Thursday, 19 December 2013

Books of the Year 2013


I started the year with a real treat, a new novel by one of my favourite writers, James Blaylock. The Aylesford Skull saw the return of RL Stevensonian hero Professor St Ives and his entourage, and was a wonderfully colourful, adventure through a dark Dickensian London, with flourishes of supernatural and steampunk invention.
Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand was the follow up to her novel Generation Loss, and followed the further chaotic investigations of punk art photographer Cass Neary. This time she travels to Finland and Iceland and becomes entangled with Nordic black metal and Odinist cults, and learns about the violent mythic forebear of Santa Claus. Hand’s usual concerns (the mythic manifesting in the modern world and the search for the artistic muse) are seamlessly incorporated into the detective story mode. Errantry, her latest short story collection, was also fine, and included a great fairy story set in Cornwall, which in some respects anticipated another modern adult fairy story which I read later in the year (and will come to in due course). I got up to date with the Christopher Fowler’s aging (but young at heart) detectives Bryant and May, this time decrypting the Invisible Code. It was good to make their acquaintance again.


After last year’s epic, slightly exhausting Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, I returned to the book (or trilogy of novels) which first introduced me to Samuel Delany all those years ago when I was but a callow teenager, The Fall of the Towers. It was a real pleasure to revisit its jewelled cities and landscapes, traditional pulp SF worldbuilding shot through with dazzling poetic language. Boneland by Alan Garner was a difficult non-sequel to his first two children’s novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In bringing the lonely and broken Colin, now an astronomer working at Jodrell Bank, towards some kind of healing, and reconciliation with the wounds of time, Garner seems to be moving towards a resolution in his own work. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson returned to his utopian and dystopian concerns, contrasting a solar system of diverse diasporic human inhabitants, reshaped mentally and physically by their new environments, with an Earth still struggling with environmental degradation and political oppression and economic division. The level of invention here is quite phenomenal. Robinson just seems to go from strength to strength, and has now firmly established himself in the canon of SF greats.


Having gone through a bit of a film noir phase during the year, I returned to the source and read Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. A superb novel, with a conclusion in which Marlowe’s hardboiled persona is subject to an existential crisis, his faith in the world restored by a male angel. It always takes a certain mental adjustment to get used to him getting out his pipe and lighting it, though. Can’t imagine Bogart (or indeed Dick Powell) doing that. Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, the conclusion of his Ambergris sequence, applied a Chandleresque hardboiled scenario to the dark urban fantasy setting of his by now post-invasion city of the grotesque and bizarre. Tough-minded and drawing parallels with contemporary politics, it both brought things full circle and left them full of suggestive ambiguity. As a whole, these stories and novels are a major landmark of modern fantasy. KJ Bishop’s the Etched City is another brilliant urban fantasy of recent times, published in 2003, but she has produced little in the intervening years. It was particularly pleasing to come across a new collection a decade later, then. That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote continued in the Decadent vein of the novel, with a story set in the same city, but also revealed a playful, reflexive Borgesian side (also present in some of Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories). A most welcome return, hopefully presaging more in the offing.


The Chaos Walking Trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters and Men) by Patrick Ness, a science fiction story set on a recently colonised planet, was another indication that some of the best writing can be discovered on the shelves marked ‘young adult’, or whatever the current marketing terminology is. Such distinctions become entirely irrelevant when dealing with writing of such narrative verve, linguistic and typographical invention (the main narrator speaks with his own idiosyncratic and ungrammatical voice, and we get to hear and see the scrawled, circular thoughts of dogs and horses) and moral force. The first novel ended on such an agonising cliff-hangar that I found myself frantically dashing around trying to immediately lay my hands on a copy of the follow up. Philip Reeve is another fine ‘children’s’ writer, whose Mortal Engines novels have a similar imaginative brio and moral complexity. He also lives down in these parts, and I finally got around to reading his hugely entertaining long short story (a novella/novelette?) The Exeter Riddles. Connected with a theatrical game played in the city a couple of years back, Reeve brings history to life in a literal way, rifts in time causing periods from the city’s past to leak into the present, resulting in awkward and potentially catastrophic encounters. Reeve also animates the city’s statues. Well, the original story, game and spectacular conclusion did coincide with the annual animation festival. the equestrian statue of General Redvers Buller thundering to our young hero’s aid, inevitable traffic cone lodged onto his plumed hat. Reeve incorporates neglected aspects of Exeter’s history and makes them vividly and entertainingly present to young imaginations (and slightly older ones too).


That other fairy story I mentioned earlier was Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce, a clever title which alludes to the dismissive use of the phrase to indicate an implausible lie or fantasy. It also points to the fact that the fairy tale itself is in some ways a narrative side-issue. Whilst the disappearance of a young woman in a stretch of ancient woodland, and her subsequent return many years later, after she’d long been presumed dead, is at the core of the story, the reactions of family, lovers and friends, and their attempts to cope with their loss and sudden restitution, is the heart of the matter. Joyce uses fantasy and the supernatural to examine human nature, and the holy mystery of human relationships and communities. He always has great compassion and understanding for his characters. We really care for them, and so does he, and so he treats them with kindness and respect. Joyce’s latest novel, The Year of the Ladybird, could be subtitled Some Kind of Ghost Story. He seems to set himself the challenge of setting a ghost story on the East Coast, MR James territory, but in the most unchilling of environments: a holiday resort in the middle of one of the hottest summers in living memory, 1976. Again, the ghosts are, like the fairies in the previous novel, something of a side-issue (whilst at the same time being absolutely key to the resolution). This is a classic coming of age tale, with the changes the young protagonist goes through also reflected in the political disruptions shaking the country (in particular the rise of the far right) and in the sense that the holiday camp, variety club world in which he is an unlikely participant is a faded remnant of a post-war Britain which is about to fade away for good. It is a ghost town, then. The plague of ladybirds which hits the coast with particular density provides a multivalent metaphor: the red of blood, sexual awakening, danger and transience. These two fine, subtle and moving novels led me back to one of Joyce’s earlier books, Smoking Poppy. It’s another tale of a lost daughter, or rather of the father who goes out to Thailand to fetch her when he discovers that she’s been arrested for drug smuggling, and ends up following the trail into the heart of the jungle. For a novel concerned tangentially with the opium trade and the vicious bandits who control its source, it’s surprisingly funny. Again, the ostensible subject matter is a backdrop for a story whose main concern is with family and friendship, and the reawakening of a man’s soul.


Fair Play is a short novel by Tove Jansson, told in a series of short chapters detailing small and seemingly trivial incidents in the lives of two women, a writer and artist, who live together. But these moments from a lifetime spent together illustrate the compromises and accommodations necessary to sustain such sustained intimacy. It’s really a portrait of Jansson’s own life with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä refracted through the distancing lens of fiction.


I don’t know why it took me so long to get round to reading We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, given its acknowledged status as a founding work of literary science fiction, and a huge influence on Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps I thought it might be a bit forbidding and austere. Nothing could be further from the truth. The central message that the imagination is the key to resisting conformist tyranny is embodied in the intoxicating, poetic language. There is a great deal of SF imagery here, too, from the glass city to the pioneering rocket launch and disturbing wheeled cyborgs. Although it has an essentially pessimistic outlook, it avoids the crushing despair of 1984, and somehow ends up holding out some hope for a utopian future on a more human scale.


A Disaffection by James Kelman is a similar mix of pessimism and humour. We get very close up to the Glaswegian stream of consciousness swirling through the head of the disaffected schoolteacher Patrick Doyle. In part an anatomy of melancholy and frustration, it is, in its perfectly rendered vernacular, also a portrait of a particular place and the state of mind which attaches to it. Capable, along with its protagonist, of moments of great philosophical acuity, it is also endlessly circuitous, conveying the authentic sense of the drift of a distracted and troubled mind. It’s also bloody funny. Seasons in the Sun by Dominic Sandbrook finished his grand post-war history, detailing the final collapse of the post-war settlement, and offering an agonising what-if moment, when Callaghan decided to wait out the winter before calling an election in 1979. Sandbrook offered his usual accessible and hugely enjoyable composite portrait of the times, incorporating politics, pop, sport, TV to give a real sense of the period as people experienced it. The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe was the perfect novel to follow up this history. Beautifully characterised, it offered a view of the times from the Midlands, and from both sides of the generational and class divide. It also displayed an in-depth knowledge of and sympathy for the music of the time (Henry Cow, Yes AND The Clash). My Revolution by Hari Kunzru was also a good accompanying novel, a portrayal of the radical politics of the period, and its development into revolutionary actions, told from the retrospective point of view of someone who’d tried to put them behind him, only to have old ghosts return to haunt him.


A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock was a compelling study of five artists who met each other at the Slade School of Art in the pre-First World War period, and whose lives were indelibly changed by the conflict. Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson all went to the front and portrayed their experiences there in their own individual fashion. Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington remained in Britain, but in many ways it is their tempestuous, eternally postponed affair which is at the heart of the book, giving it a tragic cast of a more individual nature. The book formed the basis of a fine exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this year, also put together by Haycock. Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris looks at British art in the inter-war years, and includes more about Paul Nash. It also widens the perspective by including writers, critics, architects and poets into its overview of the peculiarly British amalgamation of modernism with a neo-romantic or coolly classical outlook.


I read quite a bit by and about Kafka this year (causing much amusement in some quarters). David Zane Mairowitz’s Kafka for Beginners volume was a fine introduction, with some brilliant illustrations by Robert Crumb. The biography by Nicholas Murray outlined his life, work and loves with admirable clarity. I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories, and particularly enjoyed the animal fables. The Burrow struck a particular chord, a brilliantly sustained study of paranoia and the retreat into the inner recesses of the self. I also read America, whose episodic nature and picaresque narrative made it curiously expansive for a Kafka novel. The old claustrophobia and painful establishment of the relationships of power and status is present in the maze like ship’s corridors and cabins at the beginning and in the inn where Karl works as a lift attendant, however, and in his own descent through the social strata.


I also read Poe: A Life Cut Short, Peter Ackroyd brusque biography, whose title seems to refer to the book’s brevity as much as the subject’s premature end. Still, this conciseness may be a blessing. It tells you enough about Poe to make you realise you wouldn’t really want to spend too much time in his company, although Ackroyd goes out of his way to be accomodating and sympathetic (as far as this is possible). It led to my reading a number of his short stories and poems, however, with The Pit and the Pendulum and Ulalume making a particular impression. In An Impersonation of Angels, Frederick Brown casts a disdainful and supercilious eye on the life of Jean Cocteau, finding cause to denigrate him at every turn. With his dislike of his subject so evident and undisguised, it’s something of a mystery as to why he chose to write about him in the first place.

Head-On and Repossessed by Julian Cope are two hugely entertaining and frequently insightful autobiographical reminiscences of his time in Liverpool, leading up to stardom with The Teardrop Explodes and subsequent wayward endeavours. Veering between self-deprecation and unabashed self-aggrandisement, but always with a wry sense of his own self-created persona, these are some of the best and most honest of rock memoirs. Copendium, meanwhile, gathers some of Cope’s reviews of obscure or neglected albums, along with some more generic charts along the lines of the Krautrock and Japrock Samplers. These are very personal responses, written in an infectiously enthusiastic style, but this very lack of distance often means that he gets to the heart of the music in question. I was particularly glad to see him including a wild celebration of The Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun, whose magic he nails totally. Hope and Glory by Stuart Maconie, a big Julian Cope fan, finds him visiting various sites associated with key social and historical events from each decade in the twentieth century. It’s a conceit which links change with place, and thus celebrates the cultural and geographical diversity of the country. It also results in a journey which is in part a reflection of the changes effected on particular localities over the course of the turbulent century, as well as on certain characteristics which have remained unchanged. The way that these histories are recorded, or in some cases forgotten, also reflects on what the British value of their cultural heritage – a frequently vexatious question. Maconie isn’t afraid to state his own opinions, and offers some forthright criticisms of certain aspects of modern society and politics. It’s an engaged book, sometimes even angry, but also filled with wit, amusing anecdotes and questing curiosity. For me, it was his best yet.


I’m currently half way through The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, in which he walks some of the old paths of Britain (and beyond), starting on the old chalk trails of the Icknield Way, and gathering observations and unearthed tales and histories along the way. He’s an engaging walking companion. I’m also half way through Zona by Geoff Dyer, a rather odd conceit for a book. He retells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Particular scenes or images send him off into frequent and lengthily discursive asides, cast as footnotes which sometimes swamp the supposedly primary text. These vary in the degree of their tangentiality. It all amounts to a highly personal overview of a film which evidently made a great impact on Dyer (even if he can be a little sardonic in the face of its high seriousness). This is one film as filtered through the consciousness of one particular viewer, with all his personal history brought to bear upon it. It makes you wonder what your particular take on your own favourite film would be – what tributaries and side alleys such a contemplative approach might take.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Four Southwest Wood Engravers at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter

Exeter - Pam Pebworth

There’s a fine new exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum showcasing the work of four wood engravers based in the South West. Howard Phipps was born in Colwyn Bay in 1958 and is now based on the border of Wiltshire and Dorset; Pam Pebworth was born in Altrincham in 1931 and studied, taught and worked in the arts and crafts field in Devon and the South West for many years before taking up wood engraving in 1988; Harry Brockway was born in Newport in 1958 (is there a natural connection between Welsh culture and wood engraving, I wonder?) and lives in Glastonbury; and Hilary Paynter was born in Dunfermline in 1943, moving south to study wood engraving at the Portsmouth College of Art. All of them are members of the Society of Wood Engravers. This was an organisation founded in 1920 by a group of artists including Eric Gill, Gwen Raverat and Lucien Pissaro. It was brought to life once more in the 1980s, with Hilary Paynter as a guiding light, and continues, in the spirit of those illustrious founders, to foster the art and traditions of wood engraving.

Hambledon Hill - Howard Phipps
Howard Phipps mainly produces landscapes, and his evocation of the spirit of place and depiction of hill forts, megalithic sites and ancient trackways puts him firmly in the tradition of Paul and John Nash and Eric Ravilious. He ventures into the heart of Wistman’s Wood, the atmospheric expanse of stunted oaks lining the slopes of a Dartmoor valley. The darkly gnarled trunks and twisted branches, lichenous bark and mossy rocks give plenty of scope for tonal and textural variation and contrast. The long sweep of Chesil Beach is depicted with a great sense of spaciousness and dwindling perspective. A grounded boat provides a foreground focal point, whilst weather looms in the distance. Solid shafting striations emanating from black clouds are a dramatic representation of heavy showers on their way. More black rainclouds empty over Stonehenge, with a rounded moon providing milky contrast to show up the shadowy megaliths. More ancient sites feature in Winkelbury Hillfort and Hambledon Hill, and in the old paths bordered by beech trees. Phipps seems to favour winter as his seasonal backdrop. His trees are intricate traceries of bare black branches.

Pam Pebworth’s prints tend to be stylised town or cityscapes with flattened perspectives. Historically significant buildings are selected and collaged together into depictions of place which might lack geographical accuracy but which summon up in concentrated architectural form the architectural spirit of the place. This approach is applied to Chester, Exeter, Bradford-on-Avon, Bristol, Bath, Dartmouth, Lyme Regis, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton. The Exeter print was made in 1994, and the tugboat in the foreground is a reminder of the old maritime museum which was still situated in the quayside basin at the time. Aquae Sulis, the Bath print, has a particular elegant formal composition, as befitting its subject. Bath becomes a symmetrical mirror of itself. William Beckford’s tower rises on the hill in the background, a black sun hanging to its side, and provides a counterbalancing note of intemperate romanticism. A solitary figure striding from the shingle beach in the Budleigh Salterton print, easel tucked firmly under his arm, is presumably intended to be a representation of John Everett Millais, who painted his Boyhood of Raleigh here. Pebworth has also created two imaginative and playful alphabets: The Artist’s Alphabet and Touchwood. Both set their letters out in gridded blocks, as if they’re in a typesetters tray. Objects, personages or famous works correspond to each letter – P for palette, V for Van Dyke, E for easel and so on. Touchwood is an alphabet for the worker in wood, featuring engraver’s tools, techniques and carved art. The blocks have an appropriately greater density and roughly grained texture.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Harry Brockway
Harry Brockway is a stone mason and carver in addition to being a wood engraver, and there’s a solid sculptural quality to the faces and figures which are the main focus of his work. From his initial commission to provide engravings for the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Bible, he has produced illustrations for a number of books. His depiction of characters in Crime and Punishment for a 1997 Folio Society edition, arrayed here like a pictorial cast list, show an expressionist intensity and interiority which is entirely appropriate for Dostoevsky’s novel. The psychology or inner cast of the faces shows through in the distorting grain or patina which Brockway lends them. Some seem to be afflicted with plates of psoriatic hide, whilst others are clearly and sparely engraved, simple and pure souls. The illustrations for John Prebble’s book Culloden, another Folio Edition, contrast the gaunt, grimacing and fiercely daubed faces of the ordinary Scots who fought in the battle with the self-satisfied, relaxed and beefily broad visages of the aristocrats whose orders and plans they followed. Screaming, expressionist heads set against posed profile portraits cast the social divisions outlined in Prebble’s polemical history (which were also highlighted in Peter Watkins’ 1964 TV adaptation) in artistic terms. Dulce Et Decorum Est (2007) evokes the horror of Wilfred Owen’s war poem with more wide-eyed expressionist screaming, the face of another figure in the background reduced to the gas mask’s grotesque parody of human features. The addition of colour makes the spreading yellow cloud of mustard gas powerfully palpable. It particularly leaps out at you here given that you’ve thus far seen nothing but black and white prints. The portrait of a woman titled The Pearl Necklace (2003) offers a reflective contrast, and is, I presume, an illustration to Guy de Maupassant’s cruelly ironic tale. A 2011 picture of Harlequin and Pulcinella sets these archetypal commedia dell’arte characters in Brockway’s Glastonbury environs, the tor rising behind them, thus suggesting their universal nature. There also his ten engravings for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner made in 2010. Brockway follows in illustrious footsteps here, the narrative poem having previously been illustrated by Gustave Doré, David Jones and Mervyn Peake. He manages to elude the anxiety of influence, however, and produce something entirely his own. Swirls and curlicues abound, both in sea, sky and sailors’ beards, all converging in the culminating, ship-engulfing whirlpool. The image of the calm sea sown with the pasty rafts and fishing tendrils of Portugese men-o-war is particularly startling and original. There’s something of the psychedelic poster style to these illustrations, and you can imagine their clearly outlined segments filled in with vivid colours. In fact, you don’t have to, since there are some large blown-up panels on the far wall of the gallery taken from a British Library exhibition of Coleridge illustrations.

The Discovery at Lascaux - Hilary Paynter
Hilary Paynter’s depiction of the Discovery of Lascaux is another print which introduces an element of overlaid colour, here the yellow of torchlight and the brown of the prehistoric cave wall paintings. The cave, shown in yawning cross-section, is thus portrayed as a magical space, a world apart from the black and white reality beyond its subterranean gallery. Stones Over Avebury (1974) maps out the well-known aerial view of the village bounded by circular earthworks and bisected by crossing roads. A surreal touch is added by having boulder clouds hanging heavy over the megalithic site, though. It’s as if the stones in the circle and avenue were splinters sharded off from such hovering masses millennia ago. A playful take on the ancient British landscape can also be found in the comical depiction of the Cerne Abbas giant come to chalk-outlined life and chasing three Victorian ladies across the fields. One of them is evidently making no great effort to escape its clutches. Paynter takes a romantic view of the British landscape and the ancient structures built upon its wild spots. Her print of Hadrian’s wall exaggerates the hills it measures out into a dramatic, Tolkienesque sweep of mountains and far flung plains. Dunnottar is shown as a fairy tale castle by the sea, with a winding path leading to its door, whilst the flinty tower of Carn Brae is made all the more monumentally solid by the blank white background against which it’s set. The cobbled street of Clovelly plunges with heightened precipitation towards the sea, its winding path continued through the curve of the harbour wall and the bends of the river. More romantic sites are found in the sea bordering castle of Chepstow, the gothic ruin of the abbey at Valle Crucis in Wales, and the timbered patterning of Plas Newydd. This Elizabethan house, in which the ladies of Llangollen lived together, is loomed over by a craggy mount on top of which the jagged ruins of Dinas Bran castle stick up like a pile of bones.

Trio - Barbara Hepworth
Downstairs, a new selection from the museum’s fine art collection has been mounted. This includes two of the drawings Barbara Hepworth made of surgeons at work in an Exeter hospital in the post-war period. Her daughter had undergone an operation in the Princess Elizabeth Orhopaedic Hospital, and she got to know one of the doctors there, one Norman Capener, very well. He invited her into the operating theatre as an artistic observer to record the concentrated co-ordination of collective endeavour which took place there. It was, in a way, a means of producing images which celebrated the newly created NHS, lending it an air of bright, optimistic modernity. Hepworth’s masked and gowned figures are semi-abstracted, the bodies amorphously rounded like her sculptures. The focus of detail is all on the hands and the eyes which guide them. In Preparation (1947) we see those hands being washed, clasped together in a way which suggests prayerful ritual cleansing as much as mindful hygiene. The wash of turquoise colour, curving around in a liquid flow to convey the smooth flexibility of the upturned operating arm, extends beyond the outline of the figure to the background, creating a sense of harmony between the surgeon and his environment. In Trio (1948), the predominant tone is a neutral beige. The three figures are merged, like one of Hepworth’s group form sculptures, fused into a singular entity through a common fixity of purpose. A patch of dark blue beneath the operating table is the only hint of depth and perspective beyond the figures. There’s also the slightest daub of green, like a guiding tone to indicated the actual colour of the gowns. The drawing is all about the motion and direction of the hands and the unity of figures with background, though. Hepworth herself wrote about finding, after initial reservations, that ‘there was such beauty in the operating theatre that the whole composition – human in appearance – became abstract in shape’. She was fascinated by ‘the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life’, and discovered that ‘this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work’.

Boy In A Landscape: Portrait of Eric Verrico - John Minton
Also newly on display is John Minton’s Boy In A Landscape: Portrait of Eric Verrico (1948). This is a poetic portrait of Minton’s boyfriend in the 40s, whom he had met whilst teaching at the Camberwell School of Art. The young and beautiful Italian is painted in glistening oils, his skin and clothes coloured in shades of olive and mossy green, a nature boy. He has a calm and contented look, and leans back in a relaxed posture against a wooden chair, one arm hooked over its back. The landscape behind him is a patchwork of autumnal colours, interlaced with the branching black lines of bare winter trees. There’s a slightly melancholic air of acceptance to the picture, with its late autumnal atmosphere; an acknowledgement that this moment won’t last, Eric will soon move on and they will inevitably part. Minton lived a fairly tempestuous life, and was something of a wild man of Soho in the post-war years. He was out of step with the avant-garde orthodoxies of the time (in particular the move towards abstraction), even though he taught some of those who forged them. He came to feel increasingly frustrated and marginalized, although he was relatively successful and well-off, partly thanks to a substantial inheritance. He’d achieved a solid reputation as a book and magazine illustrator, and had a regular job as a teacher of painting at the RCA, a position in which he was generally well-liked and respected. In the repressive climate of the 50s, his gay sexuality led to fugitive feelings of self-destructive despair, and the search for love and companionship never found long-lasting fulfilment. This lonely disconnection, combined with his depressive temperament, lapses into alcohol abuse and the disinterested reception of his new work, led to his committing suicide in 1957 at the age of 39. The title of his final painting, The Death of James Dean, suggests he might have felt more at home in the pop art climate of the 60s, although Minton seems to depict the death scene as a slum Passion worthy of a Pasolini film. But the painting on display here summons the feeling of a golden instant of time, which is captured in all its brief beauty and still repose. A moment of love, happiness and contentment gifted to the modern viewer, something to be contemplated, remembered and treasured.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Motor: Bettina Buck Invites Marie Lund to the Spacex Gallery


For Motor, the new exhibition at the Spacex Gallery, the artists Bettina Buck has invited Marie Lund to show a selection of her sculptural pieces alongside some of her own recent work. The idea is to underline connections and highlight correspondences between their concerns and approaches. Buck choice of artistic partner is well-made, since these affinities are immediately apparent.


Lund’s five pieces in her Flat Bed series hang on the wall in the conventional manner of pictures at an exhibition, flat and neatly rectilinear at eye level against the wall. Closer inspection reveals them to be smoothed-off slabs of poured concrete into which lengths of cloth of various textures and colours have been embedded, set into place by the hardening mixture. Some of the cloth is velvet, some cotton, some silk pashminas with trailing tassles fixed like fossilised plant forms in shale from an ancient sea bed. The soft, pliant folds of the cloth contrast with the cold, polished and unyielding surface of the embedding concrete. You really want to run your hand over these surfaces to feel the contrast. But I suspect such a tactile response to the art, understandable though it might be, would be frowned upon. The folds might be smoothed out or realigned, the geological contours of these vertical relief maps fundamentally altered. The concrete and cloth frameworks are lent further textural contrast by the whitewashed brick wall against which they are set at sparing and carefully spaced intervals. Weight is another element of these sculptural ‘paintings’. The concrete ‘canvas’ hangs with a heavy, blocklike solidity; the cloth, with its rippling folds and wavering fronds caught in suspension, is light and airy, caught in mid-motion and suspended within the massive gravity of the concrete frame.


Buck responds to these wall-hung works with two installations whose mass roots them to the ground. Pressed Foam (2012) rests a triangular cheese-sedge chunk of rock on a thin layer of foam, which in turn is rolled out onto the slatted surface of a flimsy wooden pallet. Again, the gallery backdrop against which these elements are laid provides a further element of material contrast; in this case, the battered and worn poured concrete floor, with its scraped and scuffed black surfacing. These are like sedimentary layers, consisting of materials of widely differing mass, solidity, texture and tone. The rock, if dropped, would have smashed the pallet to pieces. The cumulative effect of its mass over time might yet splinter its planks. The foam, on the other hand, bears its weight and imprint, but remains essentially intact. The incongruity of seeing such an unwieldy boulder, whose roughly even cut bears the hallmark of human rather than geological shaping, gives it an extra charge. There’s something almost tender about the way the mineral block is laid on a soft bed of foam. It’s almost as if this age-old formation, the product of geological time, is being given the care due to worn and weary bones.


Untitled Marble Block (2013) is placed against the wall in the passageway between the two main galleries, making use of unofficial space. It exhibits a similar fascination for contrasting materials of widely divergent masses and textures. A roughly cut chunk of marble rests on the wheeled hardboard platform of a small trolley, another object from the shop backroom of factory floor used for the movement and storage of heavy or bulky materials. As with the wooden pallet, this utilitarian plinth gives the impression that the rock it carries and displays has been conveyed into the gallery directly from a its more natural environment - a quarry or mason’s yard. There’s also a sense that the pallet and trolley are mediating objects, connecting materials extracted from the natural environment with those of human manufacture. The mass of the marble block on its trolley presses down on a strip of felt carpet underlay, folded up into a right-angled incline against the bricks of the wall, soft layered against hard. We can sense the impression the wheels are making over time, and imagine the indentations they will leave. They would be reminiscent of those indelibly created by a sofa or bed, left behind as markers of former habitation, the imprints of substantial bodies now departed.


In the dark cave of the upper gallery, Bettina Buck’s short film Interlude shows on a seamless loop. A figure (the artist?) is filmed carrying a block of foam, large enough for her to disappear behind, along the slopes of the South Downs and the Sussex cliffs. It’s as if she’s a giant (the Wilmington chalk figure come to life?) lugging a menhir to the appointed megalithic site. There is a visibly and audibly blustering wind blowing across the sea-cliffs. This makes us aware that, in spite of its awkward bulk, this block would be light enough to be blown into the rough seas below were it not strapped to its bearer’s back. There’s a strong element of the absurd to this scenario of an onerous task rigorously carried out to no apparent end or purpose. It’s reminiscent of short films like The Goons’ The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, made with Richard Lester, Roman Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe or even Laurel and Hardy’s classic The Music Box. The laboriously pointless task the figure assiduously performs has the odd compensatory moment. The block provides a comfortable bed for the occasional lie down, and makes for an instant bench upon which to sit and enjoy the fine views. The looping of the film, which has no evident starting point, means that no conclusion will ever be reached, no goal attained. Unless the foam monument finds its way to a gallery, where it might end up balanced softly on top of a small granitic slab, a hard and unyielding bed to mould itself around.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein


It was such a pleasure to see James Whale’s two Universal Frankenstein movies at the Picture House over the last couple of weeks. Watching films on the big screen which you are personally familiar with, and whose plots offer no surprises, you tend to focus on incidental details or on forgotten moments and supporting characters. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Dwight Frye in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. His scuttling, bug-eyed Fritz in the former is hugely entertaining, and certainly far more interesting than Colin Clive’s dull Henry Frankenstein, from whom he takes his orders. The mad, grinning glee of his face as he peers above the railings in the graveyard from which he and Henry are observing the burial of the body which they are waiting to resurrect is a delightful introduction. Henry just calls his loyal toady a fool and pushes him down again.

The accursed stairs - Fritz answers the door, eventually
There’s a wonderful moment during the storm-lashed creation sequence when he hobbles down the winding, gothic stone staircase in Frankenstein’s ruined watchtower laboratory with his stick and lantern to answer the echoing knock on the door. Muttering all the way about the unreasonableness of calling at such an hour and the inconvenience of descending such unsafe and oversized stairs he gives them an abrupt dismissal, even though its absolutely teeming it down outside. Turning to climb all the way back up again (muttering still) he pauses on the bottom step to pull up his sock. This small gesture, combined with his disconsolate complaints, make him an appealingly human henchman, and it’s rather sad when he’s strung up by the monster (echoing the fate of the hanged man he’s earlier cut down from the gibbet). We can assume that the bullying cruelty which provoked his murder was a redirection of the kind of treatment he’d received in plenty, not least from the contemptuous Henry.

Fritz enjoying his work
Frye turns up once more as Karl in Bride of Frankenstein, a completely different henchman, his hair flattened and teeth given rotten discolouration. Whilst Fritz was a hunchback, Karl suffers from a disparity in the length of his legs, the shorter shored up with a hollow platform which is oddly modernist in its spare, elegant functionality. Whilst we can feel some sympathy for Fritz, Karl soon earns our revulsion. He ensures the ‘freshness’ and youth of the replacement heart for the female monster demanded by Henry by heading straight into town, lurking in the shadows and murdering the first suitable, ill-starred soul who passes by. Karl and Fritz are in many ways the shadowy Hyde sides to Henry’s bland, simpering Jekyll, extensions of his hidden impulses manifested as twisted homonculi. They carry out the unsavoury tasks which are essential for the furtherance of his experiments, but which he is unprepared to sully his hands or conscience with. As Stevenson showed with his doubled character, Henry’s respectable surface of moral rectitude is a thin façade papering over the violent appetites of the untamed id, which are just waiting for the cue to be unleashed. The Hyde persona, in film incarnations from the 1920 John Barrymore version onwards, tends to crouch down into a hunched stoop, adopting a lurching primate gait. This suggests a devolution towards atavistic urges, a shedding of the constraints of civilisation.

Ygor contemplates further evildoing
Fritz and Karl follow this pattern, and set the template for the Universal mad scientist’s assistants, and for the many subsequent emulations of the type. An unfortunate offshoot of this is the equation of physical disability with moral turpitude and brutishness, a bent posture read as a backward slide down the evolutionary slope. In the follow-up to Bride of Frankenstein, a natural extension of the family tree giving us Son of Frankenstein, the moral evil associated with the henchman’s hunched posture and limping gait is given direct causation. It is the result of his execution by hanging, which he has somehow survived; he’s as tough as the gnarled trees spiking the dead landscape which the young Baron Frankenstein passes through on the train to his ancestral home. He’s a semi-wild hermit, with more than a touch of Rasputin about him, who haunts the ruins and forests beyond the edge of town, a barbarous ghost feared by the locals. Played by Bela Lugosi, who brings a wily and calculating ruthlessness to the role (this may in fact be one of his best performances), the henchman is here elevated from a put-upon lackey to an active, coercive and highly dangerous force. He is the evil twin of the benign, saintly hermit who befriends Karloff’s monster in Bride of Frankenstein. He’s also given the henchman’s signature name – Ygor. It’s a name which has become comically associated with the classic mad scientist’s assistant, as witness Viv Stanshall’s spoken query in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s version of The Monster Mash: ‘have you watered the brains today, Igor?’

Attempts to revive sympathy for the henchman were made in House of Dracula, one of Universal’s later, slightly desperate multi-monster packages. Here, the hunchbacked assistant is a woman, Nina, who has been promised some radical treatment by kindly scientific genius Dr Edelman, whose unorthodox practice is located in a large gothic castle (so the film should really be entitled House of Dr Edelman). In return, she acts as his lab assistant under secretive and frequently unsavoury working conditions. Alas, her fate, in common with all henchpersons, is an unhappy one; she is killed by the very doctor who has given her hope for a cure after she stumbles across him during one of his twitchy mad scientist turns attempting to revive Frankenstein’s immortal monster once more. Karl too suffers an ignominious end, casually tossed off the roof of the laboratory tower by the monster in the midst of harvesting the storm to awaken the bride. The horror henchman’s calling invariably invites doom.

The pampered prince (or baron) - Elizabeth attends the ailing Henry
Dwight Frye’s richly eccentric characters have many rivals in Bride of Frankenstein. In the first film, the tone is more sober. It is struck by Edward Van Sloan, who reprises the kind of rationalist, paternalistic character he played in Dracula (as Van Helsing) and would go on to portray in The Mummy the following year. Exuding scholarly gravitas, he is ponderous, deliberate in speech, and much given to gesticulating with his spectacles to emphasise his point. The latter part of the film does have an enjoyable performance from Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, a blustering old buffer first encountered in smoking jacket and tassel-topped cap. He too complains about the uneven, winding staircase up to Henry’s laboratory, grumbling at its lack of a handrail. It’s a light mockery of gothic heaviness which anticipates the tone of Bride of Frankenstein. The nominal leads are terribly insipid, though, and you suspect that Whale is surreptitiously mocking them throughout. Henry is such an unlikely object of romantic interest, his face never losing its fixed grimace of sweaty anxiety, that the long-suffering Elizabeth is given an alternative, pencil-moustached beau to be by her side throughout. He’s rather obviously sticking around to be there at the moment she realises what a wet blanket Henry really is. In Bride of Frankenstein, Elizabeth (technically speaking the title character) has married Henry and been incarnated by another actress, the young Valerie Hobson (who would go on to star in some classic British films by the likes of Powell and Pressburger and David Lean in the 1940s). She’s also acquired a more voguish 30s wardrobe. Her role is wholly subsidiary, however, and Hobson has very little to do other than react to peril with an appropriate level of hysteria. However, she does deliver the absurd line ‘I do hope he doesn’t upset Henry’, spoken to herself whilst pausing at the door of the bedroom in which she’s left him with the sinister Dr Pretorius, with a knowing quality which suggests she may have been in on the joke.

Una O'Connor prepares to let fly
Both Hobson’s Elizabeth and Colin Clive’s Henry are crowded out by a succession of overpowering character actors. The first to appear is Una O’Connor, who plays the Frankenstein’s housekeeper Minnie as a shrieking gossip. She’s bold when all seems safely under control, but always ready to run flapping and caterwauling into the distance at the first sign of trouble. It’s a great, broad comic performance. When the Monster comes face to face with her, it seems stunned into a state of temporary stasis. Its murderous rage is suspended whilst it just watches her fly, bemused and a little dazed at such an energetically cacophonous outburst. Una O’Connor was an Irish actor, but this is very much a comedy Cockney turn, something you can imagine her having perfected on the variety hall circuit. But here she is, stranded in the middle of what is supposedly a middle-European country. The peasants in Hammer films a few decades on would also tend towards the London vernacular. The Bohemia of Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a very polyglot place. Hans, the father of poor, drowned Maria, has a wife who pleads with him not to descend into the ruins to seek the monster’s remains in a soft Irish brogue. One of the grave robbers who assist Dr Pretorius also has a noticeably Irish inflection. Henry’s accent is an absurd, tormented variant on the twisted vowels of English received pronunciation, whilst Ernest Thesiger employs his wonderfully articulated thespian delivery, richly rounded and waspishly patrician, every syllable dripping with contempt for lesser mortals. Elsa Lanchester’s vocalisations as the female monster come from somewhere entirely inhuman, but her accent in the prelude, in which she plays Mary Shelley, is precious, sharply etched home counties. Above all, this is a very British cast (Karloff included, of course), reinvented Midlands boy Whale gathering around him a fellow troupe of strangers in a strange land.

Dr Pretorius and Devilish Counterpart
Thesiger is marvellously fruity as the Mephistophelean Dr Septimus Pretorius and he is, in many ways, the star of the show. When he first encounters the monster, he has made himself comfortable in a vaulted catacomb, and he observes, with indifference shaded by mild annoyance, ‘oh, I thought I was alone’. It’s a remark delivered with a camp offhandedness which might equally have come from Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey in a Carry On film. Henry is soon under Pretorius’ spell, and the Doctor loses no time in separating him from Elizabeth. As many have commented (including Mark Gattiss in his book on Whale, who calls Pretorius a ‘dessicated homosexual imp’) Bride of Frankenstein has a gay subtext which is so evident to the modern sensibility that it’s not really ‘sub’ at all. It was recently included in a BFI list of ten great gay horror films. Whale, an out gay man entirely at ease with his sexuality in a relatively tolerant Hollywood environment, had great fun with the film’s pointed humour and mockery of conventionally sappy romantic mooning, with his friend Thesiger as co-conspirator. Pretorius’ proud claim that he has grown the miniature people he paraded before Henry from ‘seed’ is one of several highly suggestive lines which he managed to smuggle past the Catholic censors, who were generally more fixated on the blasphemous self-comparison of Frankenstein to God (although they allowed Pretorius’ demi-urge toast ‘to a new world of gods and monsters’ through). The source of the seed is left to the imagination. Evidently something of a misogynist (as his loftily dismissive treatment of Elizabeth makes clear), Pretorius has invented a male means of parthenogenetic reproduction which excludes women from the process of creation. This is perhaps the film’s greatest blasphemy. The bride’s blinking horror and implacable hostility at the end of the film may be seen as a reaction to this attempt to co-opt the processes of life.

A beaker of gin - his only weakness
Pretorius is fooling no-one when he offers Henry a gin and proclaims it to be ‘my only weakness’. He later makes the same claim for cigars, and could, we imagine, progress through a whole series of ‘weaknesses’. You can’t help liking Pretorius. He takes such evident delight in his wickedness and wonders ‘if life would not be much more amusing if we were all devils’. His dressing up of his squeaking and jabbering miniature creations in the appropriate robes of establishment pomp shows a playful and sharply sceptical sense of humour. Unlike everyone else, he revels in impracticable gothic excess and decay. Climbing the perilous stairs of the laboratory tower, which almost everybody has had a moan about, and which Henry issues an apologetic warning about (‘they’re a bit slimy, I expect’), he cheerfully remarks ‘I think it’s a charming house’. He also finds the sepulchral gloom of the graveyard catacombs homely, the perfect place to unpack a picnic. Whilst everyone beyond the town dresses in contemporary 30s garb (the locals favouring traditional Alpine fashions), he shows his true colours (if such can be said of someone who favours black) by sticking to a sombre Victorian formality. At the end of the climactic creation scene, he acts as splendidly dramatic MC, ushering the ‘bride of Frankenstein’ onto the screen with a sweep of the arms which invites gasps and wild applause. His announcement incidentally helps to create the persistent confusion between monster and creator.

Elsa Lanchester's Bride gives some profile
Elsa Lanchester creates an electrifying effect in her few moments onscreen as the monster. Her jerking, birdlike movements show off every facet of her stitched-together face and white-streaked shock of gravity-defying hair. She looks like an undead model striking a series of Vogue poses, turning her profile to one side, tilting her head up and giving the camera a direct, open-mouthed stare. She’s sensational, and the hissing swan sounds she produces give her an aura of untouchable, bristling strangeness.

Walking and Falling - the monster as giant toddler
Then there’s Boris Karloff, of course, in the role which defined and in a way confined him, establishing at the pinnacle of the horror pantheon, where he remained stranded for the rest of his career. His performance brings profound depths of pathos to the creature, but he can equally well portray snarling, wildly stomping and thrashing rage with frightening intensity. His pathetic, pleading smile, seeking for love and acceptance, transforms in an instant into a teeth-baring, animalistic growl when he doesn’t receive it. Similarly, his circling, imploring hand motions turn into violent, clawing swipes when he feels threatened. He is essentially a giant child, new-born into a world whose most fundamental laws remain a mystery to him. He walks with a tottering toddler’s stumble, leaning forward into his next step and looking as if he might topple over at any moment. His tentative walk reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s spoken word song Walking and Falling, from her Big Science album. She observes that ‘with each step you fall forward slightly, and then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling, and then catching yourself from falling. And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time’. The creatures childishness is combined with an uncontrolled and unconsciously brutish strength, which makes the scene by the lake, in which the game he plays with his new friend Martha goes horribly wrong, all the more poignant. A significant part of Bride of Frankenstein concerns the education of the monster. Under the tender tutelage of the blind hermit who takes him in, he learns about some of the finer things in life: food, wine, cigars, music and, most of all, friendship. He even comes to entertain the possibility of finding love. He also learns the fundamentals of language and through it reason and moral philosophy. This is the closest the Universal monster ever comes to the articulate creature of Mary Shelley’s novel. With the knowledge of self and of basic moral distinctions, as well as the development of his own voice, the creature approaches the condition of being human. He is now accountable for his actions, which can no longer be considered the instinctive reactions of an unthinking brute, but rather a matter of conscious choice. This new level of awareness makes rejection all the more painful, however, and creates the possibility of real tragedy rather than mere pathos.

Entering the underworld
Christian symbolism which runs throughout the film, either offering the monster the possibility of redemption or identifying him as the suffering Christ-like figure. This symbolism finds its ironic centre in the meeting with the blind hermit. He thanks God for answering his prayers and sending a companion to ease his loneliness. The camera focuses on the crucifix on his wall (crucifixes of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in the film) which remains illuminated for a second whilst the rest of the screen fades to black. Ecclesiastical organ music adds to the sanctified mood. But we know that this new companion is a monster created from dead body parts in a laboratory who has just been on the rampage through the local town, leaving in his wake a dead woman and child. This new friend is also scoffing bread and guzzling wine, which runs in rivers down his chin, whilst the hermit prays. The creature’s eventual discovery will lead to the hermit’s hut being burned down, thus making him homeless and bereft of money or possessions. The God who has answered his prayers moves in perversely mysterious and frankly unhelpful ways.

Expressionist titles
Whilst there is a great deal of continuity between Whales’ two Frankenstein films, there are also marked differences in style and emphasis. Frankenstein is more solidly gothic, and its barred shadows, acute angles and exaggerated set design bear testament to the influence of the German expressionism with which Whale was familiar. This debt is made explicit in the titles, which are set against a spinning, kaleidoscopic backdrop of collaged eyes above which a fierce face stares out with hypnotic fixity, very much in the manner of a Dr Mabuse, Caligari or Rotwang. The gothic fixation with the iconography of death is also strongly present.

Symbolist art - death in the classroom
In the lecture room from which Fritz steals the brain, there is a charcoal sketch of dark socketed skull which could have been produced by one of the Symbolist artists of the late 19th century – Odilon Redon, Arnold Bocklin, Alfred Kubin and others. The film begins with a funeral in a wonderfully atmospheric graveyard. A grim memento mori funerary statue of a cowled death, resting on his reaping sword, leans in the background. It is surrounded by a pale of spiked iron fence posts which look as though they’re intended to pen it in as much as keep others out. Neither the gravedigger nor Frankenstein and Fritz, who lurk within death’s pale waiting for the moment when they can dig up the fresh corpse, have any respect for the dead. The gravedigger sidefoots an avalanche of earth into the grave and, when he has filled it and tamped it down with the flat of his shovel, lights his pipe and chucks the match over his shoulder onto the raised bed of soil. Frankenstein frantically shovels the soil back out, flinging it with careless abandon into the face of the statue of death. This irreverence, combined with an aesthetic fascination for the rituals, markers and symbolic representations of death, sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Lauging in the face of death
In Bride of Frankenstein, the irreverence is given greater emphasis. The monster angrily knocks over a tombstone statue of a saint, and Dr Pretorius uses a sarcophagus in a burial vault as a table on which to set out his picnic. He cheerfully munches and sips in the company of the skull and bones his gravediggers have just unearthed for him. The vault is a beautiful set, and it rings to his infectious laughter, which is thrown in the face of death. The youth of the deceased from whom the bones derive is emphasised. Her 19 years correspond with Mary Shelley’s age when she wrote Frankenstein. Pretorius’ supper with the dead may also serve as a reminder of the proto-Goth trysts which the young Mary (Wollstencraft as she was then) enjoyed with Percy Shelley by the grave of her mother in St Pancras churchyard.

The monster in Arcadia
If Frankenstein is classic gothic, from its lonely ruined tower to its mist-shrouded graveyards, timeworn stone stairways and even its gloomy, creaking hilltop windmill (a touch of agricultural gothic), then Bride of Frankenstein has more of a fairy tale air bout it. Terence Fisher would later claim that he thought of his Hammer films as adult fairy tales rather than horror stories. His observation could equally apply here. We begin in the distinctly ungothic setting (thunderstorm notwithstanding) of a Regency sitting room in which Mary Shelley proceeds to unfold her tale. With this ‘are you sitting comfortably’ prelude, we are given the impression of being told a story, a written fiction (or at least one composed within Mary’s mind). The Ruritanian light opera backdrop is perfect for a fairytale, and the picturesque town square is complemented in Bride of Frankenstein by lightly wooded hills in which a hermit’s hut nestles and sheep graze by gentle waterfalls. The monster is the lumbering giant terrorising this otherwise peaceful Arcadia.

Sleeping Beauty
At one point, Karloff’s creature throws off the lid of a sarcophagus in the burial vault, uncovering the translucent, perfectly preserved features of the young female corpse lying within. Her face softened and rendered spectral by a veil of gauze, she looks like a Sleeping Beauty waiting for an awakening kiss, or a Snow White in a witch-cursed coma. After his recovery from the travails of the first film, we discover Henry propped up in a bed with an absurdly oversized and fussily baroque headboard. He’s like a big baby in its cot, or a pampered prince liable to throw a tantrum or fall into a sulk when things don’t go his way. Pretorius is a wizened, beaky Rumpelstiltskin, a wily and persuasive trickster. His tiny homunculi, imprisoned beneath their private bell-jars, are miniature fairytale characters in themselves. There’s a little mermaid, a Thumbelina ballerina and a besotted king and disaffected queen. And there’s a devil, that mainstay of many a folk tale, a pocket-sized chip off the old block. Elsa Lanchester’s bride, dressed in her stiff white robe, and with her jagged frosty bolt of white hair, is like an ice queen, or a swan temporarily transformed into human form. With her limbs moving in sudden jerks, she also resembles a puppet brought to awkward life.

The town's gothic underside
In Frankenstein, there was a definite divide between the gothic world which Frankenstein inhabited and the light operatic set of the town, in which festive dancing is always on the verge of breaking out and steins of foaming beer are swung in time to a lusty chorus. This divide seems less definite in Bride of Frankenstein. The town is even revealed to have its own gothic corners in the form of a grim dungeon with a monumental throne on a stony dais ready for the monster to be chained upon. This is a place stuck in a fantasy of 18th & 19th century feudalism, even though we are supposedly in the 20th century, a fact marked by the loosely hanging suits of Henry and Victor and Elizabeth’s ‘30s wardrobe. The age of technological modernity takes refuge in the unlikely gothic surrounds. In locating the Tesla coils, transformers and resistors of the scientist’s lab in castle vaults and crumbling towers, Whale and his Universal successors make the link between Frankenstein and the alchemists and necromancers of bygone centuries. The gothic is the form in which the past returns to haunt the present, and it does so here with crackling surges of electric current. Fritz Lang made a similar connection in Metropolis, locating the scientist-mage Rotwang’s laboratory in a medieval hovel crouched idiosyncratically amongst the gleaming modernist towers of the future city. He has a cabbalistic pentagram etched onto his wall to mark his intellectual ancestry even more plainly. Pretorius is aware of the shadows of their ancient progenitors too. As he jovially remarks to Henry whilst they are preparing for their great work, ‘it’s interesting to think, Henry, that once upon a time we would have been burnt at the stake as wizards for this experiment’.

Art Deco laboratory
The vaulting lab set is magnificent, and the way the creation scenes are shot further illustrates the difference in tone between the two films. In the first, expressionist lighting is the key, given a logical source in the actinic flashes from the sizzling machinery. The filming is fairly conventional, with the impressive set and props allowed to carry the dramatic impact through a measured observation of their operations. In Bride of Frankenstein, the emphasis is much more on the editing, which shows the experimental influence of Soviet montage techniques. There is a tilting of the space within the frame, dramatically uplit close-ups of faces, sometimes shot from above, sometimes below, and a juxtaposition of human effort with the dynamic motion of machinery. The lab is noticeably better equipped the second time around, too. Art deco technology makes the contrast between modernity and ruinous antiquity even more evident. This sequence is masterfully achieved, and its swelling rhythms (much enhanced by Franz Waxman’s stirring score) create a mounting sense of anticipation which leads to the triumphant climax of the unveiling of the bride.

Goooooood!
Seeing these films in beautifully restored clarity on the big screen, a few slight infelicities inevitably showed through. The backdrop of the overcast sky definitely could have done with a thorough ironing. But with a little imaginative readjustment, those wrinkles and folds become shafts of rain or sunlight. In the scene on the laboratory rooftop in Bride of Frankenstein in which the monster pursues the torch-waving Karl up the Escher-like stairway to nowhere, the two figures are evidently projections. But their spectral transparency gives the scene a haunted, slightly hallucinatory cast which enhances its nightmarish quality. These are minor matters, anyway, and in no way mar these undisputed masterpieces of the horror genre. Any chance to see them in the cinema is a privilege and an unalloyed pleasure. To a new world of Gods and Monsters!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bernard Parmegiani


Bernard Parmegiani, who passed away on the 21st November, was a major figure in the development of electronic music in the post-war period, working at the GRM (Groupes de Recherches Musicales) studios of RTF (Radiodiffusion-Television Francaises), the French national broadcasting station. He had long been an admirer of GRM’s founder, head and the inventor of musique concrète Pierre Schaeffer. After 3 years of working as a sound engineer for television he finally gained entry to the hallowed, tape-bedecked halls when Schaeffer invited him to join in 1959. The hierarchies in place at GRM, plus the two years training course he was obliged to take, meant that it was some time before he could get down to any serious work of his own, however. One of his first significant pieces was Violostries, which he composed in 1962 for the violinist Devy Eplih. It set Eplih’s playing against his own tape manipulations of violins sounds, and set the pattern for his fascination with the electroacoustic blending of natural and synthetic or transformed sounds. This early work shares the stringency of much post-Webern modernist music of the time. But Parmegiani was to develop a more natural and sonically sensual approach as his style matured. Lengthy pieces such as De Natura Sonorum (1975) and La Creation du Monde (1982-4) evoke the sounds of the natural world or of the cosmos, and have passages which create a sensation of rapid movement or kinetic, molecular flux.


De Natura Sonorum is an encylopaedic collection of sounds which are subjected to microscopic study, but the music never becomes dry or clinical. The eleven sections are like a taxonomical division of sounds into distinct compartments. There are the struck sounds of cymbals and bells; echoing sounds and sounds with little reverberant afterlife; high pure pitches and low bass rumbles; whispering, susurrant sounds and squelchy or fiery ones. These sounds are subject to transformations and metamorphoses which highlight hidden connections between seemingly wholly disparate qualities. The division between the natural and the artificial becomes difficult to distinguish, and the nature of the sounds analysed, compared and reconfigured frequently end up resembling the sounds of nature. We hear the sonorities of air, fire, water and rumbling earth. A rich drone is filled with the humming pulse of abundant life and the final section is composed of the descending whistles of electronic tones sounding like birdsong (some birds indeed having the uncanny ability to produce calls which sound electronic).


La Création du Monde sets out with the modest ambition of creating a sound picture of the formation of the universe, the Earth and the emergence of life. It’s a creation story informed by Carl Sagan and his popularisation of cosmology rather than by any religious origin myths. But there is something distinctly mythic about its poetic evocation of cosmic forces and the poetic language used to cue us to the stages of creation we’re witnessing: Lumière Noire (black light), Moins L’infini (before the infinite?). Métamorphose Du Vide (transformation of the void) and Jeux De Configurations (play of forms). This grandly Romantic programmatic narrative makes it clear that Parmegiani saw his music in terms of creating vivid, widescreen pictures in the listener’s head. The section headed Instant 0 (ie the big bang) presumably lent its name to the Instant 0 studio which Stereolab set up in France, where they recorded their Instant 0 in the Universe EP. The music of La Creation du Monde is full of the sounds of rushing, colliding objects and roiling, elemental motion which whirl around and create a sense of space and expanding dimensionality, placing the listener at the very heart of the unfolding cosmic processes. It’s a great headphone experience, and would be amazing with a corresponding planetarium show, or something resembling one of Iannis Xenakis’ Polytope arrangements of light and ritualistic spectacle.


The same could be said for Chronos, which comprises three separate pieces created for the RTF, and which uses a more familiar palette of electronic sounds. The title of the lengthiest piece, L’Oeil Écoute (the eye listens), hints at the synaesthetic effects which the music can induce in the mind’s eye. The train sounds with which it opens could be seen as a tribute to Pierre Schaeffer, whose own Etude aux Chemins de Fer, the opening section of his Etudes de Bruits, the foundation work of musique concrete, took its sound sources from recordings of trains made at the Batignolles station in Paris. Chronos was one of two LPs of Parmegiani’s music released in the Philips Prospective 21e Siecle series, the other containing Violostries alongside Bidule en Ré and Capture Éphemère, pieces from the late 60s. In their reflective silver foil covers with eye-dazzling op-art designs, these are highly desirable objects for the record collector, and Parmegiani’s work sits in proudly shimmering glory alongside that of his GRM colleagues Iannis Xenakis, François Bayle, Pierre Henry and the father figure Pierre Schaeffer.

Parmegiani at GRM with Pierre Schaeffer and Iannis Xenakis
Parmegiani’s portrayal of his music in poetic, narrative and visual terms makes it more approachable than some of the more hardline musical abstractionists of the time. He was also open to collaborations which took him outside of the academy (or the radio studio) and made connections with the currents of experiment and exploration running through various forms of music in the late sixties. His pieces Du Pop À L’Âne (1969) and Pop'ecletic (1968) are musical collages, harking back to his youthful love of making visual collages. They use fragments of the pop and rock music of the day alongside extracts of pieces of classical and modern music, which emerge from merge back into Parmegiani’s electronic soup. In Du Pop À L’Âne, The Doors’ Spanish Caravan and When the Music’s Over are counterpointed by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with Jim Morrison’s climactic yelp also deflated by what sounds like the lengthy uncoiling of a single tone in Stockhausen’s Kontakte. Even earlier electronic sounds are unearthed through Parmegiani’s incorporation of Ondes Martenot glides from Messiaen’s music. Pop'ecletic extracts various elements from Pink Floyd’s Piper At the Gates of Dawn: a bass line fro Lucifer Sam, a one chord guitar thrash from Astronomy Domine, a chordal organ crash from Matilda Mother and indeterminate sounds from Interstellar Overdrive. He also uses the phased organ and guitar from the instrumental intro to the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake as a recurring motif. He evidently liked this sound, since it also crops up in Du Pop À L’Âne and L’Oeil Écoute. The juxtaposition of different musics served to highlight just how much interaction there was between them at this time. Pop and rock musicians were drawing from the ideas of avant garde composers, and the less insular of these composers (Parmegiani amongst them) were also tuning in to these new and innovative collisions of the popular and the experimental. Later musicians filled with a similar border hopping spirit were also inspired by Parmegiani’s refusal to be bounded by musical compartmentalisation. I first heard Pop’eclectic as part of a mix on the old website of the band Broadcast, and the collagist collision and merging of disparate elements was a distinctive part of their style, reaching an experimental peak on their Witch Cults of the Radio Age collaboration with The Focus Group.


This openness on Parmegiani’s part led to all kinds of collaborations. In this, he was similar to his GRM colleague Pierre Henry, and as a result, both composers have reached a far wider modern audience than many of their contemporaries. He worked with the Third Ear Band on a performance at the Round House in 1970, and with a quartet of French free jazz musicians on the piece Jazzex in 1966. This was a kind of feedback loop which involved him recording and transforming their sounds, the resultant tape of which they would further improvise over. Et Après, from 1973, is another meeting with an improvising jazz musician, this time Michel Portal, who plays over Parmegiani’s tape of treated bandoneon sounds.

This collaborative spirit extended into the sphere of the screen arts. He produced a number of soundtracks for TV and cinema over the years, including A, a short 1965 film by the Polish animator Jan Lenica, and his fellow countryman Piotr Kamler’s remarkable 1969 animation Le Labyrinth. For this, Parmegiani produced a study in vocal sounds, ranging from Tibetan and football terrace chants to cries and whispers. It’s completely sympathetic to the images it accompanies, and adds greatly to the nightmarishly claustrophobic quality of the film, the sense of being watched and commented upon at all times. He also provided the soundtrack for a film by another Polish animator, Walerian Borowczyk. His Jeux des Anges (1964) is a chill, bleak piece of surrealism which clearly evokes the spirit of the concentration camps set up in Poland by the Nazis. Parmegiani’s music draws on chants sung in those dark places, and begins with more train sounds, which in this context take on a terribly ominous cast. He worked again with Walerian Borowczyk on his early 80s movie Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes.


Parmegiani also made a few films of his own, perhaps drawing on his own performance art background (he was even a mime for a while, the progression from that to composer/constructor of musique concrète something which probably only a Frenchman or woman could pull off). The dual-language title of his 1973 short Das Augehort /L’Ecran Transparent reflects the fact that this was a joint venture between the German WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) radio station and RTF. WDR had its own Studio for Electronic Music, set up in 1951, the same year that the GRM had come into being. Their had been significant hostility between the two in the early days, when they were passionately advocating different approaches to this new musical art. But by 1973, with electronic sounds widely disseminated across the whole spectrum of music and no longer the purview of small technocratic coteries in state-sponsored laboratories (or maverick musician/engineers in their attics or back garden sheds), such bitter aesthetic and ideological divides seemed retrospectively foolish (must their always be only one way of doing things?) The film marries image with music and experiments with new video techniques, much as Frank Zappa did in the otherwise utterly different 200 Motels. Paul Valjean appears at the start as a sort of proxy Parmegiani (he’s even got the beard), bouncing between the walls of the screen liked a ‘trapped in a box’ mime, talking about the ‘electronic human’ and speaking the word ‘information’, which is then echoed, repeated and layered in the manner of Steve Reich’s tape loop phasing piece Come Out To Show Them. It sounds like something broadcast from the speakers placed around The Village in The Prisoner. It’s a remarkable short film, well worth watching. You can also hear a number of Parmegiani’s pieces, including Violostries and De Natura Sonorum (the opposite poles of apprentice work and mature masterpiece within his oeuvre), and Pop'eclectic over at ubuweb. Lie back, open your ears and let all the sounds of the universe flood in.