"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu" no. 5/2020


The Strength of the Nape of the Neck
— Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout

Antoni Michnik


My shout is not a matter of tone or vibration, but something not to be explained.
It is a shout of pure evil, and there is no place fixed for it on the scale. It may take any note.
It is pure terror, and if it were not for a certain intention of mine, which I need not tell you,
I would refuse to shout for you.

Robert Graves, The Shout[1]

This has to be a guy with a thick neck — this was supposedly Jack Nicholson’s advice to Jerzy Skolimowski when looking for a lead for his British film, The Shout (1978)[2]. It is intuitively understandable what Nicholson meant by this — Skolimowski’s protagonist threatens murder with his voice alone, so it’s necessary for the actor playing this part to have a physique which can visually depict the destructive power of sound through images of muscular tension. Formally, The Shout is a horror film; however, this classification has been questioned throughout the years. It is safe to say that only some elements of the multi-layered game being played here by Skolimowski indeed fit into the genre’s conventions. On the other hand, some see The Shout primarily as a surrealist social problem film[3], or an artistic treatise on the power of sound, image, and storytelling. The director himself has often emphasized that he considers it to be one of his greatest achievements. The film adaptation of Robert Graves’s short story was in fact very well received by critics, being awarded the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.

Skolimowski’s The Shout spans Graves’ text, the visuals, which are in dialogue with Francis Bacon's paintings, a complex soundtrack, referencing both the electronic music studios of its time and the radical sound performances of the 70s, as well as the popular psychotherapy methods of the decade.

Trailer "The Shout" by Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978, source: Youtube

The text

To understand more clearly what changes were made by Skolimowski and the co-author of the script, Michael Austin, let us begin with Graves’s short story itself. Written in 1924 and published in 1929, The Shout is a story told by an unnamed narrator that he had previously heard in a countryside psychiatric facility in Great Britain, where patients, staff, and local residents pass their time playing cricket. The narrator finds himself counting points in a cricket match during a storm with one of the patients, Charles Crossley, who recounts his relationship with a married couple, Rachel and Richard Fielding, and how he appeared in their life. Richard, a provincial musician, becomes fascinated by Crossley’s stories of how Aboriginal Australians taught him how to use a deadly shout capable of killing. Meanwhile, Crossley seduces Rachel with the use of sympathetic magic and gradually takes over the role of the husband in their house. At some dunes on the seaside, Crossley demonstrates to Richard the capacity of his voice — although, he says, not its full power. However, this is however enough to cause Fielding to fall ill. A nearby shoemaker also feels terrible as a result of this demonstration, and, as an effect, Richard becomes convinced that Crossley's voice had shaken the souls of both him and the shoemaker, even switching their personalities for a little while. Under the evident influence of the conversation he had had earlier with Crossley, Richard becomes certain that all four of their souls are contained in stones lying on the seaside. Fearing for his own sanity, he decides to destroy the stone he believes his soul to be inhabiting. Returning home after having smashed it, Richard is told that Crossley has been arrested for crimes he had committed back in Australia. Then, Rachel confirms that he has been taken by the police to the psychiatric facility and also denies ever having been seduced by him. This is the end of the story told by Crossley to the narrator during the interruption of the cricket match by the storm. Crossley starts to scream, claiming that it was his soul that had been destroyed, and soon he and a doctor are both struck by lightning and die. At the end of the story, the narrator admits to being one of the Fieldings’ friends, while the married couple claim to know Crossley only by sight.

Graves constructs an embedded narrative in which the majority of the story is recounted by an unreliable narrator. The main narrative frame questions Crossley’s account — his doctor states openly the patient is delusional and the Fieldings don't seem to be acquainted with him (even though Crossley claims they visit him at the facility). The storyteller also admits he keeps making changes to the story while supposedly keeping its structure intact. This is precisely what Crossley regards as the ‘truth’ of a story — the constant newness of its narrative. Robert Graves, a prominent expert on myths and ancient literature, suggests here that his short story is more deeply rooted in the structures of archetypal stories. Moreover, when Crossley finishes his story, the narrator congratulates him by saying: ‘a Milesian tale of the best. Lucius Apuleius, I congratulate you.’[4] — referencing the tale about the jealous husband collected in the Metamorphoses. A wealthy husband requests that his slave — the main protagonist of the story — spy on his wife, who is attracted to another slave. The protagonist is then bribed by the couple to enable their tryst, ending with the lover inadvertently leaving his sandals behind. In the climax of the story, the protagonist is accused of stealing the other slave’s shoes, which is a much less serious offence than adultery. The Shout’s author suggests thus that Crossley splits his personality into several characters in the story — including ‘Richard’ — or, alternatively, projects the story onto a couple he actually barely knows. Additionally, Crossley changes the focal point of the story, which is also quite significant. The narrator, and thus the reader, gains insight into the mind of ‘Richard’ but not of ‘Charles’. Besides as the story ends, Crossley explicitly states: ‘Oh, don’t you understand? I’m Richard now, and Crossley will kill me’[5].

Austin and Skolimowski made numerous changes to Graves’s story. First of all, the narrative frame is set differently, with the originally unnamed narrator here being called Robert (Tim Curry): a clear reference to Graves himself, even though the fashion and technologies depicted in the diegesis suggest that the story takes place around the time the film was produced, rather than in the 1920s. In the film, Robert doesn’t know the Fieldings; Rachel, however, obviously knows Crossley, whose corpse she looks at in the first and last scenes of the movie. Moreover, in accordance with Crossley’s structural narrative technique, the script writers decided to switch a significant name — Rachel’s husband is now called Anthony — and add a wholly new subplot about a romantic relationship between Anthony and the shoemaker’s daughter. This is evidently intended to create a new symmetry between the protagonists and also to give more depth to the relationship between Anthony and the shoemaker.


Austin and Skolimowski add further subtlety to the story by, for example, erasing the lines quoted above from the dialogue. Nevertheless, they do maintain the Gravesian, or even proto-Lynchian (as in Mulholland Drive [2001]), play with identity swaps. Indeed, Fielding remains the protagonist of Crossley’s story. Skolimowski, too, suggests the shared identity of Crossley and ‘Anthony’, but uses purely filmic techniques to express it — specifically, the visual and sound layers. By doing so, he points out the unity of identities additionally expressed by the closure of Rachel’s glimpse of the corpse. The fluidity of identities in Graves’s short story corresponds to the weakening of the oppositions represented in the story — those between civilisation and barbarism, rationality and magic, fertility and infertility. This also holds for other, more obscure, dualisms that are, nonetheless, crucial to the understanding of the work — those of health and sickness, capital and colonies, game and storm. Their meanings will become clear once we grasp what The Shout is truly about.

The short story written in the 1920s obviously tackles the issue of “shell shock” in British society during the interwar period. This term was coined in order to describe the nervous breakdowns had by soldiers who fought on the fronts of WW1 and quickly became an overall diagnosis of the societies and cultures of the countries involved in the war as a whole. Confrontation with the consequences of the war and its profound traumas turned out to be an extremely important topic throughout British culture. Discussions and disputes about how society should put the war behind it, how the war should be commemorated, and also about the place in society of veterans, especially convalescents, went on deep into the 1920s. When Graves’s short story was published in 1929, the Great Depression was in full swing, greatly affecting the fate of the veterans, who were already underprivileged on the work market; on the other hand, there was a significant increase in interest in the so-called memory boom, with the publication of countless war accounts, diaries, and novels all over Europe.

Graves served on the Western Front — an experience that he depicted in several poems and a memoir published in 1929 titled Good-Bye to All That. After being wounded, he was believed to have been killed, but was then rushed to the hospital when it was discovered that he was indeed alive. Graves also played a big part in the rescuing of his friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, by helping having him referred to the Craiglockhart hospital. There, Sassoon — who was in danger of being court-martialed for the publication of the anti-war manifesto Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration (1917)[6] — was treated for shell shock using psychoanalytic therapy by W.H. Rivers, an important figure in British psychiatry and close friend of Sassoon, until the doctor’s unexpected death in 1922. Graves, however, was never regularly treated, even though he displayed unambiguous symptoms of shell shock (which would today be described as PTSD): anxiety attacks, nightmares, extreme sensitivity to sounds, and mistaking people around him for dead companions[7]. His memoirs, diaries, and correspondence suggest an image of a hidden life-long illness.

This invisible illness precisely constitutes the key element to understanding The Shout. Graves demonstrates the spurious opposition of health and sickness in a society broken by the war by using horror tropes (the supernatural power of the shout and magical, evil abilities) to transfer the broad cultural anxieties associated with people coming back from the war and the fear of what is left of them. ‘Charles’ and ‘Richard’ from Crossley’s story are two distinct personalities with a liminal, traumatic experience far from home standing between them. Faced with a confrontation between these two personalities, Crossley becomes uncertain as to who he is after the traumatic events. This also exposes Crossley’s fear of being left out of postwar society — being excluded from the family like ‘Richard’ or from society altogether like Charles. Moreover, Graves indicates the need to weave a story out of the experience — the need for talking and/or writing as a form of therapy; not a panacea, but a necessary stage of processing the traumatic experience.

Jerzy Skolimowski na planie filmu

Jerzy Skolimowski on the set of Hands Up! (1966/1981), photo by Jerzy Troszczyński, source: Fototeka FINA

In his film adaptation, Skolimowski translates the fears embedded in Graves’s short story to the British society of the 1970s, with its tensions, ruptures, and conflicts. Interpretations of the film have often proposed a reading in which Crossley and Fielding are representatives of the different models of masculinity that were squaring off in British society at the time. The oppositions within Graves’s short story depict the axiological conflict between the figure representing ‘traditional British values’ and the one representing the countercultures of the 60s and 70s. In terms of this reading, psychoanalytic interpretations that recognise in Crossley’s story an image of the generational clash are exceptionally productive[8]. The film thus corresponds to the zeitgeist when the psychologist Arthur Janov’s concept of ‘the primal scream’ was very popular[9]. Other interpretations, in contrast, posit Charles as a representation of Skolimowski himself — an immigrant from behind the Iron Curtain, occupying the position of outsider[10]. In yet another perspective, we can see Charles as a figure representing the bad conscience incurred by Anthony by cheating on his wife.

No matter how Crossley is positioned in the story, the thematic core of The Shout is constituted by the overall crisis of British culture, with the fracturing of the models of family, masculinity, and communal life. The ‘game’, which functions as a narrative frame, is significantly paused in an abrupt way. The juxtaposition between the cricket match — a sport in which games take a particularly long time[11] — and the storm in Graves’s short story might correspond to the image of the Great War, which was supposed to be a ‘gentlemen’s competition’ but turned out to be a paroxysm of destruction and murder. In Skolimowski’s adaptation, the storm might be seen rather as a sign of the shattering of British culture during the 70s — with its economic crisis, postcolonial decline, nostalgia for its former glory, the sexual revolution (i.e., the extramarital affair introduced in the movie), as well as the other cultural changes of the time. So, the crisis of masculinity combined with the fear induced by the development of women’s rights and the feminist movement is indeed essential when it comes to the actual theme of the film. Although Crossley’s story sometimes comes across as heavily misogynistic, it’s impossible to overlook that it is ultimately a story about an independent woman who decides to carry on without a man.

In the previously mentioned opening scene, with the examination of the corpses, Skolimowski pays tribute to Graves’s original story — bodies covered with sheets lying on tables in a dining hall seem out of place, seem to be associated with the military. Before the cricket game commences, Skolimowski focuses the camera’s gaze on an audience primarily consisting of elderly people. Thus, we’re transported into the world of the past and our game with social memory has begun. ‘Robert’ and Crossley — enclosed in a hut with a scoreboard, very much like in a bunker — witness the game and its fatal ending.

Some critics have pointed out that the main sense of anxiety in the film is built by juxtaposing mysterious forces and sombre rituals with the mundanity of provincial life, leading reviewers to draw comparisons between The Shout and Robert Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), for instance[12]. In the film, Skolimowski also focuses on new technologies, making Fielding an experimental musician with his own recording studio. Moreover, in a scene at the beginning of the film in which Crossley passes the Fieldings on a motorcycle, an enormous radar dish can be seen in the shot. This suggests that the fears Skolimowski depicts are related to the changes that everyday life in Britain was undergoing at that moment, primarily through the processes of modernisation and, especially, the introduction of the unsettling ‘magic’ of new technologies.


The 70s saw the dynamic development of techniques for exercising power and control through sound, known to contemporary sound studies specialists as sonic warfare, a term coined by Steve Goodmann[13]. The discovery of the new technique of wiretapping and the possibilities it affords — so splendidly depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) or in many giallo movies — went hand-in-hand with extensive research on direct sonic weaponry. At the turn of the decade, the work of scientist Vladimir Gavreau at the Laboratoire de mécanique et d’acoustique of the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique gained some notoriety. Gavreau claimed to have designed a powerful weapon capable of affecting or even killing humans with the use of infrasound[14] after observing how a group of scientists was affected by infrasound emitted by the laboratory ventilation system[15]. Gavreau’s findings quickly made a splash, even inspiring William Burroughs, for example. However, his claims about his inventions were never really proven (additionally, there are some discrepancies about the time of Gavreau’s death; he probably died before the publication of his most important book). Nevertheless, it is certain that, during the Vietnam War, the American army made use of the so-called Curdler or ‘people repeller’, which uses soundwaves as a weapon and was a precursor to today’s LRAD system. In 1973, New Scientist reported that the British army was using a similar device called The Squawk Box in order to control crowds in Northern Ireland. Although the army denied using such a weapon, information about its use started to circulate.

The sonic techniques of control happened to be of different nature, too. In 1970 in Vietnam, the US army carried out Operation Wandering Soul in an attempt to sabotage the Vietcong side. The Americans repeatedly played sounds suggestive of Buddhist beliefs about the souls of the unburied dead still roaming this realm, unable to find peace. In the meantime, new sound technologies were inspiring yet another wave of spiritualism in Western societies, with American ghost hunters trying to record supernatural sounds on portable tape recorders being one striking example. This is similar to research on electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) — a static noise similar to human voice captured on tape while making field recordings or listening to the radio. At the end of the 70s — during the time of the Watergate scandal, the significance of tapes during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and rumours about sonic weaponry and audio messages left by the dead from the afterlife — cultural faith in the power of sounds was deeply rooted. Let’s just note that the same goes for Graves’s time — the deafening roar of the battlefield was one of the main causes of shell shock, sound reproduction techniques were widely used for propaganda, and people trying to overcome their grief turned to spiritualism and supposed communication via sound with the deceased[16]. During his conversation with Crossley, ‘Richard’ immediately relates the shout to war and mythology — he mentions Irish warriors, Hector and the Trojan War, the deity Pan and the etymology of the word ‘panic’, as well as warriors from the Welsh Mabinogion saga. He also considers the tuning of a voice to the acoustics of a room to such an extent that it is capable of tearing it down, just like a scream can shatter a wine glass.

The main opposition here is built upon sound — the experimental music cultivated by Anthony against the magical, murderous technique developed from traditional teachings[17] — but it quickly proves to be illusory. It would be quite obvious to suggest an interpretation filtered by Skolimowski’s outsider experience and see this opposition as tension between an artist hailing from the Communist Bloc and Western musique concrète centres like the WDR in Cologne or the IRCAM in Paris. This reading, however, doesn’t stand up to the test. Firstly, there existed, in fact, the vibrant Polish Radio Experimental Studio, which was thriving better than any British studio. Secondly, it was people like Fielding that created the ‘underground scene’ in the UK, rather than just a few public experimental music studios. The history of the British electronic music of the time was, in reality, based on cooperation between the work of Fielding and Crossley’s counter-cultural ethos.

The sound alchemist (from "The Shout" by Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978), source: Youtube

The whole repertoire of well-known avant-garde compositional techniques can be witnessed in the film’s famous sequences depicting Fielding’s sound experiments: from the recording and manipulation of raw sounds of musique concrète, synthetic generation of tones, experiments with expanded instrumental techniques, the creation of graphic notations, TO the use of chance operations (throwing things on a keyboard might remind us of George Brecht’s Incidental Music). Still, the techniques derived from musique concrète are at the core of his studio practice. Skolimowski makes Fielding a diligent follower of Pierre Schaeffer’s theory — concrete sounds recorded in natural environments are just a starting point for Anthony’s pursuit of more abstract forms. For Schaeffer, such a ‘musical’ approach to the recorded sound stood in stark contrast to the ‘literary’ approach in which the sound exposes its own origin. Thus, we can agree with Ewa Mazierska’s claim that Anthony ‘denaturalises’ sounds. It’s interesting, however, to ask whether what Anthony is doing isn’t by any chance identical to what Crossley is doing to his story. A tension emerges between the mnemonic techniques of oral storytelling and the sonic narrative stemming from the radio’s experimental music studios. This, again, might serve as a link to the times when Graves wrote his short story — this was when Albert Lord, in the Balkans, was recording days-long epic histories on tape reel and radio was introducing new narrative forms[18].

From this perspective, the hut from where Robert and Crossley witness the cricket match becomes a figure of a studio (e.g., a radio studio). At the same time, the story itself acquires a larger scale, akin to the recording of a several-days-long story. When Crossley orders Robert: You could keep both scores, and I could tell the story, ‘score’ signifies both the results of the game and Crossley’s story to be registered in Robert’s memory. The third meaning of the word — musical score — becomes apparent once we see Anthony at the studio working on musical notation. Skolimowski accentuates different meanings of ‘score’ to point out the diversity of artistic approaches in the context of the development of electronic music, which allowed musical scores to be created in a variety of forms and shapes. The recording of sound itself has something uncanny about it. In one of the scenes, Crossley wanders around the Fieldings’ house touching different objects and gaining supernatural insight into their past and recollections — as if by creating a kind of resonance, as before when he affected Anthony and Rachel by playing a glass with his finger. These tropes resonate well with the belief that it’s possible to store a sound in a room and thereby come into contact with the past — a belief which has regularly accompanied technological developments since the discovery of the phonograph. Similar ideas can also be inferred from the discussions between Charles and Anthony on whether the soul inhabits the body or rather resides somewhere else[19]. Isn’t this just a perfect metaphor of the peculiarity of sound in the time of its reproduction? Doesn’t this refer to the deeply rooted cultural fear of a phonographic split between the individual and the body — a fear only strengthened by the development of sound systems? Text, images, memory, recordings on discs or stones[20] — the possibilities are endless for collapsing distinctions between specific arts[21].

Skolimowski depicts Anthony as internally split: he is forced to play a very different kind of music to make a living (he works as an organist at a local church), which contrasts with music he creates out of passion. In his short story, Graves doesn’t specify his occupation other than being a musician and, so, in the BBC radio play based on the text (dir. Cherry Cookson, 1986), he is a trumpet player. In turn, according to Crossley’s story in the film, his passion for experimenting with sound is hollow while his job is merely potboiling that he doesn’t think much of. Moreover, Skolimowski adds a scene in which Crossley directly says that Fielding’s music is devoid of any value. We also get to see Fielding coming to church in the middle of a service — the congregation singing without his assistance.

When it comes to the soundtrack of the film, Skolimowski overcame a division between high culture and the mass-market by inviting Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford from the band Genesis to compose the theme and other musical elements[22]. They were already known for their attempts to make popular music an art form, to the point where they, too, gradually headed towards simpler and simpler forms[23]. They were accompanied by Rupert Hine, a British musician, songwriter, and producer[24] who was responsible for creating Fielding’s experiments. The soundtrack editing — which included the sound design of specific effects — was done by Alan Bell, an iconic figure in British cinematography, known for the soundtracks of If… (1968) and Oh, Lucky Man! (1973) by Lindsay Anderson and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) by Nicholas Roeg. Bell clearly attempted to blur the distinction between musical compositions and the intradiegetic soundscape of the film. While Fielding’s experiments consisted of ‘denaturalizing’ sounds, Bell’s work, on the other hand, highlighted the ‘constructivist’ dimension of various sounds in the film — with the whistling wind mixing with sounds associated with the electronic Kosmische Musik of the time and the synthetic sound of a peacock strolling around the cricket field. Everything seems to be part of a social game, a construction, a greater narrative.


Let’s look into the main sound of the film. Crossley’s SHOUT was edited by Bell out of a recording of Skolimowski’s voice. Taking cues from Graves’s statement that the sound of this voice is beyond any scale, Bell and Skolimowski decided to use an escalating static noise. The effect corresponds with the emerging industrial-punk sound aesthetics. Perhaps the most adequate comparison to Crossley’s SHOUT would be the piece We Hate You (Little Girls) by Throbbing Gristle, taken from their iconic album D.o.A. — The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle (1978). Cosey Fanni Tutti combines here the avant-garde tradition of screaming in experimental music — explored by Yoko Ono for instance — with the raw electronic sound of the late 70s. Crossley’s SHOUT, however, is distinctly transformed by Bell’s editing from Skolimowki’s voice into a force of nature by adding layers of the whistling of the wind from field recordings. Crossley’s SHOUT becomes an explosion of enormous sonic power that kills animals and affects Fielding to such an extent that he temporarily loses his identity, despite the fact that Richard’s ears are clogged with wax — demonstrating that the enchanting power of today’s sirens affects the whole body. Crossley, too, exercises his whole body in the process — here Alan Bates’s neck plays the main part as a physical manifestation of the stunning power of the sonic weapon. This experience leaves lasting effects — the voice is imprinted in the ears of Anthony, just like the sound of the sea is embedded in a shell.

Reproductions of the paintings by Francis Bacon hang in the recording studio, Head IV among them, which through its visual similarity to the shouting actor — Bacon clearly paid great attention to the neck muscles — becomes another hint that the mysterious guest is the answer to the composer's needs.. The face in the painting is smeared with visual static, strong energy vibrating from its dark colours. This visual motif returns several times throughout the movie, for example when Crossley is arrested and the crooked face of a policeman is visible in the frame or when he dies in the lighting strike, with the dead doctor frozen with a similar scowl on his face. Skolimowski himself emphasized that Bacon’s paintings correspond to the masochistic aspect of the music made by Anthony, which, again, suggests a profound similarity between his compositions and the deadly shout[25]. This motif is repeated in a scene in which Fielding fruitlessly tries to reproduce the horrific shout in his studio.

The mysterious relationship between music and deadly force has been well documented throughout the history of the music of the 50s, 60s and 70s: from Iannis Xenakis’s use of tremendous sound masses (Pithoprakta, 1955–1956; Terretektorh, 1965–1966) up to Robert Ashley’s hellish noise reverbs (Wolfman, 1964); from the direct references to atomic bombs in the works of Yasunao Tone (Anagram for string instruments, 1961; Geodesy for piano, 1963) and Gordon Mumma (Megaton for William Burroughs, 1963), to the visual associations with atomic explosions inscribed into the scores by the composers of spectral music.

Anthony’s masochism and his dream of a powerful sound are crucial to the understanding of The Shout, as this refers to fears associated with nuclear extinction, confusion in the face of rapid social changes, and the overall feeling of hopelessness and failure of a man who got stuck in a provincial town, far from the centre of the avant-garde, and has dropped out of cultural life, spending his time experimenting and potboiling. The final lightning strike kills the doctor and the patient — Robert, however, is nowhere to be found among the dead in the dining hall. Skolimowski lets Graves live through this, just as he himself lived through the battle of the Somme[26]. Does this mean perhaps that we should also include the survivor’s guilt complex among the other traumas and fears that constitute the frame of the film? The combination with Bacon’s art suggests yet another possible solution: homoeroticism. Both Graves and his friend Sassoon had same sex relationships in their youth and both eventually adjusted to the dominant model of family and sexuality. After their youthful rebellion and traumatic experiences, they found themselves submitting to social norms. Bacon, on the other hand, never did. Is this suppression of one’s own identity what lies at the core of Anthony’s and Crossley’s masochism and what demands to shout out loud?


The Shout has a looped structure. This is also how records, samples, and tapes are made. The time of the epic narrative is replaced by phonographic time. In her brilliant work Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Pamela M. Lee convincingly showed how the loop structure was used by artists to overcome the linear time associated with history, progress, and the dark pages of the 20th century[27]. It seems that for the WWI1 generation, the repetition of the psychoanalytic therapeutic process played a similar role. This is confirmed by the constant returning to experiences from the front in countless memoirs or in the recurring motifs of the visual arts of the 20s. Graves’s opinion on psychoanalysis was complex, with The Shout being a clear exemplification of his stance. It is indeed a mythical story being used as a tool to overcome trauma, but ultimately failing to do so. In this context, we should mention an important episode in which the spell is supposedly lifted and ‘Richard’ becomes convinced that life has returned to normal. Trauma turns out to be a visitor who’s very reluctant to depart, though. It returns to keep us under its influence.

Hypnotherapy emerged after WW1, with the playing of vinyl records being part of the hypnotic process. These records were supposed to help solve internal conflicts, quit smoking, or get rid of insecurities through auto-hypnosis. The record became a therapeutic tool, foreshadowing the ‘tuning of brainwaves’ or ASMR. Repetition was also central to EVP — listening closely to static noise and distortions, manipulating speed, and playing tapes backwards were supposed to enable the transmission of messages from the afterlife. Listening on loop mode became an element of what, after Justyna Stasiowska, can be called ‘lubing up reality’ — practices aimed at smoothing out the edges of coarse and unpleasant existence[28]. Nevertheless, Skolimowski seems to remain sceptical about the therapy, as is Graves in his short story. It is Rachel’s grief that the loop in the film is focused on — we see her twice uncovering the corpse. Men murder, go to the hospital, die, tell stories, are subject to therapies, express their traumas through art, and dream about the destructive force of sound. She is left with the corpse.

Significantly, Skolimowski’s loop isn’t a simple return to the starting point, but rather — in a more fatalistic manner — the chronicle of a foretold demise. At the beginning of the film, the narrator seems to quickly rewind the tape to the start of the story, which itself largely consists of a retrospective tale. In effect, Skolimowski uses different time dimensions on every level of his story. The narrative frame of Rachel examining the corpse lasts, in fact, just a few moments. The story about Robert meeting Crossley takes place during one day. Crossley's story, on the other hand, happens over a couple of days. And furthermore, Charles’s story about his own past, told to the Fieldings, turns out to comprise whole years. Skolimowski seems to be following Graves here, indicating deep changes within the narrative forms of myths and stories. While myths took hundreds of years to evolve and epic histories required several days to be told, literature shortened this timeframe, enabling a story to be experienced quite rapidly. Again, film and phonograph made this even quicker. Skolimowski then introduces the myth into the era of a new medial apparatus, where the looping of repetitions becomes an element of a brand new temporal structure.


Translated by Aleksander Kmak

[1] R. Graves, The Shout, [in:] idem, Collected Short Stories, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1964. [back]

[2] Jerzy Skolimowski o sobie. Całe życie jak na dłoni, interview with Jerzy Skolimowski by Jerzy Uszyński, “Film na Świecie” 1990, no. 1–6, p. 30. [back]

[3] J. Majmurek, Crossley, nasz brat, [in:] Skolimowski: Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, ed. Krytyka Polityczna Team, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Gdańsk–Warszawa 2010, pp. 81–82; E. Mazierska, Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist, Berghahn Books, New York–Oxford 2010, p. 85. [back]

[4] R. Graves, The Shout, op. cit., p. 22. [back]

[5] Ibidem, p. 23. [back]

[6] The manifesto — written by Sassoon in cooperation with Bertrand Russell, among others — was a declaration of refusal to go back into military service, and as such could have been sufficient reason to accuse Sassoon of desertion. The published version of the manifesto was subsequently read out loud in British parliament. [back]

[7] Thanks to the work of Tracey Loughran, there has been a turn away from simply treating shell shock as PTSD. Loughran points out the blurred nature of the term that was coined ad hoc during the war and its particular meaning and function within the British culture of the time. For this reason, I try not to overuse the category of PTSD in the context of WW1. T. Loughran, Shell-Shock and Medical Culture in First World War Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017. [back]

[8] Cf. W. Johnson, The Shout, “Film Quarterly” 1979, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 53–59. [back]

[9] In the 1980s, Janov’s theories and methods were influential, for instance, among the bands Primal Scream and Tears for Fears. The music video for the latter’s song Shout, directed by Nigel Dick, was shot on the Dorset seaside and its atmosphere shares similarities with Skolimowski’s film. The song combines the notion of the ‘primal scream’, which the band had previously explored in their debut album, with a message in favour of political protest. [back]

[10] Cf. J. Majmurek, op. cit. [back]

[11] The traditional cricket game lasts five days. Note also that a wicket consists of three elements, just like the triangular relationship between the protagonists in the story. [back]

[12] R. Ebert, The Shout, [accessed: 15.01.2020]. [back]

[13] S. Goodmann, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and Ecology of Fear, MIT Press, Cambridge 2010. [back]

[14] Ibidem, pp. 18–19. [back]

[15] J. Volcler, Extremely Loud: Sound as a Weapon, transl. C. Volk, The New Press, New York 2013. [back]

[16] Let us mention two examples. Firstly, the book by the British radio pioneer Oliver Lodge who, after the death of his son Raymond on the Western Front, published a work documenting his attempts to communicate with his late son via séance with a medium, entitled Raymond or Life and Death. The book was a controversial bestseller in Great Britain shortly after its publication. Secondly, the famous chapter with a séance from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. O. Lodge, Raymond or Life and Death, George H. Doran, New York 1916; T. Mann, The Magic Mountain, transl. J.E. Woods, Alfred A. Knopf, Northburgh 2005, pp. 1749–1826. [back]

[17] It’s worth mentioning that in the 70s the British cinema audience got to see and hear Inuit throat singing techniques for the very first time, as depicted in Philip Kaufman’s film The White Dawn (1974). [back]

[18] A. Lord, The Singer of Tales, ed. Stephen Mitchell, Gregory Nagy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2000. [back]

[19] Cf. F. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, transl. G. Winthrop-Young, M. Wutz, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1999, pp. 59–78. [back]

[20] The motif of a stone recording was present in British culture in the 1970s. The BBC film based on a stage play by Nigel Kneale The Stone Tape (dir. Peter Sasdy, 1972) depicts advanced technologies capable of recreating sounds stored in stones. Such an ‘audiopaleontology’ updates some of the themes Kittler wrote about. [back]

[21] Cf. H. Folkerts, Keeping Score: Notation, Embodiment, and Liveness, [accessed: 18.12.2020]. [back]

[22] A similar choice will be repeatedly made in Skolimowski’s later films, such as Hands Up! (1981) where Józef Skrzek makes use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Cosmogony (1970) in the film’s prologue. [back]

[23] In the first half of the 70s, Genesis, under the leadership of Peter Gabriel, specialised in complex compositions with enigmatic lyrics, often inspired by fantasy or mythology. The group’s live performances were widely recognised as meticulously theatrical, with the use of ostentatious costumes — with Gabriel dressing as a bat, flowers, ‘Britannia’, or a fox. In 1978, however, Genesis consisted of only Banks, Rutherford, and Phil Collins, who wanted to reinvent the band and so published their most accessible album to that point. [back]

[24] Hine was a member of the band Quantum Jump, among others, with whom he published two albums in 1976–1977. In 1979, a re-release of the band’s single The Lone Ranger became an unexpected smash hit in the British charts. The most memorable element of the song is the use of the longest known word (according to the Guinness World Records book of the time): Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu which refers to the Māori name of a hill in New Zealand’s North Island. Today, the song’s lyrics seem questionable, to say the least; nevertheless in the context of the film, Hine remains a fascinating figure as a musician who strove to become successful for years by combining popular music with electronic experimentation. Hine was also a particularly acclaimed producer in the 80s era of synthpop, but he had in fact gained some recognition previously for producing the single Who is the Doctor, by Jon Pertwee, known for its appearance in the series Doctor Who. Let’s just add that Hines was close friends with members of Genesis, with Collins playing drums on his album Immunity (1981). [back]

[25] Much attention has been given to the comparison of the film’s images and Bacon’s paintings. In Fielding’s studio, there’s also a picture of a woman cropped out of Edvard Munch’s Vampire (let’s just remember that Munch painted the famous Scream), photographs of war atrocities, and anatomical models of animals. It’s worth mentioning that just a year later, in 1979, Bacon’s paintings were used as the emotional context of the second part of Michael Hanake’s Lemmings. Cf. M. Keska, The Visual Sonority of Francis Bacon’s Painting in Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘The Shout’ (1978), “ARTMargins Online”, 15th April 2012, [accessed: 15.01.2020]. [back]

[26] Let us mention that in the short story the lightning strikes just beside the narrator as well. R. Graves, The Shout, op. cit., p. 24. [back]

[27] P.M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, MIT Press, Cambridge 2004. [back]

[28] J. Stasiowska, Brak dyscypliny: lubrykant do rzeczywistości, “” 2019, nr 258, [accessed: 15.01.2020]. [back]


The Strength of the Nape of the Neck — Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout

The essay is an analysis of The Shout by Jerzy Skolimowski (1979) focusing on the significance and meanings of the soundtrack and the broader audiosphere – including the titular sound. The author compares the film with literary source, a short story written in 1924 by Robert Graves. Reading closely Graves’ text, through the lenses of interwar shell shock epidemic, the author examines the different choices made by Skolimowski and co-screenwriter Michael Austin, focusing on the conflicts and anxieties revealed the film, with particular attention to the significance of sound for those tensions.

Keywords: sound in film, the audiosphere, sonic warfareshell shock, Jerzy Skolimowski, Robert Graves, The Shout

Antoni Michnik – writer, performer and curator, historian of culture. Co-founder of Grupa ETC, a group of avant-garde researchers and performers, editor in "Glissando" quarterly. PHD student at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, graduated from the History of Arts at the University of Warsaw in 2013. He published in various journals, edited exhibition catalogues and conference publications, curated exhibitions for Trafostacja in Szczecin as well as the programme for Ad Libitum and Neoarte festivals. Co-editor of the first book written on Fluxus by Polish authors, Narracje - Estetyki - Geografie. Fluxus w trzech aktach by Grupa ETC (2014), and Poza rejestrem: rozmowy o prawie autorskim (2015).

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