Gary Parsons is a film-maker and musician from South London. Under his production company ‘Thelema Films,’ Gary releases short films which typically have esoteric and erotic leanings and break the logical barriers essential to mainstream Hollywood film. Gary speaks about his influences, including the work of British Occultist/Ceremonial Magician ‘Aleister Crowley’ who was the founder of Thelemite philosophy, the appeal of creating avant-garde, transcendent, dreamlike film works and how the nature of magick is manifest in his films.
I think Aleister Crowley’s bad reputation drew me to him in the first place. I’m sure his reputation put off as many people to his magickal system as it drew people in. The first thing I read about him was in a magazine called ‘Man, Myth and Magic’ that came out in the 70’s and he seemed such an outlandish figure that I wanted to know more. When I discovered that Jimmy Page was a ‘disciple’, well, that sealed the deal for me. Over time, through reading his books and various biographies, I began to realise what a complicated and intelligent man he was. Yes, he did things which may seem unpalatable but then I’m sure most of us could be accused of doing or saying things like that by others at some points in our life.
‘Thelema’ is the name given to Crowley’s magickal system which has been an influence over both my film and music work for many years. Thelema literally means ‘will’ (as in true will-power as opposed to self will). However differing the content of my films may be, they are all part of my obsessions and the push to show these obsessions on screen is, in a sense, a test of my ‘will’ to get them made. This is not in an ego way of being dictatorial but when you have a singular vision or focus, you just don’t want it to be diluted by compromise (but finances with short films will always dictate certain compromises). Though my film ‘Shiva Moon’ has nothing to do with Crowley’s magick, it is still part of things I’m obsessive about and hence I still feel it fits in with the remit of ‘Thelema Films’ in the same way that Anger’s ‘Magick Lantern Cycle’ films are really only connected because they are made by Anger.
I never wanted to be part of any ‘occult’ group, even when I was younger. In that respect I was a bit of a lone wolf within esoteric circles because I didn’t ‘belong’. I felt that nailing my colours to a particular tree would mean missing out on vital experience elsewhere. As much as I was into Crowley and his work, I also felt drawn at the same time to elements of the ancient British landscape (like stone circles etc) and parts of Hinduism and Buddhism. In the last few years the draw of ancient woodlands and sacred sites (such as Glastonbury, Avebury etc) is probably a bigger influence than Crowley’s work and will be reflected more within some of my future films. This is not to disregard Crowley’s work in some dilettante kind of way, it just means my area of focus is changing for a while and gives me new challenges within film-making thus opening a new world of possibilities.
In film-making, my greatest influences were always auteur directors who were trying to do something visually different like Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jan Svankmajer. I also come from a musical background playing with various bands since the eighties; my current bands are Sleeping Pictures and Durga. I’ve always felt the music and image are not mutually exclusive of each other. Not in a glossy MTV kind of way, but in the sense that music can help images breathe. None of my short films so far have dialogue as I feel having characters spouting ‘cod’ lines would detract from the overall visual impact. I view the films in a similar way as paintings; where the images can be viewed many times over and something new is, hopefully, gleaned from them each time.
I’m not interested in making movies with a three arc narrative (like Lucas or Spielberg etc). A three arc narrative is what most films follow; a definite beginning that leads through to a middle where the lead is in some kind of peril or has something to solve, and the ending which generally has a resolution or conclusion. This model is generally taken from Joseph Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero of a Thousand Faces’ which a lot of modern narrative films follow as they are based upon similar mythological adventure/journey narratives- but I always thought film had the potential to say more. When I first saw the films of the surrealists and people like Maya Deren, I automatically felt a connection with them. I first saw those films in galleries or art house screenings as they were not available on video at the time. I walked away from the screenings with the images burnt into my mind’s eye and a feeling that I had witnessed something magickal.
The audience projects their ideas on surreal films as they have no formal narrative to cling on to. They experience the film in a different way, the same way as in reading a novel with no straightforward narrative; you tend to read more into what’s potentially left out than what’s there. I think a greater investment is made by an audience to surrealist cinema because it is difficult cinema to watch, either because of themes explored or because of the lack of narrative. Though in the end I feel the audience can also experience different personal elements within themselves through these films rather than just going on a different form of the regurgitated ‘hero’s quest’.
Setting out to make a deliberately esoteric film will automatically run you into trouble. Some of those films end up looking like bad horror movies or are just plain boring. Predominantly I wanted to focus on atmosphere, because magick is not really something that’s tangible that you can physically show on screen without it coming across as being somewhat ‘Hammer Horror’. My film ‘Thelema’ was based upon several of Crowley’s writings and upon different people’s interpretations of those writings, such as Kenneth Grant etc. The words conjured up images that I wanted to incorporate within the film. There was also a certain amount of, almost, documentary filming done for it that throws open elements of chaos and stepping into the unknown. As much as I had planned scenes around various magickal concepts by Crowley, I also enjoyed the element of sometimes flying by the seat of your pants within film-making.
My new film is called ‘In the Shadow of the Stars’ and harks back visually to all those great occult films made during the late sixties, such as ‘Legend of the Witches’ and ‘Witchcraft 70’ etc. I wanted it to have a feel akin to Alexandrian witchcraft. I filmed a lot of sequences at various locations such as woodlands and ancient sites and have inter-cut this with indoor based work. I was aiming for something visually similar to the first Black Sabbath album cover and got many ideas from reading Maxine Sanders biography. So the theme of magick in one form or another is still there as is the theme of the erotic which I feel is also very important.
I have always felt that sex and magick and cinema are intertwined and wanted to explore this further within my films. Although I would probably never make another film quite as blatantly erotic as ‘The Fountain of Hyacinths’, I still feel that having a sense of the erotic within my films is important to what I do. Most forms of magick have sexual undertones or are overtly sexual and not showing this element would somehow seem prudish on my behalf. The same way Anger explored his homosexuality within his films I’m tapping into my own sexual preferences in mine but always within the overall feel of the subject matter.
Any film really could be seen as an act of magick, it is all these differing elements that come together to make a whole. When you have the right actors, locations and overall feel, something special happens that can’t always be recreated easily. I now could not go back and remake ‘Thelema’ and it turn out the same, so in that respect it is an act of magick. Also, if you take the idea of going to see a film at a cinema; you sit in a darkened room with maybe a couple of hundred strangers and you share an experience- it’s quite an odd thing. On top of that you all make a similar journey towards the cinema to see that ‘particular’ film knowing that everyone else is there for the same reason, if that’s not magickal or ceremonial I don’t know what is? The act of making a film can be a magickal experience, perhaps more so when films were made on analogue film. You would have to send that spool of film away to a lab where people performed some type of alchemy on it and it was only when it was returned to you that the images that you shot were unveiled to you. All films are an act of somebody’s ‘will’ whether of the director, cameraman etc these people have to cast a spell over their cast and crew in order to get the film made and then hopefully further enchant their audience. Film is alchemy; making gold from base elements.