Lyrical Substance Deliberated

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Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from Yellow Submarine (1968).

The advent of spring invariably gets me listening to favourite psychedelic songs, and this year has been no exception. Earlier this week I was idly wondering how many songs there are that follow the Beatles’ lead in telegraphing their drug metaphors by using the initials L-S-D in their titles. Wikipedia’s page for Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (1967) relates John Lennon’s oft-repeated claim that the initialism in the title was a coincidence, and the song itself is really a bit of Lewis Carroll-like whimsy. This might be credible if works of art only ever carried one meaning but they don’t, of course, and the song is both a piece of Lewis Carroll-like whimsy as well as being a pretty obvious paean to the drug experience: “Climb in the back with your head in the clouds / And you’re gone”. Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (1967) was similarly ambivalent with mushrooms/pills replacing acid.

Among the many things birthed by the enormous success of the Sgt Pepper album, a small flurry of songs or instrumentals have imitated Lennon’s initialism for their titles. The ones that came immediately to mind are detailed below, and they make a curious group. If anyone knows of any others—there must be others…—then please leave a comment.

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Burning Of The Midnight Lamp/The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice (Aug, 1967).

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s B-side not only alludes to LSD but also to STP. The song itself doesn’t go very far before collapsing into freakout mode.

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The Trip (1967).

Not a song but included here for that “Lovely Sort of Death” tag. Written by Jack Nicholson! With Dennis Hopper as the acid dealer! See the trailer here, then watch the whole film here.

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Lost Soul In Disillusion (November, 1967).

Hard to imagine anyone in London would have heard this in 1967. The Power of Beckett were a Montreal garage group who only released two singles. Lost Soul In Disillusion turned up years later on compilation albums.

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Wavelength

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Thanks be to YouTube for once more resurrecting moments of underground cinema which would otherwise be very difficult to see. Wavelength (1967) is Michael Snow’s experimental masterwork, a 45-minute zoom across a New York loft that ends on a photograph of waves that fills the screen. This recipe for ennui is not without incident: we see a bookcase being installed, someone plays a Beatles record—Strawberry Fields Forever—a man breaks into the apartment and collapses. (He may be dead but we never find out.) Throughout this, the film is subject to flashes of colour filtering, moments of negative inversion and sudden flares of light. For at least half the running time the sound is replaced by a droning oscillator tone which rises inexorably the closer the camera brings us to its destination.

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Between these events there’s plenty of time to meditate upon the meaning of the title: the various wavelengths of sound and light, the distance across the room to the view of the waves, the waves themselves. It’s a fascinating film which is linked for me (and may have influenced) two other takes on the long take: JG Ballard’s short story The 60 Minute Zoom (1976), in which a man monitors his wife’s infidelity from a hotel balcony, and the celebrated shot at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) when Jack Nicholson’s character is assassinated off-screen in another hotel room while the camera floats miraculously through the iron bars of the window. You can see Wavelength in full here. I’d recommend watching it full-screen, it requires immersion.

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Weekend links 57

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A 1973 Ballantine edition of William Burroughs’ novel with a cover illustration from Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) by Salvador Dalí. Via the Burroughs Book Covers archive.

The Sel Publishing House, Turkey, published a new translation of The Soft Machine by William Burroughs in January, an edition which is now under investigation by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office following a report by the (deep breath) Prime Ministry’s Council for Protecting Minors from Explicit Publications. The Council lodged a number of complaints, among them assertions of “lacking unity in its subject matter,” “incompliance with narrative unity,” “using slang and colloquial terms” and “the application of a fragmented narrative style.” Details here. Does Turkey still want to join the EU? Because this kind of persistently illiberal bullshit (see the earlier treatment of Orhan Pamuk) isn’t helping their case at all.

• Related to the above: Evan J Peterson reads Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in the toilet of a Seattle gay bar; Ginsberg himself reads Kaddish and other works here.

• More illiberal bullshit: LGBT activists arrested during royal wedding; Queer Resistance released a statement about the arrests. MPs, activists and trade unionists condemn new attacks on the right to protest.

The Dorian Gray That Wilde Would Want Us To Read. Harvard University Press publishes an uncensored and annotated edition of Wilde’s novel. Kudos for using Caravaggio’s Narcissus on the cover.

One weekend in late 1967, they all decamped to a hotel suite in California’s Ojai Valley for a brainstorming session. Amid clouds of pot smoke, they talked all weekend with the tape recorder running. [Jack] Nicholson then took the tapes and turned the conversations into a screenplay; according to Rafelson, he structured it while on LSD.

Revisiting The Monkees’ psychedelic movie, Head.

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Kraftwerk icons for Windows and Mac OS X by Dave Brasgalla.

Robert Louis Stevenson gets his revenge on sneaky literary agent – 120 years later. And Michael Moorcock imagines tales of unseen Mervyn Peake pictures.

Painting doesn’t look so good on the web. It looks better in life. Sculpture looks better in life. What you end up with is just a reproduction. Whereas with film or with sound or with poetry, you get the deep primary experience not the secondary experience. The web delivers those primary experiences very well.

Ubuweb’s Kenneth Goldsmith interviewed.

• Arkhonia’s Another Dispatch in a World of Multiple Veils is now a free download.

• The story of This Is The Sea: An interview with Mike Scott of The Waterboys.

Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers.

Haeckel Clock, a free app for the iPad.

What is totalitarian art?

Porpoise Song (1968) by The Monkees | Hope For Happiness (1969) by The Soft Machine | I’m A Believer (1974) by Robert Wyatt.

Arthur Penn, 1922–2010

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Design by Bill Gold.

With respect to Bonnie and Clyde and my other films, I would have to say that I think violence is a part of the American character. It began with the Western, the frontier. America is a country of people who act out their views in violent ways—there is not a strong tradition of persuasion, of ideation, and of law.

Let’s face it: Kennedy was shot. We’re in Vietnam, shooting people and getting shot. We have not been out of a war for any period of time in my lifetime. Gangsters were flourishing during my youth, I was in the war at age 18, then came Korea, now comes Vietnam. We have a violent society. It’s not Greece, it’s not Athens, it’s not the Renaissance—it is the American society, and I would have to personify it by saying it is a violent one. So why not make films about it.

From The Bonnie and Clyde Book (1972)

Thus film director Arthur Penn, whose death was announced earlier this week, speaking at a press conference in Montreal in 1967 following the first screenings of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn’s film shocked critics and audiences at the time ostensibly for its graphic violence although the disturbance went deeper than that. What I found shocking the first time I saw it—home alone one evening, watching TV with no idea what to expect—was the abrupt shifts of tone from near comedy (the speeding cars and bluegrass soundtrack, Gene Wilder’s role) to awful realism as the consequences of a life of bank-robbing became apparent. This was disturbing for audiences used to being spoon-fed their morality tales with easily identifiable heroes and villains; the sudden, savage conclusion was especially jolting. A “nightmare comedy” quality was a hallmark of Penn’s best work, and he followed Bonnie and Clyde with another nightmare comedy that’s also a further exploration of America’s troubled history, Little Big Man (1970). Here Dustin Hoffman’s character finds himself caught between the Native Americans who raised him and the warring Cavalry intent on massacring the native tribes. Like Robert Aldrich in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Penn was using Western history to make a statement about America’s involvement in Vietnam; the soldiers in Little Big Man are murderous racists and General Custer is presented not as a doomed hero but as an unhinged psychopath. For me the film has always been distinguished by the character of Little Horse, the first (only?) gay Native American character in cinema. There’s plenty of documentary evidence for gay individuals in Native American tribes but these have seldom been seen in films. It’s Thomas Berger we have to thank for this detail, since it was Berger’s novel which Penn adapted, but the film’s writer and director are also to be congratulated for keeping a minor character who might easily have been excised.

It’s surprising when you see Bonnie and Clyde cited as one of the films that enabled directors to have more artistic freedom during the 1970s that Penn didn’t manage to do more during that golden decade. After Little Big Man there were two films which seem minor in comparison but would be major works from many lesser directors. Night Moves (1975) is one of the handful of attempts at updating film noir which appeared in the 1970s (for others see The Long Goodbye, Robert Aldrich’s Hustle and Taxi Driver), with a screenplay by Alan Sharp, the writer of Ulzana’s Raid. It’s a curio even by the standards of the decade, part detective story set in the Florida Keys, part symbolic drama with chess games and boats named “Point of View”; it’s also Penn’s last great film. The Missouri Breaks (1976), another Western, is fascinating for its pairing of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson but Brando’s eccentric performance is the start of his decline as an actor. It’s hard to believe that Penn only made five more films after this but he was one of a number of individual talents who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s then found themselves shut out in the 1980s as intellect was ousted by commerce. There’s even less room for him today than there was then. We’ve travelled from a time of intelligent and challenging films made by adults for adults to an era of shitty action movies and worthless adaptations of equally worthless costumed vigilantes. But I never counsel despair; celebrate what we have rather than bemoaning what we might have lost. Fuck Star Wars in 3D, watch Little Big Man instead.

Guardian obituary | NYT obituary
David Thomson on Penn

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912–2007

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Another one bites the dust… What are the odds against two of the last surviving big names of cinema expiring in the same week? I could never get fully behind Antonioni the way I could with Bergman, I didn’t think much of the Neo-Realist school that Antonioni began as a part of and his later Italian films such as La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) seemed like vacuous stylistic exercises. He divided opinion even among his peers—Orson Welles couldn’t bear his work whereas Stanley Kubrick put La Notte in a “ten best” list in 1963. I always enjoyed Blow Up (1966) even though it seems fatuous next to Performance while Zabriskie Point (1970) is a joke. But I like The Passenger (aka Professione: Reporter, 1975) very much.

A simple story—reporter in the Sahara swaps identities with a dead arms dealer then goes on the run—featured Jack Nicholson giving one of his last good performances before his descent into gurning self-parody. Also Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff (between Kubrick films) and Jenny Runacre shortly before she was in Jubilee for Derek Jarman. The film works as an extended travelogue, ranging from Africa to England then into Spain as Nicholson’s character picks up student Maria Schneider on his travels and is pursued by his wife (who doesn’t believe he’s dead) and men intent on killing him. Events are resolved during a celebrated seven-minute single take where the camera passes miraculously through the iron bars of a hotel window. One of Antonioni’s finest qualities was his appreciation of architectural and cinematic space and the final shot of the film is a perfect example of this. The Passenger was out of circulation for years but is now available on DVD.

Guardian obituary | David Thomson appreciation

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