As I have noted in my previous posts (Fire & Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) on the French artist Yves Klein his entire body of work is devoted to the concept of the void. As well as the beautiful blue monochromes (inspired by the pellucid light of his birthplace, the Cote d’Azur) painted in his own patented colour International Klein Blue which conveys the pregnant emptiness of both eternity and infinity, and the Fire paintings saturated with esoteric doctrine, Klein also organised an exhibition in 1958 called Le Vide (The Void)that consisted of a empty gallery room painted entirely in white, and the photo-montage Leap Into The Void.
Leap Into the Void was an artistic action executed in 1960 involving Klein jumping from a building onto a tarpaulin held by his friends at ground level. He commissioned the photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to create the seamless photo-montage that gives the impression of flight and a wilful, ecstatic abandon. To further the illusion of flight Klein distributed a fake news-sheet to Parisian newsstands commemorating the event of the Man in Space! The Painter of Space Throws Himself into the Void!.
In contrast to Klein’s monochromatic mystical void, the Argentinian director Gaspar Noe, one of the most notable figures of the New French Extremity, fills the void with sound and fury in his crazed Freudian psycho-drama Enter The Void. A bold, brilliant and often infuriating, psychedelic exploration of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the void for Noe is a state of mind, death and the return to the source. Below is the frenetic opening credits which Noe condensed as he considered that the film was already too long. Please note that it contains flashing images throughout.
The entire text of the spell dedicated to Roger Blin (recto and verso) reads; ‘All those who have gotten together to keep me from taking HEROIN all those who have touched Anne Manson because of that Sunday May 1939 I will have them pierced alive in a Paris square and I will have them perforated and their intestines burned. I am in a Mental Asylum but this dream of a Madness will be enacted and enacted by ME-Antonin Artaud.’
In 1937 Artaud landed in Cobh, Ireland with a letter of introduction from the French Embassy. Without that letter the Irish officials would have denied Artaud admittance. From Cobh he travelled to Galway where he holed up in a hotel room he couldn’t pay for. The purpose of this strange odyssey was to return a walking stick he had acquired which he believed was the staff of St Patrick, as well as being previously owed by both Jesus Christ and Lucifer. After a brief stint in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison Artaud was deported as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. On the return ship voyage he attacked two crew members and had to be restrained and put in a straitjacket. Continue reading →
In the 2013 movie La Vie d’Adele-Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour), a masterful study of love, sexuality but above all else class, there is a particularly telling scene during the party at the beginning of Chapter 2. Invited to sit down in the home she shares with Emma, Adele is asked what she does by Emma’s friends. Her response that she is a teacher barely elicits acknowledgement and soon the conversation has turned to the Austrian artist Egon Schiele who the friend is studying for her thesis. Emma counters that though she likes Schiele she finds him too tortured, too dark and too obscure and she prefers Klimt. Klimt is dismissed by the art historian as ‘florid and decorative’. Adele looks lost and returns to her hostess duties.
Although it could be argued that the above exchange sets Klimt and Schiele in a needless competition when in real life they shared a mentor-pupil relationship (Klimt was 30 years older than Schiele), a close, long lasting friendship, muses (most infamously Wally Neuzil, who went from Klimt to Schiele and then back to Klimt again), and themes, most notably the female nude in overtly erotic situations, their art is markedly contrasting. Schiele gaze is uncompromisingly morbid, rawer and decidedly more edgy. Whereas Klimt, at least in the major paintings, is resplendent with gorgeous semi-abstract decorative motifs borrowed for Byzantine, Greek, Celtic and Egyptian art, leading it to be easily assimilated with bourgeois ideals of beauty. Regardless of this, Klimt’s work is undeniably sexy.
Klimt’s studio was populated day and night by cats and naked models. He never married and was rumoured to have fathered seventeen children on various lovers. His promiscuity resulted in syphilis which undoubtedly coloured his lush, decadent vision. He died in 1918 from complications arising from contracting influenza in the worldwide epidemic of that year that killed up to 50 to 100 million people.
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).
With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’
As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, TheRed Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.
The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.
At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’
Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:
Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on. Julian Craster: What happens in the end? Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.
Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime, the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.
Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:
Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.
The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.
J. G Ballard’s 1970 collection of interlinked ‘condensed’ novels, The Atrocity Exhibition had been the cause of considerable controversy. One of the short stories, Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan was issued as a separate booklet that had resulted in the prosecution for obscenity of the publisher. The American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition had been printed by Doubleday & Co when the company’s president Nelson Doubleday, Jr. ordered the entire run pulped as he feared potential legal action from the many celebrities featured within its pages.
Undeterred Ballard wrote Crash, a novel even more controversial and transgressive. One publisher’s reader verdict was simply, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” As Ballard express intention in writing Crash was to, “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror” and considering its extreme and disturbing content, the reader’s comment is understandable.
The narrator of Crash is an advertising executive named James Ballard (a bold, daring move: no authorial distancing to be seen here) who after being involved in a serious traffic accident that causes the death of the driver of the other vehicle, becomes obsessed with the sexual possibilities inherent in car crashes. He meets Vaughan, a rogue scientist and former television presenter, the ‘nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the leader of a clique of similarly affectless crash devotees. Vaughan has one over-riding ambition: to stage the ultimate sex death with the actress Elizabeth Taylor.
The style of Crash is hypnotically detached. As I noted in my previous post on J. G Ballard Living The High Life its hallucinatory cadences render it a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns, as can be seen from the following quote. It is also, without doubt, spectacularly deranged.
I think now of the other crashes we visualised, absurd deaths of the wounded, maimed and distraught. I think of the crashes of psychopaths, implausible accidents carried out with venom and disgust, vicious multiple collisions contrived in stolen cars on evening freeways among tired office workers. I think of the absurd crashes of neurasthenic housewives returning from their VD clinics, hitting parked cars in suburban streets. I think of the crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets: of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into brick walls at the ends of known cul-de-sacs; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted crashes on complicated interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageress burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together in roadside industrial canals.
The novel soon achieved cult status in France, unsurprisingly as the French have a long tradition of intellectual, transgressive pornography dating back to De Sade (see Philosophy in the Boudoir) and carrying on through Bataille to The Story of O. Most editions include the Introduction to the French Edition which carries Ballard’s spirited defence of pornography, as he notes “pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.”
Crash was later filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996 and was itself the subject of further controversy.
Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal…
J.G Ballard High-Rise 1975
Surely one of the darkest yet funniest openings to a novel in English fiction, J.G Ballard’s cautionary tale on civilisation and its discontents shows, in typically ambiguous fashion, that our inner natures could revolt against the conveniences of modern existence and the alienation implicit in our sanitised, mediated (un)reality.
Written in the hard-edged concrete-and-glass style of the late sixties and early seventies and hot on the heels of the experimental and spectacularly deranged The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, High-Rise, is with Concrete Island from the same period a return to a more traditional narrative framework. Eschewing the fractured, clinical and compressed ‘novels’ of The Atrocity Exhibition and the hallucinatory cadences of Crash (a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns), High-Rise follows the three main characters, Dr. Robert Laing (a reference to the author of The Divided Self) who lives on the twenty-five floor; Richard Wilder a documentary film-maker down near street level on the second floor and the buildings architect Anthony Royal who lords it over them all in the fortieth floor penthouse as the amenities within the luxurious, self-contained high-rise block starts to break down, causing the affluent, well educated residents to wilfully and joyfully participate in the destruction of the building and revert to tribalism and barbarism. Always subversive, Ballard wickedly suggests that the only possible way to be free is to regress, discarding all civilised constraints and acting upon our deviant impulses and innate cruelty.
Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well modulatedcolour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design….Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.
Ben Wheatley’s stylish film version of High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller and produced by Jeremy Thomas who was responsible for David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash was released in 2015.
The great Italian director Federico Fellini noticed Nico when she walked through the set of his most famous film La Dolce Vita and he immediately gave her a small cameo role starring as herself. This seemed to always happen to Nico, she had got her break in modelling by simply standing outside an upscale Berlin department store. With her striking, stunning beauty she was always going to attract attention.
Nico’s life is the stuff of legend and like all legends the exact details are somewhat hazy. She was either born in 1938 or 1943 in either Cologne or Budapest (though it was probably 1938 in Cologne). She started modelling at 16 in Berlin which led to a peripatetic existence that was to continue throughout her life. She spent a large part of the Sixties in New York where she met Andy Warhol and consequently become one of his Superstars, starring in his experimental extravaganzas, most notably Chelsea Girls. Warhol then decided that The Factory house band The Velvet Underground needed a chaunteuse and who better than Nico, the Teutonic Ice Queen with her distinctive husky, heavily accented monotone? The main movers in The Velvet Underground, the singer Lou Reed and the Welsh sound wizard John Cale initially met the suggestion with consternation. Nico was a notoriously capacious and difficult character who was also tone deaf. However she featured on lead vocals on three songs (Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror and All Tomorrows Parties) on their ground-breaking and hugely influential debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico.
She left the group to pursue a solo career, however she only started to write her own material at the suggestion of Jim Morrison of The Doors with who she had a particularly intense relationship. After his death she dyed her hair black and started to sport heavy, dark clothes and recorded with the help of John Cale the desolate, wintry The Marble Index in 1969, the first of three albums unmatched in their crushing bleakness. Unsurprisingly there all sold poorly, as Cale remarked ‘you can’t sell suicide,’ and Nico spent the next two decades as the junkie Dietrich. Her addiction was such that hardened drug fiends crossed the road to avoid her.
Nico’s death was spectacularly bathetic. She had finally getting her act together: successfully kicking her heroin habit and re-established relations with her adult son Ari from her relationship with the actor Alain Delon. She was on holiday with Ari in the Balearic island of Ibiza when she announced that she was off to buy some marijuana and on the way fell off her bicycle suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. A taxi driver found her on the hillside and took her to four hospitals before she was admitted. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from sunstroke before dying the next day.
Nico, known as the Moon Goddess and Queen of the Bad Girls was cremated and buried in her mother’s grave in Berlin.
A notorious image of the early cinema, the eye-ball slicing scene at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) is a shocking example of Golden Age Surrealist provocation. This short film opens with a man (the master of Surrealist shock tactics himself, Luis Bunuel) lazily sharpening a cut-throat razor, with a cigarette stuck in his mouth. He steps out onto the balcony where he stares at the full moon. In a stunning visual rhyme Bunuel slices a woman’s eye-ball and then we witness clouds dissecting and momentarily obscuring the moon. Then the movie proper starts.
Eyes, as I previously noted in Chance Encounters 2, play an important part in Surrealist symbolism. Sight is undoubtedly the primary of all senses, however for the Surrealists vision is not merely a matter of perceiving external phenomena , the visionary experience that transforms reality springs from the unconscious mind and manifests itself most markedly in dreams and madness. Only by completely abandoning ourselves to the dictates of the unconscious and following our deepest hidden impulses, not matter how perverse, can such a transformation be achieved.
Experimental film-maker and Vodou priestess Maya Deren, with the help of the Big Daddy of modern and contemporary art Marcel Duchamp crosses over into the world of ritualistic magic where the nights are longer and the shadows deeper (oh so much deeper) in 1943’s The Witch’s Cradle. The text around the pentagram and enclosed within the double circle says ‘The Beginning Is The End Is’; of course as it is circular you could read it as ‘The End Is the Beginning Is’ or any other variant, depending upon whether the glass is half-full or empty. The phrase refers to Christ’s assertion in the Book of Revelations that ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, it is usually further clarified with the additional phrase ‘the beginning and the end.’
Maya Deren’s work was a marked influence on the similarly occult inclined 60’s underground film-maker Kenneth Anger, director of such ceremonial extravaganza’s as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Lucifer Rising.
In what may or may not be a dream scene (but what parts of the movie couldn’t be construed as either a dream or a fantasy) the incomparable Catherine Deneuve as Severine/Belle Du Jour, the haute bourgeois housewife turned daytime prostitute accepts the invitation of a sinister, decadent Duke to take part in a ‘very moving ritual’ at his country Chateau.