Weekend links 568

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Dragon Rising to the Heavens (1897) by Ogata Gekko.

• “Electronic music of the past is often portrayed in a dreamy, magical light—a hazy historical landscape filled with misty, otherworldly sounds. But while the music of a bygone era may seem ineffable, it is not inaccessible.” Geeta Dayal reviews Reminded by the Instruments: David Tudor’s Music by You Nakai.

• Modular Therapy: Mute Records boss Daniel Miller and former snooker champ turned kraut-psych powerhouse Steve Davis discuss their love of modular synthesisers, ill-fated Jools Holland collaborations, commandeering Elton John’s ARP 2600 and more.

• “Some contemporary art is a little bit like an intellectual game…I’m not a big fan of this kind of stuff, because I’m a musician.” Ryoji Ikeda presents: point of no return.

One of the tunnels that Turrell has completed is 854 feet long. When the moon passes overhead, its light streams down the tunnel, refracting through a six-foot-diameter lens and projecting an image of the moon onto an eight-foot-high disk of white marble below. The work is built to align most perfectly during the Major Lunar Standstill every 18.61 years. The next occurrence will be in April 2025. To calculate the alignment, Turrell worked closely with astronomers and astrophysicists. Because the universe is expanding, he must account for imperceptible changes in the geometry of the galaxy. He has designed the tunnel, like other features of the crater, to be most precise in about 2,000 years. Turrell’s friends sometimes joke that’s also when he’ll finish the project.

Wil S. Hylton on an exclusive visit to James Turrell’s astronomical art complex at Roden Crater, Arizona. Related: 147 Orbiting 1 Through 6 for 5, Music for Roden Crater by Paul Schütze (with free download of an excerpt from the 5-hour piece)

• New music: The Black Mill Tapes, Volume 5 by Pye Corner Audio, and Interreferences by Richard Chartier.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Dense pencil drawings of retro-future worlds by Yota Tsukino.

“‘I’m bursting with fiction’: Alan Moore announces five-volume fantasy epic”.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Lindsay Anderson Day.

Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s favourite music.

Volcano Diving (1989) by David Van Tieghem | Crater Scar (1994) by Main | Eye Of The Volcano (2006) by Stereolab

Universal Horror

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A couple of Halloweens ago I worked my way through a blu-ray box of the horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 40s. It was a fun and instructive experience: fun because I’d not watched many of the films properly for a long time; instructive for reaffirming my dislike of Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film so inert and lacking in cinematic drama it may as well be a series of still pictures. Browning’s film is further diminished when you have the opportunity to watch James Whale’s Frankenstein films immediately after it. The collection also allowed me to compare the BFI release of Universal’s silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, where Lon Chaney is an unforgettable Phantom, with the 1943 remake, a film I didn’t recall having seen before. The only positive things about the remake are the always worthwhile Claude Rains, even if he is wasted in the Phantom role, and seeing the massive Paris Opera House set from the silent version being reused.

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The differences between the Universal adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein are noted in Kevin Brownlow’s 90-minute documentary which is an extra on the Frankenstein disc. Brownlow’s film, which was originally made for TV in 1998, charts the evolution of Universal’s horror films from their roots in silent cinema and German Expressionism up to the 1940s when the cycle deteriorated into sequelitis and self-mockery via Abbott and Costello. “Universal” here may be taken as referring to all of Hollywood’s early horror films. Rather than waste time on the studio’s increasingly inferior sequels, rival productions from other studios are briefly discussed: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Paramount), The Island of Lost Souls (Paramount), King Kong (RKO), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (Warner Brothers). In doing this Universal Horror follows the template that Brownlow established with fellow film historian David Gill in 1980 when they produced Hollywood for Thames TV, a 13-part series about the birth of American cinema which I rate as the best documentary series about film ever made. (Gill died in 1997 so Universal Horror is dedicated to his memory.) Hollywood interviewed as many people as possible connected with the production of the first silent films, following the format of the landmark The World at War (1973) series which related the events of the Second World War in 26 hour-long episodes. The World at War was narrated by Laurence Olivier; for Hollywood Brownlow & Gill had James Mason, not only an equivalent voice of authority but also a man with a great enthusiasm for silent cinema. Subsequent Brownlow & Gill documentaries had Lindsay Anderson as narrator, another silents enthusiast with a similar gravitas in his narrative delivery. The narrator of Universal Horror, Kenneth Branagh, isn’t bad as such but whatever his qualities as an actor, his voice alone is a poor match for these heavyweights. He does at least seem to have controlled the sporadic squeaks which mar his delivery in an earlier Brownlow & Gill series, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995).

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Universal Horror and Cinema Europe both fall short when compared to Hollywood by being made too late. By the 1990s most of the men connected with the early years of European cinema had died, and so had many of the actors who made the Universal films. It’s left to a handful of survivors, most of whom are women, to remember the days of their youth: Nina Foch (The Return of the Vampire), Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man), Fay Wray (who must have spent most of her later years repeating stories about King Kong but here also discusses her role in Mystery of the Wax Museum), Lupita Tovar (the Spanish-language Dracula), Turhan Bey (The Mummy’s Tomb), Rose Hobart (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), and Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man). Additional commentary is provided by the daughters of significant figures: Sara Karloff, Carla Laemmle (who has a cameo in Dracula) and Arianne Ulmer whose father, Edgar G. Ulmer, directed The Black Cat for Universal, a much better film than the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, and one which should have been in the box set instead. Lastly, there’s some outsider commentary by Ray Bradbury (who also appeared in Brownlow’s next documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces), Gavin Lambert, James Karen, Forrest J. Ackerman, Curtis Harrington, James Curtis (author of James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters), and David J. Skal (author of Hollywood Gothic, The Monster Show, etc). Given the breadth of the subject—two decades of film history—this should have been a series like Cinema Europe, but horror on the page or on the screen remains the most abject of the genres, continually marginalised, complained about, ignored, censored, banned. Ninety minutes of documentary time is often as good as it gets, especially with Kevin Brownlow producing.

Universal Horror at the time of writing is available for viewing at the Internet Archive, waiting for Universal’s legal goons to put a stake through its heart. Someone has also uploaded the whole of Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series which is gratifying to see. The latter is scattered around YouTube in varying quality so it’s good to have a range of options. It’s essential viewing wherever you see it.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Illustrating Dracula
Illustrating Frankenstein
Psychotronic Video
Dracula and I by Christopher Lee
Nightmare: The Birth of Horror
Rex Ingram’s The Magician
The Mask of Fu Manchu

Weekend links 463

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Eye 98: Beatrice Display Black, Sharp Type, 2018, and a detail from an original drawing for Lexicon by Bram de Does, 1989.

Issue 98 of Eye, the international design journal, is out this month. The new issue is a typography special but also features my review of Mark Dery’s Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. This is the second time I’ve written about Dery’s book, with the new piece focusing more on Gorey’s work as a designer/book creator, and his place in the history of illustration.

Portal is a new release by Slovakian metal band Doomas, the artwork of which adapts one of my illustrations for Lovecraft’s Monsters. The band also have a suitably Lovecraftian video.

• Reading recommendations by M. John Harrison: the old (the excellent Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys) and the new (Underland et al).

I first started drawing in my Wake to count the number of rivers mentioned in an episode, one page alone counting 85. Gradually, I would be so moved by a line or a character I would colour them in, the most obvious being the 28 Rainbow girls to the more obscure nebulae, railroad tracks, hidden mythical islands and turn of the century lightships. Themes began to emerge which demanded documentation and always the sad, ecstatic relief of finishing a chapter merited some sort of coloured tribute. By the time I finished four years later, I simply drew a leaf to reflect Joyce’s metaphor on the last page: my leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still.

Susie Lopez on Finnegans Wake at 80

• Old ghosts at The Paris Review: a preview of The Spectacle of Illusion by Matthew L. Tompkins.

• At Dangerous Minds: Malcolm McDowell and the making of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!

Herbie Hancock: “I felt like I stood on the shoulders of giants and now it’s my turn”.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 590 by Christian Löffler.

• The discography of Diamanda Galás is now at Bandcamp.

• RIP Quentin Fiore, graphic designer and book creator.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Haunted dolls.

Antique Doll (1967) by The Electric Prunes | The Doll’s House (1980) by Landscape | Voodoo Dolly (1981) by Siouxsie And The Banshees

Weekend links 432

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Tokyo at night, one of a series of watercolours depicting the back streets of the city by Mateusz Urbanowicz.

• “The experience of reading the book is something like watching Dr. Strangelove on one screen, Apocalypse Now on a second screen, and having both feeds interrupted by explicit gay erotica.” Bad Books For Bad People examines William Burroughs’ celebrated YA novel, The Wild Boys. The subject is a perennial one here, explored at length in this post.

• Lindsay Anderson The White Bus (1967), a surreal precursor to If…. and O Lucky Man!, will receive the high-quality BFI reissue treatment as part of the Woodfall Films portmanteau feature, Red, White and Zero.

• The Radiophonic Workshop have composed the score for Possum, a horror film by Matthew Holness. The main title theme is here. The film is released later next month.

Might I have written a sober affair, had I not been under the influence? Perhaps not—I have never needed tramadol to be attended by angels, or to feel demons pricking my feet. But I think of Vincent van Gogh, who looked at the world through the yellowish haze conveyed by digitalis, and grew enraptured by sunflowers and straw chairs, and I think of a glass prism through which a beam of white light passes and is split into a rainbow. What had been a single lucid idea had passed through the drugs I took and been dispersed into a spectrum of colours I had only half foreseen.

Sarah Perry on trying to write while besieged by bodily pain and prescription drugs

• Jacques Tourneur’s masterful MR James adaptation, Night of the Demon (1957), is released on region-free Blu-ray next month by Powerhouse Films.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 673 is The Bug presents PRESSURE, and XLR8R Podcast 561 by Zendid.

• The Space Shifters exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, messes with Adrian Searle‘s mind.

Gregory Wells on queers, faeries and revolutionaries in the psychedelic movement.

Wide Boys (1977) by Ultravox! | On Demon Wings (2000) by Bohren & Der Club Of Gore | Spoonful (2013) by Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters

The Edge Is Where The Centre Is

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Design by Rob Carmichael.

“I am afflicted by images, by things that are seen, pictures of things. They are extraordinary, momentary, but they stay with me.” (David Rudkin, 1964)

“The pattern under the plough, the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment.” (Rob Young, Electric Eden)

Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, is one of the key films in the pantheon of what has been called The Old Weird Albion. A radical archaeology of Deep England, a work of dark pastoral, a praise-song to anarchistic transformation, as militant a rejection of imperial identity as Lindsay Anderson’s If…, it culminates with perhaps the most euphoric revelation in British cinema: “My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure!”

The Edge Is Where The Centre Is, the first book devoted to this visionary and never-commercially-released film, has at its heart a rare and far-ranging interview with Rudkin (b. 1936), a writer who for more than fifty years has, in the words of Gareth Evans, “charted a vast topology of viscerally-realised primary narratives for our troubled times”. It also features new essays by its editors — Gareth Evans, William Fowler and Sukhdev Sandhu – that explore the film’s status as a radical horror film, an experimental topography, a work that anticipates subsequent political debates about Englishness. (more)

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What could be more essential than a book (and poster) devoted to my No. 1 Cult Thing Of All Time? My copies are already on order. Even better, this is a publication from the same team—editor and designer—that produced The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale last year, a celebration of another British television dramatist that sent me on a full-scale re-viewing of Kneale’s major works.

There’s no need to enthuse about Penda’s Fen when I did all that four years ago but there’s a couple of points worth making in the light of this publication. The first is that it’s surprising that a wider reappraisal of Rudkin and Clarke’s film has lagged behind the resurrection of so many other British TV dramas, especially those that deal with rural horror, those that share a mythic resonance or impart an atmosphere of dread. Surprising because almost all the recent resurrections—the BBC ghost films (one of which was written by Rudkin), Robin Redbreast, The Children of the Stones, etc.—are primarily entertainments with little subtextual meat on their bones. That’s not to say that a subtext can’t be found if you apply the usual academic tools but Alan Garner’s adaptation of Red Shift is one of the few films of this school that has much going on under the surface.

Penda’s Fen doesn’t need a subtext when so much of its polemic is out in the open. It’s one of the most interesting of these films in being so directly political on several levels at once, even when it’s also being directly metaphysical: a call for disobedience and nonconformity on a sexual as well as a social level that (unlike Ken Loach et al) manages to generate a succession of indelible images.

This leads to the second point, the comparison made above to Lindsay’s Anderson’s If…. The similarity between the two films has always been unavoidable for me when If…. is another film that sits at the top of the cult list (see this post). Both films share a rejection of school and society, and also share an approach to sexuality that was very unusual for the late 60s/early 70s. The difference between the two films lies in their conclusions: If…. ends with riot and massacre, and while this may be a cathartic moment Lindsay Anderson wrote in the published script: “It doesn’t look to me as though Mick can win. The world rallies as it always will, and brings its overwhelming firepower to bear on the man who says ‘No.'” By contrast, Stephen in Penda’s Fen defeats his mental demons. If the final shot is of him walking down the hill into darkness we can at least feel he’s on his way to a better life. “Cherish the flame.”

The Edge Is Where The Centre Is is limited to only 200 copies so if you’d like a copy I’d suggest you place your order now.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Afore Night Come by David Rudkin
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
If….
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr