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 491

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The Weirdness is Coming, an illustration by Robert Beatty for an NYMag feature about the near future.

• I’m slightly late to this news, but better late than never: The Doll’s Breath is a 22-minute animated film by the Brothers Quay, shot on 35mm film and with a soundtrack by Michèle Bokanowski. It may take a while before it’s available to view outside the festival circuit but it’s good to know it’s in the world. Related: Filip Lech on the Polish inspirations of the Brothers Quay.

• More from Swan River Press: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s disturbing horror tale, Green Tea, is published in a 150th anniversary edition, with an introduction by Matthew Holness, two essays and a CD containing a theatrical adaptation of the story by the Wireless Mystery Theatre.

• Luca Guadagnino, Olivia Laing and Sandy Powell, Tilda Swinton and John Waters choose favourite pieces of writing by Derek Jarman. Related: Protest!, a Jarman exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Fairport [Convention]’s revolutionary impact came in doing precisely the opposite of what the folklorists had intended when they began collecting the songs. By taking the old songs and setting them down on paper, they had largely believed they were preserving them in the form in which they must remain, ignoring the fact that songs passed through generations orally will always evolve. Fairport, though, played extremely fast and loose with the source material, matching tunes from one source with lyrics from another. As Rob Young put it in his book Electric Eden: “It threw into question the spurious ‘authenticity’ of the folk versions studiously set in stone by the Victorian and Edwardian collectors. Fairport’s electrifying act preserved and restored the guts and spontaneous vigour to the folk continuum.”

Michael Hann on the 50th anniversary of Fairport Convention’s Liege & Leaf

• More Patrick Cowley: PC’s megamix of Hills Of Kat Mandu by Tantra. And the mix of the week: a Patrick Cowley tribute from 1981 by DJ Jim Hopkins.

• The seventh edition of Wyrd Daze—”The multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extra-ordinary music, art & writing”—is out now.

5 Mishaps: A 32-page hardbound handmade book of short stories by Tamas Dobozy, with collage illustrations by Allan Kausch.

• At Dangerous Minds: Lovely Bones: The transfixing skeletons and dreamlike nudes of Belgian painter Paul Delvaux.

• From 1979: a very early TV appearance by Virgin Prunes (their first?) on Ireland’s The Late Late Show.

• Fists of fear: Anne Billson on 10 films featuring severed (and frequently vengeful) hands.

Adrian Curry at MUBI selects his favourite film posters of the 2010s.

Tea For Two (1956) by Duke Ellington | Tea For One (1976) by Led Zeppelin | Tea In The Sahara (2001) by Simon Shaheen & Qantara

Weekend links 368

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Piazzetta San Marco by Moonlight (no date) by Friedrich Paul Nerly.

• RIP Heathcote Williams (Guardian obit, NYT obit): poet, playwright, actor, artist, anarchist, stage magician, and no doubt many other things besides. Being a product of the counter-culture, and one of Britain’s foremost anti-establishment writers (his polemics against the Royal Family were unceasing), Williams was a regular in the early publications produced by my colleagues at Savoy Books; in fact there’s a piece by him in The Savoy Book itself. Consequently, Williams always felt like a distant relative even though we never met. Of his many film appearances, which ranged from low-budget independent productions to Hollywood junk, he was ideally cast as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest, and he audaciously steals a scene from Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s wonderful Orlando. Elsewhere: Jeremy Harding on Williams’ run-ins with the gatekeepers, and Why D’Ya Do It?, a song by Marianne Faithfull with lyrics by Williams.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 226 by Chihei Hatakeyama, and SydArthur Festival 2: Summer of Love Edition by Head Heritage.

Geeta Dayal on composer and musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry whose death was also announced this week.

Jonathan Meades reviews Vinyl.Album.Cover.Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue by Aubrey Powell.

• “Brutal! Vulgar! Dirty!” Polly Stenham on Mae West and the gay comedy that shocked 1920s America.

Hannah Devlin on religious leaders getting high on psilocybin for science.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…In Transit (1969) by Brigid Brophy.

• At Bibliothèque Gay: Matelots (1935) by Gregorio Prieto.

SD Sykes on reconsidering Venice, crumbling city.

Letters and Liquor

This Ain’t The Summer Of Love (1976) by Blue Öyster Cult | Orlando (1996) by Trans Am | Transit (2004) by Fennesz

Weekend links 367

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Human Nature by Esther Sarto.

I Feel Love: “Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder created the template for dance music as we know it”. Bill Brewster on the creation of one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

The Tearoom by Robert Yang “is a (free) historical public bathroom simulator about anxiety, police surveillance, and sucking off another dude’s gun”.

Tim Walker’s Leonora Carrington-themed fashion shoot with Tilda Swinton reaches i-D‘s website at last. More pictures and in better quality.

Joe Dante on the legacy of Nigel Kneale. Related: We Are The Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale, edited by Neil Snowdon.

Beth Comery‘s report on the progress of Gage Prentiss’s planned statue of HP Lovecraft for Providence, RI.

• The Plagiarist in the Kitchen: Jonathan Meades talks food and cooking with John Mitchinson.

• At Dangerous Minds: “Forget Louis Wain’s psychedelic cats, here are his crazy Cubist ceramics”.

• “Court orders Salvador Dalí‘s body be exhumed for paternity test.”

Flash the flesh: Manchester’s gay club heroes – in pictures.

Rick Poynor on the joy and sadness of dust.

MostlyCatsMostly

From The Tea-Rooms Of Mars…To The Hell-Holes Of Uranus: “Beguine”, “Mambo”, “Tango” (1981) by Landscape | I Feel Love (Patrick Cowley Mega Mix) (1982) by Donna Summer | Martian Sperm And Bagpipes (1991) by Helios Creed

Weekend links 363

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The Constant Drumbeat of Terrible News (no date) by Allison Sommers.

• Nadia Khomami on Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, an exhibition at the British Library. Related: Simon McCallum‘s potted history of LGBT characters on British screens. Elsewhere: writer and philanthropist Chuck Forester on gay sex in the 1970s.

The Panic Fables: Mystic Teachings and Initiatory Tales by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Finally available in English, a collection of all the comic strips written and illustrated by Jodorowsky when he was living in Mexico in the 1960s.

• A trailer for the restored print of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961) by Karel Zeman. Related: collage designs by Graphic Manipulator for a Japanese collection of Zeman’s films.

• “Whether divining ancient wisdoms or elevating the art of cold reading, Tarot is a form of therapy, much like psychoanalysis,” says James McConnachie.

James Reith on “the Icelandic publisher that only prints books during a full moon – then burns them”.

• Mixes of the week: Wire 400 Mix #6 by Emptyset, and Secret Thirteen Mix 223 by Constantine.

• Mud And Flame: Penda’s Fen re-examined by Matthew Harle and James Machin.

Tilda Swinton in a Leonora Carrington-inspired fashion shoot for i-D magazine.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys.

Applied Ballardianism: A Theory of Nothing by Simon Sellars.

• At Dangerous Minds: The Dark Rift by Jim Jarmusch’s Sqürl.

French Underground Rock: 1967–1980; a Discogs list.

Suzanne Ciani‘s favourite albums.

Infinite artwork: Untitled, 2017

Rip, Rig And Panic (1965) by The Roland Kirk Quartet | Panic (1984) by Coil | Flash Of Panic (1994) by Axiom Ambient