Category Archives: LCJ Author Corner

Dave McKean: MIRRORMASK, Art And Reality

I spoke to Dave McKean in March 2006 when he came to Manchester to the premiere of his film MirrorMask at the Cornerhouse. The film that received awards at the Locarno and Sarasota Film Festivals in 2005 is about Helena, a girl who lives and tours with her family’s circus but wishes – like all teenagers – that she could be able to break free into the ‘real’ world. What happens instead is that she finds herself on the journey into the Dark Lands, in quest for a powerful object, the MirrorMask, to save the Queen of Light. On her way she encounters sphinxes, monkeybirds, strange objects a-la Henry Moore sculptures, and the omnipotent and dangerous Queen of Darkness. As the film progresses, Helena’s task becomes not only to find the MirrorMask, but also to escape the Dark Lands.              

MirrorMask is yet another fruit of a long-lasting collaboration between McKean and Neil Gaiman. The duo has been working together since the 1980s, enriching the world with one of the best-loved and original comic books, Sandman. McKean, a distinguished artist, has produced numerous works, among which are book illustrations, tarot cards and posters, promotional campaigns for brands, like Smirnoff and Sony, and films, like Sleepy Hollow (dir. Tim Burton). Although MirrorMask is his first feature, he made several shorts in the past, and, on top, he owns a jazz record label together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy.        


MirrorMask may be one of the most original films of the recent years and at the very least is a compelling achievement on the part of McKean who wanted to transfer the surreal images, so often found in his drawings, on screen. There are several reasons for his opting for surrealist stylistics in the film’s cinematography. On the one hand, his own artwork has been influenced by this art movement; on the other, surrealist artists were dedicated explorers of the realm of dreams, and Helena’s journey, as we eventually find out, was also a dream.          

The dream-like, phantasmagorical type of story was in part dictated by the Jim Hanson Company, who provided the budget for the film. But you wouldn’t expect anything too realistic from Gaiman&McKean.

“We ended up with a long email conversation and a kitchen table full of books, and CDs, and sketches, and bits of dialogue, and notes…I really wanted to build a city and wander round it, and Neil fancied doing something that was basically ‘The Prince and the Pauper’”.    

In Dave’s words, he didn’t want to settle a film in one place, and, to add subtlety to the theme of dreamy peregrinations, a wandering circus thus became a metaphor for his vision. He does love circuses, both lavish performances of the Cirque du Soleil and little odd family troupes, travelling along the South Coast of England, where the artist lives. Some circuses or acts are the true gems, and finding them may be quite fascinating in itself. But whether big or small, these troupes of artists are always changing place, and their constant drifting in space and time was an inspiration for McKean.            

The same sense of unsettledness is conveyed through the score composed by Iain Ballamy that intertwines Indian and Middle European music with tango, folk, and jazz. Fellini’s cinematic wanderings and Bunuel’s imagery also influenced the film to some extent. Ultimately, McKean’s goal was

‘to try and do some things that did not look literal. Most fantasy stories are sort of very realistic, and it’s great and extraordinary technical achievement, but… I wanted to do something that was non-literal and a bit more abstract’. It wasn’t difficult in some way, as McKean had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve: ‘Basically a lot of my work is collage, and making the film is a kind of collage as well… so in that respect it was easy’.                    

What was not easy was, in particular, dealing with computers. The four Mackintoshes that the crew used for editing were named after the Beatles.

‘I was John’, says Dave, ‘and that was OK… But then we needed a fifth one, and our technical manager called it Yoko. And they all just refused to get on from then on. The Beatles broke up!’  

From start till the end, MirrorMask is about connections and contradictions between ‘reality’ and ‘image’. The prevalence of one over another is frequently debated and never ceases to attract interest. For McKean, known for his darkish ethereal images, which he lavishly brought to screen in MirrorMask, this question must have been particularly intriguing. So, ‘what is more certain: reality or image?’ I ask Dave.      

‘I think most of my work, and this film is as well’, he replies, ‘it’s about that connection between what is the present, what is right now. We’re now talking here, we actually know this… But everything else – what we just did, walking in through the door, and an hour ago, and five hours ago, this now doesn’t exist anymore. It only exists in our memories, and so as far as I’m concerned it’s already up for debate, and it’s already a fantasy. And what will happen in a few hours time is also a fantasy. And we’re surrounded by it, and we have dreams, we have thoughts, and you have interpretation of what is going on right now, and I have a different interpretation. So, we’re sort of surrounded by this ball of fantasy, and it’s basically a fantasy, or dream, or imagination, or interpretation, any of those things. And so, that’s interesting to me, exploring the link between this tiny little nucleus of reality in the centre, and this great ball of imagination around it’.  

Nevertheless, McKean’s work has always been about real life, as we normally understand it. I asked him to describe the imaginary world that he has been creating as an artist.

‘My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world’, he says. ‘I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, people who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in, I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think these are just interesting ways of seeing things’.          

The continuous evolution and change have been McKean’s stimuli throughout his career, and he utters that his favourite project is always the one that comes next:

‘I love learning new things, so trying to make a film is an immense learning curve. And I don’t think you ever stop learning… I love the differences between things. If I haven’t drawn for a while, and I’ve instead made some music, or written something, or done some filming, when I go back to drawing, it always seems to be stronger and informed by all those other things’.              

As expected, taking a rest is not in McKean’s plans, and he has already been planning several other projects, because ‘they just take so long to set up’. In his turn, Neil Gaiman has been working on the script for a Hollywood adaptation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, which will be released in 2007. It only remains to wait to see what this fruitful collaboration brings in future. One thing is certain – it will, as always, be surreal.    

©  Julia Shuvalova 2006

Other posts on Cinema.

An Interview with Dave McKean (10 March, 2006, by Julia Shuvalova, Manchester, UK)

Neighbourhood Cam: Sunday Evening

As I grow older, I cherish Sundays more and more – especially this year when I finally don’t work on Sundays. I’m discovering the beauty of “taking time”: I don’t rush my breakfast, dog-walking, reading, doing something about the house, if I must. The feeling of prolonged time is so palpable on Sunday, yet there is also this special silence and relaxedness that is so characteristic of the fin de weekend. Whereas before I’d be thinking of what else to do for the next day, this time, this October, I’m just looking forward to the dog-walking and evening tea.

Over the years I’ve done so much and gone so far that I can’t help taking time and looking inside rather than collecting the impressions of the outer world. My religious views also suggest the inner work, the improvement of the inner vision and wisdom, and I am glad this is so. The year 2014 was a turning point in my religious outlook, and I’m glad to be among the faithful. I’ve never been an atheist, but the years of agnosticism or misconception of the role of the church are also firmly in the past.

Hence tonight, as I’m looking out of my window, I feel this immense warm gratitude to each and every person on my path that, knowingly or not, made me who I am now. As the city is sinking into the dusk, I’m catching the last glimpses of Sunday – to imbue the coming week with calm and joy.

My English Library Returns to Moscow

My library is finally back home. After I had moved and posted everything that needed to go before anything else, there only remained hardbacks and photocopies to be transported from Manchester to Moscow. That was the end of December, 2013.

In 2014, my grandma died, then the anti-Crimean sanctions struck, a little later, in the aftermath of the flood, we were faced with a complete makeover of the flat… The prospect of bringing the books and papers to Moscow was delaying with every passing month and year.

Then I made a resolution to have them all back to Moscow by the end of 2019. And when that didn’t work, I didn’t back down but instead adjusted the deadline. I suppose I was as determined as Cato the Elder when he professed the imminent destruction of Carthage. None of us knew exactly when this would happen but both of us were determined to live to the day. Well, I certainly was.

So, the books are finally here, and I have also been able to appreciate the long-term friendly ties that remain despite the boundaries and time. One friend helped to pack the boxes, another arranged the posting. Here in Moscow I had some books delivered by the courier; a few I picked up from my local post office; and one I had to collect from a remote post office in a taxi.

This weekend was spent putting the books on the shelves. The papers are still to be accommodated in their new abode. One thing I have already done was to look through my treasured Unseen Vogue and People in Vogue editions. In one of the pictures you can see Wallis Simpson and the former king Edward VIII, photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Neighbourhood Cam: Mid-September Sunset

It may seem I live from sunset to sunset – so many of them have I captured in the last few years since I was back to Moscow. Each of them is truly spectacular. Occasionally, I think that I could move to the countryside, but one thing that would influence my decision is the opportunity to watch sunsets.

I worked with a guy whose parents lived in a house halfway between Cambridge and Chichester. From the front it was just another country house, but the back door led from the kitchen into the yard that overlooked the beautiful expanse of either rapeseed or rye framed on the horizon by the woods’ greenery and the azure sky. We visited his parents in the evening, it was summer, the sun was setting slowly, and the sky was lazily donning the darker blues, adding a tint of feminine pinks to its subdued countryside glamour.

So, if that could be the view from my backyard that I would get upon moving to the country, I probably wouldn’t give it a second thought. Meanwhile, I continue enjoying the captivating sunsets from my block of flats.

QR-codes in Moscow Are Introduced

We’re in the new week of quarantine, and QR-codes in Moscow are now necessary to obtain if you need to go to work. Officially, this is due to the Muscovites’ below-average observation of quarantine. Indeed, a lot of people, especially youngsters, still go out, so now they will have to order QR-codes in Moscow that will then track their movement and whereabouts.

As for me, I’m in yet another week of distant teaching. There are many advantages, and perhaps my dogs appreciate the sudden absence of people more than I do. The biggest disadvantage is the need to operate multiple devices. In the past, if we used a textbook, then I didn’t need either phone or the Internet. Today, I often use both a textbook and the Internet, and I conduct a session via a phone.

Other posts in #safeathomeinrussia

How We’re Going Through the Pandemics

I’ve been working from home this week. It’s slightly challenging for going through, delightfully novel and surprisingly wholesome. I start work in the morning and finish any time between 4.30pm and 8pm. And I still have time for other things.

I’m a bit concerned about the attitude of some new “divines” to coronavirus. They preach this is a great, albeit scary, way to “clear the planet”. Look, they say, dolphins are coming back to Venice, isn’t this amazing?! Sure, some people die, and still more will if they are too resistant to change. Be flexible, be liquid, learn to work online, and chances are, you’ll get through alright.

The reason these preachings perplex me slightly is because there is strong evidence of a new kind of biological weapon being tested. And as much as I’m glad for both Venice and dolphins, I feel anxious as to what the future holds.

However, I agree with the sages: we need to be flexible. In the time of great changes it’s futile to try and maintain status quo, ancien régime, the way we were, you name it. I’ve just had a thought that this pandemic may hammer the nail in the EU’s coffin, perhaps penultimate yet. One of my students is going through his personal upheaval, and he’s managing it poorly, so I reason with him thus: everything that is yours will remain yours. Sadly, at time like this it is only us that remain ours; the rest may go.

I’ve been through these crises a few times already, and I’m grateful for the skills that will undoubtedly see me through. I’m grateful for my faith, my work, my talent. These are the things that will always remain mine.

I’ve just been through the posts I wrote in 2008 and 2009, and it’s wonderful to see how the above mentioned skills helped me then. Feel free to read my blog and find all the inspiration and support you need. And I’ll keep you updated on what’s happening in Russia (particularly Moscow) and how things are going for me this time.

Take care and #staysafeathomeinrussia

How to Pass an Exam in Flying Colours

I’ve recently written an article for one portal detailing the tips for sitting in any exam. These tips are based entirely on my personal experience of going through an examination, but especially Foreign Language exams. Whether it is a GSCE, an A-Level exam, TOEFL/IELTS or any other international language exam, I am sure my advice will help you pass an exam in flying colours.

An exam is an important and therefore stressful experience but you can cope with it

Whatever exam we have to pass, and no matter how old we are, this is always a stressful experience, especially if the stakes are high. On the day of your exam you are stressed, either bouncing or frustrated, so you need something solid to stand on. Not only did these tips help me in the past, they have been helping my students for the last seven years to achieve excellent results in any exam they had to sit in. You may be surprised but it is not that hard to pass an exam in flying colours!

General Advice

1.A journey to the top mark begins with the first correct answer

If you want to do something well, do well in every aspect of it. Exams, like everything else in life, has got room for improvisation, but the core remains the same: you have to answer each and every question calmly and methodically.

2.If you can’t do it, leave it

“I’m in a block”, “don’t remember anything” etc. is normal. You are overly conscious of how high the stakes are. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths – and move on to another task. Don’t waste time on that which causes panick and insecurity.

3.Take breaks

Listen to yourself. Once you’ve noticed fatigue, put your pen away. Instead of looking at the exam paper, look at the window. Whatever is the season, there will be something nice to see. Especially so if you pass your exam in spring or summer. Breaks + positive thinking = success.

4.Think about yourself

This sounds selfish, but an exam is one’s own business. Every man for himself. If your friend believes it is good to be at her wits’ end before the exam, good for her. You don’t need to help her and wind yourself up. Think about yourself.

5.An exam is you

It is usually thought that an exam checks the knowledge in a discipline. However, it is also a check on our personal qualities. Composure, accuracy, time management are just as important as knowing the difference between Passe Compose and Passe Simple.

6.Be calm!

Dont’ worry about what you cannot change. Strange noises, an unpleasant interlocutor, the wrong kind of weather outside – are all of these really more important that your exam result? These things are beyond your influence. Therefore look into your exam paper and do the tasks.

7.Focus is king

Imagine that you are a racehorse. You’re got blinders on your eyes, and the finishing line somewhere ahead. You can take your blinders off when you did all tasks, checked them, transferred onto the exam paper, submitted it and closed the door behind you. Only then can you breathe out. But while you are in the room, the focus is on the exam.

8.Trust your intuition

There are forces that move in mysterious ways, and whatever you personally think of it, these forces exist and are ready to help. Colloquially we call them the sixth sense, or intuition. So if in the exam you stumble into a question you don’t know, ask these forces to help you. It’s quite likely that you will get a correct answer.

9.Choose your order

The main thing is a good result. Foreign Language exams usually start with Listening Paper, but you are free to choose the order of the papers that follow. Same goes for any other exam. Therefore, if, upon looking through the paper, you notice some very easy tasks, do them first. Accumulate the positives.

10.Think positive

Positive thinking finds opportunities, negative thinking sees problems. For some reason not all recognise this. This year, as you pass your exams, make a point of consciously noticing every positive aspect or moment. You’ll see for youself: an exam will go smoothly, and your mark will be higher than the one you expected.

Some useful advice

1.Aim higher

If you want, say, 100 points, prepare like you need to get 120. If you are ready exactly for 100 points, the chance is, your mark will be lower.

2.Prepare in advance.

There are situations in life when last-minute preparation isn’t going to work wonders. An exam is one of these situations.

3.Know thy subject.

The best way to pass an exam in flying colours is to know the subject, rather than do various tests. If you have to write an essay in History, for example, it’s easier to memorise the History course than to cram 20 essay samples.

And finally…

Listen to yourself

If someone tells your passing an exam in this or that subject is unrealistic, remember: this person talks about his or her ability in this subject. Believe in yourself, love your subject, and you will pass an exam in flying colours and get the best marks possible!

Putting the Past Behind You

I have mentioned Jacques Derrida’s essay “On Forgiveness” on this blog, but it recently came back into my life for a different reason: my career.

The point Derrida makes in his essay is that to forgive means to forget; to forget means to make a conscious effort not to dwell on the past. This act of forgetting does not equal amnesia; instead, it is the act of putting one’s entire faith into believing that something bad will not happen again. In family life, for instance, forgiving an adultery means to forget that adultery exists; to treat your partner as if they never cheated on you, and to treat yourself like you are not worthy of being cheated on. In politics, this would be about treating the war as if it does not exist, so that you can never use it as the means to solve problems.

The problem that was holding me back, as I recently discovered, has to do with rejection and the lack of appreciation. People around me at the moment give me a lot of support and encouragement, something I have not had for some time. They believe in me, they see me as a winner, and I know I am going to amaze myself with my achievements this year. But something wasn’t quite right. It finally downed on me yesterday exactly what it was.

It was the past experience.

So many times have I put past experiences behind me. God knows, I could already be very cynical, but I have always made a conscious effort not to let this happen. Yet in the field of my career, in the matters involving career progress and money, the negative experiences outweigh the positives. I have always worked hard but this was often taken for granted. As much as I can say that I should have been more demanding of recognition, I cannot deny that I expected to be recognised for my sheer output, for the amount and quality of my work. It is the direct opposite of my work and achievements in creative and intellectual fields where I have always been “a high roller”.

As they say, the moment you identify the problem is the moment you can expect to find a solution. And this is where Derrida enters the picture. I cannot change the past, but it is entirely in my capacity not to let it further ruin my life prospects. I hear a lot of talk about “taking control”, and this is exactly what I am doing. I cannot change the past, but I can take it to a remote barn, stack it there, close the door, and never go there again.

I share this because at different points in our life a lot of us find ourselves in precisely the same situation. Something just does not let us move on. Something keeps playing the trick. Do not be afraid of confronting it. Strangely, the same relates to the positive experiences. Do not dwell on the past glory, do not try to repeat it. Instead, take every single opportunity as if it is happening to you for the first time ever, and make the best of it.

A Soviet Western Cinema Song

In 1987 Alla Sourikova, one of the “big” female names in Soviet/Russian cinema, made a comic interpretation of the story of the Wild West and the introduction of celluloid film to the United States. A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines hit the box-office with over 60 million viewers.

I am following up on my earlier promise to share my work by offering this poetic translation of one of the film’s songs. Like I said, I wanted to adapt it to the music, so that anyone who wanted could sing it to the tune.

People, gentlemen, and ladies!
Well, of course, we understand this:
Our world is no perfection,
And at times it’s quite bad.
There is very little hope
Any good should ever come of it.
So I’m happy to announce:
Even though I’m no God, but…

Chorus: And so, and finally, now
In this and in just any weather
First here, and then anyhow
We’ll change all the world for the better.
We’ll know no grief or anger,
We’ll live for common good,
Like we have dreamt forever,
But hardly ever could.
Cinema, cinema, cinema,
We’re mad about cinema!

I see fearful believers,
Even though now you’re quite glad,
For, alas! it wasn’t rare
You’ve been taken for the fools.
Oh, you don’t need any dreamers –
Yes, of course, we heard about that.
As for me, I’m not a dreamer,
And I well know what to do.


Our time is so different,
Sticks and carrots don’t mean a thing.
No idealists or tricksters
Ever lure us in their maze.
People, gentlemen, and ladies,
In the age of science and mechanism
There is no room for errors,
Only progress fills the space!


Work in Progress

I wanted to share something about what I am presently doing in terms of literary work.Whereas previously I had often lived in the space created by one language, my space is now always bilingual, whereby I have recently found it very easy to translate poetry into English. I have translated two songs from Soviet movies, one is fully translated, another (The Island of Bad Luck) is a work in progress. With both, I am trying to not merely translate the text, but to also preserve the rhythmic structure. I am inspired by the work by Marshak, whose rendering of Burns’s poem used in Hello, I Am Your Aunt! is so true to the original rhythm that the original poem can be sung to the film’s music.

Most importantly, I have started working on translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Beholder (Der Schauende). It was already genuinely translated into Russian in 1961 by Boris Pasternak, and, rather than trying to contest his translation, I draw inspiration from it to produce an English rendering of Der Schauende. If I give you a few lines, you will understand why it is now that I am working on this poem.

Wie ist das klein, womit wir ringen,
was mit uns ringt, wie ist das groß;
ließen wir, ähnlicher den Dingen,
so vom großen Sturm bezwingen, –
wir würden weit und namenlos. 

Was wir besiegen, ist das Kleine,
und der Erfolg selbst macht uns klein.
Das Ewige und Ungemeine
will nicht von uns gebogen sein. 

From an existing non-rhythmic English translation by Robert Bly (found at Wellspring by Larry Clark):

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.

I’m also interested in translating this poem because the motive expressed there corresponds well with my current work on revising and reviving my German. I can only subdue to the Time and Effort, meaning that, just as it took me a few years to perfect either English or French, it will also take something to get me to once again have a decent command of German. In the words of Rilke,

Die Siege laden ihn nicht ein.
Sein Wachstum ist: der Tiefbesiegte
von immer Größerem zu sein. 

(Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.)

Last but not least, occasionally before when I announced my plans to do something, I somehow ended up either not doing it at all, or doing it with a considerable delay. I detest the situation, but the only way to change it is to declare plans and stick to them. I guess I shall be taking myself upon my own word here.