Thursday, January 29, 2009

Men in Hats

This is not about comics, but it is about pictures.

There are some things that always scary the pants off me: Slow zombies moaning in Italian. Clowns. Photographs of ghosts. Clones. And men in bowler hats.

The other night I made the mistake of flicking through a book of Rene Magritte’s art before going to bed. I then had one of the worst night’s sleep of my life, haunted by dreams of days that were night, pipes that didn’t exist and men in bowler hats staring at me.

It was the hatmen that were the worst. Looming over me in dreams, pushing me back into consciousness with unreasonable force, lurking in the dark for a few seconds before I recognised my jacket on a hook.

Rene Magritte was not a master. The Belgian painter could be crude and obvious, and occasionally showed a dearth of new ideas. But he could tap into a primal fear that still resonates.

It’s the same fear that feeds Victorian ghost stories by the likes of the great M R James. The world was becoming a place of iron and stone, and the immaterial was the great unknown. The unknown invading the normalcy of life was the worst thing imaginable.  

And then this bloody Magritte comes along with his fake pipes and big apples where faces should be. Some of his most famous works showed a variation on a single idea: a man in a bowler hat, staring without emotion, often multiplied and duplicated in the same image over and over again.

These men would be staring in through windows, impassively watching you and still exuding menace. They could be floating in the air, unconcerned by the laws of gravity. They could have their back to you, hinting that something horrible would happen if they just turned around.

I first saw one of these paintings at a young and impressionable age, and I’m still suffering the nightmares, a quarter of a century later. That horrible man stalks me in my sleep and has never yet caught up with me, not yet.

Not long after I saw this art for the first time, the charmingly British Sapphire and Steel started playing on local television. It was interesting and atmospheric and sometimes got a bit silly for its own good, and it also scarred me for life.

It was Assignment Four that did it. It had people trapped in photographs burning to death, a hidden figure in every picture ever taken and a man in a bowler hat that had no face.

The Magritte influence is unmistakable, and has never been denied by the show’s creators. It has taken the obvious next step of portraying a man with a blank expression by creating an entirely nothing face. This faceless creature is almost revolting in its wrongness, the blank skin where expression should live is dead, but it still talks.

(There is a similar horror in the early eighties Twilight Zone film, where the sister of the boy can do anything is seen, staring in terror at cartoons on a television, a blank space where her mouth should be. It’s another thing I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for nine-year-old boys, although it always worked out nicely for me.)  

Without a face, it is impossible to tell what the creature is looking at, so you can only assume he is looking at you. It’s that same uncanny surveillance of the Magritte works, and the same utter lack of emotion.

The man who is both literally and metaphorically faceless is the ultimate extrapolation of the uncaring businessman, the creature that will stand by and let you die if there is profit to be made. Not a real person, but a poisonous, sick attitude that looks good in a pinstripe.

Nearly all of the world’s leading businessmen are incredibly charming and personable. They have to be to get what they want. The image of that the bowler hatted man personalises the side of them that wants something, and will do anything to possess it. Whether it’s power or money or knowledge, it’s that drive to obtain it.

It’s the industrial age carnage machine of the early twentieth century, which burned away centuries of hatred, but built a few new ones. It’s the methodical genocide of countless innocents, their horror and misery forever preserved in brown ledgers of tightly wound numbers.

And when the man in the bowler art multiplies, it all gets so much worse. As one of the crowd, the man is free from any personal responsibility, and able to commit any menace. There is no conscience in the crowd, just blank, calm nothingness. Oblivion.

It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. And I can’t stop looking at it.

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