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This piece was written in response To:


No Place (Looking Back)

by Sarah Miles


This film was screened on White Screen in full throughout September 2015. A clip of the work is available to view on the FILM AND VIDEO UMBRELLA website here.



Film courtesy the artist and Film and Video Umbrella

Watching the Wizard of Oz with the Ghost of Bertolt Brecht

‘There’s no place like home’ – Dorothy Gale.

 

Utopia: An imaginary place of perfection, from the Greek for ‘no place’.

 

What is home? A refuge of sovereign space in a world of other people. A safe harbour in wild treacherous seas. A storm cellar in tornado alley. Any number of laboured metaphors. It might appear simply where we live but it seems to be something much more ephemeral and tantalising; a place where we felt happiest or safest or most complete, a place outside the present tense. It is located in a childhood or a future perpetually in the distance; a mirage that retreats with every step we take towards it. The memory of a memory, or the memory of a dream. It is perhaps an implicit indictment of the present. The need for roots only comes when we feel rootless. Home is the endless childhood summer and the day after the revolution. It is always out of reach.

 

The feeling of home may be as fragments, of past times and past people, to which it is impossible, even if desired, to return. You cannot step in the same river twice, as Heraclitus put it; it has changed and so have you. Relationships fade. They change into theatrical and fragmentary shadow plays, and you are left with the memories of the dimensions and characteristics of rooms; a skylight, a fireplace, innumerable beds in varying states of disrepair, a view from the window of train-tracks, a street transformed by night or a field of unspoilt snow in a fragile winter sun. Antarctica is the largest desert in the world. The driest and coldest. Even there, there are people dreaming, people building rooms in their memories; scientists sleeping through lightless days, explorers hallucinating on hopeless treks over unbaptised mountain ranges.

 

The dustbowl is dreaming too. It dreams of cities, just as cities have nightmares of the eventual encroaching wilderness. Home is a place we must escape and then mourn. What is that feeling? English, so versatile a scrapyard mongrel, uncharacteristically fails us. In the past, on woodcuts, the notebooks of apothecaries and the verse of attic drinkers, ‘melancholia’ would’ve sufficed but it seems affected in our deep and meaningless age. ‘Homesickness’ is unpoetic, though it hints at the near-physical aspect to it, a yearning like an ache in the bones. Other languages inevitably have more mystery: the shipwrecked dead of the Portugese Saudade, the Japanese Natsukashii, the Welsh Hiraeth, ‘a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was’. A point unmapped but visited by almost all, willingly or otherwise, where joy, sadness and nostalgia meet.

 

The problem with refuge is that it can become a prison, from star forts to blood feud towers to gated communities. We romanticise home only when we have safely broken free of its gravity. All the stories end with escape. What of those who drift back? Those who orbit? What of those who return with glorious tales and are welcomed with bitter ridicule or worse? Mad old Dorothy with her stories, sniggered at and ignored and finally abused, driven into solitude, talking gibberish to herself about metal men and dancing scarecrows and eunuch lions, an old lady in a Kansas attic with a locket next to her chest with a dog’s portrait in it, far from her earlier roles they made for her; ruby-slippered Lolita in an unmade David Lynch film[1], wholesome farmer girl pin-up in a Soviet America, the Mid-West Alice, Holly Golightly[2] insisting, ‘you mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing’, a wannabe singer drawn to the decadent city prone on a sparkling blood-red casting couch, keeping her heels on for the cameras. Mad old Dorothy with her stories. They have burnt women for less. And they have burnt them here, where I type these words.

 

When they reach perfection, when they declare that utopia has been achieved, how do they enforce it? Where do they put the poor, those who work to support the colossal buildings and their mechanics, those who do not fit in, those who question? In a state of enforced happiness, the outside must be kept outside and the inside locked in. Emerald cities must have emerald mines, secret police, guardians at the gates, entertainments and a great and powerful illusion where its heart should be. In the books, the Spectacle requires the population’s consent. There is no Emerald City at all. All the inhabitants and visitors don green-tinted spectacles. In the film, the Emerald City glows like radium on the horizon; an optical illusion on a painted backdrop. A vast Potemkin Village with a fraud in charge, unmasked by the unlikely Situationist, Toto. The clue is there even earlier. The head of the winged moneys Nikko is named after a Japanese city famous for its free-roaming monkeys and its shrine depicting a simian trinity: ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’

 

Why was this Emerald City necessary? It is the attraction of many a country girl and boy to the metropolis, even though, especially though, they are told it will end badly for them there. The city is hated and feared because it is polytheistic. It contains many voices. To those content with one voice or one book or one family, the cities are ungodly, fallen, all too human. They must be removed, if not now then in the past or the future. Babel must fall and the plains cities must burn. The apocalypse must be on the horizon. The world must always be in a state of almost-ending.

 

I am writing this in an area where the locals once publically burned women, women who were old and alone, or young and independent, whose land, bodies, spirits were envied and desired. Their tormentors would, at other stages, burn churches and monasteries. The absence of statues in the architecture, all the empty grottos, marks out an age of iconoclastic hysteria. Of the lonely terrified women they burnt, there is no trace, not even an absence. My girlfriend’s family were known for shielding the accused in the woods where they still live. Like some genetic memory, there’s still a sense of unease towards them and a suggestion that they are somehow foreign, for stirring deep elemental guilty pasts. A glance here and there. A silent sense of not belonging. The same tongues, the same rumours, the same subliminal hints of plots.

 

Fairytale cities have order. They are clean and wholesome. Though their towers might be futuristic, the conception is that of a feudal phantasia; a kind overlord at the head of a benevolent chivalric system, ruling over grateful and adoring serfs. The Emerald City is not a city at all but the wish fulfilment of a young Kansas girl. She dreamt this entire place. And she dreamt it as place to escape to (a grail quest for a heart, brain, courage and home) and a place to right wrongs. It is an old tale, told by Russian peasants and American melodramatists. The simple noble aggrieved pilgrim goes to the capital to be granted an audience with the earthly gods. If only the king knew what wrongs there were then all would be restored. We remember Mr Smith Goes to Washington. We forget Robert Aske, betrayed as he journeyed home, or Wat Tyler with his face touching the Smithfield grass, or Father Gapon, condemned as a traitor. In fiction, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished so that, in reality, the opposite can transpire.

 

People go to the cities to prosper, others to drown. Most are a mixture of both. It is escape from one form of home in an attempt find another. All are not equal but they all dream of fulfilment and are granted and denied it accordingly. Hollywood as the ‘dream factory’ always came as a barbed term. For the role of Dorothy, Judy Garland was strapped into a breath-constricting corset to appear pre-pubescent. She was slapped across the face by the director Victor Fleming whilst in a fit of giggles. The first Tin Man Buddy Ebsen barely survived being poisoned by the aluminium dust they applied for the role, ending up in an iron lung. Ray Bolger’s face was scarred for a year by the Scarecrow makeup. The flying monkeys were injured when supporting ropes snapped during their flight scenes. Whilst falling through a flaming trapdoor, the Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton’s make-up caught fire, giving her second-degree burns. The original witch Gale Sondergaard was replaced when it was deemed she was insufficiently ugly.

 

Cinema is a crystal ball but its visions are as deceptive as they are revealing. Nightmarish coma visions are presented to us as a children’s film. The art of scrying demands a critical eye and the acknowledgment that we very often see what we want to see. Yet things are very often not what they seem. The wicked witch is more sinned against than sinning, seeking not unreasonably to avenge her sister’s death. Utopias are dystopias as everyone knows but dystopias are utopias for a lucky few. The snow that awakes the pilgrims in their poppy field was flakes of softly-falling asbestos.

 

It could have been different. In another world, The Wizard of Oz flops and remains a curiosity for film studies students and midnight movie-houses. In other worlds, the Tin Man goes unpoisoned, Shirley Temple is Dorothy, as originally suggested, the ruby slippers are silver, Somewhere Over the Rainbow is dropped, as planned, Garland does not take to the drink and the earlier draft with a village idiot employed as a scarecrow and a criminal forced into a metal suit makes the final cut. Our reality was by no means inevitable. Neither is fiction. There are all those back stories, all those unanswered questions. The house lands elsewhere, the Yellow Brick Road branches off in other directions, a cinematic witch turns out not to be soluble, a real-life accused witch is mercifully doused with water.

 

We are in part what we dream and our dreams are in part us. Instead of playing the roles of others, Dorothy was herself, writing her own script, dreaming her own dreams. Except, of course, she wasn’t. She was the product of an author, an actress, five directors and fourteen screenwriters. Her name was taken from L. Frank Baum’s niece who’d died in infancy, with a kind but haunted sense of a life that should have been, in a fairer world. It is not just cities that are dreamt into being but people too, subjected to the dictates of others from the earliest stage. Utopia, ultimately, is the thought that it need not be this way. It is not ‘no place’ but ‘another place’. Fictional utopia ‘is not to bring into focus the future that is coming to be,’ Fredric Jameson notes ‘but rather to make us conscious of the horizons or outer limits of what can be thought and imagined in our present.’[3] The journey will be a long one but it begins by leaving the fixed road, regardless of what it promises, and examining the wilds around us and in us.

 

 

[1] Lynch’s allusions to The Wizard of Oz are best encapsulated in Wild at Heart but they appear less overtly elsewhere. There’s just a hint, but a hint nonetheless, of reciprocation in No Place.

 

[2] The ‘American geisha’ in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

 

[3] Quoted in Jill Dolan’s Utopia in Performance (2005)


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author of Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015).


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