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Jane Madsen's Hercules Road

The Flaneur and the Shaman

James Swinson

From Millennium Film Journal No. 35/36 (Fall 2000): The Millennium

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. 1 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. 2 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 Nightmail , 3 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 of palimpsest.

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 Cabinet.

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! The virgin
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 image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.

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 Road . 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 continuity. 4 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.
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