MAGIC JOURNALISM ASSIGNMENT #1
Look for the heart of Saturday night.
I’ve had a few ideas about how to start the Magic Journalism project off. By coincidence, two of them just collided. I’ve been super-imposing maps onto hands (see here). I also wanted to find the heart of Saturday night (a phrase used in this old Tom Waits song). It turns out that in palmistry the middle finger represents Saturn, which Saturday is named for. There is also a ‘line of the heart’ on the hand. So that would make the point where the two meet the heart of Saturday. It’s that green area beside Grand Parade, the swimming pool and the Royal Pavilion. Tomorrow night, I’m going to travel along the various super-imposed lines of the hand, interviewing the people I meet, until I reach the heart of Saturday night, whatever that may be…
I’ve been moving towards this writing style for some time now - mixing real, non-fiction material (interviews, photographs, actual events) with invented, magic realist writing. Once, I interviewed Orson Welles from beyond the grave. Here, I’ve laid out a sketch of what I’m aiming for.
When he wrote In Cold Blood, one of the first nonfiction novels, Truman Capote used techniques typically associated with fiction to narrate a true story.
He believed first-person narration and placing the author in the story should be avoided.
In Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Gonzo Journalism’, the author’s experiences and observations drive the story. The journalist, their exploits, whilst partially factual, are exaggerated and attenuated, until the journalist becomes a legend.
The Magic Realist literary movement was a Latin American response to years of deceit by European authoritarians. So used to the truth being manipulated to serve the interests of powerful men, authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez attempted to write novels where magic or fantasy were indistinguishable from reality. They wanted to wrestle the truth back by creating a new folklore.
This is the approach of Magic Journalism. It is the application of techniques typically used in Magic Realist fiction to nonfiction.
That is, magic or fantasy is tangled up with actual reportage to assert our own truths into the world.
In Magic Journalism, the writer narrates in the first-person and places themselves in the story, but actively includes other voices, and avoids taking on the mantle of the lone auteur.
It may help to organise as a ‘newspaper’, with many magic journalists working on stories, going on journeys, doing interviews and returning to edit the material into one publication.
Stories, themes and angles would be discussed in meetings.
The myths may begin to affect reality. Where reality ends and magic begins may become unclear.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it’s the real thing. But I don’t. I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I want to write about.
I think that the textbook definition is: “Making things happen in the world in accordance with your will.” Which I think is imminently possible. But there’s lesser black magic and greater black magic. Greater black magic obviously deals with using the powers of your mind to make something happen in accordance with what your desires are, whereas lesser black magic is manipulating things so that what you want to happen is likely to happen. For me, it’s magical to know that virtually anything you want to do, you can create a process that will make it happen. It’s as simple as; if you want to get someplace, you put one foot in front of the other until you’re there, and I think most things in life are just about that simple, you just have to know the process that brings them about. Life is like a great big sponge – you can get anything out of it that you want, you just have to know where to squeeze it.
Fakery, Truth and Orson’s Ghost
An article I wrote in the Summer of 2009.
When I was a child, I was enthralled by images of the space age. They had this simple and hopeful power, unlike the images of greed in the popular culture of the time. Back then, I thought human salvation could be found in science, but now, I am increasingly critical of the company it keeps, and I realise: I’ve lost my faith in science. I wonder, what is there for a life long skeptic to place his faith in?
So I find myself in a graveyard, and it’s midnight, and I’m on an exposed hill. It’s pitch black; I can just make out the faint lines of the church and the headstones below. I’m sitting on a tomb, with my finger on a shot glass and I open my mouth and say, “I would like to invite anyone who may be listening to speak to us, but, uh, particularly, we would like to contact Orson Welles.”
During an editorial discussion, I was asked which filmmaker I would like to try and get an interview with. I am interested in storytellers and self-mythologisers. The way I see it, whether or not Citizen Kane is actually the greatest film of all time is irrelevant, because, mythologically speaking, it is. I said I would like to interview Orson Welles; that I would try my hardest to get hold of him.
Mention that you want to make contact with the other side and you’ll discover that a lot more people than you’d expect have experience of the supernatural. Over and over again, I was solemnly warned not to get involved with the spirit world. I was told to be cautious and protect myself with a circle of salt and that, after inviting the dead to speak, I could expect to still be hearing from them months, or even years, later. I heard stories of household disturbances, assaults by thousands of ghostly fingers and a Ouija board predicting, correctly, that a woman would have twins. Normal people, who you talk to every day, they battle ghosts all the time.
Nothing answered, the night two of us sneaked in to the graveyard near the crematorium and invited Orson, or any spirit, to speak. I go back to some of the people I had spoken to about spirits. They say that graveyards, being places people go to after they die, shouldn’t contain many ghosts, who tend to haunt the sites of horrific events instead. A nice bit of ghost-hunting knowledge that was conveniently absent from our first conversation.
I put my paranormal investigations on ice and watch Welles’ final film, F for Fake. He saw something of himself in his deceitful subject, the art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and made a film about fakery that wholeheartedly embraces and celebrates the act of faking. It’s a film that holds valuable lessons for any filmmaker interested in the intricacies of their medium. For Welles, the content of his film was inseparable from the process of making it. Welles narrates from his editing suite and plays tricks on the viewer – both magic tricks, on camera, and crafty edits and misleading narration, behind the camera – continually drawing attention to the constructed, or fake, nature of film.
It is unsurprising that so much of F for Fake relies heavily on its editing. Welles believed that most of a directors work lay in the edit: “For me, the strip of celluloid is put together like a musical score, and this execution is determined by the editing; just like a conductor interprets a piece of music in rubato, another will play it in a very dry and academic manner and a third will be very romantic, and so on. The images themselves are not sufficient: they are very important, but are only images. The essential is the length of each image, what follows each image: it is the very eloquence of the cinema that is constructed in the editing room.”
The subjects of F for Fake are shown debating what it is to create a hoax – supposedly with each other, although this is, rather clearly, down to Welles’ editing – but at the same time, Welles is debating with himself, questioning his own legacy, his own mythology. Talking about filmmakers, and artists everywhere, he says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”
Indeed, this goes to the heart of a creative debate that is so important it boils over in to political struggle and everyday life, too. Welles quotes Picasso as saying: “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.” There are other fields in art that have taken the power of this concept and used it to fight oppression. I’m reminded of some of what has been written about the Magic Realist literary movement, a Latin American response to years of deceit by European authoritarians. So used to the truth being manipulated to serve the interests of powerful men, authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez attempted to write novels where magic or fantasy are indistinguishable from reality, thus seizing back the truth by creating a new folklore, and employing it in the cause of the people.
Yes, it is a mistake to believe that truth and fact are one in the same - it’s not that simple. Ghosts may not walk the earth; no man may have the uncanny ability to know in advance when he will be in mortal danger; and priests may not levitate upon imbibing hot chocolate. But fantasy can reveal the human condition and realism can skew it. By telling a lie, one can expose a truth, and by presenting the facts, one can tell a lie.
And if you doubt whether the power of a story can change anything, look at the power the media has over the government, or the power religious texts have over their followers. It’s like stories have an all access pass to our beliefs and moral codes. But, to return to my initial problem, why can’t science step up and expose truths effectively? The philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard put it best when he said that science is a “[game] of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right.”
I continue my investigations, taking a trip down to Devon, where I was born. Here, beasts stalk the moors and disembodied hands rise from the side of the road to pull drivers to their deaths. Across the border, in Cornwall, I’ve heard there are two twisted trees that form a gateway to hell. Perhaps a change of location, to a place where some people still believe in old folklore, will get me closer to a thinning in the membrane of reality, where the dead can be heard by the living. I have some sound equipment – a condenser microphone (very good for picking up quiet sounds), a mixing desk and a laptop, for recording on to. I turn the mic up as high as I can before it feedbacks, hit record, and wait. I’ve heard that the voices of the dead can litter the quiet spaces on tape recordings. This, from Voice Transmissions with the Deceased by Friedrich Juergenson:
As it became calmer later in the night, a male voice began to speak. It was the voice of an older man that sounded broken, muffled and slightly hoarse. […] The whole conversation seemed like a monologue as if he were talking to himself in a half sleep.
“We lived in the deepest confusion…” began the voice in German, “…to oppress the people and to enslave them…the others withdrew, not me… that’s why I’m…”
The words that followed were drowned out by our own voices. After a short pause, the man began to speak again. He added only one more sentence with a strange content, “We lived in a bad compote (fruit stew)”, then the voice broke off.
Right after that, [a] female voice […] became audible and called out mockingly a stretched “Heil!”
In the next moment she added excitedly: “…that was Hitler…he’s not ashamed…he was here…”
I turn up the volume, rewind, and play. The white noise is like a crashing waterfall. I hear the sounds of the house, cars and birds from outside, my own small movements, all amplified many times… But Welles’ familiar baritone is nowhere to be heard.
I read an article last month, and the writer was bemoaning cinema for knocking classical music from its throne. Once, he pointed out, classical music was the chief storytelling medium, and now it is film. His ensuing argument mainly hung on Independence Day being less culturally significant than Beethoven’s Fifth, however, the article does serve to highlight just how much power cinema has. And it is a power that is, quite rightly, in danger of being usurped by new media if cinema refuses to evolve.
Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to realising a new, revolutionary form of cinema is a drive to make good films. Welles once said that the only thing that fills him with enthusiasm is experimenting: “Our work once finished has not so much importance in my opinion as that of most aesthetes: it is the act that interests me, not the result, and I am taken with the result only when there is the smell of human sweat, or a thought.” The act of creation is a lot harder to sell than what it produces and so, when you make commercial film or are inspired by commercial film, it is the wealth of this act that is, all too often, forgotten. Henry David Thoreau said that, in an unjust state, a just man belongs in jail. Well, in a world such as ours, a revolutionary filmmaker would in all probability experience a reluctance to create good films as they are widely understood. The world is full of slick, finished products – but the social interactions, the new trains of thought and the possibility that a work might continue evolving long after it is shown to an audience, these things hold a greater, truer value than a string of numbers after a dollar sign, or the approval or Roger Ebert. Film can be a tool to change your life, and to encourage others to change theirs. When he was asked if he thought a film could change the course of history, Welles replied, “Yes. And it might be a very bad film.”
It is beginning to dawn on me, by now, that no matter how hard I try to keep an open mind, I simply don’t believe enough to make a deadly serious attempt at contacting the dead. But there may be someone who does. I go to London, and attend a séance at the Spiritualist Church of the Holy Mountain. It’s one of those churches that look like a travel agency from the outside and, from the inside, a conference centre. When I think of a séance, I think Victorian pomp, and while it was absent from the assembled group – bizarros, half Christian, half New Age hippies – it was present in other ways. The medium, Reverend Carl Banks, has many orphans; ghostly Dickensian street urchins who do the work of finding any spirits who wish to talk to you. He stands, in the middle of our circle of chairs, and communes with them, though they are both invisible and silent to us. Once it begins, it happens fast: the spirit guides bring grandmothers, husbands, wives. One woman speaks to her child. I begin to have second thoughts. I feel like I’m trespassing. The Reverend looks in to my eyes, “They tell me there’s someone who wants to talk to you - someone old, a lot older than you.” Before he gets my grandmother on the line, I go for broke and ask, “Is it Orson Welles?” Our eyes meet, and in that moment, we reveal our innermost truths: that we are both, in fact, liars. The Reverend shifts his attention to a believer, and, eventually, I grow uncomfortable and leave.