February 26, 2010

The universe is a threshold house

Not film, but musick. Simon Reynolds appears to have solved the mystery that has haunted Coil fans – well, this one anyway -- for something like 20 years. What is the origin of that enigmatic name -- record label initially but meaning more than that, closer to headquarters -- Threshold House? It turns out it was also the name of the BBC’s Doctor Who production office in London during the earlier, better incarnation of the series. But were Coil fans? An Idiot’s Guide to Dreaming wonders the same thing.
Of course, I'd love it if it really did come via Doctor Who - Coil don't really mention Doctor Who in interviews but that kind of reference is hardly necessary - those old soundtracks are implicit in a lot of their work, you don't need to read a reference to hear one... and I don't think this is a product of Coil's esoterrorism; like Throbbing Gristle I think the esoteric aspects of Coil miss the point a little - they always seemed as likely to reference the prosaic (okay, maybe not as likely as TG) and the (Mmm) bog-standard as the occult; in fact, their version of occult seemed very rooted in the reasonably ordinary...
Off the top of my head: the Moomins, Edith Sitwell, Jarry, Dali, The Butthole Surfers, John Dee, Pasolini, Isidore Ducasse...

Nothing overt, then, but science-fiction was in there. You could list titles like The Universe is a Haunted House, The Mothership and the Fatherland, Time Machines, Triple Suns, Sex with Sun Ra ("In a spaceship powered by natural sounds'' etc) that come from near the end of Coil, when the electronica got more and more kosmiche, more astral, more open, and the subjects started to match, getting into that zone of the early 70s when there was a fine line or maybe porous border between occult fiction/non-fiction and science-fiction. Which makes me think of this song, Tiny Golden Books, from Musick to Play in the Dark Vol 2 (recently named by this site as the best album of the last decade); a song said to memorialise Jhonn Balance's drug-inspired vision of an angel with a burning book on the dancefloor of an acid house club at four in the morning. In The Wire interview with Ian Penman back in 2000 he says something like, we’re supposed to be having this groovy time and I’m having this apocalyptic revelation.
Tiny Golden Books

Dark they were, with golden eyes
Brought golden books from darkened skies
Every word from every world within was written down
They read it all aloud to us with silver tongues of fire
That licked the sun and stars and moon
All space became a choir
Shining shining shining then they left without a sound
Then they left without a sound
Then they left without a sound
Any sci-fi reader might get that the opening line references Ray Bradbury -- Dark They Were and Golden Eyed – but I think it actually refers to, or also refers to, a legendary bookshop in London. Balance talked about this an interview somewhere, which naturally I can't find now. He may even have talked about it having an eye painted on its roof that he gazed at on LSD or I could be imagining that last part entirely. But via the endless trails the internet invites you to follow, you might then end up at this Jon Savage story from the Guardian on Ian Curtis's reading:
The early to mid-70s was a golden age of paperback publishing, both high and low. Apart from Penguin, with its vigorous science-fiction line that included authors such as Philip K Dick, Olaf Stapledon and JG Ballard, there were Picador, Pan, Mayflower, Paladin - the last with a wide-ranging list that included Jeff Nuttall and Timothy Leary. Selling for 50p and upwards (when an LP cost 3.25), these books were readily available to young minds.
In the Manchester area, there were several outlets for this jumble of esoterica, some left over from the oppositional hippie days. The historian CP Lee remembers shops such as Paper-chase and the leftwing Grassroots, while Paul Morley worked at the Bookshop in Stockport: "Tolkien was a huge seller, war books too, lots of experimental science fiction, as well as the Mills & Boon romances and tucked-away soft porn that kept things ticking over."
Then there were the shops run by David Britton and Mike Butterworth: House on the Borderland, Orbit in Shudehill and Bookchain in Peter Street, just down the road from the site of the Peterloo massacre. As Butterworth recalls, all three "were modelled on two London bookshops of the period, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed in Berwick Street, Soho - which sold comics, sci-fi, drug-related stuff, posters, etc - and a chain called Popular Books".
With his friend Steven Morris, Ian Curtis regularly visited House on the Borderland. Butterworth remembers them as "disparate, alienated young men attracted to like-minded souls. They wanted something offbeat and off the beaten track, and the shop supplied this. They probably saw it as a beacon in the rather bleak Manchester of the early 70s."
"They came in every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. Ian bought second-hand copies of New Worlds, the great 60s literary magazine edited by Michael Moorcock, which was promoting Burroughs and Ballard. My friendship with Ian started around 1979: we talked Burroughs, Burroughs, Burroughs. At the bookshops he would have been exposed to an extremely wide range of eclectic and weird writers and music."
PICTURE: a copy of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Leviathan, the last part of the Illuminatus! trilogy, purchased, so the price sticker says, at Dark They Were and Golden Eyed. The Illuminatus! trilogy is an artefact of that time in the 70s when occult fiction and sci-fi crossed over – which tradition would you narrow this one down to? Or Philip K Dick’s VALIS? The Jon Savage text above mentions Michael Moorcock; you could put Alan Moore in here as someone who inherited all this too.
The lyrics to Tiny Golden Books come from the invaluable Coil archive at Brainwashed. The name House on the Borderland is surely pure coincidence ...

February 25, 2010

"You act like insanity is catching": Shutter Island

More than a few critics have complained that in Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's brilliant technique is in the service of a ludicrous storyline, as though a "gotcha!'' horror yarn is beneath such a great artist. Graeme Tuckett on National Radio went as far as to call it Scorsese's "bad film'', which is of course a big call (personally I'd opt, if I had to, for Bringing Out the Dead, Cape Fear and Casino as the times when his signature embellishment of pulp became overwrought and overheated, although none of them deserves to be called "bad''). But for the most part, this kind of thing has been the Scorsese project all along: the boilerplate storylines of the mass-produced and often forgettable studio pictures that he found running in fleapits in the 50s and 60s -- these vivid autobiographical details courtesy, of course, of A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies -- elevated via his rich cinematic artistry (and not just his but editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who are both at the top of their game in the beautifully-textured Shutter Island) and a sense of personal, probably specifically Catholic torment. But the material? They have been the gangster movie, the boxing biopic, the crucifixion epic, the musical, the western (Gangs of New York, his "western on mars'') and, just to move us from the 50s into the present, our closest thing to a B-movie descendant: the hyper-violent Hong Kong cop movie (The Departed). Apart from The Age of Innocence and maybe Kundun, the storylines themselves have never been about higher things.

In the 50s-set Shutter Island, Scorsese is the Personal Journey film historian at play, getting Hitchcock in there, and Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, and Powell and Pressburger, and more besides, even throwing in some obvious rear projection -- in the opening scene -- but to do more than just pay homage to the era; it makes a story point that pays off later. The horror is both traditional -- rats, castles, a graveyard, the darkest and stormiest of dark and stormy nights -- and psychological, as in hallucinations, dreams and flashbacks, repression and suppression. Some of the latter stuff might put you in mind of Vertigo -- although it's not that good, that uncanny, that unforgettable -- and, appropriate to the times, the heavyweight noir-era fears that slosh around in the head of our hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) include Nazi death camps and doctors, H-bombs and Korean War brainwashing (noir subtexts becoming visible). But that's all horror business -- does it add up to anything serious? I think so: Shutter Island seems to have more genuine emotional weight than Scorsese's three earlier films with DiCaprio, which is partly to do with where the material eventually takes us -- where it also crosses over with Vertigo is in a depiction of loss -- and partly to do with the maturing of this actor-director relationship, with DiCaprio now Scorsese's reliable subject and muse. Glenn Kenny has even made a persuasive case for it being a personal film (see this response too, from Jim Emerson) and the ending seemed to me to depend on an important moral or philosophical choice that almost runs like a Paul Schrader moment. And when you're done thinking about that, consider what the moment says about the German officer's suicide earlier.
PICTURE: Arnold Bocklin's "Isle of the Dead'' (1883), a direct influence on the 1940s Val Lewton/Mark Robson film of the same name. Last year, Scorsese named Isle of the Dead as one of his 11 (why 11?) scariest horror movies of all time.

February 12, 2010

Ghosts and evidence

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman). In its quiet and slightly melancholy stretches this is good on the dispiritingly impersonal and temporary quality of the new work places of post-industrial capitalism, the offices and call centres that can be furnished or emptied at a moment's notice, and the airless "non-places" (phrase by Marc Auge) that support it: the conference rooms, the hotel lobbies, the airport lounges, interchangeable from one city to the next. When Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) gets out of the film's impersonality circuit, he is like a ghost wandering through a human past. Everything looks to him and us like nostalgia: a wedding and an old high school in Wisconsin, a family home in Chicago. If the warm human world seems quaint and nostalgic, impersonality seems like a historical force, and it's fitting that Reitman identifies his largely midwestern cities from the air. The inference is that you can no longer tell one American city from another when you're on the ground.

The Innocents (Jack Clayton) vs Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). In his famous essay on ambiguity in Henry James, Edmund Wilson speculated that the ghosts "seen" by the haunted governess in Turn of the Screw could be projections of her sexual fear and repression -- this Freudian reading, taken as gospel in Jack Clayton's adaptation of the story, The Innocents, has been influential on horror ever since. For Clayton, the hard part was to sustain the notion of doubt while showing us what she sees; the trick is that we only see the apparitions after she does. Fifty years on, the cheap but effective Paranormal Activity is more constrained: the pseudo-Real conceit, post-Blair Witch and Cloverfield, is that we are watching found footage edited into a documentary shape; the footage comes from a camera set up by Micah, whose partner, Katie, is experiencing hauntings. We are watching evidence. The camera runs while they sleep. The footage speeds up and then slows down as the scares approach and we hear what she hears, see what she sees. There is no room for doubt and maybe that's why Paranormal Activity will scare you like mad in the cinema and disappear from your memory soon after.

Secret films and Don DeLillo. There is the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination in Underworld and behind Libra. A rumoured Eisenstein film in Underworld. The suppressed Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues in Underworld. The rumoured Hitler film in Running Dog. Secret films: film is evidence but evidence disappears. So you need evidence of evidence. This is DeLillo on the Zapruder film: "What we finally have are patches and shadows. It's still a mystery. There's still an element of dream-terror. And one of the terrible dreams is that our most photogenic president is murdered on film. But there's something inevitable about the Zapruder film. It had to happen this way. The moment belongs to the 20th century, which means it had to be captured on film.'' American reviews of DeLillo's new, slim novel Point Omega tell us it is book-ended by descriptions of Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho, which famously slows the Hitchcock film down to a crawl, so that it lasts 24 hours. A line from the book describes the experience of watching the Gordon Psycho: "Suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it.'' Not a secret film but a widely-seen one, radically altered in the hope that it might reveal something new about itself or the viewer. Not just slow cinema but time-stretching cinema. Post-Underworld, DeLillo's books have been trying for the same kind of stasis.

February 10, 2010

Horror lists #1

"I had fallen asleep on the sofa and woke up in the middle of the hallucinogenic scene half way through."

February 7, 2010

Contradiction to itself

"Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?" -- John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books, 2002.
Still: from Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas.