Jane Madsen's Hercules Road:
The Flaneur and the Shaman
The figure of the Flâneur wandering the
streets of the post-industrial city is firmly associated with Baudelaire
and Paris with the possible admission of Edgar Alan Poe as a precedent.
This is largely due to the critical skills of Walter Benjamin, who did
much to establish the flâneur as a key trope of modern urban culture.
As a creature of continental European culture, Benjamin can
perhaps be forgiven for overlooking earlier examples of the flâneur
in the world’s first metropolis, London.
In Hercules Road, an experimental film by Jane Madsen, the major
writings of William Blake, the English poet and visionary artist, are
re-located in the context of the London Street where they were created
200 years ago. Madsen’s film reminds us of a key aspect of Blake’s work:
that the visionary power of his imagination was set against the grim
mundane realities of emerging industrial London. In doing so, the film
establishes a link between Blake’s life and work and a contemporary
engagement with urban existence, not through a nostalgic return to the
past, but by exploring the currency of Blake’s ideas in the present.
This is encapsulated in the quote from “Jerusalem” that starts the film:
“My streets are my ideas of Imagination.” Blake’s vision of the city
anticipates the urban consciousness that generated montage as the aesthetic
of the twentieth century. The metropolis where the contours of the self
are challenged, internal and external worlds elide mapping the imagination
on the city and the city on the imagination.
The film’s structure is deceptively simple. The film was shot
over two years exclusively in Hercules Road, a typical London side street
in North Lambeth, close to the Thames where William Blake lived and
produced his major epic poems. Images across four seasons are juxtaposed
with extracts of Blake’s poetry and prose read by the filmmaker. Yet
this is not another exposition of the tired adage of less equals more.
The film ironically exploits the low-tech qualities of a clockwork Bolex.
Montage sequences of short shots fragment time and space—each
shot with its own point of view and point of departure for the imagination;
these give way to a fluid, painterly flow of images, layered and abstracted
by hand-controlled optical printing, to produce a rich cinematic vision
still unmatched by the latest digital technologies. This is in a tradition
of films that are genuinely experimental, following an obsessive procedure
that is out of the reach of commercial film and television. Such films
make their own rules.
The first image, the heavenly orange disc of the rising sun,
burnishes an office block high above the street. We drop down over the
railway viaduct and down to street level, the light changing with each
shot—hot to cold, gold, blue, grey, pink, and back again. The sound
of the train overhead reminds us of another England immortalized in
while Blake serves a recalcitrant patron a diatribe on visions
of nature in the city. Concrete history in a gleaming plaque—Blake lived
and worked in this street, the mundane, artist/artesian wrangling for
remuneration. A helicopter stutters across the sky, Vietnam in Lambeth.
The flâneur’s camera eye wanders over two hundred yards and years
A sound image of voices echoes in uncertain space and time. The
facade of a derelict industrial building glides across the screen. A
title of a familiar poem, London
, is echoed in the sign on the building—London,
a place rendered image. The voice faltering, female becoming Blake,
rocking forwards and backwards in historical time: floating in and out
of the image.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
The same street, another vision: winter-bleached monochrome.
Camera becoming bird, wandering footprints engraved in the snow. From
the grey day to the moon rising through luminous clouds accelerated
by time-lapsed compression of time.
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
—Proverbs of Hell
A return of saturated color abstracted by optical printing moves
from the melancholia of winter to a golden tarpaulin, flapping in the
wind like a giant Christo curtain. Spoken aloud, the audacity of Blake’s
For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise
, with its gender
shifts and uncertainties, anticipates the dissolving borders of identity
in the modern city. Fragments of the lines meet the image as foliage
and scaffolding are drawn into web-like skeins.
Weaving to Dreams the Sexual strife
And weeping over the Web of Life.
A passage of spring fecundity as cherry blossoms burst forth,
framed against municipal brickwork, and pass into a floral summer. Roses
like the color plates of a garden catalogue give way to moody sunflowers
and hollyhocks smeared and grainy, echoing the strange desires of the Crystal
The Maiden caught me in the Wild,
Where I was dancing merrily;
She put me into her Cabinet
And Lock’d me up with a golden Key.
In the penultimate sequence of the film, November 5th, the day
that commemorates Guy Faulkes’ failed attempt to blow up Parliament,
is celebrated in the street. Shot after shot of fireworks, glowing with
color and spouting sparks, is sustained against passages of
Visions of the Daughters of Albion
. Blake’s belief in the
productive force of passion and desire turns the incandescent spectacle
into multiple orgasms of light.
The moment of desire! the moment of desire!
That pines for man shall awaken her womb to enormous joys
In the secret shadows of her chamber: the youth shut up from
The lustful joy shall forget to generate & create an amorous
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent
The epilogue is autumn and leaves are gathering in the gutter
and floating on the pavement in the rain. The film’s final lines of Blake
allude to “. . . a grain of sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find,” recalling
one of the most quoted lines in his poetry: “to see the world in a grain
of sand”. This could well be applied to the overall impact of Hercules
. The last shot of the film takes us up the trunk of a giant
plane tree, its branches stripped of leaves, reaching into the sky like
the dendrites of a giant nerve cell.
The Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz has argued for a Shamanic
Cinema that rebels against the industrial standards of commercial cinema.
Madsen’s strategy corresponds very closely to what Ruiz has defined as
shamanic activity in the cinema, building up montaged series of shots over
time, defying mainstream cinematic conventions of time, space, and narrative
In Hercules Road
the accumulation of shots produces an
excess of shifting points of view that seem infinite, establishing a
contemporary allegory of Blake’s inexhaustible imagination. At the same
time the combination of sound and image renders Blake’s shamanic visions
of politics, nature, and desire as persistent tropes of urban existence.