Decoder, a film by Jürgen Muschalek

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The Burroughs Centenary approaches, and this month sees the 30th anniversary of this Burroughs-related item. Decoder is a low-budget feature film from 1984 written by Klaus Maeck, and directed by Jürgen Muschalek (aka Muscha). Despite the constraints of budget and casting—many of the actors are amateurs—Decoder is truer to the techno-anarchist strand of Burroughs’ fiction than anything attempted before or since, and it’s arguably truer to the spirit of his works as a whole than David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.

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Decoder was shot in Berlin during its grim post-punk years when the city was still an isolated Cold War outpost riven by riots, some of which are seen here. The narrative concerns attempts by FM (played by FM Einheit from Einstürzende Neubauten) to combat the insidious effects of muzak in shops and restaurants using home-made electronics. William Burroughs makes a couple of brief appearances as the “Old Man” with a shop full of electronic components. Among the rest of the cast there’s Christiane Felscherinow in a room filled with frogs, and Genesis P-Orridge (in Psychic TV gear) as the head of an underground pirate cult. Original music is provided by Dave Ball (from Soft Cell) and FM Einheit. The complete score is very good, featuring additional tracks by Soft Cell, Einstürzende Neubauten and Matt Johnson. Watched today, the narrative seems very much a product of its time, and somewhat outmoded. In 1984 home computing was increasingly prevalent, and cheap sound-sampling was just around the corner; Decoder is the last hurrah of an analogue struggle against the agents of the Control Virus.

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It’s a shame Jürgen Muschalek didn’t get to make anything else when he was obviously trying for some kind of cross between Burroughs’s The Electronic Revolution (1970) and Godard’s Alphaville (1965). Low-budget films often suffer visually but this one makes impressive use of vivid lighting and plenty of shadow which helps alleviate some of the weaknesses elsewhere. David Cronenberg has often acknowledged the influence of avant-garde types such as Burroughs and Warhol but his own films tend to be very conservative in their presentation. Muschalek at least tries to parallel some of Burroughs’ fragmented narrative techniques with an abrupt and disjunctive editing style. The film as a whole is much more in tune with the early Industrial Culture ethos than Peter Care’s noir pastiche, Johnny YesNo, but suffered from being more read about than seen in the 1980s. A few copies can be found online. In 2010 it finally appeared on DVD with extra material and a soundtrack disc.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Burroughs Century
Interzone: A William Burroughs Mix
Sine Fiction
The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera
Burroughs: The Movie revisited
Zimbu Xolotl Time
Ah Pook Is Here
Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Doublevision Presents Cabaret Voltaire

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Videocassette box insert. Design by Neville Brody.

A couple of years back I tracked down some of the releases on Cabaret Voltaire’s Doublevision video label, the early titles of which have never been reissued on DVD. The first Doublevision release was the Cabs’ collection of their own music videos which Mute Records reissued on DVD 2004. That reissue seems to be deleted for the moment so it’s good to find a copy of the original tape release on YouTube. As with the other Doublevision releases I was well aware of this but didn’t have a VHS player at the time so wasn’t eager to buy anything I couldn’t watch. Unlike the other releases I did get to see several of the tracks during the Cabs’ Doublevision video night at the Haçienda in 1983, an evening that ended with the group performing for an hour.

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It’s good to be reminded of these videos, however crude they appear today. As with any early use of technology you need to bear in mind the limitations of the time. The tape was released in 1982 but the group had been experimenting with video equipment from about 1979 onwards. At that time commercial music video was just getting started but most of the examples on TV were paid for by the big record companies. Cabaret Voltaire and some of their associates in the UK Industrial scene—notably Throbbing Gristle and 23 Skidoo—were ahead of the game in acquiring equipment to make their own video recordings and promos. These videos were seldom shown on mainstream TV: I recall being thrilled to see a clip from the Nag, Nag, Nag promo on a pop programme but that was a rare one-off moment. The music industry was being forced to accommodate the awkward DIY merchants but the gates of broadcast television remained heavily policed.

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And speaking of heavy policing, you get some of that here, the Cabs’ obsessions with coercion and control being illustrated by footage of riot squads, together with religious mania, medical surgery, psychotronic films and much else, all of it processed, fragmented and distorted. Direction was by the group and by St. John Walker, with an extract from Johnny YesNo (recently reissued by Mute) directed by Peter Care. I’ve been listening to Seconds Too Late a lot this week so it’s great to see a video for that song. There’s also a slight conundrum in the tracklisting: if you’re familiar with the free four-track single that came with The Crackdown album it seems that Badge of Evil and Moscow have had their titles swapped. The Moscow video track, however, includes a shot of an Aeroflot passenger plane so it’s more likely that the tracks on one side of the single were mis-labelled when they appeared a year later, an error carried over to the CD release.

Tracklist: Diskono / Obsession / Trash (Part 1) / Badge Of Evil / Nag, Nag, Nag / Eddie’s Out / Landslide / Photophobia / Trash (Part 2) / Seconds Too Late / Extract From Johnny YesNo / Walls Of Jericho / This Is Entertainment / Moscow

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire
European Rendezvous by CTI
TV Wipeout
Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo
Elemental 7 by CTI
The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire
Network 21 TV

Downside Up

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Downside Up (1984)

For a long time I didn’t know which came first, Downside Up, a 16-minute short by experimental filmmaker Tony Hill, or Sensoria, the Cabaret Voltaire music video directed by Peter Care. Both were made in 1984 and both employ the same technique of a camera fixed to a special rig that allows shots to begin at ground level, rise parabolically into the air then descend to the ground again showing a reverse angle. Thanks to this Quietus interview with Peter Care last year we now know that Tony Hill’s film came first and that Care borrowed the rig for his video. Both are memorable pieces of work. Hill starts out with a series of slow shots accompanied by sounds that imply the camera is passing through the earth. This is contradicted later (and with gathering speed) when some of the shots are rotated through ninety degrees so they materialise out of building walls. Care stripped the technique down using faster shots that he cut with stop-motion footage of Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder. It’s the best of the promo videos made for the group.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire

Weekend links 80

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Niels Klim’s descent to the planet Nazar from the 1845 edition of Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (Niels Klim’s Underground Travels) (1741) by Ludvig Holberg.

BibliOdyssey posts illustrations from different editions of Ludvig Holberg’s satirical fantasy, appends the usual informative links and draws our attention Stories of a Hollow Earth at The Public Domain Review. I’d not come across the latter site before but it’s now bookmarked.

• While the economy of Europe continues to circle the toilet bowl it’s good to know that our Prime Minister is focusing on the important issues such as…limiting access to internet pornography. “Look at the implementation, and no matter where you stand on porn, I think you’ll see this plan is going to cause a lot of problems on its way to the eventual fail bin,” says Violet Blue. I was wondering how the four targeted ISPs would feel about a filtering plan that would drive many new customers elsewhere. The Register reports their response which comes down to offering guidelines rather than attempting the difficult and contentious task of filtering millions of websites.

• Related: Won’t you fuck off, Reg Bailey, in which the report by the small Christian pressure group that started all the fuss is eviscerated. | Elsewhere: Porn is good for society says Anna Arrowsmith, while Tristan Taormino asserts that “writing and publishing erotica, especially for minorities, is a political act.” Then there’s Pornsaints, “an artistic approach to porn, a pornographic approach to art, a pornartistic approach to religion.”

• In the music world: Richard H Kirk and Peter Care discuss Cabaret Voltaire and Johnny YesNo, Roy Harper talks to Alex Petridis, and soundtrack composer Cliff Martinez is interviewed (and pictured playing a Cristal).

Witch’s Cradle at Strange Flowers (Maya Deren, Marcel Duchamp and Peggy Guggenheim), The Ghosts of Senate House, London, and Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema as it is today.

• RIP Frank Kameny, co-founder of the Mattachine Society, and a tireless gay rights advocate from the early 1960s on.

Bruce Weber photographs some of the dancers from Matthew Bourne’s Dance Company.

Terry Gilliam says “I used to think I could will things into existence. Not any more.”

• Charts at Business Insider: What the Wall Street protesters are so angry about.

Five From…: assorted wit and wisdom in the Tumblr labyrinth.

• Glass art by Jasmine Targett.

Ballard Geocoded.

Porno Base (1982) by 23 Skidoo | Kylie Minogue (2003) by Satanicpornocultshop | Tantric Porno (live) (2009) by Bardo Pond.

Weekend links 74

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Johnny YesNo video cover, 1983. Design by Neville Brody.

Being a Cabaret Voltaire enthusiast of long standing it was good to hear last week about the imminent reappearance of Johnny YesNo, an hour-long film by Peter Care for which the Cabs provided the soundtrack. Mute Records will be releasing Care’s debut on DVD in a set which includes two versions of the film together with two music CDs. I never got to see the original release on CV’s VHS label, Doublevision; for most of the 1980s I didn’t even have a colour TV never mind a video recorder so I missed all CV’s videocassettes aside from Gasoline In Your Eye. The new edition will be available in November. Brainwashed has a list of the contents while The Quietus posted a clip from the new “redux” version. (And before anyone tells me it’s on YouTube…yeah, everything is on YT in shitty quality and barnacled with the misanthropy-inducing drivel which passes there for comment. If I’m going to watch something for the first time I’d prefer it to be on a shiny disc, thanks.)

• The world has noticed Terrence Malick again following the release of The Tree of Life. Malick’s second feature is returning briefly to UK cinema screens, an event which prompted David Thomson to ask Is Days of Heaven the most beautiful film ever made?

• This week in imaginative art: S. Elizabeth on The Fantastical Fairy Tale Art of Sveta Dorosheva, AS Byatt on the strange paintings of Richard Dadd (there’s another Dadd article here), and Rick Poynor on Chris Foss and the Technological Sublime.

Ethan Hein demonstrates how Alan Lomax came to have copyright control over many songs he had nothing to do with simply by recording traditional music.

Visual Vitriol:  The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, a book by David Ensminger.

• More Club Silencio: Inside David Lynch’s Paris nightclub and a gallery of photos.

Histoire un-Naturelle, selected works by Ruth Marten.

Come hither: The deceptive beauty of orchids.

Facsimile Dust Jackets.

• More Peter Care: Just Fascination (1983) by Cabaret Voltaire | Sensoria (1984) by Cabaret Voltaire | Rise (1986) by Public Image Ltd.