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 528

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The Rhinoceros (after 1620) by Albrecht Dürer.

• “Today—Tolkien, Lovecraft, Miéville and M John Harrison!” Paul StJohn Mackintosh at Greydogtales explores HP Lovecraft’s lack of interest in fictional worldbuilding. The piece includes one of my book covers (ta!) plus a link to an earlier post I wrote about the cover designs of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books. Since I’m connected to the thesis I’ll suggest that Lovecraft was resistant to the worldbuilding impulse in part because he was almost always writing horror stories. Having studied the genre at length he was well aware of the need to leave suggestive voids for the reader’s imagination.

• RIP Denise Johnson. All the obituaries mention the big names she worked with, notably New Order and Primal Scream, but being in the pool of Manchester session artists she also appeared on a couple of records by my colleagues at Savoy. Her voice is one of those you first hear on the PJ Proby cover of I’m On Fire, while with friend Rowetta she improvised her way through a Hi-NRG original (and a favourite of Anohni’s), the scurrilous Shoot Yer Load.

• At the BFI: Axel Madsen interviews Fritz Lang in 1967; Serena Scateni on where to begin with Nobuhiko Obayashi; and Roger Luckhurst reviews the spomenik-infested  Last and First Men by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

• “Be more aware of the rest of the world!” says Jon Hassell, talking to Alexis Petridis about a life spent making music.

John Boardley on the Renaissance origins of the printed poster. Worth it for the selection of engraved details alone.

• “What Ever Happened To Chicken Fat?” Jackson Arn on a tendency to over-abundance in Jewish humour.

Erik Davis has a new writing home at Substack that he calls The Burning Shore. Bookmarked.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXII by David Colohan.

• Garry Hensey on The Strange World of John Foxx.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sergei Parajanov Day.

Romantic Rhino (1981) by Ananda Shankar | The Lone Rhinoceros (1982) by Adrian Belew | Blastic Rhino (2000) by King Crimson

Weekend links 456

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A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today (1944) by Dorothea Tanning.

Darran Anderson on how the Bauhaus kept things weird. “Many imitators of the famous art school’s output have missed the surreal, sensual, irrational, and instinctual spirit that drove its creativity.”

• Notes on the Fourth Dimension: Hyperspace, ghosts, and colourful cubes—Jon Crabb on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions.

• “[Edward] Gorey is slowly emerging as one of the more unclubbable American greats, like Lovecraft or Joseph Cornell,” says Phil Baker.

The label “homosexual writer” stuck for the rest of his career, with Purdy confined to what Gore Vidal called “the large cemetery of gay literature…where unalike writers are thrown together in a lot, well off the beaten track of family values”. In later years, Purdy moved further off the beaten track, as much by intention as circumstance. “I’m not a gay writer,” he would tell interviewers. “I’m a monster. Gay writers are too conservative.”

Speaking to Penthouse magazine in 1978, Purdy said being published was like “throwing a party for friends and all these coarse wicked people come instead, and break the furniture and vomit all over the house”. He added that, in order to protect oneself, “a writer needs to be completely unavailable”.

Andrew Male on writer James Purdy

• The Necessity of Being Judgmental: Roger Luckhurst on k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher.

Faunus: The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen, edited by James Machin with an introduction by Stewart Lee.

• More James Purdy: “His poetry displays a softness that readers of his fiction might not expect,” says Daniel Green.

Drag Star! is a 150,000-word interactive novel/text adventure by Evan J. Peterson.

• At Dangerous Minds: Dave Ball discusses his years as the other half of Soft Cell.

Daisy Woodward on the story of radical female Surrealist Dorothea Tanning.

• Inside the bascule chamber: photos of Tower Bridge, inside and out.

Tim Smith-Laing on the meaning of Miró’s doodles.

• Galerie Dennis Cooper presents…Emma Kunz.

rarecinema: a shop at Redbubble.

Apollo Press Kits

The Fourth Dimension (1964) by The Ventures | Dimension Soleils (1983) by Gilles Tremblay | Into The Fourth Dimension (1991) by The Orb

Weekend links 352

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Table-Tipping Workshop at Rev. Jane’s House, Erie, Pennsylvania, 2014 by Shannon Taggart.

• Canadian electronic musician Sarah Davachi talks to Erik Davis about analogue synthesizers, reverberating cathedrals, attention spans, and her ambient drone album All My Circles Run.

• Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind may now be released by Netflix. (I’m restraining my excitement for the moment since this one has been a long time arriving.)

• Mixes of the week: VF Mix 86: Jah Shaka by Roly Porter, Secret Thirteen Mix 215 by Twins, and What Good Is God? (1:11:11.111 Melon Collie Mix) by Gregg Hermetech.

• Making sense of The Weird and the Eerie: Roger Luckhurst reviews the final book from the late Mark Fisher.

• Pye Corner Audio has been very productive this year (I’m not complaining); the latest release is The Spiral.

• “I don’t like acceptance,” says Cosi Fanni Tutti, “it makes me think I’ve done something wrong.”

• Jon Brooks on the Continental inspiration for his next album, Autres Directions.

Séance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm by Shannon Taggart.

• Corny and clichéd: Matthew Bown on bad painting in the twentieth century.

• At Wormwoodiana: Douglas A. Anderson on Borges and a forgotten book.

• At the BFI: Samuel Wigley chooses 10 great films set in the jungle.

Jungle Flower (1951) by Les Baxter | Jungle Fever (1973) by The Upsetters | The Jungle Dream (1973–1980) by Patrick Cowley

Weekend links 183

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La table qui tourne (1943) by Robert Doisneau.

In [Gödel, Escher, Bach], Hofstadter was calling for an approach to AI concerned less with solving human problems intelligently than with understanding human intelligence—at precisely the moment that such an approach, having borne so little fruit, was being abandoned. His star faded quickly. He would increasingly find himself out of a mainstream that had embraced a new imperative: to make machines perform in any way possible, with little regard for psychological plausibility.

The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think by James Somers.

Whenever the latest pronouncements about the imminent arrival of artificial intelligence are being trotted out I wonder what Douglas Hofstadter would have to say on the matter. You don’t hear much about Hofstadter despite his having been involved for decades in artificial intelligence research. One reason is that he’s always been concerned with the deep and difficult problems posed by intelligence and consciousness, subjects which don’t make for sensational, Kurzweilian headlines. Hofstadter’s essays on AI (and many other topics) in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (1985) are essential reading. James Somers’ lengthy profile for The Atlantic is a welcome reappraisal.

• The end of October brings the spooky links: When Edward Gorey illustrated Dracula |Paula Marantz Cohen on Edgar Allan Poe | Yasmeen Khan revisits Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu | Roger Luckhurst on horror from the Gothics to the present day, and Michael Newton on Gothic cinema.

•  Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore is a biography of the Northampton magus by Lance Parkin. The author talks about his book here, and also here where if you look carefully you can see my Lovecraft book on his shelf.

• A crop of Halloween mixes: Boo, Forever by Jescie | Samhain Seance 2: Hex with a Daemon by The Ephemeral Man | Wizards Tell Lies & The Temple of Doom by The Curiosity Pipe | Radio Belbury’s Programme 11.

The Book of the Lost is an album by Emily Jones & The Rowan Amber Hill presenting music from imaginary British horror films. Release is set for Halloween. More details here.

Laura Allsop on Derek Jarman’s sketchbooks. Jarman’s Black Paintings are currently showing at the Wilkinson Gallery, London.

Magick is Freedom! Existence Is Unhappiness: Barney Bubbles vs. Graham Wood.

• Soho Dives, Soho Divas: Rian Hughes on sketching London’s burlesque artists.

Jenny Diski on the perennial problem of owning too many books.

Equus through the years by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Virgin Records: 40 Years of Disruptions

• At BibliOdyssey: Chromatic Wood Type

Witches at Pinterest

The Witch (1964) by The Sonics | My Girlfriend Is A Witch (1968) by October Country | You Must Be A Witch (1968) by The Lollipop Shoppe