An apparition causes havoc by menacing two people in their kitchen. From the London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, 1865/Getty Images
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I was a die-hard sceptic, but then I saw a poltergeist

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

One dim afternoon, I was doing the washing up, when I heard an insistent ticking noise. I looked to my right, and a just-washed wineglass, set aside to dry, was shaking slightly on the kitchen counter. Unthinkingly, I laid a finger on the base of the upended glass, silencing it.

I continued my washing; my brain finally caught up, and I wondered what the ticking noise had been. Then it started up again. I stared at the glass in horror, worrying that it signalled the return of the massive, brown rat that had occupied my kitchen for weeks, and that he was again chewing away at the wood of my cupboards. But no, only the one glass was shaking.

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why, I thought, had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

The ticking and rattling continued. In my mind’s eye I saw the home page of a YouTube channel with thousands of hits, and an increasing bank balance. I grabbed my phone and started filming. Then the fear came, and feeling like a brave reporter, sacrificing her own well being to capture historic footage, I held the phone out in front of me like the exorcist’s crucifix. I imagined myself on the red couch of The One Show, with perfectly coiffed hair, describing my encounter to a rapt audience, obscured by the blazing lights. Fixed to the floor, I watched the rattling glass through the tiny screen, as if its sense of remove could protect me from being ripped limb from limb by a spirit with inhuman strength.

My fiancé returned home from the store. I felt like Eve showing the apple to Adam. “David,” I said, “there’s a supernatural event!” As he watched from over my shoulder, he explained; I had put the glass down so quickly that a vacuum had formed, and as air seeped in under the nearly perfect seal between wet glass rim and counter, the glass shook and rattled. I stopped recording; he switched on a light, and I saw the tell tale foam on the upturned glass’s rim. My encounter with the supernatural had ended.

I was stunned by my credulity, and by how it had affected my thoughts and choices. Where was my sense of scientific inquiry? In my ego and my belief, I had stayed with the poltergeist, filming, afraid of scaring it away; if I had stopped for a moment to turn on the light, I would have seen the foam.

Humans flock to the supernatural. Psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have long wondered why. Perhaps neuroscience will give us an answer, when the brain is finally mapped and understood. The world has always been an inexplicable place; even as humans mastered their environment, they wove stories of gods and spirits, imbuing them with human and animal personalities. By connecting the monstrous, unpredictable world with the smaller unknown of another being’s mind, those gods and spirits kept us from going mad with fear. We can pray to a god, or sacrifice for one; a spirit can be appeased. And, in the two months since I saw the poltergeist, I have realised that despite all of my education and understanding, as soon as there is a gap in my knowledge, the ghosts and spirits will enter.

I must admit that, now, I hunger for this experience. I seek out a sense of the numinous, and I find it, richly and wonderfully, in all elements of human experience. Consider the regular, deep gashes on this washed up log, found beached on the banks of the Tamar River. Was it gouged by the claws of an eldritch sea-beast, or gnawed by fat, writhing caterpillars the size of a duckling? I pause and enjoy these moments. Sometimes my curiosity wins, and I must sleuth out the answer, but sometimes I let my imagination run and find the most creative explanation.

Unfortunately, the world is still a horror. In some senses it is even worse than it was at humanity’s birth. We may know what causes an earthquake, but global poverty means that too many die when their buildings crumble into dust. We may understand climate change, but we still pour greenhouse gases into the air, ignoring our treaties and ensuring that floods and tsunamis will drown and beggar entire peoples. The elites who control us give us ghosts to believe in. They tell us to trust the free market to find solutions to our crises. It is a powerful spirit. In speaking of it, we even refer to market forces; to an invisible hand.

When we contemplate Stonehenge or Uluru, we may believe in ghosts, but we must renounce them when we contemplate our future as a species and a world. It is easy to throw together a few observables and come up with an explanation, but, even today, at the pinnacle of human civilisation, for each penetrating analysis there are many more ghosts. They are UKIP’s stock in trade. Immigrants and Europe did not cause recession, austerity and unemployment; selling our legacy to the bankers did that.

I feel smug here, until I remember that I, too, am susceptible. When I take stock of the horror, death and oppression across the world, I grasp for solutions as fervently as a medieval fisherman might have prayed as he watched the wave engulfing his house, from his vantage point on a high hill. Many ghosts hide within my Marxism, like belief in the infallible and mighty Leninist tradition, belief that building the vanguard party is the only way to save humanity and the planet. Unfortunately, those traditions are gone; I can mourn them, but I must never worship them.

My fiancé David, a counsellor, tells me that a belief is mutable and superficial, but a person’s values are deeper. When I chase away my ghosts, I find my values. I still know that justice exists, and that the workers and poor around the world hold the immense power to change the world in their hands. They are kept quiescent, or divided, or betrayed, by ghosts. And it is not my job to sit here and belittle them for their ghosts. It is my duty to do battle with the ghost-makers, who are, unfortunately, all too real.

 

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism