Last and First Men

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“Existence has always been precarious. At any stage of its career, humanity might have been exterminated by some slight alteration to its chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, by the manifold effects of its own folly.”

I loved this, but then it had several points immediately in its favour: a late work by Jóhann Jóhannsson (with a superb score written in collaboration with Yair Elazar Glotman); a study of the concrete memorials from the former Yugoslavia known as spomeniks; narration by Tilda Swinton; and science fiction that isn’t more tiresome Hollywood space opera. Olaf Stapledon’s novel was published in 1930 but it took until 2017 for it to reach a cinema screen when Jóhannsson’s film was premiered at the Manchester International Festival. The film is not only the first adaptation of the novel but also the first film based on any of Stapledon’s novels. Last and First Men and Star Maker (1937) have inspired many notable writers but the philosophical nature of Stapledon’s work combined with the colossal spans of time he deals with make his novels resistant to adaptation by popular narrative forms. Jóhannsson’s film is very small-scale—mostly black-and-white, and shot on grainy 16mm—but it demonstrates how a work that those with greater resources might consider unfilmable can be turned into a substantial drama. The technique of using narration to connect disparate images is a familiar one from documentaries but is less common in fiction cinema despite its flexibility and convenience, especially for low-budget films such as this.

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Tilda Swinton’s voice is that of a spokesperson for “the Eighteenth Men”, a terminal evolution of the human species 2,000 million years in the future. The last humans now live on the planet Neptune, a forced relocation after the expansion of the Sun has made the inner planets of the solar system uninhabitable. Swinton’s unidentified messenger is speaking to us, “the First Men”, describing some of the history that awaits while also warning of an impending and inescapable cataclysm. This is the last section of Stapledon’s novel, the previous chapters of which relate the intervening aeons between our time and the distant future. While the voice informs us about humanity’s fate we contemplate the enigmatic spomeniks, filmed in close-up or at a distance, in bright sunlight or shrouded in mist. What connection there is between the narration and the concrete structures is for the viewer to decide, there are few points of direct correspondence. The combination of strange architectural forms with a vast, invented history had me thinking of At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft, although in Lovecraft’s story the stellar evolution is an alien one which human beings discover. The congruence is reinforced by Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for Stapledon’s novel which he called “a thing of unparalleled power“. It should be noted, however, that Jóhannsson never suggests that the monuments are anything other than what they are.

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Roger Luckhurst’s Sight & Sound review of the film included questions about the use of the spomeniks, while elsewhere Owen Hatherley has expressed concern about the fetishising of memorials and structures that mark sites of wartime massacre. Stapledon’s novel explores the continuity of human endeavour in all its best and worst aspects; warfare and strife remain persistent problems, so Jóhannsson’s roaming views may be taken as signposts to the future as much as remembrances of the past. There’s also one significant detail that many critics will be unaware of (and which Luckhurst does acknowledge): the first part of the novel is titled “Balkan Europe”, and the opening chapters describe the wars that ravage the Earth throughout the 21st century, wars which have their root in the very conflicts that the spomeniks record. Stapledon’s future history was an attempt to consider the ways in which humanity might overcome its worst impulses. Beyond this, the concrete structures also stand as simple markers of the passage of time; many of the monuments are now weathered and eroded, blained with lichens and besieged by weeds. Humanity may live long enough to resolve its own internal conflicts but its creations, whatever they represent, face a continual struggle against the universal process of entropy.

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Jóhannsson’s film is available in a digipak release from Deutsche Grammophon which packages a blu-ray disc with a CD of the score. This is now a memorial to its creator so the sombre livery seems appropriate: the last major work we’ll have from a remarkable, much-missed artist.

Further reading: The Spomenik Database.

Weekend links 516

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Bats in space: an illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa from a 1906 edition of The War of the Worlds.

• Auf wiedersehen to Florian Schneider. Until he left Kraftwerk in 2009 (or 2006 or whenever it was), Schneider had been the group’s longest-serving member, keeping things running for the few months in 1971 when Ralf Hütter was absent. The brief period when Kraftwerk was Schneider plus soon-to-be-Neu! (Michael Rother, guitar, and Klaus Dinger, drums) fascinates aficionados over-familiar with the later albums. The music they produced was a wild and aggressive take on the rock idiom but Scheider maintained the link with Kraftwerk before and after, not only instrumentally but with his ubiquitous traffic cones, as noted in this post. There’s no need for me to praise Kraftwerk any more than usual, this blog has featured at least one dedicated post about them for every year of its existence, and besides, the group itself is still active. Elsewhere: Simon Reynolds on how Florian Schneider and Kraftwerk created pop’s future; A Kraftwerk Baker’s Dozen Special; Dave Simpson attempts to rank 30 Kraftwerk songs (good luck getting anyone to agree with this); Jude Rogers with ten things you (possibly) don’t know about Kraftwerk; Dancing to Numbers by Owen Hatherley; Pocket Calculator in five languages; Florian Schneider talks about Stop Plastic Pollution.

Intermission is a new digital compilation from Ghost Box records featuring “preview tracks from forthcoming releases and material especially recorded for the compilation during the global lockdown”. In a choice of two editions, one of which helps fund Médecins Sans Frontières.

• How groundbreaking design weirdness transformed record label United Artists, against all odds. By Jeremy Allan.

Sex in an American suburb is not quite the same phenomenon as sex in, say, an eastern European apartment block, and sex scenes can do a great deal to illuminate the social and historical forces that make the difference. All of which is to say that sex is a kind of crucible of humanness, and so the question isn’t so much why one would write about sex, as why one would write about anything else.

And yet, of course, we are asked why we write about sex. The biggest surprise of publishing my first novel, What Belongs to You was how much people wanted to talk about the sex in a book that, by any reasonable standard, has very little sex in it. That two or three short scenes of sex between men was the occasion of so much comment said more about mainstream publishing in 2016, I think, than it did about my book. In fact, in terms of exploring the potential for sex in fiction, I felt that I hadn’t gone nearly far enough. I’ve tried to go much further in my second novel, Cleanness. In two of its chapters, I wanted to push explicitness as far as I could; I wanted to see if I could write something that could be 100% pornographic and 100% high art.

Garth Greenwell on sex in literature

James Balmont‘s guide to Shinya Tsukamoto, “Japan’s Greatest Cult Filmmaker”.

• A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation by Samuel Rutter.

Maya-Roisin Slater on where to begin with Laurie Anderson.

• The Count of 13: Ramsey Campbell‘s Weird Selection.

Adam Scovell on where to begin with Nigel Kneale.

When John Waters met Little Richard (RIP).

RB Russell on collecting Robert Aickman.

Weird writers recommend weird films.

Campo Grafico 1933/1939.

Ruckzuck (1970) by Kraftwerk | V-2 Schneider (1977) by David Bowie | V-2 Schneider (1997) by Philip Glass

Weekend links 470

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A rail station in ruins by Tokyo Genso. From a series of views of Tokyo showing a ruined and abandoned city.

• Old music technology of the week: The EKO ComputeRhythm, a programmable drum machine from 1972 used by Chris Franke (who didn’t like the sounds so he used it to trigger other instruments), Manuel Göttsching (the rhythms on New Age Of Earth), and Jean-Michel Jarre (on Equinoxe); and Yuri Suzuki‘s digital reconstruction of Raymond Scott’s Electronium.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…Ishmael Reed Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and DC’s favourite fiction, poetry, non-fiction, film, art, and internet of the year so far. Thanks again for the link here!

• “Pauline told her to shove her shyckle up her khyber.” Philip Hensher on the origins and revival of Polari, the secret gay argot. Related: a Polari word list, plus other links.

In Star, Mishima fuses his major theme of the mask, the public role all humans are destined to play out, with the theme of suicide, an act which Mishima considered a work of art. All of his work is punctuated by suicide, and it is peopled with masks, with people knowing they are nothing but masks, who are aware that the center doesn’t hold because there is no center, that character is a flowing fixture, a paradoxical constancy and a definite variable, always.

Jan Wilm on Star, a novella by Yukio Mishima receiving its first publication in English

• “How have these places managed to transform from monuments to atrocity and resistance into concrete clickbait?” Owen Hatherley on the popularity of spomeniks.

• The late George Craig on translating the scrawl of Samuel Beckett’s letters (written in French) into coherent English.

• Outsider Literature, Part 1: a Wormwoodiana guide by RB Russell.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 291 by Arturas Bumsteinas.

Symbiose, a split album by Prana Crafter and Tarotplane.

Robby Müller’s Polaroids

Apollo 11 in Real-time

Tokyo Shyness Boy (1976) by Haruomi Hosono | Tokyo (1979) by Jean-Claude Eloy | Tokyosaka Train (2002) by Funki Porcini

Weekend links 116

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Ankle Deep, a pyrograph by Robert Sherer whose work is showcased at The Advocate.

• “Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, during another period of economic distress, ‘that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial societies is quite different from what always has been preached.’ ” From The Devilishness Of Idleness by Alex Gallo-Brown. Related: Owen Hatherley says “It’s the 21st century – why are we working so much?”

Restoring James Joyce’s book of the night: Joyce biographer Gordon Bowker reviews the new edition of Finnegans Wake. Over at the NYRB Michael Chabon has a great piece about his own relationship with Joyce’s novel that manages to make some very un-NYRB references to Cthulhu, the Necronomicon and Michael Moorcock’s Elric. Related: Leopold’s Day, a limited edition (and expensive) map of Dublin using typography to depict the people and places of Bloomsday.

Verbally, it feels as though Burroughs, Joyce and Beckett are text messaging haikus back and forth: ‘beautiful/last/random fragments of poetry/finding syllables,/the waters fall/the waves fall/musical./pencil murmuring’.

James Kidd on A Humument by Tom Phillips.

The Expanding Universe (1980), an album of early computer music by American composer Laurie Spiegel, will be reissued with additional recordings in September.

• A previously unreleased remix by Surgeon of Teenage Lighting by Coil has been made public.

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Small Museum of Nature and Industry (2010) by Susan Collard.

Queer Kids In America, a photo project by M. Sharkey.

Walter Benjamin’s Grave: A Profane Illumination.

The Visual Art and Design of Famous Writers.

Nylon Sculptures by Rosa Verloop.

Froschroom (1994) by Mouse on Mars | Bib (1995) by Mouse on Mars | Cache Coeur Naïf (1997) by Mouse on Mars.

Weekend links 34

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Halloween in Austin, Texas this year will look and sound like this.

• “Blade Runner will prove invincible“: Philip K Dick’s letter of praise to the film’s producers. Related: one of the Blade Runner designers, Syd Mead, has recently styled New York’s Bar Basque and Foodparc.

• “I decided to go into fields where mathematicians would never go because the problems were badly stated…I have played a strange role that none of my students dare to take.” RIP Benoît Mandelbrot.

Science and poetry: “a richly vexed topic badly in need of rethinking”. Related: Why the Singularity isn’t going to happen.

• In case you missed this week’s earlier announcement, a reminder that I was interviewed at Coilhouse. My vanity: it knows no bounds.

• Franklin Booth’s illustrations for The Flying Islands of the Night (1913) by James Whitcomb Riley.

On the Verge (1950) by Maurice Sandoz, illustrated by Salvador Dalí. Also this and this.

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Bowie Sphinx, 1969. Photo by Brian Ward.

The Laughing Gnostic: David Bowie and the Occult.

• “Moonlighting as a Conjurer of Chemicals“: Isaac Newton’s alchemical interests.

• “A sense of otherness that goes right back“: Alan Garner at Alderley Edge.

Jimmy’s End—Alan Moore’s new feature film and spin-off TV series.

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley.

• The It Gets Better Project now has a dedicated website.

Quicksand (1971) by David Bowie.