For our next recommendation, we are honoured to speak to Jessica Curry: a BAFTA award winning composer and co-founder of video game studio The Chinese Room. Curry's elegiac scores for Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone To The Rapture function as sweeping sonic narratives; skilfully binding thematic conceits (the pastoral and ethereal, loss, nostalgia and memory) with an organic and nuanced interactivity which fully exploits the strengths of the medium. Drawing upon Romantic, Choral and Neo-Classical motifs, Rapture's plaintive piano chords and stirring orchestral hums engender a poignant and at times haunting soundscape which concurrently reflects and rejuvenates the desolate Shropshire countryside in which the game takes place.
Curry's striking and dynamic compositions have led to numerous accolades, including BAFTA awards for best music and audio. Later this year she will present a Classic FM radio series on symphonic video game music.
We were delighted to chat with Jessica about her recommendation: Peter Greenaway's seminal film The Belly of an Architect. The 1987 film depicts the physical and mental deterioration of American architect Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy), as he organises a career defining retrospective in Rome. Akin to the methodology of The Chinese Room, Greenaway's portrayal of artistic, moral and marital decay unfurls as much through environmental storytelling- symmetrical mise en scène, static long shots and Wim Merten's stirring soundtrack- as it does through narrative exposition. In the interview below, Jessica discusses Greenaway's employment of symbolism, architectural continuity and player agency in video games.
What were your initial impressions of the film?
This film impacted me (and continues to to this day) on every level- intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically and conceptually. My first impression was a deep emotional reaction to the film- something that may surprise those who know Greenaway’s work and might presuppose that it would have been more of an intellectual response. Stourley’s plight and Brian Dennehy’s extraordinary performance speak to me on a profound level about what it means to be human. It’s unbearably poignant and so tender and is by far Greenaway’s most overtly emotional film. But to me it all really is the sum of its parts and those parts build to perfection. The cinematography, the editing, the city, the scale, the music, the acting, the pacing, the doomed romance of it all- it has everything that my soul desires and is, what we call in my family, “Curry Catnip”!
Are you at all sympathetic towards Stourley’s descent into madness?
It wouldn’t even occur to me that anybody wouldn’t be sympathetic towards Stourley. I don’t think that I would characterise it as a descent into madness- more of a realisation as to the corruption and deception that surrounds him. So more of an awakening perhaps. The towering performance that Dennehy gives in the film is simply incredible and I think that he brought something to the role that even Greenway wasn’t expecting. The juxtaposition of Dennehy’s physical presence with his emotional vulnerability is an extraordinary combination.
Symbolism is prevalent throughout the film, do any particular images stand out for you? I was intrigued by one scholar’s interpretation that Louise cutting the exhibition ribbon represented both the umbilical cord and Atropos cutting the thread of life...
The use of green in the film always sends a chill through my heart. It surrounds Stourley whenever danger or threat is present. Usually accompanied by Glenn Branca’s queasy and unsettling strings, it’s such a clever and symbolic use of colour. There are so many beautiful and clever images in the film- it’s hard to choose. If I had to pick one scene that it would be the one with Flavia where he sees the photographs that she has taken of his time in Rome. As the camera pans across the red thread, Wim Merten’s ‘Struggle for Pleasure’ plays and it’s actually making me cry just writing about it. It is a perfect scene. Dennehy standing against that wall, passive, broken, somehow finished- it’s probably my favourite moment in cinema. The other scene that always fells me is the doctor using the statues to explain his diagnosis of Stourley’s stomach ache. The moment where it shifts from the historical to the personal is masterful.
Kracklite’s obsession with postcards and photocopying made me think of Baudrillard’s simulacra and hyperreality. What did you make of this particular conceit?
Greenaway said that he could write a long thesis about his obsession with photocopying! He writes that it ties into his explorations into all forms of reproduction- both human and artistic. The Belly of an Architect takes place over nine months and the photocopying is a clever way to explore that theme further. I’ve never connected it to Baudrillard’s writing- it feels too visceral for that for me.
Writer Michael Ostwald argues that Greenaway depicts Rome as a “discontinuous and fragmented” postmodern space. Would you agree?
No, I would absolutely refute that actually. To me, Rome is presented as an enduring space that represents continuance and perpetuity. In his script Greenaway writes that the ambition of the opening shots of Rome “is to find a powerful visual metaphor for Rome’s age and endurance, its architecture seemingly independent of the activities and time-scale of man.” In the press book for the film he writes that “Kracklite’s occupation and first concern is architecture -- arguably the most significant, and certainly the most enduring, of all the arts. Rome is the undeniable example of that -- a city of a hundred architectural styles, each age showing its bones through the flesh of the one that follows it. The visual style of the film aims to create a very strong image of townscape- a continual background of architecture to indicate that man is persistently lost in its shadow. Its imagery is not the perishable aspects of urban life but the long standing bones of the city.” So rather than Ostwald’s theory of discontinuity I absolutely believe that it was Greenaway’s intention to suggest continuity. As he puts it “the idea that, despite the pain and anxiety of one individual, civilization continues regardless in a city of some thousand significant buildings that reflect, in genesis, every aspect of western urban life.” Greenaway has never struck me as a postmodernist – quite the opposite in fact.
And with regard to your own work, do you consider the worlds of Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as postmodern spaces? And is there scope for games to focus less on creating ‘lived in’/‘real’ places, and more on setting as a spatialization of tone/narrative?
Absolutely not. I am first a foremost a child of the Romantic movement and I think that Rapture is very much an expression of that. The Romantics emphasized intense emotion as a source of aesthetic experience and that for me is a very Chinese Room concern. I don’t think that Dan or I have a postmodern bone in our bodies! I associate postmodernism with a knowingness and emotional detachment – Dan and I are incredibly deep-feeling and very emotional. I am a sensory creature and crest waves of feeling and that’s what people tell me they love about my music. It’s not an intellectual or sceptical concern – it’s always very earnest. To answer the second part of your question, I think that games should focus more on real spaces! I have no interest in space, trolls, fantasy, the supernatural etc. and one of aspects that appealed to me about Rapture was that it was about real people in ordinary situations- that to me is one of the ground-breaking aspects of the game. That doesn’t mean that you can’t abstract from that though- Dear Esther can be taken as a tone poem and it’s an experience that you can meet on many different levels- intellectual, emotional, artistic.
Greenaway has frequently argued for cinema to become an image based, rather than text based, medium. Whilst The Chinese Room’s output intrinsically ties narrative and emotional resonance with the interactivity of games, do you think the unique language of your medium still requires development?
Dan and I talk about this all the time- how can we keep progressing storytelling in games? Because that’s how we see ourselves, as tellers of good stories. Player interactivity places a huge strain on this as you have to incorporate player choice- that’s what excites Dan and often infuriates me! When I look at The Belly of an Architect, every choice, every view, every frame, every beat of emotional nuance has been chosen by the director. It is entirely controlled. In a game you have to let a lot of that go. I believe that Dan has gone further than any other person in the industry to find new, beautiful, subtle ways to tell stories in games and I know that he is going to keep innovating and pushing the medium forwards.
I’d like to finish by saying a huge thank you to Peter Greenaway- he was and continues to be a huge inspiration to me and he has brought so much beauty into my world.