This piece is the second work from Spooool.ie’s current “Writer in Residence” David Turpin. It’s a series which will see us introduce a new writer every three months. The contributor is free to write about whatever they like during these months, once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form.
When I was a child we didn’t have a video player, so one of my special pleasures was to go into the now long-defunct Virgin Megastore and gaze longingly at the VHS cassettes while my mother paced anxiously in the background. I remember, particularly, a series of VHS releases under the Redemption Video banner. The Redemption logo was a thumbnail headshot of a vampiric blind lady (although later DVD releases have traded her in for a blind dominatrix brandishing machine guns), and the films were mainly European exploitation films from the 1960s and 1970s, their cover art gussied up with unrelated file photographs of models in latex body-stockings and contact lenses. I suppose Redemption Video was sort of like Tartan Video for people who listened to Coil. Occasionally, there was a genuine classic to be found, transferred from a ragged print and dumped somewhere between lesbian vampire opuses by Jess Franco or Jean Rollin. Nosferatu (1922) was a Redemption release, for instance, as was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – expressionist milestones both, whose low bondage and industrial noise content I imagine made for some disappointed customers. As well as those beleaguered urtexts, though, there were occasional brilliant curiosities – some of which are finally beginning to be acknowledged – and one of these was Jamoril Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970).
Roughly speaking, Valerie – which is adapted from a 1935 novel by the poet Vítězslav Nezval – depicts a series of dreams, or perhaps daydreams, that the eponymous heroine (Jaroslava Schallerová) experiences on the occasion of her menarche. Characters, whose boundaries are not always clearly defined, include a particularly terrifying vampire who is also identified as a constable and bishop; a feckless wooer named Orlik (Eagle) who may also be Valerie’s brother; and a thin-lipped grandmother who is later rejuvenated as a libidinous succubus before re-emerging at the end of the film as Valerie’s mother. It’s that kind of movie, and it’s wonderful. The repeated shots of a young bride arrayed for an arranged marriage to a monstrous older man are among the most haunting images in cinema, while the final sequence – in which Valerie’s interior life dissolves out into the natural world, the entire cast surrounding her in a ring as she sleeps in a white bed in a day-lit forest – is equally unforgettable.
Valerie is part of a rich tradition of Czech cinema surrealism, including Vera Chytilová’s Dadaist-feminist classic Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) and the collected works of Jan Svankmajer, but in my mind, it’s always been equally linked with Louis Malle’s largely forgotten Black Moon (1975). Something of an oddity in the Malle filmography, Black Moon – which was marketed as “an apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland” – emerged between the celebrated Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Malle’s pair of fine American films, Pretty Baby (1978) and Atlantic City (1980). Drier in tone than Valerie, Malle’s film imagines the maturation of another teenage girl (Cathryn Harrison) at a supernatural chateau where she takes refuge from a vaguely defined war between men and women (a conflict that Malle described as “the ultimate civil war”). Like Valerie, Black Moon is ravishingly photographed – although the muted palette of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography for Malle’s film is again less flamboyant than the sun-dappled fantasia Jan Čuřík creates for Valerie.
I came back to Valerie and to Black Moon a few months ago when I was starting to think about imagery to accompany my new record, not because my music has anything in particular to say about female adolescence or the war of the sexes, but because of the tremendous power the films have on a purely aesthetic level. Valerie and Black Moon are sometimes spoken of as “Freudian films” – and they are, I suppose – but they’re Freudian to the same degree that the little girl in Annie Hall who stands up in class and castigates Alvy Singer for having no “latency period” is a Freudian psychoanalyst. That’s to say, they’re Freudian enough to deliver the punchline, but a deeper analysis is not required, and may even be damaging to the effect. In a sense, Valerie and Black Moon are films that turn Freudian analysis backwards – rather than explicate the uncanny, they create it.
The images are often powerful not because of the analytic programme, but apart from it. Yes, Malle’s use of a mutilated bird to symbolise the loss of virginity is a little glib, but then the image of a field of sheep parting to reveal a corpse hanging from a tree is indelible – without demanding immediate schematic “decoding”. It doesn’t take any great analytic leap to see the inferred meaning of a drop of blood in a daisy, seen in close up toward the beginning of Valerie, but that doesn’t explain or defuse the haunting effect of the next sequence, as Valerie walks in tandem with the monstrous “constable”, who enfolds her in his cloak. In a sense, both Valerie and Black Moon point up one of the great suppositions of Freudian analysis, which is that “liberation from the effects of the unconscious material is achieved through bringing this material into the conscious mind”. In these films, while the general symbolic thrust may be apparent, or even simplistic, the images in camera retain a traction from which we can’t be liberated simply through “explanation”.
Film is uniquely placed to liberate the power of the dream image from the burden of significance – the burden of “whether, when and how unconscious processes are […] relevant to daily life” (Friedman & Schustack, 2012) – because film itself is mercifully liberated from the drear errand of being relevant to daily life. Film is a place in which dreams can be dreams, and they don’t have to somehow explain to us why we can’t stop biting our nails. Take, for instance, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). When Betty (Naomi Watts) gasps “Now I’m in this dream place”, she is referring not only to the experience of being a small-town girl in Hollywood, but also to that of being a player in a film. In both senses, the implication is that she finds herself in a “place” where all rules, including those of psychoanalytic significance, are suspended.
I suppose it’s dangerous to suggest that particularly symbolically loaded films can, or even should, be appreciated without decoding – I once found myself grasping the thin end of this wedge when a class I was teaching were universally appalled by the sexual politics of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) while I countered with “Yes, but aren’t his crane shots masterful?” – so one had to pick one’s battles. I’m sure Jane Campion, for one, would be appalled if we didn’t take careful note of the lighthouse symbolism in In the Cut (2003). Similarly, take away the diligently micromanaged symbols of Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard (2009) and Sleeping Beauty (2010), and there isn’t much left to chew on. Perhaps Valerie and Black Moon retain their power as uncanny objects because they are uncanny by nature – possessed of a deeper unconscious below the impeccably art-directed “unconscious” they make their surface. It would take a more committed Freudian than me to tease it out, but we might for instance identify a strenuously sublimated transsexual impulse in the way Valerie and Black Moon both find adult male filmmakers attempting to “inhabit” the sexual maturation of young women symbolically from within, rather than observe it pruriently from without.
Another film attempting a similar trick is, of course, Neil Jordan’s hairy-on-the-inside classic The Company of Wolves (1984). The Company of Wolves has long been obligatory viewing for anybody looking to graduate from the Hot Topic-“Gothic” of Tim Burton et al onto something a little richer, so its merits need no further rehearsal here. It’s worth getting the recent DVD release, though, for the typically brusque and informative director’s commentary from Jordan. Between swatting away suggestions that the film has a relationship to Hammer Horror (it doesn’t) and extolling the influence of Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), Jordan makes an offhand, but extremely revealing remark about the scene in which the film’s heroine, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) makes a strange discovery in a stork’s nest. Discussing the little clay babies Rosaleen finds there (although he could equally be talking about Valerie’s forest bed, or Black Moon’s curmudgeonly unicorn) Jordan argues that – even in a film, characterised by his own admission as a “seething mass of […] different themes wanting to be expressed” – sometimes “you can’t even say elements are symbolic […] They’re just pleasing”. Although Jordan is dismissive of the interviewer’s suggestion that this qualifies The Company of Wolves as “pure cinema”, I believe that in the “dream place” of film, to be “just pleasing” can be enough. Put the dream image on-screen, and the symbolism will take care of itself.
David Turpin is a recording artist (as The Late David Turpin) and occasional academic. His new album We Belong Dead, will be released on September 13, 2013. Read more at: www.thelatedavidturpin.com.