Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Ghosts of October (4): Whistle and I’ll Come To You

An illustration for “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” in M.R. James’s Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Over the past month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney has highlighted some of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction and film. See Parts 1, 2, and 3
here, here, and here.

“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (the title quotes a lyric from Robert Burns) was written in 1904 by M.R. James, whose ghost stories are as venerated a Christmas tradition in the UK as those of Dickens. James was a Cambridge University provost, librarian, and antiquarian, and his best work grew out of a passion for buried history, with aggressive spirits released from crypts and clods of earth by unwary scholar-diggers. In “Whistle,” a professor named Parkins vacations in a coastal town. At a colleague’s request, he examines a site where lodges of the Knights Templar are known to have stood, to see if the ground appears promising for archeology. While poking about in a nearby cemetery (similar to the one found in The Green Man; Kingsley Amis had read James), Parkins unearths “a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age.” He takes it with him – and perceives, as he walks along the beach toward his hotel, something seeming to follow him through the dusk: “the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance.” That night, in his room, he finds the tube to be a whistle, bearing a Latin inscription which translates as Who is this who is coming? He cleans out the whistle, and blows it. And something comes to him.

The 42-minute Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) was the second BBC film (after a 1966 Alice in Wonderland) to be directed by the inordinately gifted Jonathan Miller. First renowned as a member of the satirical group Beyond the Fringe, Miller later became the author of numerous books, an innovative director of theater and opera, and the host of TV documentaries on the mind, the body, language, atheism, and the history of madness as a medical and social concept. He’s also a physician who has done research in neuropsychology, and something of that grounding may be present in Whistle’s only moment of misjudgment. Namely: an introductory narration, delivered by Miller in voice-over, informing us that the James story is about “the dangers of intellectual pride” (true, though somewhat irrelevant, as it turns out), and that it “shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.” Somewhat unfairly, and in partial contradiction of what we’ll be shown, this foreword tethers the tale’s spectral mystery to neurobiology and the puzzles of the laboratory. In fact, neither story nor film seeks to convince us that the ghostly happenings are necessarily figments of a confused mind or inadequate self-perception.

Michael Hordern in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

Yet we could read the film that way if we chose to. The professor is shown to be a man of great learning and (despite his ability to tickle himself with private jokes) limited imagination, who lacks any kind of mental shock absorber. James’s Parkins calls himself “a confirmed disbeliever in what is called the ‘supernatural’”; Miller’s professor, played by the priceless Michael Hordern, seems insufficiently interested in the supernatural to have any set notions about it. The question to him is academic, a logical exercise: conversing with another hotel guest, munching gleefully on haddock, he disposes of the very idea of ghosts with a few flicks of his sophistical finger. His rational bias excludes any serious consideration of spirit life – or existence beyond death, or however we’d put it – and so, when an inexplicable event occurs, or an unknown presence visits, his thought system simply can’t process it. After his first couple of weird encounters, the professor opens a book more or less at random; what he comes upon is “The Evidences of Spiritualism,” a philosophical polemic written by F.H. Bradley in 1885. He reads it intently, obviously hoping for context, discussion, understanding. Given the title of the essay, which is shown briefly, we might assume that it provides an argument favoring a belief in spirits. Reading it, however, we discover that it argues the opposite: “This is irrational,” Bradley writes of spiritualist beliefs, these “idle fancies, worthless imaginings.” That the professor derives no comfort from Bradley’s rigorous logic, that in fact his experiences escalate to the point of direct and undeniable terror, suggests that there is more at play here than one man’s failure “to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.” Having surely read the essay which he makes a point of showing us, Miller complicates his own disclaimer in a way we can appreciate only by doing some archaeology of our own.

The opening narration is regrettable only because it effaces (passingly, mildly, forgivably) the otherwise perfection of a work both beautifully ambiguous and unstintingly objective. Miller directs his actors and paces his scenes so that all the sounds and signs of British eccentricity – incoherent harrumphing, long befuddled pauses, discourse so civil it amounts to a form of non-communication – are, in the most unexpected way, turned into something like realistic behavior. By rendering such familiar quirks not theatrical but naturalistic, Miller leeches them of their whimsy, if not completely of their charm, and the tone is held taut as a violin string all the way through. The professor, his surroundings, the phenomena he experiences, even his horrified dreams are shown straight-on and patiently, without sensation or insistence. The cutting is measured, with shots which by television standards are fairly long. There are no bug-eyed acting styles, leaping bogeymen, or other Gothic gimmickry. There is not a note of music, suspenseful or otherwise, in the entire film.

Michael Hordern in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

The ghostliness is elevated, made more unsettling, because it too is treated naturalistically, though with a great tenderness of conception. A long shot of an apparition silhouetted against twilight is silent, still, gorgeous, and chilling. The professor’s nightmare of being pursued is a liquescent series of slow-motion convulsions, uncertain perspectives, moans twisted and bitten off, a fleshless form advancing through space. We stare, rapt, holding our breaths. And at the end, we may take what we’ve seen either as an exteriorized capture of something manifest in our shared physical world, or as one dotty old man’s final defeat by goblins of his own mind. We may take it, that is, as we like, not necessarily as we have been instructed.

The James story will be with us as long as ghost stories are read, told, and retold. The BBC remake of Christmas 2010, starring John Hurt, and directed by Andy de Emmony from an adaption by Neil Cross, uses the source material to create what is really a different story altogether. Replacing the whistle with a wedding ring, and incorporating a conceit from W.W. Jacobs’s classic tale “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902), it constructs a shell of plot around the story’s phantasmal core, re-conceiving and re-dramatizing it to the point that it resembles the James original only as “A Lover’s Concerto” resembles the eighteenth-century minuet that provided its melody. But it is something eerie, pensive, and deeply touching in its own right. More recently: in the first episode of the third and last season of the wonderful British series Detectorists (2014-17), the two metal-detecting heroes – obsessed with the hope of excavating some historic artifact from the Sussex countryside – discovered a whistle in a field once romped and roamed by the Saxons. Scraping out the dirt with a knife, one of them blew into it. A gust of wind, or perhaps only the suggestion of one, arose in response. The two men exchanged a look, and walked away – and as they did, a robed figure materialized, looking after them. Though the source of the scene was not made explicit, and I have no documentary evidence of its inspiration, I’m absolutely certain it was an homage – to M.R. James, of course, but more specifically to Jonathan Miller, who, among his other achievements, created one of the finest supernatural films ever made.

Happy Halloween. 

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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