The Liberation of Mannique Mechanique

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Steven Arnold’s first film is a 14-minute fantasia made four years before his debut feature, Luminous Procuress (1971). Like many underground films, The Liberation of Mannique Mechanique is essentially a home movie in which the director’s friends have been encouraged to perform for the camera, but Arnold’s creative personality is strong enough to surmount any production limitations. All the Arnold hallmarks are present: masks, mirrors, reflective objects, baubles, beads, and so on; among the cast is Beat poet Ruth Weiss who also appears in Luminous Procuress. I compared Arnold’s feature to Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and it’s Kenneth Anger’s Bacchanal that comes to mind again here. Where Anger scored his film with Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass, Arnold has an equally bombastic soundtrack that sounds like music from a sword-and-sandal epic. Arnold lacks Anger’s rigorous approach to montage but the general atmosphere is enough to make this seem like one of Anger’s lost films. Watch it here.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Luminous Procuress
Juliet of the Spirits
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: The Eldorado Edition
Flamboyant excess: the art of Steven Arnold
The Tale of Giulietta

Luminous Procuress

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How to describe this one? Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, pt 2? Bargain-basement Satyricon? The latter is probably more apt, Kenneth Anger’s longer films are more formal than Luminous Procuress. Steven Arnold’s only feature film resembles something made by the extras from a Fellini extravaganza after they’ve stayed overnight at Cinecittà; a series of artfully-arranged tableaux (artful arrangement being Arnold’s forte), together with a hardcore sex-scene (hetero) that seems out of place beside the relatively chaste antics elsewhere:

Luminous Procuress is an altogether extraordinary, individualistic phantasmagoria. It was filmed entirely in San Francisco over a two-year period, and describes the adventures of two wandering youths in San Francisco who visit the home of a mysterious woman, the Procuress. She is an elegant emblem of sorcery, her vivid features glowing under bizarre, striking maquillage, and one is not certain who she is or where she intends to lead the protagonists. Although the language she speaks is vaguely Russian, it appears that the Procuress has psychic powers. She discerns a sympathetic response to her on the part of the youths, and by magical means, conducts them through fantastic rooms, on a psychic journey. Through strange passageways, one voyages with the Procuress and her charges, glimpsing hidden nightmares and panoplied chambers of revelry, where celebrants, ornately festooned, dance and make love before unseen gods… (more)

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Arnold’s film follows the low-budget form by being shot without synchronised sound, so the dialogue, such as it is, has been dubbed on later. Rather than try and match words to the improvised scenes Arnold instead gives his characters foreign voices, most of which are mumbling and may not even be saying anything intelligible in their own language. This spares us any Warhol-like amateur theatricals while augmenting the dream-like atmosphere. The music by Warner Jepson is the icing on a very unusual cake. Jepson was a serious electronic composer whose rather abrasive debut album, Totentanz, was included in the Creel Pone catalogue of electronic obscurities in 2005. For the film Jepson provides swathes of synthesizer doodling interspersed with arrangements for keyboards and voices. All this and the Cockettes too. Salvador Dalí loved it.

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Crank book covers

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Cover art by Tony Roberts, 1974. A book I received as a present for Christmas, 1974. Also the first place I encountered the words “Popol Vuh”, before discovering the music of Florian Fricke and co. a few years later.

Yes, “crank” is a pejorative word but it’s used with some degree of affection, as in “harmless crank”. It’s also a convenient umbrella term for the books referred to in the weekend post which embrace diverse subjects, from lost continents and “earth energy” to ancient astronauts and flying saucers.

The prime crank decade was the 1970s, a period when publishers were falling over themselves to cash-in on the massive popularity of Erich von Däniken’s dubious investigations, while also catering to the by-products of the hippy era and the occult revival. Books by Charles Fort, Immanuel Velikovsky and James Churchward (the Mu series) all received reprints, with some appearing in paperback for the first time. The British editions of these books were published by imprints like Corgi, Panther and Sphere who were also publishing large quantities of science fiction, a situation that led to many crank titles being packaged as though they were fiction or fantasy. Sphere was in the vanguard, presenting a wide range of books with the same cover designs, cover artists and Novel Gothic typeface as their SF titles. A cynical move, no doubt, but it also makes the crank books seem more like fiction than their authors might have intended.

This post presents a selection of crank titles with cover art by SF artists but there are many more examples out there. (Watch the skies!) I’ve limited the selection to British publishers but the same syndrome was evident in American publishing, as documented at Absolute Elsewhere. And I’ve included a couple of books by sceptics John Sladek and Dr. Christopher Evans. These were intended to dismantle the claims of L. Ron Hubbard, Erich von Däniken and co. but were still packaged in paperback to resemble the books they were attacking. The major demolition of Von Däniken is Ronald Story’s The Space Gods Revealed but covers for that one have always been relatively restrained.

Missing from this list are three paintings by SF artist Peter Jones for books by Dr. Celia Green. The art may be seen in Jones’s Solar Wind collection but I couldn’t find any of the printed covers, which suggests they had a limited run if they were printed at all. These are odd for being typical fantasy imagery attached to serious studies of lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. Dr. Green is a philosopher and science researcher (she coined the term “out-of-body experience”) so she doesn’t belong on a crank list in any case. Also absent is the most popular British cover illustrator of the decade, Chris Foss, who would have been too busy working through his fiction commissions and creating designs for feature films.

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Cover art by Tony Roberts (?), 1974.

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Cover art by Bruce Pennington, 1974.

Evans was a computer scientist, an occasional contributor to New Worlds magazine, and also the model for the deranged Vaughan in JG Ballard’s Crash. Cults of Unreason investigates crank sects such as the flying-saucer worshippers of the Aetherius Society (hence the cover art), and the Scientologists who caused a stir in Britain in the 1960s when L. Ron Hubbard set up an outpost at East Grinstead.

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Cover art by Colin Hay, 1974.

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Cover art by Angus McKie, 1979.

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Switched-On… hits and misses

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The first pressing of Switched-On Bach with a cover showing a Bach-alike confounded/dismayed by the sounds issuing from the machine behind him. The cover was soon swapped for the one below.

After mentioning the proliferation of Switched-On… synthesizer albums in the previous post, curiosity impelled me to see how many of these things were out there. A lot more than I expected is the answer, almost enough to make this cul-de-sac of novelty exploitation into a sub-genre of its own. As mentioned earlier, it was the huge success of Switched-On Bach (1968) by Wendy Carlos that began the trend. The album had a rare crossover appeal so that it could be sold to classical listeners as well as to a younger audience interested in electronic sounds, those for whom the words “switched on” echoed the druggy/erotic intersection of “turned on”. Carlos had an advantage over other musicians thanks to a long association with Robert Moog which meant she had a head start in exploring the recording potential of the new Moog synthesizer and innovations like Moog’s touch-sensitive keyboard. In 1968 few people could afford a Moog system; those who could usually needed to hire technicians like Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause to help them operate the thing. For a brief while it was enough to simply use the instrument to make strange noises, hence Mick Jagger’s droning score for Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969), and George Harrison’s preposterous Electronic Sound (1969), 44 minutes of very amateurish Moog-doodling. Switched-On Bach sounds a little primitive today—it sounds primitive next to its follow-up albums, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969) and Switched-On Bach II (1973)—but Carlos and collaborators Rachel Elkind and Benjamin Folkman spent much more time refining their recording techniques than the knob-twiddling horde who rushed to capitalise on their success.

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The rules of the Switched-On… idiom are as follows: a title that begins with the words “Switched-On”, obviously, although there’s a subset of the form in which an album may have a different title while a subtitle mentions something about “switched-on recordings”; the music must be cover versions of familiar songs or compositions, originality here is surplus to requirements; and it’s not essential but the cover art often alludes in some way to synthesizer technology and/or “the future”, with the latter represented by Space Age typefaces such as Amelia, Computer, Countdown or Data 70. I’ve not heard many of these albums, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t want to hear most of them, but I’ve heard enough Carlos cash-ins to know that the cover designs are often the best thing about them. The remastered CDs that Wendy Carlos released in the 1990s feature additional tracks that give some idea of the amount of work involved in the creation of each album. The early cash-ins, by contrast, tend to avoid time-consuming multi-track composition in favour of using a synthesizer as though it’s merely an expensive keyboard. The success of these albums musically may be gauged by the lack of reissues. They may be of interest to the so-bad-it’s-good “Incredibly Strange Music” crowd but I prefer to spend my time listening to other things. Beware.

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Switched-On Rock (1969) by The Moog Machine.

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Switched-On Bacharach (1969) by Christopher Scott.

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Switched-Off Bach (1969) by Various Artists.

CBS exploits the success of the electronic album by packaging a collection of earlier non-electronic recordings.

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Weekend links 529

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Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province, from the series Views of Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces (c. 1853) by Hiroshige.

• Eric Margolis: “Yukio Mishima may have gone out in an inglorious blaze in 1970, but three of his previously untranslated works have been released in the English-speaking world in the last two years, with another on the way.” The forthcoming novel is Mishima’s only venture into science fiction (!), A Beautiful Star. The book was filmed by Daihachi Yoshida in 2017.

• “[Ace in the Hole] did well in Europe but not here, perhaps because Americans expected a cocktail and felt I was giving them a shot of vinegar instead.” Billy Wilder discussing his career with Charles Higham in 1967.

• Mixes of the week: All these things invisible by The Ephemeral Man, and Secret Thirteen Mix 306 by Yogev Freilichman.

“So I got a phone number for Vangelis, he was living in Paris and I went there and called him up. He said (affects a gruff Greek accent) ‘Hello’, I said, ‘My name’s Jon Anderson’. He said ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m in a band called Yes’, he said, ‘Are you a singer? Well, come over’, so I went over. There was this big guy with a long kaftan on and a bow and arrow around his shoulder. I got into his palatial apartment near the Champs-Élysées and there’s quite a long hallway down to his living room, and there’s a little old man there sitting by the TV. Vangelis takes out his bow and sends this arrow down the hallway and it goes right through the window, because the window was open. I said, ‘Vangelis, you could have killed somebody’, he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m Greek’. I said, ‘I know you’re Greek, but come on’.”

Jon Anderson talking to Duncan Seaman about his first encounters with Vangelis

Tarot cards though the ages; examples from a new book on the subject published by Taschen.

The Suspended Vocation again: Ryan Ruby on Pierre Klossowski, “Brilliant Brother of Balthus”.

• Secret Sound podcast #17 is devoted to The Galaxy of Turiya aka Alice Coltrane.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Shaye Saint John Day.

Kenneth Anger smiles!

Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) (1975) by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel | Uncertain Smile (1983) by The The | Fleeting Smile (1988) by Roger Eno