Monthly Archives: April 2017

Disappearing Act: one woman’s walk into a bleached-out world

From a tragic story told backwards from differing viewpoints emerges a searing indictment of the US mental health system


WHEN THE remains of a woman were found, a journal beside her, in a deserted weather-worn Concord, New Hampshire farmhouse in May 2008, it was assumed that she had taken her life months earlier. An opening letter dated December 14th began with the words ‘To whoever finds my body…’ (It ended a page later with the boxed words, ‘Jesus take me home‘.) Until a police officer began reading the 4-month worth of diary entries to discover a chilling account of Linda Bishop’s isolated descent into starvation and psychosis during the cruellest of recorded New Hampshire winters.

And nobody knew she was there. Discharged from the psychiatric facility of New Hampshire Hospital in October 2007 after a year, without follow-up support, medication or even notification given to any friend or family member, Linda, 52, stumbled quickly into homelessness. Fortuitously, she came across the empty house which sheltered her, a nearby stream (and later snow-melt) to provide water, and as she recorded ‘the strangest looking apple tree‘ laden with fruit. The farmhouse was devoid of electricity: the only heat was from a still connected pilot light. And in the attic where she arranged an armchair to observe the natural world she loved through a window, were boxes of books belonging to the owners. For a short while, Linda almost lived the isolated frugal life she craved, but very soon she became a prisoner of her own distorted mind.

Trapped In An Unforgiving Natural World

The work of debut directors, producer brothers Jedd and Todd Wilder, God Knows Where I Am is a disturbing and incredibly sad film. Its jigsaw puzzle format is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s celebrated Rashomon (1950) and Carole Morley’s documentary, Dreams Of A Life (2011). In the latter, the filmmaker sought to discover the life story of Joyce Vincent whose body had lain undiscovered in her London flat for two years. Whereas there was too much supposition about Vincent in that viewers could only guess at how she felt about living alone and the increasingly limiting trajectory of her life, watching Bishop’s tragic story unfold seems far more intrusive. Lori Singer (Footloose (1984) and tv series, Fame) brings both enthusiasm and wistful quietness to her reading of Linda’s time-diminishing words.

Cinematographer, Gerrardo Puglia weaves atmospheric naturalisitc shots that bring to mind Tarkovsky and painter Andrew Wyeth with a catholic selection of both digital and historic cameras and film to suggest what Linda saw. Images of trees at night are Edenic, the frost and snowbound days chilly white and dreamlike, and Linda’s increasingly hungry thoughts of Thanksgiving Dinner coloured like Fifties magazine adverts. The interviewees ranging from local officials and journalists to family members and friends were filmed inside the house – which has its own tale to tell as a one-time family home to a working farm. Indeed, owner Brian Smith talks of visiting and seeing a person at the window at the time Linda was living there, but being unable to find anyone in the vast building.) This is a documentary that has the shiver of a ghost story about it.

Piece by Piece Unpicking Of The American Dream

To all intents and purposes, Linda Bishop had once been an effervescent character, bright, creative and well-adjusted and a good mother to daughter, Caitlin and a life-enhancing friend. Born into a 1950s white middle class American family, hers was an apparently happy and loving upbringing benefiting from an era of burgeoning consumerism combined with her parents’ love of the wild and determination to teach their daughters to thrive within it. Flashbacks to cinefilm holidays capture Linda and her beloved sister, Joan enjoying Christmas dancing in front of the fireplace.

Caitlin, in her 20s can only talk of her memories of a happy childhood and her hatred for who her mother became. Joan Bishop loves her sister still but is clearly torn by how Linda died alone without help and starving. (In Linda’s apple-only diet we are reminded of the hungry mother in last year’s I,Daniel Blake. We know how Linda’s tale ends, where her writing is taking her and us, her unknown listeners from the very beginning of this thought-provoking documentary. She does too: she writes of God, and wonders when Advent begins, she writes out Psalm 23 and records Epiphany when the Kings arrived at the Bethlehem stable. She can only hope that ultimately she is not alone, even as she has been left entirely alone. Her footprints in the snow disappear with the social contract that was supposed to protect her.

Tree of such promise: ultimately a haunting mirage

At Christmas, Linda writes of finding sorrow in the coloured lights she can see, not in her house, but in those across the way. A police officer tells of his view of a neighbour’s large flatscreen television from a window in the farmhouse had Linda only chosen to look, and then seek help. Ms Bishop’s story is a tragically ever-diminishing one, expertly and hauntingly told.

Bright lights, big city: every window hides a story

London’s flickering neon, streamlining car lights, and walls of glass reflected back from black oil puddles mesmerise and distort a contemporary tale of everyday murder, corruption and fundamentalism


STILL YOUTHFUL BUT weathered private investigator, Tommy Akhtar (movie-carrying class act Riz Ahmed) is reminiscing about the time he brought his West London schoolmate, Shelley home. And how his Ugandan Asian father (a scene-stealing Roshan Seth) was delighted to learn that she was studying ‘A Christmas Carol’: ‘I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.,’ he intones with huge pleasure. He might as well have been talking about his son’s future life. Tommy, back home with his sick Dad, seems both trapped by his teenage years and the then-tangled relationship between himself, Shelley and her boyfriend, Stuart – and now all but washed out by London’s teaming rain, strip lighting and his seemingly constant dependence on booze and fags.

When a call girl, Melody (Cush Jumbo) enters his pokey office (complete with bottle of whisky, and slatted blinds to peer between) to ask him to find her friend and colleague who has mysteriously vanished, he relishes the challenge. It’s not an apparently big endeavour but he regards himself as clever enough to find the missing person. Except that when a different body turns up in the hotel room where he was expecting to find the vanished girl, still alive, Tommy is drawn into a case mired in drug-dealing, corrupt developers, and young Islamist men overkeen to set the city to rights. Plus the reappearance of Shelley – now looking like Billie Piper – rattling the cage of Tommy’s heart.

Slick Dizzying Lightshow Captures London In Flux

Directed by Pete Travis, A City Of Tiny Lights is adapted by Patrick Neate from his 2005 crime thriller of the same name. Travis’ 2012 sci fi actioner, Dredd is set in Mega City One, ‘a vast, violent metropolis where felons rule the streets.’ So, not a million miles away from a 21st Century London where different factions vie for top-dollardom. It is into such a tangled labyrinth of corrupted interests that Tommy is dragged. Except that as a neo-noir thriller, Neate heavily underscores the influence of Phillip Marlowe. It doesn’t always come off, and indeed the cliches of seediness, sharp one-liners, and moral waywardness become wearisome. It is cinematographer Felix Wiedemann who brings a fluid lit zip to an often under-powered tale.

Given the theme of gentrification and urban development (Tommy’s teenage friend, Lovely – James Floyd – is now a property developer), one must credit the filmmakers with finding enough of the city that hadn’t been swallowed up by skyscrapers and ravenous cranes in which to set Tommy’s notably nocturnal life. But, ultimately, there is too much flashback and emphasis on Tommy’s youth, and the contemporary London tale becomes lost and confused, though not enough for viewers to mentally scream at Tommy to be very careful who he tells stuff to. Don’t they teach that in the first week of Private Investigator School?

Not Dark Enough For An Unhappy Ending

It is not that neo-noirs never tie things up with a happy ending but the monochrome needs to be expertly balanced. That mention of Dickens’ most famous novella at the start is unashamedly extended by the end. On the one hand, the 1843 London Christmas ghost story still has resonance today and is always ready for new adaptation. But the out-of-the-blue seasonal gathering of Tommy’s friends and family around the dinner table with his Santa-hatted father at its head feels too forced. (The Queen’s Speech on the telly with a woman clearly not Her Maj jolts.)

Yet it is made clear at this meal that while we all carry the ghosts of our past wrapped in the heavy cloaks of secrets and lies, those we love will help loosen and unshackle our chains. Even Melody turns up and reveals her real name is Laura. It might be Tommy’s business to uncover others’ true stories but the cost of not investigating his own over the years had cost him plenty. The ghosts of the past having now been set free, the future becomes an open book. And Tommy’s interrupted love story with the underused Piper’s Shelley is given the chance to continue when she belatedly appears at the front door to join them all too.

Light and shade: It’s not all bleak for P.I Tommy Akhtar

Styled as a supposed noir, City Of Tiny Lights turns out to be surprisingly and ultimately upbeat. As if screenwriter Neate has too much of a heart for the majority of his characters, and indeed the capital city itself. The shimmer and flicker of London at night add a shivery emphasis to the sheer blackness of the city yet its ‘tiny lights’ are also reassuring in the darkness too.

City Of Tiny Lights is currently on limited release nationwide


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