A cicerone to The Cicerones

I just started reading Robert Aickman’s “strange tales” — I guess I’d read bits in anthologies over the years, but now I feel I’m really into him. In a sense, since his best stories are mysteries without explanations, it helps to read a few in order to see that what he’s doing is quite deliberate and forms a pattern.

I had seen the short film of THE CICERONES, adapted and directed by Jeremy Dyson of the comedy troupe/TV show The League of Gentlemen, and found it unsatisfying. When I read the story at last, I thought, “Ahah! THAT’S what it’s supposed to do. I didn’t get any of that from the film — it just seemed pointless.” (In fact, one’s first reaction to an Aickman story is likely to be a sense of “What was the point of that?” and True Understanding follows when you’ve thought it over — but that Understanding is elusive and partial and impossible to put into words. Apart from Aickman’s words.)

Then I rewatched the film. It was a lot better than I remembered. Parts of it come very close to capturing that Robert Aickman Feeling. But it doesn’t quite get there, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to compare the story and film to see why. Even if you haven’t read the story, my hope is that this will throw a light on some of the differences between literary and cinematic expression, which may be of interest.

Here’s the short film.

And here’s a documentary on Aickman. It’s a remarkable mixture of poor filmmaking (the interview footage doesn’t cut, they use dissolves as a very poor way of trying to disguise this) and very sound judgment as to content: everything that’s said is really smart and totally belongs in an Aickman show. It’s better if you treat it as radio.

Dyson is one of the talking heads in the doc, and points out that the ending of The Cicerones did not lend itself to filming. One might argue that the story as a whole resists picturisation, and that the obscurity of its meaning might defeat anybody. It’s like a Fellini film or something — it only works if you sense that the author knows what it means even if you don’t. And since maybe Aickman is the only one who really knows, nobody else can tell his story.

First off, let’s dispose of Dyson’s whole opening scene. It’s not in the story and I can’t work out why he’s added it. It’s very Dracula. It allows us to get to know Trant, the tourist, a little, I guess, but I don’t see any problem letting us get to know him by way of the story.

(I do like phony train journey scenes, I’ll admit, and indeed more-or-less began my own last short film with one.)

Dyson also does something I don’t understand the point of. From the list of artworks described in Aickman’s story, he picks one, Christ Among the Doctors by Frans Pourbos the Elder, and makes it Trant’s particular obsession. From a simple bit of set dressing, it becomes a damned PLOT POINT. One which is never fulfilled and doesn’t mean anything that I can see anyway. Adding to the sense that the film just fizzles.

Aickman, of course, can just tell us stuff, but he chooses to tell us little. Trant is 32 and he likes to travel, and he takes it rather seriously. He uses his Cicerones Guidebook in a very rigorous way. Aickman also begins by telling us that it’s exactly 11.28 when Trant enters the church he’s come to see, and there’s a lot of worry about the fact that it’ll be closing for a long European lunch break soon and he might not get a chance to see everything.

The Truth Pulpit in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent

But anyway, once we get inside the “Cathedral of St Bavon,” Dyson’s film improves. The sound design is rather heavy, right from the start, but it’s effective. And the figure in the pulpit is genuinely creepy. The POV tracking shots, and Mark Gatiss’s reaction shot, almost as if he’s waking from half-sleep, are excellent. Though I think showing the figure twice and for such a long time each time is a mistake. But the sudden reveal that it’s an arrangement of vestments (but we KNOW what we saw!) is genuinely uncanny.

The foreign guy emerging from the shadowed recess is somehow not startling, but it’s quite stylish. My feeling, though, is that what Aickman describes — someone speaks, and Trant realizes he’s been observed, and looks, and the guy’s just THERE — would be more disturbing, because more naturalistic. The only thing that’s eerie about Aickman’s character is the fact that he’s engaging a stranger in conversation — very un-English (or at any rate, very un-southern-English) — and that everything he says is a little off.

Dyson has messed with the dialogue a bit, but that’s OK: I’m not sure why he’s changed things, but he hasn’t done any damage.

Gatiss is very good in this — he’s always been very good at playing discomfort. Maybe he’s a bit too interesting to start with, though. Aickman is content to let his normal characters be quite stodgy and dull. And of course, Aickman was writing a contemporary story. You could, I think, play it in modern dress. Does the period dress-up add intriguing flavour, or does it remove it from the recognizable world? Remember Henry James’ line about a good ghost story having to touch reality in a hundred places…

The foreign guy leaves, in MUCH too strange a manner. I feel that by amping up the weirdness (perfs, sound design) Dyson leaves himself nowhere to go, so that the ending is bound to come us a let-down unless he exaggerates that, too. This is a very tempting mistake to make, because one naturally wants to make things interesting. Whereas Aickman seems content to, in Sidney Pollack’s admirable words, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” And so his frissons stand out.

The high angle wide at 05:03 takes us out of the hero’s POV a bit. Aickman’s story is extremely specific — he based his fictional cathedral on a visit to a real one in Antwerp. Dyson has had to combine three real English churches as locations, so he may have had to invent transition shots like this to seamlessly teleport his leading man from site to site.

St Bavo’s

“”The cathedral in The Cicerones was at Antwerp, but the events described in the story happened to me so precisely (almost) that I moved the whole thing, including all the detail, to the cathedral at Ghent. I fear, therefore, that the student has to visit both cathedrals: not that he will regret doing so, or she,” explained Aickman. Though friends of his have spoken of his involuntary imagination — when he described to them events they’d experienced together, the incidents always emerged as fantastically altered, unrecognizable. Presumably, Aickman did have a series of odd conversations — Pinterseque comedies of menace — at the Cathedral of our Lady. The really weird thing he invents in his story is the notion that the varied characters Trant encounters — the foreign dude, an American youth, some kind of choir boy or juvenile servitor, and a small child who emerges from a tomb, are all somehow co-conspirators in an unspecified but malign cult.

The Cicerones translates as “the guides,” and it’s a rather obscure term for a modern audience — well, I’ll confess that I had to look it up. So I don’t think it helps Dyson’s film, though it’s a very nice title when you get it: the alternative title, THE GUIDES, doesn’t suggest a secret society, unless you’re a follower of Agnes Baden-Powell.

Dyson’s film now hits its first anticlimax phase, as the American and the choirboy are less flamboyantly strange than foreign guy. They’re both much closer to what Aickman wrote, and the peculiar sexual challenges fired out by the “transatlantic youth” are suitably discomfiting, and rather funny.

The tomb-child is very low-key, and maybe even less strange than the equivalent in the story, who is fair-haired, completely androgynous, and limps. But is dressed in dark brown, seemingly quite plain garments. For some reason, the film blurs the distinction between the choirboy or whatever he is, and this new character.

I also want to point out an error with the cutting. At some point, somebody’s decided they have to get things moving, so they’ve trimmed back, jump-cutting some of the movement in a way that’s not jarring or displeasing, and is in fact very commendable in most circumstances. (As, for example, around 2.58 and 7.19.) You can make the audience feel subconsciously that they’re in safe hands whenever you splink out a bit of time like this. We sense that we’re not going to be forced to watch boring A-B stuff.

Here, it’s really unhelpful, since suspense requires the audience to be forced to wait.

All the way through, Dyson is forced to drop some of the story’s best moments, because they depend on Aickman being vague about things that a filmmaker would have to either show or not show. “There were occasional showcases and objects on pedestals,” writes Aickman, declining to tell us what he means by “objects.” Guillermo del Toro would clutter the scene with marvelous oddities, and that wouldn’t be right either.

“‘St Levinus’s ornament,’ said the child, and crossed itself. Trant did not quite know what to make of the ornament.” This is creepy and funny and of course quite abstract. But maybe you could make a good shot with an out-of-focus foreground ornament which we can’t make out, and a disturbed reaction from Gatiss? You can imagine him having fun with this. “What IS that? Oh NO! I must be mistaken. Yes, definitely mistaken. Still, how odd.” All unspoken.

Throughout, the great Joby Talbot’s music is doing good work — this composer always seems to find a distinct sound that isn’t like what you’re used to in whatever kind of thing it is you’re watching.

The climax. Christ Among the Doctors by Frans Pourbos the Elder is completely forgotten, but Dyson also leaves out “a small but exquisite alabaster keystone showing a soul being dragged away on a hook by a demon.” This detail, positioned above “a small door” from which the story’s Final Boss will emerge, is the thing that made me feel that Aickman’s baffling yarn did indeed have some secret meaning which we might fathom if only we strained our eyes and minds in just the right direction.

The story ends with a figure emerging from this hatch… but since Dyson has already done a big phony suspense thing about the small boy emerging from a crypt, this maybe lacks the punch it could have. But it’s going great until the figure comes through, partly because Gatiss’s performance of nameless dread is so gripping.

(I like also that Trant could obviously just shove his way free — two of his opponents are just small boys. But part of the story has always been about the social discomfort of odd things going on in a church. To struggle against one’s fate simply isn’t done.)

It’s the thing Trant thought he saw in the pulpit, but, writes Aickman, “It was undoubtedly the very person, but in some way enlarged or magnified; and the curious fringe of hair seemed more luminous than ever.”

This is all very far from the kind of stage directions one can write in a screenplay, or the kind of thing one can photograph. Dyson has made Aickman’s penultimate moment into the absolute climax of his story, but when the very person steps into the light, he’s immediately NOT SCARY. This seems to me because, even with his head lowered, we can see his very human face.

The strangely mundane line, “The cathedral closes now. Follow me,” makes me think of DEAD OF NIGHT and the line “Just room for one inside, sir,” which is delivered in a mundane way in a very peculiar circumstance. And we know Aickman was a serious and very opinionated admirer of cinema.

NOT SCARY. Why, though? Something about the combination of normal and ab- fails to hit Freud’s unheimlich square-on, and we just ricochet off into Nothingsville. I feel that Aickman’s figure is not in the least human — it was earlier revealed to be a cluster of clothes and a monstrance (superb word!) — even though it is described as a person and a man, and it says these words. It’s a very delicate balance, the one between the mundane and the uncanny, and the different elements are in tension here in theory but somehow everything goes slack in the execution.

My best guess — my best idea for a quick fix to make this ending scarier — is that the words should be slightly divorced from the actor. We should hear them over a shot of Gatiss’s terrified face, which is the scary thing in this scene. We’ll know they’re coming from the man, but their connection to him will be more abstract.

Even with this one element falling flat — it’s not the poor actor’s fault — things ought to be scarier. I think that without the alabaster keystone, there’s no actual threat. What’s going to happen to the film’s Trant? Nothing is really implied. Whereas it feels like the story’s Trant is going to Hell.

The last passage of the story is terrifying, and it seems to be this that Dyson felt he couldn’t film:

“His questions went quite unanswered, his protests quite unheard; especially after everyone started singing.”

Scary. Also funny. Very League of Gents. And I think you COULD show that. The song needs to be a strange chant without discernible words. And then you still need something definite to go to black on, something Aickman hasn’t provided. Unless maybe you have the big figure blot out the frame, which might work, if you didn’t do it in too hammy or obvious a way.

But surely they’ve GOTTA sing!

I don’t mean to knock THE CICERONES — in many respects it gets very close to the essence of the story and finds cinematic language for a lot of the mood. The fact that it can’t make it all the way just shows how tricky Aickman can be.

Dyson has made an excellent radio programme about Aickman.

 

 

 

12 Responses to “A cicerone to The Cicerones”

  1. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    The important thing about cicerones, rather than mere guides, is that cicerones are experts in their subject. They know all about what they’re showing and doing.

  2. Thanks! Also, the fact that I had no knowledge of the word when I first saw the short film was a big part of why I couldn’t make sense of it. The title is one key to the story, the devil with the hook is another.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Nicely creepy if not actually scary — save for the climax where he’s surrounded and one expects him to be killed.

  4. I highly recommend the stories. “Unsettling” might be a very good word for them. Freudian/Jungian narratives that recall the peculiarity of Hoffmann’s The Sandman. There’s often a sense of being led up the wrong path into a dark place…

  5. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    “Strange stories” was Aickman’s own term. Often, you feel it might be an illusion or delusion on the central character’s part and he could be misunderstanding something mundane, that as Housman said
    “In all the endless road you tread
    There’s nothing but the night”.

  6. My introductions to Robert Aickman were the Fontana Books of Great Ghost Stories (some of which he edited as well as having stories in them) and an episode of BBC’s Late Night Horror anthology series called The Bells of Hell (1968), which was an adaptation of Aickman’s Ringing the Changes.

    After seeing it I got everything I could find of his out of Croydon Library. (The BBC wiped all but one of their Late Night Horror episodes, of course; it lives on only in legend.)

  7. That’s a MARVELOUS title sequence! Never seen it before. They really did stuff like that brilliantly then, and the technical limitations seem to HELP.

  8. I must DEFINITELY go inside Antwerp cathedral!

  9. Matthew Davis Says:

    Aickman’s a very ‘mandarin’ writer where the extended precision of his sentences is also elusive and euphemistic, and full of casual allusions to all the upper middle-class cultural ephemera and vocabulary which used to be expected in the nicer class of magazines and dinner parties, e.g. “Cicerones”. .

    The Guggenheim in Venice is discomfortingly replete with Cicerones. You’ll be standing contemplating an artwork when a figure will suddenly appear to your side and whisper facts into your ear. Are you being chatted up? No, it’s a Guggenheim employee with poor awareness of personal boundaries. Which reminds me there’s a throwaway line in Aickman’s “Never Visit Venice” in which he censures the museum for ruining Venice by introducing tawdy modern rubbish.

  10. There’s a very effective Gattis & Dyson BBC 4 radio adaptation of “Ringing the Changes” on YouTube Here , with George Baker, Fiona Allen, and Barbara Shelley.

  11. Fiona Watson Says:

    Can I just say one thing about Dyson’s short film. It’s his first short film so can we just cut him some slack. As far as I’m aware he had not directed anything before, so of course it’s not going to be perfect. Also, Mr Crayons (my husband) admits that Aickman must be very difficult to adapt, visually at least. Reduced purely to sound, it might be easier to get across the atmosphere of his stories.

  12. Yes, I give him credit for trying something tricky, and more credit now that I’ve read the source story and can see how very close he comes in places to pulling it off triumphantly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: