Weekend links 504

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Eric Burdon and the Animals, Mother Earth, Hour Glass; Fillmore Auditorium, October 19-21, 1967 by Bonnie MacLean.

• RIP Bonnie MacLean, another of the original San Francisco poster artists, and the only woman of note in the US psychedelic poster scene. (Not the only woman, however; in Europe we had Marijke Koger.) Related: Bonnie MacLean’s posters at Wolfgang’s. And RIP to illustrator Tom Adams, an artist whose exceptional covers for novels by Agatha Christie are only one part of a long and varied career.

The Litanies Of Satan (1982), the short but uncompromising debut album by Diamanda Galás, is reissued on Galás’s own label later this month. Further albums from her remarkable back catalogue will follow. Related: video of Galás performing The Litanies Of Satan in 1985.

• “Scorsese is amazed that United Artists didn’t touch one frame of Raging Bull, since it’s the first time in his life as a feature director that this has apparently occurred.” In 1981 Derek Malcolm talked to Martin Scorsese about his reasons for making a boxing picture.

“…in a post-AIDS world, its scenes of mass male-on-male decadence evoke a sense of the spiritual: Not to put so blunt a phrase on it, but the majority of the men we see in Cruising‘s bars would likely die within the next decade, victims of a very heterosexual genocide of neglect. These are blurred, melancholic memories locked forever within Cruising‘s celluloid; a phantasmagoria of men whose liberation was not legislatively delivered, but recovered in the privacy of leather bars and cruising joints. The film’s overt sexuality makes it hard to escape a sense of catastrophic loss.”

Jack King on William Friedkin’s Cruising

• The Pet Shop Boys’ eccentric feature film, It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988), is released on blu-ray and DVD in June. The video for You Were Always On My Mind gives an idea of the contents.

• “Orion being one of the brightest constellations makes it a lot of people’s favourites, and he was my favourite as a kid.” Ben Chasny on his history of stargazing.

• “You think the Holy Grail is lost? No. I have it on my piano.” John Boorman talks to Xan Brooks.

• Laura Cumming on the dark and haunting paintings of Belgian Symbolist Léon Spilliaert.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 631 by Ondness.

Alistair Ryder chooses 10 great killer plant films.

Howl by John Foxx And The Maths.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Gleam.

The Litanies Of Satan (1969) by Ruth White | Grail (1971) by Grail | Plants’ Music (1981) by Ippu-Do

Merlin

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Merlin building Stonehenge (14th century) from Folio 30r of British Library, Egerton 3028.

The Arthurian magus in art and illustration. Despite the antiquity of the Arthur legend there doesn’t seem to be much early representation of Merlin outside a few drawings in old manuscripts. The British Library’s folio showing the raising of Stonehenge is the oldest known depiction of the ancient structure.

Most of the pictures here are illustrations for the Merlin and Vivien section of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the first book of which was published in 1859. Vivien (or Viviane, Nimue, etc) is the sorcerous Lady in the Lake who either imprisons Merlin underground or in a tree depending on whose account you read. Edward Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin has long been my favourite of that artist’s paintings. This is only a very small selection of possible pictures, of course. A more complete catalogue would include Nicol Williamson in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), a performance that some find overly mannered but one that I’ve always enjoyed.

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Merlin and Vivien (1867) by Gustave Doré.

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The Beguiling of Merlin (1874) by Edward Burne-Jones.

Continue reading “Merlin”

Studies in the Horror Film: The Exorcist edited by Danel Olson

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Growing up in the 1970s put cinema-going kids of my generation in a frustrating position: we knew that the censorship of decades past was over but we weren’t old enough to see any of the films benefiting from the relaxed strictures. Consequently some notorious releases grew larger in the imagination than they might have otherwise, especially when their cryptic titles—A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs—gave no clue as to their content. Looming larger and darker than all of these was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist whose content was at least clear despite that vague poster design. The film arrived in Britain in March 1974 bearing a ferocious reputation thanks to tabloid reports of a cursed production and hysteria at US screenings. The film’s power has been significantly reduced since its release, not least because of its enormous success which gave us two sequels, a prequel that went through three directors (and ended up as two separate films), a reworked version of the original in 2001, and all the endless parodyings of Linda Blair’s torment.

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Pazuzu and Father Merrin face off in the desert.

The film and its sequels are explored in a new book from Centipede Press which turned up before Christmas but which has taken me a while to get round to since I wanted to re-watch the film first. I hadn’t seen The Exorcist for many years, the last viewing being a shoddy VHS copy so it was good to see it again in a decent DVD print. I still find the film more admirable on a technical level than as a work of cinematic art: the story has always been a piece of Catholic propaganda—something that author William Peter Blatty freely admits—and even if I set aside my lapsed-Catholic prejudices I have a hard time taking seriously Blatty’s religious narrative. Friedkin is a very good thriller director but the tension sags in the first half of the film when the possessed (or is she?) Regan is being hauled around various hospitals while Father Karras frets about his dying mother and his lapsed faith. A sub-plot with police detective Lee J. Cobb—a pared-down thread from the novel—is completely superfluous. On the plus side, the acting is first-class, the almost wordless sequence in Iraq makes a tremendous opening, and the exorcism itself still packs a considerable punch not least because of Dick Smith’s remarkable makeup effects.

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The Centipede volume is a substantial collection (516 pages) of interviews and essays edited by Danel Olson, part of the publisher’s Studies in the Horror Film series. The interviews are especially worthwhile being taken in part from back issues of Cinefantastique magazine: Friedkin and Blatty appear twice, there are talks with Dick Smith and Friedkin’s editor Bud Smith (no relation), and Paul Schrader discusses his troubled prequel, Dominion (2005).

Among the essay highlights Thomas Ligotti juxtaposes Blatty’s moral and theological universe with the amoral pessimism of HP Lovecraft while Blatty recounts the factual origin of his novel in a piece taken from The Exorcist: From Novel to Film (1974). Successful films that spawn sequels often present challenges for critics when the later installments begin to deviate from the premise of the original. Part of the interest in Olson’s collection is seeing how the writers delve into the imperatives of Hollywood sequelitis for moments of value. The critical essays are thought-provoking without wandering into the quicksands of jargon-ridden academicism: Kendall Phillips examines the influence of The Exorcist on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), there’s a spirited attempt by James Kloda to defend John Boorman’s much-vilified The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and James Marriott points out that horror films are a continuing source (however debased) of metaphysical speculation.

This last notion is an intriguing one: people always take The Exorcist at face value—God and Satan are real; it’s a spiritual battle—yet the demon we see in the film is the Assyro-Babylonian god Pazuzu, a spirit never mentioned by name in the Bible, or in the film for that matter. I’d suggest there’s an argument to be made that it’s only Pazuzu that actually exists as a supernatural force in the film’s world, and that the prayers of the priests confound it but temporarily.

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Pazuzu has entered the building.

The aura of metaphysical threat may have diminished but The Exorcist still wasn’t allowed a UK TV screening until 2001. Something about the idea of people confronting supernatural evil continues to compel, however antiquated the scenario may seem. This isn’t too surprising when we have nominees for the US Presidential elections talking in hyperbolic terms about God and Satan without being widely ridiculed. Then there’s news stories like this recent one in the UK: “Boy ‘tortured and drowned’ over witchcraft claims, court told“. Blatty and Friedkin’s devil child was one of the most influential films of the 1970s, and may well be the most influential despite the continued popularity of the wretched Star Wars cycle. In the past couple of years alone we’ve had The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Rite (2011), with The Devil Inside due to appear on UK cinema screens in March; possessed girls appear in all three films. Danel Olson could easily fill another volume tracing this influence through the decades.

Studies in the Horror Film: The Exorcist isn’t published until March 2012 but can be pre-ordered at Amazon (US) and Barnes & Noble.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic
Dead on the Dancefloor
The monstrous tome

Infernal entrances

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L’Enfer, Boulevard de Clichy (1911).

A recent posting at The Haunted Lamp showed the interior of L’Enfer, a Montmartre cabaret which described itself as “unique au monde”, pictured here in a memorable photo by Eugène Atget. The interior and portions of the exterior were certainly unique enough, and look like they were created by the same people who designed the carnival show for Harry Lachman’s film Dante’s Inferno (1935), but the yawning mouth as an entrance isn’t without precedent. Some prior examples follow.

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Palazzo Zuccari.

L’Enfer is long gone, unfortunately, but the entrance to the Palazzo Zuccari in the Via Gregoriana, Rome, is still extant despite being hundreds of years older. I was hoping that Google’s Street View would have some good pictures but they managed to capture the building in the midst of renovation. A friend of mine was working at an office in this street when I was in Rome in 1993 and the yawning mouths and windows are a very curious sight in a narrow road near the Spanish Steps. Flickr has better views, here, here and here.

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Ogre, Parco dei Mostri.

The Rome palazzo is named after the Mannerist artist who lived there, Federico Zuccari (c. 1542/1543–1609), and Zuccari’s inspiration for his doorway came from another Mannerist creation, the Parco dei Mostri at Bomarzo. The mouth in this case isn’t an entrance to the underworld but a devouring ogre, and one of the park’s many grotesque attractions. I wonder if this was also an inspiration for the giant floating head in John Boorman’s ludicrous science fiction film, Zardoz (1974).

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Moulin Rouge!

And speaking of films, Baz Luhrmann used the L’Enfer entrance as a gateway to Montmartre itself in the zooming shot which opens Moulin Rouge!. I like that idea, as though it’s an iniquitous equivalent of the old Temple Bar gateway to the City of London. For more pictures of L’Enfer, and details of its history, see here and here. If anyone knows of any other notable doorways like these, please leave a comment.

Update: Nathalie found another Bomarzo influence while Jescie on Twitter drew my attention to a set from this German film.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Villa d’Este
Harry Lachman’s Inferno
Atget’s Paris

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict

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The sculpture known as Antinous Mondragone (c.130 AD).

The planned British Museum exhibition I mentioned in January, a major examination of the Emperor Hadrian’s life and influence, opens today and runs to 26 October, 2008. Hadrian means more to Britons than most Roman Emperors on account of the still-extant wall which bears his name, built to divide England from the untameable wilds of Scotland, or Caledonia as it was then known. On a personal level he fascinates for his obsession with his dead lover Antinous and the mausoleum (later the Castel Sant’Angelo) and villa he left in Rome.

Hadrian was a man of great contradiction in both his personality and reign: a military man and homosexual, he combined ruthless suppression of dissent with cultural tolerance. He reacted with great ferocity against the Jewish Revolt in 132 AD (examples of poignant objects belonging to Jewish rebels hiding in caves near Jerusalem will be included in the exhibition), but he was also a dedicated philhellene, passionate about Greek culture. He took a young Greek male lover, Antinous, who accompanied him on his travels around the empire. In AD 130, Antinous drowned in mysterious circumstances in Egypt. Consumed by grief, Hadrian founded a new city, Antinoupolis, close to the spot where he died and had Antinous declared a god, linked to the Egyptian deity Osiris. A cult of Antinous-Osiris sprang up resulting in statues, busts and silverware featuring the image of the newly deified youth.

And proving that this is a subject whose time has come, John Boorman has a film in production based on Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Given Boorman’s uneven output that could be either a good or bad thing; we’ll no doubt find out soon enough.

A very modern emperor | Mary Beard on Hadrian
Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage site
Virtual Museum: Antinous Portraits

Previously on { feuilleton }
Hadrian and Greek love
Vedute di Roma
The Cult of Antinous