Oddtober 2020: Celador and cellar doors…

Much of what happens on OTC is the result of me falling down a rabbit hole and writing about it, and often if there isn’t a rabbit hole, I’ll dig one, just to cover all the bases. But if you’re new here, hi, sometimes when I consume media, a brain switch gets tripped and I end up worrying the piece of media like a dog with a bone, obsessively gnawing on details until I wear myself out and move on to the next little or sometimes massive obsession. It’s hard to predict what will flip the switch but when it happens I just have to roll with it until the obsession ends and I can move on to something else.  My most recent obsession is with a song, and it seems fitting to share it during Odd-tober because while it isn’t wholly Halloweenish, the more I looked into it, the creepier it was.  An Odd-session, as it were.

I have to assume that most of you have encountered the often wretched and frequently bizarre recommendations that happen when YouTube algorithms try to predict your tastes.  You listen to, say, an acoustic set from a Finnish doom metal band, and helpful YouTube suggests you follow it up with a Halsey video wherein she both spits blood and features Debbie Harry in a random but charming cameo.  It’s baffling, and I have no clue what I watched that caused YouTube to throw up the video for “Evil in Your Eye” by a band called Church of the Cosmic Skull.  Not complaining – it was a righteous recommendation, and I liked the song enough to look into the band, which led me to a solo project the guitarist and lead male vocalist, Bill Fisher, recently released.  (As an aside, this is the golden age of the solo project.  All these bands, unable to tour due to Covid-19, restless and waiting…)

I watched the video for Bill Fisher’s song, “Celador,” at three or so in the morning on Saturday and am beginning this entry three days later, having thought about it in my usual spiral of insomnia-laced (un)focus.  As soon as I realized I was going to write about Bill Fisher, I stopped opening the emails I got after joining his site. The emails are fun invitations to try and understand the mission behind the album.  I almost wish I hadn’t signed up before posting this discussion because just knowing the title of the album Fisher released has probably colored how I look at this video, though I like to think I’d have reached the same conclusions regardless.  I really hate knowing too much before diving into a rabbit hole but sometimes you get in your own way, I guess.

You may want to watch the video for “Celador” before I begin.

This particular rabbit hole led me to three small warrens, wherein I considered the reason behind the video concept, Fisher’s use of euphonia and dual meaning, and how I think this song is, in a way, an updated fairy tale.  Join me beneath the cut, and let’s gnaw this bone together.

Uncanny Valley, Ahoy

The first time I watched “Celador” I found myself taken by the approach Fisher used to visually represent his song. I wondered how he managed to match his mouth movements to words as often as he did, as it seems as if most of this video is shown in reverse, with the occasional jump start.  Not all of it matched up perfectly, but enough of it did match fairly well, and I wondered if his facial hair helped mask some of the smaller incongruous expressions.

The heaviness of what I was watching didn’t hit me until a second or third view.  Additional views changed the video for me, actually making me tense enough that I made a small fist with my right hand, digging my  nails into my palm.  Right about the 1:14 mark, Fisher leans forward and is motionless for a couple of seconds, looking straight into the camera and in that brief moment of still, suddenly the strange, almost tic-like nature of using reversed footage stopped being a “wow, this is interesting” sort of feeling. It took on a sinister cast, as his facial and hand movements lacked the predictability that informs almost all human movement.

Like most neurotics, I run a deep scan on people’s faces almost reflexively, watching carefully for any sign of unhappiness or anger, constantly interpreting expression.  The lack of predictability in how Fisher moved spiked my anxiety.  Initially I thought I was reacting to a sort of uncanny valley vibe, but that explanation, while close, doesn’t really explain what I experienced watching him sing in synch while gesturing in reverse.

I remember a video from a few years ago wherein a robotics engineer created what came to be known as the “Creepy Stripper Robot.”  It was uncomfortable to watch, but here’s the link so you can have a look. It’s clearly a robot, the worse for wear, wearing a creepy mask, staring at you as you stare at her. It’s supposed to be an inversion of the experience of the male gaze, wherein the subject of the gaze pays you back in kind, and it’s meant to be unnerving and upsetting.  Part of my reaction stems from my dislike of masks but a larger part comes from how malicious and real that angry gaze appears.  It’s not a human female but her anger is palpable and the only things that kept me from feeling shame for staring at her were the reminders, like her shoulder joints, that she is not human.  Those shoulders kept me from falling too deeply into the uncanny valley and robbed the experience of the complete dread one feels when media goes full Polar Express without warning.

But such reactions are all the more unsettling when it’s an actual human that is being so uncanny, his face exposed, his eyes clear, yet causing that feeling of dread that often turns into revulsion as we watch that which is not human come close to appearing human.

Fisher is both visiting the uncanny valley and subverting the concept.  It’s alarming enough to see the uncanny valley in action, seeing the unreal come very close to appearing human, but Fisher is a human whose gestures are uncanny.  What is the opposite of the uncanny valley, when that which is actually and genuinely human fails to appear wholly human?  Some of the most human of gestures he enacts – sweeping away his hair from his face, for example – are extremely unnatural, made the worse on the few times when his mouth fails to replicate the shape of synched speech.  If he wanted to convey such feelings, emphasizing unnatural humanity, the next question is why.

 

Euphonia and Hidden Meaning

I think, when discussing “cellar doors,” the author most often used to frame the idea of mellifluous sounding words and phrases is J.R.R. Tolkien.  Though he was not the first or only one to state that “cellar door” is one of the prettiest sounding phrases in English, the example he uses to explain his belief is easy to digest so it’s often repeated. Tolkien said that upon hearing “cellar door” he would concentrate on the prettiness of the words, how they became a thing unto themselves when one simply paid attention to sound and left meaning out of the equation.  He said that thinking about the phrase and how it sounded would lead him to all sorts of different places; like he would hear it, would think about a character somewhere named “Celador” and then he was off to the races in terms of inspiration.  I should note that “cellar door” is generally prettiest when said by someone with a posh British accent or a deep Southern accent because “cell-ur-door” as pronounced by most American voices isn’t that lovely.

Clearly Fisher was harking back to this euphonics primer.  But there’s more to it, I think, than just a simple reference to Tolkien’s love of the two words.  This is a song about a man who falls quickly for a woman and promptly moves in with her.  He seems to fall off the face of the earth but when he resurfaces his eyes are sunken and his skin is pale and he reveals that he found a key to a hidden room in the house.  He unlocked the “cellar door” and climbed down the stairs, where the woman found him and… Well, we don’t really know.  The man does not tell his friend, the narrator of the song, what he saw down there.  He simply keeps repeating the lyrics, advice the woman had given him:

“Close your eyes, and do it like you wanna.”

On the surface, this seems like a liberating thing to be told.  Could this woman be encouraging him to essentially close his eyes, hold his nose and jump off into the deep end of the pool, a sort of “carpe diem” approach to living?  How does “Close your eyes and do it like you wanna” relate to the euphonic concept of “celador?”

Both are sort of inspirational, one viscerally telling a person to do what they really want, the other serving as a sort of meandering mental stroll, listening to a pretty sound and following it where it leads you.

Except the man in the song doesn’t end up musing on where “Celador” can take him.  He descends down an actual cellar door, two separate words, and comes back out looking like a nearly-dead dog.  When he resurfaces after a long absence, the song narrator says he “finally showed his face.”  Not sure if this is a regionalism but here in Bumfuck, Texas, when you finally show your face, you’ve done something you are ashamed of or need to atone for, and finally showing your face to family and friends is the first step in accepting blame and setting things right.  It also works another way – I recall my mother often saying of specific people she found beyond the pale that she could not believe he or she had the nerve to show their face.  Either way, the subtext is that the person showing their face has something bad going on that either prevented them from showing their face or should have prevented them from showing their face if only they had the sense to be ashamed of themselves. And all of this makes one wonder what on earth he could have done or seen in that cellar that would have made him reluctant to show his face.

But even if the way I hear the section about the man resurfacing to see his friend again is something influenced by my specific region in my specific country, the fact remains that even as he recites the words his woman spoke to him,  he didn’t close his eyes and do it like he wanted.  He found a key to a door that had been hidden from view and began to pray when the lady of the house found him snooping around. That is not “Celador.” That is cellar door, the opening that leads you to a place where you shelter during a tornado.  The killer hides bodies there.  Jars filled with preserves and garden vegetables are kept in the cellar, gathering dust until bacteria shatters the jars from the inside.  But it’s not the cellar door that is the uneasy element – it is the woman in the song.  Prayers happened only when he realized she was looming behind him, the tornado, the killer, the decay.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the woman in this song.  Perhaps the man prays upon seeing her because she encouraged him to throw caution to the wind, to let his instinct be his guide, and he now sees in himself impulses he realizes are best kept pent up.  Perhaps he has gone pale and hollow-eyed because he has seen what she encouraged, and that “do it like you wanna” means he does or thinks very dark things? Perhaps he has dark impulses she shares and he prays at the sickening realization that he has met the Ginger to his Fred (though Rosemary to his Fred sounds more like it).

I concentrated on “celador” for a while, and as I thought about the other images the word brought to mind (the color celadon, notably), I paced around my bookshelves downstairs and eventually I saw it: The Girl at the Lion d’Or.  I haven’t read it in 20 years but the “d’Or” was clearly niggling at me on some level. In this context, “d’or” means gold or golden.  The Girl at the Golden Lion.  Anne Louvert, the protagonist in this book, works at the Lion d’Or, an inn, and has an uncle who speaks in pleasant and pretty though ultimately meaningless turns of phrase (horribly, I recall he actually wanted to “make France great again” and we are all blessed that trucker caps were not a thing between the first and second world wars, when the story is set).  And none of that means much, aside from showing the power and the depth of the rabbit hole should one be willing to close her eyes and do it like she wants to and analyze things down to their molecular level, because the tendrils that connect everything together are there waiting to be found.  But this book also brings to mind “c’est le d’or.” It’s been a long time since I took French but if one pronounces this with a nice French accent, it sounds like “celador.”  “This is gold(en).”

And to yet again show the powerful seduction of the rabbit hole, when I searched on the phrase to make sure I remembered college French lessons properly, this is the first link that came up for me. A wine called “C’est le d’Or” sold at The Cellar Door.

But there’s more.  “Celador” in Spanish means “guard” or “watcher.”  The key to the cellar door was hidden away, tied to a lock of silver hair, not intended for easy discovery and use. There’s no way Fisher didn’t know the Spanish meaning of “Celador.”  He had to have, right?  RIGHT??? The woman clearly had something dear locked away, something she controlled, something terrible because the man looked like a battered animal after his visit into that hidden cellar.  What was she guarding? And why would he stay if it was that terrible?

So we have the pretty “Celador,” the literal cellar door, a key tied with silver hair in a song that brings to mind gold things in French.  A man who is urged to do as he wants becomes haunted and pale and prays when the woman who urged him so finds him in the cellar that she guards and watches over.  What does it all mean?

 

Fairy Tales Retold

Many years ago I wrote a reinterpretation of the Bluebeard story, invoking problems in paternal DNA and inserting a few babies in jars alongside the dead wives.  Hair played a role in theme of the story. In retrospect it wasn’t a particularly good story (it was published online in a ‘zine called Fantastic Horror and if you can find it now, you’re a better woman than me), but it clearly fueled how I processed this song.

“Celador” for me isn’t actually a retelling of Bluebeard, though the elements to do so are certainly there, but is rather a look at malignant human will.  The beginning of the song is indeed “celador,” a pretty idea – lonely man finds a companion, quickly falls in love and moves in with her, so happy in being part of a pair that he disappears from the social scene for a while.  But then the actual meaning of the words start to matter. Fisher’s eye movements become unsettling, that human face that does not wholly match what the eye expects from the human.  By invoking the concept of “celador” alongside a real cellar door, reversing the action in the video to show how easily the veneer of humanity can be stripped away, I think Fisher is telling the story of a couple that is more than just doomed.

This song began to invoke fantasies, fairy tales and old folklore after a few listens.  The title “Celador” is for many a direct link to Tolkien, and sometimes C.S. Lewis, creators of the Ring Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia respectively, and both believers in the aural beauty of “cellar door.”  From there, I remembered all the staging scenes in fairy tales – cellars, of course, but also barns, sheds, and similar, all places where young women were sent to draw cider or feed animals or hide from harm,  but few of them were locked.  Perhaps the cellar door here leads to a dungeon? Silver wards off supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves and is a symbol of the moon, whereas gold embodies riches and beauty and is associated with the sun.  Has the man traded sunlight for darkness?

Perhaps not, but it’s hard for me not to think of a Lady Bluebeard keeping watch over the bodies of her dead lovers, men who found the cellar door, went down, and did more than pray and turn pale when they discovered what she was watching over.  I imagine she embodied the concept of “celador,” a beautiful, golden woman whose allure depends on focusing on aesthetics over meaning. Once you get an idea that something is wrong, that the man is clearly negatively affected, we switch from “c’est le d’or” to silver hair attached to a key that keeps secrets locked away (the key Fisher uses in the video is silvery, it should be noted), and the “celador” becomes a cellar door that, in the tradition of folk and fairy tales, leads to nothing good.  The silver could also be a symbol of age, perhaps showing that the woman was herself full of dark knowledge and wisdom that sucked the life out of her new companion when he finally understood her nature.

Why did the man stay with such a woman?  Did he go pale because he’s now afraid of her, certain she will come for him now that he knows her secret?  Did her encouragement to do what he wanted (with his eyes closed perhaps to see no evil) cause him to recognize his own darkness and willingness to act upon it while also feeling guilt and misery at the realization.  I don’t know the answer yet.  I’ve only listened to three songs from Bill Fisher’s solo album and will listen to more once this posts and I can consume the rest of his work without potentially ruining my reaction to this song.

I love it when I fall down rabbit holes like this one.  Sometimes I want media to make me work, to do more than just passively listen.  Bill Fisher’s approach to his music, at least in this song, can be as complex as you want to make it, yet is still very “listenable” for people who don’t necessarily want to write a massive essay analyzing the ins and outs of a single song and video.  Had this not been a good song, finely-written and well-performed, I wouldn’t have been as willing to spend so much time sorting it all out. I think Fisher’s approach in “Celador” is quite clever. By using words that are homophones from different languages, by demonstrating how easily what we see as natural and human can become jarring and unreal, Fisher has created a scenario in which any number of interpretations of this song have merit.  I really look forward to listening to the rest of the album.

Share with me what you think of this song and the video.  Has any music come across your radar lately that you think I’d like?  Tell me!

I hope to begin posting regularly, and hopefully will have more to say here soon, as I’ve had some very grim, dark, gory, strange and utterly Halloweenie content come my way recently.  Part one, first draft, of my look into manifestos is very close to finished, and I’m hoping writing here will get me in motion enough to finish the first installment of what was not meant to be such a long project (but when you work with me, you know everything is going to be way too long, right?)

See you again soon!  Be well and safe in what has been the worst year for human beings since 536 A.D.

One thought on “Oddtober 2020: Celador and cellar doors…

  1. The Church of the Cosmic Skull is so up your alley that I’m surprised you only just now listened to them. They make me think of what would happen if you put Bob Dobbs, Kansas (the band, not the state), and the cast of Hair in a blender.

    Glad to see you posting again.

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