Interview with Jim Burns

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Go here for my review of Jim Burns’ latest book The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal.

Can you talk us through one of your paintings from concept to finished image – both in terms of the idea and the practical execution. My choice would be Tea From an Empty Cup or Crucible purely because of the stunning characterisation but please choose another if you prefer.

Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup

The process varies from painting to painting somewhat. It all depends on a bunch of factors from the outset as supplied by either the commercial client, the private client or, indeed myself – should it be a personal piece – the latter two categories becoming an increasingly large proportion of my output. Both the pieces you’ve chosen fit into the first category – were commissioned by publishers as cover images for books. This of course is the way most of my career panned out for the first 40 years but the weighting has shifted in the last few years more towards private commissions and personal pieces…which usually mean a different approach from the word go.

Tea From an Empty Cup was commissioned recently to cover a collection of stories by Pat Cadigan. The fee was modest – as most book jacket work is these days and as a consequence one is obliged to produce the image digitally as this can be turned around much more quickly…there is little commercial sense in spending weeks and sometimes a month or so slogging away at a painting – the economics of it simply don’t work. Also in the case of this particular job the design of the book jacket itself was highly configured before I even started work on it. Neither did I receive any reading material – which in the past was pretty much standard practice. I was simply given the cover template and asked to produce a feisty-looking female future warrior type in an appropriate SF setting. I have a growing reference library from model shoots I’ve had in the past and the woman in this image is based on one such shot. She (‘Teph’ the water gypsy) modelled for a couple of private commissions a few years back (see Planet of Peril, Days of Gloriana and Children of Forgotten Gods) and and I took the opportunity to take a whole bunch of extra shots whilst I had the opportunity. The initial design was passed in sketch form to the client for approval…which it gained  – and then the image itself was created entirely in Photoshop – utilising some Jupiter and  interior background I’d painted years and years ago for a different project altogether, played around with in Photoshop, the figure dropped into the image and her gear and clothing generally altered to fit the concept. In the ref photo her gun is my old Black and Decker drill..here changed to a futuristic rifle of some sort.

Crucible

Crucible

Crucible was painted a good few years ago for a Nancy Kress novel. This time I had the luxury of being able to read the book and to produce a painting as this was back in the days of ‘good fees’!! In the case of this particular novel the painted ‘moment’ is based pretty precisely on a passage described in the book (the manuscript having been helpfully supplied this time). The characters are all there to be found in the book and are based on a bunch of found, manipulated reference plus some material I shot myself. I have become quite adept at performing the old ‘Frankenstein act’ on found material…although these days I much prefer and almost always paint the main characters from my own photo sessions. Again there was a ‘sketch for approval’ stage – and the painting then, in a fairly ‘verbatim’ way turns that sketch into an acrylic painting. Acrylics have been my paint of choice for most of my career – although I’m currently considering getting back to oils..the medium I used up until the early 1980s. The painting in this case would have been painted on to a piece of previously gessoed board, this sanded to smooth it off but not so smooth that no ‘tooth’ was left. The process of painting for me, back then involved both the use of brushes and, of course the airbrush – which I’ve always found to be a hugely useful tool in my armoury. Finally I would have varnished the piece – although for varnish read ‘medium’ – the satin, matte or Gloss mediums for mixing with the paint working perfectly well as a good flat final varnish-like coat..and also allowing for further work on top should it be necessary.

The methods I use today on my own work and private commissions is diverting away somewhat from the methodology I’ve outlined above.

The Majipoor Chronicles

The Majipoor Chronicles

You seem equally at ease with machines, humans and aliens. Which do you prefer to paint/draw and why? What are the challenges of each?

I think I can honestly say that these days I like each equally! It wasn’t always the case. When I was much younger…before I ever became a ‘pro’ – it was the machinery I liked. The Foss approach! When I got my first commissions back in 1972 most of them were for historical romance covers and similar stuff. It was the ‘keep the wolf from the door’ period and work was work. By definition these covers almost always required human characters as their main element – so I gradually improved my figure work capabilities…and then when I started to get a lot more SF work the characters sort of crept into them too! And clients I think started to expect them to feature…and I found that nice niche where the human element always featured largely in my work.

Tertiary Node

Tertiary Node

I don’t find machinery a challenge as such…but I do like to push myself to suggest in the lines of a particular spacecraft for example…the sense of its designers having different species mind-sets – different aesthetics…forms born of alien propulsion systems etc. I like my vessels to look ‘designed’ within whatever bizarre parameters have been thrown up by the story or by my own imagination. I never want this stuff to be easy – that way lies laziness.

Aliens are always fun to do! Much the same ideas are brought to bear as with the machinery. Alien should look alien to my mind. I absolutely hate the idea – mostly here I blame Star Trek and its various spinoffs…of aliens being humans with funny looking foreheads.

You have a very distinctive use of colour – limited palette and high contrast. Can you tell us a little about how and why you choose your colour schemes and design your compositions?

I think I’ve grown towards the idea of the limited palette more and more as time has gone by. Gradually it seemed to me to be a lazy and rather unsophisticated approach to just chuck the entire spectrum of colour at a painting. In recent times I’ve studied the old, old Renaissance technique – that of the old masters – of ‘grisaille’, ‘brunaille’ and in particular ‘verdaille’. I employ it for slightly different reasons than they did but I like the potential richness it can bring through the use of transparent colour glazes laid over a monochromatic underpainting. The three terms reflect in order, grey, brown and green underpaintings…most of the tonal values – the light and the dark created at this time prior to the glazing. This speeds up the process (theoretically!) and also I’m able to fall back on my old airbrush skills for the glazing element…and of course I’m using acrylics for this which would not have been the case in the Renaissance. High contrast is not a deliberate thing with me…it just happens to turn out that way! I shall be endeavouring more and more to inhabit the middle tonal zones…use less Paynes Grey for a start!

Courtship Rite

Courtship Rite

Compositions for book jacket work were often very highly constrained by the format. Depending on whether a piece was a wraparound or front cover only , the main element would either tend to occupy the lower right corner (wraparound) or the bottom two thirds (front cover). Lettering and blurb considerations dictated this. In my own work I think I have a fairly good eye for balanced yet unusual compositions. I have no formal training for anything to do with technique or composition (that was art college for you back in the late 60s/early 70s…and I don’t think it’s any better now!)

His Conquering Sword600

His Conquering Sword

I think I see a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence in your own paintings (especially from artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The Pre-Raphaelites were among the first of the manifesto artists. If you were to write an artists’ manifesto/SF artists’ call to arms what would it say? What would you call your movement?

Hmmm …people will start labelling me as ‘pretentious’ if I bite this bullet! What you have to remember is that I came at this business from a very distinctly commercial art perspective. I was never a man driven by artistic inner demons or some high falutin’, soul-searching, personally-driven motive. I had some skills as a painter, learned a few techniques and tricks as I went along, this much helped by a good imagination – and for a long time I was content to be simply that – an illustrator of other peoples’ words for a commercial purpose. Making a living with a young family to feed etc…And at no point did I ever regard illustration as some inferior art form. I always believed the best of it is as being as interesting and accomplished as art created for different purposes. It’s inevitably connected – but the notion of an ‘Illustrators’ manifesto’ is something that has never ever crossed my mind!

A Quantum Murder

A Quantum Murder

However, as time has gone by and illustration..well at least book jacket art within the genres of the fantastical has become more and more catered for by digital art..indeed some of us have moved sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically into territory that one would have to admit aligns itself more with the the accepted baggage of the fine art world…namely gallery representation, private commissions and the time for our own creative juices to start flowing unencumbered by commercial considerations. And you’ll find that for those of us who like to paint our ‘fantastical’ subject matter in the traditional way…then the period dominated by the Pre-Raphaelites and various associated groupings of artists – mostly English and European – still strikes a chord.

So a visit to something like Illuxcon…’The Symposium of Imaginative Realism’ (yes…we are ‘Imaginative Realists now!) will demonstrate that those elements of the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto interested in naturalistic detail, intense colour and busy composition, the natural world and Romanticism…those are still strong themes that thread through our work. Of course it has a modern take in terms of subject matter..although having said that I personally am becoming more and more drawn to mythological subject matter (perhaps with a contemporary twist!) and also Romantic poetry..in fact a piece I’m about to start on is based on a Keats poem – ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’- frequently the subject of 19th century art…but  I want to give it a darker twist than the usually somewhat bland approach of yesteryear. The poem is after all pretty dark. My version will be called ‘Poor Lorenzo’ (probably) and instead of a wan English lass draped miserably over the pot of basil – will feature a beauteous dark haired Florentine girl caressing the semi-putrescent head of Lorenzo and maybe an empty pot, strewn basil and earth etc. It’s all there in the poem. On holiday last year in Symi I spied a gorgeous half Greek/half Mexican girl who I thought …there’s my Isabella!!..and I should hastily add, at my wife’s prompting..approached her. And got the reference material I needed.

colonel Kylling600

Colonel Kylling

The term isn’t mine – but more and more it’s becoming associated with the loose ‘fellowship’ I think I identify in the artists who gather at Illuxcon…so maybe ’The Fellowship of Imaginative Realists’ (if you insist!!) might do? Or even more pretentiously ’The Fellowship of the Fantastical’?

If you had the opportunity of working in the school of any artist from history, who would it be and why?

Oh gosh – what hard questions!!! I can’t think of a sensible serious answer to this!!! Of course it would be great to associate with those Pre-Raphaelite guys..in part because one would also be knocking around with a whole bunch of other artists associated with them and whose work I often find more interesting. Artists like Collier, Godward, Dicksee, Waterhouse and photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron. One could learn a lot! But there’s no getting away from the often kitschy, corny, sentimental, morbid, gutless aspects of some of the art of that time. I’d love to find a way to reinterpret some of their themes but in contemporary, darker ways and it’s that darker approach I find difficult. I know I have it in me – that darker streak! – but I find it hard to express it adequately in paint.

Artificial Things

Artificial Things

So let’s say I’m taking 6 months out to go and stand at the shoulder of a dead painter here…I wouldn’t go very far back..in fact I would go to the Polish studio of Zdzisław Beksiński the ‘Fantastic Realist’ who died in 2005 (horribly murdered actually!). He was apparently a man of generally quiet demeanour, shy but amusing and funny, liked company and good music both classical and rock and always worked with mostly classical stuff playing in the background…sounds like my kind of a man…but who successfully managed to trawl the darkest depths of some zone of his imagination somehow – even though the absolutely horrifying results…brilliantly horrifying results! – in no way reflected the apparently pleasant demeanour of the man himself. I would dearly love to find out if there’s a secret to finding this place within myself!!

What is wrong with contemporary art? Which contemporary artist/movement do you admire? Would you consider yourself to be a Stuckist?

Again – I really can’t feel myself to be strongly connected at all with the world of ‘Contemporary Art’. I’m assuming you are mostly referring to the Brit-Art style of self-indulgent, self-obsessed, largely meaningless (to my mind!), conceptual stuff in which the concepts themselves are usually trite and essentially meaningless?? And change hands for millions??

The Iceni Girl

The Iceni Girl

Well – one can get mired in this messy quicksand very quickly and I’ve tended more recently to acknowledge that this stuff exists, that it only has in common with what I and others like me create, one thing..namely the word ‘art’…that it has every right to exist – and I would always say of any artist trying to make a living in whatever style they choose..’good luck to them’ (although I rather resent the millions they get!!)..But it’s a world unto itself. Self-absorbed, ego-driven, contemptuous of ‘irrelevant’ traditional values, deliberately and contemptuously obscurantist..’If you don’t get it that’s your problem and I don’t need to explain it to you’ (usually meaning that the concept has either no meaning or that the meaning is so shallow and pointless that it is embarrassing to even attempt to define it). Its sense of superiority and entitlement does sicken me I have to say…and the sub-literate claptrap one sometimes has to listen to from its practitioners and adherents is particularly annoying because on the whole I find art that’s informed by intelligence more interesting. And really that’s the thing with me. I simply find contemporary art mind numbingly boring. It rejects technique in favour of trite conceptualisation…I can’t bear to look at most of it. And eventually it will vanish up its own vacuous fundament and – I suspect – something resembling a new Representationalism will find its way back into favour. A return to drawing and painting …indeed there are signs that this happening.

No I’m not a Stuckist per se!! I think there’s room for everything. The idea of demonstrations and the politicising of creativity strikes me as dumb. But I can sympathise with its ideals. And importantly…if you look at a lot of what gets labelled as Stuckist Art…well much of it is really, really horrible!!! A LOT of very bad painters subscribe to Stuckism. No – I’ll happily just keep ploughing my own little furrow and people can compare or associate me with whoever they like! I know so many artists who get constantly pissed off and angry at ‘other art’ – particularly when the dosh is all heading off in that direction! I don’t get angry about any of this. I suppose the words are ‘bored’ and ‘bemused’.

Seasons of Plenty

Seasons of Plenty

Finally – what would your advice to a young artist be?

Think twice!! No – that’s trite…but laced with a streak of common sense maybe!! It’s harder now than it was when I was starting out. The word ‘artist’ is somewhat loaded. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as an ‘illustrator’…and a commercial illustrator at that. And there is no question that the commercial arena…in particular ‘the worlds of the fantastical’ is populated hugely these days…mostly I think… by practitioners of digital illustration. Hundreds…thousands of them!! The competition is incredible and I suspect that the ‘shelf life’ of artists working in this way is limited. Those who prefer to work in paint will find it harder to make a living these days as fees are tiny in comparison to a decade or two ago…so making a living at this game is extremely precarious. I feel it’s presumptuous of me to offer advice really. It’s a different world from 1972 when I started out. Everything then was paint..and in the U.K. and U.S. I would guess that the total number of artists/illustrators making a living out of it back then was a very few dozen at most. (I’m talking specifically about SF art on book jackets here). I was lucky to be counted amongst their number and have been able to build a career and a reputation of sorts over 40 odd years. I don’t see how that state of affairs can exist nowadays. At least not in the world of cover artists.

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

The one bit of advice I don’t feel unsure about is that if you are enjoying exploring your creativity in pencil and paint…then never stop pursuing it as it will provide a dimension to your life that is not open to everyone. To be creative in any way is an enormously rewarding gift…but don’t expect it to necessarily pay the bills! Always have a Plan B! But go on drawing drawing drawing!!!

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

m4s0n501

Jim Burns – Hyperluminal

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Hyperluminal coverFor me the golden age of science fiction and fantasy paperback illustration in the UK spanned the 70s and 80s. While 60s covers often favoured a minimalist Pop/Art approach the following decade saw an explosion of wildly imaginative and entrancing art, dominated by a handful of painters, each with a very distinctive style. New English Library’s magazine Science Fiction Monthly (1974) provided poster-sized copies to stick on the bedroom wall and although it started off mainly as a promotional tool for their own catalogue they were happy to include works by artists working with other publishers, such as Chris Foss (Panther) and Patrick Woodroffe (Corgi). While US trade paperback art often looked repetitive and clunkily unimaginative, the UK seemed to be enjoying a renaissance in imaginative art.

Of all the artists to emerge from this era, Jim Burns stood out in my mind as an artist who was equally at ease with the human (or not so human) figure and the titanic and beautifully seductive imaginary technology of the distant future. Even the most famous occasionally struggled with people. Bruce Pennington’s inhabitants of his surreal futures could look sketchy and ill-proportioned. If David Hardy and Chris Foss added people to their paintings they were usually tiny specs dwarfed by planetscapes or massive starships. Jim Burns, on the other hand, filled his canvases with a stunning range of meticulously realised characters, brought squarely into the foreground and imbued with such life and personality you felt you could engage them in conversation.

Slant600

Slant

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal (Titan Books, 2014) is a gorgeously produced retrospective look at Jim Burns’ work from the 1970s to the present day. Still very active with commercial and private commissions, his paintings continue to hook the viewer into detailed and precisely composed alternate realities, usually dominated by one or more characters. Above all his work excels in capturing both a moment and a personality, and in this respect he is closest, in my mind, to the Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones. There are three points of contact that I can see – composition and palette, the figure work itself and the idea of the tableau-vivant where a dramatic emotional moment is frozen in time.

homuncularium

Homuncularium – 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to secure an interview with Jim as a companion piece to this post, and I don’t want to pre-empt any of his comments, which are far more illuminating than mine. However looking through Hyperluminal I see a constant tendency towards a limited palette and high contrast colours. For example blue/gold in Homuncularium (2010) or his cover for Greg Bear’s Slant (1998). As with the Pre-Raphaelites this has the effect of giving the artwork an intensely decorative look, which makes the figure work and characterisation even more striking. Jim Burns’ people (and elves and aliens) are about as far away from the gormless cookie-cutter people inhabiting the paintings of (say) the Brothers Hilderbrandt. Dramatic characterisation in SF and Fantasy art can often end up looking like comic-book caricature, a fault that plagued even such talented artists as Kelly Freas. Jim Burns’ cast in any painting are instantly living grown-ups believable both as people (or creatures) and in whatever baroque or hyper-realistic future they find themselves in. In the Victorian theatre the tableau-vivant occurred at points of high drama when the whole cast would freeze into the living picture. There’s something about Jim Burns’ paintings that captures this unusual combination of intense emotion/action and stillness. Two good examples of this are Ancient Light (1988) and one of my own favourites – Crucible (2003) (see the interview where Jim talks about Crucible in detail).

Ancient Light600

Ancient Light

At a time when so much SF/fantasy paperback cover art smacks of derivative Photoshop clones of computer game box art (I’m getting tired of the endless copies of Assassin’s Creed), The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal reminds us that, in the hands of someone who has clearly dedicated their entire professional life to perfecting a particular kind of vision and approach, the genre is as capable of producing great visual art as much as literature. It’s interesting that his work appears to channel so much Pre-Raphaelite sensibility as it was in that era when the distinction between Fine Art and Commercial Illustration was far more blurred than now. Great painters illustrated fantasy tales of King Arthur, Boccaccio and Shakespeare and the works they displayed at the Royal Academy were printed in the equivalent of coffee-table books for Victorian and Edwardian families to enjoy at home. In an age when art is dominated by sneering conceptualism – as much in hock to money as the most commercial art – Jim Burns’ paintings show that a meticulous attention to palette, composition and figure work can produce art of real beauty that is decorative and compelling as well as illustrative.

Jim Burns’ website is here where you can see some of his latest work and order prints.

Interstellar (2014)

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poster**WARNING – Major Spoiler Alerts**

I’ve been face down writing AntiHelix for the last month so I’ve neglected this blog a little, but having seen Interstellar on its opening night yesterday I thought I’d jot down my thoughts. It’s a curate’s egg – some parts are very good, other parts are disappointing and I came out of it feeling that it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. In clearly referencing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christopher Nolan was stepping into very big shoes and sadly they kept falling off. It’s essentially another attempt at a realistic space movie (like Europa Report) and has all the standard cliches of that genre (crew member cocks up, crew member mopes around, crew member goes barmy, people say things like ‘Doobry Flange Q5226 is out of alignment with the Thargalator’ and everyone bursts into tears and shouts because this is really important somehow). I’ve listed down the good points and the bad points, and now realise there’s more of the latter. That’s probably unfair because it was enjoyable and definitely worth seeing, if only for the accurate physics bits, but ultimately it’s a frustrating film.

The Good.

1) The science they got right. Much was made of the film employing the astrophysicist Kip Thorne to make sure the cosmic stuff was accurate. Having modelled a black hole in Mathematica he even found out new things about gravitational lensing, which meant that the aptly name Gargantua has rings of distorted light around its middle as well as round the edge. There’s a sub-genre of YouTube videos dedicated to trying to visualise higher dimensions and hyperbolic space – they’re fascinating to watch and the last part of the movie had the hero floating around a vast 5 dimensional tesseract which looked extremely impressive on the huge screen. The wormhole was also brilliant, and again apparently what the inside of one would really look like.

blackhole

2) Getting around in space is bloody hard, especially when time dilation and strange gravitational influences kick in. The human cost of travelling to new worlds was shown particularly well, especially in the scene when the hero and heroine drop down to a planet for an hour or two, returning to find that the poor bugger they left behind has had to twiddle his thumbs in orbit for 23 years. None of this ‘Let’s go to Tatooine – woosh – here we are!’ – each trip to a planet was a hard slog costing energy, time (as in Time!) and the lives of Supporting Actors I Don’t Know What To Do With (see 1 below). The planets themselves were particularly grim affairs – uninhabitable Giant Wave world, uninhabitable Ice Cloud world with abandoned loony, and Tunisia – which is how it probably will be, and not welcoming civilisations of Gangsters, Romans or Nazis with slightly different noses.

iceplanet

3) The spectacle. It’s a jaw-dropping movie and once they get off Earth it’s more or less constant eye candy but without the incessant fizzy-pop fuelled explosions and noise of your standard blockbuster. Despite its faults it didn’t actually drag – the exciting explorer bits were fascinating and the drippy schmaltz was annoying instead of tedious. This is definitely one to see on IMAX if you can.

The Bad

1) None of the characters are that engaging and most play to ill-concealed stereotypes. Anne Hathaway is irritating as the slightly thick emotional woman who comes out with a completely left-field argument about how ‘lurv transcends space and time’ which somehow ends up being the core message of the movie. Michael Caine does Avuncular Old Scientist and Jessica Chastain phones in Resentful Abandoned Daughter. Nolan doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of the cast – token black guy can’t handle space travel, an uncredited Matt Damon rolls up as Marooned Nutjob. Matthew McConaughey is particularly charmless as the Chuck Yeager clone hero. The most interesting character ended up being the sarcastic robot TARS. He wasn’t your standard humanoid like Marvyn the Paranoid Android or Bender, but a cool articulated rubik cube that looked like a fridge designed by Apple. Some of the scenes where he went charging through the water were impressive but it’s hard to think of a worse design for the cramped confines of space capsule. You’d be forever stubbing your toes or barking your shins on the damn thing.

Hathaway

2) America is the world and only NASA can save the day. The complete lack of any sizable reference to foreign parts or Folks From Not Round Here (apart for Michael Caine) means that the film offers up a depressingly Tea Party-esque vision of a universe in which the only people who matter, or even exist, are Okies who will save the day with homespun wisdom and a test-pilot suspicion of panty-waist city slickers. If a wormhole turned up near Saturn with a promise of human salvation the considerably less risk-averse Chinese government would be cheerfully tossing astronauts in by the hundred. In fact why send humans at all? Given that TARS the robot was infinitely more likable and spent most of the time saving idiot humans why not just send him through to set up tents and get the place swept ready for mankind to follow?

3) The plot – which ended up being a) confusing and b) underwhelming. Part of the problem was that the Oh My God denouement was flagged five minutes after the film started (‘Dad, there’s a ghost in the bedroom and he keeps sending me data about gravity in binary!’ ‘Sorry dear, I can’t sort it out right now because I’ve got to go into a wormhole but I promise I will reach back to you from the other side of Beyond and communicate with you somehow’). Thinking it through this morning I still don’t understand how anything got fixed, though clearly something good happened because mankind ended up in groovy space habitats floating near Saturn – apparently the result of Resentful Abandoned Daughter reaching a breakthrough that connected gravity with quantum mechanics, or something like that – it’s not really clear at all.

saturn

4) Scratch the surface and you find 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the apes and Joe the Plumber instead of the Starchild. Hyper beings send message to humans – humans go through portal – weird shit happens – human comes back with revelation. Most of this was rapidly lost in the irritating ‘I will return to my daughter’ plot but there was enough of it there for tribute to wander over into plagiarism. The insistence on playing the last note of the opening riff to Also Sprach Zarathustra whenever something big happened was clearly intentional, but to my mind just underlined the gap between Nolan’s vision and Kubrick’s.

So all in all a mixed bag. Definitely worth watching but I wouldn’t class this as a serious hard science fiction movie. The intelligent bits are hard to find in the mess of a plot, and the lazy characterisation just serves to reinforce the prejudice that SF struggles with people – a fatuous myth exploded by the first ten minutes of the infinitely better Solaris (the Tarkovsky one, not the rubbish George Clooney vehicle).

The Company of Wolves (1984)

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prince

Wandering through Kate Bush’s imagination a couple of weeks ago made me think of a peculiarly English brand of dark fantasy that started in the late Victorian era with writers like George MacDonald and Lucy Clifford. These and others managed to write children’s stories possessed of such toe-curling nightmarish terror that they continue to haunt to this day. The development of Freud’s theories round about the same time let the genie out of the bottle – dreams were full of hidden desires, all to do with Sex and Death (as the good Doctor would have us believe). Throwing kids into the mix gave the screw another twist because a) children were less able to understand and control base desire and b) they were innocent anyway, and didn’t have base desires, right? This huge contradiction played itself out time and time again in Victorian and Edwardian re-workings of fairy tales and fantasy. Freud himself pointed out that those adults who clung the hardest to the notion of ‘childhood innocence’ were the ones who tended to spot and stamp on manifestations of non-innocent behaviour the most.

During the twentieth century children’s literature in the UK largely drifted away from fairy tales, turning first to the world of the resolutely unimaginative middle classes for its material (boarding school tales, Swallows and Amazons, Famous Five etc.) and then to a grittier, more realistic portrayal of children’s lives beginning with books like Gumble’s Yard (1961). Fairy tales were too childish, or twee, full of sententious moralising and everyone knew them all backwards anyway. This was largely thanks to Charles Perrault who, three hundred years earlier, collected traditional fairy tales, took out the rude bits and slapped a moral on the end of each one. His version of Little Red Riding Hood helpfully concludes: “there are also wolves who seem perfectly charming … who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.” Just in case little Lucette was too thick to get it.

grandmother

In 1979 Angela Carter published the short story ‘The Company of Wolves’ as part of a collection of rewritten fairy tales aimed at adults, laying bare what Perrault coyly hinted at. Instead of the girl being a victim of the big bad wolf (and by association, the carnal advances of wicked man), recognising the validity of her own desire allows her to confront the beast on equal terms. So instead of getting eaten or rescued by Dial-A-Woodcutter at the end instead “she laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.” While an exhilarating re-interpretation of the tales, in the wake of the ladette culture of the 90s and noughties  its premise is a little suspect – women are just as randy and voracious as men and in matching male predatory sexuality with their own somehow transcend the gender imbalance (The ‘if a bloke gropes your bum defiantly grope his’ approach. I have it on good authority this is not a successful feminist strategy).

transformation

In 1984 Neil Jordan directed the film version of The Company of Wolves. It’s a fascinating movie – another lost UK classic swamped out by Ghostbusters, Terminator I and the only vaguely similar The NeverEnding Story. Jordan’s interpretation of Carter’s tale is particularly interesting because it’s multi-layered and cheerfully plays the different levels off against each other. We have the original pre-Perrault fairy tale, Angela Carter’s vision on top of that, and then the motif of dreams within dreams to frame the whole thing. In the movie a frightfully middle-class girl (Rosaleen) dreams a sequence of episodes. In her dream world she is Little Red Riding Hood in a vaguely gothic village. Her big sister has just been eaten by wolves after being chased through a nightmare wood filled with nursery toys. Grandmother (a wonderfully sinister performance by Angela Lansbury) takes Rosaleen under her wing for a while and tells her four different stories all to do with men doing wrong by women, in one form or another, and often turning into werewolves at the end. This is used to work through the theme of the girl’s own awakening sexuality vs. man the predator.

banquet

What makes the film a bit odd at this level is that the references to the dark power of sex are obvious to the point of parody. Rosaleen the girl bites an apple and finds a worm, a moth hovers next to a flame, spiders fall onto the pages of her prayer book and men whose eyebrows meet in the middle (guilty) are wolves in disguise. It’s almost as if Jordan was taking the mickey out of Sunday supplement versions of Freud Lite that equate specific dream symbols (zeppelins, caves surrounded by bushes, etc.) with sex. This doesn’t really sit with the dream within a dream structure which is altogether more ambiguous. At the end of the movie dream Rosaleen turns into a wolf herself and flees from her father and the other villagers back through the nursery toy wood with the pack. In the very last scene the wolves burst through the bedroom window where real Rosaleen is dreaming and she wakes up screaming to find her wrecked room full of big hairy beasts. At this point all of grandmother’s homilies and warnings seem a bit pointless in the face of something altogether more chaotic and disturbing.

TerenceStamp

Visually the film is a treat – though many of the animatronic special effects, ground breaking in their day, look clunky now. I remember at one point in the first man to wolf transformation scene, when Stephen Rea pops out for a widdle on his wedding night and disappears for seven years, coming back looking like Neil out of The Young Ones. Taking umbrage at the fact that his bride, instead of moping around, has got on with her life and remarried to a young Carson out of Downton Abbey, he pulls all his own skin off to ‘teach this whore a lesson’ (!). When a wolf snout erupted from his flayed face the entire cinema audience jumped. Compared to transformation scenes these days it looks like a skinned muppet with arthritis but in terms of disturbing horror and cleverly iconic imagery the only film to come close is Pan’s Labyrinth. The movie is also a parade of well-known British character actors – with David Warner as Rosaleen’s decidedly gormless dad, Miranda Richardson as the woman done wrong by the son of the lord, and Terence Stamp appears in a wonderful cameo role as the devil handing out pots of hairy chest paste to idiot boys in the woods.

The Company of Wolves is available from Amazon here.

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn.

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Before the Dawn Sunset

Kate Bush with her son Bertie as the artist in A Sky of Honey

Spoiler and bad language alert: If you are planning on seeing the concert and you don’t want any of it revealed then read no further.  Also Kate Bush swears like a trooper.

I planned on writing this straight after seeing the concert but it’s taken me about five days for my thoughts to marshal themselves into any form of coherent sense. There was a point in the evening where I realised I’d paid a couple of hundred pounds to watch a 56-year old woman whirl around in circles on a stage doing bird impersonations – and that it was one of the best things I’d ever experienced in my life and well worth every penny. I’m not going to spend the next few paragraphs gushing about how brilliant the entire performance was – plenty of other people have done a better job and I realise not everyone reading this is a dyed in the wool addict like myself. Even Kate Bush herself clearly still doesn’t understand the effect she has on people. The opening line of the program explains that one of the reasons she wanted to go on stage was ‘to have contact with the audience that still liked my work’ (my italics) as if her fan base was about the same size as the two dozen losers who turn up to see Spinal Tap play second fiddle to a puppet show, and not the 80,000 who bought her tickets within the first 15 minutes of them going on sale.

Before_the_Dawn_birds

This was more or less the part where she started making bird noises.

A good point to start is probably comparing it to her concert The Tour of Life 35 years ago, which I saw at the Manchester Apollo. At that time she had only two albums to her name, The Kick Inside and Lionheart so the two-hour set saw her go through her entire catalogue. She sang every song as a unique piece, changing costume for most, accompanied by a couple of dancers and the illusionist Simon Drake. As with Before the Dawn it was designed as a theatre piece in three acts, and everyone was supposed to sit down instead of leap out of their seats and pogo in the mosh pit like they did at all the other concerts. Kate Bush herself was 21 and by her own admission terrified, and didn’t interact with the audience at all, something which Charles Shaar Murray picked up in his damning review in the New Musical Express (his was a lone voice amid universal praise but then the resolutely pro-punk NME was a pretentiously grim slog at the time).

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“You can’t fucking have bigger fucking waves!” – Kate Bush, 2014

In Before the Dawn she happily chatted with the audience, which on occasion was a bit surreal because she has a charmingly sweet, occasionally girly, voice, which contrasted alarmingly with (for example) scenes in which a puppet apparently batters a bird to death with a rock or she got chased round the set by fish skeletons. The two programs also make for an interesting contrast. The Tour of Life had very little in it and smacks of winsome theatre school artiness in its alternating poetry and stream of consciousness description of scampering through ‘rush-hour London, with … dancing clothes under my arm’. Before the Dawn, goes into fascinating detail about the concept, planning and execution of the two main dramatic pieces based on the The Ninth Wave sequence from the Hounds of Love album and A Sky of Honey from Aerial. It’s a wonderfully down to earth and often funny account of the herculean effort and massive attention to detail that made the evening such an incredible experience. In this prissy age I’d forgotten how sweary we all used to be in the 70s. Kate Bush clearly hasn’t (though to be fair she’d been submerged in a tank for 6 hours by this time and was suffering from mild hypothermia):

“You can’t have bigger fucking waves.” I said. “They go all over the fucking live vocal and they sound like a fucking bathroom, not the fucking ocean!”

“Well it doesn’t look right we need bigger waves.”

“You can’t fucking have bigger fucking waves!”

PX*7047283

It came as shock to see just how scary Kate Bush’s vision can be.

The concert was divided into three parts. For the first twenty minutes or so she sang half a dozen songs from Hounds of LoveThe Red Shoes and Aerial. It’s clear she’s put a dividing line between the first four albums, and the rest, and that she sees the core of her musical development in longer concept pieces from The Ninth Wave onwards – so no Wuthering Heights or Babooshka. To be honest if she’d just carried on working her way through a set at the front of the stage with the band behind her it still would have been a stunning concert, but then she switched into the first of the two theatrical pieces and the genius knob went all the way up to eleven. The Ninth Wave is a thirty minute journey through the mind of a woman floating in the sea after falling overboard, oscillating between fear, desperate loneliness, hope and finally a glorious reaffirmation of life. The piece combined film, TV, music, dance, lighting, creepy sets and costumes and a big helicopter-style machine that lowered over the audience.

Before_the_Dawn_very_scary_fish

Kate Bush carried off by terrifying fish skeletons

 

The second piece, after the interval, was taken from Aerial. It’s less of a narrative and more a linked mood-piece centred around images of a sunset, birdsong and painting. This part of the staging used the motif of a painter’s dummy come to life to wander through the scenes evoked by the songs. This is when it struck me that Kate Bush’s vision is often a lot more sinister than I’d previously thought. Like the best fairy tales her music, and the visions she constructs around them, have a very dark side that on occasion took me by surprise. I’d always listened to A Sky of Honey (one of my favourites) as a beautiful elegiac sequence evoking long summer evenings and love. As the puppet wandered around the stage, and birds flew across the projection screen, it constantly felt as if the whole piece teetered on the edge of a nightmare (it takes a lot to make an enormous slow motion blue tit look threatening). The fact that the band wore bird skulls for this part didn’t lighten the mood. In fact the whole concert peeled away layers from the songs so that even though I know them all inside out and backwards, I now look at most of them in a new light.

Kate Bush

It was clear from the very beginning that Kate Bush was having huge fun throughout the entire three hours. When she sang the penultimate song, the achingly beautiful  Among Angels from 50 Words for Snow, her voice was just as rich and pitch-perfect as at the beginning. As someone said she’s set the bar impossibly high now and shown everybody else up big time. Interestingly I saw the gig the same week U2 dumped their tired going-through-the-motions stadium-rock on the world’s iPhones and the contrast was just embarrassing.

So it was as expected – certifiably insane and meticulously beautiful. Five days later I’ve still got all her songs running on an eternal loop through my head in that voice, to the point where I can’t listen to anything other artist right now because she drowns them all out.

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

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posterLast night I went to a Sin City double feature where I watched the original followed by the sequel in 3D. Very entertaining and well made, the 3d enhances the unique visual style of the original and yet, and yet… My biggest feeling after seeing the movies, and 300 as well (I haven’t seen 300: Rise of an Empire, but can’t wait after reading this wonderful review) is that of colossally wasted opportunities. Brilliant visuals and great actors are completely thrown away on shallow, ugly-minded content.

The Sin City movies are based on the comics by Frank Miller, a series of hard-boiled cinema-noir tales rendered in striking monochrome. Ground-breaking when they first came out, they followed the interwoven stories of a set of fantastically realised characters including Marv the lunky thug who Miller described as ‘Conan in a trenchcoat’ (Mickey Rourke in the movies), the tormented con trying to go straight Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen in Sin City, Josh Brolin in Sin City 2) and exotic dancer  Nancy Callahan (based on screen time, played largely by Jessica Alba’s bum in both movies). The films cleverly maintain the intricacies of the comics by weaving together a handful of linked tales in each. Of all the main characters the one you end up gunning for the most is Marv, largely because he’s refreshingly untainted by the self-absorbed wee-small-hours-in-the-morning soul-searching of everyone else and is often downright funny – humour or any sense of irony is in woefully short supply in Frank Miller’s movies.

Marv - played by Mickey Rourke

Marv – played by Mickey Rourke

The most impressive thing about the films is the visual look and feel. Partly taken from the comics themselves, partly channelling the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s with a massive dose of German Expressionism thrown in, almost every shot is fantastically composed and lit in dramatic monochrome. As a stroke of genius, the comic’s use of spot colour is replicated – a woman’s red dress, eyes glowing green etc. Rendering blood in white most of the time or, in one case, bright yellow, allows for lots of gore without the screen being filled incessantly with red (though in the second film blood reverts to its natural colour more often than not). Clever little touches include rendering props in white outline to add to the comic-book feel. This is particularly well done with glasses, dehumanising the characters at the point when their passions turn them into (usually) raging killing machines. The films back to back add up to a triumph of design and composition that still takes your breath away even after four hours and both films. Little Miho’s attack on the Roark Mansion at the end of Sin City 2 is particularly impressive, even in its silliest moments.

Little Miho - played by Jamie Chung

Little Miho – played by Jamie Chung

The problem with the Sin City movies, and 300, lies in the script. Part of the issue is that a certain type of comic dialogue doesn’t translate into film. Miller’s writing is an odd mix of film-noir internal monologue and the kind of portentous exchanges that used to dog Marvel Comics in the 1970s, where characters just made grandiose pronouncements at each other, instead of having conversations (“Now you two will be next to freeze and burn in the grip of Equinox the Thermodynamic Man!”). As every tale is ultimately one of vengeance against an utter, unredeemable villain set in the run-down foulness of Sin City’s slums then all the internal monologues follow the same pattern – a) Struggling to keep a grip/go straight, b) Her beauty hooked me in c) They beat me up d) We killed everyone in a murderous yet satisfying rage – rinse and repeat. Compared to the wit and intelligence of Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, whose wise-cracking scripts the movies are clearly referencing, this is like being hit over the head repeatedly with the sledgehammer used on Marv during one interrogation scene. On top of this the relentless violence and misogyny are extremely wearing. There’s been an interesting debate going on over here in Jane Dougherty’s blog about what makes a true ‘kick-ass heroine’. In Sin City it’s clear – prostitutes in thongs and fishnets with their tits hanging out and a machine gun in each hand. It’s essentially Chicks with Guns (I refuse to add a link, you can look it up yourself) meets the South Park episode Major Boobage – a 14-year old boy’s idea of what a ‘strong woman’ should be.

Dwight - played by Josh Brolin

Enough has been written on Frank Miller’s politics so I won’t re-tread old ground here. 300 nailed his beliefs to the mast in lurid primary colours when it recast the brutal and cruel slave-based Spartan state as champions  of some warped Tea-Party view of the American Constitution, as did his comments on the Occupy Movement. His comics are clearly capable of ground-breaking design and intelligence, yet none of that comes through in the films which end up being sub-Tarantino grindcore without any humour or wit. What I’d really like to see, for example, is the same stunning 300 bravura style being applied to the Oresteia of Aeschylus – that would be something worth seeing – or a Sin City with a script that captured all the smartness and sophistication of a Bogart/Bacall movie. At the moment all we seem to have is a tedious parade of boobs, bums and blood narrated by a crowd of self-absorbed bores. Except Marv. Marv is cool – he should have his own TV series.

Back to the PC

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What PC users looked like in 1984.

What PC users looked like in 1984.

The PC vs. Mac debate has been raging for so long and so much of it is wrapped up in pointless sabre-rattling between shouty geeks that I had a good long think before writing this. In the end I thought it might be of use to some writers who have become disenchanted with Apple and are looking at switching to PC (or Linux, which I know nothing about) but are worried that they might lose much of the functionality, experience and overall seamlessness that defined the Mac until recently.

The first computer I ever owned was a BBC B 32, bought in 1983. As the name suggested it had a whopping 32k memory, though that dropped to 8 if you wanted more than four colours on the screen. I wrote an 80,000 word thesis on it, though I had to keep swapping bits of it to and from a ‘floppy disc’. After University I worked for two years at the Metropolitan Police in London, some of the time on the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System (HOLMES) and some of the time trying to write programs in COBOL to track the whereabouts of the Queen when she went on her daily rounds. I came across my first Mac there, a funny little post-box of a machine that looked pretty cool and had this mouse-thing on the end of a wire. I was impressed enough to ask for one in my next job as Lecturer in English Literature at Hokkaido University of Education in Hakodate in North Japan.

Look that state of the art rig. Elite ran like a dream.

Look that state of the art rig. Elite ran like a dream. Steam Train to Brighton Simulator ran as fast as a steam train to Brighton.

In those days the lines were drawn between po-faced head-banging PCs and wildly creative and bohemian Macs. Programmers and computer people in big businesses used Microsoft while us arty lot used Macs. As Apple’s famous ad put it, we were the weirdoes who challenged convention by throwing big hammers at screens, and doing graphics and design with fonts and other cool things PC users only dreamed about. Media types favoured Apple and whenever a Mac appeared in a movie (such as Star Trek IV) we all jumped up and down and went ‘woo hoo’. Steve Jobs briefly left Apple and it all went a bit pear-shaped and PC like with multiple machines and the OS being licenced out to third part computer manufacturers. Then he came back, shouted at everyone, and just as we left Japan the iMac appeared in a range of brightly coloured boiled sweet colours.

OH MY GOD MR SCOTT IS USING A MAC - HE'S USING A F*CKING MAC!!!!

OH MY GOD MR SCOTT IS USING A MAC – HE’S USING A F*CKING MAC!!!!

I ended up working as a producer for a Media Agency in the New Forest. I sat in a long room with programmers down one side and designers down the other. The coders used PCs and the artists used Macs, which was pretty much the standard. I got a PC but as I wasn’t that much of an Apple obsessive I just got on with it. Occasionally we’d get sucked into Mac vs PC flame wars, egged on by the very funny, if a bit smug, ‘I’m a Mac and I’m a PC’ ads that Apple ran. I got used to using a PC to the extent that I used the Mac less and less. When I switched jobs I was given a Mac again and kind of fell in love with Apple once more, in some respects it was like falling face-down into a bed of flowers after wrestling with the PC for so long. For writers and creatives Apple still seemed the system of choice, but then things started to change and I grew increasingly uneasy with the route the Macs seemed to be going. It’s a familiar argument that I won’t re-tread here, but a slow accumulation of niggles topped by a final great big pain in the neck has sent me back to the PC.

It started when my MacBook died. I decided to buy a Mac mini to carry on with my 3D stuff, but as a exercise I had a look at what kind of PC the same amount of money would get me. I found that instead of a low end machine that would struggle with the 3D packages I was using (Maya and Houdini), a couple of hundred quid more would give me a serious customised 3D PC workstation. So if the only reason to by the Mac was blind loyalty why waste money on something not up to the task? So I got a PC.

Imamac

At the same time, with the arrival of the iPhone and then the iPad, Apple seemed to be moving away from machines designed to create towards an ecosystem that is designed primarily for consumption, building what other people refer to as a walled garden. In the old days Microsoft were seen as the straight jacket, forcing users to do things their way (remember the infuriating Word Paper Clip assistant?) while Mac users ran barefoot through the grass with the wind in their hair, free to do what they wanted and limited only by their imaginations. Now the tables seem to have turned. App-based computing Apple-style seems to be to be 90% focussed on the customer as passive consumer of entertainment. Basically it is extremely difficult to build or create something on an iPad – it’s great for watching movies, playing games or browsing the web, but you can’t code on it much and it’s a bugger to write anything longer than an email. Interestingly enough I’m now seeing the effects of this in Education, where I work. Governments and school districts who went iPad happy when they first came out are now cancelling orders and selling their tablets on because they realise there’s not a whole lot of scope for creativity in the damn things, and yet they (and the phones) are where Apple now seem to be mainly focussed.

My user experience of iOS Mavericks.

And then came Mavericks and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Whirling beach umbrellas after nearly every keystroke. Every [umbrella] time [umbrella] I [umbrella] want to [umbrella] open [umbrella] a f[umbrella]king file. I did an experiment and booted up my PC and Mac at the same time – PC – 7 seconds, Mac – 35 seconds. Pages, Keynote and Numbers turned into something that looked like an 8 year old had designed them in an exercise book and iTunes wiped out about 23 albums I’d bought from the store with no apparent way of getting them back. I’d had enough:

So as an exercise I made a list of all the programs I use on the Mac and PC to write & generally do creative stuff and this is what I came up with:

Scrivener. Best writing software out there – PC version available with slightly reduced functionality but none that I care about so no problem there.

Houdini. Best 3D software. Stuff off a shovel on the PC.

Mathematica. Takes three minutes to open on the Mac, 3 seconds on the PC. Again because I designed the PC as a number cruncher it’s in its native environment whereas it struggles on the slower but more expensive Apple Machine.

Pixelmator. For image processing – not on the PC so I took out a £7/month subscription to Photoshop which will hardly break the bank

Mellel. Word processor – this is the hardest one to lose as it’s such a fantastic piece of software and allows for the kind of precise layout you need for a Createspace paperback. I’ve swopped in Adobe InDesign on the same principle as Photoshop.

MarsEdit. Blogging software. Again you can’t get it on the PC so I’m writing this on Windows Live Writer and there’s not a massive amount of difference.

Filemaker. Database software. PC and Mac versions are identical and you get installers for both so no change there either.

The only things I’ll miss are Mellel and OmniGraffle. Everything else I can either use on the PC or find close, or even better, substitutes. In a way I feel a bit sad because I always admired Apple and cut my teeth on Macs in the early days when they really were innovative and cool. But at the end of the day computerators are tools for writing and doing movies and stuff, and when I get to the point when I have to fight the system to get the simplest [umbrella] thing done then I know it’s time to look elsewhere.

Samurai Jack

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jackandaku

I came back from Japan with a five year old and a three year old with heads full of Sailor Moon, Anpanman and Miyazaki Hayao, so inevitably when we signed up for cable back in the UK we turned to Cartoon Network. When I was a kid TV cartoons were pretty dire. I grew up a fan of Filmation (responsible for, among other things, the animated Star Trek) and have a lot of affection for their peculiar style of ‘minimal’ animation, wonderfully sent up here in Cheapo Cartoon Man. By comparison most of the stuff my kids were watching was brilliant – imaginative, stylish and very funny, especially series like Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog. Among all of these my favourite by far was Samurai Jack.

raincastle

Living in Japan for ten years made me a bit jaded and snooty about the portrayal of that country’s traditions and cultures in the West. Despite Cyberpunk dreams there are no corporate samurai or ancient traditions of bushido lurking under the surface of the Chiba/Tokyo sprawl. The average Japanese man or woman regards practitioners of martial arts pretty much in the way we look at Morris Dancers, and most are more concerned with struggling through their stressful office jobs, getting their kids to a decent school and paying off the mortgage. The biggest shock was the attitude to the films of Akira Kurosawa, who I’d always thought of as the backbone of Japanese culture. ‘He makes boring, pretty films for foreigners’ summed up the general attitude, a comment borne out by the fact that all of his later films were funded by people like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

shinobiwarrior

So at first I didn’t bother watching over the shoulders of the kids when Samurai Jack was on, until eventually they persuaded me to sit through one episode and I was completely blown away. While heavily influenced by Anime it had its own unique aesthetic and an insane premise which is best explained in the opening words of each episode:

Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!

By dumping a medieval samurai in a cyberpunk future ruled by the evil demon Aku the producers, led by Genndy Tartakovsky, could go to town with their imaginations, setting the honourable though slightly dim hero against ancient gods, alien assassins, killer robots, bounty hunters, deranged Scotsmen and all manner of odd foes. Every other episode was a clear tribute to a genre film or TV series, whether it was 300, My Neighbour Totoro or The Matrix. Most of the stories had Jack (a name given to him by a gang of bizarre street punks on his first arrival in the future) hunting for the portal to take him back to his own time in the hope he could change history by slaying the demon Aku. Others saw him tackling specific foes or setting off on bizarre quests (including finding himself a new pair of Japanese clogs when the old ones are stolen).

greenwoman

Not only were the 30 minute episodes a fascinatingly eclectic bunch of adventures, but the editing and visual style also stood out a mile from other cartoons. To begin with the designers took the decision to avoid outlining, relying instead on minimal and often abstract designs and colour to distinguish between shapes on the screen. This gave the cartoon a visual elegance you don’t usually see in animation, and some of the scenes, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, are actually quite beautiful. Samurai Jack also drew heavily on the styles of editing used in Japanese movies and Spaghetti Westerns. Unusually for cartoons the producers were not afraid to have long periods without speech, relying instead on images, close ups and subtle sound effects. Split screen, rapid cutting and sudden slow motion also allowed for the ratcheting up of tension during action shots. Most of Jack’s foes are robots, which got around the problem of gore during the often pretty violent battle sequences.

cityscape

As animation, and a loving tribute to science fiction, fantasy and Japanese popular culture Samurai Jack is one of the best cartoon series I’ve seen. Not every episode is spot on, and sometimes the extended fights. where Jack dismembers yet more robots, drag a little, but there are very few bum notes in the four seasons that were made. To my mind the best episodes are number 6 in Season 1 (don’t read the description on iTunes, it has a major spoiler), Episode 5 Series 3 in which Jack confronts the ancient Egyptian Gods and the two parter from the same Season (11 and 12) which tell of the birth of the evil Aku (voiced by the Japanese actor Makoto Iwamatsu who played the shaman alongside Arnie in Conan the Barbarian). All the episodes are available from Amazon or on iTunes.

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:

 

Soviet Art017medium

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

Soviet Art004Medium

Long live the Soviet people – the space pioneers!

Soviet Art012medium

Long live the first woman cosmonaut!

Soviet Art020medium

We are born to make dreams come true!

Soviet Art024medium

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

Soviet Art019medium

Let’s conquer Space!

Soviet Art014medium

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

Soviet Art013medium

For the glory of Communism!

Soviet Art011medium

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

Soviet Art008Medium

Space is going to serve the people!

Soviet Art002Medium

The distance to the furthest planet is not that far!

Soviet Art001Medium

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.

 

 

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