Jake Chapman discusses his new drama The Marriage of Reason and Squalor with Aesthetica, now showing on Sky Arts. Originally conceived as a feature film, this adaptation by Chapman (of Chapman Brothers fame) of his own novel resembles a provocative, eccentric Mills and Boon parody which often wanders into the realms of fantasy.
A: The first two parts screened recently at BAFTA, had you expected any particular response?
JC: I think that the project is mad enough to not have you form too many assumptions as to how people will respond to it.
A: For me, it was simultaneously both gentler and more shocking than expected.
JC: It gets worse, and I think that’s the thing, the gradient is much more shallow at the beginning: at first it seems as if there is some tangible narrative that you’re meant to follow but by the end it’s complete chaos. At the start it at least pretends to follow a narrative.
A: Did the fact that it’s on Sky Arts mean that you had to compromise anything?
JC: Sky arts were absolutely amazing, they supported the project from the outset and were very clearly open minded as to what the project was. We worked very closely on the script and how it was going to look but there was no resistance on their part at all, and no modification for the sake of their tastes.
A: How far does the piece on screen diverge from the book?
JC: The book is very different, I mean it even ends differently – but it’s inevitable as a book has a complexity that film can never approach, even if just in terms of the fact that the hours it takes to read a book are not the same as the hours it takes to watch a film. The two are very different but there is a kind of genetic similarity, there’s a narrative in there which is similar to the book. I guess at a certain point you have to simplify the book to produce some sort of coherent narrative – although the narrative is very incoherent. I think the screenwriter Brock Norman Brock had a very tough task of trying to create some sort of dot-to-dot route through the thing, and he did a great job.
A: So, what we were trying to work out is whether there is a single reality, whether you know what this is, and whether it’s important that the audience try to find this?
JC: Whether the dots do join? Well, I can’t tell you that. It depends what you’re looking at when you look at the film, and I guess this translates very directly when you’re making art: whether when you look at any piece of art you look into the picture as a frame which has an optical or conceptual depth to it so that you read it – you allow it to have a narrative and you read it – or whether you see it as if it’s flat. The film operates on a series of planes, there’s an idea that there is a flatness to it in as much as a lot of shots are flat, so the degree to which you look at the characters is undermined by the fact that they are represented in a flat way. The narrative is not just to do with the effect of the dialogue and the effect of the actions of the characters within the film, it’s also to do with the surface of the film – which jumps and distorts – so any time you feel as if you’re somehow falling into the narrative of the film in a conventional sense, there’s something that reminds you that you are looking at something and reading it. So, the narrative operates in folds and levels.
A: Talk to us about the score; combining comforting music with shocking imagery. Was this always the intention for the film’s sound?
JC: Yeah, I think that in some ways it reverberates with the kitsch sensibility of Mills and Boon – it’s kind of like choking to death on sweets, pleasant and horrible at the same time.
A: The second episode jumps forward quite a bit in terms of violence; is each episode so increasingly horrific?
JC: The idea of this four part episode is that it is elliptical – lots of things happen again and they return and they regurgitate, but have a different perspective each time. The idea is that it’s not user friendly actually. The film isn’t reaching out to some objective viewer and offering them some kind of passive window from which they can observe without having to examine their position.
A good example in terms of how one’s art should work is Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom (Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade) which is kind of like an encyclopaedic description of murder, atrocity and torture. But, it’s so long and so monotonous in description that in reading it, the one thing it does is make you bored. It gives you fatigue. So when you think of the content being torture but the visceral effect being boredom, it shows that there’s a discrepancy between the two.
The genius of the book is not so much that you indulge the technicalities of torture but that he has through this encyclopaedic density made the content dull. You’re immune to the content. I think that’s a very interesting thing.
A: So the piece is as much about our own perception and sensitivity as that of the characters on screen?
JC: Yes, the thing you realise after the second episode is that you’re part of the narrative.
Your part in the narrative is not just to read a set of pictorial acts occurring within the frame of the film but it’s also to recognise your own memory of what you’ve watched or what you’ve seen replicated in a different way from the narrative – you begin to recognise that the things that you remember and thought were memories are part of the dot-to-dot too….
A: It’s all in how you decide to join the dots. Genius.
Written for Aesthetica magazine earlier this year.