by Pip Williams
“things are only what they are because they find themselves in the surroundings in which they find themselves and are connected to whatever it is they are connected to…”Iain McGilchrist, The Master And His Emissary
A scientist, who lives in a castle on a hill, makes a monster in his lab (the castle has a lab). The monster is played by a very beautiful Hollywood actor that everyone was very excited about at the time. The scientist dies before he’s properly finished though, so even though the beautiful Hollywood actor is very beautiful, he’s got a very inconvenient and unsightly defect that means everyone wants to stay away from him.
He moves into the town below the hill. Some people are scared of him. Some people pity him. Some people use him for social or financial gain. Someone tries to fuck him, for some reason, and someone falls in love with him.
In the end it sort of all works out, even though he ends up killing someone. And he can’t be with the person who falls in love with him. And he can never go back to the town again.
But the music at the end is happy. So it’s a happy ending.
My cousin’s just had a baby. So has one of my oldest friends.
It seems to me that there’s an awful lot to teach a little one these days. It is a task I think about increasingly as more of my family has babies and the world keeps turning and changing and the endless cycle of use to disuse to redundancy to fossilization continues unrelentingly.
In the 24 years I’ve been alive I’ve gotten an iPhone and a laptop, I’ve learned what Netflix is, I’ve rented accommodation, I’ve boarded planes and set up bank accounts, and I’ve learned what words like “intersectionality” and “ontology” mean (though I’m still slightly unclear on the latter sometimes).
I’ve just about made it through a truly awful year in which everything stopped, and I’ve had to learn words like “furlough” and “prorogue”.
What will we have to explain to my cousin’s and friend’s baby in the next 24 years? What privilege do I have now that’ll be utterly meaningless and unhelpful to them? What words will they say that I don’t understand? What art that I like, that I write these pieces about now, will be weird and alien to them, and indeed what art that I like now will be totally unacceptable and hopelessly dated by the time I’m showing it to my friend’s child, when they are 24 and jaded, and I’m 44 and, I can only imagine, incontinently rich?
Picture a scene, if you will:
It’s the run-up to Christmas, the end of November in, say, 2036. My cousin’s baby is now 16 or so, and I have to entertain him (maybe his parents are out, or busy, or maybe I’m an extremely good second-cousin and he really gets on with me and sees me as a sort of mentor figure, because he also wants to build a blog empire and own his own Mountain Goats t-shirt).
So I put on a film, firing up my DVD player, now impossibly antiquated and redundant as a gramophone, but I keep it around because it reminds me of being a kid.
I put on a film that I saw when I was a few years younger than him. It’s a film that turned 20 the year when everything collapsed, the year I turned 24, and the year that he, my cousin’s baby, was born.
“I’ll be interested to see what you make of this,” I say to my cousin’s child as I struggle with my antique remote.
“I’ve never heard of it,” replies my cousin’s child.
I’m nervous about showing them the film. I used to love it and haven’t seen it for a very long time.
When I first saw the film, I was quite scared by it, and I didn’t really know how to feel about it. Sometimes it sort of seemed like a horror film, and the main character was very frightening-looking, with scars on his face and a permanently glazed expression that made him look like he was always about to cry. But there was also something warm and nice about the film. It was funny. It was set at Christmas, and the interiors of the houses looked cosy and warm. The colour scheme was cartoonish and bright, the music was pretty jolly, and the main character was very sweet, and really only trying to be helpful.
I watched it a lot when I was a kid, fairly regularly in fact. It seemed to embody a lot of things I really liked; it was dark and gothic, but not overpowering; it was peculiar, and funny in a way that I thought some other people might not understand or like. I thought the ending was extremely clever and lovely. Above all, it seemed quite like the sort of thing I’d watched when I was smaller, cartoons and Disney and The Muppets, it followed the same rules and lived in sort of the same world, but also seemed other somehow. Like it was speaking to children who’d grown up a bit. It was darker, weirder, a bit more intense, and I appreciated those qualities greatly.
The film starts, and the names of the cast appear to the bustling, busy music-
“Oh,” says my cousin’s child. He recognises one of the names. “That guy. Wasn’t he… y’know…”
An ageing Hollywood actor, famous in his day for being in horror films, plays a guy who makes a monster with scissors for hands. The actor playing the monster used to be extremely handsome and sexy and exciting and has since proved to be a Very Bad Man, but that wasn’t the case at the time. The ageing actor’s character dies, and the handsome actor’s character goes to live in a nearby town, which is somewhere in America, I guess; and all the actors playing the people in this town wear bright clothes and too much makeup and the houses are bright colours, because that’s what the guy directing the film likes.
The other characters have strong and largely justifiable reactions to the handsome-looking monster (who still looks like the handsome actor, even though they’ve tried to make him look weird)- some people are scared, which is fair because he’s got scissors for hands. Some people fancy him, because he looks like the handsome actor and is handsome. Someone falls in love with him, and she is played by a beautiful young actor, who has since not only not proved to be a Very Bad Man but, in fact, An Excellent Woman.
And there’s a bit with a hedge and a bit with snow and a bit where someone tries to fuck the handsome monster despite (and arguably because of) the scissors thing.
And it’s all a bit weird because looking at the face if the handsome monster as it emotes and pouts you just think automatically about what A Very Bad Man he is now, and you think maybe he was even A Very Bad Man back then, and that sort of makes it a different film from what you thought it was or what it wants to be.
But the colours are nice and the music is good and there’s the Excellent Woman holding it all together, morally.
So it’s sort of confusing.
“I used to really love this film,” I say to my cousin’s child, as the kindly mum character brings the monster character back to her home. I’m looking forward to a fun scene where the monster character punctures a water bed with his sharpened fingers.
“Yeah it’s ok,” says my cousin’s child. “I guess it’s just a bit weird watching it.”
“Yeah. Nobody really likes that guy anymore. He doesn’t really do films anymore.”
“Oh no don’t get me wrong, I don’t like him at all now. I think he’s as much of a scumbag as the next person. But I just love this film.”
“Do you? Even though it’s got him in it?”
“Well.. yeah. I liked it so much when I was a kid, before I knew about any of the bad stuff. And it’s still quite a nice film, don’t you think?”
“I guess,” says my cousin’s child, who’s a lot cleverer than I was at his age. “It’s just hard to be sympathetic to this character when I know the actor’s such a dickhead.”
I let my cousin’s child swear in my house. I’m cool like that.
And it is weird watching it again, this film that I loved so much as a child. Because it’s a film all about innocence, fundamentally, about a figure spurned by society trying to find his way into it. About how fear and suspicion can atomise us, how love can exist beyond physical beauty, and how everyone, even those unexpected people, can play a life-giving role in a community.
But Johnny Depp’s in it and he’s turned out to be a massive wanker.
And suddenly the innocence of that character, his taciturn, sexless naivety, seems deeply uncomfortable. You realise you’re just looking at a guy pretending. It suddenly feels meaningless.
We watch the rest of the film, my cousin’s child and I, mostly in silence. A few bits raise a smile, and he seems to like the topiary sections. And the end is undeniably very lovely, that gets a little smile too.
The film ends and he goes. I put the DVD on the top shelf with the spine facing in so I don’t have to think about it.
The problem with film is that, unlike theatre or even music to a certain degree, it doesn’t exist in the memory or the mind. It exists in camera angles, in dubs and colour gradings and aspect ratios and IMDb pages. Which therefore makes it a horizon that’s forever receding; constantly ageing and dating, decaying in front of us, with no means of changing or glossing over the damage. If a take where someone says the line wrong stays in the film, it’s in there for life. If a man who subsequently turned out to be a bastard is the lead in a quirky kids’ film, he’ll be in that film for eternity.
What do we love now that’ll be unwatchable for our children? And are we bad people for liking those things? What uncomfortable conversations are we going to have to have with future generations about how, yes, this person turned out to be a wife-beater or a paedophile or transphobic, but… but… the colours! The music!
We can’t change where we look, or how we pay attention to things. We are not like cameras, roving towards whatever catches our eyes and whatever we then deem to be worthy of looking at- “We know that we are neither as active in choosing where we direct our attention, nor as passive in the process of seeing as [the idea that we are like cameras] suggests…” writes Iain McGilchrist, in his epic tome on bihemispheric brain function The Master And His Emissary. “The world comes to meet us and acts to attract our gaze. Vitality, life and movement themselves draw the eye.” In other words, we can’t really control what we are attracted to, or what we like. Value is not something that we can work out in our minds like an equation, subtracting or subdividing the bad things. I watch Edward Scissorhands now, 20 years exactly after it was first released, and I see in it an actor I now despise. But I also see in it all the things I loved when I was a child, the weirdness and the humour and the otherness that inspired me then, and which I’ve almost certainly taken forward with me into my own work.
What we can choose is how we go forward. How we take these things we love, the good we extract and carry with us, and use them in the future.
Perhaps we could hold in our minds the memory of a story about an outsider who arrived in a community with a talent, and made things beautiful. How an individual effected change in their community, even when the community spurned them. How someone beautiful chose to love someone perceived as other. How we should never judge by appearance. How we should welcome the vulnerable.
Perhaps we could take those elements, maybe, and tell them to our children.
And see where we go from there.
A scientist, who lives in a lab in a castle on a hill, makes a thing in his lab. It has no face, it has no voice. It is a thing that changes if you look at it twice, and doesn’t look the same to any two people.
The scientist dies, or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe we just stop looking at him. The thing moves into the town below the castle, and everyone reacts differently and nobody can agree, because when they look at the thing they see different things. Each of them sees the thing they want to see, even if it’s a thing they hate or a thing they fear. And no two people see the same thing.
So eventually they come to an agreement that it’s too difficult looking at this thing because no one can agree what it is or how they should feel about it.
So they all decide to look at something they all like, like a cloud or a big cake. And mostly they feel better as a result.
(This piece is dedicated to William Alexander Morris Archer and James Benjamin Harry Davies. May you grow up in a world of uncomplicated critique. X)