Collaboration/ experimentation/ collage/ dada/ old lady sleuth ...
I love Murder, She Wrote – and not entirely in a hip, ironic way. Aside from the comedy of an old woman finding murder everywhere she goes, and the numerous disguises Jessica Fletcher tries to pull off, this is a TV show that exists in a timeless bubble. It would be on our old, boxy little TV set when I was home sick from school as a kid – and to date the repeats still play practically every night. It’s a comforting show, a soothing bit of fluff you can stick on after a stressful day at work; you don’t even have to pay attention to it. Just knowing that Jessica Fletcher is clomping about in her big heels somewhere in the background accusing everyone of murder and that she will, by episode’s end, always find the killer, is comfort enough.
To a more literary degree, there’s something deliciously Ballardian about it. Nearly every hotel suite, bedroom and restaurant is a place of plush pink carpet, sherbet-coloured walls and floral arrangements. Through these Venetian rooms women with southern belle accents protest innocence, scream at the discoveries of corpses and stalk about in pearls and violent lipstick. Jessica herself is nearly always engaged in some sort of fancy gala, or publishing-related meeting in a high rise block, or pretending to finish a salad in an expensive, tastefully-lit restaurant.
For years, I’ve wanted to write a poem about Murder, She Wrote. Recently I started to dabble with a few experiments into what I could do with it. Initially I thought about taking a synopsis of an episode and replacing the key words with their thesaurus definitions. This was the result:
Jessica attends a tennis tournament as the guest of honour. She struggles to protect her former student Carol when her boyfriend is blown up in her car and she is the only suspect.
Jessica is present at a game in which two or four players strike a ball with rackets over a net stretched across a court as the person who is invited to visit someone's home or attend a particular social occasion of high respect. She makes forceful or violent efforts to get free of restraint or constriction to keep safe from harm or injury her having previously been a particular thing person who is studying at a university or other place of higher education, Carol, when her regular male companion with whom they have a romantic or sexual relationship is destroyed or severely damaged by an explosion in her road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people, and she is the only person thought to be guilty of a crime or offence.
… which I don’t think is too bad (the regular male companion being destroyed or severely damaged in an explosion again felt quite JG Ballard). However, by this point I’d already decided I wanted to do something fairly big in scope, and this replacing of words with definitions didn’t feel like something that would have enough longevity.
So, I turned to the Dadaist tradition of cut-ups. Musicians such as David Bowie and Mark E Smith were famed for using this technique in which you take a piece of text, cut up each word and rearrange to form something new. I was wary of it at first as I thought it just a novelty. I took the synopsis for episode 1, season 1 of MSW from the IMDB and cut up each individual word. Then I took some Scott Walker lyrics (a reliable source of weird and wonderful words) and tried mixing the two together. The result was this:
Episode 1: The Birds Birds Home Holmes
Unwanted novel, former celebration. This she English dips, murder vaults. Murdered Jessica Fletcher stays strange. His moonlight teacher is a New York breast ceiling. Cornhusk of party wishes. The moon, blood-painted blue, travels heavy. The beliefs of the doll bring little success. She costumes about as special guest Sherlock with her debut novel, Zodiac. In her gold still lives the bird.
… a scintillating blend of the weird and unexpected, which caught my imagination instantly. There was genuine excitement for me in jumbling up words, blindly picking them at random and seeing how the sentences fell. That’s not to say all of this just magically happened in the perfect order. I performed quite a lot of editing to get the sentences to make at least a little bit of sense (otherwise you’d just end up with stuff like “the out for they do yes wandered”). Oftentimes I used the cut-up technique to generate the key words of a sentence and then fill in the blanks to string it together myself.
I decided I would use the cut-up method to produce an “alternate dimension synopsis” for each episode of the first season of the show, and post them on my Experiments page. This being the internet, it’s always good to have something visual to fire the imagination, and so I thought it would be even more exciting to have an image to accompany each episode.
That’s where my friend and collaborator, Alex Stevens, comes in. Alex is a fellow Cardiffian and mixed media artist who works under the name Abject Objects. He creates sculptures, paintings and drawings, usually on the themes of myth, monsters and nature. We decided to join forces on this MSW project, and so for each episode poem I produced, he made a collage. The initial idea was for Jessica Fletcher to feature in each piece, but sometimes the nature of the episode meant she just didn’t fit. Either way, each collage produced by Alex is a weird and disturbing and often beautiful meshing of themes taken from the poem. I think word and image fit beautifully in this series. Here are a few examples:
All 22 episodes of Season 1 are now complete – a poetic synopsis for each episode, as viewed through some terrible warped black hole, and a collage in which Jessica is reflected and refracted through nightmarish prisms. All of these are currently available on the Experiments page of this website. It’s been a creatively fulfilling and really enjoyable experiment.
Big thanks to Alex for collaborating with me and tirelessly producing his artwork to a pretty quick turnaround – and thanks to everyone who has liked, commented and shared our work on social media.
This is, however, not the end…