Monday, 29 February 2016

Ride in the Whirlwind

I watched Monte Hellman's 1965 Western this morning courtesy of Criterion's double-bill with The Shooting, only my second time seeing the film over the years. I picked up a Greek DVD many holidays ago which featured an eye-searing transfer of the film, no better than a pirate VHS tape and quite unwatchable, so this morning's screening was quite auspicious. I won't explore any of the supplements until I watch The Shooting, but I did catch the 6min conversation with Hellman and Roger Corman both recalling that early drafts of the screenplays required more action sequences to beef up interest. It's an interesting admission, especially so regarding Ride in the Whirlwind, a very spartan Western as is - I wonder what that original draft was like to begin with ? I think one of the film's strengths is its sense of space and film's minimalism invites any number of readings. An early line in the film about "human fruit" immediately put in mind the great Billy Holiday song Strange Fruit and I very much had Southern Lynching mobs in mind as the film unfolded. Less weird than its more celebrated stablemate, the film nonetheless stands as one of the best Westerns of the 60's.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Green Hell

I've been enjoying an interesting discussion over on Facebook about the Italian Cannibal cycle and it reminded me of an ambition I had in my younger years to write a screenplay about an Italian film crew making a cannibal film - the sketchy outline went something like this: a once great Giallo director down on his luck is hired by a fly-by-night Eurociné-style group to make a cannibal film. The film-within-film is made in a remote stretch jungle but the production is dogged by hellish terrain, bad weather and a difficult leading man refusing to slaughter animals on camera. When financing falls through midway, (film was to be set in the early 80’s as the genre was dying out) the film gets progressively weirder and more hallucinatory. The screenplay was a real mess of different influences – the Italian Cannibal cycle, Apocalypse Now, Aguirre Wrath of God (my diva director was to be along the lines of a tantrum throwing Klaus Kinski), and a bunch of moviemaking-is-hell films The State of Things, Living In Oblivion, Irma Vep, The Last Movie, and all of it overlaid with a Boogie Nights period sweep. It was nothing more than a pipe dream of course, I have no idea about the science of writing a screenplay, a minute per page etc. It was tentatively and terribly titled The Green Hell, lifted from a Misfits song...

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Revisiting Opera

A promise kept to watch Argento's Opera this evening... Not having seen the film in many years I was looking forward to this screening, but my excitement has given way to major disappointment. Evidently something has gone badly wrong in the intervening years and what I once considered the final masterwork in a glorious run of films now looks like the first step towards the dismantling of a great career. Argento's refusal to confront any of the problems posed by his screenplay is genuinely brazen but ultimately ruinous, the film's absurdities stack up as fast as the bodies, and there's the unspeakable dialogue to wrestle with ("A maniac is after me. I need your advice on what to do"). And yet the film is often a treat to watch as a piece of pure cinema with some truly remarkable and inventive camerawork - it's a shame no footage from the production has surfaced, the camera rig that swirls around the opera house must have been some sight judging by the shadow it casts over the audience. Incidentally, having seen the film with English and Italian dubs, I must conclude that the squawking crows turn in the film's best performances, unlike the human cast whose lips are left flapping like stranded fish long after the dialogue has run out...

Friday, 26 February 2016

Moon inscriptions

Listening to the limited edition bonus disc that came with Coil’s Moon's Milk (In Four Phases) set. The music is fantastic of course, three long tracks of beautiful sustained bell tones and drones, a psychedelic synth workout, and a text by Angus MacLise, read by Jhon Balance. But it’s the sleeve art I’m currently obsessing over. Each of the 333 discs that were issued came in a cardboard sleeve adorned with a unique hand-painted Stan Brakhage-style burst of abstract color, accompanied by a surreal inscription. I wasn’t lucky enough to grab the Moon’s Milk supplement disc but Brainwashed’s Coil archive has cataloged the inscriptions and they make for evocative reading. Like Oblique Strategies or Cut-ups, I find the list can work as a powerful agent for unlocking creativity, and among my favorites are the Lovecraftian entry “The City Had Completely Disappeared”, the eerie “Procession Of Possessed Mothers And Infants” and the fever Beat dream, “Ploughed Fields Of Benzedrine”. Check out the list here: here:

The Bigger picture

I spent much of this morning making my way through Stockhausen’s Aus den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days), a huge electro-acoustic work that spans 7 CDs. This was prompted by some disparaging remarks I read yesterday by Klaus Schulze about Stockhausen and with my back up, I made a plan to listen to the great German composer today. The reason for selecting a lengthy work like Aus den Sieben Tagen was to do with my increasing enjoyment of long-form art - work that’s created on a large scale, whether it be something like Béla Tarr’s film Sátántangó or Rembrandt’s Night Watch (which I stood in the thrall of at the Rijksmuseum in 2013). Digital technology is so intent on squashing space and time, immersing oneself in a slow pace or a large canvas seems more vital than ever. This interest was further energized by my recent screening(s) of Jacques Rivette’s 12hr masterpiece Out 1 and there are a number of similar things I’m looking to at the moment - Masaki Kobayashi's epic trilogy The Human Condition (a BR from Arrow is due in May), Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's 7-hour magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany, and returning to music, composer Max Richter’s 8-hour hypnagogic work Sleep...

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Hungary Posters

Below, the striking Hungarian poster for Alien, whose title I believe translates as “The 8th passenger is Death”… I have film posters on my mind at the moment, I spent a very pleasant evening leafing thru the hefty 500 page Art of the Modern Movie Poster: International Postwar Style and Design, which gathers together some 1,500 posters of every stripe organized around nationality, from the darkly surreal style of the Polish school to the skewed framing and wild juxtapositions of the Japanese style and so on. I’m particularly keen on the unsung posters of Hungary which frequently employed a beguiling mix of artwork, photomontage and speculative design. Some memorable examples can be found here: here:

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Opera Music

Listening to some Opera courtesy of ENO… Not the English National Opera, I hasten to add but Brian Eno’s music for Argento’s 1987 film. A friend posted a still from the film yesterday on Facebook and I immediately made a plan to dig out the Arrow DVD at the weekend, not having seen it in some years. By a happy coincidence, I was listening to Discreet Music earlier and it sparked a memory of Eno’s unlikely contribution to the film, the 4min dark ambient fog From the Beginning. This particular piece of music to my knowledge is available only as part of the 1988 Cinevox soundtrack album, and interestingly the track entitled Theme For "Opera", found on Music For Films III does not appear on the soundtrack or in the film, but instead can be heard in the Apollo missions documentary For All Mankind. Perhaps Theme For "Opera" was mislabeled at some point but it does sound to my ear like a variation on another cue found on the Opera soundtrack entitled White Darkness, composed by brother Roger Eno, Brian’s collaborator on the score for the NASA film. And worth pointing out that Theme For "Opera" should not be confused with the soundtrack’s opening number, Opera Theme credited to Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor. Confusing, no ?

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Flipside

A leftover thought from my previous post… One aspect of vinyl that I miss is the LP’s organization of music into different sides. It matters little for a standard 10-track album but for more progressively minded music the division of sides was ideal for demarcating a side-long composition like Kraftwerk’s Autobahn from the four shorter cuts on the flipside. Listening to Kraftwerk’s album on CD, the implicit ritual of flipping the record over and taking a momentary stop in the hard shoulder before embarking in a new direction is entirely lost to the CD’s continuous play. This aspect of the long-player wasn’t just the reserve of prog rock bands like Genesis or Yes, it served well for albums with two distinct halves like Neu! 75, Hounds of Love and perhaps most famously, Low which separated the short conventional songs from the longer, more abstract instrumentals. Old habits die hard, and I still refer to “Side Two” when talking about Low, and if asked what my favorite track off Metal Machine Music is, my instant answer is Side 4…

Fun fun fun on the Autobahn

Listening to Kraftwerk's Autobahn this evening and it occurred to me that the album came out the same year as J.G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island. The connective tissue between album and novel is the motorway, but it's interesting that both assume diametrically opposed positions - Autobahn's title track presents the motorway as a technological landscape in harmony with nature - the image of clean Bauhaus lines unspooling across the German countryside. Ballard imagined the "elaborately signaled landscape" of the motorway as something far more sinister - a high-speed network of relentless and aggressive 24/7 traffic flow that could not be halted, even if a person's life depended on it, the predicament the protagonist of Concrete Island finds himself in as he swerves off the motorway onto a stretch of disused and forgotten wasteland between interchanges. I wondered had Ballard heard Kraftwerk's album but it's seems unlikely. Ballard doesn't mention Kraftwerk in any interviews and in a 1978 interview Ballard himself admitted "I don’t listen to music. It’s a blind spot." Still I like to imagine Kraftwerk, or Kraftwerk dummies playing electronic music to the guests at Vermillion Sands...

Sunday, 21 February 2016


Just fresh from a very belated revisit to Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 film Possession, not having seen it in perhaps 10 years (and I must presume likewise for Bava's Shock, on the flipside of the Anchor Bay disc). There was some trepidation on my part about seeing the film again, I remember it well as an abrasive, exhausting experience, but 10 years later (and 10 years of marriage later), the film remains utterly astonishing. Adjani and Neill's contribution to the film (to call them performances seems inadequate somehow) are truly extraordinary, perhaps even possessed of madness - Neill is so ferocious in the sequence where he charges after Adjani in the restaurant, he almost crashes a chair down upon an extra, and Adjani, in her celebrated scene in the subway, gives of herself perhaps more than any director has the right to ask for - I wonder what cameraman Bruno Nuytten felt as he saw his lover disintegrate before his eyes. One isolated screening doesn't allow me offer any profound insights on the film - multiple viewings are required I suspect to unravel its secrets (some of them unknowable I imagine) but two incidental details to note - one of composer Andrzej Korzyński's cues sounds remarkably like Michael's Theme from The Godfather melded with the Erbarme Dich aria from Bach's St Matthew Passion, and a few lines of dialogue from the film were sampled by the Front Line Assembly side project Noise Unit, appearing on the 1989 track Dry Lungs ("Oh yes, I see... Darkness is easeful. The temptation to let go, promises so much comfort after the pain"), finally solving a mystery that has dogged me for years...

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Nico's Inner Scar

I’ve been listening to Nico’s Desertshore album these past few days and last night I sought out La Cicatrice Intérieure (The Inner Scar), Philippe Garrel’s 1972 film which stars Nico and features 4 songs from Desertshore (and in return gifted Nico’s album with two stills from the film). In this surreal episodic film, comprised of just 20-odd shots, Nico plays an anguished, hysterical woman who wanders through a series of landscapes and encounters a man who may or may not be the Devil, a little boy who leads her on a horse (a shot lifted for the cover of Desertshore), a shepherd tending to his flock, and a naked huntsman. And that’s about it for any semblance of plot, the film’s ritualized images and sparse dialogue, spoken in English, German and French (which should be experienced without subtitles in accordance with the director’s wishes), doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretation but fortunately the film is visually stunning, filmed in the vast elemental landscapes of Death Valley, North Africa and Iceland. Nico herself cuts a striking figure in the film, haunted and haggard looking, she and Philippe Garrel, her lover at the time were in the depths of heroin addiction during the making of the film.

In addition to the 4 songs from Desertshore, the film also features the song König from the same album sessions, and later re-recorded for her 1985 album Camera Obscura. La Cicatrice Intérieure is available on DVD in France (billed with another Garrel film, 1983’s Liberté, la Nuit, sans subtitles of course!) or alternatively the complete 58min film has been uploaded here Highly recommended for fans of esoterica but try to see this one on as large a screen as possible…

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Can Music

I’m currently ensconced in David Stubbs' 2014 book Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany, and last night, taking a break from the book I chanced upon news of a forthcoming Blu-Ray edition of Sam Fuller’s 1973 made-for-German-television film Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street. This was a fortuitous discovery as I’m currently mid-way through Future Days’ chapter on Can who provided 10min worth of music for Fuller’s film (Dead Pigeon Suite which opens the film sounds like a rough draft of Vitamin C, and is available on the Lost Tapes compilation). I’ve never seen the Fuller film but it seems to be one that polarizes fans – from the clips I’ve seen of the film over at youtube (complete but lacking English subs), it looks very wacky. All this musing prompted me to check my copy of Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face for any mention of Can – admittedly a long shot, but considering actor David Niven attended Damo Suzuki’s debut concert with the band, stranger things have happened. But sadly no mention of Can in Fuller’s book so I must assume producer Joachim von Mengershausen was responsible for commissioning the score. Can’s soundtrack work is one of the more erratic sides of the band, a hodgepodge of titles that include major break out films like Alice In the Cities and Deep End (in which director Jerzy Skolimowski includes a generous helping of Mother Sky) to softcore sexploitation flick Cream - Schwabing-Report, and the strange and dreamlike thriller Deadlock, which I must get around to seeing at some point. By the way, I couldn’t resist posting this capture from Fuller’s film with the strategically placed poster for Zappa’s 200 Motels. Wacky indeed !

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Chris Watson

The latest Touch newsletter arrived in my Inbox earlier this morning and I see that two of sound recordist Chris Watson’s early albums, 1997’s Stepping into the Dark and Outside the Circle of Fire from 1998 appear to have been discontinued on CD, the newsletter says rather ominously, "Compact Disc edition no longer available". A quick check at Amazon UK reveals that copies of Stepping into the Dark are starting to dry up but fortunately Outside the Circle of Fire is still available so if you’ve ever thought of picking this album up, now is the time… All this has me listening to Outside the Circle of Fire again, an extraordinary collection of environmental recordings of animals, birds and insects in their natural habitat. Listening to these recordings, there’s a sense of continuity between Watson’s pioneering work in Cabaret Voltaire and the experimental audio research unit The Hafler Trio. Watson’s recordings may feature lions, owls and beetles, but separated from the familiar imagery of natural history programs, the sounds could just as well have strayed from an electro-acoustic work, or an early Industrial record (the purring cheetah that opens the album wouldn’t have sounded out of place as a Throbbing Gristle backing track). And I love the evocative titles of the recordings – “Cracking Vicera” one of Watson’s more famous recordings documents a flock of vultures feasting on the carcass of a zebra, while “Souls of Dead Children” is named after a recording of wailing kittiwake seabirds. You can sample the album at Chris Watson’s bandcamp page

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Reading Videodrome

“It has a title now, by the way,” called Harlan.
Max stopped in his tracks.
“It’s supered for a few seconds at the end of this transmission. No credits. Just one word. VIDEODROME.”

More novelization reading and this weekend it was the turn of Dennis Etchison's adaptation of David Cronenberg's Videodrome screenplay. I was particularly keen to read this novel (written under Etchison's Jack Martin pseudonym) on foot of the interview with the author on Arrow's Videodrome Blu-Ray, and was surprised to discover the novel pretty much sticks to the same narrative trajectory as the film despite the numerous revisions the screenplay underwent. Still, there are some surprises. The novel opens with Max Renn awaking from a dream where he is about to be ritually executed, and there are special effects set pieces that fell by the wayside where Cronenberg's ideas perhaps outran Rick Baker's wizardry - at one point a television in a store window smashes thru the glass and slithers across the sidewalk to deliver Max a warning message from Brian O'Blivion. Still, Etchison's writing is vivid and powerful - his Max Renn is often a more engaging character than Cronenberg's, the novel frequently switching to Renn's own perspective to chart his increasingly perilous state from the Videodrome mutation, and in this respect neatly anticipates Seth Brundle's decline in The Fly. Recommended reading.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Reading Escape From New York

"He had less than eighteen hours to find a man in the largest city in America with only three million maniacs to get in his way"
I spent a very enjoyable few hours today reading Mike McQuay's 1981 novelization of Escape From New York. A brisk and breezy read, McQuay's book is based on John Carpenter and Nick Castle's screenplay and is interesting for its additions and omissions - the biggest departure from the film is the book's retention of the bank robbery sequence (which would have opened the film), and there's lots of additional color, the book even more bleak and dystopian than the film - I particularly liked the sequence where the sewer-dwelling "Crazies", complete with oozing sores and dripping with infernal slime, emerge to hunt for human flesh. What's noticeably absent from the book is the laconic Eastwood-flavored Snake Pliskin - I suspect the character was more fully realized with Kurt Russell's contribution. Incidentally, two minor characters in the book are given the names Cronenberg and Romero and not having seen the film recently I'm trying to remember if this tip of the hat appears in the film ?