Friday, 5 August 2011

a field student of paradise

As Field Study’s Man in E17, I am currently holidaying in paradise. Paradise, I have heard, ‘is exactly where you are right now only much much better’. I am studying how and why e.g. being in Letchworth Garden City is ‘much much better’ (paradisiacal) than being in Walthamstow. Letchworth like Walthamstow* expresses  some of the homogeneity and pressures of the modern day urban and suburban except Letchworth has a cinema. This deficiency (along with some others) on the part of Walthamstow may, for some, represent a sort of distinctiveness however, as recent demonstrations have shown, there is a popular demand for Walthamstow’s EMD Cinema to reopen and not become a place of worship for the UKCG. I believe some cinemas e.g. Stratford Picturehouse are (or have been) places of worship for congregations of various sorts. Of course many cinemas are multiplexes and so are able to host religious services while opening the other auditoria for the viewing of films. The EMD has one screen/auditorium and so there is a conflict of use and interest there.
As Field Study’s Man in E17, I have mused on the pseudo religious purpose of cinemas/cinema in previous posts and so I am again, following a visit to Letchworth Broadway Cinema, to see, Tree of Life - Terence Mallick’s cinematic hymn to the agony and ecstasy of love and the cosmos. Before bathing in the super nova of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and other computer generated imagery I happened (by chance?) to visit, paradise; a public sculpture by Bettina Furnée, given as a gift from North Hertfordshire District Council to Letchworth Garden City on the occasion of the latter’s 100th anniversary. It was unveiled on 9th October 2003, by Cllr Howard Marshall. Just across the road from the cinema, the sculpture is a complex site or arrangement of elements which includes a set of 4 ubiquitous street signs presenting a fragmented message which, when read together, form an aphorism, ‘paradise is   a promise     as well as   a memory’. The extent or range of this sculpture come installation is open to interpretation; it remained part of my experience of ‘Tree of Life’ which began with a quote from Job 
in the English Standard Version of the bible:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth …….. when the morning stars sang together?”
Job 38, 4-7, in full, reads:

4.        Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
            Tell me if you have understanding
5.        Who determined its measurements - surely you know!
            or who stretched the line upon it?
6.        On what were its bases sunk,
            or who laid its cornerstone,
7.        when the morning stars sang together
            and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Bettina Furnée’s temple like creation, no doubt built in collaboration with many and various agencies, is, in part, a dedication to the origins of Letchworth Garden City as envisioned by Ebenezer Howard. The cylindrical beams making up the temple are inscribed with diagrams representing the concepts of the garden city. The diagrams appear like mandalas, each an engraved circular geometry which proposes, via a constellation of 7 cities to provide homes, farms, reservoirs, asylums, waterfalls and new forests - all these founded in a radical form of social enterprise. In the scheme, ‘No.7 group of slumless smokeless cities’ there are also areas for homes for waifs and for inebriates, epileptic farms and an insane asylum. These schemata come from Ebenezer Howard's, ‘To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’, which was reprinted in 1902 as,Garden Cities of To-morrow’. When studying for a crafts degree I was required to study the ideas of thinkers who informed the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ebenezer Howard was, with the Garden Cities Movement, allied to William Morris in his disaffection with the modern industrial city. The garden is the fulcrum of this utopian movement.

In this Utopian vision the lives of its inhabitants will be in harmony with the omnipotent turmoil of the microcosmic and macroscomic universes in which (the mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) in Tree of Life narrated) we have a choice of paths to follow, those of ‘grace’ and/or ‘nature'. Urban planning could make this choice of paths clear. Life, in Howard’s grand scheme, could also be represented by magnetic forces of attraction and repellence - via his ‘3 Magnets’ diagram (also indented in the corner posts of Furnée’s temple/house/sculpture).


Where will they go?

Closing out of nature. Social opportunity.
Isolation of crowds. Places of amusement.
Distance from work. High money wages.
High rents & prices. Chances of employment.
Excessive hours. Army of unemployed.
Fogs and droughts. Costly drainage.
Foul air. Murky sky. Well-lit streets.
Slums & gin palaces. Palatial edifices.

Lack of society. Beauty of nature.
Hands out of work. Land lying idle.
Trespassers beware. Wood, meadow, forest.
Long hours, low wages. Fresh air. Low rents.
Lack of drainage. Abundance of water.
Lack of amusement. Bright sunshine.
No public spirit. Need for reform.
Crowded dwellings. Deserted villages.

Beauty of nature. Social opportunity.
Fields and parks of easy access.
Low rents, high wages.
Low rates, plenty to do.
Low prices, no sweating.
Field for enterprise, flow of capital.
Pure air and water, good drainage.
Bright homes & gardens, no smoke, no slums.

Freedom. Co-operation.

(source: Wikipedia)

Where were Mallick’s O’Briens? I witnessed their melodramas and psychodramas in the landscape of a 1950s American Dream. Sometimes the dreamy vision of blissful domesticity, maternity and motherhood seemed overdone and verged on parody and pastiche. All this was projected in a suburbia verging on the bucolic and pastoral - while the patriarch marched through the midst of a humongous steel constructed industrial plant.  The inevitable paternal/patriarchal dysfunction, witnessed during a dinner table scene and through the peeping eyes and trespass of young Jack, came via more subtly rendered contexts. How can this dramatic landscape be understood in terms of the Utopian ‘Town-Country’ magnet? Some of the intricacies and intimacies of their lives were, perhaps, the product of grand plans devised (‘conferenced’) in crystalline uber modernist heaven scraping towers - the contemporary likes of which we witnessed Older Jack (Penn) in, going through an existential (mid-life?) crisis. If this conjecture has some sort of vacuous abhorrence, then there are the interstellar forces of nature to comprehend, if not to reconcile with our (or rather my) insignificance within.     

I stepped out of the Broadway Cinema, inebriated by Mallick’s vision and felt tempted to emulate the playful pretend drunken walks of the film’s brothers. I faltered down the steps and along the pavement towards my bicycle. I looked towards ‘paradise’ and saw an ominously cast shadow towering from it, up a nearby wall. I recalled the bare ground within the space of the ‘temple’ and imagined sacrificial rites performed there, intended to appease the gods of town planning and so made haste lest I, a pilgrim to public art, should acquire sacrificial significance. 

* - this link is included as it touches on the subject of the various causes by which people move or are moved away from London to towns in the Home Counties.

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