sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-08-21 03:03 am
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But the flame still flickers in the fen

On the one hand, I feel that the most appropriate response to David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974) would have been a day in the Malverns and some cloud-watching à la Thomas Colpeper, JP. On the other, I was in Providence when I saw it, and I wasn't sure of the ancestral relationship of Edward Elgar to College Hill. I spent a lot of NecronomiCon walking. That will have to suffice.

Penda's Fen is a 90-minute television play originally commissioned and broadcast as part of the BBC's Play for Today (1970–84); it was directed by Alan Clarke and I have wanted to see it ever since I discovered it somehow in the archives of the BFI in grad school. I finally got my chance Thursday afternoon in the auditorium of the Providence Public Library. It was screened on one of those small classroom projectors; there were about a dozen people in the audience besides me and some of them left or arrived partway through. What I could hear of the introduction seemed to be trying to champion it as a Lovecraftian film—I don't want to misrepresent someone who was mostly less audible than the air conditioning, but while I grant that it is a gloriously weird piece of cinema, if anything I think it's anti-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft's universe is fragile and deceptive, contaminable and contagious. The world that can be perceived is a shell over the world that is, one crack away from collapse into barbarism or madness or the abyss of time itself. Knowledge is a virus and you may well die of it. Your bloodline was compromised before you were born. The Other is always looking for a way in, and it finds one, and down into the dark we all go, unless we turn out to be the Other, in which case the dark is where we should have been all along. I don't have to alter the premise of Penda's Fen to make it resemble this template: a sheltered young man discovers that his ideas of both himself and his nation, from race and sexuality to family and religion, are soul-shakingly wrong. He is "mixed, mixed . . . nothing special, nothing pure." But where that revelation might have sent one of Lovecraft's protagonists careening into the void, Rudkin and Clarke offer an alternate path. Openly political, unashamedly Romantic, their vision affirms queerness, hybridity, and ambiguity as the true heart of England, the small, stubborn fire that the clear-cut forces of oppression—patriarchy, white supremacy, Christian supremacy—are always trying to snuff out. Salvation lies in the liminal spaces, the mixed and marginalized. This is a really cheering thesis to see so forcefully and hauntingly stated, especially since the film itself is less a pamphlet than a dark-and-bright dream of nuclear anxiety, sexual confusion, and folk almost-horror. Its language is Christian and pre-Christian, angels and demons and the echo of William Blake, but it is actually a lot like watching a version of the Bacchae where Pentheus, instead of breaking and being torn apart, shifts shape as suddenly as his cousin into the strange thing he was always meant to be. There is also psychogeography. And sympathetic magic. And Elgar. Anglophile Lovecraft may have longingly written "God Save the King!" but I don't know that he would have endorsed or even recognized the Englishness of Penda's Fen.

Fortunately, he doesn't have to try, though I would have loved to see what he made of the film's protagonist. This is Stephen Franklin, our Pentheus of Worcestershire, played with achingly believable adolescence by Spencer Banks. A vicar's son whose social conservatism and religious orthodoxy far exceed whatever he learned at home, Stephen is introduced listening raptly to Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, but does not otherwise appear a natural conduit for the ancient genius of the land which he so passionately addresses in the film's opening lines: "Oh, my country. I say over and over, I am one of your sons—it is true, I am. I am. Yet how shall I show my love?" He's awkward in his body, rising eighteen; red-headed, left-handed, with one of those gawky faces that can look mulish or gormless as often as it looks sensitive or resolute. In his early scenes, in fact, he often looks like a fool, but not the harmless kind: his fellow sixth-formers snicker when he earnestly interrupts a lesson on The Libation Bearers to recount a "Manichaean" dream in which by pure force of will he transformed a demon perched on his father's steeple into an angel and then back again, but the audience will not be so amused when he praises a Whitehouse-like couple for their successful censorship of a TV program about Jesus, celebrating their defeat of "atheistic and subversive trash" in defense of "our Aryan national family on its Christian path." He's tongue-tied in the presence of the tough young milkman (Ron Smerczak) and claims on evidence of childlessness and radical politics that a skeptical local writer of plays for television (Ian Hogg) must be "unnatural." He plays the organ, quite well, in the school chapel where the boys sing "Jerusalem" with neither mysticism nor irony; he plays soldiers with the rest of his school's cadet force, not well and everyone knows it. He sees nothing funny about his classmates translating the school mottos of fiat lux and γνῶθι σεαυτόν as "Car and soap flakes" and "Uncover thy arse." He sees nothing funny about most things, his idealistic, intolerant, vulnerable self least of all.

Stephen may be an aggravating, embarrassing hero for audience members who have already figured out the flaws in his stiff Little England-ism and some of what it might be covering for, but our hero he is nonetheless. He resonates to the land, even if his conceptions of how to cherish it are still naively nationalistic; he contains in himself veins of deep weirdness, which the film finds perfectly natural. In his early exegesis of Gerontius, he states that he believes the part of the angel "is male, yet he sings in a woman's voice, which makes him unearthly," but the most earthly things, the most real things in Penda's Fen, are exactly these ambiguous modes of being. One night Stephen dreams of a rugby scrum, all muddy, thrusting hips and buttocks; the splattering mud stops before it reaches him, shielded—or trapped—behind a pane of clean glass. He dreams of the louche, fair classmate who malevolently suggested Stephen should be flayed and boiled in oil, as if the house swot were a holy martyr; his fingers describing the body of the other boy discover a flame at his groin, which bursts in fireworks as Stephen lays his hand upon it. He wakes and there is a demon crouched Fuseli-style on his bed, its beaked mask more quizzical than malicious. It shows a familiar human face, then it's a gargoyle again, then it's gone. Stephen turns his face aside in the empty lamplight and weeps, whispering aloud the only word he can imagine for what he is—unnatural—though a wet dream that obvious is anything but. Perhaps it is an initiation. He begins to see things in earnest now, springing up out of hedgerows and detour signs with the vividness of dreams and the inexplicability of ordinary life. Gerontius' angel stands at his shoulder as he sits alone in the fens that surround his village, its golden wings reflecting in the reed-fringed stream at his feet. Taking shelter from a cloudburst in an abandoned building, he meets the ghost of his beloved Elgar, an old man in a wheelchair who can see a "silver river and the verdant valley" in the blank bricks of a moss-splotched wall and confides in Stephen the secret well-known melody that twines through the Enigma Variations, with a stern caution never to give it away to those who don't share his "demon for counterpoint." His idols the Christian clean-up-TV couple smilingly preside over the most troubling of his visions, the formal garden of a manor house where sunnily dressed men and women bring their children up one by one to have their hands chopped off by a genial old gentleman with a cleaver, his butcher's block the bloodstained stump of an oak. They beckon Stephen into the ritual. As the neat sacrificial sounds echo in the otherwise silent air, he shakes his head with the numb protest of a nightmare, for the first time refusing something society, authority has asked of him.

Meanwhile, his waking life is undergoing a parallel sea-change, becoming dreamlike in its reversals and upheavals of things Stephen thought he knew as surely as the spelling of his village's name. He took his father's Anglican beliefs for granted, but learns from an unpublished manuscript that the Reverend J. Franklin (John Atkinson) once preemptively answered a charge of blasphemy with the assertion that it is "blasphemy worse that the name of this life-enhancing revolutionary Jesus should now be dangled like a halo above a sick culture centered on authority and death." In the face of Stephen's faltering conduct at school, his bullying by other students and his censure by an oblivious headmaster, his mother's (Georgine Anderson) entreaties to stick out his final term and stay on track for university sound ticky-tacky until her next sentence reveals that she sees education as her son's chance not to "finish up on a conveyor belt" of corporate society, just another unit of production with "the whole rhythm of his life . . . chained to the machine." She sounds like the playwright whose anti-establishment politics Stephen disparaged, whose herb-gardening wife (Jennie Heslewood) now gives him direct answers to questions he wouldn't have been able to imagine asking only a few weeks ago. He's already stopped wearing his school uniform everywhere, looking much more his age—both older and younger—in jeans and windbreaker. On his eighteenth birthday, he blows out his candles and receives a long-sealed envelope in an unfamiliar hand, a pair of photographs showing a fair-haired man who might be Eastern European, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman with a Mediterranean look. "You see, you are like the English language, Stephen," the tall man who has always been his father says with an affection that is just as earnest and awkward as his chosen son. "You have foreign parents, too." Nothing is as he thought he knew it, not his world or himself: that's the defining trait of the weird right there. Even his pastoral, unexceptional village of Pinvin, he learns, was formerly Pinfin, Pendefen, Penda's Fen, the redoubt of the last pagan king of England who went down into darkness but may never have died. When he takes to the church organ to play a passage from Gerontius for himself, the stone of the floor cracks fathoms deep, the mirror blacks out, a voice calls him by name: "Stephen Franklin, unbury me. Free me from this tree." It is probably Christ, but it could equally be the heathen king waiting like Arthur beneath "this shell of lovely earth" that Arne the playwright invoked with such beauty and dread: "Somewhere the land is hollow."

So the finale, where Stephen is finally and forever rescued from the forces of devouring conformity by the apparition of Penda himself, who blesses him against the dusk-glowing sky as "dark, true, impure and dissonant," all the things he was afraid to acknowledge at the start of his story, that have been unearthed in him like the true name of his land. He has found the courage to claim them in defiance of the secular institutions and supernatural powers that tempted him with the imperial ease of being a straight, white, Christian Englishman, that he refused like Christ with the Devil who showed him the world—Christ of the villages and the wild places rather than Christ of the cities and organized cathedrals, Christ in the most literal sense paganus. If he looks like a fool now, it's the holy kind. It's an ending as symbolically stacked and improbable as A Canterbury Tale's (1944) climactic use of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," but like its genre-blurring predecessor, almost in spite of itself, it works. I had enjoyed Rudkin's adaptation of M.R. James' The Ash Tree (1975) when I caught it on the internet a couple of years ago, but it gave me only a vague idea of what he could sound like speaking for himself. He sounds like a lot of things I love. Penda's Fen reminds me of Derek Jarman; it reminds me of Alan Garner and Geoffrey Hill; it reminds me of the films of the Archers, A Canterbury Tale specifically for its recovery of a buried, spiritual, emphatically queer past. Rejecting false ideals of national and personal purity, Stephen cries out that his "race is mixed, my sex is mixed—I am woman and man, light with darkness . . . I am mud and flame!" That liminality is what makes him most authentically of his land, not some reactionary myth of a past that was never the monolith it was cracked up to be. The subversion is the tradition. But the future is queer, too. The most important question Stephen asks Arne's wife is "Can a homosexual have children?" She answers as readily as she did when he wanted to know why there was a comfrey leaf on the back of her cat, "They make very good fathers, I'm told." Stephen smiles a little: "I want to have children." Heir and guardian, sacred demon of old weird England he may be, but his line will not end with him. His mixed children will carry on the flame.

If the film has a fault for me, it's a classic intersectional complaint: it's great on queerness and it kind of falls down on women. I like both Stephen's mother and the playwright's wife, but there's not enough of either of them and I'm not even sure they have independent names. They are not demonized in order to scaffold Stephen's awakening acceptance of his sexuality. It's just notable that they are sketched lightly where their men take up space. I appreciate, however, that the "sick father and mother" of England come explicitly as a heteronormative pair, him in his Sunday suit, her with her handbag and dressed all in pink (if you told me she got into the DNA of Dolores Umbridge, I'd believe it), both of them equally terrible. Otherwise I don't think there's a moment of the story that doesn't work for me, including a subplot that for most of the runtime feels like a paranoid political thriller accidentally barged through the room: the mystery of an inexplicably burned young man in the fens resolves itself as soon as a lighter touches a Polaroid photograph. "When we are burned, why, we are turned to light" makes a great platitude until your skin starts to smoke.

I did not manage to catch any of the rest of the film programming at NecronomiCon, but Penda's Fen made the entire schedule worth it. I'm not even sorry I saw it in a library rather than a movie theater, since I am fairly confident its influence extends to the archival, hauntological music of Ghost Box. The real trouble with describing a narrative that treats its otherworld so matter-of-factly and this world with such an eye for the surreal is that even the attempt makes both of these modes sound much more normal than the experience: I have to stress that while Penda's Fen is not in any plot sense difficult to follow, its constant shifting and eventual merging of registers is a lot like having someone else's hallucinations for an hour and a half. I suspect this was part of the reason for the walkouts, although I kind of feel that if you show up for a film at a weird fiction convention, you should be prepared for something out of the ordinary to get into your head; I certainly expect what I saw in that noontime auditorium to stay in mine. It was messy, liberating, ambitious, and very beautiful. It left me hungry for sunsets on hills I've never climbed. It made me contemplate the sacred fires of my own country and who guards them now against the dark. Who is secret, strange, holy, and ungovernable. This dream brought to you by my mixed backers at Patreon.

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