Review: The Man Whose Mind Exploded

“I just want them to take you seriously.”
“Is that possible?”

drako2Drako Oho Zarhazar had seven lives. Having survived two nervous breakdowns, two suicide attempts, and two comas, he was left with a brain so damaged it could no longer record new memories.

In his second coma, he experienced enlightenment in the form of a voice telling him:

TRUST
ABSOLUTE
UNCONDITIONAL

The words were tattooed on his body, along with tribal mandalas and what appears to an enormous celestial ram doing the splits. Born in 1936, Drako lived his last years in a council flat in Brighton where he was a familiar character, sweeping around town in a cape, telling ladies at the bus stop how he was once Salvador Dali’s angel and supplied The Rolling Stones with weed. The aristocratic RP and circus strongman panache might lead you to assume this was a deluded poseur – it’s Brighton, after all – but in Drako’s case, it’s all true.

drako Toby Amies’ The Man Whose Mind Exploded peeks in on the life of this magnificently peculiar man, his wild past, and surreal, sad twilight years. Drako lived alone, experiencing each day afresh. “Do you remember me?” the filmmaker repeatedly asks. “Not especially, no.” But he was, as he put it, happy to be used. Drako was nothing if not an exhibitionist. Which perhaps you can tell at a glance.

Amies spent four years getting to know Drako, in the disjointed, repetitive way brain damage requires. The distance a filmmaker is meant to keep from his subject is breached from the start, giving the film an intimate edge which makes for high emotional impact. Amies was practically Drako’s carer, urging him – and sometimes pleading him – to take more care while candles burned amongst his toppling stacks of art and scribblings. It was an inferno waiting to happen, but Drako liked it that way.

Tout_Love_hands_tattoo-814x545“I love it all,” he would say, again and again. “The theatre of life.”

This is no pity party, nor would Drako want it to be. He laughed often, spicing up his musings on art and faith with seemingly random instances of surreal filth, simply because he liked it. It’s kind of endearing, once you get used to all the phalluses hanging from his ceiling.

(And there are a lot of phalluses. Just… flocks of cocks. Wow.)

It’s impossible not to love Drako. For all his kinks and his squalor, by the end of the documentary, you hope there will always be people like him, baffling bystanders. Drako was affectionate and friendly and maddeningly stubborn. He lived in the moment, and entirely in his own style. “I love it all.”

Low budget, tender-hearted, and hilarious, The Man Whose Mind Exploded will appeal to fans of Grey Gardens and Marwencol. It’s available to download from iTunes.

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Wunderkammer: The Street of Crocodiles

It’s hard to separate the writing and art of Bruno Schulz from the tragedies of his life and death. Schulz’ peculiar inner world was shaped by the traumas of WW1, the death of his father, and an almost pathological solitude that cut him off even from his fellow Jews in the ghetto. In the wake of his death at the hands of a Nazi officer in 1942, many of his drawings and his final literary work, The Messiah, were lost forever. Under cover of darkness, a friend carried his body from where it lay in the street to a nearby Jewish cemetery. No trace of his grave site remains.

brunoshultzI first became aware of Schulz through the Brothers Quay 1986 film of his short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. Terry Gilliam called it one of the most beautiful films ever made, and he’s not wrong. The stuttering dolls and the clash of rusty machinery alongside throbbing organic matter stay with you long after the twenty minute film is over.

I only read the book recently, needing something brief after a massive Donna Tartt blowout. The Street of Crocodiles bears little literal resemblance to the film, but thrums with the same unsettling energy. Beginning in a stiflingly hot day in the Polish city of Drogobych where Schulz lived and died, the reader is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the city, wheeling about like beetles on the baking pavement. Then come the even more disconcerting denizens of the family home. A shy, thin young man, Schulz inserts himself as an unobtrusive narrator, watching the strange comings and goings of his family with little concern for the creeping madness of his father and the violence of the strangely powerful servant Adela.

Schulz is most commonly lumped in with Kafka and Proust. Having only read Crocodiles so far, he reminds me most of magical realists like Angela Carter and Mikhail Bulgakov; more introverted, like a quiet cousin of theirs, but just as poetic and hilarious.

With Schulz, everyday sights are loaded with meaningful life. The landscape he traipses each day with his mother becomes a character in itself, as much as any family member: “And over the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth.” His disturbed father shares this odd sensitivity, adopting tailors’ dummies and treating them as beings capable of pain: “Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will to eat into it like fate, like destiny?”

Bruno_SchulzHe is sensitive without being sentimental, as if conscious that the rules of his world are not the same as his neighbours:

“In a way, these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colours.”

Reality goes in. Imagination – distilled – comes out.

Schulz’ drawings remind me of those of his contemporary Mervyn Peake – probably the reason I warmed to him so quickly. Schulz’ hollow-cheeked Jews wouldn’t be out of place in The Hall of Bright Carvings; Peake’s Mister Flay would be quite at home in The Book of Idolatry. Sideways black comedy came naturally to them both, although it’s impossible to look at them side-by-side without the sad realisation that Peake documented the atrocities of the Holocaust as an official war artist while Schulz – and so much of his surreal, beautiful work – did not survive it.

brunosanatorium

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7 reasons you should watch American Horror Story: Coven

In this house, we like horror and we love American Horror Story. The latest series, ‘Coven’, follows a school for talented young witches in New Orleans, and you should be watching it.

ahscoven

It passes the Bechdel test. Every episode. In fact, all three series of AHS features women talking to women about things other than men. This is so damn refreshing. See, screenwriters? It isn’t difficult.

The magnificent sets revel in all the trappings of Southern Gothic: dreary swamps, ramshackle cemeteries, and grand white houses with jazz drifting in from the streets and bars. You can almost taste the mint juleps.

Myrtle Snow

Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow

Myrtle Snow’s costumes by Lou Eyrich. She is flawless.

The music. Stevie Nicks is a keystone of the Coven series; her lyrics a thread to follow. All three AHS series have made use of a spectrum of music, including Carina Round, Pete and The Pirates, and Soeur Marie’s Dominique – which will now be stuck in your head for all eternity.

Jamie Brewer. An actress with Down’s Syndrome who isn’t there purely to demonstrate the protagonist’s compassion, isn’t asexual, and consistently gets good lines. Brewer also features in the first series – ‘Murder House’ – without as much complexity, but the writers are clearly interested in diversity without tokenism, and that’s something I think audiences really want to see.

Kathy Bates as serial killer Delphine LaLaurie. Horror fans will already be warm to Bates, and, as you’d expect, she looks 100% at home scowling in a frumpy antique frock. Though Madame LaLaurie is a cartoonish character, AHS uses her to explore the deeply entrenched racism of America’s South through her grudging friendship with witch of colour, Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe. It isn’t unproblematic by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good to see a fantastical mainstream TV series touching on actual social horrors. When LaLaurie attempts to excuse her vicious past with “I was a woman of my time”, Supreme witch Fiona responds: “That is a crock of shit.”

Cheese. AHS is unashamedly cheesy. Witches casually playing theremins, your requisite zombie uprising, teenage necromancers flouncing around in impossibly high heels and sunglasses…it’s silly. And silly is good. Watch it.

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Marfan Syndrome and The Internship: Not a big-man’s disease

There’s been a ripple through the Marfan community this week. Some American comedians I’ve vaguely heard of (my world is muffled by nineteenth century poet’s letters to their dentists) have taken it upon themselves to mention Marfan syndrome in their latest film, The Internship.

Instead of using their immense media power to spread lifesaving information to the suspected thousands of people who don’t know they have Marfans, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell decided it would be easier to throw this out there, apropos of nothing:

Will Ferrell: not actually a doctor.

Will Ferrell: not actually qualified to take your ECG.

“C’mon, Marfan syndrome. You know, Marfan. Big man’s-disease. Giant killer.”

It’s crass, unfunny, and worst of all, untrue.

The National Marfan Foundation have released a statement urging the film’s producers to use this opportunity to spread the word about this often fatal disorder, and also pointing out the obvious: it was a stupid thing to say. Reactions from individual Marfs have ranged from “I’ve heard worse” to this, which reads like a punch in the gut:

A Virginia man, who lost his two-year-old son to Marfan syndrome in 2011, wrote that he was “extremely upset with the lack of taste, concern and respect concerning this disorder.”

The blogger Maya, also known as MarfMom, is, as always, joyful and positive, and has written about the film. She rightly thinks we ought to use this opportunity to educate, because the danger of the line is that it spreads misinformation. Half of people with Marfans don’t know they’ve got it. They go without medication, take part in dangerous activities, and may not find out until they’re in the back of an ambulance. Accurate information in the public eye is vital.

‘Big man’s disease’? Marfan syndrome affects men and women equally. ‘Giant killer’? Not all Marfs are exceptionally tall, and even so, they tend to be thin or unmuscular. In fact, if I had to pick a mythical creature to represent Marfans, it would be the willowy elves from Lord of The Rings. They’re long, they’re languid, and they’re sick to the back teeth of orcs crawling out of the woodwork. And what is this ableist obsession with fantasy monikers anyway? Giants, dwarves, monsters. Anything but human.

Thranduil thinks your attitude stinks.

Elfking Thranduil thinks your attitude stinks.

Handy rule of thumb: If you don’t have a disability, don’t make jokes about it.

I’m going to have that printed on little glitzy flashcards to make it all the more memorable, because although it’s basic human decency, some people still struggle with it.

No.

No.

All the Marfs I know make light of our health among ourselves, our friends, and families. Laughter is useful, particularly when – and this actually happened to me – a saleswoman earnestly informs you your incurable illness will clear up if you just drink enough aloe vera juice.

But if you don’t inhabit that sphere, you can’t assume what people’s thresholds are. You can’t assume what people are just about managing to cope with, what their history is, who they’ve lost.

Another thing Vaughn and Ferrell might be unaware of is that people with a long-term health conditions are strongly encouraged to keep their feelings to themselves.  Classic derailing: “It’s only a joke, don’t take it so personally, no-one will take you seriously when you’re angry”. If you’re going to speak out about ableism you must cloak yourself in charm and detachment, as if this wasn’t your everyday life being discussed. Heaven forbid you become one of those frightening party-pooper militants who lurk in drains with Pennywise the clown.

Yes, it’s just a weak joke in a film unlikely to go down in cinematic history. But there will be kids who’ll suffer in school because of this. There will be adults who’ve lost a child or a parent or a friend who will have to smile politely at jokes like this from colleagues, strangers, and even friends who, because they’ve seen it in a mainstream film, think it’s harmless behaviour.

It isn’t.

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Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno: “Let’s go stunner-hunting!”

After casting Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I can forgive Ken Russell of almost any sin. Even Dante’s Inferno. Most of it.

Through a psychedelic ’60s lens, with the Pre-Raphaelite circle portrayed as drink-mad, cemetery-defiling pyromaniacs on top of all the usual Russell weirdness, Dante’s Inferno the only film I’ve ever awoken at dawn for, snarling over the final seconds of the auction: “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s the only DVD copy I’ve ever seen anywhere, and it’s mine…”

Now, someone thoughtful has uploaded the whole wacky display to YouTube, so you can enjoy it as much as I did all those years ago, alone in my flat, wondering what on Earth I’d allowed into my life.

Don’t expect a history lesson. Do expect drunken bicycle jousting, zombie Lizzie Siddal, and Oliver Reed playing himself. No, it isn’t sensitive. But if you’ve ever seen the schlocky ’70s horror Burnt Offerings, you can’t really dislike Reed. My late Auntie Ann used to drink with him, and maintained he was a gentleman. He’s not a bad likeness of Rossetti, physically; dark and languid in layer upon layer of shabby Victorian tailoring. Jan Marsh has a chapter on the film in her excellent book The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal. She calls Reed ‘solid but smouldering’.

Leave me alone - I'm brooding.

Leave me alone – I’m smouldering, solidly.

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Topsy and Janey, experiencing an approximation of married bliss.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

…and Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

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When I am queen, I will burn down the castle.

They say that one passion leads to another. Long before I discovered Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I lived in Gormenghast.

Gormenghast

Between school bullies, kidney infections, and the oncoming Iraq war (which, I’d somehow convinced myself, was my fault), the year 2000 was a dismal time to be fourteen. But when the BBC released a four-part adaptation of Gormenghast in time for the Millennium, something shifted. From my hospital bed, I imagined the mauve peaks and crumbling spires of the castle on the horizon. I stopped doing my homework. Mervyn Peake’s Machiavellian fantasy was a safe place to escape to.

I never grew out of it. At my first University graduation, seeing the professors traipsing down the aisles in their gowns and mortar boards, I whispered excitedly to the boy next to me: “This is just like Gormenghast!” He had no idea what I was on about.

Years pass. We grow up, our tastes evolve. I fell out with high fantasy, fell into the nineteenth century. But, over a decade after my first encounter with Gormenghast,  thumbing through my paperback trilogy, something sounded familiar…

Fuchsia-and Steerpike

“A girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and, in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered. A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red. For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch.”

Oh, hello, Jane Morris.

Jane Morris

For a fourteen-year-old reader, Lady Fuchsia Groan is an easy character to relate and aspire to. Living in isolation where ‘the halls, towers, the rooms of Gormenghast were of another planet’, her response to most things is to run away to her dark attic of storybooks and paintings. She is a petulant child playing Ophelia and Juliet, dying to fall headlong into a world of chivalric romance and adventure.

Fuchsia – in Peake’s own illustrations and his text – has unmistakable similarities to Rossetti’s Jane. Like La Pia, Fuchsia glowers with the lethargic energy of someone who wants to be somewhere else but isn’t sure where. Her unkempt hair and pronounced features give her the ‘unpretty’ Pre-Raphaelite beauty the Victorians were so bothered by. Jane was considered unfortunately unattractive by many. Fuchsia, too.

lapiafuchsiared

There are Pre-Raphaelite echoes in every corner of Gormenghast. Maybe it’s the meeting of the Gothic and the Chivalric, the tragic and the absurd, or Peake’s own network of literary sources including Lewis Carol and The Brothers Grimm. Peake’s childhood in China and later studies at the Royal Academy gave his work a sense of ancientness and the exotic that reminds me of Holman Hunt’s picking and choosing of historical and cultural details. You can see it in The Hall of The Bright Carvings and the almost Tibetan descriptions of the endless corridors and slanting roofs of the castle.

mervynpeakeuptree

Mervyn, acting casual

As a war artist in the 1940s, Peake saw terrible scenes of human cruelty in the rubble of the bombsites and the concentration camps. Perhaps it was only natural to head for the dusty safety of the past.

The BBC adaptation – which I realise is not to every Peake-purist’s taste – is funhouse mirror Pre-Raphaelitism. Nature is vast and unfathomable. Steerpike wheedles his way into Fuchsia’s favour by claiming to be “like the knights of old, your ladyship” only to find he can’t possibly live up to Fuchsia’s fantasies. In John Constable’s later stage show, Fuchsia is even given red hair. (Actual audience comment: “This is horrible. They said it was fantasy. It’s nothing like Harry Potter at all.”)

Fuchsia and Jane

The BBC costumes are luxuriant. Fuchsia starts off as a teenager in a loose red velvet dress embroidered with stars. As she gets older and sadder, her outfits become heavier, more stiffly structured, until she is dragged down into the foaming floodwaters like Ophelia, leaving flowers in her wake.


The costume department referred to some of the same sources the Pre-Raphaelites did – Velázquez and Botticelli – resulting in voluminous layers of fabric and detail (even hazelnuts as buttons!) like a mad dressing-up session in a museum vault. Actress Neve McIntosh would gain two inches in height after taking off Fuchsia’s weighty gowns. Rossetti, with his reams of fabric cluttering up the house, would have loved it.

Lady Gertrude Groan
Excuse the poor quality photograph, but wouldn’t Rossetti have made a great job of this still from the film as a painting? Minus the prosthetic chin.

I wonder if I would have reacted so strongly to the Pre-Raphaelites had I not experienced Gormenghast so young. One good thing leads on to another. What’s next?


Buy The Gormenghast Trilogythe BBC miniseries on DVD, or the fantastic soundtrack by Sir John Tavener who, coincidentally, has Marfans.

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If you have an hour to spare on this chilly Armistice Day, I recommend spending it with Derek Jarman’s haunting 1989 film War Requiem.  With no spoken dialogue it has the same dreamy, shadowy quality that made Caravaggio one of my favourite films*, juxtaposing gentle, balletic human interaction in chalky light with painterly nightmare sequences suggestive of Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell. All shot on a budget of about £3.50.

If nothing else, watch the sacrifice scene at 43:06. Nathaniel Parker looking like a moustachioed Edwardian angel as the cigar-puffing masses watch from a safe distance, rouged and smiling, is one of the darkest, most gorgeous few minutes of film I’ve ever seen. Nathaniel’s trusting little smile – oh, God.

* I use Caravaggio as a method of gauging character. If you can sit through it happily, you’re an alright sort. If you love it as much as I do, you can stay.

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