Archive for E Nesbit

Page 17, #18

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2020 by dcairns

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had becomes conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. ‘As to an imaginary cry,’ said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp int makes of the telegraph wires.’

Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had not been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers, and, distantly, from that part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.

As the last fold was unrolled something hard and loud-sounding bumped out of it and trundled along the nursery floor. All the children scrambled for it, and Cyril got it. He took it to the gas. It was shaped like an egg, very yellow and shiny, half-transparent, and it had an odd sort of light in it that changed as you held it in different ways. It was as though it was an egg with a yolk of pale fire that just showed through the stone.

This was the time of a botanical renaissance, brought about by the classification of plants by the Swede Linnaeus and more especially by the voyage to the South Seas by Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, killed in Hawaii in 1779. Cook carried back to Europe not only fantastic landscapes and images, from the ice world of the Antarctic to the gigantic heads of Easter Island, but a treasury of plants: three thousand species, one thousand of them unknown to botany. The world was alive with news of itself.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collection of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Again, Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi seems to record the Achaeans’ capture of the Cretan Earth-goddess’s shrine; so does his attempted rape of Daphne, whom Hera thereupon metamorphosed into a laurel. This myth has been quoted by Freudian psychologists as symbolizing a girl’s instinctive horror of the sexual act; yet Daphne was anything but a frightened virgin. Her name is a contraction of Daphoene, ‘the bloody one’, the goddess in orgiastic mood, whose priestesses, the Maenads, chewed laurel-leaves as an intoxicant and periodically rushed out at the full moon, assaulting unwary travellers, and tore children or young animals in pieces; laurel contains cyanide of potassium. These Maenad colleges were suppressed by the Hellenes, and only the laurel grove testified to Daphone’s former occupancy of the shrines; the chewing of laurel by anyone except the prophetic Pythian Priestess, whom Apollo retained in his service at Delphi, was tabooed in Greece until Roman times.

Meanwhile, every actor secretly dreads the surprise announcement of “Reload!” as the crews’ eyes roll up and the director’s roll down and their fellow actors’ eyes turn somewhere away. Then they have to get themselves back together to start again or – worse for many actors – pick up where they left off. In particularly emotional scenes, actors often never quite get back to their pre-reload intensity. (Of course, it can be argued that the pressure imposed by a running camera leads to an intensity and concentration that mere rehearsal cannot accomplish, but not many actors would agree with that claim. I’d submit that there’s certainly enough pressure to perform without that added by the celluloid whizzing through the camera.)

Back by unpopular demand (mine)! Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books I’ve randomly picked up. I wasn’t going to do anymore, or I was going to switch to video, but I missed them…

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens, collected in The Penguin Book of English Short Stories; The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit; More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; The Billion Year Spree, by Brian W. Aldiss; The Atrocity Exhibition (introduction), by J.G. Ballard; The Greek Myths: 1, by Robert Graves; Movie Speak: How to Talk like You Belong on a Film Set, by Tony Bill

Half Fare

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by dcairns

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN screened at Filmhouse as a friend’s birthday treat — thanks to David Watson for laying it on.

The film is a very familiar TV treat in the UK, but as far as I could remember I’d never actually seen the whole thing. I knew who was in it, knew there was a landslide with flannel petticoats, and a father coming back at a railway station. As it unfolded I had no idea what was going to happen yet. I’d somehow avoided seeing it, despite being a huge fan of Edith Nesbit, author, and Jenny Agutter, star.

The film is the real triumph of Bryan Forbes’ spell running EMI — a rare case of a filmmaker being in charge of a film production outlet. And I could see him being sympathetic to Lionel Jeffries, a fellow actor, coming to him with his dream project.

What with the low budget and Jeffries’ inexperience as screenwriter and director, the film often has an endearingly amateur quality. Night scenes are overlit, crew shadows glimpsed, and any time an extra is heard muttering, it’s with the distinctive timbre of the film’s director (a nice Wellesian flaw to have). Jeffries’ visual approach varies between nice ideas he sometimes pulls off, and simply struggling to get an acceptable shot in a cramped location (I’ve been there, Lionel). I think his editor is letting him down quite a bit, so when he makes a mistake it isn’t tackled, and when he gets something good going, not enough is made of it.

But the film thrives on its charm. Most of Nesbit’s children’s books have a fairly episodic, stop-start pace, and this is no exception, but the mystery/drama of the father’s absence gives it a nice suspense motor to keep it going, and the “kids” are great. Master Gary Warren, a small-statured 16, is very natural as Peter. Miss Sally Thomsett, 20, is toothsome and surprisingly convincing as the much younger Phyllis, “who means well,” though she does bounce around rather a lot when she runs. And Miss Jenny Agutter, that axiom of cinema, in a rare non-nude role brings just the right dreaminess to Bobbie, who seems imbued with a kind of telepathy, the only real magic in a story which keeps hinting at fairy tales bleeding through into reality.

The men, led by the divine Cribbins, are all cast from the Funny Uncle school of Performing Arts, of which Lionel Jeffries was himself honorary chairman. I guess with this and, ahem, FRENZY, Cribbins’ film career was on the up, just as the British film industry disintegrated.

Of Jeffries’ later works, THE WATER BABIES and WOMBLING FREE are disappointments, I fear. THE AMAZING MR. BLUNDEN is rather nice, and I’ve yet to see the intriguing BAXTER!

One reason THE RAILWAY CHILDREN works as well as it does may be that Jeffries lacked the confidence to mess about too much with the book, so it survives intact with all its episodic looseness and queer touches of mysticism, which might have been smoothed out to its detriment by a more ambitious filmmaker soaked in the professional ways of doing things. And also, I feel the film’s Edwardian sentimentality and melancholy is completely genuine, and part of its maker’s personality. I saw Jeffries interviewed on telly once, and he pointed at a very nice self-portrait he’d painted, and said that his tiny grandchild had looked at it and said, “That’s grandpa. He’s a broken man.” And Jeffries, choking up a touch, in his gruff, bluff Edwardian way, said that this was an example of the extraordinary acuity of children. And I remember thinking, wow.

Uglee-Wuglees

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on December 10, 2014 by dcairns

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I still have a very few memories of things from childhood I saw on TV but don’t know what they were. One was a silent adventure film excerpted on Paul Killiam’s Movie Museum, which used to turn up erratically to fill gaps in the schedules. The clip featured a rope bridge and the characters were all different shapes, I have a sense of papier mache ragged rock settings, and that’s all I remember.

But I sort of knew what this one was — an E. Nesbit adaptation on the BBC, though I’d forgotten what it was called until I cam across it recently. The Enchanted Castle. It stuck in my 12-year-old brain because it had statues coming to life, and one of them was a dinosaur statue. Very cool stuff.

Seen today, it’s clear that the TV crew were struggling somewhat to visualize Nesbit’s wild imaginings. The plot involves a group of kids who find a wishing ring, and the trouble that ensues. Characters get turned to marble statues (white body paint and wigs), somebody grows two four yards high (low-angle/high-angle shot reverse shot filming), and some dummies made of old clothes come to life. These are the uglee-wuglees. Their paper mask faces are alarming, as is their impedimented speech — they sound like deaf people who don’t know what consonants are. This is explained as a consequence of their paper mouths.

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I don’t recall finding the series funny, but it is, in a very deadpan way I obviously didn’t get. It’s certainly mind-expanding though. The wishing ring starts by making people invisible, first for twenty-one hours, then fourteen, then seven. The kids realize that the decreasing times will mean that next it will make somebody invisible for zero hours, then for minus seven. What will that be like? “Maybe you’ll become more visible — thicker, somehow?” theorizes one youngster.

The kids themselves are school play material mostly, but they all improve whenever they have a scene with an adult. I think it’s timing — most child actors are not good at picking up cues in a natural way and when four of them are in a scene the thing tens to get very floppy unless tightly cut. But put a decent adult in and you have one person taking up the slack and the others start to tighten up too, and the pitch of the performances adjusts to the right level also. You could see the phenomenon of kids being at their least convincing when they’re in a bunch in the HARRY POTTER movies too, even the last one where all the children were 37.

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Who remembers this?