Weekend links 37

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Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is fifty-years old this year, an occasion celebrated with a limited UK cinema run and a reissue on Blu-ray and regular DVD. This was the film which famously ended Powell’s career as a director in Britain for reasons which have never been quite clear. Was the film’s critical vilification the culmination of an impatience with the director’s alleged excesses over the years? Was it an unarticulated discomfort at the way Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks implicated themselves and the audience in the sordid murders they (we) were watching in the dark? Or was the film withdrawn simply because producer Nat Cohen wanted a knighthood and was worried over his reputation as a peddler of “filth”? The bitterest blow for Powell would have been seeing his long-time rival Alfred Hitchcock have another success a few months later with Psycho, a film which allows its audience similar female-slaughtering thrills without questioning the role of the viewer in sustaining the drama. Hitchcock spent much of his career “punishing” women in a manner that verges on outright misogyny yet was indulged all along by audience and critics; Powell made a single film about a murderer and was himself punished for it. His other films often featured strong female characters, and I’ve long regarded him as the superior artist.

The Guardian this week celebrated Powell’s film with a number of articles: Peeping Tom may have been nasty but it didn’t deserve critics’ cold shoulder, Peeping Tom, pornography and the press, The Peeping Tom timebomb.

A Wizard of Earthsea: an unfilmed screenplay from 1983 by Michael Powell and Ursula K Le Guin based on Le Guin’s first two Earthsea novels.

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A boy in a dress with mother and sister, 1860. Yesterday was the 12th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Quaintance by Reed Massengill and Dian Hanson, in which the pioneer of 20th century beefcake art gets the heavyweight Taschen treatment. Expensive but they’re making these volumes for obsessives. Related: Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition of gay and lesbian art at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The gallery has a preview of the exhibition here. On a more humble level, BUTT magazine has a recreation of Quentin Crisp’s inevitably messy New York City apartment.

• From gay art to gay song and dance: Queer To The Core!: Queer Rock From The Vaults! Super-rare novelty singles with titles like Queer Police by Billy Devroe and The Devilaires. Meanwhile Cleveland Street: The Musical is a forthcoming stage celebration of Victorian London’s notorious male brothel. By Glenn Chandler, creator of the popular TV detective series Taggart (!) whose earlier musicals have titles like Boys of the Empire and Scouts in Bondage.

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Strikingly androgynous male model Andrej Pejic photographed by Armin Morbach. There’s a lot more Andrej Pejic at Homotography.

Thrilling Wonder Stories II, “eight hours of architectural futurism featuring an unbelievable line-up of novelists, game designers, animators, scientists, comic book artists, architects, and more”. At the Architectural Association, London, November 26.

• “The iPad is one of the oldest things in the world…a pad or a slate.” Artist Tom Phillips reworks A Humument for a new medium. Related: Creating new books from old, in which Jonathan Safran Foer follows Phillips’ lead by cutting words from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create a new work, Tree of Codes.

• “Technology is turning us into switchboard operators in the communication networks of our own lives.” I know the feeling. Rick Poynor on the seductive tyranny of design technology.

• Comic artist Moebius gets the Tumblr treatment. And speaking of Tumblr, my thanks to everyone who’s been reblogging the Cephalopod Bride.

Skull Comics, 1970–72, at Golden Age Comic Book Stories. Underground artists excavate Lovecraftian horrors, among other things.

The lost town of Dunwich.

The Bells of Dunwich (1975) by Stone Angel | Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960 (1982) by Brian Eno.

The Art Nouveau dance goes on forever

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Catalogue for Art Nouveau Revival 1900 . 1933 . 1966 . 1974. Peacock feather not included.

Regular readers may recall my mention of the Musée d’Orsay exhibition Art Nouveau Revival which was launched late last year. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, unfortunately, but this week I finally ordered a copy of the catalogue, an expensive cloth-bound volume with essays (in French) by Philippe Thiébaut, Stephen Calloway, Irene de Guttry, Thierry Taittinger and Philippe Thieryre. Despite the ruinous postal charges incurred by the book’s weight this was worth every euro, it being the kind of polymorphous production which in solipsistic moments one can choose to believe was created solely for your own benefit.

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Aubrey again, album covers from 1974.

Much of the subject matter has been explored here in various small ways, with the curators following the influence of Art Nouveau through Surrealism (mainly Dalí) to the psychedelic art of the 1960s and on into the Pop Nouveau (for want of a better term) which flourished in the first half of the 1970s. Among the familiar Aubrey Beardsley graphics and psychedelic posters there are also some pleasantly surprising inclusions, including illustrations by Philippe Jullian (yes, I’m still intending on writing about him at some point), yet more Beardsley album covers, film posters, and even some of the sillier films of the late-60s such as Casino Royale. Being a French exhibition there’s a section devoted to comic strips which includes work by Moebius, Philippe Druillet and Guido Crepax.

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Sex and LSD, a spread from Playboy, 1967.

It’s common to see parallels drawn between the 1890s and the 1960s but the strange blooms of vulgarised fin de siècle style which burgeoned in the wake of psychedelia are seldom given much attention. One of the great things about this catalogue is the amount of ephemera the curators chose to include such as magazine ads and trend-chasing album sleeves. It was precisely this blend of 1890s + 1960s + 1970s I sought to capture in my recent cover for Dodgem Logic. As I said, it’s an expensive book but for anyone drawn to this aesthetic hothouse it’s also an essential purchase. Art Nouveau Revival can be ordered direct from the museum shop. Further samples follow.

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Dan O’Bannon, 1946–2009

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Re-release poster by Bemis Balkind.

Alien was a big deal for me when it appeared in late 1979, one of those films that seems to arrive at exactly the right moment. I’d just left school, I was eagerly reading reprints of French and Belgian comic strips in Heavy Metal magazine, and also paperback reprints of science fiction stories from New Worlds; I was listening to Hawkwind and becoming increasingly obsessed with HP Lovecraft. I was, in short, the target audience for a serious SF-themed horror film with contributions from major artists like HR Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and I went to see it three times in a row.

Watching Star Wars two years earlier (for which Dan O’Bannon created the computer displays), I’d enjoyed the special effects but been disappointed by its space-opera tone and dumb heroics. HR Giger’s large-format Necronomicon art book was published in the UK the same year and the sight of his work was a revelation for the way it pushed Dalí-esque Surrealism to a pitch of unprecedented mutation and malevolence. A year later his paintings were appearing in Omni magazine but it was Alien which exploded his popularity. Throughout 1979 you could hardly open a magazine or newspaper without finding a Giger interview or examples of his work. Alien benefited from the SF boom that Star Wars generated but Dan O’Bannon didn’t need George Lucas’s feeble mythology to point him towards science fiction, he’d already made one low-budget sf film, Dark Star, with John Carpenter, and was planning the effects for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune project years before the world had heard of Luke Skywalker. Dune introduced him to Moebius, and the pair collaborated on an SF-noir strip, The Long Tomorrow, which was published in Heavy Metal in 1977. But it was Giger’s connection with the Dune project which proved crucial for Alien:

“(Dune) collapsed so badly,” O’Bannon says, “that I ended up in L.A. without any money, without an apartment, without a car, with half my belongings back in Paris and the other half in storage.”

He retreated to the sofa of a friend, screenwriter Ron Shusett, and didn’t leave it for a week. But depressed or not, O’Bannon knew he had to get back to work. He got his files and typewriter out of storage, and he and Shusett went to work on stacks and stacks of partially completed ideas.

“We pulled out one that I liked very much,” he says, “an old script called Memory that was half-finished and was basically what the first half of Alien is now. I told Ron I’d never been able to figure out the rest of the story. So he read it and said, ‘Well, you told me another idea you had once for a movie. It was the one where gremlins get onto a B-17 bomber during World War II and give the pilots a lot of trouble. So why don’t you make that the second half and put it on a spaceship?’

“That was a great idea, but then we had to figure out the monster. Well, I hadn’t been able to get Hans Rudi Giger off my mind since I left France. His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

The working title was Star Beast. O’Bannon had a fortunate brainstorm late one night as he continued to write while Shusett slept. “I was writing dialogue and one of the characters said, ‘What are we going to do about the alien?’ The word came out of the page at me and I said, ‘Alien. It’s a noun and an adjective.’ So I went in the other room and shook Ron awake and told him and he said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ and went back to sleep. But I knew I had found a really hot title.”

The Book of Alien (1979) by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross

Lest we forget, it was O’Bannon who insisted that Ridley Scott look at Giger’s work during the production of the film after artist Ron Cobb failed to produce a sufficiently nightmarish creature. O’Bannon’s script was mauled by Walter Hill who removed sub-plots, and further scenes were trimmed to speed the pace, but Alien‘s unique atmosphere remains as potent today as it was in 1979. It’s ironic that O’Bannon died in the week that James Cameron’s Avatar (which happens to star Sigourney Weaver) is released. To watch all four Alien films in sequence is to witness progressively diminishing returns, and it was Cameron’s sequel which set the pattern for the later films by dropping the adjective part of the O’Bannon’s title in favour of the noun. There had been plenty of movie monsters before but it was the inhuman quality which we label “alien” that O’Bannon and Giger brought to SF cinema. It’s a quality that few have been able to deliver since, not least in Avatar which (from what I’ve seen) looks less alien than something Frank R Paul might have painted in the 1930s. O’Bannon did a lot more after Alien, of course, but it’s his first big success which will always mean the most to me. I recommend Ridley Scott’s director’s cut from 2003 which restored scenes and shots removed from the original release.

Remembering the late, great Dan O’Bannon
The first action heroine: Ellen Ripley and Alien, 30 years on

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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
The monstrous tome

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune

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Fortunate Londoners can get to see a new exhibition, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’: An exhibition of a film of a book that never was, which runs at The Drawing Room until October 25, 2009. As well as production designs from concept artists Moebius, HR Giger and Chris Foss, there’s newly commissioned work by artists Steven Claydon, Matthew Day Jackson and Vidya Gastaldon.

Jodorowsky’s proposed 1976 adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel is now the stuff of legend, and it’s possible that his outrageously ambitious plans are more fun to dream about than they would have been on the screen. But it remains a tantalising prospect that Jodorowsky might well have pulled off a science fiction equivalent of Fellini’s Satyricon. Either way, along with Stanley Kubrick’s unmade Napoleon, it’s one of the great lost films of the 1970s.

Among Jodorowsky’s proposed cast were Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali, the last of whom was to play the Emperor of the Universe, who ruled from a golden toilet-cum-throne in the shape of two intertwined dolphins. Unable to secure the money from Hollywood to create the ‘Dune’ of his imagination, Jodorowsky abandoned the film before a single frame was shot. All that survives of this project is Jodorowsky’s extensive notes, and the production drawings of Moebius, Giger and Foss. These reveal a potential future for sci-fi movie making that eschewed the conservative, technology-based approach of American filmmakers in favour of something closer to a metaphysical fever-dream.

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left: Emperor Shaddam IV; right: Feyd Rautha.

Moebius’s designs are wildly different from those used in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation (which I like nonetheless). His sketch of the Emperor on the left gives some idea of how Salvador Dalí might have appeared in the film, while the figure on the right is Baron Harkonnen’s effete nephew, Feyd, a far more radical conception than the grinning fool played by Sting in the Lynch version. There’s a lot more of Moebius’s sketches at the excellent Dune.info site.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dalí and Film
Jodorowsky on DVD

The art of François Schuiten

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Paris au XXieme Siecle by Jules Verne (1994).

Following a comment I made last week in the post about the Temples of Future Religions by François Garas I’ve decided it’s time to give some proper attention to one of my favourite comic artists, François Schuiten, a Belgian whose obsession with imaginary architecture resembles the earlier endeavours of Garas and others. Schuiten’s parents were both architects which perhaps explains his predilection. In addition to a large body of comics work, he’s produced designs for film—notably Taxandria by Raoul Servais—Belgian stamps, and a steampunk look for the Arts et Métiers station of the Paris Métro. In 1994 he created cover designs and a series of illustrations for the publication of Jules Verne’s rediscovered manuscript Paris au XXieme Siecle.

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Cover for Spirou (2000).

I first encountered Schuiten’s work in a 1980 issue of Heavy Metal magazine which was reprinting translated stories from the French Métal Hurlant along with original work. Schuiten’s story, The Cutter of the Fog, was an erotic and futuristic tale of a small community and the obsession of the local “fog-cutter”. François’s brother Luc wrote the piece and it bears some similarity with JG Ballard’s Vermilion Sands story, The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D. Unusually for Schuiten, the architecture was downplayed in this one although the small homes with their geodesic roofs are like extrapolations of architectural plans from one of the Whole Earth Catalogues.

The next time I saw his work was several years later when artist Bryan Talbot showed me some of the comic albums he’d brought back from a European convention. Among these there were several of the Cités Obscures books that Schuiten had been creating during the Eighties and Nineties with writer Benoît Peeters. These knocked me out with their apparently effortless creation of an imaginary world comprised of several city states, each with their own unique architectural style, and a wealth of retro-future technology, from dirigibles of all shapes and sizes to ornithopters and huge motorised unicycles. One of the many things I liked about European comic artists, and something which made me favour their work over their American counterparts, was the creation of richly detailed imaginary universes with inhabitants one could expect to meet in our world, not facile superheroes or vigilantes. Schuiten went further than his contemporaries by making the architecture meticulously believable and foregrounding its design to an extent that in some of the Cités Obscures stories architecture itself is the subject.

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