Weekend links 496

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Fahrenheit 451 (1966) poster by György Kemény.

• “The novel is constantly assailed by people wanting to conscript it to their own ends. (Other art forms are not similarly burdened; someone yelling ‘What about global warming?’ between numbers at a Keith Jarrett concert would be recognized to have made a category error.)” Jonathan Clarke on the demands that literature should nurture empathy.

• The first three features by Alejandro Jodorowsky—Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973)—return to Britain’s cinema screens in January (well…two of them return; I’m not sure that Fando y Lis has ever been shown in cinemas over here). All three films will be given overdue blu-ray releases by Arrow in March.

• “What distinguishes Oulipo from other language games, is that its methods have to be capable of producing valid literary results.” Tony White reviews The Penguin Book of Oulipo: Queneau, Perec, Calvino and the Adventure of Form, edited by Philip Terry.

But from a present-day perspective, it is also remarkable the extent to which cafés, busy conduits for knowledge and sentiment, resembled later digitally connected systems. The larger establishments offered not just a huge selection of newspapers, domestic and foreign, but also reference material—maps, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, language lexicons, address books—for writers struggling with their research, or merely trying to settle an argument. The combination of hard facts and caffeinated opinion firing through the steamy analogue ether constituted a local area network of extraordinary reach. In the pre-digital era, the Viennese café offered the greatest possible concentration of current knowledge—for the price of a mélange.

From the Strange Flowers guide to Vienna, part 2

• “People like Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin, they have to love Zhivago to prove that good writing can come out of Soviet Russia. They ignore that it is really a bad book.” Jennifer Wilson on Vladimir Nabokov’s fighting spirit.

• Master animator Richard Williams died in August so here again is the exceptional adaptation of A Christmas Carol made by his studio in 1971.

• Hearing a person: Annea Lockwood remembers her partner, composer Ruth Anderson, whose death was announced last week.

• The London Review of Books has relaunched its website. The paywall is currently down until mid-January so dig in.

Live In Paris by Pharoah Sanders, a previously unreleased ORTF concert recording from 1975.

• Unrising sun: Amos Chapple’s photographs of the polar nights of Murmansk.

Mary McNamara on the rescuing of 200 historic Hollywood backdrops.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 623 by Aida.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sandy Dennis Day.

The Desert Is A Circle (1970) by Shades Of Joy | The Desert Is A Circle (1971) by Paul Horn | Holy Mountain (1994) by Axiom Ambient

The Tractate Middoth

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The recent interest in the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series has been a thing of mixed blessings, as is often the case when nostalgia fuels a reappraisal. On the one hand aficionados such as myself no longer have to hoard and swap rare tapes or video files now that the BFI has made all the films available on DVD; the interest in those films, and in similar works, has had the additional benefit of resurrecting related TV dramas and series such as Dead of Night (1972), and Leslie Megahey’s exceptional Schalcken the Painter (1979).

On the debit side, the revival of the series in 2005 has been a patchy affair, with results ranging from the very good (A View from a Hill), to the not-so-bad (Number 13), to the disgracefully bad (the 2010 adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You). All these dramas continue the tradition of adapting stories by MR James, a writer whose work is now the first choice for any future stories in the series, and whose oeuvre overshadows that of other possible candidates for adaptation. Whether this last development is a good or bad one depends on your view of James’s fiction.

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Sacha Dhawan among the dusty tomes.

This year we had a new James adaptation, The Tractate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, followed by an hour-long documentary about MR James which Gatiss presented. Gatiss and his League of Gentlemen colleagues have been vocal in their enthusiasm for the British film and television ghost story, and for its literary antecedents: last year the team contributed a commentary track to the recent reissue of Blood on Satan’s Claw; League writer Jeremy Dyson has an essay in the BFI’s DVD/BR release of The Innocents; Reece Shearsmith has recorded several readings of Robert Aickman’s superb short stories; Dyson directed, and Gatiss acted in, The Cicerones (aka The Guides, 2002), an adaptation of an Aickman story. The latter was well-intentioned but a short running time combined with a very literal transcription of Aickman’s ambiguities made for a disappointing end result. The Cicerones made me apprehensive for what we might see with The Tractate Middoth but I’m pleased to report that all concerns were unfounded: Gatiss’s film is not only the best MR James adaptation since The Ash Tree (1975) but is the best film in this series since The Signalman in 1976. (Although Schalcken the Painter was screened during Christmas 1979 it wasn’t intended as a continuation of the Christmas ghost stories.) This bodes well for the future of the series, and confirms the importance of having a writer and director with a sympathy for the material.

Continue reading “The Tractate Middoth”

Weekend links 190

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Seam Stress (1987) by Laurie LiptonThe Drawings of Laurie Lipton is out now from Last Gasp.

• The Quietus continues to be essential reading: John Doran talks to Richard H Kirk about Cabaret Voltaire | Sarah Angliss, musician and inventor of music machines, talks to Stuart Huggett | “…the most overt literary lodestar for The Art Of Falling Apart is John Rechy, trailblazing chronicler of the gay underbelly of hustlers and queens zig-zagging across America, and author of Numbers, the book from which Soft Cell’s song takes its name.” Matthew Lindsay looks back at Soft Cell’s second (and best) album.

• “The English have something of a tradition where they like to scare you out of your mind at Christmas, a kind of sobering up of the senses by forces that seem to be beyond them.” Colin Fleming on The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens. More ghosts: Lisa Kerrigan explains why she loves Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV adaptation of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and the BFI resurrects The Mistletoe Bough (1904), “the oldest film version of a classic Christmas ghost story”.

• “…the story is filled with a whole mess of embarrassed and embarrassing euphemisms for (ahem) big dick—stiff language, so to speak, like ‘bludgeon,’ like ‘giant concupiscence’ and ‘ostentatious organ.'” Steven Cordova on A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories by Glenway Wescott.

• “Never produced, the screenplay for The Way to Santiago is credited to Orson Welles. A quick look at the text leaves no doubt it was the work of the Citizen Kane filmmaker when he was at the peak of his arrogant brilliance. The script begins: ‘My face fills the frame.'”

• If you’re at all interested in the current state of the British musical underground, the end-of-year lists at Ears For Eyes are worth your attention.

Pee-wee’s (Remastered) Christmas Adventure: An interview with Paul Reubens. Related: Grace Jones sings Little Drummer Boy for Pee-wee.

• “I’m like a drag queen at Halloween.” John Waters on his favourite time of year: Christmas.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 099, an “(anti)Christmas mix” by Robert Curgenven.

• The British Library makes over a million free-to-use images available at Flickr Commons.

• Lost in Translation: Notes on adapting Ballard by Calum Marsh.

MR James at Pinterest.

Book Map by Dorothy.

Martin (1983) by Soft Cell | Ghost Talk (1985) by Cabaret Voltaire | For Laika (2011) by Spacedog

Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol

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It’s easy to loathe the teeth-grinding sentimentality of Charles Dickens’ seasonal tale, as well as its subtext which isn’t so far removed from Emperor Ming’s instruction to his cowed populace in Flash Gordon: “All creatures shall make merry…under pain of death.” Yet as a ghost story I prefer A Christmas Carol to the sketchier The Signal-Man, and I’ve always enjoyed this memorable 1971 adaptation from the animation studio of the great Richard Williams.

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Marley’s ghost.

Williams is best known today for his role as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but prior to this he’d distinguished himself as creator of the florid title sequence for What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), and the animated sections—done in the style of 19th-century engravings and political cartoons—for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Williams’ Christmas Carol owes a similar debt to Victorian graphics, not only to the original story illustrations by John Leech, but also to Gustave Doré’s views of Victorian London, scenes which had earlier influenced the production design for David Lean’s adaptation of Oliver Twist. Williams’ film crams Dickens’ story into 25 minutes but nonetheless manages to maintain the tone of the original to a degree which eludes many feature-length travesties, especially those in which the nightmare squalor of Victorian London is reduced to a shot or two of dressed-down extras. Dickens had first-hand experience of the squalor: Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld (1970) quotes at length from one of the journeys Dickens took (under police escort) through the notorious St Giles rookery, and his ghost story was intended as much as a warning to the complacency of middle-class Victorian readers as a Christmas celebration.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past.

For me the crucial moment in any adaptation comes when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the figures of Ignorance and Want: in most film versions these tend to be a pair of well-fed child actors in rags and make-up; Williams shows us two grim spectres that owe more to Gerald Scarfe than Walt Disney. Williams is also truer to the ghosts themselves: Dickens describes Jacob Marley unfastening his jaw which falls open then remains that way while he proceeds to speak to his former friend; the Ghost of Christmas Past is the androgynous figure from the story with its ambiguous nature also shown by its shimmering indeterminate outline.

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Ignorance.

Any animated drama relies on its voice actors, and Williams was fortunate to have Alistair Sim (as Scrooge) and Michael Hordern (as Marley) reprising their roles from the 1951 film version, while Michael Redgrave narrates the tale. The film used to be a seasonal fixture of British television, and may still be for all I know (I haven’t owned a TV for years). For the time being it’s on YouTube, of course, with a full-length version here that’s blighted by compression artefacts but is watchable enough. 2012 is the Dickens bicentenary so expect to hear a lot more about the author and his works in the coming year.

Update: The version linked to originally has been deleted. No matter, there’s a much better copy here (for now).

As usual I’ll be away for a few days so the { feuilleton } archive feature will be activated to summon posts from the past below this. Have a good one. And Gruß vom Krampus!

Previously on { feuilleton }
“Who is this who is coming?”

“Who is this who is coming?”

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Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure—how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

One of the alleged highlights of this year’s Christmas television from the BBC was a new adaptation of an MR James ghost story, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. The film starred John Hurt and came with the same truncated title, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, as was used for Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version, also a BBC production. The story title comes originally from a poem by Robert Burns. The new work was adapted by Neil Cross and directed by Andy de Emmony, and I describe it as an alleged highlight since I wasn’t impressed at all by the drama, the most recent attempt by the BBC to continue a generally creditable tradition of screening ghost stories at Christmas. Before I deal with my disgruntlement I’ll take the opportunity to point the way to some earlier derivations. (And if you don’t want the story spoiled, away and read it first.)

Continue reading ““Who is this who is coming?””