Geschichte der Nacht

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Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piledup bricks, stones. Changing hands. This owner, that. Landlord never dies they say. Other steps into his shoes when he gets his notice to quit. They buy the place up with gold and still they have all the gold. Swindle in it somewhere. Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions. Slaves Chinese wall. Babylon. Big stones left. Round towers. Rest rubble, sprawling suburbs, jerrybuilt. Kerwan’s mushroom houses built of breeze. Shelter, for the night.

Epigraph from Geschichte der Nacht; a quote from Ulysses by James Joyce

Commissioning the Third Ear Band to create the score for Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was an assuredly good move. Using their music to embellish static scenes of European cities at night is a less obvious one but not as inappropriate as it might seem. Swiss filmmaker Clemens Klopfenstein uses the group’s music sparingly in Geschichte der Nacht (1979), an hour-long record of unidentified streets in unidentified cities after dark. When there’s no music you have the location sound. There’s no narrative, not even in the common documentary sense, simply the atmosphere of neglect that falls over a city during the night and the early hours of the morning. The copy linked here is at Ubuweb where the contents aren’t always permanent. Watch it while you have the chance. Via Ghetto Raga, a Third Ear Band blog.

Atalanta Fugiens

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Alchemy (1969) by the Third Ear Band. Design by Dave Loxley.

For an idea of how these posts often come into being, this one is the result of the following chain of association: an article by Leo Robson about the films of Roman Polanski > A re-viewing of Polanski’s Macbeth > A re-listening to albums by the soundtrack artists for Macbeth, British folk group the Third Ear Band > A tracking down of the famous cover image from the first Third Ear Band album.

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Alchemy is the dominant theme of the first two Third Ear Band albums. The engraving used on the cover of their debut album is one of the most frequently reproduced of all images associated with this branch of occultism, one of fifty emblems from Atalanta Fugiens (1618) by the German alchemist Michael Maier (1568–1622).

The plates are by Matthäus Merian, an artist whose career produced a number of notable alchemical illustrations. A detail from one of his other oft-reproduced pieces, Macrocosm and Microcosm from the Basilica Philosophica (1618), appeared on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Saucer Full of Secrets album a year before the Third Ear Band debut. Merian would no doubt be astonished that his work was so visible to future generations even though his name is seldom mentioned at all. The popularity can be accounted for by the way the best of these images seem almost archetypal whilst being resistant to any easy interpretation. Some of Merian’s plates remind me of Magritte’s paintings; they share a tension between carefully rendered yet impossible images that imply a hidden meaning. As Borges considered metaphysics to be a branch of fantastic literature it’s possible to consider this kind of alchemical illustration as a branch of fantastic art.

A 1687 edition of Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (retitled Scrutinium Chymicum) may be browsed here or downloaded here.

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Continue reading “Atalanta Fugiens”

The writhing on the wall

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Dracula (1992).

This is the closest you’ll get to a guest post here even though it’s been done remotely and I’ve changed things around a little. Following my mention yesterday of the Cocteau-derived lantern-arms in Francis Coppola’s Dracula, Jescie sent me an abandoned blog post which collected similar examples of the arms-through-the-walls motif. I’ve done this kind of thing here in the past so it’s good {feuilleton} material. Almost all these examples are fantasy- and horror-related which isn’t too surprising, and I’m sure there’ll be other examples in films I haven’t seen. If anyone has any suggestions just remember that hands grasping through doors and windows don’t count with this, it’s through the wall or not at all.

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La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Jean Cocteau sets things off in 1946, a perfect piece of fairytale Surrealism and one of the many memorable aspects of this film.

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La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Continue reading “The writhing on the wall”

Through the Wonderwall

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It’s taken me years but the recent obsession with UK psychedelia led me to finally watch Joe Massot’s piece of cinematic fluff from 1968, Wonderwall, a film distinguished primarily for its score by George Harrison (with Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton playing pseudonymously), and its title which was swiped years later by a bunch of Rutles-imitators from Manchester. The story is so slight it would have barely sustained an hour-long TV film: absent-minded scientist (Jack MacGowran) becomes intrigued by his glamorous neighbour (Jane Birkin playing “Penny Lane”; yeah, right…) and knocks holes in the walls of his flat in order to scrutinise her modelling, partying and frequent undressing. Unlike Blow Up (1966, and also featuring Jane Birkin) and the later Performance (1970), both of which attempted to accurately pin down some of the modish aspects of the period, this is a very kitsch piece. That wouldn’t be so bad if it was entertaining kitsch like, say, Smashing Time (1967), but Massott has to resort to scenes of limp comedy and some rather dull dream sequences in order to pad the thing out. Between the handful of actual dialogue scenes there’s a lot of gloating over Ms Birkin’s flesh which no doubt satisfied one half of the audience but by today’s standards is hardly thrilling. Iain Quarrier plays Penny’s duplicitous boyfriend (with a fake Liverpool accent) in his last screen role before he quit acting. Quarrier and MacGowran had appeared together in two of Roman Polanski’s British films, Cul-de-sac (1966) and Dance of the Vampires (1967). In the latter, MacGowran again plays an absent-minded scientist while Quarrier is cinema’s first (?) gay vampire.

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An interjection from The Fool.

Of chief interest for me in Wonderwall was the decor and title card decorations by Dutch psychedelic collective, The Fool (who also appear in the party scene), famous for their earlier Beatles associations including the inner sleeve for Sgt Pepper and designs for the short-lived Apple Boutique in London’s Baker Street. I was also curious about the distinctive decor of MacGowran’s flat which contrasts with the psychedelia next door, all dark green walls embellished with Victorian murals and a Tennyson poem—very fittingly a piece called The Daydream—which circles the room.

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The professor prepares to attack the wall.

This was particularly interesting in that it made another connection between the psychedelic era and Victorian arts movements, especially from the Aesthetic/Arts & Crafts end of things, but it wasn’t at all obvious whether the connection was an intentional part of the film’s production design or an accident of location and budgetary convenience. Aside from the old-fashioned appearance of MacGowran’s rooms there seemed no reason why his otherwise cultureless character would have any interest in decorating his living space in this way.

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The street corner then…

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…and now.

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The building itself is equally distinctive and an exterior shot conveniently shows a street sign placing the location in Lansdowne House, a Victorian apartment block on the corner of Lansdowne Road and Ladbroke Road in the Notting Hill/Holland Park area of London.

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Lansdowne House.

What did the building look like today, I wondered? Google Earth proves indispensable at times like this and it was easy to find, in a street which looks more cramped than it does in the film. The presence of a blue plaque on the wall proved intriguing, a sign that the place once had famous residents. Googling for that revealed this photo which was a real surprise: Lansdowne House at one time contained studios for artists who included Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, a gay couple and leading lights of London’s fin de siècle art scene (also friends of Oscar Wilde), and another artist, James Pryde, who with William Nicholson worked as The Beggarstaffs. So my suspicion about the Arts & Crafts decor was correct, which means that MacGowran’s flat may have been decorated that way originally and remained untouched since the 1890s. I haven’t seen Rhino’s special edition of Wonderwall which contained additional information about the making of the film, so have no idea whether the history of the building is mentioned there. If anyone does know, please leave a comment. For now I’m quite happy to have stumbled upon another minor link between two of my favourite art decades.

For more visuals, this page has a host of screen grabs from the film as well as some gif animations, all of which manage to make Wonderwall seem more interesting than it is when you’re watching it.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Charles Ricketts’ Hero and Leander
Images by Robert Altman

The Disasters of War

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7 ¶ And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
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There are horror films, there are films about the horror of war, and then there is Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i Smotri). Klimov made the film in 1985 from a screenplay by Ales Adamovich based on that writer’s experiences as a young Russian partisan fighting the Nazis during the Second World War. This biographical quality may be what gives the film its incredible immediacy and authority (Klimov also suffered as a child during the war) even though its power is obviously a product of Klimov’s skills as a director.

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