• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The torturous path to immortality

ALLAN LAING examines the medical notes of a handful of famous people who suffered more than most for their art GLASGOW film-maker Nicola Black has turned pathologist for her latest project. But don't expect tag-toed bodies on mortuary slabs.

Loading article content

In Post Mortem, a five-part series which starts on C4 tonight, there is neither a Quincy nor a McCallum in sight. Instead what you get is a drama-documentary which attempts to examine the mortal remains of a handful of famous people who, in different ways, suffered for their art (didn't they all?). The question is: did their profound physical ailments have a bearing on their genius? The idea for the series emerged from a series of discussions which Black had with Channel 4 at the 1996 Edinburgh Television Festival. The film-maker had just read a book called Music and Medicine which examined the relationships between famous composers and their doctors. So she worked on the idea, expanding it to look at the lives and works of artists through their medical history and pathology. A list of names was drawn up; more than 20 potentially suitable cases for treatment. The tortured artists ranged from Lord Byron to Andy Warhol, from Carson McCullers to Orson Welles. In the end, Channel 4 picked five . . . Montgomery Clift, Virginia Woolf, Francis Bacon, Vaslav Nijinsky, and - the one which opens the series tonight - Beethoven. Old Ludwig was a classic case of the triumph of the spirit. Deaf as a doorpost, his name has become almost a byword for artistic agony. The programme looks at how he managed to compose the major- ity of his work after the loss of his sense of hearing. As a result of his affliction he became isolated from society; paranoid that his deafness would be discovered and his status as a com-poser discredited. Nicola Black explained: ''In effect, the series makes art television of the autopsy. The programmes explore the con- nection between art and affliction and the torturous path towards creativity. ''Beethoven, for instance, struggled against desperate ill health throughout most of his life, suffering not only hearing loss but also from colitis, pancreatitus, and liver disease. But despite extended periods of depression and despair he managed to produce music which survives as a testament to the human spirit's will to triumph.'' Much of the film, which combines dramatic reconstructions and talking heads contributions, was filmed in various locations in and around Vienna. Likewise, the Montgomery Clift episode took Ms Black and her crew to America. Clift was the most complex of characters. The product of a domineering and possessive mother, he hid his homosexuality from his fans. But there was a price to pay. he suffered recurrent bouts of amoebic dysentery and, though outwardly healthy and handsome, he was plagued by several major physical and emotional ailments. But it was a devastating car accident which finally left his body badly damaged and his beautiful face disfigured. he was eventually able to complete the film he had been working on at the time of the crash - but he had to be shot in profile or in shadow. The constant pain he subsequently suffered led to an addiction to pain-killers, which resulted ultimately in his early death. Deep, disturbing, and remarkably un-cheery stuff. But that is what Nicola Black is very good at. Brought up in Clarkston, she graduated from Glasgow University and trained as a film technician. She went on to work with BBC Scotland before establishing her own independent film company, Blackwatch Productions. Now she is one of an increasing number of Scottish film-makers who have broken down the international barriers of their profession. Among her most successful projects (most of them for C4) to date have been White Jazz, a stylish noir documentary about American crime writer James Ellroy, and Tribal Cops, about the Native American cops who police the New Mexican homelands of the Laguna and Acaomba tribes.

n Beethoven: Wounded Genius, the first in the Post Mortem series, is broadcast on C4 tonight at 9.00pm.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

PARCH1.376705