, there are actually very few. When enjoyment comes along it's the most amazing feeling, but most of the time I'm completely terrified, whether on a very miniscule personal scale or on a larger platform... I try not to let it get in the way and rarely show it, but someone once said a similar thing to me that completely made sense, the wanted to be a cinematographer (and were probably a lot closer than they thought) but they would always say they were scared of 'the camera', and I think it's true of a lot of great artists - there's definitely a difference between pretending to be cocky and actually being an idiot. There are good moments though, on a rare occasion when I can honestly say I'm completely happy with the result of a film or photograph, or at least happy with what I've learnt, it's mostly just a very short term feeling (until you sit down and look back at what you've done and nostalgia kicks in) because the next day you'll probably be working on something completely new and starting the cycle again...
TP: Why did you approach Rich Mix to run the Short Film Sessions, and how have you found curating a film night?
ELS: Rich Mix actually approached me at the beginning of the summer last year, I had some ties witht he place for some work I was trying to apply for, but the Short Film Sessions were really just given to me as 'a free monthly film night in the new bar,' that I had the chance to transform. I was lucky to mainly be given the freedom to do what I wanted - again on my own, but in quite a professional space, but it was so much hard work looking at film from the curator's point of view as well as the maker's. I've stopped for the summer months to finish off some work I did for the East End Film Festival, as well as tie up some loose ends with some of my own work (including some new pieces!) but I did really enjoy the work I put in for the sessions and met a lot of film-makers I would never have had the chance to meet, including a very talented friend, Miss Ellen Rogers. And I was really lucky to be a bit cheeky and get in contact with some of my favourite influences, including Stefanie Schneider, Tony Hill and the really exciting premiere I programmed for Tim Walker.
TP: What are you working on next? And where do you hope things will head?
ELS: I'm getting a lot better, but I find it quite hard to go from start to finish with a project in a broadcastable sense. I experiment with so many ideas and techniques that I often happen to turn into very mixed medium pieces which can work out, but at the same time I'm trying my hardest to work on one project at a time, as opposed to 3 or 4... I love visual scrapbooking, cine-collage and archiving so I always have lots of little ideas that I'll develop into short films or stills projects; at the moment I'm working on another audio/visual project with musicians Goodnight And I Wish*, a personal narrative film about an old lady with lucid dreams of her past, and a short film about a magical fish that lives in my sink. I'mm getting quite a good response from entering films into festivals and screenings, particularly my shorts The Midnight Pen-pal and Who Would Have Guessed? and festivals have always been a good step into the future for me. I'd relaly like to begin to work in more of a broadcastable and exhibitive sense. I'm very excited about a nerly finished set of colour prints and short, starring Princess Julia, and shot in Dungeness, which I'd like to exhibit in the next few months. I just want to make films, and make the films I want to make, I'd be really unhappy working as a focus puller for many years to come, to then regret working as somebody else's eyes...
Sunday, 26 February 2012
The Unreinable Compulsion, set for a 2013 release, is the first feature production from Reining Nails. The film is an intense drama concerning irrational, recreational violence and a much-anticipated feature debut for Reining Nails director Jason LaRay Keener following a run of peerless shorts that have wowed audiences at festivals across the States and our very own nights. We caught up with Jason to find out what's in store.
The Pictures: What made you want to make a feature? Where did the idea come from?
Jason LaRay Keener: In addition to describing the main dilemma of the film, the title itself, The Unreinable Compulsion, is self-referential. When I was 12, I saw John Carpenter's Halloween because of the enthusiastic insistance of my mother. It was the first film in which I became aware that movies are made by someone. From that moment on, I felt compelled to be a director. I'm now on the verge of turning 27, so I've been carrying this urge for 15 years. It's quite clear to me that directing a film has always been my unreinable compulsion.
Regarding the story itself, I'm both fascinated and horrified by recreational and irrational violence. It probably began innocently enough by watching the old Robert Stack–hosted Unsolved Mysteries with my grandmother throughout most of my childhood. I'm not terribly concerned about being killed in a mugging or any other type of rational violence, but what I'm quite paranoid about are those members of society who kill for pleasure and sport. I knew I wanted to explore the subject of irrational murder in a fresh way. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer came close to my personal goals, but even it ventures into horror-movie territory quite often. So I made a point to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. What I loved about the novel was the way in which Dostoevsky used such a sensational situation, based on an actual double murder, to explore broader personal themes—his religious beliefs, his struggles with alcoholsim, and his environment in 19th century Russia. There is a wealth of themes to be found in that novel, so it's not merely a tale of murder.
I've always been most afraid of home-invasion murders, so I did research on Dennis Rader (The BTK Killer) and Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker), as opposed to Ed Gein, who's had a disproportionate amount of influence on films about serial killers. Sticking with a home-invasion premise also allowed me to maintain a closeness to Crime and Punishment.
TP: Yes, home invasions are particularly scary - I actually once almost got murdered that way myself (gang-related, to do with someone who lived across the hall, wrong place at the wrong time). How have you handled the violent aspect of the story? Would you describe it as a horror film in any sense, or, like Crime and Punishment, is the horror and violence more of a dramatic device from which to explore other territories?
JLK: That is horrific, Garry. I think home invasion is one of the key reasons that the Paranormal Activity series is so popular at the moment. Films like Jaws and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have limited effect—you can avoid the monster by staying out of the ocean or creepy secluded houses. With home invasion, the monster comes to you. What worries me are cases like Dennis Rader, where the killer actually breaks into your home while you're not there and waits for you to arrive.
Like many filmmakers, it was the horror genre that initially interested me in the medium—Halloween, Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining. Those were the movies that excited me about filmmaking. I am still very fond of those pictures and others, but I wasn't interested in making a horror film. It's too difficult to be innovative in that genre at this point. Serial killers are a social phenomenon and something worth serious observation. I wanted to approach the subject matter the same way one would approach the subject of an alcoholic or a man having an affair, so like you said, the horror and violence are a springboard to get into other topics.
I suppose the film is comparable to Lang's M, at least in that sense. Thematically, though, I think Bresson's Pickpocket is its closest relative. Bresson's influence has dominated this film from the screenwriting process to production and editing.
TP: And what about the central character - who is he, what is he about? How did you find an actor right for the part?
JLK: Dewayne is drawn from the Raskolnikov model, as well as Dostoevsky's Underground Man, in addition to some autobiographical elements. He comes from a modest working class family and earns minimum wage in an unsatisfying job as a stock boy for a small grocery store. He fancies himself an intellectual, although he certainly is not, and he lives isolated from the world. He sort of exists in an Edward Hopper painting.
This project marks the first time I've held auditions. In my past shorts, I relied on friends and family. Although I'm still utilizing many familiar faces from the shorts in this production, I didn't want the screenwriting process to be limited by people I already knew or locations I already had. I held a two-day audition and met with over 50 actors and non-actors. Near the end of day two, I felt I had cast every role except for Dewayne. I was beginning to panic until Jarrod Cuthrell came in. Jarrod majored in acting in college, and it was very evident that he had a passion for his craft that matched my own. He's a thoughtful actor and very meticulous about his body language and blocking. Although Bresson is my greatest influence, I don't follow his methods of directing actors, or "models" as he called them. I enjoy collaborating with an actor as serious and insightful as Jarrod, and our results have been fruitful.
Dewayne is a sick man, certainly pathetic, but I think it's important to keep his sickness in perspective. Jarrod and I have made a point to not scornfully present this character for judgement. It's an objective presentation.
TP: It's interesting that you draw a parallel between recreational violence and alcoholism, I guess thinking of them both as heightened experiences (early stages of alcoholism anyway), both surrenderings of self-control, sort of escapism but a little more complex than that too, and both being ultimately addictive. Does that also relate to the title?
Thinking about that in a wider sense, in that we have a very violent pop culture, especially in film and particularly in many of the early influences you mention, do you think cinema contributes to a violent culture, where random acts like home invasions are expected, or do you see it as more of a reflective medium?
JLK: I suppose what I meant about alcoholism was the handling of the material. The tradition in film is to handle the topic of the serial killer within the horror or thriller genre. I wanted to approach the subject as more of a tragedy centered around a serious flaw in character–the compulsion to murder a human being. I wanted to handle the topic of murdering someone the same way one handle the topic of alcoholism. Typically, alcohol-fueled domestic violence is presented in dramatic terms. I wanted to present an irrational murder in the same way.
As far as the title is concerned, you do not have to be a serial killer to relate to this film. Alcoholics, drug addicts, pedophiles, cleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, or even people who feel a need to create art can relate to an impulse which jeopardizes the chance to have a normal, healthy life. Many of us have an unreinable compulsion, a desire to do something that we'd be better off without.
I'm reluctant to blame media for violence, as it has existed much longer than media has. Also, I have enjoyed many Friday nights watching the films of Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter, both of whom use violence exclusively for entertainment. With that being said, I think Michael Haneke's Funny Games (both versions) presented an interesting question: Why do we watch violence for entertainment? Those critical of the film claim Haneke was being a pedantic moralist, however he lists Psycho as one of his favorite films. This could make him a hypocrite, however, I think he was asking the question on everyone's behalf, including his own. Why do we watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?
TP: Do you think a film can be inherently evil, or possessing of evil intentions?
JLK: Certainly. A film can endorse and glorify rape, torture, lynching, and anything else you can imagine. Those films will have a hard time finding distribution, though. A greater concern for me is the eye-for-an-eye revenge film. It's commonly used because audiences love it. It's a narrative cheat to me. Here's how it works: You have a bad guy do unthinkably awful things to a helpless character or his or her family. The narrative concerns the journey towards vengeance, and the audience rejoices when the bad guy gets what's coming to him. This doesn't really impress or interest me. I watch a lot of true-crime programs, and what fascinates me are the families of victims who forgive the man that murdered their loved one. These are extraordinary people and the ones I'm most interested in knowing about. I would never suggest that forgiveness is easy, but I insist that it's more interesting than something like Dexter.
TP: It's interesting you mention Bresson whose films and characters were to some extent driven by his Catholocism and often dealt with salvation. Without giving too much away, does Dewayne encounter similar questions in the film?
JLK: The primary influences on The Unreinable Compulsion are Bresson, Dostoevsky, and Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese. The five of us share a Christian perspective that is the center of our worldview and therefore our work. I feel the best Christian art can be appreciated beyond a Christian audience, so at no point did I set out to make a "Christian film." Actually, I did set out to make a Christian film, but let's say I've avoided making a "Christian bookstore film." An atheist or Hindu audience can appreciate the story as a social document, while the film will be more difficult for Christians because I'm holding them accountable to their beliefs. If I have a primary goal, it is to provoke an audience to examine their beliefs and behaviours. Christ's parables of the Prodigal Son and the Workers in the Vineyard were the main influence for this aspect. They're challenging parables, some of the most difficult to accept even for Christians, and they are both personally relevant to me because in my life I've struggled with forgiveness more than any other issue.
TP: Where do you think your own fascination with darker material comes from? There's huge darkness in your Xiu Xiu video too.
JLK: As I said before, probably from watching Unsolved Mysteries with my grandmother as a child. To this day, I return to the original Robert Stack episodes often. You can laugh at the acting and writing, but no film comes as close to being as unnerving as some of their segments. There's something about the lighting, especially on the early episodes shot on 16mm, the music, and Stack's haunting narration. The stories themselves are also captivating yet repulsive and disturbing.
I also have a distant relationship to a serial killer. My great-grandmother's cousin, Nannie Doss, was a poisoner. She murdered her husbands for insurance money. Growing up, my grandmother would tell me about her mother warning her to not eat anything Doss brought to family reunions. My great-grandmother was suspicious of her long before she was eventually caught.
The Xiu Xiu video was primarily an exercise in technique. I've always been fond of the look of filming a television screen, and the lyrics matched the story I had in mind for it. The narrative of the music video is a bit nihilistic and tragic, and I feel like it's a bit hollow. I suppose it's a lament over an all-too-common problem, as well as a warning. At any rate, I appreciated the opportunity to do something serious. I think I burnt myself out on the humor of Catfish with Falcon Wings.
TP: How far into the feature production are you? Have things progressed to plan so far? What differences, aside from the obvious amount of time and work, have you found in making a feature as opposed to producing shorts?
JLK: We are almost halfway through. Things have progressed fairly well so far. There have been a few technical hurdles, as well as losing some scheduled days because of rain, but no disasters yet. I'm very satisfied with the way things have gone.
The differences between this project and the shorts is the amount of preparation and seriousness of execution. With the shorts, there was no lighting, no blocking the actors, no following a set script, etc. The films for Catfish with Falcon Wings were founded on chaos, disorganization, and anti-structure. The Unreinable Compulsion is the precise opposite. Hours are spent lighting each shot, and we block a scene until it feels correct. The shorts were developed in a handheld, documentary-influenced improvisational manner, while in this film, the camera is usually static, and the blocking and line deliveries are meticulously planned out and rehearsed.
This production was closer to my childhood dreams than the shorts were. I mentioned Halloween earlier. Well, on one of the first nights of production, we shot the nighttime exteriors for the home-invasion scene. I'm a big fan of Dean Cundey's cinematography in that film, as well as the nighttime cinematography of Unsolved Mysteries, and as soon as we lit the house with blue gels on the lights, it felt like we were remaking Halloween. Since it was viewing that film almost 15 years ago that launched my obsession with filmmaking, it was one more aspect that made this film highly personal for me.
TP: Thanks Jason. Expect to see The Unreinable Compulsion on the festival circuit next year - we can't wait.
Monday, 13 February 2012
From The Pictures #5
I always imagined I’d grow up to be a lounge singer or a B-movie femme fatale – louche, bitter – and I watched those scenes over and over till the VHS tapes wore out, till I had to wind the cassettes gently past the ruined parts each time. To suffer was the thing, I decided; preferably to suffer so much even before the action started that you’d be hardened, glittering damaged goods, ready to exploit and avenge from the opening shot to the last frame, or your death scene, whichever came first. Movies taught me before I was five that being a woman was dangerous, painful and complex. That’s how it was, and only the glamour and excitement of it could begin to compensate. I also knew that that kind of woman, my kind, always got punished in the end: assuming you survived the film at all, you certainly wouldn’t get the guy, and at the least you could expect to be run out of town. For me, the vamp was what made sense – it was the sweet, soft, open ingénue who seemed exotic, and in the 1980s of my childhood that meant one woman and one film above all: Daryl Hannah, in Splash.
As soon as I saw her I knew she was the fantasy girlfriend. She appears, naked, silent, long golden hair barely covering her breasts, a gorgeous fish out of water in New York City. And she’s perfect: she knows all about sex – insatiable but monogamous – and yet the big man gets to look after her, to explain about traffic or revolving doors. Isn’t that a little too good to be true? Perhaps we’re all born with some instinct for sex, and not so much for machinery, but then most of us are not born with a tail. When at last she talks (since it’s ’80s Manhattan, her first word is ‘Bloomingdales’), there’s a rasp in her voice: it’s never been used for speech. She seems untainted – no former lovers, no history of any kind. Even as a gauche, anxious prepubescent, I got the point: what makes Daryl/Madison the ideal woman is that she isn’t one. We, watching, know she’s a mermaid; her man can help her choose a name to replace the untranslatable dolphin-screech, and he can teach her whatever he likes. She is brand new. Any signs of strangeness that escape her have a focus and a justification: the lady is not from around here.
Splash has some affinities with the genre in which a devoted but untameable pet – Beethoven, let’s say – causes chaos and must be rescued from villains who want it locked up or destroyed. ‘Why don’t you keep her on a leash?’ someone yells, as Madison bounds across the street after some treat or other. And people keep trying to get her wet, so that her legs will fuse back into a tail and leave her thrashing on the ground. The dreamgirl isn’t so different from the sad vamp, it’s just that she protects herself differently. Naked, Edenic Madison doesn’t look as if she’d frame you for anything, she appears to have nothing to hide (a winning trick – they had wholesome Daryl wandering undressed at the start of Roxanne, too).
The bathroom scene in Splash marked my adolescence; it frequently replays itself while I sleep. At night, the beached mermaid creeps out of bed, pours salt in the tub, shuts herself in, spreads her tail out, serene, alone. It’s the next sequence that lodges in my psyche: the man at the door asking what’s wrong, wanting to come in, the escalation in seconds from concern (‘Are you all right?’) to anger (‘Enough is enough’), and her fear of exposure or violation, her look of utter, animal panic. The struggle between them felt so real to me, even as you watched her heave her Disneyfied joke-body out onto the bath-mat, her absurd, frantic efforts to dry the tail with a towel, then a hairdryer, as the hammering on the door grew more insistent.
The exhausting charade of femininity is being forced open – turns out the conventional beauty is a scaly monster who must transform or conceal or reveal herself unceasingly, only just getting away with it each time. Not even those closest to her know what she is, but they sense it, they want to catch her in the act of freakishness somehow, and this applies especially to the man who supposedly loves her: he wants to know and see everything, to be the only one privileged to see it, he wants to catch her out, to hold her captive, and what a fine line there is between ‘Darling, you can trust me, tell me your secrets – I will take care of you’ and ‘Open this door, you bitch, before I break it down’.
Indeed, he does it – even as she delays, distracts, pleads, sobs ‘No!’ – he smashes in the door, and there she is, tail dried away just in time. Now she must bridle on the floor like a little girl and explain herself: ‘I was shy’. ‘After the car and the elevator and the bedroom,’ he asks, ‘and the top of the refrigerator, you were shy?’ It’s as if, having fucked him, she has forfeited any right to privacy, to her own body. She’s his now, wide open, and if she says nothing’s wrong she must prove it (‘Everything’s fine’; ‘Well then let me in’). It’s striking that the bully behind the door is not one of those ‘scientists’ eager to cut her open and see what’s inside – he’s her boyfriend, played by Mr Plodding Decency, Tom Hanks, no less.
Even later, when he knows the truth, he asks ‘Is your secret that you’re a mermaid, or is there something else?’ ‘That’s it,’ says the fantasy girl. No more secrets, no interior self, nothing he can’t access. No wonder this movie made Daryl a star. She was never really a cheerleader blonde – the signs were there in Blade Runner, and it wasn’t just make-up. Her features weren’t meant for softness, despite that halo of hair and lighting they used to surround her. The hard bones of jaw and cheek and brow have emerged more strongly with time: Tarantino could see she was a warrior, and she is one still, getting arrested again last month outside the White House. I wanted her, long ago, the way I imagined a man would, but my warring impulses confused me, and I still feel that heartsick mix of lust, aggression, empathy and envy. Passion, because she’s an irreducible mystery, hiding in plain sight; empathy, because the dark, alien part of her so often has to stay submerged; and envy most of all, because she doesn’t have to make do with a flimsy locked door and a tub-full of saltwater – she can run to the pier, dive back into her element, and vanish.