Art on film: Space is the Place

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Mescaline Woods (1969) by Gage Taylor.

Continuing an occasional series about artworks in feature films. This is more of a trivial example than the epic study of Providence but it seems worth mentioning when the art and the film in question aren’t so familiar.

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Encounter (1971) by Gage Taylor.

Last week my friend Jay Babcock was asking on his Substack newsletter for other examples of the utopian hippy landscape art that flourished in the 1970s. I recommended the paintings of Gage Taylor (1942–2000), an artist who was part of the loose movement known as the Californian Visionaries during that decade; paintings by the group were showcased in the Visions book published by Pomegranate in 1977, and shortly thereafter could be found in the early issues of OMNI magazine. Taylor was a prime exponent of slightly fantastic, idealised landscapes with titles like Mescaline Woods, painted in a style which, for the most part, he managed to prevent from becoming too saccharine. Encounter is a typical example: a quartet of naked hippies wandering through an Arcadian scene bordered by decorative cannabis leaves. The painting is definitely utopian in asking us to accept a clothes-free hike along a trail with no concern for sharp stones or injurious plants and animals.

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Looking through Visions again, and at this painting in particular, I was struck by the foreground group of floating alien creatures which I belatedly realised are the origin of the aliens from the opening scenes of Space is the Place (1974), the Sun Ra feature film directed by John Coney. And after watching those scenes again, details from Taylor’s paintings (including Mescaline Woods) turn up as brief establishing shots of the planet where Sun Ra has landed his spacecraft, something I’d missed entirely. Taylor is credited as one of the set decorators so I’d guess he made the alien creatures himself. I’d have been happy with more of the cosmic weirdness and less of the Blaxploitation clichés that pad out the later scenes but with films as unlikely as this we have to be thankful they exist at all. At its best Space is the Place approaches the delirium of The Holy Mountain, albeit on a much lower budget; Sun Ra and the villainous Overseer even play a game to decide the fate of the Earth using a unique pack of Tarot cards.

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Another more obvious external reference in the opening scenes is the cowled and mirror-faced individual that Sun Ra talks to, a figure taken from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren’s film in 1974 wasn’t the cult item that it is today so this is an opportunistic swipe on the part of the film-makers, but the borrowing allows us to regard Mirror-face as the same character in both films. Watch them together.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Art on film: Providence
Art on film: The Beast
Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

Weekend links 627

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Cover art by Alan Aldridge for The Secret Life of Plants, 1975. Via.

• At Aquarium Drunkard: Alice Coltrane and band in a furious live performance at the Berkeley Community Theatre, 1972. The audio is on YouTube, and was also released on (unofficial) vinyl a couple of years ago, but you can download the whole set at Dimeadozen. (Free membership required.)

• “Black Square is tragic; it’s absurd; it can be bewildering or funny; it’s certainly metaphysical; and now it serves as a precursor for works and projects yet to be imagined.” Andrew Spira on the precursors of Black Square by Kazimir Malevich.

• “The possibility of plant consciousness cuts two ways, depending on whether you see plants as friend or foe, benevolent or threatening.” Elvia Wilk on the secret lives of plants.

• New/old music: Robot Riot by Stereolab. A previously unreleased recording from the mid-90s which will appear on the fifth instalment in the Switched-On compilation series.

• “Dare’s good, but Love And Dancing broke the mould and kicked off the whole modern dance scene.” Ian Wade on 40 years of remix albums.

• Coming soon from Strange Attractor: Arik Roper: Vision of The Hawk.

• At Unquiet Things: Deborah Turbeville’s unseen Versailles.

• “Thinking like a scientist will make you happier”.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Karel Zeman Day.

Plantasia (1976) by Mort Garson | Musik Of The Trees (1978) by Steve Hillage | The Secret Life Of Plants (1979) by Stevie Wonder

The Rejected Sorcerer

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Cover art by Ed Emshwiller.

More Borges. While checking the details of yesterday’s post I discovered this oddity, an American SF magazine that published a two-page Borges story in March 1960, and put the author’s name on the cover even though few of the magazine’s readers would have heard of him at the time. The issue, which turned out to be the final one, lacks an editorial page so there’s no indication as to how the story found its way there. The story itself concerns an encounter in modern-day Spain between two men, one of them an established magician (in the occult sense), the other a neophyte hoping to gain similar powers. The piece is as much a moral fable as a work of fantasy, and as such appears out of place in a magazine with flying-saucer artwork on its exterior and a Virgil Finlay illustration inside (not for the Borges, unfortunately).

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I thought at first that I might not have read this one before, the title wasn’t familiar but the story was one I recognised immediately. I was also surprised to find that I have it in four different collections under different titles, and with two of the printings appearing at first to disguise the author. In Black Water: An Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1983), edited by Alberto Manguel, the story appears as The Wizard Postponed, with the writer given as “Juan Manuel”; in The Book of Fantasy (1988), an updated version of the Antología de la Literatura Fantástica edited in 1940 by Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, the same piece appears as The Wizard Passed Over, with the author credited as “Don Juan Manuel”. The latter turns out to be the original author, a medieval Spanish writer, although “original” here is a debatable term when the story is Manuel’s adaptation of a piece he found in a book of Arabian tales. Borges rewrote this together with several other short reworkings which appear in the Etcetera section at the end of A Universal History of Infamy, its third appearance on my shelves (once again as The Wizard Postponed).

The fourth appearance is in the Collected Fictions (1998), or the cursed volume as I tend to think of it. I often feel bad about traducing the efforts of translator Andrew Hurley every time Borges is mentioned here but this story provides a good example of why his work is so unsatisfying to readers familiar with the stories from older editions. In its original Spanish the story is El brujo postergado, a short title for which The Wizard Postponed or The Wizard Passed Over would seem like reasonable analogues. Hurley expands this to The Wizard That Was Made to Wait, a lumbering, graceless phrase that’s typical of the lumbering gracelessness elsewhere in Collected Fictions. These tin-eared translations are the ones approved by the Borges estate so they’re present in all the reprints of the past 20 years. Fortunately for readers, most of Borges’ books were widely reprinted in English translations that the author approved, and some of which he even assisted with. Reject the conjurations of maladroit sorcerers, that’s my advice.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges

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“This City” (I thought) “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars.”

This is the kind of thing I love to find: a BBC adaptation of a story by Jorge Luis Borges which I didn’t even know existed until this week. The Immortal was written in 1947 and published in the fourth collection of the writer’s fiction, El Aleph, in 1949. Anglophone readers will be more familiar with the story from Labyrinths, the most popular Borges collection, and the book I always recommend to those curious about his work. (And with the usual nagging proviso: avoid the Andrew Hurley translations if you can.)

Borges’ immortal is a Roman soldier during the reign of Diocletian whose life is recounted via a manuscript discovered in 1929 inside a volume of poetry. (The volume is Pope’s translation of The Iliad; Homer is never far away in Borges-land, especially in this story.) Disappointed by his military career, the soldier leaves his legion to go in search of the legendary City of the Immortals which is reputed to lie somewhere in the African desert; he finds the city, of course, and also (inevitably) receives more than he bargained for. Borges’ other fictions are seldom as traditionally fantastic as this, although the story’s philosophical musings are enough to set it apart from similar tales, as is the author’s habit of owning up to his recondite literary borrowings, like a magician revealing the secret of a trick at the end of a performance. Even so, The Immortal was generic enough to turn up in an American paperback collection in 1967, New Worlds of Fantasy edited by Terry Carr, along with stories by Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, JG Ballard and others. The Ballard story, The Lost Leonardo, is an uncharacteristic piece about another immortal character, Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, cursed to roam the world until the Second Coming of Christ. Ahasuerus was a popular character in the 19th century, whose legend and predicament was enough to sustain Eugène Sue for 1400 pages in a ten-volume historical saga, Le Juif Errant. Borges alludes to Ahasuerus via the name “Joseph Cartaphilus” although this is one obscure reference that he doesn’t explain for the reader. By contrast with the logorrhoeic Monsieur Sue, Borges requires a mere 15 pages to deal with 2000 years of history.

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Given the challenges of staging a complex historical drama on a TV budget Carlos Pasini’s film is little more than a 22-minute sketch of its source material, but Borges adaptations are scarce enough that there’s a thrill in seeing the material presented at all, as with the brief dramatisations in the Arena documentary, Borges and I. The Immortal was given a single broadcast on 20th November, 1970, as part of a now-forgotten BBC 2 arts programme, Review, where it was intended as an introduction to the author’s writing following the UK publication of The Book of Imaginary Beings. Mark Edwards plays the Roman soldier whose narration is taken verbatim from the story. Borges’ international reputation had reached a plateau of popularity at this time, after growing steadily during the 1960s. 1970 was also the year that Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance was released, a film that quotes verbally and visually Borges’ Personal Anthology while also featuring a photo of the man himself. A year later, Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius collection, The Nature of the Catastrophe, included the dedication “For Borges”; Jerry Cornelius is another immortal (or timeless) character, one of whose progenitors may be “Joseph Cartaphilus”. Pasini’s adaptation can’t compete with these heavyweights but as a taster of Borgesian prose and ideas it serves its purpose. The director has made it available for viewing here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Diamonds

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I’ve finally found time to update the website a little so here are the last two book covers I was working on last year. In the Coils of the Labyrinth by David Annandale is another tale of Lovecraftian horror for Aconyte:

Professor Miranda Ventham is having bad dreams—nothing new in 1920s Arkham—but hers are horrifying glimpses of a dark future. Now seriously ill, she books herself into the new sanatorium, Stroud Home. With luck, the town’s eldritch taint won’t reach her there. And yet the nightmares worsen. Aided by her friend, Agatha Crane, they delve into the background of the sanatorium’s enigmatic director, Donovan Stroud. Plagued by doubts, delusions, and terrifying visions, Christine must unravel the shrouded history of the Strouds before she is trapped in a labyrinthine nightmare. Something sinister lurks at its heart, and it longs to be set free.

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Otzi’s Odyssey by Neil Perry Gordon is a metaphysical drama which posits a fictional life and afterlife for the neolithic iceman whose body was discovered in the Alps:

Ötzi’s Odyssey – The Troubled Soul of a Neolithic Iceman, opens in the year 1991 with the remarkable sighting of a mummified man, half frozen in glacial ice, whom two hikers stumble upon. Along with this profound archeological discovery, the soul of this five-thousand-year-old iceman is awakened.

?Ötzi the iceman’s adventure takes him to the modern era, where his observant soul tries to comprehend why it remains tethered to the frozen mummy, as well as to make sense of a technologically advanced world. The story then returns to 3300 BCE, to the life and times of clan chief Bhark as he lives with his family in a peaceful village upon stilt homes clinging to the shore of the great Lake Neith, located in the shadows of ominous Similaun Mountain.

Both these covers use an elongated diamond shape in their designs, a repetition that I wasn’t intending. I did this first on Otzi’s Odyssey since the story has four infernal realms that the character’s soul travels through. A diamond shape subsequently became necessary for In the Coils of the Labyrinth when a central panel was required that wouldn’t cover too much of the background imagery while also connecting the upper and lower levels and providing a graphic link with my previous covers in this series. There’s a similar shape on my cover for The Voice of the Fire so I should probably avoid doing this for a while…

Still to be announced from last year is an album cover design that I managed to fit in despite several months of serious overwork. This was my first proper album cover for some time (as opposed to the layout I’m usually doing on albums where the artists provide their own art) but the release seems to have been delayed for some reason. More about that one when/if it appears.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Devourer Below
Litany of Dreams
The Last Ritual