Wednesday, 23 April 2014


A Ghost Story? [Mild SPOILERS]

For the last week or so I've been working my way through the BFI DVD box-set 'Ghost Stories for Christmas Expanded Six-Disk Collection' and trying to surmise my feelings on the individual films contained therein.  Some of the films - such as Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Signalman (1976), to say nothing of the markedly more recent 2010 remake of Whistle and I'll Come to You - are genuinely remarkable, while other films are no more than enigmatic sketches that survive on sheer atmosphere alone.  Stigma (1977), the last film to be directed by series regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, falls firmly into the latter category, but is worth discussing for a few rather interesting thematic and directorial ideas.

Right away the first image of the film captured my imagination.  A small red dot, like an orb or a distant planet, is framed against an obscured landscape evocative of some vague science-fiction themed setting, but also suggesting something of a similar atmosphere to director Michelangelo Antonioni's psychological-drama, Red Desert (1964), where the world of the film was frequently reduced to a clouded, indistinguishable smear.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

As the credits begin to form - superimposed as they are over this peculiar, abstract vista - I started to question what this image could possibly imply.  At first I thought it was the glow of a synthetic sun, burning a hole through the image and searing the surface of the lens as if an actual shaft of light had somehow pierced the retina of its artificial eye and damaged it beyond repair.  Then I started to think of the more obvious connotation; the drop of blood and with it the memory of an image seen in Nicolas Roeg's horror masterpiece Don't Look Now (1973), where the smearing of a photograph in the opening scene became a premonition to a later moment of blood-curdling threat.

Don't Look Now [Nicolas Roeg, 1973]:

In a quite brilliant directorial stroke, Clark has his cameraman, John Turner, rack the focus of the lens and suddenly the red glowing orb is revealed to have been the out-of-focus glare of a red Citroën Dyane 6; driven here by the film's protagonist, Katherine Delgado, and her teenage daughter, Verity.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

The car moves through the quiet countryside, surrounded, on both embankments, by fields and woodland areas, and by the occasional appearance of the mysterious menhirs that (in part) define the pastoral landscapes of Avebury, where the film takes place.

In the setting (and in the contrast between the very practical iconography) Clark is already establishing a disparity between the old and the new; between the "ancient" - as illustrated by the landscape and its mythical stone circles, and the near-unique, almost elemental formation of the hills and fields - and the "modern" - as clearly defined by the car and its cargo.  This juxtaposition is an important theme that gives some credibility to the eventual development of the narrative; where the later sequences (following the couple's return to the family cottage) seem to suggest an element of reincarnation or possibly even demonic possession.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:
N.B.  Note the reappearance of the colour red as seen on the cottage door.

Making their way up from the driveway and into the back garden, the characters find two local labourers hard at work attempting to remove a large stone from the surface of the lawn.  A short exchange of dialogue sets-up their intentions and why this particular course of action has been decided, despite the difficulty of the task at hand.  Here, Clark deliberately contrasts the harsh, mechanical appearance of the heavy-lifting machinery against the surrounding environment, including those aforementioned stone formations that seem to watch, ominously; like silent sentinels, or the agents of some primitive God.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

It is this attempt to move the stone that seems to unleash the unseen evil that will soon throw the lives of these characters (and the narrative itself) into disarray; the generic practicalities of this recalling the recognisable tropes of horror and science-fiction standards like Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Stone Tape (1972) and later films, like The Keep (1983), Prince of Darkness (1987) and The Hole (2009), where man - in his infinite quest for knowledge or cultural progression - inadvertently awakens something primitive, even primordial, otherwise hidden beneath the earth.

Almost immediately, the mother seems to become transfixed, as if caught in the spell of some insidious "outsider" influence, which leaves her dispossessed (no longer in control of her own emotions).  As she heads back into the house it's almost as if she's drifting through her own life; a sleepwalker, acting but not reacting, or like a puppet compelled into action by the command of a secret master.

As if to create a natural association to where the narrative will eventually lead us, Clark signals the moment before the character's metaphysical metamorphosis with a shot that has some relevance to an earlier film of his own direction.  Here, the claw-like hook of the digger and the very specific way in which it seems to hang in judgement over the face of the character (and the act of desecration that she's brought to bear) looks just like a noose.  A noose, which - in the dark days of people like Mathew Hopkins, the "Witchfinder General" - might have sent a generation of young women like Katherine to their deaths.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

This suggestion of judgement or persecution from beyond the grave seems intentionally designed to evoke the same territory as Clark's earlier film from the same series, The Ash Tree (1975).  There, a woman accused and subsequently hanged for the crime of heresy exacts revenge on her prosecutors in a manner best befitting the supernatural predilections of the story's author, M.R. James.

The Ash Tree [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1975]:

Throughout the film Clark offers these potential clues to understanding or at least interpreting the film's strange and often intangible plot; these bizarre, enigmatic images, or moments that seem to push the audience towards a particular reading (or justification) for the increasingly strange goings-on.  Subtle clues that the audience need to read seem unclear or even arbitrary at the time, but make a small modicum of sense when we see them against the eventual revelation of what this "evil" actually is and of the dark place from which it seems to have emerged.

One such link that Clark and the writer Clive Exton seem to construct is created by intercutting the very frightening and disturbing dilemma of the mother with scenes of her daughter doing ordinary things that become somewhat strange (or extraordinary) when placed within the wider context of later events.

A shot of Verity sat cross-legged on the bedroom floor and illuminated by a small lamp that's been placed like a crystal ball amidst the chaos of teenage debris would not look out of place in a film about troubled youth or family dysfunction, but now seems to evoke the mystical, as the mother suddenly begins to act out of character, as if haunted, or again, genuinely possessed...

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:
Red again, this time as polish on the daughter's finger nails.

Here, the child, removed from events, but almost in contemplation of them, tenses her red-painted fingertips, prayer-like, in a near-magisterial expression; like a witch presiding over a cauldron manifestation taking place in the adjacent room.

Several clues to potentially understanding the film can be found in this scene.  First, there is the song on the soundtrack; Mother's Little Helper by the Rolling Stones.  The song underlines the significance of the mother/daughter relationship, illustrated here by the spatial and/or emotional separation of Katherine and Verity.  The bond between mother and daughter is supposed to be a strong one, but while Katherine goes through her own private anguish in the family bathroom, or wanders disconnected around the kitchen in an empty daze, Verity seems oblivious; instead, heading to the local shop or sitting pensive by the lamplight; spinning her disks with an almost inhuman indifference.  This creates a number of questions that again will make a greater sense towards the end of the film, but for the most part seem to be beyond any standard comprehension.

Even the name of the band on the soundtrack is a kind of clue.  The "Rolling Stones", creating an associative link to the ancient stones that now surround the small house and imprison its inhabitants, while further black magic intrigues are hinted at by the somewhat obvious placement of the band's 1966 album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, amongst the disorganisation of Verity's bedroom.

There is also that interesting use of intercutting, which at first seems frustrating, since it appears to disrupt our connection with Katherine and the terrifying reality of her situation, but which in hindsight gives meaning to the perspective of Verity and the very primal connection that she seems to have to these ancient stone markings that define the surrounding environment and the world outside the home.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:
Cross-cutting interior and exterior spaces (the physical and
 the psychological/natural and supernatural, etc)

The intercutting of the two locations seems designed to bring these elements together.  On the one hand, we have the scenes of teenage alienation; the daughter, unable to connect with mum, wanders the fields and hills and finds comfort in her room and in the isolation of it.  On the other hand, we have a very violent and unsettling horror story that seems to cut back and forth between the supernatural and the psychological, as the audience, for the most part at least, remains unsure of the real cause of Katherine's unfortunate malady.

It is in the juxtaposition of scenes and the individual arcs of the narrative that Clark offers some reason for events; allowing the viewer to make a connection between the elements so far seen and to use what we know of the horror movie, as a genre, to fill in the blanks.  The implication, that this mythical landscape and the stone formations that so transfix the alienated Verity are somehow conspiring with the ghost of a long-dead victim to take revenge on those unfortunate enough to disturb their unholy slumber, seems to be further reinforced by the development of subsequent scenes.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:
Henry Fuseli's painting, The Nightmare (1781).  A hint that things are happening outside the realms 
of reality, or simply an acknowledgement of some other form of bodily possession?

By connecting the various occurrences - with one scene leading into another scene, like the links in a chain - Clark and Exton give the audience just enough possibilities to create their own hypothesis regarding the fate of these characters.  In reality, there is no rational explanation for anything taking place, but by seeing an image of Katherine acting dazed and trancelike against an image of the stones as seen through the kitchen window, or the shot of Verity in her bedroom intercut with the mother's violent ordeal, we create a connection between the two.  It's like the Kuleshov Effect in narrative form, wherein the intercutting of potentially unrelated sequences forces the audience to make an associative connection; in a sense, creating the story themselves.

This idea brings us back to that strange and ominous orb seen drifting during the opening credits.  There, the glare of the family car as an out of focus blot against an abstract landscape took on the appearance of an almost extra-terrestrial vision.  However, when we think back to this sequence with the subsequent knowledge of the situation taking place, that connection to the drop of blood (and the idea of the blood as an objective premonition) seems explicitly linked to the horror that befalls the central character.

Having been possessed (seemingly) by a ghost, or by the spirit of the landscape itself, Katherine is struck by an especially terrifying physical affliction.  Blood seeping through the skin, as if secreting from an internal wound that doesn't seem to exist, at least not in the corporal sense.  The way the red dot grows in intensity, spreading out as it soaks through the fabric of Katherine's shirt, once again reminded me of the first image of the film and that red-hued harbinger that appeared to overwhelm the screen.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

It is this literal translation of the title - the "stigma" as short for stigmata, in the biblical sense (although the cause of this bloodletting seems to point to something that runs counter to the Christian myth) - which seems the most obvious, but it's only later in the film, when the stone is finally turned, that we're given a (kind of) reason for these bizarre events.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

Here, the labourers, having returned the next day with more powerful industrial equipment, remove the stone and discover the makeshift grave of a heavily decomposed body.  The body itself is perplexing enough, but the appearance of several ancient daggers - four at each corner of the grave and one embedded between the ribs of the skeleton, bellow where the victim's heart would have been - gives the mystery an even greater depth.

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

All of this is intercut with Katherine's final struggle (which I won't spoil), creating the impression of the two occurrences being intrinsically linked.  The subsequent shot is likewise enigmatic and again seems intended to create a potential linkage between the various elements; tying up the narrative but really leaving the audience with as many questions as it does legitimate answers.

In this penultimate moment, a cloaked figure stands guard at the desecrated grave site, somehow detached (emotionally) from previous events.  As the cloaked figure peels away the layers of an onion, I couldn't help subconsciously connecting the red of the nails and the shape of onion itself to that of the mesmerising red orb seen earlier in the film, but also to the iconography of the poisoned apple; the one offered by the Evil Queen (in the guise of an aged witch) to the title character of the Walt Disney production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [David Hand & Others, 1937]:

Stigma [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977]:

If the plot throughout Stigma is vague and muddled, moving, sometimes awkwardly, between the domestic and the supernatural, it is moments like this that seem to create an emotional coherency beyond any narrative ambiguity (even Clark himself admits during the accompanying DVD introduction that he was never entirely sure where the evil in the film was directed).  In general, these moments succeed in pushing the audience towards a certain (unspoken) interpretation that makes even more sense following the revelation of its parting shot(s).

In this regard, I questioned the possibility that Clark and Exton were offering us, the viewer, the poisoned apple - drawing us into what effectively seems to be a domestic horror movie, with the standard requirements of a woman in peril and lashings of gore, only to reveal a subtext of persecution and atrocity that relates back to the dark days of the witch trials (c.f. The Ash Tree) - or if they were simply peeling away the layers of the story (like the digger, which peeled away the layers of the earth) with the sole intention of providing us one final jolt?  The ending once again shows the connection between the two strands of the narrative; between mother and daughter, or between the supernatural and the psychological interpretations of the scenes.

Although categorised as "a ghost story", Stigma seems to be a departure from the previous films in the series.  Not least because it's the first to feature a contemporary setting (the other films are period pieces adapted from the work of writers like Charles Dickens and M.R. James) but because its supernatural threat seems to take on a physical manifestation, possessing its characters and inflicting a suffering that seems both cruel and unusual when compared to the fate of characters in those earlier instalments.  In previous Clark films, such The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and A Warning to the Curious (1972), the characters are punished as a result of their greed or underhandedness, or because of some perceived failing or flaw (as in the aforementioned Lost Hearts).  In Stigma, Katherine and Verity have done nothing of real malice to incur the wrath of a vengeful spirit; their only crime is that of a selfishness symptomatic of middle-class privilege.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Top Ten: 2000

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Werckmeister Harmonies
[László Krasznahorkai, Ágnes Hranitzky & Béla Tarr, 2000]:

The Gleaners & I [Agnès Varda, 2000]:

In the Mood for Love [Wong Kar Wai, 2000]:

Freedom [Sharunas Bartas, 2000]:

Eureka [Shinji Aoyama, 2000]:

Branca de Neve [João César Monteiro, 2000]:

La Commune (Paris, 1871) [Peter Watkins, 2000]:

After the Reconciliation [Anne-Marie Miéville, 2000]:

Blackboards [Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000]:

Unbreakable [M. Night Shyamalan, 2000]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Top Ten: 2001

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Millennium Actress [Satoshi Kon, 2001]:

In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour) [Jean-Luc Godard, 2001]:

Mulholland Drive [David Lynch, 2001]:

A.I. Artificial Intelligence [Steven Spielberg, 2001]:

Avalon [Mamoru Oshii, 2001]:

Pulse (Kairo) [Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001]:

Millennium Mambo [Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2001]:

Sex and Lucía [Julio Medem, 2001]:

Monsters, Inc. [Pete Docter & David Silverman, 2001]:

The Devil's Backbone [Guillermo del Toro, 2001]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Top Ten: 2002

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Distant [Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002]:

Solaris [Steven Soderbergh, 2002]:

Workers, Peasants [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 2002]:

Dark Water [Hideo Nakata, 2002]:

The Man Without a Past [Aki Kaurismäki, 2002]:

Waiting for Happiness [Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002]:

Spider [David Cronenberg, 2002]:

The Good Thief [Neil Jordan, 2002]:

Russian Ark [Alexander Sokurov, 2002]:

A Snake of June [Shin'ya Tsukamoto, 2002]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.