Soviet Space Art

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Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Last week I was working in Russia. I attended a conference in Tver, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg where I was set on fire. I was also asked to be one of the judges for a final graduation film for one of the students at the All Russian Cinematography University (VGIK for short). As a thank-you present I received a set of 25 posters from the Soviet space race, mostly dated from the early 1960s. Funnily enough on the plane there and back I watched the movie Gagarin: First in Space, a Russian biopic of the first spaceman released in 2013. It’s a fascinating yet oddly unsatisfying movie, largely because its an unashamedly hagiographic portrait of the man. Others have commented that it feels like a Soviet Realist propaganda film of the era, where the bold Cosmonauts can do no wrong in their dedication to the cause. Gagarin, who in real life was clearly a complex man frustrated by the fact he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a rocket after his one flight, comes across as so too good to be true you want to punch him. It’s not The Right Stuff, and lacks all that movie’s acerbic portrayal of inter-astronaut rivalry, political shenanigans and down-right ludicrous training scenes (which it clearly tries to copy). It also suffers from Realistic Space Movie syndrome, whereby crises tend to be involve people shouting things like ‘There’s no signal from KP-3′ at which point everyone goes white as a sheet and runs round panicking and pointing at ticker tapes until someone says, ‘There is a signal from KP-3′, everyone breaks down into tears of relief and the audience go ‘Huh?’.

In the name of peace and progress!

In the name of peace and progress!

Having said that, overall it’s a great slice of Soviet space history with some very cool effects showing the Vostok I capsule whizzing over the earth. It also shows two things that were never mentioned at the time. Firstly Gagarin’s capsule didn’t separate properly before re-entry and they had to rely on atmospheric friction burning off the back half of module before the whole assembly destabilised. Secondly Gagarin ejected from the capsule before it hit the ground. This was planned all along but hushed up because for the flight to be recognised as a proper space flight the astronaut was supposed to accompany the vehicle from point of take off to point of landing.

Anyway – film aside, the posters, produced in the set Space Will Be Ours! by Kontakt Publishers of  Moscow are a wonderful record of the optimism and enthusiasm of the space age seen from the Soviet perspective. I’ve chosen my favourites and here they are for you to enjoy:

 

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Soviet citizen be proud! The way to the distant stars has been discovered!

Soviet Art004Medium

Long live the Soviet people – the space pioneers!

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Long live the first woman cosmonaut!

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We are born to make dreams come true!

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We are creative, friendly and clever. We’re making Space peaceful forever!

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Let’s conquer Space!

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Long live the first cosmonaut, Yu. A. Gagarin!

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For the glory of Communism!

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Long live Soviet science! Long live the Soviet man – the first cosmonaut!

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Space is going to serve the people!

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The distance to the furthest planet is not that far!

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We’ll pave the way to distant worlds, and solve the mysteries of the Universe!

 

Paperhouse (1988)

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paperhouse

Movies and dreams have always been closely linked. Cinema history is full of movies of dreams, from the films of Georges Méliès and the 1911 cartoon of Little Nemo in Slumberland to the world of Freddy Kreuger and Nightmare on Elm Street. There are two basic approaches – adding dreams inside films as part of the plot, or giving the entire movie the structure and imagery of a dream. Hitchcock’s Spellbound belongs to the former category, where the solution to the mystery hinges around the interpretation of Gregory Peck’s dream, as designed by Salvador Dali. On the other hand the short animation Destino, another Dali-inspired movie started as a collaboration with Disney in 1946 but only completed in 2003, is a dream from start to finish. Other examples of dream-obsessed Surrealists turning to cinema to realise their visions include the classic Un Chien Andalou (1928) , and Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930). Dreams can be ineffably creepy, especially because we are largely passive witnesses to images and ideas bubbling up from the dark places of the soul, with little control over their jump cuts and bizarre shifts of perspective. Three films stand out for me as truly unnerving nightmares transferred to the big screen, Eraserhead (1977), Phantasm (1979) and Paperhouse (1988).

paperhouse-movie-posterOf these three Paperhouse slipped pretty much unnoticed under the radar, like so many small budget British films, despite getting overwhelmingly positive reviews and scaring the bejesus out of its audience (including me) when it first appeared. Given that it was up against Rain Man and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and could only muster Ben Cross of Chariots of Fire for its Big Name Star, it’s perhaps not surprising that it more or less vanished without a trace. Thankfully it can be picked up on Amazon for the princely sum of £5.63

The film is based on the 1958 children’s novel Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, a typical middle-class kid’s book redolent of long summer afternoons, ginger beer, tuck and beastly Latin prep. Having found a magic pencil in her great grandmother’s workbox the eponymous heroine draws a house, which subsequently appears in her dreams. Every time she changes the picture the enhancements also turn up in her increasingly sinister visions. The film takes the story, uproots it from its winsome Arthur Ransome world and drops it into anxiety-ridden Thatcherite Britain. The heroine, now Anna, lives with her disinterested mother in an expensive London flat while her father swans off elsewhere on expensive business trips. Resentful of his absence, Anna is a difficult child who tells lies and bunks off school to hide in derelict stations with her friend. Having drawn a house in class she faints as she succumbs to glandular fever and finds herself on a lonely moor standing in front of her house. As the illness takes hold and she is confined to bed she revisits the scary world of the house and discovers it has an inhabitant, Marc, who can’t walk.

dreamcycle

The OMG moment comes when Anna’s doctor reveals that she’s also tending a boy called Marc who is not only paralysed but is also dying. From then on, like a scary version of Fawlty Towers, every single thing Anna does to save the situation only makes it ten times worse. In a fit of logic only a fever-addled teenager could produce she decides to add Dad to the picture, wielding a hammer. Deciding she’s made him look bonkers she scribbles his face out. In the book menacing rocks called THEM sporting big eyeballs close in on the house for no particular reason. They are positively cosy compared to the hammer wielding blind maniac who turns up to chase Anna and Marc round the Paperhouse bellowing ‘Do you know me?’ as he finally attempts to beat Anna flat on a landscape riven by chasms of lava. This is because by now Anna’s managed to set fire to the drawing of the house in the real world, along with her bedroom. To be honest, not only is Anna stubborn and awkward but she can’t draw for toffee. At that age my daughter was churning out endless pictures of Sailor Moon and Pocahontas, both of whom would have been far more use than mentally deranged Freudian dad.

BCFather

Visually the film is a stylised treat – completely dominated by the freaky child-designed house – all brooding lopsided windows on the outside and empty spaces filled with purposeless machines inside. The film peters out towards the end when an all-together too realistic lighthouse replaces the wonky Paperhouse as a refuge against the encroaching horrors and the film tails off into a slightly unconvincing encounter with forces beyond mortal ken on the edge of a seaside cliff.

Paperhouse is an unsung classic that transposes a cosy tail of school chums defeating evil à la Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series to the altogether grim and alienating world of late 1980s London where harassed, absent or disinterested adults leave their kids to confront nightmare fears by themselves. The overwhelming sense at the end of the movie is that grownups are, on the whole, untrustworthy or generally useless and on no account should you let them into your dreams. At just over a fiver it’s well worth a watch and I won’t deny that the beginning of the movie gave me the inspiration for parts of Thumb.

 

 

The King of Elfland’s Daughter – 1977

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kingofelflandsdaughter

For years the TV program Top of the Pops and the Sunday Top 40 on Radio One had a stranglehold on popular music in the UK. Bands sank or swam depending on where they were in the charts and how much exposure they got on the BBC on a Thursday evening. Rankings depended entirely on singles sales, which were often fiddled (a scandal erupted when it transpired that major record labels were bribing stores to return false numbers). It was a system that lead to the most bizarre anomalies when dire novelty records like Father Abraham and the Smurfs rubbed shoulders with Generation X and The Stranglers. It also led to serious bands being unfairly associated with gimmicky one-off singles. A good example is The Strawbs, a folk rock band responsible for the glorious concept album Grave New World, but chiefly remembered for the frankly rubbish Pub Piano Oompah number Part of the Union. Steeleye Span suffered the same fate, being eternally associated with songs like All Around My Hat, a bouncy ditty that cemented them in the public mind as semi-comic manglers of traditional folk, an image that their appearance on the kids’ program Crackerjack did little to dispel. Folk Rock was always open to the charge that it was little more than a cider-quaffing Morris Dancers who’d found some electric guitars in the attic and decided to see if they could still play them with one finger in their ears. And yet, on the album side, there was a rich and magnificent tradition of entirely serious Folk Rock banging out interesting and complex concept albums – Jethro Tull being the chief movers, but also Steeleye Span. In 1977 two of the band, guitarist Bob Johnson and fiddle player Peter Knight, released The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a concept album based on Lord Dunsany’s 1924 classic fantasy novel.

Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany

The horrors of the First World War sparked off a massive crisis in Western culture. At the supposed apex of human civilisation, in a world achieving wonders of science and commerce and brimming with Imperial self-confidence, four years of bloody carnage laid waste to Europe and destroyed the Enlightenment certainties of Reason as the guiding principle in human destiny. It sparked off a rejection of faith amongst artists and intellectuals, one symptom of which was the birth of English Literature as a university subject. Christianity, marshalled in the support of slaughter (‘God is on our side’) had clearly failed to provide moral guidance, perhaps art and poetry could act as a substitute. Not surprisingly the medieval nostalgia of the Pre-Raphaelites, previously a response against the urban inhumanity of the Industrial Age, returned in spades. W. B. Yeats’ poetry mixed references to ancient Irish legends, Eastern mysticism and a lyrical Symbolism of stunning beauty. His friend, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, set out to achieve in short-story form what Yeats attempted in verse. His tales are gorgeously melancholy evocations of time, loss and longing set in distant faerie realms and suffused with the same elegiac lyricism as Yeats’ early poems. Even the titles possess their own resonant and lingering beauty – “Time and the Gods”, “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” and the classic “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth”.

 

The Symbolist illustrator Sidney Sime's frontispiece to the 1924 limited edition

The Symbolist illustrator Sidney Sime’s frontispiece to the 1924 limited edition

The King of Elfland’s Daughter was Lord Dunsany’s second novel, and tells of the Kingdom of Erl, whose inhabitants, bored with their mundane lives, hanker for a magic lord to rule them. Alveric, son of the present lord, sets off to wed the King of Elfland’s daughter Lirazel, who lives in the Realm of Fairy, ‘beyond the fields we know, in the palace that is only told of in song’. Armed with a magic sword made of thunderbolts he journeys to Elfland, causes general mayhem and elopes back to Erl with Lirazel. There then follows a protracted back and forth in which both Lirazel and Elfland are lost and rediscovered, leading to a crescendo of nostalgic lyricism in which the rustic beauties of the English countryside are sealed forever in the lost dream world of Fairy. To get a sense of the layered beauty of Lord Dunsany’s prose – here’s a quote:

To those who may have wisely kept their fancies within the boundary of the fields we know it is difficult for me to tell of the land to which Alveric had come, so that in their minds they can see that plain with its scattered trees and far off the dark wood out of which the palace of Elfland lifted those glittering spires, and above them and beyond them that serene range of mountains whose pinnacles took no colour from any light we see. Yet it is for this very purpose that our fancies travel far, and if my reader through fault of mine fail to picture the peaks of Elfland my fancy had better have stayed in the fields we know. Know then that in Elfland are colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lucency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter concept album was recorded at the same time as Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (released in 1978). It’s similar to it’s louder, brasher cousin – Christopher Lee narrated condensed quotes from the novel to link the songs, and even sang one of the tracks – ‘The Rune of the Elf King’. In many ways it’s also a fantastic tribute to the novel, and an ambitious addition to the catalogue of Prog/Folk rock concept albums of the 1970s, but it also suffers from some of the same fundamental problems of Jeff Wayne’s album – chiefly because of the incongruity between the subject matter and the demands of rock and roll. Synthesisers and howling rock guitars might fit in with the image of Martian tripods wrecking the home counties with their heat rays, and we can almost (but not quite) forgive the casting, and outrageously ludicrous performance, of Thin Lizzy’s front man Phil Lynott as an English country vicar. In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, however, the disparity between Dunsany’s style and the sometimes Spinal Tapesque delivery results in a brave but often very frustrating attempt to turn the classic tale into a rock opera. The problem is exacerbated by Christopher Lee’s stately and magnificent readings, which entirely capture the lyrical wonder of Dunsany’ descriptions and make the transition to the songs even more jarring. To be fair, some of the tracks that follow fit well. The first number, ‘The Request’ is a marvellously anthemic plea from the Men of Erl to their Lord and has huge promise. The last track, ‘Beyond the Fields We Know‘, sung by Mary Hopkins is also a powerful and moving conclusion to the tale. In between the quality comes and goes. Frankie Miller, singing Alveric’s part, has the unfortunate tendency to end lines with a good old rock and roll hoarse-throated belt, which makes him sound more like Conan meets Little Richard than a fey, dreamy Dunsanian hero. Other songs are shot through with whimsy, some of which works (‘The Coming of the Troll’ is wonderfully daft) and some of which is just embarrassing (‘Too much Magic’ has novelty Top of the Pops single written all over it). In the end you feel a bit like one of Dunsany’s protagonists, witness to a brief gleam of beauties from beyond the fields we know, caught in that instant between twilight and lost memory among the harebells, before the disappointment comes crashing back as the rock and rollers gatecrash the party.

The King of Elfland - Christopher Lee.

The King of Elfland – Christopher Lee.

Yet despite its faults, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a lovely album. Constantly undermined by the disparity between the vision and the music it still somehow manages to retain enough of the lyrical beauty of the story to hook you in. This is almost entirely due to Christopher Lee’s narration whose gravitas shows a real love of the material. What it really needed was musicians closer in spirit to the original, and in my opinion Steeleye Span’s take on Folk Rock wasn’t really the right medium. The Enid (who did their own fairy themed album, Aerie Faerie Nonsense), Sally Oldfield or perhaps even Mike Oldfield before he went commercial and crap, would have made a better job of Dunsany. Nevertheless as a slice of bizarre music history, showing what happens when classic fantasy feeds into a concept album, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is definitely worth a listen.

At the moment the album is available as a CD through Amazon. The reproduction’s not great – sound levels vary and there’s noticeable distortion, especially on the last track, but that was a fault of the original mixing, not the reproduction.

More Grotesque – the world of Bosch and Bruegel

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Good, spiritual angels battle fallen angels that look like the animated contents of someone's larder.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, complete with typically grotesque devils.

This is the second post in a short series about the Grotesque, that sub-genre of Horror and Fantasy that’s characterised by physical distortion, dream imagery and the ordinary made monstrous. In this article I’m going to talk about the Grotesque during the Renaissance, specifically in the works of artists like Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The history of the Grotesque is really odd because during this early period it was positive, whereas in the 19th and 20th century, in the hands of writers like Dickens and Kafka, and artists like Goya, it became relentlessly negative, dark and horrific. So why the change, and how can the Grotesque, which we associate with revulsion, be seen as the imagery of fun and playfulness?

Part of the problem is one of definition, and the difficulties of imposing modern ideas on the past. Language changes for a start, in Jane Austen’s day nice meant precise, rather than the modern meaning of blandly pleasant. Similarly grotesque has shifted in meaning, from a reference to amorphous decorative arts to the ugly and distorted. Secondly people often make simple value judgements, calling things grotesque because they don’t understand what they’re looking at. In the past grotesque was a lazy response to things that didn’t fit in with Western ideas of art and beauty. Nazi art critic Robert Scholz  typically referred to Modern Art as degenerate and ‘grotesque’.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

We run up against this problem time and time again with the paintings of the 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch, who was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s and 70s after being largely dismissed as a crude oik compared to contemporaries like Botticelli. In the Psychedelia age, swimming in LSD and suffused with ideas poached from Freud, Bosch’s paintings seemed the work of a visionary genius who’d somehow tapped directly into the world of dreams, especially his famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510. The middle panel, in which naked hedonists frolic on piles of enormous fruit and crawl in and out of strange alchemical vessels, is Woodstock as it Should Have Been, while the famous hell scene on the right (with its Portrait of the Artist as Weird Boat-Shoed Tree Trunk Thing) is the ultimate Bad Trip. Again, this is imposing modern Freudian theories on the past, twisting the original to fit a modern template of Nightmares from the Id instead of trying to put the artwork into its historical context.

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of 's Hertogenbosch

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of ‘s Hertogenbosch

Bosch’s imagery still has plenty of people scratching their heads because he was drawing on images and symbols from Dutch proverbs, Renaissance alchemy and the ideas of the mystical sect he belonged to, which had its own esoteric symbolism. We might look at a fish devil with an iron cauldron hat eating sinners and then pooing them out of a glass bottom, and wonder what this guy was on. Members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch (the town where Bosch lived and worked) probably nodded sagely because they got the references and appreciated the moral lesson behind the image. Bosch’s paintings were also part of a wider, popular response to an increasingly ossified and corrupt Church of Rome and this is where the link between the Grotesque and the Carnival in Renaissance culture appears.

In the late Medieval and early Renaissance world established Christianity was a pretty unforgiving, ascetic and heavy-handed political tool run by a Church more or less in cahoots with the State. For the peasant it was all about putting up with misery and knowing your place in the Great Chain of Being (God and the angels at the top, King and Nobles in the middle, then you at the bottom, somewhere between Rats and Turds). The spiritual man denied the flesh and sought to achieve grace through a purity of soul and heart. The loutish villein wallowed in filth, understandably obsessed with the sinful cravings of the body – such as hunger, thirst and lust. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s delightful painting The Land of Cockayne shows the peasant idea of heaven – a place of endless food and booze where cooked chickens run round in easy reach and one poor guy has passed out, spoon in hand, after eating through a hill made of pudding. So the lower orders fixated on everything below the navel, while the Church and the Spiritual focussed on everything above. For most of the year the aristocratic Head ruled the peasant Stomach, Privates and Bum, except on the day of Carnival.

The Land of Cokayne by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The tradition of Carnival that Bosch and Bruegel knew stemmed from the Roman Saturnalia. Part of the festivities involved the inversion of the natural order. For one day the roles of slave and master were reversed (to a degree) and a King of Fools elected. This later turned into the festivals before Lent, where everyone feasted before giving up chocolate or the medieval equivalent in the run-up to Easter. For a brief period of time the world was turned upside down, and all the gross physicality of peasant life was celebrated at the expense of the ascetic. The glorification of eating, drinking, fornicating and passing out on the toilet was an 24-hour raspberry aimed at the Church, who were reasonably happy to tolerate a brief orgy of vice because it allowed people to let off steam before the chains went back on. Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) sums this up perfectly. At the bottom of a panorama of village life filled with people playing, eating and boozing two figures are having a joust. The guy on the right, gaunt and miserable with a bucket on his head, represents the Pope armed with what looks like a flagellant’s bat (for a bit of flesh-mortifying). His opponent, fat and jolly, rides a wine barrel, has a pie for a helmet, is armed with a BBQ skewer and has an eye-watering cod piece.

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

So in this context the Grotesque, with it association with exaggerated bodily functions, the destruction of the natural order and pagan amorphism, is an exuberant (albeit short lived) revolt against the asceticism of the Church and all its self-controlled pieties. Medieval religion would keep us all neatly compartmentalised in a chilling framework in which the soul and spirit triumphed over our nethers. Bosch and Breugel’s grotesque and funny depictions of daily life were part of a resistance to this grim world-view rooted in, and valorising, all those aspects of popular peasant life that the Bishops sneered at.

A reasonably restrained illustration by Gustave Doré from Gargantua and PantagruelThe Carnival Grotesque of Bosch and Breugel reached its apotheosis with the publication of Françoise Rabelais’s book Gargantua and Pantagruel, a five-book epic tale of absurd gluttony, excess and toilet humour first published (and then banned) in the early 16th century. Despite (or perhaps because) he was a monk Rabelais turned the crude nonsense knob all the way up to eleven. Here’s a representative quote:

The occasion and manner how Gargamelle was brought to bed, and delivered of her child, was thus: and, if you do not believe it, I wish your bum-gut fall out and make an escapade. Her bum-gut, indeed, or fundament escaped her in an afternoon, on the third day of February, with having eaten at dinner too many godebillios.

And on it goes, and on and on, like a not very funny edition of the UK comic Viz. After reading the first joke once it soon gets unbelievably repetitive – with endless grotesque absurdities liberally spattered in manure, vomit and fart humour. As a great work of humanist literature it’s perhaps not on a par with, say, Don Quixote, but it’s a perfect example of the Carnival Grotesque, where the earthy peasant world gets a brief chance to laugh in the face of sour-mouthed spiritualism, and fling a few choice turds at the vestments.

In the next article in the series I’ll have a go at explaining why this exuberant and comical grotesque culture switched into a far darker genre of madness, nightmares and monsters as the centuries progressed. In the meantime if you want to find out more about the Carnival Grotesque the definitive book on the subject is Mikhail Bakhtin’s brilliant study Rabelais and His World.

 

Patrick Woodroffe

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The Radio Planet by Ralph Milney-Farley, Ace Books

I’d already planned on doing an article on the fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe when the news came in that he’d passed away and so, sadly, this has become my personal tribute to his powerful and often frightening imagination. Patrick Woodroffe was one of a small group of painters and sculptors working in the 1970s whose book covers stood out in a genre increasingly dominated by the Precisionist realism of Chris Foss and his many imitators. Woodroffe, like his contemporaries Ian Miller and Rodney Matthews, produced canvases that were an intriguing, and often disturbing, combination of fairy tale whimsey and twisted dream imagery. In his book Mythopeikon, published by Dragon’s World in 1976, he cited both Salvador Dali and the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists (Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Breughel the Elder) as among his main sources of inspiration. He was also working very much in the tradition of the Bohemian artisan creative of the 60s and 70s – local painters and sculptors scattered throughout the English countryside producing work that cleverly mixed together ideas from nature, folk lore, fairy-tale images and nursery rhyme nonsense shot through with doses of Freud and LSD. The narrative accompanying his early watercolour Masked Ball sums up this zeitgeist pretty accurately and could easily have been the sleeve notes from a Gong or Amon Düül album:

Patrick_Woodroffe_MaskedBall

“I’m a tiger!” says the girl with the platinum hair. Her borrowed pelt invites caresses. The Rainbow Man, meteordynamic, spirit of the storm, spins in at the double doors.”

The grim realities of the late industrial Victorian age gave rise to a peculiarly English type of fantastic nonsense, epitomised by the writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It’s little wonder that the collapse of the wartime social consensus in the 1960s, and a Cold War marked by the long shadow of the Bomb, encouraged the same. Like the Pre-Raphaelites they identified with, 60s and 70s art ‘rebels’ in England turned back to the imagery of child-like carnivals mixed up with a large dose of Freud and the odd tab of Acid.  At its worst it could be self-indulgent and narcissistic, but at its best, as in the paintings of Patrick Woodroffe, it had a wonderfully lunatic vibrancy that cheerfully stuck two fingers up at The Man, and the harsh media landscapes of American Pop Art. Filled with imagery from nurseries and picture books (especially smiling sun and moon faces) his non commercial works manage to tread the very fine line between infantile fantasy and full-blown freaky nightmare that characterises grotesque art.

Patrick_Woodroffe_EverlastingCovenantHis 3D painting I’m Coming to Get You is a perfect example. With its benign sun and field of chirpy faces it looks like it belongs next to someone’s cot, but I wouldn’t want it in the house because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks. The fact that a lot of his work was in 3D doesn’t help – all it means is that it looks like all those strange creatures are emerging into our world where they really don’t belong. The Everlasting Covenant is just as bad, and the fact that it’s from a quote from Genesis doesn’t help much.

Patrick Woodroffe’s commercial cover art for publishers like Corgi stood out from the rest because of its sheer vibrancy, and the fact that he could give a book cover an incredible sense of place and character, even the images that don’t have strong single figure. The monstrous blue harlequin he created in 1975 for the cover of the Avon edition of Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince is a perfect example. Clearly influenced by Italian Renaissance portraiture the creature gives off a fantastic vibe of sinister, opulent evil combined with real tragedy. His triptych for Piers Anthony’ s Battle Circle trilogy (Sos the Rope, Var the Stick and Neq the Sword) has the same wonderful sense of both place and person.

Jack Vance, The Gray Prince, Avon Books

Patrick Woodroffe’s figure work was often exaggerated or distorted, not from lack of skill but rather from the overall fantastic aesthetic he brought to the image. His covers were characterised by bright, vivid colours, a meticulous attention to textural detail and the desire to fill each painting with a wealth of information which rarely overloaded the picture. His covers for the Quartet Corum: The Prince with the Silver Hand series, which he acknowledged were influenced by the fruit and veg portraits of the Milanese painter Arcimboldo, match the baroque intensity of the books themselves and act almost as an emblematic index to the tales of the Eternal Champion.

Sos the Rope

Inevitably given his interests and background, his spaceships were less assured. He also painted covers for such classic hard-boiled detective novels as Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover and Red Harvest which, while unusual, look completely out of place in the context of the stories themselves.

Patrickwoodroffe

Patrick Woodroffe’s website is as quirky and original as the artist. His recent work saw a return to Flemish inspired wooden box triptychs filled with smiling suns and brightly coloured surreal iconography mainly inspired, it seems, by his own naturalist folk art take on Christianity. The dark scary edge has gone from most of the works and even to a grumpy old atheist like myself they represent a joyful and quite beautiful portfolio of works. It’s a real tragedy that Patrick Woodroffe passed away as his art would often lighten up a tired and derivative shelf of covers in W. H. Smiths in the 1970s and he rarely failed to do justice the fantasy books he illustrated.

The Grotesque

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From Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights

From Hieronymous Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Grotesque in literature and art. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me for years (in fact I wrote my Masters thesis about it during the time of the Old Republic). I thought I’d kick off by trying to understand what makes something in writing or painting Grotesque, as opposed to fantastic or horrific. It’s probably a good idea to begin with the origins of the word itself.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero's palace.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero’s palace.

At the height of the Italian Renaissance explorers and enthusiasts of Classical Antiquity punched holes in the roof of Golden Dome at the then-buried villa of the Emperor Nero. Inside they found the ancient halls decorated with intricate patterns that combined human, plant and animal forms. They called this re-discovered style of decoration ‘grotesque’, from the Italian word for cave - grotta. Nowadays the word grotesque is used to mean something unpleasantly distorted to the extreme, but it also refers to a specific type of art or literature that hovers on the border between horror and fantasy, yet which really belongs to neither. It’s a rarely-explored sub-genre that lumps together Hieronymous Bosch with Charles Dickens, Kafka and Mervyn Peake. For some reason, during its long history it’s also transformed itself from something associated with peasant carnivals – an exuberant overdose of gluttony, sex and bodily functions that gleefully stuck two fingers up at the established church  - to an art form linked to 20th century alienation, Freudian nightmares and body horror, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915) being the classic example.

Peter Kuper's comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

Peter Kuper’s comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

There hasn’t been a vast amount written about the Grotesque in art, but what does exist offers a handy list of characteristics peculiar to the style, which give clues as to why it is both transgressive and disturbing.

1) Normal boundaries between people, animals and things are broken down. The frescoes in Nero’s hall display the decorative end of a spectrum that, at the other end, has Bosch building horrific monsters out of creatures combined with everyday objects. The helmet with human legs and a bird’s beak  at the top of the page is a classic example. God only knows what it’s supposed to be but it’s the stuff of nightmares, simply because those items are not supposed to be together like that, let alone threatening a bloke being kissed by a pig in a wimple.

2) People are described as objects, objects start to appear human. This is a favourite of Charles Dickens and, to a lesser extent, Mervyn Peake. The latter’s Grey Scrubbers who scour the flagstones of Gormenghast’s kitchens in Titus Groan take on the characteristics of the floor they clean – with little pebble eyes and mouths like the cracks between the stones. Gormenghast castle itself, on the other hand, becomes an almost living, breathing entity. Dolls that come to life are favourite and guaranteed to inject toe-curling terror into any tale. Lucy Clifford’s The New Mother (1882) with her glass eyes, doctor’s bag and articulated wooden tale is the grotesque escaped doll turned monstrous parent par excellence.

3) The body itself starts to disintegrate and becomes an object of disgust and alienation. Gregor Samsa turns into an enormous bug in ‘The Metamorphosis’, though his reaction, instead of being OHMYGODI’VETURNEDINTOAF*****GCOCKROACH, is to wonder how he’s going to get out of bed and get to work. In other tales, most famously Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ (1836), bits fall off and take on a life of their own. In Gogol’s tale the hero’s nose escapes and ends up as a senior civil servant

In Gogol's The Nose the hero's nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

In Gogol’s The Nose the hero’s nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

4) Scale becomes distorted, combined with sudden and disorienting shifts of perspective. Giants figure prominently in Grotesque tales, as do images of (chiefly) men lost in vast nightmarish landscapes. Orson Welles captured this rather well in his 1962 version of The Trial when in one scene Josef K (played by Anthony Perkins) steps through a door only to have it grow to an immense size when he’s on the other side.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles' film of Kafka's The Trial.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial.

5) The Grotesque is associated with the perspective of children. This is a characteristic of the later Grotesque and there is a suggestion that writers like Kafka or Dickens suffered from an ‘arrested childhood consciousness’ which made them feel that they were in a world with rules made for everyone else (i.e. adults) and in which they were helpless and child-like victims. I’ll talk about this in detail in a later post but it’s worth quoting Kafka’s ‘Letter to his Father’ (1919) where he hits this particular nail on the head:

Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.

So The Grotesque is a very physical art form that plays on disorientation and alienation – very different from fantasy or classic horror which makes a clear distinction between the normal and the fantastic or supernatural. Later on I’ll look at some examples of Grotesque art, starting with the early, more positive imagery linked to the idea of the carnival or satire, and then delving into the truly nightmarish worlds of Dickens, Kafka, David Lindsay and others.

The Folio Society and The Easton Press

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The Folio Society Fahrenheit 451

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful books. Growing up in an arty/literary family meant that every member more or less had their own personal library covering at least one wall of their room. My parents collected  The Folio Society books in particular, so I was introduced them when I was about 7 years old. That one picture I could never bear to look at as a child was the illustration to ‘Count Magnus’ in the Folio collection of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, so I hid the book behind the fire place so no-one could jump out and wave it in my face at an unexpected moment. I’ve since gone through phases of collecting The Folio Society books over the years, but they rarely published any SF or Fantasy, so a while back I turned across the pond to The Easton Press, who also specialise in swanky editions for collectors. They not only ran a Masterpieces of Science Fiction series but would also bring out occasional runs of other famous books, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. For those of you who might be interested in these editions I thought it might be interesting to talk about the differences between the two companies and their approach to publishing classics (and SF/Fantasy).

If we’re completely honest there is a strong element of snobbery behind both companies. The Easton Press in particular seems to be targeting that dying breed, the wise old intellectual Republican patriot who fancies an oak-lined library filled with Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It may be hard to believe in the wake of the ignorant nonsense flooding the GOP at the moment, but there is a tradition of the learned establishment thinker or Harvard career academic of the 1950s for whom leather-bound copies of Plato’s Republic etc. are important pieces of cultural capital to be treasured. The books are designed to look like they belong in a dimly lit library with ladders, squishy armchairs and balloon snifters of brandy. They’re bound in real leather with raised bumps across the spine and 24 carat gold lettering. The pages are also edged in gold and you get a silk bookmark to keep your place in First Lensman or Newt Gingrich’s The Essential American (signed in crayon by the writer). Each book contains at least one colour illustration, often by a classic artist (Kelly Freas for Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Mugnaini for Fahrenheit 451). They are hefty tomes and it sometimes takes real effort to open one. You could stun a goat with some of these. The quality of the type varies, sometimes it’s nice and clear, sometimes it looks like it’s been lifted straight from the pages of Planet Stories.

easton_press

From the Author’s library. Three volumes from The Easton Press Lensman Series rub shoulders with The Folio Society Gormenghast Trilogy.

The nice thing about The Easton Press is that they produced a fantastic Masterpieces of Science Fiction series of about 75 volumes covering most of the major works plus a few unexpected and interesting titles. Frustratingly they printed the first three in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, but not the fourth, so my Citadel of the Autarch is a scrappy paperback stuffed next to cowhide and gold splendour like a poor relation at a wedding. The Masterpiece series is no longer in their catalogue, which is a shame but they also occasionally bring out collections of classic stories (a three volume anthology from Astounding Stories with all the original covers and illustrations, the complete Tom Swift etc.) as well as the aforementioned Lensman books. Although the size of the books varies, overall The Easton Press goes for high-quality uniformity and the kind of construction that means the tomes will last for thousands of years in whatever vault you bury them in. They aren’t cheap, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (if you’re into that kind of thing) comes in at an eye-watering $395. Sadly their catalogue seems reduced these days but it’s worth keeping an eye out for their sometimes quirky SF and Fantasy releases.

From The Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

From the Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

The Folio Society, on the other hand, is still going strong and looks like it’s got the largest catalogue it’s ever had. It was forged in the same crucible of snobbery as The Easton Press, appearing in 1947 as a reaction against the rise of the post-war mass market paperback, though its target audience was more the metropolitan intellectual elite (Bloomsbury set or Guardianistas, depending on how old you are). For many years they were happy to advertise themselves with a quote from that grand old dame of reactionary pomposity Malcolm Muggeridge claiming that The Folio Society books were so much better than the tawdry pap bought by commoners in airports on the way to their grubby little holidays in Ibiza or wherever. Thankfully they’ve shed the earlier taint of elitism, mainly by producing books that are real works of art. Unlike The Easton Press, whose conformity of production gets a bit dull after the fortieth cowhide brick thumps onto the mat, The Folio Society designs each volume (or series) from the ground up, making sure that all the elements – binding, illustrations, typography and general look and feel fits in with the book. For example, their Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is a slim evil looking thing in black and red, while the three-volume Steven Runciman History of the Crusades is done in wonderful sand, blue and gold covered boards with fantastic reproductions of medieval art inside.

A nightmare for the obsessively  tidy - every Folio book is unique.

A nightmare for the obsessively tidy – every Folio book is virtually unique.

I’ve already written about their edition of the Oxford Bestiary elsewhere but it’s worth pointing out the sheer variety of production, though it plays merry hell with any attempt to keep your books tidy. The Folio Society has always faced the dilemma of finding the right balance between printing nice editions of classics that will sell, and bringing out lesser known and therefore less commercially viable works. They’ve managed to find the right balance and sometimes you end up with a completely unusual and rare left-field choice bought purely because the book looked so lovely – in my case Saint Exupéry’s record of his time flying across the Sahara in the 1930s in Wind, Sand and Stars. One of their greatest coups was the Northanger Novels series printed in the 1960s, the once and only reprinting of seven rare Gothic novels mentioned in Jane Austen’s classic tale, including such marvellous titles as Horrid Mysteries and The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Jack Schoenherr's classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

Jack Schoenherr’s classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

The Folio Society books aren’t always as sturdy as The Easton Press volumes, and sometimes sheer bulk makes them impractical to read in bed. In fact you need a lectern for some. Their Gormenghast Trilogy is beautifully designed but appears to be created to look like three large bricks prised out of the wall of the Tower of Flints. In the past their choice of translations also seemed a bit dodgy – they appeared to favour Victorian translations of writers like Herodotus (possibly because they were out of copyright and therefore cheap) and while they had that tendentious charm of fusty 19th century classics authors there are far better versions available. Having said that they’ve just released the definitive Lattimore and Grene translations of The Complete Greek Tragedies in a five volume set, so all is forgiven. Right now they have more SF and Fantasy in their catalogue than ever before. Without the ghost of Muggeridge to hold them between finger and thumb at arms length with a peg over his nose, Bradbury, Huxley, Ballard, Wyndham and Asimov are all there in their own wonderfully unique editions.

One of Alex Wells's specially commissioned illustrations for The Folio Society's Foundation Trilogy

One of Alex Wells’s specially commissioned illustrations to The Folio Society’s Foundation Trilogy

In the end I prefer The Folio Society, even if The Easton Press has produced some brilliant editions of Golden Age SF. It’s exciting getting a Folio Society book because each one is unique. They also are very responsive to their customers – they replaced a couple of flawed copies I received without question. They also listen to feedback. I might be kidding myself but I once sent them a letter suggesting they print Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy and a year later there it was. The Folio Society books are marginally cheaper than The Easton Press ones, averaging at around £30 a book. In the past they weren’t that much more than ordinary hardbacks, but the gap seems to have widened. They run sales though, and you have to be quick because all their editions are limited and out of print copies of some books are hard to find.

Tove Jansson – the Truth about the Moomins

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Tove_Jansson_in_1967A while back I wrote a post about Tove Jansson’s last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November (1971), pointing out that behind the innocent guise of a charming children’s tale lurked a masterpiece of Nordic existentialism. I had no idea. I’ve just finished Boel Westin’s biography of the author Tove Jansson: Life, Art and Words, translated into English for the first time this year, and now all my Moomin books are under a bucket at the bottom of the garden with several large bricks on top.

If Westin’s book is anything to go by (and it’s hard to fault any of her meticulously researched arguments) the entire chronicle of those fluffy-tailed, big-nosed cuddly toys is a masterpiece study of the relationship between the artist, family, existence, the universe and consciousness to rival anything by Sartre, Kafka or Camus.

In many ways Tove Jansson’s life is a text-book essay in How to Be a Bohemian Artist. Her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, and they come across as wackily creative and avant-garde as you would expect, along with their immediate circle of relatives and friends. Tellingly holidays often consisted of sitting in tents on islands in the middle of thunderstorms, an image of the eccentric family simultaneously defying and flourishing from disasters and tempests which she would return to time and again in her books. She took Art at several colleges. By her own admission her studies followed the all-too familiar pattern of Dull Classes – Rebellion against Traditional Teachers – Creating a Bohemian Colony of Free Art with Fellow Students – Rinse and Repeat. For most of her career in her own mind she was always, first and foremost, a painter, not a writer of children’s fairy stories. What is interesting is that instead of hating the Moomins for the colossal distraction they became (at one point she was receiving hundreds of fan letters a day, and replying to most if not all), she used them to work through her own psychological responses to the world around her, which is why the series of books (and comic strips) grow so decidedly odd as the saga progresses.

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934. One of the first appearances of a Moomin, painted in Nazi Germany.

It’s very tempting to assume that the Moomin family is just a fantasy version of her own family and friends. Moomintroll himself first appeared alongside her signature in the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, for which she drew many cartoons (including a controversial cover showing the European powers trying to appease a cry-baby Hitler). Yet with a couple of exceptions there isn’t really a one-to-one correspondence between the inhabitants of Moominvalley and the people who influenced her. Her first partner the larger-than-life leftwing intellectual Artos Wirtanen, who she almost married, appears as both Snufkin and the doleful philosopher Muskrat in Finn Family Moomintroll. Having eventually acknowledged and embraced her lesbianism, Jansson introduced the real love of her life, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä as Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter. Jansson claimed that Moominmamma was her own mother, Ham, but in fact, as with all the other creatures in the tales, she becomes another aspect of her creator’s psyche as it wrestled with the artists relationship with art and existence. In fact the Moominvalley bestiary reads as though someone had emptied Tove Jansson’s unconscious mind out onto the table and then used the contents to make a series of fluffy toys.

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc...

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc…

The Moomin books fall into three distinct groups. Comet in Moominland (1946), Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) and The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950) are tales of a Bohemian commune facing challenges and threats from outside, returning each time to the safety of Moominvalley and the tower-house of the Moomins. Architecture played a huge role in Jansson’s life. She fought tooth and nail to acquire a number of wonderfully unusual studios, all characterised by vertical spaces in which she would build ‘nests’ to live. Outdoing just about every other free-thinking creative she ended up building her own house out of stones with her bare hands on an island in the middle of nowhere, desperately searching for the solitude she revelled in, and felt was a profound catalyst for her art. Inevitably the famous Moomin author in her house on an island was a magnet to thousands of fans who would cheerfully row out for a look and even a chat. She accepted most with good grace, though apparently hurled rocks at some on the occasional bad day.

Tove Jansson the Artist

Tove Jansson the Artist

In the second group of books, Moominsummer Madness (1954),  Moominland Midwinter (1957) and, to a lesser extent, Tales from Moominvalley (1964) the family is uprooted from the familiar landscape of home, either because they wake up in the wrong season to find everything changed, or a great big flood whirls them away. Westin argues that this is partly Jansson’s moving apart from the family that had defined her, and her own uneasy relationship with her father who, traumatised by the wars and political upheavals of the early part of the century, had embraced an ugly nationalism that Jansson hated.

And then it gets really weird. In the last two books – Moominpappa at Sea (1965), and Moominvalley in November it’s not just the family that starts to disappear, but the whole notion of the artistic consciousness built into the stories fragments. Moominpappa has a mid-life crisis and turns into an obsessive, dragging the whole family to a lighthouse while the nihilistic Groke hovers in the background. Moominmamma, always the secure lynch-pin of the group, goes all quiet and pointless, paints a big fresco and promptly disappears into it. She watches the others get on with their lives in the real world with a kind of melancholy satisfaction. For Jansson she was a painter first and foremost, and life became a search for the silence and solitude that would allow her to get on with her art. Disappearing into a painting on an island in the middle of nowhere probably had huge appeal. Being one of the most famous authors of children’s books in the entire world made this a wee bit tricky.

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa's mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

I won’t go over Moominvalley in November, you can read my thoughts on the last book here. Suffice to say the Moomintrolls are not even in the story, they’re away on their island pondering on the nature of existence and losing themselves in paintings. Eventually Jansson turned from painting to writing, producing a series of adult books that tackled the same themes of identity, art and the uneasy relationship between consciousness, creation and, in this case, words. Her books have a beautiful economy of style, but no Moomins, and despite the praise and awards heaped on them they never gained the immense traction of her supposed tales for kids. Yet Tove Jansson was never a victim of her success, the author or painter desperate to create Great Art but tragically tied to her one commercial triumph. Her Moomin tales, cartoons, operas and songs represent a constant internal dialogue in which she tried to understand and work through her relationship with her own artistic identity.

TOVE JANSSON WITH MOOMIN CHARACTERS - 1988

Westin’s biography is a fascinating read. It suffers occasionally from hagiography in its praise of its subject and her work, though it’s entirely understandable given that Tove Jansson was such a remarkable woman. The portrait created is so compelling it makes you wish she’d been a friend you could have spent fascinating days with. The passages in which Westin (Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm) slips into academic mode are less interesting. Given that the Moomin books are a rigorous essay in self-analysis, layering more on top seems over egging the pudding a bit. Appeals to Freud come across as a bit obvious – Moominpappa and his Great Big Lighthouse, nudge nudge etc. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in the Moomins, Existentialism, the Artist and Art or Jansson herself should read this.

Europa Report (2013)

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News from Space last week confirmed the existence of an ocean underneath the icy surface of Enceladus. Furthermore it seems that this immense body of water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, allowing minerals to leach into the sea. Chemicals, water and tidal heating caused by Saturn’s gravity point to the tantalising possibility of life. The only way to find out, of course, is to drill through the ice and have a look, a plan that’s been on the cards for Jupiter’s moon Europa for many years, and which forms the background to the found-footage SF movie Europa Report.

For a while it seemed that the completely ridiculous Apollo 18, with its moon rock spiders, had pretty well put the nail in the coffin of the found-footage SF genre and the horror versions were tying themselves in increasing knots. I know modern dads sometimes hide behind the video camera to avoid engaging with their families but if I’m rescuing my daughter from a coven of witches I want one hand to hold the kid, and one hand to hold the tyre iron, not a bloody handy cam, but hey ho. Anyway just when we all thought grainy video footage had had its day as a plot device, Europa Report breathes fresh life into the conceit, combining hard realism with a pretty engaging story.

The Mission Crew - slightly more competent than the BBC's band of muppets.

The Mission Crew – slightly more competent than the BBC’s band of muppets.

The release schedule of Europa Report was frustratingly odd. It came out on the US iTunes in 2013 as a download but wasn’t available here until this Spring, probably to coincide with the release of Gravity on DVD so it could ride on the coattails of that movie. Apart from obvious similarities to 2001, Sunshine and Gravity in its hard science approach to near-space exploration the closest ancestor is the BBC TV series Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, produced by the BBC in 2004 as a quasi-documentary tour of the universe taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a fictional comet and Pluto. It was an oddly unsatisfying two-part series that didn’t really work as science or drama, and underscored a lot of the problems facing film makers trying to create realistic space journeys that have enough drama and interest to sustain a couple of hours.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The basic problem is that in between taking off and landing space flight is deadly dull and the writers are left with very little to work on. The choices are

a) Things Go Wrong – which can be pretty exciting and spectacular in the case of Gravity or Apollo 13 where things go really wrong. For the BBC documentary and Europa Report things can’t go too wrong, because then you’ve lost the mission. So things go a bit wrong and people gather anxiously around readouts muttering things like ‘I’m seeing a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’, which means bugger-all to anyone. The only alternative to this is Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up

b) Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up – and boy did they cock up in the BBC documentary. Whoever put this lot in charge of a multi-trillion dollar spaceship needs a quiet talking to. Nearly everything went wrong and a lot of it was down to human error – i.e. dithering around in lethal radiation zones, getting too close to the asteroid so the ship nearly got atomised, staying too long on Venus/Mars/the Comet etc etc. Inevitably this triggers the Crewman Dies scenario, followed by the Guilty Crewman Mopes Around. This can trigger Crewman Goes Barmy but then you are into the realm of Apollo 18 as real astronauts just sit on bunks and sulk instead of chasing the others round the ship with a hammer or a knife and fork like Big Jim in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Landing on Europa

Landing on Europa

So in Europa Report we get Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up when Sharlto Copley gets Hydrazine all over his suit while performing a routine EVA and so has to be left to die in space, followed by Guilty Crewman Mopes Around when Michael Nyqvist’s character goes all Scandinavian and broody because he thinks it was his fault. We almost get Crewman Goes Barmy because he sees things moving around outside when they land on Europa and everyone else exchanges glances and twiddles their fingers next to their temples. Of course anyone with a fraction of a brain would be going ‘Bloody hell, where?’ but this is Seriously Real Space Stuff so instead they gather round readouts going ‘Maybe it’s a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’. From then on the film is just one string of disasters after another, people falling through the ice, engines going wrong, the ship falling back onto the ice, everyone else falling through the ice again until we get the final OMG scene at the very end, which to be honest was expected all along but is still impressive despite that.

Stepping onto the surface.

Stepping onto the surface.

To be fair, although the film, like every Lovecraft story ever written, rides well-worn tracks to the final reveal it is still an impressive and eminently watchable movie, and before Gravity came along a delightfully refreshing break from overblown action SF spectaculars like Oblivion and Pacific Rim. The cast, on the whole, act well even if their roles are a bit obvious. Sharlto Copley reprises his goofily enthusiastic Wikus from District 9, Michael Nyqvist does Gloomy Swede and Christian Camargo looks and sounds like Mr Spock as the science officer. The real star of the show is, for me, Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa. The way she switches between I’m Going To Die terror and sheer, wondrous curiosity in the final few moments is very moving, flattened somewhat by Embeth Daviditz’s wholly unecessary ‘Well that really shook up our understanding of the universe, didn’t it?’ speech in which she seems to be trying to channel Margaret Thatcher’s accent.

In terms of cinematography and pacing, the film is spot on. Although ultra realistic space flight tends to consist of scrapyard vessels motionless against a black background, the special effects and imagery work beautifully to give a real sense of a journey travelling far beyond the limits of what’s decent. While the film might now be completely overshadowed by Gravity, it’s an unfair comparison as it has its own intelligent and considered pace that rewards careful watching.

Kate Bush

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Tickets for Kate Bush’s first live concert in 35 years went on sale this morning and within fifteen minutes all 80,000 had gone. The fact she hasn’t toured for so long (and this isn’t really a tour as it’s just one London venue) only partly explains the frenzy. For some reason she has created a hugely loyal fan base over the years which is far out of sync with her fairly modest output (10 studio albums and one tour), including a whopping great 12-year gap in the middle.

When she first turned up on Top of the Pops in 1978 the reasons for a lot of her appeal were immediately obvious – stunning doe-eyed, big-eared teenager in a leotard gyrating in peculiar Lyndsey Kemp inspired dance routines. She had a voice that could shatter glass (Johnny Rotten’s mum called it ‘a bag of cats’) and she sang about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, that classic tale of tempestuous passion gone wrong. Gered Mankowitz’s photo of her in a skimpy top and no bra on a cold day ended up plastered on the back of London buses and added to the notion it was all about sex – fuelling the rumour that she’d posed nude for Penthouse when that magazine did a photo shoot of someone called ‘Kate’ who looked remarkably similar (the model Kate Simmons).

katebushasabat

In the age of Lady Gaga (and before her, Madonna), Kate Bush seems less remarkable now but at the time she was part of a ground-breaking emergence of women artists taking centre stage in the rock world. Before Punk in the mid 1970s female singers in the UK tended to be winsome folk guitarists and/or Eurovision fodder like Marianne Faithful or The Nolans. Apart from Suzy Quatro, who dressed, acted and sang like a Rocker bloke, women in bands stood at the back, rattled tambourines à la Linda McCartney and looked cute. Punk changed that. On the back of the indie-based shake up of the UK record industry a group of female artists appeared in an explosion of demented music, all going for the same mad stare, letter-box mouth, Miss Haversham couture and weird jerky arm-waving dance routines – Lene Lovich, Hazel O’Connor, Nina Hagen and Kate Bush. Instead of crooning about flowers, puppets on strings and falling autumn leaves they sang about sex and death, and what a bunch of arseholes most blokes were.

Kate Bush was different from the rest. Although she appeared on the back of punk she, by rights, shouldn’t have been as successful as she was. Anything that smacked of pretentious progressive rock or hippy music was roundly sneered at, yet here she was a woman from a resolutely bohemian artist family singing songs about Gurdjieff, Peter Pan and ‘England My Lionheart’. Johnny Rotten, one of the most articulate of the punk musicians, loved her stuff, and not just because at the time her voice was a falsetto wail that took some getting used to.

So why is Kate Bush so popular? I can only articulate my own reasons for being completely in love with her but I think there are a number of things that have led to her accruing a following whose interest and loyalty continually baffles her.

1. She does her own stuff when she feels like it, full stop. Apart from the second album Lionheart which she was pressurised into bringing out on the back of her initial success, and is filled with the songs she didn’t think good enough to put on the debut LP The Kick Inside, she cheerfully follows her own interests and instincts without paying the slightest interest to any other trends. In this she’s a lot like David Bowie, who is a clear influence on her own music. For this reason she’s a role model for anyone who wants to do their own thing artistically and turn left, regardless of whether critics, listeners and the world in general think she ought to go right.

Channelling Eisenstein

Channelling Eisenstein

2. She’s bonkers – often producing stuff that is utterly insane, and yet she rarely misses a step. She has a magpie mind that picks out ideas and images and then bangs them together in weird and wonderful combinations. She’ll sing about sex with snowmen, failed bank robberies in the strangest faux cockney accent, incorporate Bulgarian folk wailing in a song about fireworks and write an ode to the Easy-Care cycle on a washing machine as a metaphor for something or other. She wanted to put Molly Bloom’s monologue to music but the estate of James Joyce said no, so she wrote her own version The Sensual World. They relented in 2011 and let her use the original on her album Director’s Cut, but I honestly prefer her lyrics.

3. She’s surprisingly down to earth. Like Enya her resolute refusal to engage in any self-promotion, and her 12 year disappearing act to look after her son, has led to speculation that she is a weird recluse, somewhere between Miss Haversham and Miss Whiplash as one biographer put it. Either that or she really had gone bonkers and lurked in her mansion terrified of emerging and ballooning on Snickers. In reality she comes across as totally straightforward in the rare interviews she grants (as does Enya) and talks about her own music in a completely unpretentious manner that sometimes borders on the dismissive – famously calling her film based around the album The Red Shoes ‘a load of bollocks’.

4. She simply has no comprehension of the effect she has on other people, often to an absurd degree. Perhaps it’s a symptom of distancing yourself from the music world between albums, but she comes across as genuinely shocked by the response she gets whenever she sticks her head above the parapet. She releases a song in a manner that suggests ‘here you go, let me know if you think it’s crap or not’ and then is baffled when the world goes into meltdown. “It’s all very flattering, but have you all gone completely mad?” she asked, somewhat ingenuously, in one radio interview when Director’s Cut appeared to the inevitable response. Apparently her reaction when hearing of the frenzy around the announcement of her upcoming concerts was a similar WTF?

katebushlion5. She’s very English in her content and treatment – which is why she’s never really taken off in the US. Listening to her music over the ten albums is like dragging a garden rake through an old second hand bookshop with a particularly large children’s section, tucked away in some sleepy market town. One of her biggest influences is Monty Python – which explains the constant strain of comedy surrealism in her songs.

I saw Kate Bush live in 1979 at the Manchester Apollo. She spent two hours singing and dancing her way through what was then her entire catalogue, changing costume for nearly every song. It was incredible and the audience sat open-mouthed in stunned silence till the end, when they went completely berserk. She didn’t tour again, though she put in a few one-off appearances at various shows. She’s performing live again at the end of the year – by some colossal fluke I managed to get a couple of tickets so it’ll be interesting to compare the two. These days her songs run between 7 and 12 minutes and are perhaps even more deranged than before. My mind is boggling already.

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