❉ Ken Shinn reviews Electric Dreamhouse’s latest Midnight Movie Monograph.
Throughout Kit Power’s excellent contribution to the Midnight Movie Monographs range on Ken Russell’s Tommy runs one persistent phrase, like letters through a stick of seaside rock or the harmony of some glorious devotional piece. That phrase is ‘holy shit’.
If the Devil truly is in the details, then we need to consider that. If a phrase is so all-pervading, then there’s usually a reason for its being so. It’s our task as readers, should we choose to accept, to try and discover what that reason is, to our own satisfaction if nobody else’s.
Kit’s account is intertwined inextricably with the stories of two figures in particular: Pete Townshend, who created the original Tommy and found it becoming a spectacular but undeniable cross to bear, and Ken Russell – who listened to him, and heard the music. And immediately knew that he wanted to turn this into a celluloid opus. Both men, Russell especially, looked at the garbage of the gods and made the bold choice to be alchemists: to transmute the sludge of mundane brutality into a soaring, hopeful paean to self-reliance and the quest for individual liberty, with particular regard to the spiritual.
The fact that this alchemy is conjured from the frankly ridiculous tale of a youth stricken with deafness, dumbness and blindness, who becomes World Pinball Champion before being miraculously healed all set to undergo further trials of faith and self, only adds to its irresistible, almost comic book appeal. But forever lurking under that fantastic veneer is all too real, all too common, everyday grimness.
At the core of Power’s interpretation lies the importance in the seemingly small, but crucial, difference between ‘a bit of suffering never did me any harm’ – the fool’s idea that we need to undergo pain of whatever kind as part of our lives – and the notion that ‘we fall to rise’. That the important thing is not so much the suffering itself, but how we choose to react. He deftly ties the widely-held notion that Tommy isn’t so much literally blinded, deafened and dumbed, but rather autistically shut off from the World, with the unpleasant toughness of omerta – the code that states that you’ll just shut up, if you know what’s good for you. If you want to get on. You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it, never heard it, not a word of it. You won’t say nothing to anyone, never tell a soul what you know is the Truth.
Don’t talk about the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth cousin who turns out to be a gleeful sadist. Don’t mention the drunken-but-affable uncle who exposes himself, when everyone’s carefully looking the other way, as a gross sexual pervert. Don’t even breathe a complaint when your own stepfather is convinced by said uncle that maybe you can be cured by an exotic prostitute with a formidable armoury of powerful hallucinogens, and willingly delivers you to her far from tender mercies.
Tommy, in Kit’s eyes, is crucially about codes of silence. About unpleasant truths carefully sanitised and prettified, as in World War II (as a personal side note, there’s a brief moment in the opening WWII sequence which Kit doesn’t record, in which a panicked trio of buxom dancing girls in spangly costumes, feather head dresses, and gas masks jiggle incongruously among the ruins of the Blitz – one of them pausing to stare with her blank, glass gaze straight into the lens – which creeps the hell out of me to this very day), or painstakingly sublimated and hidden for one’s own peace of mind – Kit makes a surprisingly convincing case for there being something of an Oedipal desire from Tommy’s voluptuous silver vixen of a mother towards her gilded, toned youth of a son after his maturing into the young Roger Daltrey. Tommy’s own illness is merely the most obvious symptom of a systematic stifling of awkward truths which runs through Society’s very fabric from the grandest to the most intimate levels.
Tommy’s mantra – see me, feel me, touch me, heal me – is a recurrent motif throughout the whole narrative, and is as obvious a clue as anyone could wish. The story, at its heart, is a surprisingly banal moral tale of the sheer importance of communication – as another band who rose to prominence in the 1960s would later have it, ‘all we have to do is keep talking’ – but just because a message is one that’s often heard doesn’t lessen its worth.
There’s no denying that Townshend’s original rock opera is an astounding piece of work, well deserving its classic status. But what Russell did, as with all of the best artists, is to provide his own not so enigmatic variations on Townshend’s themes, playing off of such important strands as early trauma, brushing the inconvenient truth under the nearest carpet, and the quest for personal spiritual enlightenment to provide his own gaudy, resplendent version of the initial opus.
So, the great wheel turns, and I’m brought back to the question that I asked at the outset. If ‘holy shit’ is the leitmotif, the refrain, of Power’s performance, then what does it signify?
With all that I’ve said in mind, the answer to that becomes easy. Shit is readily dismissed – the useless waste of our existences, the excreted remains of anything worthwhile, anything nourishing. It looks bad, it smells bad, it’s something that we really prefer not to talk about. It’s ugly. It’s disgusting. The garbage of the gods.
And yet…looked at in a different light…it’s manure. A source of new life, new growth. The ugliness may be heaped upon us – the stench, the foulness – but in the end, that isn’t what really matters. What does is how we, the seeds to be nourished by the shit, react to this stuff. It’s not something to be approved, to be sought out – Life will ensure that it pretty much happens to us regardless. But we can, with just a little courage, a little curiosity, a little self-knowledge – use that manure to develop into something different, something beautiful, something wild. Just like Tommy, we can be buried in the stuff up to our necks, but there is always the resultant opportunity that, yes, we fall to rise.
Townshend understood that. And Russell, well versed in wallowing in the muck and soaring among the clouds with his creations, understood it even better. We may all start out in the shit, but from that manure we may grow, develop, into something transcendent. Enlightened. Holy. As from the dung, the rose. Or at very least, the poppy.
Kit Power understands that too. And this book stands as joyous evidence of the fact.
Right behind you, I see the millions,
On you, I see the glory:
From you, I get opinions,
From you, I get the story…
❉ ‘Midnight Movie Monographs – Tommy’ by Kit Power is available now in hardcover from PS Publishing at www.pspublishing.co.uk , price £20.00.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.