Visions of Saint Maud

As with so many other cultural events during 2020, Saint Maud, the directorial debut by Rose Glass, fell victim to the pandemic. Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, UK and American distribution rights were quickly picked up and the film was meant to have been issued on general release in Spring 2020, after being specially commended at the BFI London Film Festival. It did – eventually – receive a limited release in October 2020 and was issuef on DVD and streaming services in February 2021, but this is an intelligent psychological horror movie that has not received as large an audience it deserves, despite high praise from a number of critics.

This review – unsurprisingly – is concerned with a particular set of Blakean themes that run through the film. The plot is intriguing in its mundane, everyday qualities that hint at the potential terrors of everyday life: we are introduced to Maud (played by Morfydd Clark) in a brief, unexplained incident as she sits, almost comatose, beside a patient who has clearly suffered a violent death. From here, the story segues immediately to her more ascetic existence as a hospice nurse, one who has recently converted to Catholicism and is now caring for a former dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Filmed in Scarborough, the movie depicts the soul-crushing ennui of many English seaside towns with little in the way of relief from bitter existence – places where too many people turn to drugs or fleeting sexual euphoria to try and escape. There are subtle hints that this was the kind of life Maud (who has changed her name from Katie) lived prior to her current position, but she now obsesses over her faith in god – an obsession that all too easily transposes itself onto Amanda. Disapproving of Amanda’s relics of a bohemian lifestyle – in particular her lesbian relationship with Carol (Lily Frazer) who she pays for sex – Maud soon oversteps her boundary and, after a pettily humiliating incident, is banished from her post.

The film is a brilliant three-way relationship between Maud, Amanda and Glass as writer and director, with excellent walk-on parts for other characters such as Frazer and a former friend, Joy (Lily Knight). It is telling that, with very minor exceptions, this is a movie that seeks to explore women’s obsessions and desires more or less entirely through female eyes. Indeed, the only significant man in the movie is one recorded in absentia – William Blake.

Blake is introduced in passing, as a single volume on a bookshelf that is generally more concerned with earthly matters. A number of critics have noted the signficance of Amanda’s gift of the book – a copy of Morton Paley’s 1978 Phaidon edition of Blake’s prints, but this first glimpse of the Romantic is subtly significant: the book is literally off centre, and when Amanda gives it to Maud it is of less significance to her than Maud believes. Instead of being the beginning of some deep bond between the two women, this is a casual – almost careless – offloading of soemthing that means very little to the dancer who is now dying of cancer.

As with so many things, however, Maud completely misreads the importance of this act. Immersed in the shallows of her religious experience, with little to guide her as she heads out towards deeper waters, she pores over Blake’s images. We are given delightful dead ends – not least the fleeting glimpse of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, which of course intimates another psychological horror, Francis Dolarhyde becoming the Satanic entity in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. It is, however, the colour print of The Good and Evil Angels, one clothed in fire, the other shrouded in blue, fighting over a child who is symbolic of the human soul in this struggle of contraries. Such is this image that, later in the film, we see that Maud has cut it out with several other of the paintings to create a shrine to her religious monomania, and it becomes doubly significant to the terrifying final frame of the movie (which involves a spoiler below).

Blake, then, is a regular pulse throughout the film. An amusing reaction by some commentators is that it is this engagement with Blake which leads Maud into her deep obsession, but in truth Maud doesn’t really understand Blake at all. What she fails to perceive is that she controls the doors of perception, and it becomes clear at an early stage that the terrifying, disturbing elements of the movie are distortions caused by Maud’s own senses: if only she could cleanse them, instead of being trapped inside herself she would perceive the universe as it really is – infinite. This is revealed in a stunning scene in which God talks directly to Maud in Welsh, the language of her own unconscious; instead of recognising that the divine image is inside her, she projects it outwards onto the universe and thus obeys a false, Urizenic deity.

That this can only end in tragedy is evidenced by the fatal conclusions of the film. When she witnesses Amanda become a devil, we are not seeing the debate between a Blakean angel and devil but instead Maud’s own hallucinations that cannot distinguish reality from fantasy – and which have, ultimately, nothing to do with the power of imagination. As Glass has indicated in various interviews, the last scene in which Maud, having doused herself in acetone which she then sets alight, witnesses herself as an angel is entirely wish fulfilment and false perception. The film ends with a truly horrific, split second scene in which we see Maud as she truly is – screaming in intense agony as she burns to death, a kind of reversal of the final frames of another fascinating horror movie, Midsommar, in which the tormented heroine finally breaks into a monstrous grimace as she realises she has come home.

This terrible finale is an inverted apotheosis: instead of becoming the heavenly angel, Maud is revealed as the flaming devil she has unconsciously revered throughout the movie. It is clear that Katie – the pleasure-seeking, hedonistic woman who changed her name to Maud – had never disappeared but was, rather, simply repressed. Had Maud been able to come to terms with the devil inside her, rather than simply seeking to crush it with the suffocating presence of a false god, then she would have spared herself the frightening, pitiful immolation of her own, perverted energies. As Blake had written in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.” Incapable of seeing herself as she truly is, Maud has restrained Katie and, inevitably, the return of the repressed is monstrous horror rather than a marriage of the divine and the diabolical.

Review: Red White & Blake

Will Franken’s Red White & Blake begins with the rather wonderful warning that “No Blake scholars were consulted in the making of this motion picture”. As an ostensible Blake scholar, that offends me much less than it delights me, especially as Franken – who has made his reputation as a comedian but who studied English literature in the USA before coming to Britain – is clearly familiar with a wide range of Blake scholarship alongside the works of Blake himself. Franken demonstrated this last year when he was the winner of the Blake Society’s 2017 Tithe Grant for a wonderful letter he wrote as though addressed by Blake to Samuel Palmer, and Red White & Blake is Franken’s own personal love letter to the engraver and to the country in which he lived.

Written and directed by Franken, and produced by Scott Ambrose, Red White & Blake is organised into four sections based on the four zoas, the first segment in this documentary opens with Tharmas as a guiding light to discussion of theology. Franken begins with the typical (although superseded – at least with regard to James Blake) view that the artist’s parents were Dissenters before expressing surprise that they baptised their son in a Church of England service. He does follow this with a concise summary of some aspects of Protestant Christianity on the Continent and in England, and his discussion of the tenets of Christianity is liberally interspersed with readings from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, such as “The Garden of Love” and “The Little Vagabond”, before focussing on the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg, noting the importance of the Swedish mystic’s influence on Blake in such works as “The Divine Image”. More important, however, is Blake’s split from Swedenborg, explored in considerable detail as Franken moves through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the presenter deserves a huge amount of praise for spending so much time exploring Blake’s religious beliefs in such a sincere fashion.

While I don’t agree with all points that Franken makes, he is generally sophisticated and subtle in his thought, expecting the viewer to keep up with all aspects of his theological speculation and drawing attention, among other things, to the fact that Blake’s voice is to be distinguished from that of the devil in The Marriage. Perhaps his most astute comment is when he points out (in the section on Urizen) that for many contemporary Blake fans a difficulty lies in the fact that the artist was a devout (if idiosyncratic) Christian. The attempt to erase a controversial aspect of Blakean thought demonstrates a failure of vision on the part of many contemporary readers and, by focussing on politics and failing to address religion, we do Blake a great disservice.

In the second section on Urizen (slavery), Franken begins with Blake’s desire to create his own artistic system, as well as his mythological framework. This leads quickly into an explanation of Albion’s division into the Four Zoas as the model for England. Franken interprets Urizen as the devil rather than God the Father (that role being reserved for Tharmas). While facile Blakean criticism tends to observe that Urizen is depicted like traditional images of God in heaven, Franken draws upon The [First] Book of Urizen (among others) to develop his argument, a reading of Blake that shows he really knows the scholarship. As demiurge, Urizen is both the first slave and first slave-master and this sophisticated exegesis is one of my favourite parts of the documentary.

After this, the film moves on to explicit considerations of slavery in the late eighteenth century via “The Little Black Boy” and then America, but the focus is the mental self-enslavement that Britons were mastering in the age of reason, as well as the effects of the growth of urbanisation and industrialisation on England’s green and pleasant lands. As such, the argument is generally very sophisticated for such a documentary, following through mental slavery via British empiricism.

The third section, on Luvah (liberty) is the most explicitly political section of the film, again circling around The Marriage against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Franken follows this with an account of Blake’s arrest and trial for sedition in Felpham, which is generally good on the background, though there is the occasional mistake, such as his assertion that coffee houses at the time of the Civil War contributed to the death of the king, whereas the first ones did not open in London until after the execution of Charles I. Nonetheless, throughout this section – as in the film as a whole – there is some vibrant context for the background of Blake’s thoughts, for example in the writings of Thomas Paine as one of the inspirations for the American War of Independence.

The effects of the American and French Revolutions are fed through to Blake’s mythology, and this is another example of how Franken does not relent with regard to his expectations on the viewer’s concentration. One example is the thread that contrasts a good Satan versus the bad Satan in America (Urizen/God versus Orc/Jesus) – this is only true in part and, since Northrop Frye, many scholars have tended to view the relations between Urizen and Orc as more dialectical than Franken suggests here. Nonetheless, this is a question of emphasis and what cannot be doubted is his extensive knowledge of Blake’s, quoted throughout the documentary with passion. Following the section on America, there is a consideration of the effects of the French Revolution, as reflected in Blake’s poem of the same name – a segment which offers Franken the clearest means to focus on a straight history of the Revolution as well as the reaction of Romantics generally against Napoleon as emperor.

The final section on Urthona as Contrary returns once more to Blake’s death as it had at the very beginning of the film, and focuses on imagination as the Holy Spirit, a pentacostal view of Christianity which is dynamic and constantly changing, an act of prophecy and – in Blake’s hands – of art. This section deals with one of Blake’s most difficult books, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, especially as this leads us on to an understanding of Los, who Franken calls “the bridge between the here and the hereafter”, the prophetic alter-ego of Blake. As with the rest of Franken’s documentary, he emphasises the importance of religion to Blake’s world view (via a fascinating detour through psychology as a means to secularise prophetic vision in a segment that seems to owe a great deal to another fan of Blake’s work, R. D. Laing).

The reading of contemporary psychoanalysis through the lens of Blake’s works is fascinating, but is followed by, for me at least, a considerably more contentious segment that treats social justice as a justification for racial victimisation and views of toxic masculinity that turns into an attack on feminism. Strictly speaking, Franken is determined to specify that his complaint is with “third-wave feminism” (which is never defined with as much care as given, say, to various theories of the Enlightenment). Throughout this section, there are moments when Franken seems to be on the verge of offering a potentially more critical view of Blake’s own views of gender and sexuality, but in the end this is elided rather than fully addressed. While I understand that Franken is concerned to oppose what he sees as liberal forms of totalitarianism – particularly ones which deny freedom of speech in the name of liberality (a clear contradiction) – the reason I feel that he is misusing Blake at this point is because, with regards to race and gender in particular, discrimination is unfortunately not historical but alive and well. At his best, Blake attacks the powerful and while there are plenty of hypocrites who make a living from identifying themselves as victims, there are too many women who are paid less and people of colour who are discriminated against. I was painfully reminded at this point of the documentary of a Blake scholar who told me how much she loves Blake until those moments when he makes such observations as: “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474). Blake – rightly – does not desire us to read his words as holy writ, and when he is wrong we should engage him in mental fight just as he fought with Milton.

Franken seeks to avoid the worst excesses of his own argument via a very  good point regarding negations versus contraries – the former, says Blake, should be destroyed whereas the latter lead to the true heaven of Eden. This is a difficult argument at the best of times, and interestingly the documentary breaks down formally at this point, becoming more than a little incoherent as I suspect that Franken really is struggling with his argument. He attempts to illustrate it via a terrorist who ends the discussion, with it the discussion then being taken up in a pub (hints of “The Little Vagabond”), and his conclusion moves towards the notion that the individual must set up against a contrary against all authoritarian elites, whether religious, fascist or liberal. His model at this point is as much Monty Python’s Flying Circus which was Franken’s entry point into a vision of Albion alongside that of William Blake.

There is much in this documentary that deserves high praise: Franken is clearly enthusiastic about Blake, and his emphasis on Blake’s religion is very well made – contemporary scholars who try to secularise Blake in their own image do the poet and artist a great disservice. He is particularly good when it comes to contextualising Blake in terms of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and there is more than a passing familiarity with the work of figures such as Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza and Locke among others. His final conclusion that Blake is a “radical Christian patriot” is, however, a more ambivalent one for me: as one of those scholars not consulted – rightly – by Franken, I have spent a great many years considering what Blake’s national and (to a lesser degree) what his religious vision mean. There is a potentially dangerous tendency at the end of Franken’s love letter to Albion for him to indulge in what George Orwell identified as the worst elements of nationalism – fear (or at least disdain) of the other – rather than the best aspects of patriotism – love of what we hold dearest. Franken’s exuberance and enthusiasm cannot be doubted, but nor should it ever be forgotten that the radical Christian patriot who is his subject was also the one who wrote:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Without contraries is no progression, but we should never forget – as too many contrarians do – that a negation is not the same thing, seeking only to squash and oppress that it disdains.

 

Red White & Blake is now available on Amazon Instant Video and is free for Prime subscribers, or costs from £7.99 to purchase.

Burning Bright (trailer)

A woman is trapped in her home with her autistic son; her stepfather pilfered her money for his tiger safari park; a hurricane is causing devastation; and somehow there’s a tiger on the loose in her house. Can’t believe I missed the cinema release of this one, but for all those eager fans of the works of Carlos Brooks, the DVD release on August 17 will allow us to see if there is any further connection to Blake other than the title.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

Blakespotting: Filming Jerusalem (via Facebook)

Occasionally there is a quirky project involving Blake that catches my eye, and this summer could bring a couple of potentially interesting filmic gems (or, at least, intriguing oddities) that both take their inspiration from Blake’s “Jerusalem”.

The first of these, and one to which I shall definitely return should it see the light of day, is a digital short starring Ray Winstone as William Blake. Directed by Ryan Andrews, Winstone was in Cardiff in May filming for the project. My (unfortunate) scepticism is that this is not the first time that Winstone has become involved in recording Blake’s life: the 2007 Sam Taylor Wood biopic, for which Winstone was slated to write the script, never appeared – Billy Nuts the Poet losing out to John Lennon for her 2009 movie Nowhere Boy.

Winstone would – in my opinion – make a decent, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Blake. Sexy Beast showed that he was more than capable of playing against type and there’s not much danger of Jerusalem (Andrews’s film) going all “nil by mouth”. Indeed, rather than proving himself the notorious daddy, the piece will be set in period costume and – as Andrews was selected from a shortlist of winners for the entry and the scope of this project is much less ambitious than Wood’s film, it may very well see a final release.

The second project, more recently announced, alternates in my opinion between being bonkers and a marvellous idea (which is a territory I hugely enjoy exploring). Paul McDonahue from Salford is looking to film a no-budget picture, also called Jerusalem, over the coming weeks and, to keep down costs, has been recruiting via Facebook – from where I take his following description of the movie:

An AWOL army soldier, disillusioned with the war, england and the government, arrives in the english countryside after the train he is travelling home on breaks down. Stranded there, he journeys cross country to the next train station meeting various characters and facing many social issues along the way all the while being pursued by the mysterious policeman as he tries to make his way home through England’s green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem, unsurprisingly, won’t have any stars but McDonahue said in a recent interview with the Salford Star that he will be working with a number of experienced actors such as John May (who has appeared in a number of small budget films as well as Channel 5 and BBC programmes). This is the sort of project that would have been impossible to see a few years ago, but I’m sure it will make it online if the director’s dedication to recruiting is anything to go by (one of my favourite posts to his group: “Hiya my names olivia ellis and my dream is to become an Actress if you need one let me know.”)

I’m unsure how much of McDonahue’s desire to deliver a “hard-hitting” message to the government will strike its mark, but I admire his brio and determination. Reminds me of someone else in the first decades of the nineteenth century, struggling in obscurity in London producing an epic poem of the state of Albion which the more famous (and ultimately doomed) artist Thomas Griffiths Wainewright described half-affectionately, half-mockingly as “a tremendous piece of ordance, an eighty-eight pounder”. Barely a dozen people read Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion during Blake’s lifetime, but more remember him now than a fashionable artist whose only claim to fame in the twentieth century is that he was transported for forgery and poisoning – and that he knew William Blake.

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Jerusalem

Extract from Tony Richardson’s remarkable The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), based on the Allan Silitoe play and starring Tom Courtenay. In this scene, the boys at a borstal school sing “Jerusalem” while one of their members is punished by the warders.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

George Bean Group – Jerusalem

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

“Jerusalem” from Peter Watkin’s 1967 film, Privilege, performed by the George Bean Group. In the movie, Paul Jones plays Steven Shorter, a pop star whose career is manipulated to launch a new form of religious nationalism. Genuinely strange.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Joel Bocko – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Joel Bocka’s short film, Songs of Innocence and Experience (2006). Shot in Prague and inspired as much by Jan Svankmajer as William Blake (a marriage made in heaven – or hell).

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Talladega Nights – The cut worm forgives the plough

Blink and you’ll miss it, but William Blake is used to demonstrate Jean Girard’s sophistication in this very funny scene from Talladega Nights (2006).

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Innocent Augur – Patti Smith’s Blake

If there is one thing that is incredibly heartwarming for me, it is the flowering successes of Patti Smith. Her passions for Blake (as well as so many other things – from the French Symbolists to the Beats via Robert Mapplethorpe) is well known, enduring and, on a personal level, extremely touching.

One thing that is particularly marvellous about her career is that it seems to have enjoyed a millennial resurgence. Smith, in my opinion, joins those ranks of women such as Louise Bourgeouis and Georgia O’Keefe who just get better as they get older, and it’s a damn fine sign that she is not being brushed out of sight in her sixties – if anything, is becoming more prolific and more admired. In 1999, a bitchy and thoroughly mean-spirited biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley was published which largely wrote her off as another has-been: the next decade proved them both completely wrong.

Very briefly, her list of accomplishments in the new decade has included various collections of her lyrics (such as Patti Smith Complete, which came out a year after the Bockris/Bayley hatchet job, followed up in 2006 by Complete: Lyrics, Reflections and Notes for the Future), some fine editions of her favourite poets, including a selection of Blake’s published by Vintage in 2007, a book of her 2008 exhibition of photography, Land 250, a much-awaited autobiography of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, recently published by Bloomsbury and which I haven’t had chance to read yet, and – last but by no means least for this blog – the 2006 collection of original poetry, Auguries of Innocence.

In some ways, though the Bockris/Bayley biography annoyed me immensely, it came at a time when Smith probably was something of a fading shadow. I’m sure I’m not the only young man to have half-fallen in love with the Mapplethorpe portrait of her on Horses – one of the very icons of cool itself, beautiful in all its androgynous perfection – but by the end of the 1990s I must be honest that she had drifted far away from the centres of my perception. In the past ten years, however, something of her true value has been appreciated by writers and film-makers, such as Stephen Sebring, whose 2008 film Dream of Life has attracted critical acclaim recently.

Smith’s influences cannot, and should not, be reduced to Blake – but her tousles and invocations of the Romantic should also never be forgotten. Her recent performance at Union Chapel, London, included a rendition of “My Blakean Year”, from the 2004 album Trampin’:

Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year

You can read the lyrics in their entirety on her site, pattismith.net, but I shall end here with one of my favourite quotations from her, taken from a 2000 interview for Tate Magazine:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this [the influence of Blake]. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not – and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now.

Tom Noonan speaks about Manhunter

Tom Noonan speaks about the Blake tattoo with which he is adorned in the film, Manhunter. Read the article about the Hannibal trilogy.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.