Gilbey on Film: true horror

For frights, nothing beats a public information film from the Seventies.

I was tempted in to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 by the trailer, which promised something horrific and disturbing and yet still targeted at children -- a combination that always intrigues me.

If a filmmaker is happy to get an 18-rating (or "R" in the US), there are naturally far fewer limits on what can be shown. Aiming instead for a family audience imposes obstacles around which a skilful director will relish manoeuvring, often creating in the process a more intimately chilling work. With the button marked "explicit" placed out of reach when you can't go any higher than a PG or 12A, some ingenuity is called for. I like seeing how filmmakers work around that.

I didn't get the chance with the latest Harry Potter because all the spooky bits showcased in the trailer have evidently been saved for Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which opens next summer. That said, the new picture does have one moment that will give any teenager the heebie-jeebies; it's a kind of Solaris Junior episode in which Ron (Rupert Grint) is taunted by the manifestation of his worst fear -- Hermione (Emma Watson) smooching with his best friend, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe).

The series has had its occasional frights, usually revolving around the soul-sucking Dementors. But scaring children is an important business. Someone should put some proper work into it. I'm sure Disney's crack at a live-action ghost story for kids, the 1980 film The Watcher in the Woods, looks creaky now, but it spooked me and my friends as 9-year-olds. (It also provided my first encounter with Bette Davis, long before I saw All About Eve. Funny how we stumble accidentally upon those we will eventually love.) We were all careful to count the number of times The Watcher in the Woods made us jump; by the end, we had almost run out of fingers.

Can children still get those feelings from movies now? Or have video games filled that void? I suspect it's the latter, although the only empirical evidence I have to go on is a recent conversation in which my 16-year-old son passed on to his 10-year-old sister advice on surviving a zombie attack at school. How proud I was.

Two recent animated movies, Coraline and Monster House, pushed their young audiences as near to outright horror as it is possible to go. In fact, one of the writers of the latter, Dan Harmon, believed that Monster House went too far; you can read his brilliantly frank letter to a young girl who'd been terrified by the picture, in which he explains how the script was rewritten, and how its director Gil Kenan ("a hack") and producer Steven Spielberg ("a moron") made it oppressively dark against Harmon's wishes. It's odd thinking of Spielberg having anything to do with that decision, when Jurassic Park and The Lost World were fatally compromised by their need to mollify the audience they were supposed to be frightening.

Last year, Guillermo del Toro signed a deal with Disney to develop and produce a series of scary films for children, under the new Disney Double Dare You brand. Sadly nothing came of it, and the latest word from del Toro is that DDDY is no more. I hope the idea is revived in some form or another; children like, and need, to be scared, within reason, and it's not a bad idea to have a series of films dedicated to doing the job properly.

I showed my eldest daughter Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure when she was four or five, and she was properly spooked by the sight of Large Marge, the pop-eyed, stop-motion ghoul with whom Pee-Wee Herman hitches a ride. Once she had recovered from the shock, she asked immediately to see it again. I know that feeling.

I must have been more disappointed than I'd realised by the lack of chills in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, because as soon as I got home I started watching Stop! Look! Listen!, the BFI's new two-disc volume of archive films from the Central Office of Information. This is the fourth such volume and it contains some absolute blood-curdlers. Everyone knows there's nothing scarier than public information films, especially those made in the 1970s, when the gritty urgency of cinema and television seemed to licence in them a new toughness and daring.

Stop! Look! Listen! contains a pair of mini-masterpieces of the form. One is "Apaches", a 29-minute short by John Mackenzie (who later made The Long Good Friday); its warnings about the dangers of playing on, with or around farmyard machinery stayed with me into adulthood. I only need to see a combine harvester in repose and I get a chill.

But the film which got to me as a nipper, and still freaks me out now, is "Never Go With Strangers", directed by Sarah Erulkar. (Other work by the Indian-born director is screening at the BFI Southbank this Thursday.) As I watched it again this week, it was like revisiting the scene of a partially repressed childhood trauma; instantly I was transported back to the mustard-carpeted "television area" of my Essex primary school, where we were all herded to watch this stark warning of the dangers of skipping off to see a strange man's puppy/goldfish/newborn donkey.

Erulkar's short has an economical but striking visual power. Images from the film are seared on my brain -- like the child whimpering in the shadow of her unseen kidnapper, or the sudden imposition of demonic eyes on the face of an apparently innocuous face as the narrator says, "If a man looked awful, if his face changed when he was doing something bad, it would be so easy not to go with him." (That gimmick didn't have quite the same kick when it was wheeled out for the "New Labour, New Danger" poster campaign.) And there are details I had forgotten, or never noticed. As the shadow looms over the child, and the voiceover says "He's big, he's frightening, he can be rude and nasty, and she can't do anything about it," we can see debris all around her, including one especially disturbing detail -- a doll with its head snapped off.

What saves the short from overkill is its essential sanity. It addresses its young audience in a reasonable, sophisticated voice -- one from which modern governments might learn a great deal when raising with the electorate the subject of terrorism. The film reminds viewers that most people wish them no harm. And it respects their independence too: "You're not babies any more," the narrator says. "You want to be free and find a bit of adventure." Any shortcomings can be blamed only on semantics or naivety. It is unfortunate that the script differentiates between people who are kind to children and those who are "unhappy, lonely, peculiar or bad", adjectives which I'm sure could apply to most of us on drab days. There's also the comforting but unhelpful illusion, still upheld today, that any threat will come predominantly from outside the family, when we know this not to be the case.

The COI Collection: Stop! Look! Listen is available now. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is released on 19 November.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain