Summerisle Revisited by David Ferry
SUMMERISLE REVISITED: THE ARTIST’S CUT
Crossing borders: facts and fictions
The artist David Ferry has consistently worked with collage throughout his printmaking practice and advocates the application of a ‘collage mentality’ to printmaking as a way of enabling ideas to infuse process. His visual re-scripting of the 1970s cult film the ‘The Wicker Man’ (Hardy, 1973) is an example of this approach. This paper will explore how a ‘collage mentality’ can be used to analyse a film narrative, and its relationship to other graphic, sociological and geographic contexts.
The following dialogue has been constructed from several conversations that took place in March 2013 between David Ferry and writer Stephen Clarke. The setting for this constructed dialogue is a walk around Rodd Farm, location of the Sidney Nolan Trust - a centre for printmaking in Powys on the Welsh border. The Rodd was chosen by Ferry as an evocative landscape that had inspired the twentieth century Australian artist Sidney Nolan and which, for Ferry, has resonances with the film ‘The Wicker Man’. The dialogue takes the form of a script for a film attempting to map out a fiction of time and place. This approach investigates how a ‘collage mentality’ can also be applied to collaborative writing.
Breakfast at The Rodd: looking over the script
Stephen Clarke: How did you arrive at working with ‘The Wicker Man’?
David Ferry: The film came out in 1973 when I was still at school. I don’t think I saw it until 1983 after I had finished my postgraduate studies. It became more noteworthy and significant as one understood more about ones socio-political standings and leanings. What is interesting is that the film for me increased in value.
I think that an artist is somebody who thinks via dawning realisations. My project ‘May Day in the Centre of England’ is a thirty-two panel montage of the script of ‘The Wicker Man’, taking you through an idea of the film rather than a literal illustration of it. It’s in two parts, ‘Day’ and ‘Night’, with the Maypole as midday (figure 1).
SC: How were these panels made?
DF: I look at: pageantry, folklores and customs; pictures of the Maypole; pictures of knitting patterns; pictures of social interaction. And somehow within the collage mentality they begin to bear witness to images. The sketchbook is a classic bridge between the idea and reality. We have selection, rejection, suspicion and intuition. Developing a grand scheme I put a schema up on paper, the scale of what the work would be.
SC: So this becomes the film’s storyboard?
DF: It does. It becomes my script from the script, visually. I re-edit it using simple tools of the trade. The images are cut out of magazines and then attacked with spray varnishes and graffiti paint. Spraying through things to make backcloths or whatever. And then the operating table when the fragments then become built to be something else.
SC: A film is constructed from chopped up parcels of time that seem to have continuity. Likewise your montages are chopped up parcels that produce a kind of artist’s cut that mirrors the director’s cut. Montage reconfigures material and if you reconfigure you end up with a different understanding.
DF: The actual novel of the film by Anthony Shaffer (screenwriter), in collaboration with Robin Hardy (the film’s director), wasn’t published until after the film was released in 1973! So, in short, we have a screenplay, and a novel, the actual film itself - a cinema release and a ‘Director’s Cut’ - and an artist’s interpretation influenced through the suggestive ‘travel’ of the film and personal experiences of social stereotypes in location.
Setting the scene: The Rodd is an island
SC: Although labelled a cult horror film, ‘The Wicker Man’ uses imagery that could be in a tourist board guide to the Highlands. The film uses folk music alongside images of bright sunny skies and blossom on the trees. It sells Summerisle as a destination that you want to go to.
DF: That has encapsulated our imagination even before there is any sense of scenario, screenplay, narrative or other kinds of human interaction. The interesting thing about the fictional isle of Summerisle is that we are kind of landing anywhere. Summerisle is totally fictitious; it didn’t exist. To us, because we circled it like a bird in the aeroplane, we were absolutely convinced it was an island.
A colour enhanced photographic souvenir postcard of a selected location provides us with a similar changed reality. The interesting thing about souvenir postcards is that colour enhancement effectively conjures the fact that this is possibly in the Mediterranean, but it isn’t. For example, a postcard of the fountains and children’s paddling pool at Lytham St. Annes alludes to a perfectness, and rather like Summerisle in Northern Scotland, supposedly, looks rather more like La Palma. What we have is an image, which actually tests the fact that Summerisle and La Palma are the same.
On our walk we will look at The Rodd as an island created by Sidney Nolan. We can see that there are specific parallels in looking at things that on one level of our understanding we can construe as real but through an imaginative understanding are transformed. We can be in either Summerisle or in the Island of the Rodd here in Presteigne (figure 2).
Our hero the detective
SC: This dialogue is a montage in itself and our walk is a metaphor for the process of moving through the script.
DF: Apart from his aeroplane by which he descends, Sergeant Howie walks everywhere. He has no other means of getting to a point faster or quicker than his own self frame. This is why I had this idea of going to a type of island setting (The Rodd) and walking through it as a great deal of the action in ‘The Wicker Man’ takes place with Howie walking through things.
SC: We are pathfinders. Although we have maps we don’t go everywhere on the map. We are constructing a particular path or narrative.
DF: Sergeant Howie goes with his briefcase. He could be in Glasgow or Edinburgh but he isn’t. He is in this supposedly real place which we know is fictional but in the context of the scenario is a very, very real place called Summerisle.
SC: You can see the narrative of the film through Howie’s eyes and be shocked at these despicable acts, such as putting a frog in a child’s mouth to cure a sore throat.
DF: That happened in the sweet shop-cum-post office. It was a sweet shop but the sweets weren’t Mars bars, Bountys or Aeros; they were in the shape of animals and things. The similarity was enough to convince one that it was the sweet shop. Howie would have felt a level of knowledge in that context, would he not?
SC: At one point in the film Lord Summerisle turns to Sergeant Howie and he says ‘You’re the detective here’. Obviously, Howie is the detective because he is the police sergeant and he is trying to make sense of this experience. This is a direct appeal to the viewer to make sense of the film.
DF: A significant scene that was in the novel (Hardy and Shaffer, 1978) and not the original theatrical version (Hardy, 1973) is the fact that the person that drove Howie to Lord Summerisle is the one lesbian on the island who is absolutely aware and conscious of the prevailing religious rites but is removed from it because the fertility concept of the lesbian is clearly not going to issue forth fruit. So, both of them, travelling in the cart to the castle are absolute outsiders: one of them within a context and the other thinking that he commands a context and is absolutely completely misguided.
His belief in his righteousness and the prevailing good of the police was so incredible that even in his Punch’s outfit, where he seemingly thinks that he has rescued the girl, he is trapped on an island. The villagers have taken the spark plugs out of his aircraft so that it is not going to go anywhere. He is almost nihilistic in his last stand to control the narrative. He went that far and he couldn’t go back.
Lunchtime in the village
[The artist and the writer head to the local village of Presteigne to look around the town]
SC: Does context frame our way of seeing? There are actually no monsters in the film. They are all ordinary people living life within a particular structure that mirrors feudal Scottish society.
DF: When Howie is on the rampage looking for the missing child he goes on a massive walkabout turning the village upside down. He visits all the shops. In ‘The Director’s Cut’ (Hardy, 1979) there is a scene that shows ladies having their hair done in the hairdressers. They are sat under the heaters, their animal masks are just by their side and it is absolutely as normal. Howie goes to the fishmonger who is as proud as anybody to show him his own mask.
What initially excited me about this film was the fact that endemic in the ordinary was something just left of centre. It is neither extraordinary in the context of ultra surrealism or ultra carnival it was just simply a mask, a fish mask, a salmon mask, a bull, a reindeer or whatever. These were neither overtly theatrical nor were they overtly comic. The mask was just simply an object, a curiosity, placed within a greater 90% of reality. The misplacing of an object can sometimes be extraordinary. I am thinking of that iconic surrealist sculpture where we have got the Bakelite black telephone with a lobster on the top of it or the production still from ‘Dr Who’ of Daleks on the Westminster Bridge. What I feel about this particular film ‘The Wicker Man’ is the fact that it is 90% reasonable, and the other little percentage fragment is that bit that makes the ordinary remarkable.
SC: I wonder if you personally had the reverse experience of what you are saying about ‘The Wicker Man’? You say 90% of ‘The Wicker Man’ is ordinary and understandable and 10% is bizarre. You grew up in Blackpool of which 90% is bizarre and only 10% ordinary.
DF: In Blackpool you could see elephants on the beach, trunk to tail walking across a tram track. At night the tram itself would be encrusted in lights in the shape of an American cowboy train or a rocket. You put those two things together and you’ve got a remarkable scenario of strangeness acted out in real time and space dimensions.
SC: You say that ‘The Wicker Man’ is a modern day pagan adventure that explores social structures.
DF: I think that that period of time is salient in respect of a type of both graphic and sociological mindset. This film is not isolated. It is within both graphic and social constraint of a particular way of looking at something. There were already prevalent social stereotypical options operating in British Cinema that belied a truth but relied on stereotypes. ‘Carry on Camping’ (Thomas, 1969) is a significant film of its time, which portrayed a tragedy of sociological order and a fear of a new order. ‘Get Carter’ (Hodges, 1971), shot on Tyneside entirely, is a fictional realist cinema presenting the narrative in location which is both the backdrop and a geo-social interaction.
Afternoon at the Rodd: a strange field
SC: You mentioned that a particular view on The Rodd reminded Nolan of Australia.
DF: We chose to do our walk around the fictional Summerisle on Rodd Farm because it reminded Sidney Nolan of something that wasn’t there: a track of land in Australia. There is a map of the Burren in Ireland made by the artist/cartographer Tim Robinson (Robinson, 1977) and underlined on this map there is an area simply called ‘a strange field’. In this field are odd shaped things. The original function and purpose of these apparent anomalies of dry stone walling is lost. They present an opportunity for contemporary interpretation based on archaeological research or, what I think is a more viable, imaginative speculation not based on any credible archaeological knowledge at all.
SC: Can we build our understanding from fragments?
DF: We circumnavigate our surroundings based on early recollections of our growing consciousness in relation to how people interacted; what architecture was surrounding you; what social dimension surrounded you. I am very clear in my mind that those aspects of the self never leave you despite new adventures and experiences. They are the pertinent bottom of the structure and rather like veins coming up through a structure they can be readily tapped into. You can put a main line in a vein and be, lets say, in Adelaide or Melbourne, and see immediately aspects of Torquay, Eastbourne, or Lytham St Annes because the vernacular architecture is similar to that which was your structural starting point. Even though it is remarkable that Nolan came to The Rodd, there was a semblance that connected to his understanding of why he was here. He never lost sight of those initial atmospheric and character driven memories that were still pertinent to him in later age.
What I am arguing is that those early understandings of oneself, and the characters and the situations, shape our viewpoint. We are not looking at something so completely new and remarkable. When I look at this film ‘The Wicker Man’ and make work surrounding it, I am not illustrating the text as such, I am fuelling what the text is giving me via those reminisces, memories, contexts, social interactions, that are parallel to the constructed script. We are looking at where this is not simply process, it is a collage mentality able to grapple with time and space.
May Day Parade
SC: Popular culture has its stereotypes but ‘The Wicker Man’ has its own.
DF: I am not setting myself up here as an expert on fertility symbols, rites, and rituals. What I am receiving from the film is the reiteration of those things as they have gone through umpteen filters before they have even got to us: they have gone through set designers, directors, writers, costume designers. Everybody who is, in a sense, involved in the production had a hand in reiterating those facets which were once extremely important to some villages’ pagan rites. They have become rounded hybrids where the overt sharp edges of the particularity have all but gone. Rather like little Ken and Barbie you can still see the aspects of female and manhood but only just. There is no longer any need for it, you just sort of know that is what it means.
These characters are not from the gravel pit of ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Dr Who’. They are regular guys - the hairdresser, the butcher, the harbour master, the chemist, the doctor – who put on an animal mask. The May Day parade is the devout of the village going about their daily business on that particular day: the Teaser (the head of the community), the Obby Oss (Hobby Horse), and the complex Punch, fool and King-for-a-day character (figure 3).
Around the Aga: the sacrifice in the kitchen
SC: At the end of the film the missing girl leads Howie through a cave. She effectively leads him through a vagina.
DF: There is a point where the May Queen ditches her crown into the water, which is a very little detail but it is quite significant: throwing something away, a sort of innocence lost. The villagers did take a chance on Howie not being tempted by Willow MacGregor’s charms [the landlord’s daughter] but he was not allowed to by his own faith and the villagers took a gamble on his faith being resolute right to the end.
SC: He did actually do what he set out to do which was to save the missing girl.
DF: He did and he didn’t. He rescued the girl because he was lured into a position where he could do so but ultimately he was completely controlled from the first moment he set foot on the island.
SC: Similar to this dialogue and our walk, Howie has been scripted. But unlike the film your edit ends at night.
DF: In my edit there is an orgy in a nightclub, which is the end of the May Day because that is where the fertility symbol absolutely takes fire (figure 4).
SC: Our walk through the landscape of ‘The Wicker Man’ has considered montage as a form of editing.
DF: My point of view is that there is a difference between the technical and the visual in printmaking. There is a need to infuse idea into process. Montage is in my view a reason why printmaking hasn’t capitulated into pure craft. You need the mental framework of the collagist to relook at ‘The Wicker Man’, as a compass to your understandings of the developments of ideas and sociological orders. I can read it in a particular way and as an artist I am able to reiterate it, I hope, in another visual sense.
Night-time at The Rodd
SC: In your version of ‘The Wicker Man’ Howie’s investigation starts at the beginning of the day and finishes with the end of day. At the close of the film version there is a fantastic picture postcard sunset.
DF: That sunset actually happened in real time and space. They weren’t expecting it. The film-makers thought they would have to special effect that. It was almost as though Nature itself wanted the film to be completed.
SC: Whereas our walk around The Rodd has been thwarted because of Nature’s intervention.
DF: ‘The Wicker Man’ was meant to take place on May Day. The actual film itself was shot in October/November when it was particularly cold. All the blossoms were falsified. The fact that we were walking in Spring and that we had to dig ourselves out of snow, maybe this is where we erstwhile cultural travellers get stuck by our own time and space petard!
The artist explored
This paper has taken the form of a script that runs through a fictitious single day in Presteigne. This conceit holds a mirror to David Ferry’s ‘May Day in the Centre of England’, a printmaker’s storyboard that re-interprets the iconography and narrative of the film ‘The Wicker Man’ taking the viewer from Day to Night in a thirty-two panel work.
At the centre of this discussion of ‘The Wicker Man’ is David Ferry’s observation that our upbringing and early memories form the way that we negotiate our understanding of the world. Things that we encounter run parallel to this understanding. For Ferry ‘The Wicker Man’ resonates with previous memories, contexts, and social interactions. The film’s significance has increased in value for him as he explores its imagery and narrative through printmaking.
A film is constructed from edited fragments that seem to have continuity; a film’s cut reconfigures material into a believable narrative. Such a narrative uses a combination of stereotypes and location. In ‘The Wicker Man’ stereotypes are heightened with the conflation of pagan characters from folklore, such as Punch, the Teaser and the Hobby Horse, with the well defined village roles, such as the fishmonger, the baker, the school teacher, and the landlord’s daughter. Location provides the backdrop against which these characters interact. Places themselves are transformed through an imaginative understanding and this was considered by Ferry in his choice of Rodd Farm as the setting for our narrative. Ferry draws upon these stereotypes and their location to construct his own Artist’s Cut of the film.
In contrast to an illustrative approach in printmaking the application of what has been referred to in this paper as a ‘collage mentality’ allows for a rich variety of visual readings. Using the tactics of layering, colliding, and the intrusion of the misplaced fragment, the extraordinary and the remarkable can be drawn to the fore. The contention of this paper is that the mental framework of the collagist may allow printmaking to explore beyond the known and start to map out the unknown.