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Roeg elements: innovation and risk.

By ANTHONY HOWELL.

— For Nicolas Roeg on his 90th birthday: one of the only British film “auteurs” deserves our accolades for the innovative films he directed such as Performance, Bad Timing, Castaway and The Man who Fell to Earth. I mark this event with a celebration of artistic risk-takers, young and old.

WE LIVE IN confused and confusing times. As I was growing up, sharp young writers and artists were extending the territory of modernism, while there were old codgers who persisted in exalting the Georgian poets and even more retrograde figures who were inclined to argue for a return to Victorian romanticism, sentiment and bombast.

From being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, poets have turned into being the acknowledged advocates of nonsense.

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Today, I seem to be the one who is out of touch with the zeitgeist. Issues appear to be all-important. Prizes and rewards go to those who promote animal rights and a vegan lifestyle. People come together because they share the same feelings rather than the same thoughts. Poems get published in established magazines because of what the poet cares about. Faber now publishes the work of those concerned with identity, shame, gay shame, healing, gender and trauma. The actual quality of the writing is only referred to as an aside. Many of these poets are one-trick ponies, for as their pet issue goes out of fashion, so do their poems. Prizes financed by submission fees encourage a general kow-towing to amateurs and their sentiments. From being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, poets have turned into being the acknowledged advocates of nonsense.

The millennium seems to be wishing upon us the restoration of mawkish and short-sighted values – perhaps not the values of patriotism, fidelity, grace and tradition that preoccupied swathes of nineteenth century verse, but in many ways the appeal is the same. It’s an appeal to the emotions. We are supposed to appreciate the poet because we share the sentiment promoted by that poet’s verse, and we wish to join forces to promote the issues the poet endorses. To care far more deeply about the surface of the poem, determined to grasp its materiality, how it makes use of words whatever its issue, if it has one at all, and how it creates surprise, how it provokes questions regarding the meaning of meaning, is now indicative of what an old codger one has become.

There are younger poets who buck this trend. Emma Hammond, for instance, whose tunth-sk (Waterways) was published by Flipped Eye and The Story of No (Penned in the Margins). Her poetry satirises the sentiments and issues that preoccupy many of her contemporaries, and she manages this by an adept use of language, by seeking experimental forms that make use of up-to-date expressions, buzz-words and celebrity jargon. The words are jammed together, the expressions torn apart, the buzz-words appear with their meanings altered. Hugo Williams has encountered her work and says of it:

There is something about the imaginative control exercised by Hammond, coupled with metaphorical daring, that makes you read on. The poetry is wild and unsettling but also cool and convincingly modern. This is the poetry of lived experience, but also of lived writing. Though seemingly utterly spontaneous it is also very self-aware. As if it is the most natural thing in the world, she manages to capture the life of the mind, even as it captures the movements of the world. Surprise is the engine of a good poem and Emma Hammond never fails to provide this element. She is the real thing.”

Here is a poem of hers called “Tax”:

What about these Dinner Lady positions?
say Job Thing, her face all atoms. The poster
behind her shows a Magical Negro learning New
Skills. You must use a teaspoon to empty out the
River Thames into the mouths of Lost Children.
Her lips go Interrobang. Should’ve had an abortion —
gin / coat hanger then straight back to your desk
on Mundee. Looking for a Job: a Job in itself
Hardworking Taxpayer spins sad on a pivot —

clean out of Meal Deals. Particle Lady
spells out Workfare by rolling a boulder slowly
up and down my arm. She is punctured
skin in pools on the Job Centre floor, soft
money that trickles to my useless hands. My feet
stuck fast in molten fury — How will I get back
to my Luxury Lifestyle now? I chose wrong!
My arm rises and plunges a Biro into my own chest.
The adventure ends here.

I am also impressed by If I Talked Everything My Eyes Saw – a chapbook by Natacha Bryan, published by Gatehouse Press. Brought up in London by her Jamaican grandparents, her poems have the allure of ritual, and this allure is spun for us by the way the words are woven together, as in this extract from “The Warner”:

Stood and spoke in nothing
but the skin all of us were born in
with a mouth of hooks and mesh.
Cradled in the rim of her hat, eggs

and a mattress strapped to her back.
My eyes slipped in the dirt cracks.
Age of school, height of the Golden Stool
was I, when the bells called doom doom.

She roamed like a gully through highways
to preach inside the market place.
Her skin glowed like the night we had arrived
sequins flitting on the cloak of night.

But this was daylight, Saturday afternoon
the sun swung low as a scythe moon.
It was unlike Parson’s three-hour sermon
to repent and flee the Everlasting Punishment.

Men’s lips are swollen by prayers and wishes
but their hands are crocheted from nets.
The great sharks we are in all out fishing
————-let us not forget.

The voice was a muscular swell of wind
her words carried the smell of fish thawing.
Even the cows stood still like monuments
and stopped chewing their tongues to listen….

There is a mystery to her poems, a synaesthesia that creates the surprise that Hugo Williams considers “the engine of a good poem”. Pascale Petit says of her work:

Natacha Bryan’s poems are spellbinding incantations that transmute trauma. Characters speak in riddles or behave like ecstatics, ordeals are transformed through conjuring tricks mainly achieved through the electrifying vigour of her lines. Images slide about and melt into each other, rhythm syncopates like improvised jazz…”

I don’t want to seem a codger. I am invigorated by finding new authors to admire. I enjoy the work of Tom Jenks, whose book The Tome of Commencement – a Rogetification of The Book of Genesis, published by Stranger Press, is a joy to read and to return to. Nicki Heinen’s Itch, published by Eyewear in its Lorgnette series, contains strong and surprising poems, sometimes concerned with devastating experiences. Mental health is an issue that she explores, but always with a feeling for the texture of the poetry itself. Venturing beyond the printed page, Iris Colomb is an artist as well as a poet and she has been expanding the performative aspect of poetry in highly original ways. She states that she applies a design approach to poetic projects. She’s an innovator in the sound of poetry but also in the material shape of the book or how words are presented to us, in card spirals, in cootie-catchers: poems like butterflies that open and shut. Her practice is as innovative in its own way as the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay who fused poetry with incision into stone — as can be seen in Scotland at his sculpture garden, Little Sparta.

Faber has lost the plot. These are some of the names we should be watching out for. And, at present, their work has to be sought out tenaciously, since it is relegated to the margins of our literary establishment.

BUT NOW I want to turn to certain practitioners who are older than I am whose work has also been marginalised. I’ve mentioned the work of Edward Field before. To me, he seems a major American poet of his time. Now in his nineties, he brought about a fusion of the expressive poetry associated with the beats and the laconic descriptions of idle moments that Frank O’Hara developed in such a deadpan manner among the poets of the New York School. There’s plenty of theory and discussion that goes on around the prose poem – and Ian Seed’s prose poems provide dreamy examples of what can be done with this genre – but Edward Field has taken poetry to an elsewhere – what do I mean?

Well, the prose poem may render prose poetic, but Field is important because he began shaping the poetry in prose. This is Whitman, but without the cadences. Metaphor is a rarity in his work, as in the work of William Carlos Williams. Life must speak for itself, since it is life itself that makes resonant a poem such as “World War 11” – that describes in simple but forensic detail the experience of being shot down in a bomber over the North Sea. Field shares with John Ashbery a love of cartoon characters such as Nancy and Aunt Fritzy Ritz, and he also has great feel for American variety shows and films, presented in poems that are sometimes intensely moving, “The Life of Joan Crawford”, for instance. Field also has an unflinching regard for the reality of our bodies and our “body-life” – from early memories of children who “pull down pants and bloomers, and stare and stare at each other“ when “Playing in the Backfields”, to how our desire continues, even into our nineties:

CELEBRATING HIS ASS

they try to block your dick
with their little pills
for blood pressure, prostate, heart

they figure you’re an old guy
so what’s the difference

and just to stay alive
you go along with it, take the goddam pills

but how lucky I am
to live with an antidote to their poison

whatever the depredations of age
he still has one goddam beautiful ass

and just looking at it
I can’t stop pulling on my dick

I follow him around like a dog
drooling over the ballet of his movements
and can’t stop pulling on my dick

actually, anything he does
goes to my dick
and he’s walking around naked all the time

I get to watch him putting on his clothes
watch the way he fills his underwear
and even better when he takes it off

and when he does the dishes naked
each cheek as he moves
here and there at the sink
altering its shape, its roundness

and I can’t stop pulling on my dick

and when he bends over
I ‘m riveted by the beautiful
crack of his ass, and can’t stop
pulling on my dick

and when he does his daily exercises
I’m breathless, I’m breathing hard
I’m sipping the nectar of the gods

oh lord, let me die looking at that ass
with my hand still pulling on my dick

I also want to celebrate some old timers in fields other than that of poetry. In all honesty, I find it hard to limit my thought to a single field in the arts. All my life, I have lived in a milieu that has included painters, sculptors, composers, film-makers, dancers and performance artists as well as writers. I find it inspiring to think how I might bring off a poem in the manner of a certain painter, how I might get a poem to unfold in the way a certain film unfolds. The arts in Britain have always suffered from segregation from each other. I like to imagine myself part of a “café society” — where Picasso is sitting at one table (or Michael Craig-Martin) and Debussy is sitting at another (or Michael Nyman) and everyone knows each other and exchanges ideas. That was how it was in the sixties in New York. I remember John Cage sharing a wooden chair with Alan Ginsberg at an all-night reading of The Making of Americans. And that is how I have always envisaged my own life and culture.

I first met Bob Janz when I started teaching performance art in the time-based department of what was then Hornsey College of the Arts, back in the seventies. Born in Ireland in 1932, Bob was then a kinetic artist, a contemporary of Liliane Lijn, Michael McKinnon and Dante Leonelli. They all showed their work in Continuum – an exhibition that toured the UK and then became part of a show at the Hayward Gallery that presented kinetic art in 1970. For this show, Bob created motorised blades of plastic that rotated.

I was involved in creating a performance art company, The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes, shortly after this, and Bob let us create our performance exercises in his studio (below the London Film Co-op) in a derelict dairy in Prince of Wales Crescent, Kentish Town; but when he began participating in our workshops he realised that he could be the motor for the movements of his sculpture. He created a piece called Six Sticks – six lengths of standard white pine, bought at the local lumberyard, and arranged in the space. They might be leant against the wall, or set out as a horizontal column of lines on the floor. Janz rearranged them repeatedly, but according to no particular system or rigid interval. The emphasis was on casual changes and simple structural transformations.

Performance artists moved among his arrangements, remaining as still as the sticks, or moving so slowly no one could see them moving. Later, Janz worked with a set of three grey rugs, rolling them and unrolling them in the space. At the same time, The Theatre of Mistakes was experimenting with setting up tables and chairs in arrangements that could be turned through 90 degrees. This work culminated in The Waterfall – performed at the Hayward Annual of 1977.

Bob Janz contributed a spirit to the arts of the ’70s, a spirit of ephemerality. He is little known because of this very ephemerality, and yet it is this that makes his work so magical. In Dublin, he created large wall-drawings in charcoal of a flower, and everyday he rubbed out the drawing of the previous day, and drew the flower again. The flower bloomed, drooped and eventually decayed, and the drawings mirrored this process. In the eighties, he moved to New York, and developed his waterglyphs. These are literally paintings in water on rocks near streams. The glyphs last only until the water had evaporated in the sunlight. Bob is 86. He is still going!

He has been making graffiti art on the streets of downtown New York for several years. Sometimes he creates a water glyph on the pavement, amid the chalk drawings of children. Sometimes he collages the remains of posters and creates his own poster on the street.

Bob Janz is an unsung master. For me he epitomises the Japanese spirit of wabi-sabi — the Japanese sense of transience and imperfection, which may sometimes be a return to simple rusticity, loneliness and “getting away from it all.” The impermanence that his work celebrates signifies a sublimity that few artists are willing to devote their lives to revealing.

Finally, I wish to celebrate the work of a neglected master of British cinema.

In this country, unlike France, there are few auteurs where film is concerned. One was undoubtedly Alan Clarke, director of films of sheer joie-de-vivre, such as Rita, Sue and Bob too, but also films of uncompromising grit, such as Scum, as well as Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin: one of the eeriest of all the films I have seen, suggestive of dark cults existing alongside the C of E respectability of county life. Clarke died in his fifties, in 1990.

There are few auteurs today. At least, in France, where the term was created among the pages of Cahiers du Cinema. Christophe Honoré keeps up this notion of creating a film as a work of art, as can be seen in Métamorphoses (available on Netflix), his wonderfully bizarre retelling of Ovid’s stories on a contemporary sink estate. But the creative energy that went into the experiments in “material film” in the UK in the ’70s seems to have subsided into tasteful videos projected now in art galleries. David Larcher’s amazing, anarchic celluloid marathons and his researches into what video might be capable of, now go unsung, and what a disgrace that is. Our preoccupation with what constitutes a respectable moral life for the middle-classes has all but destroyed our reputation for eccentricity and originality.

Today, there is one British director to whom I wish to offer my thanks and my admiration, who has his 90th birthday on the 15th of August 2018, a birthday he shares with Napoleon Bonaparte. That director is Nicolas Roeg. He is definitely an auteur, and has never shied away from disturbing subject matter. In the late 1960s, Roeg directed Performance. James Fox, a London gangster moves in with a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) to keep out of the way of his bosses. Roeg realised that pop stars were a box-office draw, and they could be cheaper to hire than film stars such as Marlon Brando. When it was finally released in 1970, after much dithering by Warner Bros., the film developed a cult following. Then came Walkabout, which tells the story of a schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter) and her much younger brother who are abandoned in Australia by their father and forced to fend for themselves, with the help of an Aboriginal boy. The violence at the start of the film (as their father commits suicide) was uncompromisingly actual for its time and the photography of the outback was stunning. Don’t Look Now came next. It was based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name, and it was a radically different horror film to anything that had come before it. Roeg went on to make The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing.

Bad Timing is one of my favourite movies. It has helped me define my notion of artistic immoralism. Art Garfunkel stars as a personable psychoanalyst in Vienna who cannot control the sexual impulses of his girlfriend, Theresa Russell. He breaks up with her, and sometime later she rings him to tell him she has taken an overdose of pills. He goes over to her place and finds her in a coma. Instead of ringing for an ambulance straight away, he adjusts the clock so that it looks as if he has arrived a while later than is actually the case. He then makes love to her while she lies in a comatose state. For once, he is in control: she can only receive him with an utterly passive, indeed unconscious, stillness. It takes a while for the investigating detective Harvey Keitel to suspect this foul play. The analyst is a plausible young man, a type with whom many intellectual professionals might identify, and his crime, which amounts to a callous endangering of life, practically a murder attempt, is carried through not with a violent weapon but simply by the innocuous action of adjusting a hand on a dial – it’s hardly more than a white lie, a small malicious adjustment within the capability of any civilized person.

Another film of Roeg’s that I admire is Castaway, based on a true story, where a gent advertises in Time Out (remember Time Out?) for a girl to share a year on a desert Island with him, a sojourn he will write a book about and make his fortune. Made in 1986, the film starred Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed. Reed was an actor who most definitely had a penis; his was a sheer sexual presence on the screen. But on their island things go wrong. Very soon, sexual tension ruins the idyll. The plan to grow food and make a home for themselves in paradise falls apart since the girl is not particularly keen on sleeping with the author. What makes Castaway sad is that the machismo Reed exemplifies seems to be ebbing away, drained by an awareness of inadequacy. And then there is a scene where the naked couple have a frightful row among the detritus of neglect, opened baked bean tins and so on. This has always struck me as one of the most original of all nude scenes. There is no glamour. The argument is savage. But that’s life. You can loathe someone in the nude as easily as you can when fully clothed. Repeatedly, in his films, Roeg has revealed a bourgeois reality that has seldom been explored: the violence that masquerades as a mere detail, the tawdriness that mocks aspirations of brigandage and sensual success.

So let’s wish Nicolas Roeg a happy birthday, and thank him for making some of the most riveting films of the latter half of the twentieth century.


Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).

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