Detail, work in progress, 2016
Work in progress, oil on linen, 2016
As mentioned, over the last few months, I have been revisiting some of the films that have interested and inspired me over the years. I have written and published a few poems about them, but I also wanted to talk about them in other ways.
My interest in Wolfen is an emotional interest – and I am curious about its impact on me as a work of (albeit flawed) art. This impact resides in that poetic and visceral realm where symbols and meanings float about and resonate through dreams and ideas. I don’t think I am alone in positing it as one of the more singular outings in cinematic horror of the 80s. Culturally, of course, its competitor in horror and wolf-lore was American Werewolf in London (released in the same year) – a far more prosaic and straightforward genre film, although, of course, not without merit or cultural resonance.
In Wolfen, we are asked to take the side of the wolves as free spirits and to absorb the idea that they are residing with us and alongside us, adapted to the slums and no-man’s land of late 70’s/early 80’s New York. The bronx is presented as a kind of picturesque hinterland inhabited by the homeless, gangs of disaffected youth, and rapacious predators (who may or may not be supernatural).
One is tempted to draw parallels with the current commercial television series “Zoo,” an almost comical reprise on the paranoiac fantasy of vengeful animals working together to bring the downfall of their tormentors – humankind. The watered down violence and pedestrian plotting fall into parody at times – witness the mob of (apparently) malevolent domestic cats gathered in the spreading boughs of an oak in well-heeled Brentwood, miaowing amiably. There is something gritty to the zeitgeist of human exploitation and its cost to non-human beings, however.
No doubt we all harbour a secret fear of being brought to account for our cruelties – the return of the repressed.
In his article on Wolfen, Jeff Kinken decries another intimation – the wedging of gentrification into the slums and the neo-liberalist ethos of post-1960s America. Using an interview with Michael Wadleigh (the film’s activist director) Kinken argues that the Wolfen are “scavengers [who act to] clear the South Bronx of the last vestiges of the detritus the property developers are desperate to remove from the territory – those who did not escape in the opening salvos of planned shrinkage – in order to wipe the slate clean so they can redevelop the area, build luxury high rises and office buildings. The wolfen here act as the shock troops of gentrification. ” So, far from representing the ideals of tree-hugging romanticists, the Wolfen are paving the way for development, eating their way through the “detritus” of the city (in addition to a few notable power-brokers) yet acting to stymie the developer’s dream project.
But when I watch Wolfen, I am not left weighing arguments for and against the film as a piece of propaganda. I am left feeling the deep sadness of loss – the loss of land and the loss of home. The loss of the idea of home and alienation from one’s very being, from one’s grounding and ground. It’s something that haunts me as it haunts the film. For what is gentrification but the loss of one set of homes in making the way clear for another set of homes. The loss of feeling at home and sharing ownership, however temporary. Home is “a place where something flourishes, is most typically found, or from which it originates”, it is the place where one can, most of all, be oneself. And that is what haunts me about Wolfen. That the people in it struggle to be at home, to be themselves in the world.
Are we all in the process of being displaced?
Leaning from his limousine,
in pleasant post-cocaine haze
the mayor of the city
ambles after his wife
through the spinning sails
of Battery Park.
In after-five splendour
her nipples visible
through a white halter
she watches as they tear out his throat
and come for her
through the split screen windmill,
leaving the bodies for forensics.
Who would’ve thought that turning the sods on
would be so dangerous.
The wolves are out
loping through the city
at one with the
a smoking waste of
haze and ash,
they take the hand of the chief
and toss it over the curb,
his fingers still twitching the grip of
a loaded pistol.
In the penthouse of the entrepreneur
the lead investigator and his lover
turn their arms through the
white powder flying over
we won’t take your land
with the sweep of his body
and a terrible discontinuity
all our ideals are reduced to dust
in the shag pile.
Vertical venetians split
like tendons in this pulsing,
reeking with hedge-funds
and well-embroidered egoism,
a fugitive sense of mastery
alongside the pitiless facts of
Up on the Brooklyn bridge
the group parade of lost souls
tangles with rust
dancing on the rivets
in the rarefied air of the umpteenth tier
as on a drumbeat of
tautest animal hide
in the forest.
A tribe without a language
or home ground, riding swinging girders,
passing chains through working memory,
the silver fabric of the Hudson
dazzling the steps
of the master of ceremonies.
In the shade of a hand
out across the steel angles
and laced through these cold cables,
the air is as pure as God
and they are mourning everything
that has been lost.
We are all of us on borrowed time.