Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers






The pretence that numbers are not the humble creation of man, but are the exacting language of the Universe and therefore possess the secret of all things, is comforting, terrifying and mesmeric.


Counting is the most simple and primitive of narratives - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 - a tale with a beginning, a middle and an end and a sense of progression - arriving at a finish of two digits - a goal attained, a denouement reached.


Counting is like taking aspirin - it numbs the senses and protects the counter from reality. Counting makes even hideous events bearable as simply more of the same - the counting of wedding-rings, spectacles, teeth and bodies disassociates them from their context - to make the ultimate obscene blasphemy of bureaucratic insensitivity. Engage the mind with numbing recitation to make it empty of reaction.



A diagram of the front of the Skipping-Girl's houseThe front of the Skipping-Girl's house


Some formal considerations. The house of the Skipping-Girl is flat-fronted with regular symmetrical windows and a small, triangular-roofed, shallow porch. The front door of the porch is arched. On either side of the porch are two bay-trees, each clipped to form a sphere on a long tall trunk. They sit like two gas-filled green balloons on vertical strings. 


The Skipping-Girl skips in the center of the picture, the arched hoop of her skirt and the arch of her braided hair making a series of parallel arcs of a circle to echo with the arch at the top of the porch door. The most important - but intermittent - hoop is the skipping-rope as it passes - lit by reflected white-light - over the Skipping-Girl's head. It is the hoop that joins all the others and makes all four of them significant.

When Smut visits the Skipping-Girl - the wheels of his bicycle make two open circles against the parallel horizontals of the house's front garden-wall.


Hoops and arcs and right-angles and strict horizontals and strict verticals and equilateral triangles and parallel lines - all arranged in a symmetrical plan in a shallow stage space. The elements are small, discreet, familiar and domestic in scale. They are reminiscent of the shapes and the scale of a child's set of building-bricks - the traditional shapes of which - despite variations in materials have persisted from the 18th century until now - then in painted wood, now in coloured plastic.


The scale and the resonances are appropriate for the innocent trysting of two children whose sophistication is limited - they stand in front of a doll's house.



A diagram of the porchHardy on the porchDead Christ by Andrea Mantegna. c.1500

Some more formal considerations. The Death of Hardy. Cissie Two mourns her husband's corpse on the verandah of her beach-house. The image is formal, the long line of the sea-horizon establishing an unmovable gravity-marker that fixes the composition's Golden Section. The body of Hardy fills the foreground - a quotation from Mantegna's "Dead Christ" - a painting that, in dramatically foreshortening the body - surprised his contemporaries for its daring, novelty and skill at draughtsmanship - almost a blasphemy - when Christ's feet are given a greater sense than his head or his body - yet bringing into concentration the wounds of his nails on the soles of his feet. Sacha Vierny says that in France, such a dramatically foreshortened composition is called a "mantegna" - a rare direct painting allusion in film language.

The mourning of Hardy takes place in a strictly bounded shallow place - in an openwork box clearly marked by the white-painted spars of the verandah - a deliberate cheat of the natural order - for at no other time in the film are the banisters seen to be arranged in such a manner. Everything inside this pierced box is to do with Cissie and her dead husband and her mourning - including the scissors for cutting Hardy's hair.

All witnesses to the scene are kept outside - peering in through the bars. Since the position of the corpse refers to Christ so Cissie Two suggests the Mary of a Pieta - she pillows her husband's head on her lap and she stays kneeling - indeed the compositional significance of the image would appear disappear if she were to stand.

The box is relevant to the sacred spaces of the genre of the "Sacra Conversazione" of the 15th century - certainly the paintings of Mantegna's relatives - the Bellini's - who painted perhaps the most completely realised works of the genre - where sacred figures - saints, martyrs, churchmen, are contained within an architectural framework which is two parts decorative, one part structural.

The witnesses run off - straggling into the right distance against the sea-horizontal as Cissie mourns. The whole sequence of Hardy's death started with a runner - the hare - seen against the horizontal of the sea - and finishes with runners - the hounds - seen against the horizontal of the sea; starting with the pursued and finishing with the pursuers. thus the mantegna shot of the Mourning of Hardy - is only part of a whole symmetrical sequence that deals with "The Matter of Hardy's Death".


More to come...


Drowning by Numbers

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100 Stars