Wicker Meets Man

'In that land there were numerous deities (or spirits) which shone with a luster like that of fireflies, and evil deities which buzzed like flies. There were also trees and herbs which could speak.' From Nihon-gi (Chronicles of Japan)

Made in Britain in the early 1970s, The Wicker Man is both a great and a silly film.

The plot, briefly, concerns a prim police sergeant called Howie (Edward Woodward), who arrives on the crazy, pagan Hebridean island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, a young virgin. Lied to by the whole island, he soon begins to suspect that she has been -- or is about to be -- sacrificed to pagan gods in return for a successful harvest. Howie witnesses much lewd cavorting, naked knavery, and sinisterly folkish costumed rite. He is inveigled into a May Day celebration in which, to his surprise and horror, he himself becomes the human sacrifice.

Despite its silliness (and it totally lacks the filmic panache of Tati or Fellini) 'The Wicker Man' has themes which resonate endlessly in the mind, not to mention a fabulously scented, suggestive atmosphere and a great fake folk score by the late Paul Giovanni. It's essentially a film about sacrifice and the relationship of sensuality to ritual, but it's structured -- like David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' or Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' -- according to the classic narrative model of 'outsider arrives in odd microcosmic mirrorworld and makes investigations'. By exemplifying a logic related to, but different from, our own society, the parallel world reveals the oddities of our unexamined assumptions, our strange rituals, our arbitrary division of clean from dirty, law from sin, and sacred from profane.

'The Wicker Man' sets up, with a degree of sympathy one can only call subversive, a parallel universe, a 'what-if' world. In this case, it's an island in the Scottish Hebrides, and the 'what if' proposition is that it might have been possible for an island of lasciviously sensual pagans to survive well into the 20th century, relatively unscathed by the Protestant Christianity of the nearby Scottish mainland.

Britain really does have an animistic, pre-Christian history, which is present not only in monuments like Stonehenge, in folklore, in the sensual, satirical poems of authors like Robert Burns (present visually and lyrically in 'The Wicker Man' -- Lord Summerisle sings one of his songs, and his portrait hangs in the registrar's office), but also, in transmuted form, in the Christian calendar itself, which conceals and cunningly co-opts many pagan festivals, including the key one here, the harvest festival. The makers of 'The Wicker Man' researched their subject painstakingly, immersing themselves in Frasier's 'Golden Bough' and Julius Caesar's account of the Bardic rituals of pre-Roman Britain.

But the credibility of the parallel world presented in 'The Wicker Man' is not really the issue. This is fiction, and we are asked to suspend our disapproval and disbelief. In fact, Sergeant Howie spends much of the film articulating with face, voice and gesture precisely those emotions of disapproval and disbelief. He's forever narrowing his chinky, suspicious, protestant eyes, stuttering with apoplectic outrage, invoking bureaucratic punishments, calling revellers to order with sharp hammer taps and stern warnings, trying to invoke their apparently absent guilt. His overacting is, finally, somewhat Christlike: he disapproves -- as he dies -- so we don't have to. Any possible protest we may have at the 'immorality' of the islanders is so overstated by Howie's Holy Willy character that we abandon any moral judgement and just sit back and enjoy the pagan spectacle as a sort of subversive pageant -- the ultimate May Day.

Just as Kafka's 'The Castle' set up, in a little village, a looking glass view of the declining, impenetrable bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so Summerisle sets up a mirror image world where many of the inverse, complementary values of British culture can be seen. Here (as in the aphorisms of Oscar Wilde) law is sin and sin is law. And it's peculiarly attractive. Law -- in the form of Howie, the prudish virgin -- is mocked and finally destroyed, whereas sin -- in the form of unshameful sex and a deep concern with fertility -- structures community life.

In the schoolhouse a buxom teacher gives a lesson about the primacy of the penis. Above the pub, the landlord's daughter (Britt Ekland, at the time, I believe, initiating future el Records star Simon Turner) depucelates young male virgins brought to her by the laird of the isle. In the post office oddly totemic chocolate hares are sold. Couples copulate openly in plain view. The church has been deconsecrated, and trees are planted on all the graves. Nature and fertility are worshipped, and Christianity is treated with scorn as a religion preoccupied with 'rotting flesh'.

Perhaps precisely because of its long repression in Christian Britain, pagan sensuality bursts through with more force than it might do in, for instance, Japan, where the life of the senses has always managed to exist side by side with 'law' in the form of social convention, as well as the ethics of the imported 'official' religion of Buddhism. Certainly Christianity co-opted the cult of the mother goddess and paganism's winter and spring festivals. Yet it proved much less able to co-exist with its old enemy, animism, than Japanese Buddhism does to this day with Shinto, the animistic folk religion of Japan, which survives in 'un-repressed' (and cheekily sexual) forms like the large-balled raccoon dog (or tanuki) seen outside sake bars throughout Japan.

'The Wicker Man' proposes the 'return of the Christian repressed' as a particular place, an island, but of course it was also a time: an 'archipelago' of years beginning, say, in 1963 (the age of The Beatles, the Lady Chatterly trial, and, according to Philip Larkin, the year sexual intercourse 'began' in Britain). This age of sensuality was just reaching its summer solstice in 1972, the year 'The Wicker Man' was made. I was there, and I can tell you that in the late 1960s and early 1970s Britain actually felt like this: there was a hitherto undreamed of colour, sexual freedom, expressiveness, fruitfulness. Pagan rites and trappings effected their reconquista via the hippy subculture, which advocated a return to nature, gathering for phallic rock festivals at sacred pagan sites like Stonehenge. Free love and a kind of neo-animism reigned; Pan pipes fluted across the land, and the pagan gods seemed ready to return.

Perhaps it's the yellow nylon polo neck Lord Summerisle is wearing, the gaudy floral shirts and bawdy abandon of the cast, but the May Day courtyard gathering, where Lord Summerisle addresses the costumed villagers, reminds me strongly of what Britain felt like in 1968, when some fusty, damp, neglected corner of Edinburgh would be taken over suddenly by a free rock festival, filled with joss sticks and kaftans, hindu symbols, love and peace and animism. With the amourous ruckus of 1960s counterculture, new sap did indeed seem to be shooting through the stems.

Anthony Shaffer's 'Wicker Man' script sets up Paganism and Christianity as equals. The playing field is not exactly level, though: Howie has such feet of clay, and Lord Summerisle is such an eloquent advocate of his heathen fertility religion, that our sympathy cannot fail to be skewed towards the islanders. It all looks like such fun! Snails crawl on huge leaves, their heads waggling with phallic delight, as the tall, handsome Summerisle muses aloud -- a sort of blend of the Christian devil, Dionysus, Edith Sitwell and Mick Jagger -- how happily he would be incarnated as an animal, without the burden of being 'respectable'. (The commentary tells us his lines are from a Walt Whitman poem.) There's a magnificent community spirit on the island, such a sense of solidarity and concern for communal well-being -- a far cry from Protestantism's isolating emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience before God.

Shaffer points up the similarities between the religions too: Christianity cannot, after all, scorn a religion it has borrowed so much from, and has so much in common with. When Howie protests at Summerisle's speech on parthenogenesis (naked virgins are jumping through fire outside the window, apparently practising for it) Summerisle responds that Christ himself is the issue of an act of transubstantiation, the commingling of a virgin and a ghost. And when Howie accuses the postmistress of being a bad mother (he believes she is about to watch her own daughter die for the sake of the harvest) she chides him on not knowing 'the true meaning of sacrifice', a theme common to both religions. It is as if the older religion can teach the younger one a few lessons.

Finally, there's a very musical clash of dogmas in the climactic scene where Howie is burned alive singing 'The Lord's My Shepherd', while Summerisle and his islanders sing with glee the Anglo-Saxon folk song 'Summer Is A Cumin' In'. The music is worth a whole essay of its own; Paul Giovanni seems to have devised some mysterious new scales, and Shaffer has wittily adapted Burns lyrics or traditional folk songs like the maypole song detailing a whole 'withinity' of things within other things, and things depending on other things: within the wood the tree, within the tree the branch, on the branch the bird, from the bird a feather, from the feather a bed, on the bed the girl, in the girl the man, from their union the child... and so on. It's a ballad of interdependence, not independence, and of a wholesome continuity between the community and nature. In Christian terms, it's a world without sin; Edenic and pre-lapsarian.

At times 'The Wicker Man' is oddly reminiscent of two other films, 'Dancer in the Dark' by Lars Von Trier and 'The Man Who Fell To Earth', the film Nicolas Roeg made with the same production company -- British Lion Films -- just three years later. ('The Wicker Man' was premiered in London on a double bill with 'Don't Look Now'', and the scene with the horse-man disappearing down alleys seems to rhyme with the glimpses of the little red-coated child in Venice in Roeg's film.)

Von Trier's Bjork vehicle shares 'The Wicker Man's delightfully uneasy blend of musical numbers and rather guignol melodramatic action, and seems equally happy to make its characters wooden and stereotypical exemplifications of ideas. And 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' casts Bowie as a more charismatic Howie, a 'visitor' to Earth just as Howie is to Summerisle, trying -- in the end unsuccessfully -- to reconcile his very different culture to the one he has landed in. (Roeg's film pits one technology against the other, whereas in 'The Wicker Man' it's a clash of religions.) Bowie and Howie both end up as martyrs: one dies, the other becomes an alcoholic. Both fail in their missions, and succumb to the 'lower' worlds they are visiting. Neither will ever leave: Bowie's spacecraft is sabotaged on its launchpad just as Howie's seaplane is throttled at its mooring.

So what is the relationship between the film 'The Wicker Man' and my forthcoming album 'Summerisle', made in collaboration with Anne Laplantine here in Berlin?

Well, 'The Wicker Man' stands in relation to 'Summerisle' rather as Jacques Tati's 'Playtime' stands in relation to 'Oskar Tennis Champion', my 2003 release. In both cases I was exposed to restored DVD re-issues of these films in the albums' incubation periods, and found my imagination captured by them. (In the case of 'The Wicker Man' the restoration is incomplete: key sections of the film, sequences necessary to its thematic integrity, are present in the Director's Cut only in the form of low quality telecine scans.)

I'd say that the parallel worlds presented in 'The Wicker Man' and 'Playtime' allowed me to indulge two nostalgias I felt as my albums were crystallising in my mind. 'Oskar' was written in the US and Japan in the early 21st century, and 'Playtime' allowed me to focus my profound nostalgia for both Europe and the 20th century, since it's set in an imaginary Paris which incarnates to the point of caricature certain aspects of 20th century Modernism. 'Summerisle' indulges a different nostalgia, the yearning of the wandering Scot (now in Berlin) for his homeland.

In both cases, though, it was important that the films should be far-fetched. This was not to be nostalgia for the real, but for obvious fictions: a parallel world Scotland, a parallel world Modernism. Tati doesn't portray the real Paris, or the real 20th century. And Robin Hardy's 'Wicker Man' doesn't portray any real Scottish isle that's ever been. Rather, they are extrapolations, projections, suggestions. A divergent and anti-conservative person tends only to feel comfortable with 'nostalgia for the future' or 'homesickness for otherness'. To feel nostalgia or homesickness for the lived past, nostalgia for the formerly existing, or patriotism for a real country, would just be too wretchedly reactionary. (And anyway, I'd contest the idea that what we feel is ever 'nostalgia for the actual'. We inevitably embroider and embellish with such strong emotions as these. A nation, a home, a golden age: these are inevitably fictions, so why not make them far-fetched and utopian fictions instead of limited, fact-smitten ones?)

One nostalgia I will admit to feeling when watching these films is nostalgia for Japan. Because it is only in Tokyo that I have discovered an architectural and sociological modernity as radical and advanced as the one Tati portrays in 'Playtime'. Paris and every other western city (including New York, which remains fixed in a gothic, early 20th century vision of Modernism) just wouldn't have the balls (or the chains) to demolish almost every relic of the past and create the staggeringly postmodern landscape I discovered in contemporary Tokyo. Western people are much slower than the Japanese to embrace the gadgets, trends and lifestyle fads Tati likes to mock. And the innate conservatism of western populations is mirrored by the intransigence of town planners.

It is also to Japan that I have to turn to find the closest living relative of the animistic religion conjectured by 'The Wicker Man', for Shinto is a surviving, thriving modern version of the very un-Christian rituals, the sensuality and fertility worship we see in Hardy's film. Walking by the big-balled tanukis and phallic milestones of Japan, I've often thought that, if we'd been able to engineer in the west as harmonious a relationship between Christianity and Paganism as the Japanese have between Shinto and Buddhism, we'd be a lot happier in our sexuality.

It's interesting that in Britain the only way such a vision could be realised was under the rubrik of 'horror'. 'The Wicker Man' dramatises a clash of ideologies much greater than, for instance, the skirmishes we are currently seeing between Christianity and Islam, two monotheisms which share many features, and even certain characters (Christ is also a prophet in Islam, for instance). Perhaps protected by the 'horror' label, Shaffer and Hardy remained admirably staunch in their refusal to ostracize 'the other' in the film; to the dismay of the British Lion sales team, they refused to force a return to normality at the end, for instance, by sending in lots of police and arresting the Christopher Lee character. In fact, as the film ends with a triumphant single clarion note and the sun sinking behind the burning wicker head, there's every indication that the islanders' sacrifice will prove successful, their crime go undetected, and their island thrive (although Howie does plant, just before he burns, the idea that, should their crops fail another year, the islanders' next sacrifice will have to be Lord Summerisle himself).

We're told that, even in the early 70s when the film's sexy, folky anti-authoritarianism really caught the flavour of the times -- this was also the age of Scandinavian child sex manual 'The Little Red Schoolbook' and A.S. Neill's radically permissive experiment in education, the Summerhill school -- and even with the protective pennants of 'horror' and 'fantasy' fluttering above it, studio bosses greeted 'The Wicker Man' as 'one of the ten worst films we've ever seen'. Their scornful attitude (the DVD commentary reveals) was largely responsible for the film's subsequent butchery and the suspicious loss of all copies of its original edit.

The film's troubled history is evidence, perhaps, of its profound power to resonate in the mind, and to disturb self-appointed guardians of moral order. But, like everything repressed, like 'the old religion' itself, 'The Wicker Man' has burst back from a fallow period in the dungeons of cultural sublimation. In 2003 it's stronger than ever, shedding blossom in unlikely places (a recent article by Bob Stanley in art magazine Frieze, for instance), and providing belated fruit for some surprising pies, including the Summerisle apple tart I'm baking for you right now. Proof, if any were needed, that the 1973 harvest didn't fail.

For an account of Japanese animism, read Shinto and its Festivals by Denny Sargent.

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