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 210

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Crashing Diseases And Incurable Airplanes (2014) by USA Out Of Vietnam. Artwork by Amy Torok.

Amy Torok’s cover art for the debut album by Canadian band USA Out Of Vietnam is pleasingly reminiscent of the surreal and psychedelic collages of Wilfried Sätty. The music within has been described as “a cross between ELO and Sunn O)))” which it is up to a point, although to these ears the group are more in the Sunn O))) camp than the post-Beatles pop of Jeff Lynne and co. The sound is big whatever label you apply, and promises much for the future.

Mysterious creatures of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘Tentacles’. The Aquarium bought one of my drawings last year for this exhibition which juxtaposes tentacular artwork with live creatures. The show runs until 2016.

• Jon Hassell’s 1990 album, City: Works Of Fiction, has been reissued in an expanded edition including a live concert collaboration with Brian Eno, and a collection of remixes/alternate takes.

• Photographer Jonathan Keys uses antique camera equipment to give his views of contemporary Britain a patina of the past.

Roman Polanski and the man who invented masochism. Nicholas Blincoe on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Venus in Fur (sic).

• Mixes of the week are by James Pianta, E.M.M.A. (whose Blue Gardens album I helped design), and Balduin.

• Sweet Jane unearths another great article about psychedelic London: The Fool and Apple Boutique, 1968.

• “Did Chris Marker think history to be not only an infinite book but a sacred one?” asks Barry Schwabsky.

• Front Free Endpaper on the story behind the cover photo of A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.

Mapping the Viennese Alien Event Site. Christina Scholz explores another Zone.

Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue. The first and only movie about Moondog.

Rick Poynor on rediscovering the lost art of the typewriter.

• At BLDGBLOG: 100 Views of a Drowning World.

Miguel Chevalier’s magic carpets

Venus In Furs (1967) by The Velvet Underground | Sex Voodoo Venus (1985) by Helios Creed | Venus As A Boy (1993) by Björk

The poster art of Akiko Stehrenberger

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W.E. (2011).

Being someone who enjoys adopting and pastiching different art and design styles for different projects I naturally like to see other people doing the same. American illustrator and designer Akiko Stehrenberger is very adept at using this approach for her film posters. Without knowing the identity of the person responsible you wouldn’t guess that they were all the work of the same person.

The Madonna and Polanski posters are the two most overt pastiches, being based respectively on the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka, and the posters by Jan Lenica for Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac. Good as the poster for W.E. is, it seems the studio preferred a more cliched “romantic” treatment for their international sales. Stehrenberger’s Mac desktop design for Burn After Reading was dropped in favour of yet another Saul Bass pastiche. (As a sidenote I’d suggest a moratorium on imitating Saul Bass for the time being; it’s getting boring.) The Lost Highway design isn’t a poster but I added it here since it’s a surprising take on David Lynch’s noir piece. I like the way the dotted line can be taken either as road markings or a line signifying the division in the film between the separate storylines and the separated characters.

Akiko Stehrenberger talked to Adrian Curry earlier this year about her favourite film posters.

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Burn After Reading (2008).

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Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008).

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Lost Highway (Spanish Blu-ray cover).

Previously on { feuilleton }
La Belle et la Bête posters
Dr Mabuse posters
The poster art of Frank McCarthy
Repulsion posters
The poster art of Vic Fair
Petulia film posters
Lucifer Rising posters
Wild Salomés
Druillet’s vampires
Bob Peak revisited
Alice in Acidland
Salomé posters
Polish posters: Freedom on the Fence
Kaleidoscope: the switched-on thriller
The Robing of The Birds
Franciszek Starowieyski, 1930–2009
Dallamano’s Dorian Gray
Czech film posters
The poster art of Richard Amsel
Bollywood posters
Lussuria, Invidia, Superbia
The poster art of Bob Peak
A premonition of Premonition
Metropolis posters
Film noir posters

Two sides of Liska

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Et Cetera (1966).

A little more on the music of Czech soundtrack composer Zdenek Liska (1922–1983). Liska seems to stand in relation to Czech cinema as Ennio Morricone does to that of the cinema of Italy, being similarly prolific, highly regarded, and idiosyncratic to a degree that makes his work immediately recognisable. Both men could also draw on their experience outside the film world to fuel their scores: Morricone for many years was a performer with Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, a group of Italian free improvisers, while Liska’s work with electro-acoustic composition and early electronic music explains the frequent eruptions in his lush orchestrations of tape effects, exaggerated echoes and other forms of artificial processing. This kind of cross-pollination doesn’t seem so surprising today but it’s striking and surprising in soundtracks from the 1960s.

Good examples of the opposite poles of Liska can be found in two of Jan Svankmajer’s early shorts. Et Cetera (1966) is one of the director’s most formal exercises, a series of crude drawings (or cut-outs) coming to life to perform a repetitive routine before being interrupted by the words “ET CETERA”. The film plays with the audience by beginning with a title card that states “The End”, and the piece as a whole could easily be screened as an endless loop. Liska’s score is a combination of fairly minimal orchestration with a variety of electro-acoustic effects which are closer to Pierre Henry or Ilhan Mimaroglu than other Eastern European composers.

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Shade of Magritte: The Flat (1968).

At the opposite end of the scale there’s the score for The Flat (1968), a typical piece of Svankmajer Surrealism with an unfortunate individual locked in a room where everything, from walls to furniture, contradicts his expectations. René Magritte casts a long shadow over this one, with director Juraj Herz making a brief appearance as a bowler-hatted man carrying a chicken. Liska’s score has a driving and reverberent choral rhythm that always makes me think of Krzysztof Komeda’s similar music for Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (1967). For such a short film it’s a remarkable piece of orchestration. The Brothers Quay are great Liska enthusiasts, and used some of the score from The Flat (and two other Liska pieces) for their 1984 film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, an animated portrait of the director.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Liska’s Golem
The Cremator by Juraj Herz

Burt Shonberg’s Poe paintings

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House of Usher (1960): Vincent Price and Mark Damon.

This post ought to have followed the one in January about the sinister portraits glimpsed in Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires. I still don’t know who was responsible for those paintings but the artist who created the equally outré family portraits in Roger Corman’s House of Usher (1960) was credited for his work. Burt Shonberg (1933–1977) was a friend of Corman’s who had to produce the six portraits at speed (the entire film was shot in fifteen days) so the results are sketchier than they might have been in a production with a bigger budget. I always liked the anachronism of these pictures, the way they look very much of their time; the effect is a jarring one that adds a note of much-needed strangeness to Corman’s otherwise sparse interiors.

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Shonberg was a curious artist, the gallery page on his website shows a progression from Picasso-style early works in the 1950s to his own brand of mystical psychedelia. Some of his paintings from around the time of House of Usher have that stained-glass fragmentation one finds in the work of Leo & Diane Dillon from the same period. Shonberg’s biography says Corman used more paintings in The Premature Burial (1962) but I don’t have a copy of that to hand and haven’t found any examples. There’s also the detail that Shonberg was involved for a while with Marjorie Cameron, herself an artist who appeared as the mysterious “Water Witch” in another AIP production, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, a year after House of Usher.

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