Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Five Wounds: The Making of

[The following was originally posted on Spike, the Meanjin blog.]

Jonathan Walker is the author of Pistols! Treason! Murder! The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy. His next book, published this month by Allen & Unwin, is Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel – ‘illuminated’ because each element (text, design and illustration) have been executed collaboratively, with a view to serving the story as a whole. Here, Jonathan takes us through the making of Five Wounds.

Dan and I met in Cambridge in 2001. I was a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University. Dan was studying for a degree in illustration, and was working in a comic shop, where he took my order for a copy of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Here are some other salient facts:

1) Our collaboration works entirely by e-mail correspondence. Since 2002, we have only been in the same place once: in London in 2006, when we spent most of the afternoon walking around trying to find a screening of Mirrormask by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman. We failed.

2) Dan is probably the only person capable of interpreting my weird scripts. Scientific research has proven that they cause migraines and disorientation in other illustrators.

3) Dan created the illustrations for my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder!, which is about a real-life Venetian spy, who was executed for perjury in 1622. These illustrations are all in the style of seventeenth-century allegorical woodcuts.

4) As a child, my bedroom was full of half-assembled model aeroplanes; Dan’s was full of insects in jars. This seems somehow significant.

Dan and I began with a shared interest in comics, which offered a set of guidelines for how it might be possible to work together. Mainstream comics companies operate by means of a highly specialised division of labour, not only between writer and artist, but between writer, penciller, inker, colourist and letterer, et al – a system that was probably inspired by the factory assembly lines of Henry Ford rather than by any sense of its creative potential. The goal was to maximise efficiency for an industry in which the turnover of product was very rapid (weekly or monthly), and insofar as there was a coherent creative vision involved, it was arguably that of the editor, whose role in the process was analogous to that of a Hollywood producer. Even so, one may adopt analogous, if rather less rigid, divisions of labour for reasons other than industrial efficiency: for example, a conviction that collaboration, if entered into in the right spirit, will inevitably increase a work’s range and power.

It was important that Dan was trained as an illustrator – that is, in a discipline that accepts collaboration as a sine qua non of its existence – because the goal for any collaborator should not be to protect the integrity of their individual contribution; rather, it should be to serve the story and the book as a whole. For me, faced with the task of writing a script for Dan to work from, the central question was, how do you describe a picture that doesn’t exist yet? And how do you relate that description meaningfully to other descriptions of other pictures that also don’t exist yet? The ancient rhetorical convention of ekphrasis suggests some historical answers to this question, but more recent practical help was available via several examples of published scripts for comics.

The earliest set of illustrations created for Five Wounds were the Plates, which are included in the printed book as a separate insert section, and are introduced in the video below (see here for more introductory videos).

I wrote hundreds of words of instructions to Dan for each of these eighteen plates. Below, for example, is the script for what is now Plate 1, which is entitled Initiation, and which concerns a character called Cur. Dan had of course already read the novel when he received this script, but for blog readers, some additional contextual information might be helpful.

In Initiation, then, Cur has been kidnapped by dogs, and is being introduced to their group in a quasi-magical ritual. Also of relevance is an earlier incident, in which chickens were killed by the dogs as one of them bit three fingers from the hand of Cur’s father. In my script, both the chickens and the fingers are transposed to the later scene, and the fingers also ‘stand for’ three of the other protagonists of the book, who are identifiable by coded references to heraldic colours superimposed on the different fingers. Hence this script instructs Dan to synthesise a number of scenes from the written narrative, and also to make certain ideas explicit visually that remain implicit in the text.


A straight down overhead shot and a ‘non-literal’ pic. A wailing, crying baby Cur is lying on his back at its centre (relatively small within the frame). Underneath him are the internal lines of a pentangle in white. It will be clear from another illustration that each of the points around the pentagram stands for one of the book’s five protagonists. The sequence (running clockwise and starting from the upper left) begins with Gabriella, then Cur (the subject of this image, whose nominal assigned place is at the apex of the pentagram), then Cuckoo, Magpie and Crow. The left arm of baby Cur is reaching out, grasping in the direction of Cuckoo’s point on the pentagram.

Around baby Cur, the pile of overlapping, slaughtered chickens will be laid in a circle along an implied outer circle, to convert the pentagram into a pentacle. Outside this circle are three severed fingers (the middle, the third and the little respectively). You should over-size them dramatically; that is, put them at a different scale to that used for Cur and the chickens (this is not apparent on my sketch). You’ll probably also need to exaggerate the nails and possibly the joints to make it clear what they are – maybe use a blood stain where they end too. The fingers are to be cross-hatched in the appropriate heraldic tones: checks for black Cuckoo, towards whose finger Cur’s left hand seems to be grasping, while his right hand lies open and passive in the direction of where Gabriella’s shield would implicitly be; a blank white third finger for Magpie, and a dotted little finger for Crow. Cur’s feet appear to be kicking against the latter two as he wails and cries. The severed fingers should be curled over and placed casually in roughly the right place, but not geometrically aligned or pointing inwards toward the centre.

Cur’s tears could be highlit as blank white trails to contrast with a full black trail of blood down his face that is placed at the central point in the shaving scene pic.

Outside the first circle of chickens that occupies the position of the pentacle circle is a second, looser circle of intertwined dogs, of different breeds and in different postures. They don’t all have to be huge and grim and black, but no Yorkshire terriers or Chihuahuas please. Their coats should be shaded using different ‘pasted on’ corruption effects (one for each dog). These two circles (the inner chicken one and the doggy outer one) foreshadow the two circles of the exploding palace illustration (which in turn reference Tintoretto’s Paradise in the ducal palace). Reduce the outer circle to four partial arcs, one in each corner. The dogs in the circle are not seen realistically from overhead, but from varying partial viewpoints, whatever is most useful to get an intertwining effect. Lots of emphasis on teeth and tongues please.

Fill any empty space with ‘effects’, which here should emphasize fluid, flowing, overlapping stains and discolourations: that is, they should resemble water damage, since Cur recalls this experience in later life by way of a dream of drowning.

I also drew a crude storyboard sketch to accompany this script, which I reproduce below (click to enlarge).

Storyboard Sketch for Plate 1

Since putrefaction and decay are major themes in the book, many of the Plates are marked with signs of their own physical degradation. The term ‘effects’ in the script therefore refers to these signs, which, in this case, Dan created using coffee and tea spilled on paper.

Can you predict what the finished image might look like on the basis of the script above and the sketch? This was Dan’s task: to first imagine that image, and then to create it. Below is the result.

Plate 1: Initiation
Above: Plate 1, Initiation, from Five Wounds (click to enlarge)

Some images went through several drafts, not because of any deficiencies in Dan's execution, but because I struggled to think clearly about what the proper relationship between image and text should be, or in what way precisely the image should embody broader themes from the book. Below, for example, are the initial instructions for what eventually became Plate 10, Magpie in the forest, followed by successive revisions of the image itself, the latter interspersed with selections from my e-mails to Dan.


A track through a forest (Goya trees and shadows around Magpie).). A bat above, foreshadowing the incident with the first daguerreotype. We are looking at Magpie from the side and in long shot. He is holding a mirror reflecting the moon, the same mirror that Cuckoo holds in Plate 6, Cuckoo’s reflection, but Magpie is much less dominant within the frame than Cuckoo is in Plate 6. Magpie is dwarfed within the skeletal, snowy landscape of trees, which are layered and compressed on different planes. He is almost lost or tangled up among the tree branches, which overlap in front of him and partially obscure him, but his head, cloak and mirror remain clearly visible, as do the sky, stars and moon in the upper third of the frame. He appears within a small break in the trees (see reference pix from Blankets and Black Hole for this effect). The moon should be absolutely realistic and as detailed as possible, but ‘solarized’ at its upper edge as the black sky bleeds off into ‘deteriorating daguerreotype’ effects. The moon in the mirror is miniaturized but clearly recognizable. The snow falling and in drifts between the bare tree outlines allows you to rhyme the dappled effect on Magpie’s face with black and white tonal variations in the landscape. Compare the Blankets pix for how to show snow, dark forest and highlit figures within. There are also various good dark forest shots in Black Hole (without snow). I attach a fantastic snow effect scene from Sin City, although note that a lot of Miller's effects rely on his omission of half-tones: i.e. everything is either pure black or pure white in each frame, which is a quite different technique to that I want for the Plates, where the tonal range is longer and flattens off towards the two extremes.

Try and keep some the textural detail of the folds of the cloak, but have the cloak down instead of up.

Plate 10 - Version 1
Plate 10: Version 1

E-mail dated 18 May 2006:

We need a daguerreotype version of the moon, not a drawn one. For the 'solarized' effect, you may need to create a smoother texture than is possible with pen and ink, using cloning in Photoshop with a dull metallic dark grey. Anyway, see what you can do.

Also, too chiaroscuro. Flatten out the midtones by adding a background layer of mid-tone grey in Photoshop.

Plate 10 - Version 2
Plate 10: Version 2

E-mail dated 2 June 2006:

Lose the bat and close up the cross-hatching where it currently is. Also, I think we need a bit more snow, especially in the central and lower areas, where it is more or less absent. You could have another go at getting an effect whereby the snow is both a distinct layer ‘on top of’ the picture space, but also continues inside the picture space and blends into a corrupt background, although I appreciate that this may not be possible. In addition, Magpie's left hand (the one not holding the mirror) needs greater definition of form. It is currently a bit amorphous and not very hand-like.

E-mail dated 2 June 2006:

It took me a while to register that your moon is rotated ninety degrees. The effect of this is actually rather interesting. It is completely 'wrong' from an astronomical point of view, since the moon is never lit from below but always runs through its phases along the vertical axis, and in your version its features are also all in the wrong place (for an astronomer, it will be like seeing the globe tilted ninety degrees on its axis). However, I think that perhaps it's a nice way of signalling on a subliminal level that there's something not quite right or logical about the world of FW. Everything is a bit skew-wiff - as the moon is - so in that sense it's 'right', and I'm inclined to leave it alone.

Plate 10 - Version 3
Plate 10: Version 3

E-mail dated 8 June 2006

The grey layer is (as I read it) 'behind' the black outlines of the trees and the sky above. Add some grain / white specks, etc. to it – another different representation of snow – but this should not interfere with the black ink that makes up the tree shapes and shadow outlines or with the black sky and the moon above. If we divide the picture up into blocks and layers of tone and completely ignore the perspective and recession, it breaks down into:

Foreground / top layer: drifting snow and moon
Midground / middle layer: sky, black outlines of trees and their shadows below,
Magpie in middle
Background / bottom layer: layer of amorphous grey tone 'underneath' the drawn outlines (most clearly visible as such in the space immediately surrounding Magpie) - to which add white specks / grainy interference.

Does this make sense? Hopefully it does.

There were some further adjustments to the moon in the top left. The final image therefore looks like this.

Plate 10: Magpie in the forest
Plate 10: Final Version

As a final twist in the production process, the written scene that originally inspired Plate 10 was actually removed from the manuscript during the structural edit. However, since I liked the image so much, I invented an entirely new scene, whose sole purpose was to provide a textual justification for the continued existence of this Plate. Indeed, I frequently rewrote sections of the novel in response to Dan’s work, because the illustrations often clarified ideas that were insufficiently developed in the text, or brought things to my attention that had not occurred to me during writing.

In retrospect, the level of detail in the scripts I wrote for the Plates, as sampled above, seems excessive, although the obsession with control betrayed by this accumulation of detail had interesting aesthetic consequences. All the Plates feel cramped and constrained, lacking in spontaneity (natural enough since many of them went through several drafts), but this feeling accurately reflects the world that they describe and the state of mind of the characters they depict. In later phases of our collaboration, however, when Dan and I had both gained confidence, my instructions were far less prescriptive. The feel of the later illustrations is therefore quite different from that of the Plates, which helps to vary the tone and rhythm of the book’s visual elements.

Some examples of these later scripts and illustrations can be found on Dan’s blog, where he discusses their creation from his own perspective: Jean in the Jar, The Black Dog, and The Bagatto.

I look forward to seeing where our collaboration will take us next.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Five Wounds: Review in 'The Spit Press'

The Spit Press is 'Sydney's Creative Newspaper', aimed at readers who work in, or are interested in, the creative industries. Their latest issue has a review of Five Wounds by James Scott on p. 20. It's a bit difficult to locate the text in the online version, so I have copied it below. But do check out the rest of the newspaper: it offers a unique perspective on life in Sydney.

Graphic Novels, Not Just for Geeks?

Five Wounds by Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett is atmospheric, grotesque, thrilling and tender. Certainly unlike anything else we've ever stumbled upon, this illustrated novel is a disturbing delight. Book lover James Scott had a read.

With a beautiful hardcover this 'illuminated novel' is a fantastic book to plonk on your lap in any public place, even if only to enjoy the sideways glances of passersby who seem to suspect you might at any moment turn to them, eyes dark, and incant at them in some frightening, grunting language.

Upon opening the book I was startled and initially annoyed by what at first struck me as a pretentious and over the top way to lay out the text. That is, rather like 'The Bible', complete with verse numbers. However before long, I was totally won over by the hypnotic and addictive rhythm that reads almost like poetry.

The story is set in an imaginary Venice and chronicles the complicated intrigues of five disfigured protagonists. Gabriella is a mutilated angel who struggles to decipher her prophetic dreams. Cur is a rabid `Romulus' and aquaphobe, who knows nothing other than the cult of canine mercenaries and the ghetto in which he was raised. Cuckoo is an orphan, obsessed with chance and cards, who can reshape his wax face (less weird in context than it sounds here) to resemble another's, however cannot smile without a mirror, a candle and some time. Magpie is a sickly thief and photographer, who fears direct light for blindness and yearns for a model to surrender to him completely. Undoubtedly my favourite however is Crow; a leper alchemist. Deliciously reprehensible, Crow is ruthless and fantastically clever in pursuing his extremely ambitious goals. The stories and studies of these characters intertwine with increasing intricacy as the novel builds to an immensely exciting, haunting, heartbreaking and ultimately satisfying conclusion.

The depiction of this alternative Venice is dreamy and surreal, but the author paints a world that feels completely authentic. The illuminations by Dan Hallett are a joy, and bring a lot to the book. Sometimes striking and colourful, and at other times comical and cartoonish, they reinforce the idea that this is a fairy tale for grown ups.

The writing is extremely capable and the author cleverly uses patterns and shapes modeled not only on The Good Book but also on Grimm's Fairy Tales to give the story a familiar feel that plays well against the darkness of the plot and the sometimes slightly uncomfortable, but impressive depth in characterisation. Five Wounds is also saturated with references, saturated.

All in all, a very handsome book and a story that is symphonic in its poetry, breadth and cohesion. It is tempting to think that the author lives by the same motto as one of his characters; "Either Ceasar, or nothing."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tone and Line in Photography and Drawing

Drawing is a binary system. In its purest form, it includes only black line and empty white space: one and zero. Forms are distinguished by tracing their edges as lines, and intermediate tones can only be simulated by a crude kind of optical illusion: that is, by cross-hatching. Line defines form.

Conversely, in a monochrome photograph, there is no absolute distinction between object and field, and there are no lines as such. A black-and-white photograph is a map of variations in tone along a single, continuous scale, which runs from pure white to pure black. This scale may be long or short, depending on contrast: that is, a high contrast image has a short tonal scale, with relatively few intermediate tones between white and black, so that the transitions from one tone to another are more visible and abrupt, whereas a low contrast image has a long tonal scale, with much smoother transitions. Another way of putting this is that, in a photograph, edge definition (known as acutance) is a function of contrast. Contrast defines form.

It therefore follows that, in a photograph, formlessness is a consequence of lack of contrast: that is, of lack of differentiation in the distribution of light. If the overall light levels are so low as to be beneath the threshold of the film or sensor, then it will process the scene as empty, and the resulting image will be pure black. Similarly, if the overall light levels are so intense as to render internal differences in reflective density between surfaces as irrelevant, then the resulting image will be pure white.

These principles also affect the distribution of light and tone within a normal image. Any given photograph will probably have some areas of ‘empty shadow’ where the light is not strong enough to cause the film to respond at all; conversely, it will also have areas of ‘blocked highlights’ in areas where the light is so intense as to overwhelm the film’s ability to discriminate between different reflective densities. The trick to exposing the image correctly is to get the balance right. In most images, this means placing the principal subject of the image at the mid-point between these two extremes. Conventionally, this mid-point is a grey tone with 18% saturation.

According to the philosophy of Ansel Adams, from whose instruction manuals I learnt how to photograph, a good print is one that exploits the entire tonal scale. For Adams, one of the great virtues of photography is its power of precise description, and the problem with high-contrast images is that they suppress detail. Adams believed that it is necessary to have small areas of pure black and pure white in a print to properly calibrate the tonal scale, but that these areas should not occupy a large part of the image’s total area, because whenever they do so, this results in loss of information. Large blank areas in a photograph are just wasted space: damning evidence that a photographer does not know how to fill them. In this approach, then, chiaroscuro effects, that is, deliberate restriction of the tonal scale in high-contrast images, are a kind of cheap melodrama, and an admission of failure on the part of a photographer who cannot find any other means to make an image eloquent. Judged on these criteria, the entire output of an artist like Bill Henson would be found wanting.

Adams did of course admit the possibility that some images might use such negative space effectively, and indeed his later prints tend more and more towards chiaroscuro, but the presumed norm for him was always maximum descriptive information, and the longest possible tonal scale. Individual scenes or prints might deviate from this norm according to the nature of the scene and the desired effect, but a photographer should have the entire tonal range available to her, even if she chooses not to use the entire range in a particular image.

When I began to photograph in Venice at night for my project Let Us Burn the Gondolas, I had Adams’ advice in mind. Initially, therefore, I tried to avoid large areas of empty black or white even in scenes that were inherently high-contrast. In part, this was to avoid fetishising the fact that I was working at night. I snobbishly despised photographers who advised increasing contrast to ensure a ‘nice night effect’. Nonetheless, the resulting images are generally ‘low-key’ (that is, dark tones predominate, with selected areas of very bright tones around light sources).

Distribution of light in a scene is inevitably quite different at night than it is during the day. It is, of course, much lower in intensity overall, but it also tends to be more constant (and therefore predictable) at night, whereas it may change drastically during the day according to the sun’s movements and the weather. What I wanted to do was to take advantage of the different appearance of scenes at night to defamiliarise them, without succumbing to the temptation to use those differences to romanticise the subjects. In some cases, particularly when there is no visible light source, there is something obviously odd about the lighting, but the night setting is not immediately apparent as such. Later on, I did resort to more chiaroscuro effects, when I was shooting hand-held and fighting against the limitations of the camera and film, but that was a deliberately artificial formal experiment: What can you achieve at the absolute limits of the equipment’s ability to function?

[Discussion continues in this post:]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Frank Sidebottom

It is a sad day for light entertainment. The great Frank Sidebottom has died. RIP.

Frank Sidebottom
Photo: ITV / Rex Features via The Guardian website

For those of you not privileged to have seen Frank in his heyday at Liverpool Polytechnic c. 1990, giving lectures on 'Space', 'Puppets', etc., performing in one-man pantomimes, such as 'Bobbinson Crusoe', or singing his inspired version of Bohemian Rhapsody, this newspaper feature, first published in 1991, may explain things.

Here is The Guardian obituary of Chris Sievey, the man behind Frank.

For conoisseurs only (because the audio and video are both terrible), below is a feature from Granada Reports on Frank, featuring both Tony Wilson and Richard Madeley as presenters! Maybe c. 1987, I would guess.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Inspirations: Brazil by Terry Gilliam

I first saw Terry Gilliam's Brazil in Liverpool, in maybe 1986, on a microscopic screen in a private cinema at the Bluecoat Chambers, which was the only place you could see it in 1986 (this was before the rise of commercial arthouse cinemas, and before home video was readily available). I've seen it on a giant screen since then, and now I have the Criterion 3-disc DVD edition, but that crowded weird little space - in which I also saw The Return of Martin Guerre, Alan Parker's Birdy, and probably several other films I no longer recall - seemed somehow apiece with the distorted relationships of scale visible within the film.

I knew almost nothing of the legendary story of Brazil's production, in which the film was withheld by the studio in charge of production until Gilliam finally took out a full-page ad in Variety asking them when they were going to release it (in the absence of a Variety subscription, there was no way to find out such things in Liverpool in 1986).

It was because of films like Brazil that I lost my unquestioning allegiance to books. After Brazil, the novel was no longer a privileged art form, no longer D. H. Lawrence's one bright book of life. Five Wounds is written in the light of that revelation.

(Gilliam's earlier Jabberwocky is also a big influence on the black humour in Five Wounds, and on the book's pseudo-medieval aspects.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Five Wounds: Review at 'Vibewire'

Thanks to reviewer Dave Drayton for this very generous write-up at Vibewire. An extract is below.

The five senses are a common theme in Five Wounds and it seems fitting then, that it appeals to the senses in such detail. I have literally tried everything short of licking the book. The hardcover, thoughtful selection of paper stock and red ribbon page-marker makes the book seem like an artefact; it is a privilege to hold it. .... The scribblings peppered through out the book add to its mystery. I feel as if I am reading a diary, a draft, a spell book; something personal that was not meant for the eyes of others. .... [They] lend the book a desperate sense of urgency.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reenactment: The Great Waldo Pepper

A man's work is nothing but the long journey to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart (Albert Camus)

Who knows why certain films stick in the memory? From my childhood, I have peculiarly vivid recollections of a handful, many of which are predictable, like The Wizard of Oz, because it was on every Christmas, or Star Wars, because it was a cultural phenomenon. In other cases, the memory is not of the film itself, but of some particular aspect of the experience of watching it, as is the case with Woody Allen’s Sleeper, for example, which is the only film I can remember my mother laughing at, when we watched it on television together late one night.

For me, one of these Proustian films is The Great Waldo Pepper, released in 1975, although I saw it a few years later, again on television. It was a pet project of its director, George Roy Hill, who was finally able to get it made because of the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and because one of the stars of those previous films, Robert Redford, was also committed to Waldo Pepper. It is sometimes described as a box-office flop, although Wikipedia says that it made $20,000,000 on a $5,000,000 budget, which doesn’t sound like a flop to me (having said that, the film is almost unknown now and difficult to obtain: my DVD is a German edition).

The Great Waldo Pepper tells the story of the titular character, played by Redford, who is trying to make a living as a pilot immediately after World War 1, when aeroplanes were still sufficiently novel that aerial circuses could draw crowds regularly. This way of life is coming to an end, however, as the film progresses (it starts in 1926 and ends in 1931). In fact, the plot is based upon familiar tropes of modernisation, in which bureaucracy, technological advancement and capitalism (in this case the establishment of a regulatory body that issues licenses for pilots and the growth of modern airlines) marginalise the individual and the pioneer spirit, a story structure that is instantly recognisable from the canon of Sam Peckinpah, although Hill’s milieu and characters are much more benign than Peckinpah’s.

This is all fairly predictable (although probably not to the pre-teen version of myself), but the film’s great strength is its commitment to reenactment. There are very few special effects shots or blue screen work used for the flying sequences. Rather, almost all of them involve pilots performing incredibly dangerous stunts in replica aircraft, whose accuracy to period standards was immediately apparent to me, since I was an enthusiastic assembler of miniature model aeroplanes.

Waldo arrived too late to participate directly in the air war in France, so he attempts to relive it vicariously by inserting himself into his retellings of historical incidents: in particular, a famous dogfight in which the German ace Ernst Kessler (probably inspired by Ernst Udet) shot down four out of five pursuing Allied airmen, before letting the fifth go unharmed when his final opponent's guns jammed. This too is a familiar trope: the heroic (because individualistic) ‘knights of the air’, whose chivalric treatment of their opponents contrasts sharply with the indiscriminate industrial death meted out below.

In Waldo’s retelling of the story, he of course takes the part of Madden, the only Allied survivor, and it is not until he crosses paths with someone who was actually in France that his charade is revealed. From Waldo’s point-of-view, the lie is justified because, 'It should've been me'. One might say that Waldo upholds Aristotle’s distinction between history and poetry: history is inferior because it is limited to what actually did happen, whereas poetry concerns itself with the loftier subject of what should or must have happened.


There are two sequences in this film that stuck with me as a child, and then again later, when I rewatched the film on VHS as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. The first is when Waldo’s friend and colleague Ezra, attempts to perform a demanding stunt, the ‘outside loop’ in a monoplane of his own design, a plane and a stunt that were intended for Waldo, who is forced to watch from the ground due to his temporary suspension from flying after an accident in which a woman died. The outside loop involves tipping the plane into a vertical dive, and then levelling out halfway through the manoeuvre upside down, then climbing back up to the original starting position. It is much more difficult than a conventional ‘loop-the-loop’ (an ‘inside loop’), because the G-forces are much greater, as is the required engine power and the resulting stress on the plane’s wings. After several abortive attempts and near-misses, Ezra stalls out in the last phase of the manoeuvre, as he attempts to push the plane back up over the top, and plummets to the ground. Before Ezra has even hit, Waldo is off running to the crash site, but he is followed closely by the excited crowd.

Ezra is alive, but trapped in the wreckage. As gasoline spills, and Waldo tries to get him out, Ezra becomes hysterical. ‘Waldo, they’re smoking, they’re smoking!’, he shouts at the rubberneckers around the plane holding their cigarettes, and then, as the inevitable happens and the gasoline ignites, ‘Waldo! Don’t let me burn! .... I'm burning, Waldo!’ Waldo knows it’s too late. He can’t get Ezra out now, it’s impossible, there’s nothing he can do, so he picks up a piece of wood, and brings it down, hard. Then he pushes through the crowd and makes for a plane. Furious, he takes off and swoops down low, right over the heads of the crowd, who are now gathered around a funeral pyre. Waldo’s impetuous behaviour seals his fate. He has flown without a license, and moreover, in a deliberately reckless manner, so now he is banned permanently. In a bitter coda, we learn that Kessler, who is now working in America as a stunt pilot, has successfully performed an outside loop with another flying circus.

Ezra's death illustrates the role of empathy and catharsis in dramatic performance, or rather the idea that a certain kind of performance – the spectacle – does not permit true identification, but rather encourages voyeurism, a debased kind of pseudo-empathy. As we watch a war film – say, the opening of Saving Private Ryan – we are, according to this critique, little better than the spectators surrounding Ezra’s crashed plane. Our pleasure is derived from how closely these simulated deaths resemble actual deaths, but unlike the participants, who commit their whole bodies to the experience, and who risk injury and death in doing so, we do not really have anything at stake, existentially, and that is why our voyeurism is immoral. Ezra’s death in The Great Waldo Pepper is not a reenactment, but it does teach us that true empathy requires us to be involved directly. Among the spectators, only Waldo really feels Ezra’s predicament, and the consequence of that identification is that he must kill Ezra. 'Waldo! Don't let me burn!'

After this debacle, Waldo moves to Hollywood to join his friend Axel, who is working there as a stuntman. But temptation arrives in the form of a film about the famous dogfight with Kessler, Eagles Over France, perhaps inspired by Howard Hawks' infamous Hell's Angels, in which Kessler is flying his own stunts in a replica of his black and yellow Fokker Triplane. Axel, who still has a license, will play the part of McKinnon, the fourth Allied pilot to be shot down, whose plane caught fire, and who jumped without a parachute rather than burn to death (the parallel with Ezra is obvious and intentional). Waldo, under a pseudonym, and at Kessler's particular request, takes the role of Madden, the man whose story he had previously appropriated.

On the night before before the staging of the climactic dogfight, Waldo reviews the film’s props, protesting – like any good military reenactor – that they are inaccurate. The director, Werfel, replies loftily, 'Anybody can supply accuracy. Artists provide truth'. On the set, Waldo runs into Kessler, who confesses that his post-war career, so successful on the surface, is really only a series of distractions from a deep-rooted sense of failure. Kessler is heavily in debt (for gambling, we presume), and he drinks too much. He can barely remember the events of the famous dogfight, which was over in a few minutes, even though he lives his entire life now in the shadow of that brief moment of pure, immediate impulse.

This too is a trope: a sort of inverse version of trauma, in which a character can never return to the moment of his origin, to that which makes him who he is, or rather to the moment in which he was most himself (precisely because he was not aware of being so), and is therefore condemned to live out the rest of his life as a series of increasingly inauthentic attempts to recapture (to re-enact) that experience. Kessler’s disillusionment both complements and puts the lie to Waldo’s sense of temporal dislocation. Waldo arrived too late: he lives his life in the knowledge that his exemplary experience, the event that should have publicly confirmed his sense of himself, actually happened to someone else, before Waldo could get there to claim it. Kessler’s exemplary experience also happened to someone else: that is, to a version of himself that he no longer recognises, from whom he is alienated irrevocably ('Aren't you playing yourself?', Waldo asks him, but a handsome younger actor takes Kessler's place on the ground). In Waldo’s case, the original experience is doubly lost, because his participation in it is a fiction.


The second clip that stuck with me from The Great Waldo Pepper is excerpted in the video above, and it shows the climactic re-enactment of the dogfight between Kessler and Madden, the latter played by Waldo. This dogfight is, however, preceded by Axel’s big moment, in which he reenacts the crash dive of the doomed McKinnon, the pilot of the fourth plane that Kessler shot down.

Axel’s scene establishes clearly what is at stake in the more elaborate confrontation that follows. Axel has a parachute of course, but he is instructed by Werfel, the director, to wait until the plane is 'really on fire' before jumping, and not to pull the cord until the last possible moment, so as not to ruin the shot. 'Of course, you could not pull your chute at all, that way he'd be sure to get the right effect', Waldo comments sarcastically. Axel obeys Werfel's instructions, and, as a result, breaks his leg upon impact, but he is alive, and Werfel is delighted at the footage. Axel therefore reaps the monetary reward for his successful reenactment of McKinnon’s death. Everyone wins, but the message is clear, as Waldo's remark indeed suggests.

Battle reenactment is the exemplary form of reenactment because a battle is an exemplary event, which is why histories that are invested in the idea of the event tend to concentrate on wars. There is, however, one crucial difference between a battle and its reenactment: in the latter, the intention is to mimic the effects of the battle, that is, fatalities, as closely as possible, but without actually replicating them. If someone dies in a battle reenactment, then it has failed, but the measure of its success is in how close it can go up to the edge of killing the participants, without actually killing them. Authenticity is the primary value in reenactment, but in a battle reenactment, authenticity equals death. Reenactments of battles are therefore not entirely dissimilar from the aerial spectacle in which Ezra died, in which the attraction is similarly related to the risk of death. It is no surprise, then, that the confrontation between Waldo and Kessler is staged as a sort of gigantic game of chicken, in which the two dare each other to see who can go furthest.

This experience is only available to men (they're called 'dogfights' for a reason). Women are marginalised, and indeed trivialised, throughout The Great Waldo Pepper. Just prior to the clip above, Axel’s girlfriend asks stupidly, ‘What’d they do that for?’ when Kessler and Waldo throw their parachutes away before takeoff, and she later repeats, ‘I don’t understand. What are they doing?’ Kessler and Waldo, by contrast, have now reached a point of perfect understanding, where silent gestures are sufficient (see here for another discussion of silent masculine communication).

What Waldo and Kessler realise is that, to truly commit to their reenactment, they have to commit to its logic. They have to try to kill each other. Since the director has unfortunately failed to provide them with ammunition, the only way they can do this is to use their planes as weapons. Thus their reenactment departs significantly from the literal truth of the original events that give it meaning, but this is not important. What matters is their implacable understanding: their joint suspension of disbelief. If the audience is in fact composed of voyeurs, who cannot truly identify with the participants in a reenactment, then the audience is completely irrelevant to its success or failure. Waldo and Kessler therefore begin their game by turning their back on the audience, as they leave the camera plane far behind (although they are nonetheless being followed by another camera plane, the one directed by George Roy Hill).

In an actual battle, the participants are compelled to kill each other by the logic of their situation, but one of the distinguishing features of a reenactment is that the participants cannot be compelled to do anything. If they choose to risk death, as Waldo and Kessler do, then, precisely because they choose freely, their actions are more meaningful, existentially, than those of the participants in the original events. (This choice finds its exact equivalent, however, in the original battle, in which Kessler chose not to kill his helpless opponent.) Kessler can therefore relive the most intense moments of his life, but this time consciously, in the full knowledge of how meaningful they are; Waldo can finally prove that this is who he was meant to be. But this time, the ending is different. McKinnon (Axel) lives, whereas Kessler and Madden (Waldo) are going to die.

But while the film understands this, its staging of the dogfight is also tied up in the underlying paradox. The film can’t show the deaths of Waldo and Kessler, because Hill, like Werfel, does not actually want to kill his stunt pilots. Indeed, this climactic dogfight is the only sequence in the film that obviously incorporates blue-screen inserts for the close-ups. Even so, Hill takes considerable risks. That plane in the air really does have damaged undercarriage, and the stunt pilot is therefore really going to have to perform a controlled crash-landing to bring it down. As with Werfel and Axel, Hill has asked his pilots to go right up to the edge – not to pull their parachute until the last possible moment, metaphorically – but he can’t ask them to step over it.

Thus the film does not end with the deaths of Waldo and Kessler. Rather, it adopts what I call the ‘Butch Cassidy’ gambit (after Hill’s earlier success). It freeze frames just before the point of no return: just before Butch and Sundance are riddled with a fusillade of bullets, just before Kessler’s damaged wing finally disintegrates. The film is an arrow pointing towards that which it can never represent directly: death, or perhaps, the lived experience of that past encounter with death, whose singularity is irretrievable, because by definition what is singular can never be repeated. In dramatic terms, therefore, the real climactic moment is not death, but the recognition of solidarity in the face of death: the salute that Kessler gave to the helpless Madden pounding on his jammed guns, before peeling off into an unknown, and therefore free, future. In Kessler’s case, his fate leads him back inexorably to that same moment in the future, where Waldo is waiting for him.

Dramatically, therefore, death is not sublime. Instead, it is an anti-climax. As the music comes in on the soundtrack, as Waldo and Kessler separate, and Waldo is left completely alone, we cut to a board of photographs of famous aviators (the clip above ends just before this cut), which we have already seen at the beginning of the film. This time, however, we linger on Waldo’s portrait, where, if we are really paying attention, we can see the dates listed after his name: ‘Waldo Pepper, 1895-1931’. Parenthetically, I might note that I couldn’t be sure that I remembered this detail correctly when I rented the VHS tape in the early 1990s, so one of my goals in doing so was to pause it to confirm that Waldo had indeed ‘died’ in the dogfight with Kessler.

I don’t mean to imply that any of this was going through my head the first time that I watched The Great Waldo Pepper. I probably experienced the film in much the same way that Kessler experienced the dogfight on which his fame rests. But as I grow increasingly interested in the idea of reenactment, I try to explain the source of its fascination by looking back at the films and books that drew my attention as a child. Perhaps I too, like Kessler, am condemned to reenact an original (in the literal sense of the word) experience; but, like Waldo, my ontological priorities are reversed: the fiction comes first, and it is only the resulting reenactment that confirms the truth of the fiction, which in this case means rewatching the film repeatedly and trying to work out why its conclusion still moves me.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Monologue on Radio National's Perspective

Another one from the archives: This short monologue was originally broadcast on Radio National's Perspective slot, in February 2007, for the Australian release of Pistols! Treason! Murder! It remains the most succinct summary of what I was trying to achieve with the book.

Thanks to Sue Clark, the presenter of Perspective.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Inspirations: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I reread Catch-22 when I was in the middle of writing Five Wounds, to get me in the right frame of mind.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Five Wounds: Interview in 'The View From Here'

An indepth interview with Dan and I has now been posted at The View From Here online literary magazine to accompany their review of Five Wounds. An excerpt is below.

Q. Was the collaboration on Five Wounds a more straightforward process for having previously worked together on Pistols! Treason! Murder!?

A. The illustrations for Pistols! Treason! Murder! were completed in a rush on a very tight deadline. That had its advantages: it means they have a certain crude aggressive energy to them. It’s punk history, after all. For Five Wounds, I had the chance to think things through, and to theorise it more. And there are several different kinds of illustration, several different layers, which involved different methods of working. So Pistols! was more like the first rush of discovery, live on stage, and Five Wounds is more like tinkering around in the studio for months overdubbing. Pistols! is an amphetamine book; Five Wounds is a morphine book.

Thanks to Paul Burman, who conducted the interview and wrote the review.

Also out is an interview I did for The Cairns Review.