Night’s black agents

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Poster by Edmund Dulac (1911).

This month sees a profusion of events marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death so here’s my contribution, a rundown of Macbeths-I-have-seen on screen and stage. I’ve mentioned before that Macbeth and The Tempest are my favourite Shakespeare plays, two dramas concerned with magic of very different kinds. Macbeth is the more popular play, not least for being the more easily adaptable: the supernatural dimension may not suit every circumstance but the themes of treachery, fear, paranoia and a murderous struggle for power are universal. This list contains a wide range of adaptations but there are many film versions I’ve yet to see, including the most recent directed by Justin Kurzel.

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Macbeth (1948), directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles as Macbeth
Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth

I think the Welles adaptation was the first Macbeth of any kind that I saw so it’s fitting that it begins this chronological list. Famously shot over three hectic weeks on the sound stages of Republic Studios, and with sets made from props previously used in cheap westerns, the result is often eccentric. I’ve a lot of time for Welles as a director but this is one film of his that I’ve never enjoyed very much. His theatre performances (and productions) of Shakespeare began at school, and he was seldom precious with the texts: Chimes at Midnight is a fusion of several different plays while this version of Macbeth uses the same doctored script that he directed for the Voodoo Macbeth in Harlem in 1936. I don’t mind some editing—short scenes such as the witches’ meeting with Hecate are often excised—but some of Welles’ changes are made to support his belief that the witches are directly responsible for Macbeth’s actions, a theory I don’t agree with, and which I’ve never seen given credence elsewhere. This explains oddities such as the appearance of the witches at the very end of the film delivering words from the beginning of the play: “Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

Worse than this is the decision to have most of the cast speaking with vague Scottish accents (a “burr” Welles called it), something that would work with a Scottish cast but which courts disaster with a group of Americans working in haste. The accents may be warranted by the setting but the words of the play are English ones, free of common Scottish colloquialisms such as “ken”, “bairn” and the like. On the plus side, it’s good to see Harry Lime-era Welles performing Shakespeare, and the mist-shrouded production has a barbaric quality that Jean Cocteau appreciated. The forked staff that each witch carries is a detail that I’ve borrowed for drawings on a number of occasions.

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Joe MacBeth (1955), directed by Ken Hughes
Paul Douglas as Joe MacBeth
Ruth Roman as Lily MacBeth

The play reworked as a cheap gangster picture set in the Chicago of the 1930s but made in Britain with a partly American cast. I’ve only seen this once (and many years ago) but I recall it being pretty ludicrous, not least for another accent problem with the English actors doing bad impersonations of Chicago hoodlums. Anyone who grew up watching the Carry On comedy films has a hard time taking Sid James seriously in heavy roles, and here he plays the Banquo character, “Banky”. Joe MacBeth is chiefly notable today for being the first entry in the Macbeth-as-gangster sub-genre; after this there was Men of Respect (1990), Maqbool (2003, an Indian film set in Mumbai), and Macbeth (2006, an Australian film set in Melbourne), none of which I’ve yet seen.

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Weekend links 305

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Threads of Fate—The Weird Sisters from Macbeth (2013) by Fiona Marchbank.

• The week in books: Claire Cameron on the difference between US & UK cover designs | Jason Diamond asks “Why do cats love bookstores?” | Alan Moore’s cover art for his forthcoming novel, Jerusalem, has been revealed | Brian Phillips on the typefaces used by New English Library for their Dune covers in the 1970s.

• On writing: Poetry and horror “share a universally human quest toward intimacy” says Evan J. Peterson | “The best work neither shows nor tells: it says by being, not by saying,” says M. John Harrison.

• At the BFI this week: Where to begin with Jerzy Skolimowski, and 10 overlooked British horror films of the 1970s. Both lists include Skolimowski’s excellent The Shout (1978).

Cultures do not, and cannot, work through notions of ‘ownership’. The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation—of cultures borrowing, stealing, changing, transforming.

Nor does preventing whites from wearing locks or practicing yoga challenge racism in any meaningful way. What the campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal is the disintegration of the meaning of ‘anti-racism’. Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all. Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society.

Kenan Malik on ill-considered complaints against “cultural appropriation”. Malik isn’t the first to note the intersection of such complaints with those of white supremacists who also want cultural purity and segregation

OUT, DEMONS, OUT!: The 1967 Exorcism of the Pentagon and the Birth of Yippie! An oral history by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Michael Simmons and Jay Babcock.

• The long-overdue republication of Moebius’s work in English will begin with a new edition of The World of Edena (1985).

• More from radioactive Russia: Nadav Kander’s photographs of Soviet nuclear test sites.

• Comic artist and illustrator Kris Guidio in conversation with Jonathan Barlow.

• Francesca Gavin meets Tadanori Yokoo, “the Grandmaster of Pop-Psych Art”.

• “LSD’s impact on the brain revealed in groundbreaking images”

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 182 by Paul Jebanasam.

• A trailer for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon.

• Tony Conrad: 1940–2016 by Geeta Dayal.

Brian Eno’s favourite records

Neonlicht (1994) by Mitja VS (with Enzo Fabiani Quartet) | On Demon Wings (2000) by Bohren & Der Club of Gore | Shout At The Devil (2002) by Jah Wobble & Temple Of Sound

Weekend links 304

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One of ten new stamps designed by The Chase for the Royal Mail’s Shakespeare celebrations.

• “I basically had this problem with bombast and intensity. And I started to feel like it was a nuclear arms race.” Tim Hecker talking to Rick Moody about loud sounds, Icelandic elves and Minimalism. Hecker’s new album, Love Streams, features contributions from Ben Frost and Jóhann Jóhannsson.

• “He joked in a letter to Edmund Wilson that he had ‘managed to get into Harvard with a butterfly as my sole backer.'” Laura Marsh on Nabokov the lepidopterist.

• The brutal musical legacy of JG Ballard by Tim Noakes. Ballard’s own musical taste, as revealed in his choice for Desert Island Discs, was mostly nostalgic.

One outcome of this sense that homosexual people existed in large numbers while still remaining more or less invisible to the naked eye was the suspicion that when they got together they were likely to engage in something more, something even worse than the indulging of a perversion. Notoriously, the networks of homosexuality seemed to transcend many more formal social and political boundaries, reifying crossovers not only between national and ethnic cultures, but between high society and the demi-mondes of bohemian artists, and so forth. The Homintern certainly helped cross-fertilise the arts.

Gregory Woods on the gay artists and writers who changed the world

• Mixes of the week: FACT Mix 544 by Tim Gane, Abs’s Cornerhouse Classics by Abigail Ward, and Secret Thirteen Mix 181 by Broken Bone.

I Can’t Give Everything Away: Jonathan Barnbrook’s text-and graphics video for the song by David Bowie.

• “Chernobyl is spooky, in the manner of all disowned places.” Simon Parkin enters the Zone.

Osman Ahmed on why Doreen Valiente is “the mother of modern witchcraft”.

• The camera obscura art of Abelardo Morell.

An oral history of Taxi Driver.

Swiss graphic design in CSS

• RIP Tony Conrad

Lady Macbeth (1972) by Third Ear Band | In The Back Of A Taxi (1984) by Penguin Cafe Orchestra | Butterfly Mornings (2001) by Hope Sandoval & The Warm Vibrations

Welles at 100

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Orson Welles: A First Biography (1946) by Roy Alexander Fowler.

Happy birthday, Orson. The premature celebrity biography is nothing new, as this small volume from the Coulthart library demonstrates. Welles was only 31 in 1946 but was already the director of three feature films. If I’m less of a Welles obsessive today it’s because many of the films and radio plays that were once inaccessible can now be easily seen and heard, although a handful of unfinished projects still wait in the wings. The following is a selection of some favourite Wellesiana, old and new.

• The Mercury Theatre On The Air: Recordings of Welles’ theatre troupe at the Internet Archive and at the dedicated website. The Mercury production of The War of the Worlds is the essential one, of course, but I’m also partial to their production of Dracula which featured Agnes Moorehead playing Mina Harker, Welles as the Count, and a suitably spooky score by Bernard Herrmann. The production of Around the World in 80 Days was later expanded by Welles into an ambitious (and expensive) stage musical in collaboration with Cole Porter.

The Night America Trembled (1957) is a TV dramatisation of the alarmed reaction of some Americans to the War of the Worlds broadcast. Presented live by Ed Murrow, the drama features Warren Beatty, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and Ed Asner (who later presented the BBC’s RKO Story). Closer to Welles is The Night That Panicked America (1975) a TV movie recreation of the original broadcast with Paul Shenar as the director.

Newsreel footage of the final scenes of the so-called Voodoo Macbeth from 1936. As part of the WPA program to return Americans to work, Welles directed an all-black cast with the action of the play moved to Haiti. As usual, Welles wasn’t afraid of rearranging the Bard’s words, and this staging ends with the same lines as his 1948 film version: “Peace! The charm’s wound up.”

• My favourite Welles book is still This is Orson Welles (1992), a collection of Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Bogdanovich’s interview tapes can be heard at the Internet Archive.

Orson Welles’ Horrorshow: Colin Fleming on Welles’ Macbeth, “the horror film no one likes to call a horror film”.

Peter Bradshaw on Citizen Kane and the meaning of “Rosebud”.

Six actors who have played Orson Welles onscreen

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Fountain of Youth
The Complete Citizen Kane
Return to Glennascaul, a film by Hilton Edwards
Screening Kafka
The Panic Broadcast

Witches

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Scene of Witchcraft (1510) by Hans Baldung Grien.

Earlier this year Pam Grossman declared 2013 to be the Year of the Witch, so in honour of that (and the season) here’s a handful of sorceresses through the ages. Most can be found in higher quality at the Google Art Project but a couple are from other sources. I’ve taken the liberty of attributing the drawing below to Hans Baldung Grien, not Albrecht Dürer as Google has it. Not only is this the attribution I’ve always seen for this picture but Baldung’s “HBG” monogram is clearly visible beneath the sprawling woman.

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New Year’s Greeting with Three Witches (1514) by Hans Baldung Grien.

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The Witches’ Sabbath (c.1640–1649) by Salvator Rosa.

Salvator Rosa specialised in lurid depictions of bandits, executions and—as here—witches. The excessive imagery appealed to later generations, especially the Romantics. This painting is even more grotesque than usual with its flayed-bird abominations (below) looming out of the shadows.

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