Interview with Mark Aerial Waller, film-maker
Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Present: Tom McCarthy, Mark Aerial Waller, Anna Soucek, Paul Perry, Melissa McCarthy, Anthony Auerbach, Others
Tom McCarthy: Your films, I think it's fair to say, take place within the horizon of what Maurice Blanchot calls 'The Disaster'. What the disaster is changes from film to film. In Glowboys, which I'd like to talk about first, the disaster is brooding, waiting to happen. The film takes place in a nuclear power plant in the company of contract workers who are also known as 'glowboys' because they have this compulsion to spend more and more time close to the reactor. Is this a real phenomenon, or did you make it up?
MAW: The term 'glowboy' was an in-joke at the Three Mile Island reactor when they were clearing it up. More and more contract workers were required. There weren't enough to do the job, so people would come back again with new identities. It was prior to data convergence, so people could easily get new national insurance numbers and reapply for the job. So they'd pick up more and more radiation. They'd also get more and more pay. So they'd lead good lives, but short ones. So they became known as 'glowboys', or 'sponges'.
TMcC: Was it purely a money thing, i.e. they did it because they needed the money? Or was there an element of bravado? 'I'm so hard I can spend six-week in the reactor without flinching!'
MAW: I only know what was happening in England. I spent a year moving around England meeting contract workers at different reactors, as well as physicists and PR agents.
TMcC: Your research was actually endorsed by the nuclear industry?
MAW: No. Well, yes. When I spoke to the physicists in the laboratories in the reactors, I'd gone along as an interested party who was perhaps going to be making a film. But what was more interesting for me was going to the local pubs. I stayed in the inns above the pubs around all the reactors and played pool with the workers. I wasn't going there as an investigative journalist; I was going there to find out what was going on inside people's heads, what type of jokes they told. The jokes were very macabre. I was talking to a caterer from the Amloch plant in Angelsey, and he was saying that he had to wear more protective clothing than the guys in the reactor: the safety standards for stopping getting a hair in the soup were higher than the ones stopping you getting radiation poisoning.
TMcC: I'm very surprised they actually let you film inside the nuclear plant, though. Which one was it?
MAW: Oldbury Reactor, which is next to the BNFL central PR Station. They use it to take people around. It's very clean. BNFL wanted a kind of Glasnost, so any kind of interest in nuclear power was welcomed. Even negative interest could lead to some kind of positive response, because their spokesman would be asked by the papers for a comment, so they'd have a platform.
TMcC: The hero of that film, if you can call him a hero, is one of the glowboys, a nuclear contract worker. Through his character you set the heroic code in conflict with the mundane code. In the first scene he strides across the table of the canteen like a colossus, and this voice says: 'He braved the unknown terrors of outer space and was changed by cosmic rays!'
MAW: '…into something more than merely human!'
TMcC: Yes: he's like this Übermensch, this Superman…
MAW: That is a direct transcription from the opening of The Fantastic Four, a comic book series. Which leads into your question about bravado: I was foregrounding in the film the optimism of fifties mutations in comics. Those fifties heroes became superheroes because they were injured through cosmic rays in some outer space experiment or, as in the case of The Incredible Hulk, through messing around with some nuclear isotopes. And Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. There's hundreds of them. It was an optimistic time for nuclear power: although it was dangerous, there was an unknown force that could be beneficial. That was the idea.
TMcC: So your hero enters to this fanfare of fifties heroic optimism; but then at the same time he's this fat bald bloke playing darts in the canteen. And the Mark E. Smith character, the Caterer, sings of his great exploits, like some poet hired to compose heroic ballads - but as he sings he seems to be mocking him. The worker turns away and looks embarrassed and hurt.
MAW: Yes. He was mocking him from the start. He said: 'If you get to live that long' when he says 'I'm going to spend some time on holiday with my friends.' His song is to do with a loss of parenthood as well. He's saying to this man that his mother had a spawn and put the head in a cesspool and gave the body to him to serve up as food for the people at the reactor. And that if he stuck with the Caterer he could become a kind of corporate parent: he would provide.
TMcC: The worker ends up dead. He's shot by people hunting three-eyed spatchcocks in the nature reserve next to the power station. The first thing they say is: 'The poor mite.' It's quite paternal.
MAW: But it's also that he's a mite rather than a human. These people are looking for mutated species they can sell on to collectors; it's a new realm of collecting.
TMcC: Isn't there an artist that photographs mutated butterflies around nuclear plants?
MAW: Hesse Honniger, yes. Greenflies with hairs growing out of their eyes, things like that. She paints watercolours of them.
TMcC: So in your film the collectors take the dead worker back to another set of surrogate parents, the innkeeping couple. There's an incredible final scene where we see him laid out in the living room. It's quite Frankenstein-like: he's all wired up to the electricity. And the mother or wife is sunning herself in some ultra-violet ray machine and listening to music. And then the lights flicker and fail. So it's like the Frankenstein creation scene in reverse.
MAW: And the film fails too. The sound winds down.
TMcC: Yes: it doesn't end, it fails. Breaks down.
MAW: So you're suddenly brought back into the cinema space.
TMcC: But I wonder what's happening at a symbolic level there. Is he meant to be powering the house? There's even a hint he might be taken to the canteen and served up as food. He seems to be some sort of archetypal sacrificial victim - but what type?
MAW: I was going for an amorphous way of interpreting this. I wanted a balance between the realism of it and capturing the psychic state of being in this situation. This man felt that he was incredibly important for society…
TMcC: He shouts: 'I'm a fucking creator!'
MAW: Yes. Electricity is used for making not just things we think of like computers, but also for clothes and food and everything. So although he's doing a mundane job, he wanted to feel important. It's suggested that perhaps he's more important, but perhaps he's just some failure. I'm interested in the psychology of paranoia. His condition is a paranoid condition. He's suffering from…
TMcC: Delusions of grandeur?
MAW: Yes, or just that his idea of reality goes beyond the regular one.
TMcC: It's a deeply political film - not in a superficial way but in a real profound way. If he's suffering delusions of grandeur it's because he's bought the industry line. He just regurgitating that when he praises electricity; he's almost an evangelist for the nuclear industry.
MAW: A lot of the script was worked from the power station's own PR material. It's incredibly complex and actually quite beautiful, but it also contains its own undermining. For instance, the corporate slogan for BNFL is 'Where Science Never Sleep'.
TMcC: You show that slogan in the canteen…
MAW: Yes. This is amusing in that it relates to the whole culture of the paranoid amphetamine user. They're constantly awake and their brain is constantly going. The line 'Science Never Sleeps' also contains assonance, which is used a lot in Virgil. Just as the sea serpent is approaching Troy before Troy is destroyed, there's a description along the lines of the 'sea serpent slipping over the slimy waves'. So when I thought of that it made it seem that BNFL's own doom is carried within its own PR.
TMcC: Amphetamines do things to time: they just keep it going and going and going, really fast. But time in that film is strange. In one sense it's standing still. The canteen worker says: 'It's always lunchtime here, three-thirty in the morning till twelve noon!' Then he tells an anecdote about watches and clocks and women poisoning themselves from licking brushes…
MAW: It was a company producing paint called 'Undark' which was then bought by US Radium. They were making dials for aeroplanes and watches. It was all women working in this job. They were caught out by the curves: to paint curvy numbers they'd have to lick their brushes in order to get a fine point. So it went into a numerological situation, which also ties in with paranoid states.
TMcC: History in that film is only anecdotal history. The only sense of any past is that story about the women and the watches, which is a story from within the nuclear industry. Also, when one of the canteen workers and the hero recognise each other, they say: 'Weren't you working at Doonray? I know you from such and such a plant!' Why did you choose that kind of localisation of time?
MAW: In the reactor there's a constant time. The shift workers are not just working nights; it has to be worked on round the clock if it's to get cleaned and back up and making money. But outside of that reactor-time is a diurnal cycle - which causes this disruption between Clint, the hero, who's working the night shift, and these local hunters doing their six a.m. hunt. It's a terrible clash of times that causes his death.
TMcC: Well, there's an even stronger time clash in the next film I want to ask you about: Midwatch. This film takes place within the same disaster-horizon I mentioned earlier, only this time it's after the disaster. It's a ship in 1954 returning from the first British nuclear tests in the Pacific…
MAW: In the Christmas Islands, which are between the Philippines and Australia. This film started from an interview I did with two nuclear veterans who lived near me. They'd been at this test, 'Operation Mosaic'. They also had this same dark humour I'd found among the glowboys, but the results of working with nuclear power had happened to them already. One of them had been turned into a kind of monster. Let me read you a bit from the interview I conducted with him:
I remember noticing that the ponds actually had black scum around them. It was strange, because there was nothing that would cause it. There was no vegetation as such, and all that there was was some lizards and some spiders, and some deformed cats that had escaped from the previous explosion. When we got to one of the ponds it was so big that I had to wade into it, expecting to cross it, hanging onto the end of the tape [for his measurements]. I got to the end of it in the middle. The water was just up to below the crotch. I remember looking at Wally Long's face. He stood as though he had had this realisation that I was in danger. I thought that it was from the stingrays or from the stonefish. So what he said is that we'll just mark off alongside and then back again. That continued for most of the afternoon, then we went back to catch the ferry to the ship. By the time we'd got back there I looked at my legs, and they were absolutely bright red, to the point where I'd gone into the water. You know, although I had a scientific education, at that time I though that the pond had focussed the sun's rays into my legs like a mirror or something like that. We got back; I wasn't told to have a special wash or something like that; there was absolutely no radiological protection there whatsoever. Even when we were in the dockyard the ship was radioactive from the last tests - so radioactive they wouldn't allow it to be used to rescue the cattle from the East Coast floods in 1953. But it was alright for us to go on and work on. the following morning when I woke up, my legs had started swelling, feet and everything. They had swelled so badly that I couldn't even wear sandals. I had to have sandals on with string wrapped around them, and I've reported sick to the sick bay. During one of his sober periods the doctor looked at me and started washing the legs with potassium pomangenate, calamine lotion, Chechen violet, so many bloody colours they used to call me 'Rainbow Legs' or 'Technicolour Feet'. And everybody would hear me, because the sandals were loose on the deck, and they'd go 'flip flop flip flop', like I was wearing a pair of frogman's flippers. After a while the swelling started to go down, and it creased like a peach or apple does. And they started bleeding. And now they've been for forty years, sixteen days.'
What was amazing about him is that he'd been living with this condition for so long that the anger had gone out of him. But he still had a lot of will to fight the government. He took it to the European Court of Human Rights. The other man told me:
We all stood lined up on deck. Everyone was checked off, then they counted it out, and you were about-turned. You knew it was behind you. Then that was about it. There was a sort of bang, and a wind, and that was the thing. Then you were back to work . Apart from the atoll thing and the bad conditions it was the same as any other trip. The thing is, I'm a clinical depressive. The great thing about depression is that the strongest feeling you're capable of is indifference.
So I was trying to piece all this stuff together: how people can relate to the society they're involved in when they're taking part in something which is destroying them, but they just keep going. The humour really stood out: how they weren't bogged down by their human conditions. That informed both Glowboys and Midwatch. Midwatch took this into a more poetic realm, a more psychological one.
TMcC: A striking formal difference between the two films is that, while Glowboys takes place under the twenty-four-hour lights, Midwatch takes place in darkness. If I understand correctly, you shot it in infra-red in total darkness, so that neither you nor the actors could even see each other.
MAW: That's right. Because I was interested in the psychological realm behind these facts, I wanted them to go into a visionary mode, like someone going into some kind of spiritual time where they were no longer embodied. By doing this, they lost their sense of ego. One of them was a professional actor, the other a performer, but questions of how they'd look to the camera from such and such an angle went out of the window. It was more: where is the other guy? What's going on? And the words became more important, the way they were delivered.
TMcC: In that film we get the same Caterer character, played by Mark E. Smith, as was in Glowboys. He's been through a sort of kink in time, arriving in 1954 via the era of Nelson. He keeps going on about how good it was 'in Nelson's time, in my time'. Why did you choose that period for him to identify with?
MAW: For England, it was time of geographical conquest. It was a military conquest that happened in geographical rather than sub-atomic terms. So these two military conquests were meeting each other in the Caterer and this other guy complaining about conditions on the nuclear ship.
TMcC: The Caterer says: 'You wouldn't even have got conditions in Nelson's time!'
MAW: 'There were no conditions in Nelson's time,' yes - like it was an unconditional bond to be in the navy.
TMcC: There's a similar collision here as in Glowboys between the epic and the disenchanted, the decayed, the desperate. Would you see the Caterer as the advocate of the epic code and the Boatswain as the advocate of the disillusioned understanding of it all?
MAW: The thing about the Caterer is that he plays a character who's been in the future and the past. So he's kind of indifferent to these complaints. They're just not that important to his larger view of humanity.
TMcC: But he's like the hero of Glowboys in that he's internalised and reproduced the ideology of the state.
MAW: Yes - although it's a kind of wind-up too. He doesn't believe it. He says: 'Sometimes, as a Boatswain, do you not wish or aspire to the Persian Lands, where one-eyed Moby came towards you, when the pressure of the Lord lay heavily upon you? The Aryan Persian seas were more attractive, with their balmy waters.' It's tongue-in-cheek. The balmy waters are not just warm; they're crazy too, barmy. He's mocking the ideology, and testing the other man to see what his reaction will be. Although he does want to get off the ship too.
TMcC: There's a sense that neither of them are going to leave the ship. The atmosphere in that film reminds me of Beckett's Endgame. It's set in a period after history when virtually everyone else has left the vessel. You feel that, as Hamm says in Endgame, 'It's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.' And yet at the end the announcer says: 'Next week on Midwatch they'll go down the Suez Canal and steal some crystal reactor frames'; they're meant to re-embark on a new heroic venture - a claim belied by the fact that they're sitting in darkness going nowhere. It's very inconsistent.
MAW: It combines with this idea of heterogeneous time. They're from the past and the future; we don't actually live in a continuous present. I found something from Saint Augustine about this. When he was reading the Psalms he said: 'I'm about to repeat a psalm that I know.' (Midwatch is meant to be shown in repetition, on a seven-minute loop.) 'Before I begin, my expectation is extended over the whole, but when I have begun, howmuchsoever of it I shall separate off into the past is extended along by my memory. Thus the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory as to what I have repeated and expectation as to what I'm about to repeat. But consideration is present to me, that through it what was future may be conveyed over, so as to become past. And, more, it is done again and again, so much the more the expectation is shortened, and the memory enlarged, till the whole expectation be exhausted, when the whole action, being ended, shall have passed into memory.' So a way into Midwatch is that it doesn't actually matter that our notions of the present are not linear, that they're of our expectations and memories, and we're moving backwards and forwards between these two points. There's even a point in the film where they have their own repetition and memory within it.
TMcC: When the internal voice in the Boatswain's head repeats a line he said thirty seconds ago.
MAW: Yes. And this allows for some idea of their mortality. It's a moment of peace within all this frantic argument and movement, something to hold onto: the memory of their argument.
TMcC: Simon Critchley was here yesterday saying that the really terrifying thing is not that we're going to die, but that we might never die. These two characters seem to be living that horror: they're not-dead, and not really alive either, just stuck in some holding pattern at the point just prior to reincarnation - and they're not going to get reincarnation anyway, they're just going to go round the same loop again.
MAW: Yes, but the only way to deal with that horror is to watch it again. Then you see all the possibilities of interpretation in it, all the layers, and you're not stuck in this single time any more.
TMcC: In your latest film, Sons of Temperance, science has stopped being the 'baddie', the field of the disaster, and instead become something very delicate, very desirable. The disaster in that film is not science, but rather its opposite, no science, no knowledge, forgetting. Why the sudden shift?
MAW: Sons of Temperance is introduced by a man talking about ancient ceramics in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. These were turned on a wheel, and when they were turned, the potter's finger or the piece of wood he was using created grooves inside the pot, which would resonate with the voices or sounds of what was going on around this wheel. So the premise of the film is that perhaps one could play back these pots like vinyl recordings, with some sort of device. Someone is actually trying to do this at the moment. But what I was thinking is that you're not necessarily going to get anything lucid from it. You could do, but it would still be open to interpretation. It would be like coming in on a conversation halfway through: you wouldn't know what was going on. And it could be nonsense, or it could be something extremely important.
TMcC: In the film there's an underground organisation of people who are trying to recover the recordings contained in these crystal glasses. That's their currency: they meet under bridges and pass them around furtively. Do you think they're after the original message, or do they just want to have the crystals, to be surrounded by the resonating hum they give off?
MAW: One person is talked about who's unravelled the message with some kind of technology. But what one man says to this woman he meets under the bridge is that it's not necessarily that good after all. The recording itself is of a man who's refusing to disclose what he's talking about, and doesn't even want to be recorded. He does mention some things which could be important, but he's also a drunk, which puts the dampeners on how valuable what he has to say might be - although some people become more lucid when they're drunk. This is why it's called The Sons of Temperance. So with the recording, it's all about interpretation, just like the film itself.
TMcC: Yes: what that film is about is not at all self-evident. You seem to be playing at least three different narratives off against each other. On the one hand, the people are like junkies trying to score heroin under their bridge; on the other they're like…
MAW: …amateur assassins…
TMcC: Yes: spies - but really bad ones. Then the exchange between the woman and the man beneath the bridge is like one between a prostitute and a potential client. They're talking some sort of code, but it's not clear what sort.
MAW: It comes back to being a film about the process of creating something, and the creator's relation to what has been created. There is always an unwillingness to disclose completely what you're doing. If you allow it to be completely understood straight away, it no longer has any power.
TMcC: It no longer resonates. Maybe that's why there's that hum and resonance that comes from the crystals they're circulating: because they haven't been decoded. But then the real danger in that film is that the crystals will be lost: that antiquity and its knowledge will just 'go', disappear, if the underground were busted and stamped out. It seems to be hanging by a thread, this whole tradition. I feel that these people are heroes in a very real sense.
MAW: Yes. They're not trying to be heroes; they're just continuing to try to interpret and deal with what's around them. They could be interpreted as heroic, but not in a comic book way.
TMcC: Isn't the Sons of Temperance an actual society? I seem to remember walking past some decrepit building in South London with that on it.
MAW: It was an offshoot from the Puritan movement. They were among the first settlers in America. They were a friendly society devoted to stopping the evils of drink; then the Daughters of Temperance were formed, and that started the Suffragette movement in America. The men were drunkards, so why were they able to vote anyway, was the idea. But then there's the tarot way of understanding temperance: as a quiet area surrounded by chaos.
TMcC: I saw temperance as a cipher for the age we live in: temperance is sobriety, which here is similar to forgetting. Erasing the past, obliterating cultural memory. So sobriety is forgetting - but these people, like drug addicts, want intoxication. And knowledge is intoxication. They want to get the signal back, reenter the trance. They're heroes because they're into intoxication in an age of temperance.
MAW: That's a way into it. The film can be understood in several ways - but then it's about the frustration of trying to interpret things. I was thinking that if they're the sons of temperance, they're probably going to be reacting against their fathers, who were temperate. So there's even a contradiction in the title.
Anthony Auerbach: It seems to be about futility as well. Even if the technology were perfected to play back the recordings in perfect pitch, what would be on it? Not the answer to everything, but just the sound of the potter's studio, someone humming, the wheel…
TMcC: But that is valuable! That's immensely valuable!
MAW: Tom says the film's not about technology being bad, but to some extent it is. These people are so focussed on crystal refraction playback they don't live their lives properly. If it were wiped out then they might start talking to one another. Although there is a connection between the man and woman under the bridge, which comes about through the crystal. And then there is a human relationship to the voices they discover as well. Just recognising the voices is enough. It's like when you read a poem: if there's something in it you can enjoy, then it's a success. My films are about finding the other, and about finding these moments of joy, even in dark places.
TMcC: What are you working on at the moment?
MAW: I'm working on something that's coming from Gothic visionary poetry, that's to do with how the space of the vision, or of the film, is somewhere that's not human, or not 'assigned'. I was looking at spaces that can shift in themselves, like the approach to England from France, when you're on a ferry approaching Dover. It looks like you're coming into the thirteenth century. There's this fort above Dover Port, with what look like cells on the inside, and the cliffs are so ancient. Then as soon as you land the twentieth century kicks in with its hydraulics. I'm also interested in spaces used in science fiction, like clay pits in Cornwall that were used in Dr. Who and Blake's Seven as alien landscapes. I want to use them as psychological landscapes, landscapes which are contemporary but also offer up some kind of time shift. So it's taking further the idea I've already worked on of conflicts of time within a single geography.
TMcC: What actually happens?
MAW: That's a secret. You'll have to wait and see.