Intertextuality

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): in the upper half there’s the big sun from Bob Peak’s poster for Apocalypse Now, in the lower half a radical reworking of Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.

In 1990, shortly after the first season of Twin Peaks had finished showing in the US, Video Watchdog magazine ran a feature by Tim Lucas which attempted to trace all the various cultural allusions in the character names and dialogue: references to old TV shows, song lyrics and the like. This was done in a spirit of celebration with Lucas and other contributors welcoming the opportunity to dig deeper into something they’d already enjoyed. This week we’ve had a similar unravelling of textual borrowings in a TV series, only now we have the internet which, with its boundless appetite for accusing and shaming, can often seem like something from the grand old days of the Cultural Revolution.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): a more subtle allusion to Apocalypse Now.

The latest culprit ushered to the front of the assembly for the Great Internet Struggle Session is Nic Pizzolatto whose script for True Detective has indeed been celebrated for its nods to Robert Chambers and The King in Yellow. It’s also in the process of being condemned for having borrowed phrases or aphorisms from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2011). See this post for chapter and verse.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): It’s not very clear but that’s a boat from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

If I find it difficult to get worked up over all this pearl-clutching it’s because a) it shows a misunderstanding of art and the way many artists work, b) True Detective was an outstanding series, and I’d love to see more from Pizzolatto and co, and c) I’ve done more than enough borrowing of my own in a variety of media, as these samples from my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu demonstrate, a 33-page comic strip where there’s a reference to a painting, artist or film on almost all the pages, sometimes several on the same page.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Ophelia by Millais.

Cthulhu is a good choice here since Pizzolatto’s story edged towards Lovecraft via the repeated “Carcosa” references. You’d think a Lovecraft zine of all things would know better than to haul someone over the coals for borrowing from another writer when Lovecraft himself borrowed from Robert Chambers (and Arthur Machen and others), while “Carcosa” isn’t even original to Chambers’ The King in Yellow but a borrowing from an Ambrose Bierce story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886). Furthermore, Lovecraft famously complained about his own tendencies to pastiche other writers in a 1929 letter to Elizabeth Toldridge: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?”

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Uncharted islands and lost souls

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The pulp fiction of the early 20th century favoured remote or uncharted islands as locations for the bizarre and the fantastic; in isolated jungles all manner of savage and grotesque behaviour could take place out of sight of the civilised world. Islands are secure from interference; they can be visited by accident or intention, and later fled from when everything goes wrong. The Island of Doctor Moreau is an early example of the type although Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) pre-dates it by twenty-two years. The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the first film adaptation of the Wells novel, is one of a crop of mysterious islands that appeared in the 1930s following the success of the Universal adaptations of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The recent Eureka DVD/Blu-ray edition of the film is the first UK release to present the film in its original, uncensored form. I watched it this weekend.

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Moreau (Charles Laughton) and Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) at work.

HG Wells famously hated the film, and his vociferous complaints helped to ensure it was banned in Britain until 1958. Even without Wells’ complaints there was enough there to bait the censors who declared it to be “against nature”: writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young push the erotic implications of Wells’ story to a degree that would have been impossible in 1896, and would be equally impossible two years later when the Hays Code clamped down on cinematic salaciousness. Charles Laughton’s Moreau is eager to discover whether Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), will show any sexual interest in the marooned Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). The bestiality theme continues when Parker’s fiancée arrives on the island and finds one of Moreau’s Beast People at her bedroom window. Add to this Moreau’s declaration that he feels like God (a similar line was cut from James Whale’s Frankenstein), a traditional British squeamishness towards maltreating animals (unless they’re foxes), and the Panther Woman’s skimpy outfit, and it’s no surprise that the authorities collapsed with the vapours.

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Sensationalism aside, this is one of the greatest horror films of the early 1930s, and one which follows its source material with much more fidelity than Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. The production had been commissioned by Paramount to capitalise on the success of the Universal films, hence the presence of a very hirsute Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. Cinematographer Karl Struss had worked the year before on Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; prior to this he photographed Sunrise (1927) for Friedrich Murnau. The combination of Struss’s chiaroscuro compositions, some adept direction from Erle C. Kenton (including crane shots), and a tremendous performance by Charles Laughton puts The Island of Lost Souls in a different league entirely to Tod Browning’s stagey and over-rated Dracula. Laughton’s cherub-faced Mephistopheles is a performance that runs counter to the cod theatricals of the period: he’s sly, confident and completely authoritative even if he looks nothing like Wells’ white-haired doctor.

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Ray Harryhausen, 1920–2013

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Concept art for Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

He could also draw, something the obituaries won’t necessarily mention. I wasn’t aware of Ray Harryhausen’s many detailed preliminary drawings until I had the good fortune to see him give a talk at the Preston SF Group in the early 1990s. I recall mention being made of Gustave Doré as an influence, something that wasn’t so surprising given that Harryhausen’s animation career began with Willis O’Brien, animator of the original Kong. The Skull Island sets for King Kong owed much to Doré’s illustrations, and the film also made use of equally detailed preliminary drawings by O’Brien, Byron Crabbe and Mario Larrinaga.

I was going to link to Jason and company’s celebrated fight with the skeletons but the only clips on YouTube at the moment lack Bernard Herrmann’s superb score. The Harryhausen/Schneer films always had low budgets but the producers understood the importance of music, and employed Herrmann on four of their films: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Miklós Rózsa provided the score for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) so here’s a favourite moment from that film with John Philip Law and Martin Shaw tackling Tom Baker’s sword-wielding Kali statue.

Ray Harryhausen’s production drawings can be seen in The Art of Ray Harryhausen (2005).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Swords against death

My pastiches

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Lord Horror: Reverbstorm #3 (1992).

Following from the post about an art forgery exhibition (and Eddie Campbell discussing his American Gothic cover for Bacchus), I thought I’d post some of my own forgeries, or pastiches as we call them when no deception is intended.

Reverbstorm was the Lord Horror comic series I was creating with David Britton for Savoy in the 1990s. The Modernist techniques of collage (as in the work of Picasso and others) and quotation (as in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land) became themes in themselves as the series developed, so it seemed natural to imitate the styles of various artists as we went along. Pastiche is also a chance to flagrantly show off, of course, and I can’t deny that this was also one of my impulses here.

Issue #3 of Reverbstorm had marauding apes as its theme, from the Rue Morgue to Tarzan and King Kong, so I had the idea of doing an ape cover in the style of the celebrated paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) which make human heads out of fruit, flowers or animals. Easy enough to have the idea but making it work took a lot of effort and required careful sketching beforehand, something I rarely do. The painting was gouache on board, a medium I’d been using for years and this was about the last gouache work I did before switching to acrylics.

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Frémiet’s Lizard

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Emmanuel Frémiet (1824–1910) is chiefly known for his rather prosaic sculptures of animals, some of which are still sold in reproduction today. He also produced a notorious piece in 1887 entitled Gorilla Carrying off a Woman, a precursor of King Kong and all the other rampaging apes of later pulp fiction.

His Lizard ceramic (also 1887) is untypical which is a shame, I’d liked to have seen more in this style. It reminds me of the similarly stylised winged lion on the wonderful cover of Wolf City by Amon Düül II.

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