Archive for Kipling

Struck by Lightning

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on March 9, 2014 by dcairns


I’m late to the party again — Rudyard Kipling’s story Mrs Bathurst has attracted so much critical attention that it’s doubtful I can do anything to illuminate it further. The story is like life, which in turn is like Herve Villechaise — too short, and sometimes hard to understand.

This story starts off resembling a lot of Victorian short fiction — in a simple, undramatic situation, characters chat and this leads to the telling of a tale. While a ghost story of the era might take place in a gentleman’s club, Kipling makes his characters working class soldiers and they exchange a number of stories which lead them to the tale of a mutual acquaintance. In a variation on the usual approach, here two of the characters know part of the story — one knows the bulk of it — and a third can supply the ending, which ought to make for a satisfying account, allowing the people in the framing structure to partake of the same surprise and emotional reaction as the reader. But Kipling does something very strange: even with their information pooled, the characters lack vital parts of the story, and so the reader cannot make sense of it. Frustratingly, the characters in the story shrug this off, whereas the more the reader ponders the yarn, the more deeply mysterious it becomes.

This makes it a striking early example of a modernist text. But was this deliberate? Some have suggested that Kipling’s habit of pruning back his stories during re-writing may have gotten out of hand, and he shaved away too much exposition leaving us with an unsolvable conundrum. And apparently never realised it. Certainly, Kipling wasn’t infallible: in revising the story for republication, he inadvertently had one character refer to another by name before that name had been realistically introduced.

But the idea that Mrs B’s story got obfuscated by mistake is rendered implausible by the existence of a letter written by Kipling to a fan who had suggested their own explanation of the story. Kipling said that the explanation was ingenious, but that it was important to remember that a key conversation in his plot took place between two characters without witnesses, and only they knew of its contents. In other words, the story deliberately contains an element of the unknowable.

In the story’s key central section, a character nicknamed Click has a striking emotional response to the sight of a woman on the screen of a cinematograph. She is his ex-lover, and in the film she is apparently looking for him. Click’s companion, narrating the events, gives a description of the cinema that rivals Maxim Gorky’s famous “kingdom of shadows” letter (a favourite text around here).

We were in the front row, an’ “Home an’ Friends” came on early. Vickery touched me on the knee when the number went up. “If you see anything that strikes you,” he says, “drop me a hint”; then he went on clicking. We saw London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was most interestin’. I’d never seen it before. You ’eard a little dynamo like buzzin’, but the pictures were the real thing—alive an’ movin’.’

‘I’ve seen ’em,’ said Hooper. ‘Of course they are taken from the very thing itself—you see.’

‘Then the Western Mail came in to Paddin’ton on the big magic-lantern sheet. First we saw the platform empty an’ the porters standin’ by. Then the engine come in, head on, an’ the women in the front row jumped: she headed so straight. Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage just like life. Only—only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak. I was ’ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ’oo’d dropped a book an’ was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters—carryin’ a little reticule an’ lookin’ from side to side—comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She come forward—right forward—she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture—like—like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ’eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: “Christ! there’s Mrs. B.!”’

It’s good stuff — best to read it in a Victor McLaglan voice, I find.

Just like Gorky, Kipling’s narrator is most struck by something so natural to us now that we barely notice it. Of course, the silence of the cinema image and the lack of colour is a striking difference from nature, despite the lifelike motion, but the FRAME is the weirdest thing of all. People walk closer towards us, but then vanish out of shot. This happens in real life too, but with our own vision, if something we are interested in threatens to pass out of view, we are able to turn our head to follow it. So we’re not generally conscious of losing sight of things out of the edge of our vision (but a certain meditative kind drunkenness can make us aware of it). The film camera gives us a paralysed view of life, like that seen by the protagonist of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Alex DeLarge’s experience in A Clockwork Orange of being strapped into a seat with his eyelids clamped open is just an extreme version of the normal cinematic experience.

It’s not a particularly original interpretation, but I do think that Kipling is using the cinema as a clue to his storytelling approach in Mrs Bathurst. She seems to advance towards us and become ever clearer, but abruptly she vanishes. That which the camera did not happen to aim at goes unrecorded, and we will never know what happened there.

As Mr. Scorsese is always saying, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not in the frame.

If you guys all read the story at the link up top, we can debate what the heck it’s all about.

Image via The Chiseler, where Phoebe Green previously drew attention to this tale.
Traffics and Discoveries

The Shirley Temple of Doom

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2014 by dcairns


WEE WILLIE WINKIE reminded me I must read more Kipling. I doubt his original story has much in common with this John Ford movie, but this John Ford movie has a fair bit in common with his others. FORT APACHE, for instance. In both films, Shirley Temple arrives at a fort surrounded by hostile Indians, meets Victor McLaglan, there’s a blonde who’s forbidden to see a young officer by the commanding officer who is her relative. But in the more innocent, less martial world of wee Shirley, everything does not have to end in bloodshed.

There’s some very cute stuff — Fiona pronounced Private Winkie’s kilt and uniform “adorable” and we actually laughed at McLaglan’s antics. The American cinema’s premier silverback mountain gorilla, he overplays everything but his build is so large the grandiose gestures and mugging seem perversely delicate.


THE COMPANY: C. Aubrey Smith’s crusty colonel is maybe a bit too appealing from the start — he could do with having been gruffer, since he’s all we have as an antagonist for most of the film. You would never know June Lang was a gangster’s moll in real life, she seems so demure. Cesar Romero may be an unlikely Pathan but Willie Fung is preposterous. He was preposterous even when playing Chinese, which is what he actually was, so I suppose one shouldn’t expect anything else. He’s very much in the vein of African-American comedy relief figure Snowflake — but please let’s not call him “the yellow Snowflake.” At any rate, his appearance is enough to make Woody Strode’s performance as a Chinese warrior in SEVEN WOMEN seem a model of sensitive and convincing ethnic casting.


Some of the time, though amusing, the film seems a touch impersonal for Ford — it’s nicely shot, and amusing, but there’s not much meat to it. But Shirley’s rendition of Old Lang Syne is a high point of Fordian sentiment, beautifully lit and staged, with erstwhile broad comedy characters deftly about-turned for emotional effect (including Clyde Cook, one of very few actual Scots in the film — still, that’s a few more than there are actual Indians).

NB — written Saturday night, after which I read Kipling’s Mrs Bathurst, one of the first works of literature to feature the cinematograph, and a dazzling modernist work which I must write about.

State of Andress

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2013 by dcairns


Fiona and I had both had the same experience of the Hammer film SHE — as kids, we’d caught the ending on TV and been horribly fascinated by it. Watching as adults, we had relatively meagre hopes for the movie, but it proved to be solid fun. It grips from the beginning, loses its way slightly in the desert, and arrives at its climax amid plenty of drama. Roy Ashton’s makeup effects are predictably crude, but the (spoiler alert) accelerated aging of Ursula Andress’s Ayesha still has some power to disturb, especially when Andress is replaced by a genuine old lady in heavy prosthetics — the hunched posture would be impossible for an actor to mimic.


We were watching because of the Peter Cushing Centenary Blogathon hosted by Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog. Cushing is typically fine in this, and it’s nice to see him in heroic mode, but it’s not one of his most memorable roles. He forms part of a trio of heroes a bit like the lads in GUNGA DIN, with John Richardson from ONE MILLION YEARS BC as the purportedly handsome one (Cushing is striking, which is better than being handsome) and Bernard Cribbins as the token working-class comedy relief.  Cribbins, his head a knob of gristle, ears like jug handles protruding either side, is played more grotesque than usual, I feel. He’s one of the neglected figures of British cinema (still going strong today) with roles in FRENZY, several of the CARRY ON series, and supporting roles to Peter Sellers. He also co-starred with Cushing in the awkwardly titled DALEKS’ INVASION EARTH: 2150 AD before returning to Doctor Who on TV in recent years.

Cushing’s hero was Olivier, and he aspired to his idol’s crisp delivery and athleticism — you can really see it in the climaxes of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, and in his Sherlock Holmes. “We admired the precision of his movements within the frame,” said Martin Scorsese, though I take leave to doubt how many of the future filmmakers teenage pals were appreciating Cushing’s use of his body as a compositional element in those 42nd Street grindhouses of the early sixties.

Cushing’s best scene in SHE, delightfully, is played opposite Christopher Lee, as the high priest of this lost tribe of Egypt (who are all curiously white). The film, true to H. Rider Haggard’s source novel, displays a number of retrograde attitudes, with the black natives a primitive bunch easily dominated by the pale pseudo-Egyptians (though the black uprising at the end is viewed more or less with favour!), but Cushing’s scene is amusingly sexist, as he tries to understand why Lee and his cohorts allow themselves to be dictated to by a mere woman. “You are many, and men, whereas she is alone, and a woman.” He reckons without the power of Andress’s frosty stare.


Ah, Andress. She dominates the proceedings, not by means of acting, but by an admirable refusal to contemplate anything resembling a performance. She simply impresses. Director Robert Day lets it go at that, happy to move things around her as briskly as possible, while reveling in Les Bowie’s cheap-as-chips (but charming) special effects. Andress is also dubbed, by Nikki Van der Zyl, who not only revoiced her in DR NO, but replaced Raquel Welch’s too-American cave-speak in ONE MILLION YEARS BC — meaning that in both of his most famous roles, John Richardson found himself acting with Van der Zyl.

The movie made me admire Haggard, whom I’ve never read, more than previously. If this film is even remotely accurate to the book, Haggard’s original clearly not only inspired L’Atlantide, that much-filmed piece of Saharan exotica, but also bits of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Not bad going. The film’s weakest point is probably the use of Roman soldier costumes for its Egyptians. Not quite clear what the thinking was there.


The adventure yarn is a genre Hammer dabbled in, but didn’t really pursue with the doggedness of their horror cycle. I suspect the reticence was budget-driven. A shame — the hallucinatory mess that is THE LOST CONTINENT is probably Michael Carreras’ finest achievement, and SHE is one of their most entertaining non-horror flicks.