The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse

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Among the weekend’s viewing was the third and final film in Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). This was also Lang’s final feature, made after his return to Germany in the late 1950s, and another film of his that for many years I knew only as an impossible-to-find title. I’d read about the Mabuse series in Lotte Eisner’s study of Lang’s career even before the name and character was co-opted by Propaganda for their first single in 1984, but the only films of Lang’s that ever used to appear on TV were the Hollywood features or, if you were lucky, a poor print of Metropolis. Mabuse was a source of fascination for the way the character connected the beginning and ends of the director’s career, as well as being a German take on the Moriarty-like super-criminal. The first film in the series, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), condenses the corruption of Weimar Germany into a potent physical icon, while the sequel, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), reflects the fevered moment when real super-criminals were taking control of the nation. The Nazis were sufficiently discomforted by Testament to ban it shortly after its release.

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Cornelius the psychic with insurance salesman Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig and police inspector Kras.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse appeared just as new super-villains were emerging to oppose James Bond and his imitators. One of Bond’s early adversaries, Auric Goldfinger, was portrayed on screen by Gert Fröbe who appears here on the opposite side of the law as homicide inspector Kras. Fröbe’s tenacious policeman is one of the few fixed points in a plot filled with twists and deceptive identities. Assassinations and double-crosses are a staple of this type of thriller but Lang also gives us an early example of electronic surveillance in a contemporary setting, together with a séance that harks back to a similar scene in the first Mabuse film. The séance is an unusual touch in a story otherwise devoid of similar moments, prompted by the film’s most mysterious character, Cornelius the blind psychic. With an appearance reminiscent of the late Karl Lagerfeld, Cornelius is an overt throwback to Lang’s pre-war films, many of which hinted at the mystical or supernatural even when such hints seemed unnecessary; Rotwang, the robot-builder in Metropolis (played by the original screen Mabuse, Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is a mechanical genius who just happens to live in a house more suited to an alchemist, with a huge inverted pentagram on one of its walls. The sinister motives of Cornelius aren’t so baldly stated but his consulting room is lavishly decorated with astrological diagrams. The psychic, together with the criminals and the police inspector, create a problem common to films of this kind in which the more colourful characters generate greater interest for the viewer than do the romantic leads. After a succession of breathless opening scenes, Thousand Eyes sags a little while wealthy industrialist Henry Travers (Peter Van Eyck) is getting to know Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. The film also lacks the subtext of the earlier episodes, although Mabuse’s scheme turns out to be diabolical enough for any of James Bond’s Cold War enemies.

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The séance.

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Weekend links 528

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The Rhinoceros (after 1620) by Albrecht Dürer.

• “Today—Tolkien, Lovecraft, Miéville and M John Harrison!” Paul StJohn Mackintosh at Greydogtales explores HP Lovecraft’s lack of interest in fictional worldbuilding. The piece includes one of my book covers (ta!) plus a link to an earlier post I wrote about the cover designs of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books. Since I’m connected to the thesis I’ll suggest that Lovecraft was resistant to the worldbuilding impulse in part because he was almost always writing horror stories. Having studied the genre at length he was well aware of the need to leave suggestive voids for the reader’s imagination.

• RIP Denise Johnson. All the obituaries mention the big names she worked with, notably New Order and Primal Scream, but being in the pool of Manchester session artists she also appeared on a couple of records by my colleagues at Savoy. Her voice is one of those you first hear on the PJ Proby cover of I’m On Fire, while with friend Rowetta she improvised her way through a Hi-NRG original (and a favourite of Anohni’s), the scurrilous Shoot Yer Load.

• At the BFI: Axel Madsen interviews Fritz Lang in 1967; Serena Scateni on where to begin with Nobuhiko Obayashi; and Roger Luckhurst reviews the spomenik-infested  Last and First Men by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

• “Be more aware of the rest of the world!” says Jon Hassell, talking to Alexis Petridis about a life spent making music.

John Boardley on the Renaissance origins of the printed poster. Worth it for the selection of engraved details alone.

• “What Ever Happened To Chicken Fat?” Jackson Arn on a tendency to over-abundance in Jewish humour.

Erik Davis has a new writing home at Substack that he calls The Burning Shore. Bookmarked.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXII by David Colohan.

• Garry Hensey on The Strange World of John Foxx.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sergei Parajanov Day.

Romantic Rhino (1981) by Ananda Shankar | The Lone Rhinoceros (1982) by Adrian Belew | Blastic Rhino (2000) by King Crimson

Chance encounters on the dissecting table

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In times of great uncertainty about our mission, we often looked at the fixed points of Lautréamont and De Chirico, which sufficed to determine our straight line.

André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, 1928

1: The metaphor, 1869

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You can’t read the history of Surrealism for very long before encountering some variation of the most famous line from Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse: “beautiful as a chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. Translations vary, as do misquotations; the page above is from the Alexis Lykiard translation where you can also read the surrounding text. The context of the description is seldom mentioned when the quote is used, and reveals that the words are describing the attractiveness of an English schoolboy living with his parents in Paris. The insipid Mervyn is stalked, seduced and finally murdered by the villainous Maldoror. Lautréamont’s metaphor, like so much else in the book, carries a sting in its tail.

2: The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920

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Man Ray, like Mervyn, was a foreigner living in Paris when he created this artwork. The “enigma” may be taken as referring both to the wrapped object (a sewing machine sans umbrella) as well as to the mysterious author of Les Chants de Maldoror, who died at the age of 24 after writing his explosive prose poem, and about whose life little is known. I first encountered Ducasse’s name in art books showing pictures of this piece which is one of the earliest works of Surrealist art. For a young art enthusiast the enigma was more in the name itself: who was this Ducasse, and why was he enigmatic? The original of Man Ray’s piece was subsequently lost, like many of his pre-war sculptures, but may be seen inside the first issue of La Révolution Surrealiste. Editions of the work that exist today are recreations made in the 1970s.

3: An illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror, 1934

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Salvador Dalí created 30 full-page etchings and 12 vignettes for an illustrated edition of Lautréamont’s work published by Skira in Paris in 1934. Dalí must have seemed an ideal match for a book whose prose descriptions offer copious atrocities and mutations but, as with many of Dalí’s illustrations, the pictures owe more to his obsessions than to Lautréamont’s text, and could easily be used to illustrate something else entirely. Plate 19 does, however, feature a sewing machine.

4: Electrosexual Sewing Machine, 1935

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A Surrealist painting by Oscar Dominguez which emphasises the sexual nature of Lautréamont’s metaphor, or at least the Freudian interpretation of the same. Breton and company took the sewing machine for a female symbol, while the umbrella was male; the dissecting table where their encounter takes place is, of course, a bed.

[In Electrosexual Sewing Machine] the dissection appears to be under way. There is a strange abusive surgery being undertaken, the thread of the sewing machine replaced with blood which is being funnelled onto the woman’s back. The plant itself may even echo de Lautréamont’s umbrella. Domínguez has taken one of the central mantras of Breton’s Surreal universe and has pushed it, through a combination of painterly skill and semi-automatism, in order to create an absorbing and haunting vision that cuts to the quick of the movement’s spirit. (via)

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Weekend links 494

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Aurora Borealis (1865) by Frederic Edwin Church.

• December is over-stuffed with enervating cultural lists, most of them reminding you of things which received enough attention earlier in the year. Better value than these—and always unpredictable—is John Waters‘ choice of favourite films; unpredictable and enlightening are the Secret Satan selections at Strange Flowers which come in two flavours: books originally published in English and books translated from other languages.

Flash Of The Spirit (1988), a collaboration between Jon Hassell and African group Farafina (with production by Hassell plus Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois), receives its first ever reissue on double-vinyl and CD next year. The last piece on the album is the 11-minute Masque (Strength).

• “In 1968, Federico Fellini decided he was going make the greatest homosexual movie ever made. What he meant by a homosexual movie, no one was quite sure, but it was going to be great.” Paul Gallagher on Federico Fellini’s delirious (and distinctly homosexual) Satyricon.

• “Here’s the typography of the next decade; the age of font minimalism is coming to a close,” says Rachel Hawley. I’ve been using Didones for the past decade so I’ll carry on happily ignoring the trends.

• More obituaries for comic artist Howard Cruse: Justin Hall at The Comics Journal; Trudy Ring at The Advocate; and Richard Sandomir at the New York Times.

• “Cowley records a kind of utopian sleaze that’s breathtaking.” Brett Josef Grubisic reviews Patrick Cowley’s sex journal of the 1970s, Mechanical Fantasy Box.

• At the BFI: Carmen Grey on where to begin with Sergei Parajanov, and Matthew Thrift on 10 essential Fritz Lang films.

A promo video by Julian House for Paul Weller’s In Another Room EP which is released in January by Ghost Box.

• At Aquarium Drunkard: San Francisco Radical Laboratory and the Mysterious Moogist of Altamont.

• Mix of the week: Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. V – France III by David Colohan.

Aurora Australis (2005) by Émilie Simon | Iceblink (Aurora Borealis Mix) (2011) by Netherworld | Aurora Liminalis (2013) by William Basinski & Richard Chartier

Weekend links 421

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The Death of American Spirituality (1987) by David Wojnarowicz.

Dau: “Art imitating life on an unprecedented scale”. Siddhant Adlakha on a colossal Russian feature-film project that sounds like a real-life equivalent of Synecdoche, New York. Adlakha’s piece, which claims that Dau is finished, was written a year ago but there’s still no sign of the film itself. Wikipedia has more details and links.

Metropolis Magazine from Phantasm Press is a facsimile republication of the 32-page theatre programme produced for the UK premier of Fritz Lang’s feature film.

Children Of The New Dawn is a preview of the score for Mandy by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. From last year: The Drowned World (live) by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World (1848) by Benjamin Russell & Caleb Purrington is the longest painting in North America.

• “This summer, there is only one book to take to the Terminal Beach”: Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe by Simon Sellars.

• “La série des Fredi en trois volumes est une étude sincère et consciencieuse de l’inversion sexuelle.”

• “The Book was Mallarmé’s total artwork, a book to encompass all books,” says Sylvia Gorelick.

• At BLDGBLOG: Graphic Inferno, art by Rico Lebrun based on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

• Mixes of the week: XLR8R Podcast 549 by Hólmar, and FACT Mix 661 by Kelly Lee Owens.

• “Dealing with creative block? A deck of cards might help,” says Abigail Cain.

The Instagram account archiving exquisite interiors from vintage porn.

Polish composers report from Outer Space

Wind From Nowhere (1994) by Uzect Plaush | Slolooblade : The Drowned World (1994) by Mo Boma | Inner Space Memorial for JG Ballard (2014) by Janek Schaefer