Thursday, October 9, 2014

David Fincher’s Gone Girl and the Yuppies in Peril Sub-Genre.


If you grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, then you were doubtless exposed to a very specific type of glossy domestic thriller in which well-heeled, upwardly mobile couples with fantastic kitchens find their ideal existences thrown into turmoil by some malignant, disruptive force – normally a psychopath whose façade of mental normalcy crumbles like an industrial demolition job once the couple have let them into their lives.  New Zealand film critic and blogger Dominic Corry has aptly christened this sub-genre the Yuppies in Peril cycle.   The template was set in stone by Adrian Lyne’s 1987 smash Fatal Attraction: a domestic setting which is glamorous enough to be escapist, but familiar enough to allow queasy audience identification; an association of erotic gratification with unforeseen consequences and peril; a manipulative plotline that taps into themes of infidelity and gender relations.  The crucial element, of course, was Glenn Close’s obsessive, psychopathic clinger Alexandra Forest.   Not all the crazies in the cycle of films that followed were female, but the female psychopath remains the presiding motif in the genre, and as such the figure can be traced back to Jessica Walter’s proto-bunny burner in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971).  (Elements of the Yuppie in Peril and erotic thriller were also prefigured in Brian de Palma’s brilliant Dressed to Kill (1980), in which Angie Dickenson’s bored housewife pays a disproportionately horrendous price for indulging in casual infidelity with a stranger she meets at a gallery.)  Why did these films emerge precisely when they did?  In some respects, they reflected a turning away from the hedonistic and experimental sexual ethos of the 70s – a societal change reflected politically in the Reaganite conservative counter-revolution, and driven viscerally home by the emergence of the AIDS virus.  While the slasher movie reflected anxieties about sexuality which are perhaps universal to adolescents, the Yuppie in Peril and related erotic thrillers reflected a new cultural mood of anxiety relating to sexual promiscuity among adults.  In this light, a film like Fatal Attraction can be seen as reflecting an affirmation of conventional monogamous marital values, showing the necessity to purge them of the disruptive threat represented by Close’s unmarried psychopath.  Nevertheless, there is always a slight, perhaps unintentional, undertow of ambiguity regarding these monstrous female avengers – we feel that by the end Douglas has had his cake and eaten it, and perhaps a degree of sympathy for the bunny-burner.  These are the contentious issues that these movies skirt over; in her Slate article The Psycho Bitch, from Fatal Attraction’sSingle Woman to Gone Girl’s Perfect Wife, Amanda Hess points out that the original short film on which Attraction was based, Diversion, was far more a critique of the cheating husband than a demonization of the Other Woman.

                In his self-conscious horror pastiche/homage Cabin in the Wood, Joss Whedon lampooned the slasher movie audience’s sadistic appetite for watching pretty, vacant young things terrorized and hacked up.  The movie presents this generic convention as a seasonal sacrificial ritual, designed to pacify Lovecraftian elder-gods.  After Fatal Attraction, Hollywood’s eldritch gods – or any rate, its ticket-buying public – wanted to see picture perfect yuppies put through the ringer.  As Dominic Curry points out, the cycle largely bifurcated into erotic thrillers and _____ from Hell movies.  In the latter category, there was a Nanny from Hell (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), a Flatmate/Tenant from Hell (Single White Female, Pacific Heights), a Secretary from Hell (The Temp), various Lolita temptresses from Hell (The Crush/Poison Ivy), and on, and on.  I guess that in between the Cold War and War on Terror, we needed something to be frightened of; in the absence of clearly defined ideological threats, people from ordinary walks of life Who Happen to Be Psychopaths from Hell! had to fill the gap.  Don’t let them into your home!  The appetite for yuppie suffering had its watershed in 1992, the year that saw the release of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, and Unlawful Entry.  I maintain a certain nostalgic fondness for these torrid, schlocky entertainments.  They were so pervasive when I was growing up that some aspect of my view of the adult world almost felt like it was filtered through their cinematic world of exquisite kitchens and open plan apartments - this gleaming, aspirational world which was always threatened by the incursion of sexual temptation and psychopathic peril.

                It was clear from its trailers that David Fincher’s latest movie Gone Girl was going to be some kind of descendent of the Yuppie in Peril cycle.  Based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 New York Times Best Seller (which I haven’t read), the film is a domestic thriller/mystery whose primary narrative arc hinges on the question of whether or not Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) has murdered his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike).  Unlike most of the Yuppie in Peril movies, the psychopathology is not an outside incursion, but resides within the marriage itself.  We discover that Amy has ingeniously staged her own disappearance and putative murder, in order to punish Nick for his affair with a younger woman, as well as a general sense of disappointment with his character and their marriage.  Nevertheless, the general arc of the story harkens back very distinctly to the glossy thrillers of the 80s and 90s.  1985’s Jagged Edge builds its suspense on the ambiguity of whether or not Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges) has murdered his wealthy socialite wife.  Written by creature of the Hollywood night Joe Eszterhas, and starring the original psycho bitch from Hell Glenn Close (this time on the side of the angels), Jagged Edge has a firm pedigree in the Yuppie/erotic sub-genres.  Nobody would accuse it of being high cinematic art, but its page-turning narrative is very effectively executed.   Much of this comes down to the lived-in authenticity of the performances.  Jeff Bridges, of course, is a singularly charming, likable presence; we want him to be innocent.   Close and the always brilliant Robert Loggia also do much to bring the pulp to life.   Another movie which effectively kept its audience guessing about the innocence of its protagonist was Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 adaption of Scott Turrow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent.  This time around, prosecutor “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford) has an affair with colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), who, while not a psycho bitch from Hell, turns out to be something of a careerist bitch from Hell.  After she’s found raped and murdered, Rusty finds himself first chief investigator, then prime suspect, in the case.  A late entry from Alan J. Pakula, whose magisterial 70s work is a major touchstone for David Fincher, Presumed Innocent is another taut, able piece of pulp that derives much tension from an exceptionally coiled and tense, possibly career best, performance from Ford.   The twist/conclusion of this movie is worth noting in relation to Gone Girl.  Rusty is exonerated after various legal shenanigans, and the Carolyn Polhemus murder remains unsolved.  Later, Rusty finds a bloody hatchet in his home, and we discover that it was his wife Barbara – hitherto a supportive, self-sacrificing figure in the background – who murdered Carolyn and fabricated the evidence of the rape.  Once again, we have a female avenger – the wife this time, rather than the mistress.   In Gone Girl, Pike’s Amy takes Barbara Sabich’s calculating rage to a spectrum of high operatic camp, and her faculty for stage managing crime scenes to the evil genius level of a Hannibal Lecker.   She is, in some respects, a Frankenstein’s monster quilted from all the female avengers, psycho bitches from Hell, and dangerous temptresses that dominated in the 80s/90s vogue for domestic and erotic thrillers.

                Though widely praised, Gone Girl is proving to be an extremely divisive film, and part of that divisiveness derives from its rootedness in this tradition of schlocky cinematic pulp.  Fincher is the premier Hollywood formalist of his generation – since 2007’s procedural masterpiece Zodiac, he has developed a signature filmmaking style which combines a unique affinity for using the very latest cinematic technologies, with an approach to staging and storytelling which is classical through and through.  Frequently working with dp Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher has taken advantage of the digital camera’s capacity to work in low light conditions (and utilize natural light sources) to create an inky, velveteen world of astonishing detail and subtle, twilight textures.  In his last three pictures, he has employed ambient electronic scores by Tent Reznor and Atticus Ross which fit his imagery like a glove, adding another layer of oil slick fluidity to his work.  But Gone Girl follows directly from another bestseller adaptation (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from Fincher, and some critics have questioned whether the director's daunting technical prowess is wasted on these popular novels.  Indiewire critic Michael Nordine found it hard to “shake the notion that he could be doing something more rewarding than becoming the preeminent director of airport novel adaptations”, humorously opining that the director had gone “further down the Barnes & Noble rabbit hole” than the Tattoo adaptation had taken him.  Certainly, everybody seems to agree that Gone Girl is some kind of trash, but that's about as far as the consensus goes.  For some, it’s trash with a biting satirical edge; for others, its ruminations on 21st century relationships and jabs at modern news media are old hat and obvious.  Certainly, the notion that bestsellers are beneath Fincher’s talents is a questionable one, since airport paperbacks have served Hitchcock’s and Coppola’s just fine in the past.  Nevertheless, the question of whether Fincher is a good fit for the material is crucial to the success of the film – that is, either the juxtaposition of Fincher’s coolly precise and naturalistic style with the operatic high camp of the plot is a counter-intuitive masterstroke, or a disastrous miss-mash of form and content which results in an unsatisfying, tonally confused experience.   Having seen the film just once, I find it difficult to decide between the two.

                Throughout the first 40-50 minutes of the film, I kept thinking that although Gone Girl was infinitely better-made than its Yuppie in Peril predecessors, it didn’t seem to fulfil its generic obligations as effectively, in the sense that the film built up little or no suspense (for me) in relation to the question of whether or not Nick Dunne had murdered his wife.  This, I think, was for two reasons.  Ben Affleck is clearly a smart and highly engaged individual, and has won major plaudits for his directing in recent years.  I’m not sure, however, that he has ever had an especially strong dramatic presence on screen.  There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with his performance in this role, but if you think about his Nick Dunne in comparison with the type of actors who played the morally compromised Everyman role back in the 80s/90s – Michael Douglas’ nervy intensity, for example, his endless ability to make an utter shit somehow likable -  Affleck just doesn’t draw you into the character’s predicament, and the movie’s story, in quite the same way.  (Maybe it’s intentional – Affleck seems to float through his situation for much of the movie with all the nervous tension of somebody trying to rearrange a work engagement so they can go to a football match.)  Nobody can accuse Rosamund Pike of lacking dramatic fire in this picture, but perhaps if Affleck is presented to us at too low a key to draw us fully in, then Pike is introduced at too high a pitch.  We are introduced to her character, and shown a version of her meeting, courtship, and marriage to Nick, in series of subjective and unreliable scenes which feature breathless narration from her diary.  These cloying, overwritten sequences are in a sense a pastiche of the classic set-up of the Yuppie in Peril narrative: here is the couple who have everything, here is the couple who are perfectly happy; it would stretch ordinary credibility, surely, that anything could go wrong?  There a kind of generic self-consciousness in the set-up which is not especially conducive to traditional suspense, and something of the film’s hand has been shown: we know Amy is a psychopath, surely, because people who behave like this in movies are invariably psychopaths.  In an interesting dialogue about the movie at the Notebook, Doug Dibbern captures the non-naturalistic oddity of Amy’s characterisation in the first half of the film:  “But Flynn and Fincher make his wife, on the other hand, one of the most outlandish caricatures I’ve seen in years. Rosamund Pike plays her from the opening scenes with a vacant, ice-princess stare as if she’s always posing for a George Hurrell glamour shot. Her voice-overs have a disembodied ethereality to them, made all the more strange by the accompaniment of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s aqueous synthesizer bleeps.”  

                So between Affleck’s lack of character, and Pike’s heavily caricatured departure from anything resembling naturalistic character, we find it difficult to find anything resembling a traditional dramatic impetuous in the first section of the movie, despite the elegance of Fincher’s filmmaking and night-time cinematography.  Nevertheless, the film really does come to life at times.  The Amy reveal/twist may not be especially surprizing, but it unspools in a montage that is sheer, classic Fincher; it’s so good it makes you wish that you’d been enjoying the movie more up to that point.  Gone Girl begins to become a little more enjoyable in the second half, oddly enough the more it increasingly departs from any semblance of credibility.  Tyler Perry shows up as the beautifully named celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt  (say it again, TANNER BOLT!), and finally a character in the movie articulates in his whole demeanour what we have been feeling throughout: “Man, who the fuck are these people?  What planet are they from?”  It’s a peculiar universe in which we finally feel grounded in the presence of a celebrity defence attorney.  Another stand-out moment is Amy’s mid-coital box cutter murder, in which Fincher again displays his ability to turn sexualized violence into a disturbingly fascinating type of installation art.   This scene is executed with such Grand Guignal intensity that you can only imagine old school masters of bloody mayhem like Argento and DePalma tipping their hats in admiration.

                By the time Dunne is finally reunited with his bloody bride, you start to realize that this movie is actually operating in the realm of psychosexual high camp normally occupied by directors like Brian DePalm or Paul Verhoeven.  This again raises the question of the fit between Fincher and the material – on the face of it, it’s a peculiar juxtaposition with the cool, methodical, and naturalistic style which he brings to bear on the movie.   I didn’t enjoy Gone Girl much when I was watching it, but ever since I’ve had the lingering suspicion that maybe I was bringing the wrong expectations to bear – maybe Gone Girl is a bone dry postmodern farce that was never really interested in the suspense mechanics or surface social commentary of its source in the first place.  Critic Luke Goodsell took this view of the film, calling it a “pitch black satire of procedural pulp” that “uses the material’s contrived plot and stabs at relationship commentary as a launching pad for a jet-black comedy that at its best approaches the japery of a Grand Guignol.”  (This sounds like a very plausible read of the film, but comes pretty close to suggesting that Fincher is burlesquing his screenwriter Flynn under her nose.)  One of my main beefs with the film when I was watching it for the first time was the sense that the older, less prestigious, less self-conscious incarnations of this type of movie derived more plausibility from a more authentic sense of character - they seemed to contain more lived-in, realer people.  This is actually a common enough complaint with modern popular cinema.  Compare, for example, the characterization in Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien with that in the same director's 2012 prequel-of-sorts Prometheus.  The first creates its blue-collar characters with ease and authority - in the second we see only the confused machinations of the screenwriters trying to justify themselves through characters whose only consistency lies in their lack of verisimilitude.  The characters in Tim Burton's 1989 fantasia of Batman feel in an off-hand way more real and authentic than the stern mouthpieces of plot mechanics and thematic heft in Christopher Nolan's putatively hyperreal take on the same character.  For whatever confluence of reasons - and I suspect a more self-conscious, schematic approach to screenwriting is part of the problem - creating real-feeling characters no longer comes as naturally to our popular entertainments.  In the same way that the 21st century remakes of 70s horror films replaced the physically realer looking originals with gym-honed, air-brushed looking models, some kind of invasion of pseudo-people seems to be afoot in the entertainment world.  Maybe, if Gone Girl has something to say, intentional or otherwise, about the modern condition, it lies in this invasion of the pseudo-people.  Rather than representing some kind of feminist re-tooling of the psycho-bitch from Hell archetype, Pike's Amy seems to be primarily a creature who is fatally and obsessively devoted to the surface rather than the reality.  She returns to Dunne on the basis of a patently phony talk-show performance, but this doesn't bother her because this was all she was ever looking in the first place.  In the end of the movie, Nick and Amy's marriage has become a media creation, maintained through both writing books; they are more successful as simulacrum than they ever were as real people.  Ultimately, though, their marriage and characters never had a tangible sense of reality in the first place.  Friendless, seemingly floating in a vacuum, they were pseudo-people from the get-go.  Maybe every generation gets the Yuppies in Peril it deserves. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Bird Out of Space and Time (Part 4)

                My early days in the Quarter were characterized by a peculiar conjunction of silence and deafening tumult.  The silence of those days related to my life, which I had made hermetic and undisturbed with a surprizing ease and briskness.  People assumed, I suppose, that I was busy with my Pendleton book, and having expressed their terse concerns in relation to my breakup with Catherine, were happy enough to leave me to my own devices.  I had been vague in relation to where I was moving, so nobody really knew where I was.  I had no classes to teach, no emails to answer, no deadlines – nothing but a surplus of time in which to do what I had as yet no precise conception of.   But just as my own inner life was assuming this quietude, the outer, natural world had fallen into one of its increasingly characteristic convulsions. 

Our summers now, as you know, are hotter than ever before, and extend their bounty of clear skies and sunshine well into late September and even early October.  I believe that these impossible Indian summers engender some slight stirring of an ecstatic paganism in our disposition – the summer sunset in October being like the enigmatic Midnight Sun spoken of in the lore of initiates.  However, in December and January we are subject to that other aspect of paganism: the sense of dread incumbent upon our inability to control the natural world.  At the beginning of each New Year, as though to test our mettle, we are lashed, battered, and excoriated by nature at its most viscously temperamental. 

In the first of those out of kilter Januarys, we had a prolonged period of ice and snow.  I recall a strange atmosphere one evening coming home from work.  It was very dark, conveying a feeling of late night or early morning rather than the customary evening bustle – the sense of that time which is quiet, hidden, and occulted from the sleeping majority.  Perhaps it was the silencing of the traffic – the streets were too perilous to traverse – which created that odd atmosphere.  Unable to drive their cars or take buses home, the workers lined the footpaths in droves, picking their way like tip-toeing sleepwalkers across the icy pavements.  But what was peculiar, what really impressed itself upon me that evening, was the mood I sensed among my fellow walkers.  Everybody was very quiet, and everybody had a certain look, almost childlike, in their eyes.

I believe that they were looking around at the beauty of a frozen, stalled city, and entertaining the suspicion that this was how things were going to be from now on – all the steady, grinding rhythms of the industrialized, technological world were going to fall away to a resurgent and defiantly unpredictable nature.  And I really think that at that precise moment, the idea was very appealing to them – they took a quick stock of the whole contour of their lives, the sense of disgruntled panic every morning, the repetition of their work lives, the petty conflicts that festered in those artificial environments, the endless concessions, the small defeats and smaller victories almost lost to visibility like the spokes on a spinning wheel, the lack of real danger or prospect of real reward in their lives -  and suddenly the idea of it all collapsing in a heartbeat felt reassuring rather than threatening.  It was the particular joy a school child feels at the prospect of school closing due to inclement weather – the magic anticipation of that stolen day, that it might last forever.  It was that evening which first got me thinking about those lines in The Circuitous Path, about those young people of 1905 “eagerly willing the catastrophe”, which, in that century, turned out to be the Great War, and those many decades of carnage in which the technologies of the Space and Information Ages tentatively began to take shape.

                The snow thawed, however, and our days yet belonged to the classroom roll-call.  Since then, winter has denied us even the consolatory aesthetic pleasures of the snow, and we have been subject instead to bitter storms and torrential rainfall, to weather which is apt to make us feel older than our time rather than rekindle childhood embers.  It was in the midst of this stormy season that I moved into my apartment in the Quarter.  Later, I thought that this appeared like the first stage of some grand conspiracy to make me a prisoner of the place; that those early days in which I barely left the apartment somehow contributed to the peculiar agoraphobia which I came to experience whenever I strayed too far from the Quarter.  The gales howled through the canyon between the towers like a beast butting its head hither and tither against the walls of a narrow stall; raindrops were pelted against the glass balcony doors, breaking the light from the other buildings into tiny, liquid projectiles.  Up there on the 17th floor, I had the feeling of being at sea, and the guilty conscience of a Jonah drawing his adopted vessel to wrack and disaster. 

It was hard to think of anything but water in those water-logged days.  My only outings were quick dashes across the courtyard to the supermarket which was located on the ground floor of the D tower.  On the first such excursion, I bought wellingtons and an umbrella, changing out of my sodden trainers in the foyer of the supermarket.  I watched the news on television in the afternoons.  At home, coastal areas assaulted by titanic waves and flooding, emergency provisions found wanting once again.  Britain is even worse off, its countryside severely flooded, panoramas of drowned villages and towns, helicopters ferrying families off the rooftops of their sunken farmhouses.  My television was set at an angle against the glass panelling of the balcony, making the whole a consistent watery study.  I turned down the volume, shifting my eyes between the spatter of rain against the glass, and the images of disaster on the television screen.  It generated a peculiar effect of synaesthesia between the immediate world and that mediated through the television screen, as though the winds gusting my apartment were travelling into a tiny coastline that existed on the border of the television, and the rain from the balcony seeping into a tiny Great Britain were it was magnified into a great flood.  The newscasters spoke with the rising, whistling cadence of the wind, and exchanged terse, meaningful looks. 

        At night, the steady rainfall was seeping into my brain, and I began to have a series of Flood dreams.  These dreams were all variations of the same basic apocalyptic scenario.  I awake one morning to find that the whistling wind and patter of rain have finally ceased.  There is an overwhelming calm, an utter silence.  I get up, open the sliding doors and step out onto my balcony, to discover that the whole world has been submerged overnight in water.  I note with a start that the water level reaches to about a metre below my balcony.  Everything below that point is lost forever, the beginnings of a new archaeology.  By a hair’s breath, I have been selected as one of the tiny Elect, the Chosen remainder.  It was surely for this reason that the Quarter was built, and I so strangely drawn to it, that I, and the other dwellers of the topmost storeys of the high rises, should be preserved to carry the human seed into this New Dispensation, and thus a strange new life begins for us, the Elect, the balcony-dwellers.
The weather is always warm and sunny now, and soon our pallid flesh acquires the vivid reddish brown of mariners.   We construct make-shift fishing rods from exercise equipment and speaker cords, and spend our days casting out from our balconies, enjoying a languid, mystical kind of subsistence.  Strange creatures are occasionally witnessed moving beneath the placid surface, providing the vague outline of speculative future mythologies.  A new language of physical gesture, similar to flag semaphore, evolves to facilitate communication from balcony to balcony, tower to tower.  People court one another in a sequence of distant, ambiguous facial expressions and physical motions, leading ardent lovers to climb to higher storeys, or swim across the channel between the towers, to join the object of their desire on their balconies.  It seems that this gesture, this leap of faith, is enough, and no lover is ever rebuffed.  The new lovers embrace, and a quiet celebration erupts among the other survivors. 

Up on Roger Grady’s roof garden, a boisterous party is in perpetual swing.  It seems to me that of all the Chosen, this, the highest point, is by far the most favoured vantage, the most beloved of whatever mysterious Providential forces preserved us all from the Flood.  The party on the roof-garden embodies for me the ultimate expression of an elite sensibility: to retain one’s essential frivolity, even in the face of the end of the world.  In every dream, I am nervously preparing myself to finally abandon my own balcony, and commence the treacherous swim and climb which would take me up to Grady’s penthouse, to the apex of our deluge-shrunken world.

                Each morning, I awoke from those dreams as though cast out from paradise.  The dappled sunsets, the languid ocean beneath my balcony, the strange flag semaphore language moving in waves across the balconies, these things echoed in my mind throughout the day as pure, crystalline flashes of something real and indelible, something which I could apprehend but never quite grasp.  Dreams are wasted on our somnambulistic, dreaming selves, just as our lives, I suppose, are wasted on our wakeful selves.  In either case, we cannot grasp the delicate, transitory opportunity that is there only until the daylight draws in. 
My days then, sequestered in the apartment, were dull and unproductive.  I thought at first that I might actually make a stab at completing my book about Pendleton and The Circuitous Path, but the whole project started to instil in me a kind of superstitious anxiety.
The protagonist of the poem is trapped in a cycle of eternal recurrence, destined to lead the same life over and over, the same life characterised by an overwhelming sense of loss, of scuppered opportunity.  In one section of the poem, it is suggested that this cycle may have been initiated by a stupid, trivial incident in which the protagonist (Pendleton?) and an American youth drunkenly mock a gypsy woman in a square in Barcelona.  The woman curses them by “making a precise pattern in the air with her fingers.”  As many scholars have pointed out, if the curse occurs within the cycle itself, then ordinary causality breaks down, and there is no way that the protagonist could conceivably have avoided getting trapped in the circle.  Each time he saunters drunkenly to the terrace in Barcelona in July of 1905, he has already encountered the American, and mocked the gypsy, and already been cursed to do precisely this, over and over again.  Or was there once an innocent timeline, where the protagonist could have behaved differently, and avoided his fate?  

Like many aspects of The Circuitous Path, the episode of the gypsy’s curse is shrouded in mystery, although it is thought to have originated in a real incident in ‘05, which apparently unnerved the highly suggestible young Pendleton.  By this time, however, I had begun to take seriously the notion that the poem might itself be in some sense cursed.  An absurd notion, of course, and yet, had it not proved a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy for Pendleton himself?  He had written it in his early twenties, partially as an expression of his fears regarding how his own life might turn out.  He called it “an act of primitive magic, designed to alter my destiny, by writing it, and exorcising it, before it could happen in reality.” In the end, however, his real destiny had been perfectly adumbrated in the poem: Pendleton ended his days huddled in a blanket on the balconies of the Paimio Sanatorium, silent and distracted, probably half-mad, the recipient of a vision which was incommunicable, his mind becoming as sluggish and quiescent as the recuperative regime of the sanatorium itself, possibly burdened by the sense of each moment echoing recursively into the infinite, each moment echoing into infinity while his fellow patients wheezed and snored, and the war that ravaged the rest of Europe drifted in and out in fragmentary whispers, like the hidden world of adults intuited and half-glimpsed by children.

                I was beginning to suspect that perhaps the poem might have a similarly disastrous effect on the lives of its scholars.  There have never been many Pendleton scholars, and I only ever encountered two in the flesh.  Looking back, it seemed like both of them were a little spectral, a little distant, a little suggestive in their manner, as though they knew something, and were carefully sounding me out in order to ascertain whether I was also in the loop, and whether it would be safe to broach certain topics in my company.   At the time, I’d written it off as the paranoia or subtle Machiavellian skulduggery typical of scholars in the humanities.  Now, however, I wasn’t so sure.   One of the professors invited me by email to attend the first ever Pendleton conference, which was to take place in the small Moldovan university town of Mitergrad.   My suspicions were quickly aroused when I could find no reference to Mitergrad anywhere on the internet, except as the 18th century setting for La Mashera del Gatto Diavolo ( 1963, US title: Nine Lives to Kill One Maiden), a little seen and critically derided Gothic shocker from Italian director Lucio Soavi, better known for his efforts in the “Peplum” genre.

Once again, I’d written it off at the time as a juvenile attempt at academic sabotage, but I now I had to wonder what I might have found, had I flown to Moldova and followed the email’s complex and peculiarly specific directions.  I began to recall the more outré speculations I’d been exposed to as an undergraduate regarding the image of the Bird out of Space and Time, and the peculiar fate of Pendleton’s friend and fellow poet William Edward Pusey, who disappeared without a trace in 1902.  Some said that his researches into the esoteric architecture of London had led him to the discovery of a magical portal through which he’d absconded; others that his failure to discover said portal prompted him to jump into a lonely stretch of the Thames, a grim fate possibility covered up by his father, the Rev Anthony Pusey of St Saviours Church, Pimlico.  (Perhaps he had also been invited to a conference at Mitergrad?)

Thrown into a panic one afternoon by these febrile recollections and imaginings, I resolved that the project had to be abandoned.  By way of a symbolic gesture, I took my dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of The Circuitous Path out onto the balcony, and cast it out over the railing. The winds whipped it up, and the slender paperback unfurled like a bird spreading its wings.  I thought for an instant that it might fly right back into my face in a moment of pure, portentous slapstick, but instead the winds died away for a miraculous instant, and straight down it sailed, with a peculiar grace and slowness, as though it were cushioned by parachute, down into the watery grey courtyard below, where the winds caught it again.

                Shortly after that, I had the last, and most complex and puzzling, of my Flood dreams.  Though following the same scenario, this one started up differently from the others.  In this version, I found myself disastrously ill-suited to the post-Flood world.  First of all, it transpired that all of my immediate neighbours had been attending a kitsch fondue party on the 11th floor when the world ended, and thus my balcony was a little isolated.  All my attempts to construct a fishing rod had been an abject failure, so I hadn’t eaten for several days.  Coupled with this, I was badly sunburned and possibly even suffering from mild sunstroke.  In this poor physical shape, my mental processes were extremely sluggish and disordered, and I was unable to grasp the basics of the flag semaphore language, which everybody else seemed to have acquired with an almost psychic rapidity.  Being out on the balcony became unbearable.  I felt alienated from all the other survivors, and became utterly paranoid about what they were communicating to one another with the ceaseless motion of their arms. 

I lie in my room in a feverish condition.  I have some recollection of the other dreams, where the end of the world had been a tranquil paradise.  Something, clearly, has gone terribly wrong.   It seems like it might really be all over for me.  Just then, I hear a tremendous sound, the angry growl of a motor, coming from the balcony.  I pick myself out of bed, and stagger in the direction of the sound.  Shafts of sunlight are dancing through the whole apartment, whirling and spinning at tremendous speed.  The source of all this chaos couldn’t be more startling: a helicopter, painted to resemble an iridescent dragon fly, hovers directly over my balcony.  It is piloted, with considerable adroitness, by the television personality Roger Grady, with one hand at the controls and the other gingerly holding a mojito.  He wears a straw boater hat, round, cherry-tinted sun-glasses, and suspenders that hoist up tremendous, high-waisted cream slacks.  “Jump aboard, Old Sport!”  He grins with crooked, conspiratorial gusto.  The ebullient theme tune of Magnum, P.I. (1980-88) plays briefly while I balance myself on the railing, and clamber into the helicopter in a wide shot.

                Grady passes me the mojito, and speaks in a rapid, excited cadence: “Well, Phase 2 is well and truly under way now, what?  It just happened a lot quicker than I could have expected.  But I knew it was coming……it was all there, in the Green Language……it’s all there, back in the tapes.”  I have no idea what he’s talking about, and form the distinct suspicion that he has me confused with somebody else, but say nothing.  I’m still dazed by this stunning reversal of my fortunes.  A couple of sips from the cocktail have an instantaneous effect on my sense of well-being.  I feel revivified, almost reborn.  This new lease of life, coupled with the upward thrust of the helicopter, leaves me feeling exhilarated.  Grady continues to talk: “There’s a little soiree going on at the homestead that you really ought to attend, Old Sport.  But I want you to pay very close attention.  The whole evening is peppered with vital clues, do you understand?” 

The helicopter makes a rocky landing on a makeshift pad on the roof-garden, the pressure from the blades whipping a series of baroque designer follies off the heads of a gaggle of actress-models who have sauntered over to admire the landing.  The hats take off like exotic birds, out over the edge of the garden where they will never be seen again.  “Oh, well,” Grady, stoical, “they were going out of fashion anyway.” 
“But what does fashion mean, today?” I press, vamping the part of a Grave, Humourless Intellectual. 
“The same thing it meant yesterday, Old Sport: whatever we can pry out from the wreckage below.”  Grady saunters away.  “Business to attend to.  Feel free to mingle.”  He joins a group of stereotypical German youths, clad in a fetishistic polyvinyl chloride variation of the Bavarian lederhosen ensemble, at a Ping-Pong table.  The ruddy-faced German youths are embroiled in a heated argument over the game, and two of them replay a particularly contentious volley in mime, over and over, until Grady catches the notional ball in mid-air.  He extends it in his closed fist, splays out his fingers, and blows the ball away like a conjuror.  The Germans appear to snap out of a trance, and dropping rackets huddle conspiratorially around him. 
                 I make my way nervously towards the party, which consists of a handful of small, insular groups, when I spot a familiar face seated at one of the tables.  It is the girl who let us into Grady’s party several years ago, and vanished after going to fetch glasses. 
“Hello you,” she says, “how have you been?”  She is about twenty two or three, clad in a punkish style suggesting a slight affinity to the Catastrophe Kid subculture.  Her face is calm, and has an endearing quality of jaded intellectual curiosity.  I take a seat at the table. 
“Oh, you know.  The end of the world.” 
“I know, right?  My name is Christina, by the way.” 
“Have you been here since the last time I saw you?” 
Her face betrays a slight chagrin.  “Yeah.  I tried to leave a few times at first, but it just wasn’t happening.  I dunno, there was something weird about the Quarter, you know?  Like it envelops you, or something.  Every time I tried to leave, the outside world felt either threatening, or really uninteresting, you know what I mean?  Of course, if I had left, where would I be now?  Davy Jones’ Locker, with all the rest.”

A girl comes to our table with a tray, and leaves us fresh cocktails in plastic cups like they used to have at concerts.  I ask Christina if she lost her parents.  “I guess so.  I don’t really think about them that much.  They were all screwed up.  They were, like, middle-aged swingers and pill-poppers.  It was more like I was their parent, you know what I mean?  They wanted me to work in television, and used to, like, virtually pimp me off to these connections they had.  I don’t think about them too much.  Hey, you know there’s a theme to this evening’s party?  Grady said that we have to figure out which sign of the Zodiac each of the people represent.  He also said that Sheldrake might be here, but I think he was putting me on about that.  Now, let me see, I assume that Grady must be Aries, and the Iguana Twins have to be Gemini, obviously, but what about the rest?” 

                I look over at the nearest group to us.  They are vamping a nautical theme.  There is a Popeye and Olive Oyl, a Captain Birdseye, a Sea Dog Dark Rum sailor, a Captain Morgan, and a Captain Ahab.  They are snorting lines of ketamine from an old barrel, and dancing to techno music.  With a look of zealous concentration etched into his hoary face, Ahab pounds his stump against the ground to the beat while the others clap and cheer him on.  As a group, they are in high spirits, but there is a look about them which gives you the heebie-jeebies.  Captain Birdseye slumps against the barrel and hugs his knees, a look of stark terror in his eyes.  He is haunted by the same lobsters that pursued Satre down the Champ Elysees. 

Finding no obvious Zodiacal parallels in these personages, I continue to scan the crowd, my eyes now resting on the inexhaustible comedienne Maxi Mediumwave.  Unsurprisingly, the end of the world caught Maxi in the middle of pantomime season, and this evening she is clad – literally and ingeniously – as Jack and the Beanstalk.  She wears a one-piece body suit which is festooned in a dense tangle of lush green vines.  Somewhere between her naval and bosom hangs Jack, his face in profile revealing a look of hopeful determination.  On her shoulder, the ravenous giant leans over the parapet of his castle, mouth watering and eyes glinting with epicurean malice. 

Mediumwave confers with a gypsy fortune teller, who passes her a card.  “Always the Tower,” she sighs, eyeing our table suspiciously, “always the Tower.”
                Christina is also scanning the crowd for Zodiacal correspondences.  “The one I really can’t figure out,” she says, “is Tilda Swinton.  Which one is she?” 
I follow her eyes to a table where the actress and unconventional fashion muse Tilda Swinton sits by herself reading a paperback. 
“How did she get here?” I ask. 
Christina’s brow furrows.  “I’m not sure.  Some people say she came with the Iguana Twins.  I also heard that she was at an ironic Tupperware party on the 14th floor, and when the Flood started, she climbed up the balconies with an airport paperback clutched between her teeth as a last keepsake of pre-Flood civilisation.  Who knows?” 

Swinton is very aloof, and it is almost like she isn’t really there.  By this point, I’m growing bored and frustrated.  “What do people talk about now, anyway?” 
“Well, there isn’t really anything to talk about now, you know.  The sun comes up, and the sun goes down.  People really just talk about the Party, because that’s the only thing that’s happening at the moment.  Oh, rumours swirl around, from time to time, but they don’t ever amount to anything.  A rumour went around last week that the people down below were still updating their Noosfeed accounts.  It was an exciting rumour for a couple of hours, but of course it wasn’t really true.  Sometimes people discuss the shapes which are seen in the water.   Are they real, or illusionary?  Are they organic, or mechanical?  It never really amounts to anything.  Then, of course, there are the rumours about Drylandt – the fabled landmass that rose up after the Flood, a mystical new home for humanity.  People get quite excited about that rumour from time to time.  They’ve actually built a couple of boats, you know?  There’s one in the spare bedroom, and a bigger one in the hall.  But those boats will never go anywhere.  People get into them when they’re high, and pretend that they’re on legendary voyages.  They pretend that they are St Brendan, or Columbus, or Magellan, or Picard, or one of those.  It’s fun when you’re high.  But all of those things are just pipe-dreams.  Who wants to go back, anyway?” 

“The real topic that engages people’s attention is the Party itself – its movements, its ebbs and flows, its morphing contours and lines of force, its sustainability.  Who is falling apart?  Who is reconfiguring?  Who is adapting to the condition of permanent Party, finding the fluidity, the correct Zen state, to just roll along with the endless ups and downs, all the changes we go through, the slow transformation of the human nervous system into a flashing pinball machine?  It really is an interesting topic.” 

“The practical end of things is under Grady’s supervision.  The main challenge he faces is keeping the supply of drugs and booze steady.  Luckily, he happened to have some scuba diving gear handy, so parties go down to the lower storeys every few days to gather booze and tinned food.  There’s loads down there.  They say it feels a bit weird, lifting booze and food from dead people, but isn’t that just what we were doing before, anyway?  Only then we couldn’t see the dead people, except sometimes on the news.  Getting drugs is a little more difficult, and a little more pressing, considering the state everybody’s brains are in.   Grady sends a couple of dudes on jet skis out to this other high rise where there’s lots of drugs.  They barter for the drugs with booze and food.  Now, the sustainability of drugs and booze issue isn’t really that serious.  The people over on that other high rise, they’re a little wild, you know?  Tribal.  They were Catastrophe Kids before the Flood, so the end of the world was exactly what they were waiting for.  Pretty soon, they’re going to start manufacturing their own drugs and booze.  I mean, they’ve got animals over there and everything.  They’re way ahead of everyone.  So, that issue is safe enough.  The Party can go on indefinitely, in terms of resources.” 

“The real question is: what will happen to people’s minds, what will they evolve into, under these conditions?  The Party at the End of the World is a really fascinating thing to watch.  I mean, people are losing their minds, literally losing their minds.  Their identities are becoming ad hoc, improvisatory creations that vary from room to room, hour to hour.  Everybody is just following the energy of the Party, adapting themselves to whatever conversation they happen to be in at a given time, whatever clothes they happen to be wearing, whatever drugs happen to be in their nervous systems.  It’s really free, but a little scary at times.  There are people inside the house who have really gone native.  They went into certain rooms weeks ago, and those rooms have become their total reality.  In one of the en-suite bathrooms, you have three people who have been living in the bathtub for two weeks, and a girl who’s been in the shower for over a month.  We leave food for them, but they’re very suspicious about outsiders.  They just talk about the tiles, and the sink, and the mirror.  The mirror really fascinates them, because I think they don’t understand reflections yet.  Every couple of hours, the girl in the shower turns on the hose and just starts howling!  I mean, wow, I wonder if she’ll ever make it back.  The people in the tub call her the Glass Witch.  It’s a fascinating scene in there, but like I say, they’re very suspicious of outsiders.”

                I have conflicting feelings about Christina’s description of the Party.  Part of me finds it very appealing, and another utterly terrifying.  Surely there is a need for something, some stable oasis, some familiar place to return to, something private you may only have persuaded yourself was profound, some separate realm which is yours alone, away from the burgeoning demands of the Party?  Or am I just vamping the part of a Grave, Humourless Intellectual again?
“What about you, Christina?  Have you lost your mind?” 
“No, not at all.  I’m an observer, like you.  You can’t observe if you lose your identity.  I’m still me.  I remember my first Holy Communion, my first kiss, the illustrations in a book I used to stare at when I was five.  Everything.  (Smiling sardonically, vamping an old pre-Flood advertising slogan.)  Because we share everything, nothing is ever truly lost.”

 The sun is at its zenith, and the small crowd on the roof-garden are all out dancing: the actress-models, German youths in PVC lederhosen, Maxi Mediumwave, the fortune teller, and the Nautical Crew.  Captain Birdseye has gotten a ferocious second wind, and plays a squeeze box while he dances to the techno, the Seadog Rum sailor having taken his place in the lobster-infested K-hole.  Ahab is being very uncool, asking people to feel his stump, and guilt-tripping them when they express discomfort with the idea.

                Things are a little hazy after that.  Now it is sunset, and there are only a few of us left.  Myself, Christina, Ahab, and a couple of the actress/models. We are all sitting cross-legged on the ground, watching the Iguana Twins play a game of Connect Four.  The ground around us is strewn with crushed plastic cups, the spent peels of lemon and lime, cigarette butts, sand, and assorted curiosities that served some now forgotten function in the earlier frolics: the flattened outline of an inflatable woman, an archery target, a pair of walkie-talkies, an amateur astronomer’s telescope.  The Connect Four grid is balanced on two large old books: The Loom of Art by Germaine Bazin, and Everybody’s Enquire Within: A Key to 10,000 Questions and 100,000 Facts, edited by Charles Ray.  There is an ornate hookah positioned beside the books, its pipe trailing off like a glistening snake into the sand and debris.  The game itself is a vintage set, with yellow grid, and red and black checkers.
Perhaps it is the deep, reddish texture of the light, or the presence of the hookah, or the look of rapt concentration on the youthful faces of the Iguanas, but the scene possesses for me a peculiar antique glamour.  I’m thinking of Persia, or Byzantium, or the Ottoman Empire, and imagine the Twins as a pair of sultans, caliphates, or rajas, who play an intricate game while they await news from the provinces of some vast empire, news that will have passed into the ethereal realm of myth by the time the hoary messenger arrives into the gilded stillness of their palace.  The youthful princes are unperturbed by all the news that comes to them from dying lips, and the far-flung corners of their empire, for theirs is a sensual, mystical time that long predates clocks, a time of cyclical rhythms that turn about one another, each turning of the great wheels one and the same motion, each place the same one that will be returned to the next time around……

                I realize that nobody is actually following the game.  We are all looking intently at the grid, struggling to remember what ideal placement of checkers is required for a victory.  The Twins themselves are equally lost, and keep changing colour from one move the next.  Despite our frustrating inability to understand the game, a mood of blissful serenity is slowly creeping up on us, like a cat falling asleep to the low, contemplative hiss of a warm hearth.  The sun is beginning to sink now into the gleaming mirror of the earth, and it is as though a marriage of their essences takes place.  The sky contains impossible textures, and the water’s still surface is a molten, seething mass of dancing, shimmering, bright-light particles that seem to conjure up an aural landscape of distant bells, chimes, and dulcimers, memories of sandy beaches and soft whispers by firelight, ornaments that adorned the ceilings above our cradles and cots, slowly rotating as we drifted from one sleep into another. 

The Twins have given up on the game by now, and fool around with the checkers.  Each Iguana takes a different colour, and they place a checker in the other’s eye, like a monocle.  Vamping moustaches with their index fingers, they peer at us from either side of the grid, smiling like children.  I recall all the speculation in the Pre-Flood days as to which of them, Bradley or Lucius, was the bad one.  In the mood I am in at present, however, it seems impossible to me that either of them could be bad.  They are the bright, buoyant, and unsullied children of the Sun card; their innocence is timeless, incorruptible, and perpetually renewing itself, regardless of how far we ourselves have strayed from that condition.  A peculiar thing happens then.  My image of the Twins is split into two separate frames.  The frames move apart, and then slowly overlay one another, until Bradly and Lucius are superimposed into a single frame, and become a single being, with a red checker in the left eye, and black in the right.  When the images overlay, I hear a delicate, suggestive chiming sound, the type of cue they used to employ on old soundtracks to alert the audience to a significant detail or clue, or to indicate the presence of a hidden, magical dimension to reality, manifested in some apparently mundane object or location.  

                My perceptions are becoming increasingly disordered.  The scene on the roof-garden is still there, but it is like a film, or several films, are being projected over it.  The first film shows the fortune teller, more youthful than she appeared earlier, seated in a dimly-lit, cramped cubicle.  She is turning up a spread of cards.  The camera closes in on the card she has just turned: it depicts an Indian peacock encased in an alchemist’s retort.  We cut to the fortune teller, recoiling with a visceral expression of fear.  This short sequence plays on a loop.  The anomalous card is an intrusion from Outside; like a curse, it infects the entire System, altering all previous and subsequent permutations.  Now this loop is overlaid by another film, and I see a wheel, divided into the traditional symbols of the zodiac, spinning slowly.  It is a grainy, degraded film-stock, possibly from an old documentary; I can hear dim snatches of music, and a narrator’s voice.  My mind now recalls earlier images of people from the party, the memories transferred into this grainy film-stock.  As each person’s image appears, the wheel stops turning, and a sign is aligned with each image: Grady at Aries, Christina at Pieces, Maxi Mediumwave at Scorpio, the Iguanas at Gemini, and so on.  Each alignment is accompanied by the chiming sound, and the correspondences make perfect sense as they are revealed to me, although I cannot begin to articulate why.

                My perceptions having finally stabilized, I turn to Christina, and say: “I feel like I’m on drugs!”  Everybody is laughing, and Christina is eyeing me like an amused, indulgent parent.  “Of course you’re on drugs!  Grady spiked you on the helicopter!  You’ve been in the Valley for the past couple of hours!  On behalf of all permanent and semi-permanent Valley-dwellers, I’d like to welcome you to the Party!”  Now I start laughing, and find I can’t stop.  It all makes sense.  The way everybody looked so strange, and vaguely threatening… was because they were all in the Valley.  The term itself makes an ineffable kind of sense: in the Valley somehow precisely describes my present mental condition.  The laughing fit subsides, and we become silent for a long stretch, absorbed in the deepening beauty of the sunset.  Our opiated trance is broken only once, when the Iguanas realize that they are still wearing their checker-monocles, and let both fall in a deftly synchronized relaxation of brow-muscles, prompting another laughing fit in the group. 

Suddenly, we see two dots moving briskly across the shimmering waters.  Ahab springs to his feet with a monomaniacal gleam in his eye, and rushes over to the railing.  Now we see that the dots are Grady’s jet skis, returning from their errand at the other high rise.  They have stalled alongside the tower, and their riders are waving to the people on the lower balconies.  Ahab, his voice fierce and booming as the love the ocean once lavished on the shoreline, hollers down to them: “HAST SEEN THE WHITE BALE?  HAST THOU SEEN THE WHITE BALE?”  One of the men roots around in his rucksack, and hoists out a thick, bulging bag of cocaine, which he waves gingerly like a flag.   Ahab’s hoary features redden with contentment, and he touches the bridge of nose lightly, like an expectant Lothario idly priming his erection.  The Seadog Rum sailor, emerging glassy-eyed from the K-hole, teases Ahab: “You’re going to need a bigger nose.” 
Grady and the Germans appear, carrying an Ikea couch from the house.  The couch is attached to a long, winding cable, and has two makeshift harnesses.  After a long preamble, Ahab bellowing: “Heave boys, HEAVE, will ye?”, we hurl the couch out over the railing. Then we are slowly hoisting the two couriers up the side of the high rise, and behind us they are all emerging slowly from the interior of the penthouse, eyeing one another to see what each has come as tonight, wondering, as I am, what new fads, rumours, bitcheries, melt-downs, past-life regressions, spontaneous abreactions, or coolly theoretical orgiastic permutations will emerge in the course of the night, what new symptoms and outward manifestations of the Party at the End of the World will be exhibited for us, and through us……  

                I came to from this long dream in an instant.  The storm had subsided during the course of the night, and the season of wind and rain finally exhausted itself.  The world was battered and weary, but once again it trundled along, a slight stirring of spring’s imminence drawing it through the slow and overcast days.  Although I didn’t realize it then, strange things were also stirring in the seclusion of the high rises, waiting to bloom and sprout when the temperature was right. 

The top image is The Sun from the Thoth tarot deck by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris.  The other cards are from the surrealists playing deck by Andre Breton et al, which I discovered at Dangerous Minds.  The images of the zodiacal wheels are from the wiki entry on the zodiac.  Continued shortly.