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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Dick Smith, 1922–2014

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left: Dummy head by Dick Smith for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1961); right: Cover art by Michel Atkinson (aka Michel) for The Unquiet Grave (1963).

Cinema in the 1970s would have been very different without Dick Smith‘s makeup artistry.

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Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970).

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Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972).

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Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973).

Continue reading “Dick Smith, 1922–2014”

Arthur Penn, 1922–2010

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Design by Bill Gold.

With respect to Bonnie and Clyde and my other films, I would have to say that I think violence is a part of the American character. It began with the Western, the frontier. America is a country of people who act out their views in violent ways—there is not a strong tradition of persuasion, of ideation, and of law.

Let’s face it: Kennedy was shot. We’re in Vietnam, shooting people and getting shot. We have not been out of a war for any period of time in my lifetime. Gangsters were flourishing during my youth, I was in the war at age 18, then came Korea, now comes Vietnam. We have a violent society. It’s not Greece, it’s not Athens, it’s not the Renaissance—it is the American society, and I would have to personify it by saying it is a violent one. So why not make films about it.

From The Bonnie and Clyde Book (1972)

Thus film director Arthur Penn, whose death was announced earlier this week, speaking at a press conference in Montreal in 1967 following the first screenings of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn’s film shocked critics and audiences at the time ostensibly for its graphic violence although the disturbance went deeper than that. What I found shocking the first time I saw it—home alone one evening, watching TV with no idea what to expect—was the abrupt shifts of tone from near comedy (the speeding cars and bluegrass soundtrack, Gene Wilder’s role) to awful realism as the consequences of a life of bank-robbing became apparent. This was disturbing for audiences used to being spoon-fed their morality tales with easily identifiable heroes and villains; the sudden, savage conclusion was especially jolting. A “nightmare comedy” quality was a hallmark of Penn’s best work, and he followed Bonnie and Clyde with another nightmare comedy that’s also a further exploration of America’s troubled history, Little Big Man (1970). Here Dustin Hoffman’s character finds himself caught between the Native Americans who raised him and the warring Cavalry intent on massacring the native tribes. Like Robert Aldrich in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Penn was using Western history to make a statement about America’s involvement in Vietnam; the soldiers in Little Big Man are murderous racists and General Custer is presented not as a doomed hero but as an unhinged psychopath. For me the film has always been distinguished by the character of Little Horse, the first (only?) gay Native American character in cinema. There’s plenty of documentary evidence for gay individuals in Native American tribes but these have seldom been seen in films. It’s Thomas Berger we have to thank for this detail, since it was Berger’s novel which Penn adapted, but the film’s writer and director are also to be congratulated for keeping a minor character who might easily have been excised.

It’s surprising when you see Bonnie and Clyde cited as one of the films that enabled directors to have more artistic freedom during the 1970s that Penn didn’t manage to do more during that golden decade. After Little Big Man there were two films which seem minor in comparison but would be major works from many lesser directors. Night Moves (1975) is one of the handful of attempts at updating film noir which appeared in the 1970s (for others see The Long Goodbye, Robert Aldrich’s Hustle and Taxi Driver), with a screenplay by Alan Sharp, the writer of Ulzana’s Raid. It’s a curio even by the standards of the decade, part detective story set in the Florida Keys, part symbolic drama with chess games and boats named “Point of View”; it’s also Penn’s last great film. The Missouri Breaks (1976), another Western, is fascinating for its pairing of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson but Brando’s eccentric performance is the start of his decline as an actor. It’s hard to believe that Penn only made five more films after this but he was one of a number of individual talents who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s then found themselves shut out in the 1980s as intellect was ousted by commerce. There’s even less room for him today than there was then. We’ve travelled from a time of intelligent and challenging films made by adults for adults to an era of shitty action movies and worthless adaptations of equally worthless costumed vigilantes. But I never counsel despair; celebrate what we have rather than bemoaning what we might have lost. Fuck Star Wars in 3D, watch Little Big Man instead.

Guardian obituary | NYT obituary
David Thomson on Penn

Stanley Kubrick 1928–1999

Welles: Among those whom I would call “younger generation” Kubrick appears to me to be a giant.
Interviewer: But, for example, The Killing was more or less a copy of The Ashphalt Jungle?
Welles: Yes, but The Killing was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model… What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his… Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.
Orson Welles, from a 1965 interview.

kubrick.jpgONE OF THE MORE notable things about the obituaries following Stanley Kubrick’s death in March this year was the lack of consensus with regard to his achievements. All were agreed that the man had made great films, but which films those might be varied widely, the choices spanning his entire career: Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, even The Killing was mentioned. A lack of accord would seem inevitable given such a varied career. Critic David Thomson has always chosen The Shining, citing its fairy tale qualities and a perceived autobiographical subtext about artistic crisis (“Why does Jack Nicholson look and dress like Kubrick?” he asks). In France the often vilified Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange (L’Orange Mecanique) still receive cult veneration.

After the death of Orson Welles in 1985, Kubrick became (arguably, of course) the greatest living filmmaker, the dubious status of “living legend” having been achieved a decade earlier. (In Sight & Sound‘s 1992 Critics Top 10 2001 crept into tenth place, the only film listed by a living director.) The international acclaim, his presence on English soil and a refusal to barter with hacks was, no doubt, one cause of the extraordinary level of carping in the March notices. Another would be due to a common syndrome, that of intelligence and popular culture being seen as mutually exclusive. Where cinema is concerned we live in times which, as Robin Wood once said, “regards Heaven’s Gate as ‘a disaster’ and Return of the Jedi as ‘a triumph'”. Orson Welles himself is rarely mentioned without reference to sherry commercials and, in other quarters, James Joyce is routinely described as ‘unreadable’ (this, from people who buy Nick Hornby books). In an atmosphere of elevated mediocrity, Kubrick’s powerful intellect and artistry, combined with an understandable reluctance to talk to people who think Ossessione is a brand of perfume, formed unavoidable provocations. The media landscape has changed enormously since the days when Kubrick would still appear at the premier of Lolita; it’s hard to imagine John Ford or Sam Peckinpah tolerating an interrogation from Jamie Theakston or Magenta DeVine. The voracious appetites of style mags and entertainment TV demand a constant drip-feed of interviews, talk show appearances and promo tours (backed by massive PR budgets). Anyone who doesn’t play the game is regarded as insane or as some kind of traitor. To be a name director working with ‘stars’ verges on the suicidal. Those two great elusive Thomases, Pynchon and Harris, both also taking years between works, escape censure by being mere writers. No one cares about Pynchon (he’s in Joyce’s ‘unreadable’ camp) while Harris has film gossip and a miscast Anthony Hopkins to deflect attention.

Nearly all the post mortem articles managed to repeat the standard litany of Kubrick complaints which have dogged him like the sherry ads dogged Welles. One of the worst, repeated in a recent biography, was that he was the bane of actors. If so, then Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, Peter Sellers, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Patrick Magee, Godfrey Quigley and Steven Berkoff et al, were gluttons for punishment, having come back for more when asked. Philip Stone, presumably bidding for a BFI endurance award, appeared in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Leon Vitali, who played the elder Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, had such a terrible time of it he left acting completely to join Kubrick’s permanent production staff. It seems significant that most complaints about Kubrick from the acting side came from those with prodigious egos: Kirk Douglas (who described him as “a talented shit”), Malcom McDowell (“inhuman”) and, on One Eyed Jacks, that paragon of flexibility Marlon Brando. No one who was as difficult as is so often claimed would have had talents such as Ken Adam and John Alcott returning constantly to work on his films, nor inspired such loyalty in those around him (see Anthony Frewin’s remarks in the current issue).

Invariably these kind of ill-informed comments say more about the critic than about Kubrick or, more importantly, his films. A metropolitan media that measures artistic success by the quantities of cocaine snorted in a Dean Street bar has few terms of reference for dealing with someone who chooses to sit at home for most of their life. Hence the recurrent headlines: “Kubrick the recluse”, “Kubrick the secretive, paranoid control-freak”.

Focus on Kubrick’s eccentricities often ignored the accuracy of his artistic choices. What is still seen as perversity in making a Vietnam film in the ruins of Beckton gasworks is, when the equivalent scenes are compared with Gustav Hasford’s novel, a stroke of brilliance which improves on the original by taking it out of its over-familiar jungle locale and into an area of potent metaphor. The entire last quarter of Full Metal Jacket has an nightmare quality as the film spirals through multiple deaths into darkness (with a Rolling Stones’ coda of ‘Paint It Black’). The flaming ruins seem to reach to infinity; where a jungle setting would connect only with Vietnam, the rubbled streets are the theatre of all present and future warfare, corresponding to Berlin, Beirut, Sarajevo and wherever the apocalypse is scheduled to visit next. And what other director anywhere, having shown his matchless ability to choose the perfect classical selection, would have the audacity and consummate good taste to pick out ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by The Trashmen?

This ability to crystalise ideas and metaphors in unforgettable images (the bone to spacecraft transformation in 2001) set Kubrick apart from his contemporaries, and his concentration on ideas as well as story makes him seem increasingly unique. Even acknowledged admirers like Michael Mann and Ridley Scott are unwilling or unable to compete on this level. Fortunately we have a final film left to see (setting aside the troubling presence of Tom Cruise; Ryan O’Neal was also pretty wooden during his Seventies’ heyday). Eyes Wide Shut seems to bring Kubrick’s career to a fitting close, based as it is on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. Schnitzler also wrote the play La Ronde which was filmed in 1950 by Max Ophüls, virtually the only director Kubrick ever referred to in interviews as a subject of admiration (by coincidence, Nicole Kidman was acting in The Blue Room, Howard Brenton’s version of La Ronde, shortly after completing her duties on the film). Eyes Wide Shut has already caused a stir in the US by having to be altered to secure an ‘R’ rating (as A Clockwork Orange was before it).

To be controversial to the last is the least one can expect of any artistic maverick. Kubrick, king of the Hollywood Mavericks, was always more than that.

John Coulthart, 1999. First published in The Edge.

New work out this month

I designed these two very different covers last year (with some slight tweaking later). Books always take a while to reach publication, however, so both titles have ended up appearing in the same month. I was particularly pleased to be involved with the Donald Cammell book as this is the first substantial biography of the artist, writer and filmmaker.

Jack of Jumps by David Seabrook. (Granta)

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Between 1959 and 1965 eight prostitutes were murdered in West London by a serial killer. These murders were the most notorious unsolved crimes of the 20th century. The killer’s motive and identity were the subject of endless speculation by the media, who dubbed him ‘Jack the Stripper’. Links to the Profumo scandal, boxer Freddie Mills and the notorious Kray twins were rumoured. By the time the body of the eighth victim was found in February 1965, a massive police operation was underway to catch the killer. The whole country waited to see what would happen next. The police had staked everything on the murderer striking again. But he didn’t….

By October that year, the Daily Express was asking ‘Is the Nude Killer Dead?’ In 1970 the detective who had led the enquiry announced in his memoirs that the police knew the identity of the killer ? that he had committed suicide as the net closed around him, and that the police had vowed never to reveal his identity. And that was that. Until now.

Seabrook has interviewed surviving police officers, witnesses and associates of the victims and examined the evidence, the rumours, and half truths. In this unique book, he reconstructs every detail of the investigation and recreates the dark, brutal world of prostitutes and ponces in 1960s West London. He questions the theory that the police’s prime suspect was Jack the Stripper, and confronts the disturbing possibility that the killer is still at large.

Donald Cammell – A Life on the Wild Side by Rebecca and Sam Umland. (FAB Press)

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When Donald Cammell, the Scottish painter, filmmaker and novelist, committed suicide in 1996, he left behind a handful of unusual, innovative, frequently disturbing films. One of them – Mick Jagger’s acting debut Performance – is now an acknowledged masterpiece of world cinema.

“Donald Cammell was a wicked guy. I loved Donald, but he was wicked. I know so many people who will want to read this book.”
Roman Polanski

Donald Cammell’s extraordinary life was shrouded in both mystery and legend. In this provocative and comprehensive biography, Sam and Rebecca Umland explore Cammell’s remarkable life and times, from his father’s friendship with the notorious Aleister Crowley, to Donald’s early career as a society portrait painter in Chelsea and the beginning of his film career in Paris during the ‘Swinging Sixties’, via numerous doomed collaborations with Marlon Brando, to his final years of frustration and ultimate tragedy in Hollywood. In an effort to account for his wasted genius, the authors scrutinize revealing patterns in Cammell’s life that help to unlock the enigma of his death.