Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

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(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)

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In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics

(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).

In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?

What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.

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Screencap: Netflix

The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.

However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.

Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.

With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.

What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.

My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutes such taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.

One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?

Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.

Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.

Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.

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Screen cap: Netflix

In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.

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Spilt blood…Screen cap: Netflix

Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.

(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)

The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.

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Screen cap: Netflix

At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.

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Screen cap: Netflix

As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.

The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy… Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17). The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.

At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.

Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).

On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.

While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.

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Jonathan’s photography. Screen cap: Netflix

Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series, photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:

Photography is a mode of tekhnē – a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.

(Dick and Wolfreys 260)

There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.

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Laura Palmer’s homecoming photo from Twin Peaks

Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights. 

Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:

Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.

(Derrida 1989: 61)

In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.

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Phantasmagoria…Screen cap: Netflix

At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.

What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:

[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]

(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).

There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.

I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:

The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.

(McCarthy 2010: 78)

Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:

As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.

(McCarthy, Tom 2012)

Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…

There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?

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Facing the limits of space-time…Ashes to Ashes. Image source: jimcofer.com

In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.

Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:

The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’

 (Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)

What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:

Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.

(Bridges 2016)

Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.

 (Kristeva 1982: 1)

Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).

Bridges, Elizabeth, 2016. ‘The Perils of Childhood – Stranger Things, Season 1’ <http://uncannyvalley.us/2016/07/stranger-things-season-1/&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1798. The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/sites/default/RCOldSite/www/rchs/reader/rime4.html> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Connor, Stephen, 2006. ‘Her Light Materials’ <http://stevenconnor.com/phantasmagoria.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Creed, Barbara, 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1982. ‘Différance’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 3-27.

Derrida, Jacques, 1989. The Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida by Mark Lewis and Andreas Payne, trans. by Jean-Luc Svoboda (Public, 2).

Derrida, Jacques, 2002. ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), trans. by David Wills, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 369-418.

Dick, Maria-Daniella and Julian Wolfreys, 2015. The Derrida Wordbook (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Kristeva, Julia, 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press).

McCarthy, Tom, 2010. C (London: Vintage).

McCarthy, Tom,  2012b. Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, [Kindle edition; accessed: 23.8.14] (London: Vintage Digital).

Morton, Timothy, 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics

Morton, Timothy, 2010a. ‘Hyperobjects are Viscous’, Ecology Without Nature <http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/hyperobjects-are-viscous.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Morton, Timothy, 2010b. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Posthumanities) (University of Minnesota Press).

Sconce, Jeffrey, 2000. Haunted Media: Electronic presence from Telegraphy to Television (London: Duke University Press).

Shelley, Mary, 2009 [1818 edition]. Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics).

Warner, Marina, 2006. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watts, Peter, ‘The Things’, Clarkesworld Magazine <http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Woolf, Virginia, 1921. ‘Henry James’ Ghost Stories’, The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1040, 22nd December, pp. 849-50.

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Screen cap: Netflix

‘Do something pretty while you can’: The Magic of Belle & Sebastian

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image source: The Guardian

Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful). Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.

For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.

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Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.

In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.

For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).

Belle-And-Sebastian-Tigermilk

ANYWAY,  back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.

Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.

One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.

Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.

He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.

It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?

They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.

Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.

Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.

Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.

You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.

‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915[17]) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’.  Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.

A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:

Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor

And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay

In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt

We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.

Tigermilk, then, isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:

A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.

This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.

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The protagonists of GHTG: James, Eve, Cassie

Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.

Loving the Other: The Cinematic Magic of Paddington

Source: www.walesonline.co.ukSource: http://www.walesonline.co.uk

It was the morning after the busy Black Friday weekend at work, and, predictably, I slept in. The rain was pouring down thick and fast and Glasgow was a gloomy vat of grey. There was a need for something warm and enchanting in this mist that overshadowed Christmas.

Every year, my Mum, brother and I try to find something to visit – it’s become a kind of tradition. An acoustic gig, a play or a film, usually. In past year’s, we’ve seen the likes of Pearl and the Puppets, Great Expectations; a long time ago, it would be Maybole Bazaar or the Carrick Christmas Show. Sometimes it’s true that the older you get, the better things are. There was a year when I was supposed to go see Frightened Rabbit at The Arches with some friends, but a heavy snowdrift cancelled out all the trains and so I had to content myself with a night at home studying Higher Sociology…

Anyway, this year I found myself on the train to Edinburgh on Sunday morning. Since the weather was a gloomy storm of wind and rain, we decided to go to the cinema. I always like the thrill of going to a cinema I haven’t been before – even if it’s got the same pick and mix, popcorn machine and seats, there’s still something exciting about navigating the screen doors and the dark staircases. We went to the VUE cinema. Mum was keen on going to see Paddington. I was pretty sceptical; I mean, I’m not too keen on animated films, and I agreed with my brother that it might end up being a bit…childish. Probably like going to see Frozen, although I wouldn’t dare to be so controversial as to comment on that film, and anyway I haven’t seen it. Certainly, when we sat down to watch the adverts, there were a lot of commercials for toys and cereal and films that come with a ‘U’ certificate. A baby behind us intermittently crying. We exchanged Sibling Glances. What was this going to be?

I suppose in my mind I’ve always lumped Paddington in with Winnie the Pooh, The Wind and the Willows, Watership Down and Beatrix Potter: fuzzy, anthropomorphic children’s tales which hold prime place in the history of children’s literature. Yet all these tales tend to have a hidden dark side: like all traditional fairytales, their simple stories of adventure are interwoven with commentaries on the likes of family, love, violence and perhaps even racism. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from Paddington, but as I waited for the adverts to roll out, I was imagining that perhaps this would be more than just a plain old children’s film. Maybe it would reach the stature of one of the only children’s films I like, the (I think) highly symbolic Bug’s Life. 

Paddington begins in the midst of ‘darkest Peru’, recounting a colonial tale whereby an English explorer named Montgomery Clyde makes friends with two bears and tells them upon his return to England that they will always be welcome in London if they ever visit Britain. The whole film holds a self-conscious ironic mockery of British colonialism, like some postmodern update of Conrad. Imperial knowledge is held by the ‘Geographical Society’ who cruelly banish Clyde for his benevolent approach to the ‘natives’.

Soon after, we witness fantastical elements of the bears’ lives as they live alongside their nephew in the wilds of darkest Peru. These lives are remarkably sophisticated, featuring an intriguing marmalade-making machine and a radio crackling with the sharp tones of BBC R.P. informing distant listeners about life back home on the streets of London. There are also some very nice hats. The simple harmony of the forest is disrupted one day by a violent earthquake, which leaves the female bear Lucy effectively a widow as the other bear Pastuzo disappears. Lucy sends her poor bereft nephew away to London to seek adventure and fortune by sneaking him onto a ship, and retires peacefully to a retirement home for bears.

After this, the film follows a somewhat bizarre but delightfully heartwarming immigrant narrative. The young bear finds himself alienated in a strange city, acquires himself a ‘British’ name (Paddington, after the train station he arrives at), and then a suitably quirky and very English family to adopt him. The Browns (with Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville as the dad and Made in Dagenham’s Sally Hawkins as the mum) embody that kind of slightly dysfunctional, messy and a bit bizarre middle-class family that holds mythological status at the heart of our culture. Yes, there is the threat of stereotype, but the film carries off these qualities generally well as they mould perfectly into warm, fairytale figures that chime in various ways with cultural caricatures without becoming too flat or prescriptive. The stern, paranoid father and the liberal, empathetic mother; the boy obsessed with building things; the girl choked on embarrassment and fear of seeming ‘weird’ to her friends. The Scottish and slightly alcoholic housekeeper, Mrs Bird, who can predict things with her knees and saves the day towards the end of the film by distracting a security guard with copious shots of whisky.

We might compare this play on well-loved family archetypes it to the likes of TV comedies My Family or Outnumbered, which features semi-improvised scripts depicting the chaos of modern family life. The overly-inquisitive little sister Karen, the perpetually-stressed mum, the wearied father, the embodied chaos of Ben, the youngest brother, the sulky teenager. What makes Paddington shine above any TV drama is the simple humour of its script and the cinematic magic of its costumes: Nicole Kidman’s sharp heels and trench as she stars as the villainous taxidermist who seeks to capture and stuff our beloved bear for the Museum of Natural History, Sally Hawkin’s outfits (all marvellous colour-clashing, woolly hats and embroidered cardigans), and that iconic blue duffle coat and red hat that Paddington wears himself. Let’s hope sales of said duffle coat go up in the aftermath of this film because I’m more than happy to see it everyday, especially in that lovely cobalt colour that Paddington sports so well:

Source: www.cityam.com
Source: http://www.cityam.com

Then there’s the magic of the house itself, which features a giant spiral staircase and walls painted with a Japanese cherry blossom tree, the blossoms of which bloom or fade beautifully according to the emotional tone of the story.

As Paddington adjusts himself to (human) family life, the audience goes through scenes of low-level cognitive estrangement, as Paddington explores everyday human life and tries to make sense of it, with amusing consequences: flooding the bathroom, using a toothbrush as an ear-cleaning cotton-bud, mastering how to use the escalators at the tube station. As I said at the beginning, I’m not generally a great fan of animated films, but Paddington carries off its loveable animal protagonist flawlessly, down to the details of individual water droplets shaking off each strand of his fur. Originally, Colin Firth was set to play the voiceover for Paddington, but he stepped down after worrying that his voice didn’t sound quite ‘open’ enough for the young bear. Instead, Ben Whishaw got the part and the sweet dulcet tones that so charmed us in his portrayal of Romantic poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star are here perfect for the innocent wide-eyed charisma of Paddington. It’s a remarkably technical process; Whishaw had to wear a kind of helmet so that the animated Paddington bear could match the facial expressions and head movements of his kindred (human) spirit.

Source: www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk
Source: http://www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk

London is a dream in this film. From the grand corridors of the museum to the polished floors of Paddington Station (I imagine a much-needed plug for Network Rail…) and the snowy streets, it provides a romantic backdrop to Paddington’s adventures that makes us fall in love with the old city all over again. Sometimes I get very sick of London, especially the way it always flickers through media as this glassy corporate giant full of rich people with perfect lives (I’m thinking of the sweeping shots that open The Apprentice or basically every shot in Made in Chelsea that isn’t an awkward closeup of someone’s glakit face). The London of Paddington is a city of nostalgia, drenched in snow and old antique shops and red telephone boxes and a Dickensian wallet thief. Peter Capaldi playing an archetypal nosy old neighbour with a cockney accent and Doctor Who scarf. The family portrayed at the heart of the film are at once old-fashioned (the boring, distant father that perhaps echoes the banker father of Mary Poppins?) but deal with relatively modern issues: the presence of technology, the moodiness of teenagers. It’s this blend of the nostalgic and contemporary that really adds magic back to London itself, that spins a fairytale of visual beauty and enough narrative suspense to keep you hooked to the end (there is the encroaching threat of Kidman’s cold cyborg of a villain coming to kill and stuff our beloved protagonist).

Aside from the lovely visuals and fairytale storyline of good vs. evil, there’s the narrative of the Other which I already touched upon. Paddington experiences both alienation and welcome, and simultaneously the audience goes through the motions of heartbreak and compassion. Initially, he finds himself spurned by Mr Brown for his clumsy inability to fit into the household without making a mess of everything. In the cold rain he wanders the streets, and finds shelter with one of the Queen’s Guards who kindly offers him an emergency sandwich that he has stuffed under his enormous hat. Paddington is of course perfect for Christmas time: there is the message of family love, compassion and understanding, but also that simple narrative of sharing food that means so much in the shared gluttony of the festive season. There’s a reason we buy a tin of Roses or Heroes or Quality Street and it’s not just because it offers choice, but also because it’s a shared pleasure. Much like the film itself (I recommend everyone sees it on the big screen where the glorious visuals can really come to life).

You can look to the likes of Derrida or Donna Harraway to academically unpick the importance of understanding animality and other species for recognising the animal in us. By the end of the film, we realise that species shouldn’t divide us or cause fear or hatred or hierarchy. It’s wrong to treat another being as an instrumental object: something to be prized and displayed and stuffed. Go to Peter Singer for some philosophy too; I recommend ‘All Animals Are Equal’ (1974). It’s wrong to treat the Other with anything less than the respect you’d give to your own ‘species’. If bears and humans can become family, then can’t we all as humans get along in the turbulent times of the terrorism and threat and anti-immigration rhetoric of the 21st century?

What draws the immigrant narrative out from this Every(bear’s)man’s tale of immigration is the interspersed classic calypso songs which a band play throughout the action. Michael Bond’s children’s books were written, as Tim Masters (BBC 2014) points out, around the time when a new immigrant community were settling in Notting Hill – the place where Paddington himself finds a home. The songs are all positive and cheery, telling a story of endurance in the face of hardship and rippling with a fresh, hopeful spirit. The kind we need for 2015. By invoking the positive narrative of the Caribbean settlers in the mid-twentieth century (who came to help rebuild post-war Britain), the film implicitly critiques our contemporary societal stance on immigration. All the fear-mongering rhetoric that gets whipped up by the likes of UKIP is exploded in this heart-warming tale of love and discovery and acceptance of difference. It’s a classic tale of the journey of the Outsider that could be applied to anyone who has had the experience of settling into a new community as some kind of racial/ethnic/sexual/physical Other. And perhaps this, more than anything else, is the enduring magic of Paddington. So I’m glad I went to see it.

(On a side note, the only thing I was sceptical about was the heroic pigeons who essentially save Paddington at the film’s climax – not to put to fine a point on spoilers – I can’t see pigeons ever acting so benevolently. But then maybe that’s a terrible species bias that I should work on myself).

Bibliography:

Masters, Tim, 2014. BBC News Online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-30196290

Pauli, Michelle, 2014. Interview with Michael Bond. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/28/michael-bond-author-paddington-bear-interview-books-television-film

Explorations in Nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

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Why is there a certain nostalgic quality to rain? Rain can be beautiful to imagine: the quietly rushing sound it stirs as it starts to fall, the peaceful pattering it makes on roofs and windowpanes, the tingle of droplets on your skin, the way it clings in watery beads to your lashes, the sweet earthy scent it trails as it vanishes from the vapory air. Thinking of rain conjures images of afternoons hiding indoors with a good book, of splashing in puddles as a child, of running makeup, of the high romance of kissing outside in a storm, and the satisfaction of coming home, changing into dry clothes and getting warm.

Most people living in Glasgow would be less lyrical about the drizzle that bursts ever too frequently upon the city. Rain can be a pain. Rain can mean struggling with a broken umbrella, feeling cold droplets drip down your back; it can mean delayed tennis matches, ruined picnics and cancelled plans. Yet rain is also one vein through which we are transported smoothly to some heart of our past; often our recollection of events and people is framed by weather, and rain can add a cinematic backdrop to memory that reflects the misted quality of nostalgia. It has a certain sense of deja vu, of transient confusion. I remember being here before, and it was raining. Like this…or was it somewhere else?

Yet rain is perhaps, like memory, never as lovely as we imagine or remember it to be. It is part of our wistful fantasies.

Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris opens with a beautiful montage of Paris in the rain, accompanied by accordion music. The shots slip effortlessly between postcard highlights of the city and panoramas of people in the street with umbrellas. It sets the scene for the film’s at times poignant but mostly witty and lighthearted exploration of nostalgia.

I first went to see Midnight in Paris at the kooky little Grosvenor Cinema on Ashton Lane in Glasgow’s West End. An appropriate venue, seeing as it is modeled on an old-fashioned picture-house, with red carpeting, plush seats, vintage interior design, glamour and the availability of wine.

Midnight in Paris is a pastiche of genres, styles, characters and references. Not only does it include an array of (slightly caricatured) figures from the 1920s creative scene in Paris, but it also welds together flashes of political satire with Hollywood rom-com and magical realism.

The film’s protagonist Gil is a Hollywood script-writer discontented with his sell-out job and longing to produce something creative in his writing. Perhaps there is a certain irony here: a search for authenticity staged within a film that is playfully anything but ‘original’. A trip to Paris with his fiancé and her parents, Gil hopes, will provide the spark of enchantment. The first conversation of the film sets up the juxtaposition between the romantic Gil and his pragmatic wife, who appropriately later has an affair with the ‘pedantic’ ‘pseudo-intellectual’ Paul:

 Gil: Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?

Already we get the sense that Gil wanders a little too much into his imagination, particularly his imagination of the past – of Paris in the 1920s. Gil’s first actual delve into the past occurs one evening when after the stroke of midnight a strange black cab stops to pick him up, full of revelers drinking wine and champagne. Through this mysterious portal, he is transported back in time to Paris in the 1920s. The film handles the visuals sparklingly well, with stunning 20s costumes, cocktails and the lovely decor of the bars and clubs. It’s all quite magical and dazzling, and we experience the wonder Gil must feel as he is teleported into his favourite fantasy. It certainly got me excited for Baz Luhrmann’s soon-to-be-released The Great Gatsby.

Except unlike us, the audience, Gil becomes a participant in his fantasy, not merely a spectator. Among his adventures, Gil encounters a plethora of characters from the 1920s literary and arts scene, including Hemingway, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. There is definitely an element of caricature here, which reflects the play of irony and pastiche characteristic of the post-modern: the film reminds us that these characters are just representations of real figures, who themselves were in a sense self-styled personas, who we knew predominantly through their art. From Dali’s raving about rhinoceroses, to Hemingway’s speeches about war and truth and sincerity, Allen plays with exaggeration to enrich the sense of fantasy and nostalgia. There is a scene where Zelda Fitzgerald is trying to commit suicide because she thinks her husband does not love her and Gil, trying to stop her jumping, tells her that he ‘knows’ that F. Scott Fitzgerald really does love her. Why? she asks. How can Gil possibly know? He’s read all the books and biographies about and by Scott, of course. I think the film here raises an interesting question about subjectivity and literature: what is the real version of events? What is the truth behind the writing? It seems that there isn’t one: instead there are all the fragmented perspectives of those involved, and those who write the books. Right now I’m reading Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz, which critics say is Zelda’s version of the semi-autobiographical events of Scott’s Tender is the Night, both depicting the breakdown of minds and marriages, but from the different perspectives of wife and husband. Gil’s attempts to claim that he can know better than the woman involved only underline the absurdity of any narrative which claims ultimate objectivity.

Gil’s encounters with the resurrected ghosts of the 1920s stage a playful juxtaposition of past and present. His quotative use of ‘like’ and his mundane discussions about his relationship to Inez contrast heavily with the stylish and hyper-surreal world he finds himself in. For example, his conversation with Adriana (Allen’s fictional amalgamated embodiment of Picasso’s lovers) about his engagement to Inez highlights the time and culture gap, but also the disparity between reality and fantasy. He realises that there is in fact very little he and Inez have in common, which perhaps suggests that his engagement itself was built on a fantasy. Gil admits that they have a ‘little bit of a disconnect with the big things’ but at least they agree on the little things:

Gil: I will say that we both like Indian food, not all Indian food, but the pita bread, we both like pita bread, I guess it’s called naan.

The likelihood of the super-stylish flapper Adriana knowing what pita bread is, let alone having eaten it, is pretty slim. In addition to this, Gil’s comic response to Hemingway’s question as to whether he’d ever been hunting – “only for bargains” – presents the playful irony of the film’s exploration of past and present, and the discrepancy between the dramatic, larger-than-life lives led by the characters of a by-gone age and the inane realities of the present.

Another funny encounter between past and present occurs when Gil gets into a cab driven by T.S. Eliot and exclaims:

Gil: Thomas Stearns Eliot? T.S. Eliot? T.S. Eliot? Prufrock is like my mantra.

The comedy here is that this reflects how many of us would behave – awkwardly unrestrained – if we were thrust into a world where we could meet our long-dead heroes. There is the hilarious sense that Gil is behaving as a teenage girl would if they encountered Justin Beiber. And yet he is not meeting the teeny-bopper Beiber, but one of the twentieth century’s finest poets (with all the linguistic prestige that entails). The film collapses the language of the present incongruously with the literary visage of the past.

Gil’s general obsession with the literature of the 20s is reflected in his view that Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is his ‘mantra’. This itself is an interesting mise-en-abyme of intertextuality, as Prufrock itself is a thoroughly intertextual poem, referring for example to Dante. It is also a difficult poem, an internal monologue that follows a complex and fragmented pattern of thoughts which seem to have no definite direction and nor indeed association. Yet its line, ‘Let us go then, you and I’ creates an evocation that resonates throughout Midnight in Paris. It is a speech act, an announcement: let us go. The film itself is built on such a contract of ‘let us go’, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief with regards to the unexplained time travel and enjoy the magic, follow the journey and watch as it restores reality only to thrust us back into fantasy.

Let us go’ seems to suggest an address to time itself – come with me, time, follow my fantasy – but also of linking arms or minds with someone and going someplace else. Time travel can be a solitary or a joint affair. Gil travels back in time to the fin de siecle with Picasso’s lover Adriana, because this Golden Age is Adriana’s fantasy. Here he realises that there is no Golden Age, the Golden Age myth is just a nostalgic longing to escape one’s present: ‘that’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.’ We tend to travel when we are unsatisfied with where we are right now.

The spellbinding world that Gil occupies by night is by far the best part of the film, and Allen frustrates audiences by delaying these ventures with the mundanity of the film’s present narrative. Gil has to follow his spoilt-brat fiancé around shopping for furniture, have dinner with her ultra-conservative parents and trail around with Inez’s ‘pedantic’ lecturer friend Paul. There are slightly tedious scenes about lost earrings, relationship breakdowns and dinner-table conversations which leave us irritated with the twenty-first century rom-com drama, and desperate, like Gil, for the exciting narrative in the past. These temporal fluxes from past to present serve to delay and prolong the audience’s desire to go back into the past, and so highlight the unsatisfactory nature of the present in comparison with rose-tinted history.

Despite the occasional bore of the present, there are some gems slipped in by Allen amongst the rom-com rubble. These include the parodic representation of Inez’s conservative snobbery and naivety – ‘Inez: You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a communist’. Also, Gil’s mocking of the Tea Party movement, calling them ‘crypto-fascist airhead zombies’. The film is not entirely an adventure into the past but also an aping of the absurdities of the present – from politics to romantic relationships.

And so back to memory. In the film there is the repeated question of ‘is nostalgia denial?’ Denial of the present, denial of reality, denial of the irretrievability of the past. Nostalgia can relate to more fantastic recollections of a past, a past that was only accessible in the first place through mediation such as literature, film and art – the very instruments of romanticism and fantasy. This is definitely the kind of nostalgia Gil suffers or experiences, but there is another kind of nostalgia that is more personal. This kind of nostalgia was famously articulated by Marcel Proust in his book In Search of Lost Time, in a scene where the narrator experiences an involuntary trigger of memory caused by a tea-soaked cake:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.” (Marcel Proust, “The Cookie” from In Search of Lost Time).

This kind of nostalgia is one most of us can identify with: the slightly uncanny sparking of a past personal memory from some kind of sensory trigger. That is how perfume gains its emotional quality, through the way its scent weaves swirls of associations between our past loves, lives and histories, and stirs these up again for us from one whiff in the present. Each time I put on my Body Shop Japanese Cherry Blossom, I fondly and wistfully remember (and long for) my holiday in Rome. As Proust describes it, the unintended evocation of a past memory makes us feel as if we transcend time and morality, collapses our identity ‘this essence was not in me it was me’ and produces an ‘all-powerful joy’. Food is nostalgic because it combines different senses: taste, smell, touch, sight. From your granny’s best soup to those warm chewy cookies they used to make at school, our gustatory pleasures are a minefield of nostalgic resonances.

The point here is that nostalgia is not just an affliction, a slightly unhealthy yearning to escape the present and return to a past that has been forever forlorn in the timeline of history. Nostalgia can be pleasurable, even if the pleasure is a little bittersweet – that feeling of longing and sadness for the person you once were or once loved when you hear the opening bars of an old song. Gil’s nostalgia perhaps goes too far: his novel is set in a nostalgia shop, and he spends his real life dreaming of forgotten times. His fiance accuses him of having a ‘brain tumour’ when he begins talking about the past as if it were real. This is an interesting image, as it suggests something psychologically corrupting about the past: it seeps into the present inevitably and transforms the way we experience the here and now. It is a kind of everyday madness.

Yet Midnight in Paris leaves us with a vision of nostalgia that encapsulates its positive effects. Gil’s decision to break up with his ill-suited fiance, and the final scene where he walks into the rainy Parisian night culminates in a strange blurring of his reality and fantasy. He has finally made grown-up, significant choices, but he has also walked into the sweet allure of a romance that reverberates with his early fantasies of Paris in the rain. It is an elusive, probably unrealistic ending, but this is the magic of the movie. Woody Allen gives us the happy, fulfilled ending we’ve been hoping for – it’s not quite the kissing in the rain at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s but the rain still provides an amorous atmosphere – and this ending, quite nostalgically, recalls all the dreams Gil has at the beginning of the film, and all the familiar romance films of bygone times that end similarly. So this is nostalgia: the little dab of illusion to soften the edges of reality.

Further reading:

Nostalgia: Sweet Remembrance. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200605/nostalgia-sweet-remembrance

Proust, M. 1913-1927. In Search of Lost Time. 

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