... which could be anywhere, but in this case we are in the East End of London, and specifically Dalston, London Fields and Shoreditch. Psychic Precincts follows, slowly, several days in the meandering trajectory of a gentleman named William (Kenneth Inch, in his only acting appearance). He is 96. He wanders the streets, making notes of everything; he suffers from (we are told during a memorable hospital scene, during which William tells a young nurse the day she will die, making her cry), apophenia. He wanders the streets, quoting a textbook to passers-by:
'Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness"'
More than a story about the plight of the lonely, sick and old in big cities, Psychic Precincts contains confounding joys because of the hopeful attitude of William; this also makes us, supposedly wiser, feel sorry for him. The central plotline of the film involves William trying to get people to read a draft of his novel, which he carries around in a holdall. The thousands of scrawled pages are what he describes as 'a psychogeographic murder mystery set in Dalston in the sixties. And then... (pause) at the beginning of chapter three... (long pause) the narrator wakes up and realises he is stuck in a dream'. He repeats this line to all kinds of people: Yawning checkout girls, the homeless, toddlers. Because of his curious aspect, William is constantly dismissed, but is never disillusioned. He just ambles along to the next person, spreading his stories, and witnessing the shape-shifting city.
One of the most beautiful moments comes at night: Clubbed shouts and traffic discolour the edges of the soundtrack, and William stops along the canal to talk to a young runaway who is asleep. No hellos are exchanged, William just nods politely and starts into a typical monologue:
I had a premonition of my death, and I am relieved: It is as I had hoped. The moon can't come too soon. I always wanted to die like a man, in a Paris bordello from a sexual injury, while the angels and whores stand all around reading my poetry. They'll say 'He can't shake it anymore; He can't shake it anymore...' I will be eighty-one years old... It was confidently predicted by a family member that I would write a book. Now my family has seen off many a flighty pre-cog who, with 'funny feelings' and dour cardigans, has come to inform us of our destinies. We don't take rash forebodings lightly; our own future radars are subtle and wise, and our own keen acumen has always sufficed. My sisters' births were pre-empted by dreamy visions. Other presentiments have been delivered as promised. And yet, I still have not written a book. This prediction hangs like a curse, a curse of a particular kind of genius, and yet it is something that I am loathe to turn my back on, as it's possibility is a comfort. Only in seeing its effects repeated in younger siblings, predicted themselves to perform great feats, does it ring hard and cold..... but this will be the book. On the cover will be a quote, from the greatest amn to have ever lived: Orson Welles, who I met on a film set in South America forty years ago. He said 'William, you're always moving; like a cat before they let it out of the bag... ' ha. And so how can this book fail, with a blessing from Mr Welles on the cover, that says 'He's like a cat before they let it out of the bag...'
Later in the film we come to doubt not only what William says, but what we are seeing; each time William bothers someone on the street with an anecdote we see his surroundings shift to convey these memories, with maybe a reflection of The Great Orsini in a shopfront, or echoing music from a passing car that bleeds into the electronic throb of Paddy Kingsland's music, and then into an image of a ballroom, Stoke Newington, in the fifties... the constant chatter of William's voice, the disorientating spin of the city's refracted lights throw images across our ceilings like car headlights in the night: I knew Lionel Bart. When he came to me and said 'William, I'm doing a musical of Oliver Twist' I said 'Terrible idea, Lionel. Forget about it.' Later, after Oliver! had won many Oscars, he asked me what I thought now. 'Terrible idea, Lionel. Popular, mind, but a terrible idea.' The London we see is so informed by William's future plots and reminiscences that it appears as if through a looking glass, its most speculative and vague aspects to the fore.
In another running together of fiction and fact, the lead actor Kenneth Inch was found by film-maker Bill Rice when scouting locations for the shoot. 'Kenneth appeared, as he does in the film, wandering around, in a battered suit. He was like a Dickensian waif aged hundreds of years in the pickle jar of Tom Waits. I had to have him'1 Rice said. Inch wore his own clothes in the film, improvised many of his lines, and insisted on being known as 'William' off-set for the duration of the shoot. By the end of filming, Rice had discovered that Kenneth Inch wasn't his real name (Inch Kenneth is an island to the West of Scotland), and that he refused payment for the film. Inch then disappeared. He was found by a BBC documentary crew2 in 1995, and claimed to be called William. He fled a proposed meeting with the film-makers, and was found dead on Brick Lane a week later. He was holding a battered paperback copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.3 He was presumed to be at least 105 years old.
Psychic Precincts Directed by William Rice Produced by Paul Heller Written by William Rice, 'Kenneth Inch' Music by Paddy Kingsland Handmade Films. Release Date: US N/A, UK: November 1984 Tagline: 'There Is a City Within the City (Within the City) of His Mind'
1. Sight and Sound interview, July 1996
2. The Cat In The Bag (John Home, 1996) was an investigation into the possible past and present of the man known as Kenneth Inch.
3. The following passage in the novel was marked:
'That was not only his oldest memory, but his only memory of childhood. The other one, that of an old man with an old-fashioned vest and a hat with a brim like a crow's wings who told him marvellous things framed in a dazzling window, he was unable to place in any period. It was an uncertain memory, entirely devoid of lessons or nostalgia, the opposite of the memory of the executed man, which had really set the direction of his life and would return to his memory clearer and clearer as he grew older, as if the passage of time were bringing him closer to it.'
In the front cover, Inch himself had written the following:
'London is a hubbub of experimental auras, waiting to smash urgent sons and their bucking and braying theorems. It can offer apparent verifications for impossible philosophies and withdraw them suddenly, like little deaths. But still, I find futures, presents and other districts to investigate, and I travel for my health, plotting geographical emotions among the sacred boroughs around me. Everything evokes something. Lush precincts do not necessarily recall lush precincts, as we know. Like a world imagined from past experiences, each new house seen is a composite of previous ones, each new face a Frankenstein of schoolmates now grown.'