PRINT Summer 2012


Fiona Banner’s Heart of Darkness

Fiona Banner, A Room for London, 2012, mixed media. Facsimile of the Roi des Belges on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Charles Hosea.

IF YOU CROSS London’s Waterloo Bridge heading south, you will see the familiar complex of large buildings that make up the Southbank Centre—the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery. To the right you will see the more recent gigantic wheel of the London Eye. And currently, perched on the roof of a convenient concert hall, you will see what looks like a new, small, stranded houseboat. It is a sort of houseboat, but it isn’t stranded. It has been designed (by the artist Fiona Banner and the architect David Kohn) to float there for a while. It is modeled on a Belgian river steamer called the Roi des Belges, once captained by Joseph Conrad in the Congo before he mythologized boat, river, Africa, and all in Heart of Darkness (1902). There are some good pictures of the boat on the website for A Room for London, which is the title of the overarching project Artangel commissioned Banner to realize at Southbank.

The replica has comfortable living quarters and can be rented, although it is fully booked through the end of the year, at which time it is set to come down. Various celebrities (Jeanette Winterson, Laurie Anderson) have already spent a night or two there and left a record of their meditations on time and the river. “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” Conrad’s Marlow says of London, and the perched boat is obviously meant to help us pick up the thought, or at least to wonder what sort of place London is and what happened to the supposed light of empire.

On Saturday, March 31, however, the boat became something more than an invitation to political memory. It was the setting for a magnificent reading, devised by Banner and performed by Brian Cox, of Orson Welles’s unfilmed screenplay based on Heart of Darkness. The reading was streamed live into the Purcell Room on the Southbank site, and more broadly onto any computers that were tuned in, and can now be seen and heard via the website I mentioned. The session began in the early evening and showed off-site viewers a room inside the boat, with, apart from the actor, a cameraman, a technician holding a microphone on a rod, an editor seated at a table, and another person on the edge of the frame—all rather shadowy figures. We got regular glimpses of the Thames, occasional ones of St. Paul’s and the City. As the story progressed, the room and the river grew dark. Candles were lit on the tables inside the boat, and the photography (by Hugo Glendinning) became more and more inventive, giving us long, haunting close-ups of Cox’s mouth, eyes, tilted specs. At times, in an effect that can’t have been accidental, Cox began to look like Marlon Brando in the murky last reels of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)—another work, we might say in passing, in which Conrad’s laconic Kurtz waxes positively garrulous.

The connections of the boat and the Thames to Conrad are obvious and multiple, but the relation of the setting to Cox’s reading is more elusive. You could read a screenplay anywhere, and Welles’s Heart of Darkness starts in New York:

Marlow is leaning against the mast of his boat. Behind him can be seen Manhattan Island, its buildings lighting up in the deepening dusk. Lap dissolves of:

The Bridges of both the Hudson and the East River
The parkways
The boulevards
The skyscrapers
Snatches of music in Central Park . . .

Here, Conrad’s Romans become “our fathers” and his “nineteen hundred years” become “four hundred.” “Imagine the feelings of a skipper or a civilized man,” Welles’s Marlow says, “hove to off the Battery here—at the very end of the world. Imagine the trip up this river.” Cox makes Marlow an American, as Welles suggests, but the voice reading the screenplay is English—is that of Cox himself, the man in the room in the boat, the implication is, reading to us here and now from an old document. Welles finished a long draft of the script in November 1939, and by January 1940 his studio, RKO, had decided the whole thing was too expensive and experimental and had shelved it.

Other shifts have taken place, apart from the crossing from novella to notional film. The implied Belgians of Conrad’s texts, emissaries of light from the (unnamed) city that always makes Marlow “think of a whited sepulchre,” are now Germans, equipped in Cox’s performance with an array of accents quite different from Marlow’s American and the actor’s English tones—different, too, from the more discreet German inflection Cox adopts for Kurtz. And not only have the possible Belgians become unmistakable Germans, but they have multiplied and acquired parodic names like Stitzer, Butz, Strunz, Blauer, Moess, and Melchers. There is even a de Tirpitz, whose name seems to be a mysteriously Frenchified version of that famous admiral’s. He has a clubfoot into the bargain. And just in case the studio should have felt Welles was selling them short on stereotypes, the African scenes include an Englishman called Eddie who plays the piano and delivers lines found somewhere between Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward. Oh, and Kurtz’s Intended, in Conrad a pallid figure timidly waiting in the whited sepulchre, is here given a name (Elsa) and has traveled to Africa to seek out her fiancé. Elsa has a wonderful ambiguous line about Kurtz, and unlike her literary model probably understands the ambiguity as well as anyone. “It’s impossible to know him without loving him,” she says, presumably meaning both that to know him is to love him and that you can’t really know him unless you love him as well. In Conrad the same words occur, but in a much more dubious light. “It was impossible to know him and not to admire him,” the Intended says, adding the question, “Was it?” Marlow hedges: “He was a remarkable man.” And then he begins a sentence that the Intended concludes for him. “It was impossible not to—” “Love him. How true! how true!”

There is another moment when Welles has found a way of making Conrad sound epigrammatic rather than atmospheric. Some bodies are found, and one of the Germans asks, “Who are they?” The answer is, “I can’t tell, they haven’t any heads.”

The European war broke out as Welles was working on the screenplay, and his Africa is full of hints for isolationist America. Kurtz has ceased to be Conrad’s philosophical extremist and become instead a model of the dictator we love to hate—or, more precisely, of the dictator Welles fears we don’t hate half enough. “This is the first real dictatorship,” Kurtz proudly says, and later claims to be “the first absolute dictator.” “Do you know what it is,” he creepily says to Marlow, “to command souls?”

This allegory is a little too easy, and already was in 1939. A generalized dictator figure is not going to tell us much about Hitler or Mussolini, and however dark their hearts, they had much more immediate and inspectable political goals than anything these grand allusions can conjure up. It’s true that, even in Conrad, Africa is mainly a location where Europe goes wrong; but Welles might have spared a thought for Kurtz’s actual victims, and the London setting of the reading tends to urge this thought on us.

Nevertheless, Cox and Banner, in the haunted darkness of this invented room, do find the real magic of Welles’s script, as even the finished film might well not have. It’s worth pausing over what we see in this streamed performance. It’s not a film, or at least not a film made from this script. It’s not a play, although it has voices. It’s an aural and visual recording of what was never meant to be read by anyone except executives and a production team. The text becomes a sort of novel about a film script—except that there is only the script. “Dissolve in New York harbor,” the account begins. “Dusk. Long shot of the harbor with New York seen from the East River just after dusk. . . . We hear Marlow’s voice.” Cox recounts all the camera movements and pauses, the cuts and continuities, as well as acts out the talk. In the case of the finished film, Marlow’s audience (a group of men on a boat in Conrad) was to have been replaced by the audience in a cinema. Here, since we are listening to the reading of a screenplay, both the film and that audience have to be imagined—that is, evoked by Cox and mentally played by us.

And in such an oblique mode of cinema, Welles’s words can do what they cannot do as words alone: conjure up, however faintly, the darkness that Marlow can’t see in himself, and that Kurtz, we might think, became a cheap imitation dictator in order to avoid. Such a suggestion returns us to the Brando of Apocalypse Now, but not as he appears in the film, only as he might have been. We need to remember, too, Banner’s remarkable thousand-page book The Nam (1997), a blow-by-blow description (in mere words) of six American Vietnam movies: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). This volume also indicates, through careful saying, what can’t be said.

In a conversation with Coppola before the shooting of Apocalypse Now started, Brando said Kurtz was not a man out of control, as Coppola and the screenplay claimed, but a man who would not be controlled, and who advertised as a policy the madness that everyone else was trying to hide. This is why he had to be killed. Conrad has Marlow decide that Kurtz’s last words—“The horror! The horror!”—were a judgment, the verdict of a civilized man on his own savagery. “It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions.” It’s true that Welles retains part of this paragraph, and his Marlow also speaks of judgment, but in the screenplay the words are more like the cry of a man who has seen what a world without limits looks like, and knows there is no hope of return to old assumptions or even to mere humanity. Not an affirmation, then, just a desperate acknowledgment. At this point Welles’s political analogies pick up some force. The ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini were narrow and practical in comparison with Kurtz’s metaphysical dreams—they were looking for control over others rather than endless license for themselves—but their methods, to use one of Conrad’s favorite words, led to the same far edges of permission.

Michael Wood is the author, most recently, of Yeats and Violence (2010) and Film: A Very Short Introduction (2012; both Oxford University Press).