Some Odd Magic.

Posted January 3rd, 2013 by Ben

Apparently today is a Thursday. I’m going to get back in touch with the days of the week soon, a fact presaged by our first meeting with our producer after the delicious darkness of the past two weeks. We have a film to make. In a hurry. We are going to be busy.

Our producer shares the office of a larger, though still small, production company located somewhere in London. It’s an address with a shabby charm that makes my heart quite sing to visit it. Today we took a trip to the cellar where a kettle lurks amidst a maze of slate grey filing cabinets. The air was full of the smell of damp concrete, a rich warm smell redolent of my childhood spent listlessly trailing along on the inspection of ageing buildings. My dad even had a small portable device used to detect the level of dampness in walls and floors. It was a box a bit larger than a calculator with a probe on the front that you could stick viciously into things whereupon dials and lights would reveal mysterious yet scientific truths about the subject’s inherent dampness. It even came in its own foam lined lunch box with velcro fastenings. With its mix of seriousness, scientific gadgetry and very mild prong based peril it was one the sparse delights of these otherwise tedious school holiday trips. It was my ghost busting kit, my time machine.

However it’s not just my childhood that comes swimming back to me in the basement of the production office. The whole building, with its rickety stair case, impossible heating and merciless tungsten lighting is a perfect evocation of the Soho that was. Thanks to the firm of accountants who take up its lower floors and illegally smoke indoors it even has the right smell. It is amazing now to remember how recent it was when most buildings smelt like this, especially all pubs. It’s no wonder the place makes me feel nostalgic, my entire non-smoking youth was nevertheless perfumed tobacco yellow.

It reminds me of the world trapped in the pages of “Robinson”, the first novel by Chris Petit director of the inspirational film “Radio On.” “Robinson” is not a great novel. The titular character is too much Harry Lime’s ghost to merit his own book and somewhere before the end the story it all runs out of steam. However, much like the trip that forms the spine of “Radio On”, if the destination is disappointing the journey is at least compelling. It’s a few years since I read it and still I find myself unsure whose nostalgic fantasy of filmmaking I’m living, mine or Petit’s.

This is not intended as a harsh criticism of my own motivations. I am not driven to make films by this sense of the honour of inheriting some scuffed, damp-smelling mantle from the fag stained glory of British cinema past. Nevertheless we all have cultural forces pulling at us, as unseen as gravity but just as important in keeping us from falling off the earth. For some it is Spielberg, for some it is Scorsese. For me, it is something in the smell of damp concrete. Some odd magic.

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