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Originally published at Al Robertson. You can comment here or there.

Years ago, when I was about ten, I briefly had a particularly terrible teacher. He was a hateful, poisonous old man, loathed by all his pupils for his spite and malice. I’m not sure how he ended up teaching, and to this day I really don’t understand how he held onto his job.

For a short while, though, I saw another side to him.

When the Falklands War began, he put a big map of the islands up at the bottom of the school stairs. Every morning he’d carefully move little coloured pins across it, updating us all on the latest positions of the British and Argentinian Forces.

There was an entirely uncomplicated, entirely boyish glee to him as he did this. A child myself, I saw the ten year old in him. I imagined him back in the ’40s, his life still rich with love and promise, following the Allied troops as they fought for Europe, marking out their progress on a map with little pins.

He’d have been old enough to understand the scope and importance of their achievement, but still too young to really take in how much pain and loss that victory contained. Perhaps his war had been some sort of ‘Hope and Glory’ experience:

And so when another war came towards the end of his life, he was full of joy. For a moment, he could be a child again. I still loathed him, but I was happy for him too – glad and even touched that, even just for a moment, he could find a way past the fog of bitterness that normally enveloped him.

I’m reminded of him now, when I see Michael Howard rattling sabres at Spain:

There’s that same nostalgia there; at once a yearning for and a re-experiencing of a simpler, happier time. And there’s that same joy at the thought of a Great British war, that same absolute blindness to any of its darker aspects.

But what’s forgivable – even touching – in an ageing primary school teacher is appalling in a senior British politican. Brexit as currently managed is government by fantasy and nostalgia. All adult considerations are put aside, replaced with a short-sighted, childish glee that – if allowed to reign unchecked – could cost us all so much, for so little.

I think even my bitter old teacher would have seen that. He taught us history; and the one thing he was always very clear about was that we didn’t fight the Second World War against Europe. We fought for it and as a part of it:

So, to my surprise, I almost find myself wishing that he was here now, so he could teach the Michael Howards of this world exactly what it means to walk away from, to so casually dream of shattering, that peaceful union we’re all a part of; that union that past generations fought so hard, and gave so much, to create.

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Originally published at Al Robertson. You can comment here or there.

So here’s Iain Sinclair, talking about London while wandering in Haggerston Park and Bethnal Green:

He’s sadder here than I’ve ever seen him. He talks in the film about how London has changed into something he can no longer engage with – that writers in general can engage with – in any particularly constructive way. But I think there’s also something very personal behind his grief.

Tom Raworth, a very major, often astonishing poet, died back in February. There’s more on him here. Sinclair knew him well and was – is – greatly influenced by him. He mentions his death at the end of this LRB piece, a companion to the film. I think the film is in part an elegy to him, and to a particular milieu which once surrounded Sinclair but is now slowly and inevitably slipping away.

And of course Sinclair’s more overt concerns about London are both very genuine and very incisive. Most of the film was shot within a few minutes walk of my own final London flat. I once knew that area well, but when I visit it now I feel a very absolute sense of slippage. London has moved away from me, too. There’s a sense of radical change afoot that is hard to keep up with, and both painful and (for someone less closely involved with the city) fascinating to watch.

And I write this on the day that Theresa May’s Article 50-triggering letter reaches Brussels and Brexit proper begins. I’m European as much as I am British – I spent my early years in France. I speak French, some German and Latin, which lets me read Italian and Spanish. I’ve found deep riches in all those cultures. And I’m British as much as I am English. My family on both sides is ultimately Scottish and I spent four immensely formative student years up there.

Brexit is at best profoundly suspicious of and at worst deeply corrosive to those international parts of me, and more broadly to those of England and Britain; to that positive, open European identity that the best parts of the 20th Century fought so hard for. So I felt for Iain Sinclair as he wandered through streets that he’d once felt lost in, and that he’d worked so hard to understand, and that were now puzzling him all over again. His film helped crystallise the sense of loss I’m feeling, without once directly referring to its cause. If you have fifteen minutes today, I’d recommend watching it.

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Originally published at Al Robertson. You can comment here or there.

With Waking Hell coming out I thought I’d do a couple of ‘making of’ posts – two bookumentaries, if you will. One of them’s on the music that inspired the book – it’s up over on the Gollancz blog.

And this is the other one, about four of the films that helped inspire it. So now sit back, grab your popcorn and relax as I make like Alex Cox and introduce you to… WakingHellodrome!

 

Night of the Demon

When I started writing Waking Hell, I had one very definite ambition for it. I wanted it to be a very pure science fiction book that also worked as a horror novel. So, I went back to some of my favourite horror movies for inspiration.

I’ve always loved Jacques Tourneur’s The Night of the Demon (also known, as in the trailer below, as Curse of the Demon). Its hero, Dr John Holden, is a strict rationalist who falls prey to an entity that forces an entirely new world view on him. His antagonist, Julian Karswell, is at once a boisterous clown and a terrifyingly effective black magician.

I was fascinated by how the film mapped and explored those contrasts. And I loved the sense of mysterious, remorseless pursuit that suffuses it. Both fed very directly into Waking Hell.

Oh, and Night of the Demon is based on M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes. James too was a big influence on Waking Hell. In particular, there’s something oddly intimate about many of his hauntings. So much of his horror peaks late at night, in bedrooms. One of the book’s key scenes contains an oblique nod to that.

 

Buffet Froid

This is a film that – when I first saw it as a teenager – blew my mind. It’s a profoundly odd movie, its characters deeply absurd, its settings (for the most part) a series of brilliantly used late night Paris locations. It’s shot through with a very strong sense that – with the world asleep – anything can happen. Those who remain awake no longer live within our city, they’ve fallen into its dream of itself.

That was something I wanted to capture in Waking Hell, that sense of being trapped within a city that has suddenly become completely other, no longer a home but rather a trap. Buffet Froid was the film that most directly inspired that, but I also drew on a long line of ‘estranged in the night’ movies – The Warriors, Round Midnight, Subway and so on.

As you read Waking Hell, hopefully you’ll see how all these percolate through into its heroine Leila’s adventures. She too is overthrown by night; the darkness both hides the world she’s always known and reveals a new one, more complex, more dangerous but potentially also more rewarding than any she’s known before.

 

Le Frisson Des Vampires

This is a very strange film indeed. On the one hand, it’s a 70s exploitation horror movie, with many of the flaws that that implies. On the other, it’s utterly engrossing and original, shot through with genuine surrealism and driven by three of the most peculiar vampires on screen. Watching it feels like spying on someone else’s dream.

The first vampire we meet casually unsqueezes herself from within a grandfather clock. She has two male companions, who slowly but surely take over the film. I found them an utterly hypnotic presence. They’re all over this trailer, too:

On the one hand, they’re a completely absurd duo. They’re given to nonsensical pseudo-intellectual lectures on occult history, they’re pretty ineffectual and their fashion sense is astonishing. Drawing on an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of early 70s hippy finery, in every scene they look like they’ve dressed up as several members of the Monkees at once.

But on the other, I found in them a profoundly unsettling sense of menace. At first, that seemed utterly bizarre. I couldn’t work out why they spooked me so much. Understanding why these 70s relics had such a hold over me helped me define some of Waking Hell’s key bad guys – the Pressure Men.

 

Quatermass and the Pit

The past and the future have one thing in common – they contain everything. Science fiction normally looks to the everything of the future for inspiration, but Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale took the opposite tack. In Quatermass and the Pit, he wrote the past as if it was the future.

In the world of the film, a fully SFnal Martian invasion is already ancient history. His characters’ challenge is to deal with it not as a thing yet to come, but as an undeniable, ineradicable fact that radically changes their sense of the past and with it the very nature of their present. For them, memory plays that role that SF usually gives to foresight.

This was a huge inspiration for Waking Hell. I was fascinated by that recasting of SF as a tool to not just look backwards and explore memory but to understand it as the one thing without which the present and the future can’t exist.

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Originally published at allumination. You can comment here or there.

Today this has been hypnotising me, on and off. It’s John Foxx and Karborn’s cut-up movie, a Ballardian dream of the end of a century – and so much more:

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

I spent last night at the British Council’s wonderful ‘Who Were We?’ event at the BFI. They were unveiling their film collection, which has just gone online here.  It was a wonderful evening, for many different reasons.

First of all, it was the end of a rather wonderful process I helped begin back in 2009. I researched and blogged about the British Council films as part of their 75th anniversary celebrations – you can check out my posts and videoblogs here. It was a fascinating project, part of a wider Tuttle Club engagement with the British Council through their thinktank Counterpoint.

Secondly, it was great to catch up with the TIME/IMAGE people who’ve spent the last 18 months or so researching and digitising the films that are now online. They’ve done a wonderful job – it’s very much thanks to them that the archive is now so easily available and so well contextualised.

And finally, there are the films themselves. I’ve written about them extensively elsewhere, so won’t talk about them in too much detail here. Suffice to say, they’re wonderful artefacts.

On the one hand, they’re beautifully crafted masterclasses in delivering detailed information in a concise, easy to digest form. Some of Britain’s finest creative talent worked on them – cameraman Jack Cardiff, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, directors Ken Annakin and Mary Beard, and so on.

On the other, they encode a very specific vision of Britain and its place in the world, one that’s in some ways inspiring but in others deeply problematic. Watching them raises fascinating questions about how we saw ourselves then, how we see ourselves now, and how  we (and the world) have changed along the way.

Anyway, enough description. The best way to get to understand the films is to watch them! So, here are three of my favourites. First of all, here’s propaganda piece ‘Little Ships of Britain’, connecting 1940s warfare to deep rural time:

Secondly, the hypnotically surreal ‘Life History of the Onion’ -

And finally, a Technicolour mini-masterpiece, shot beautifully by Powell and Pressburger’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff – ‘The Western Isles’:

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Originally published at allumination. Please leave any comments there.

I saw James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ over Christmas. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, injecting new possibilities for the creation of wholly artificial, wholly convincing dramatic worlds into cinema. In that, it reminded me of Masaccio’s masterpiece ‘The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and Two Donors’, in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church:

Masaccio’s work was the first painting to build on Brunelleschi’s understanding of the mathematics of perspective. It demonstrated new possibilities for the two dimensional representation of three dimensional space, creating an image that attempted to directly map, rather than indirectly represent, an imagined space. In that, much like Cameron’s film, it was at once radical, and revolutionary; in fact, it’s generally regarded as one of the key catalysts that triggered the Renaissance.

However, ‘The Holy Trinity’ was also a very conservative work. It was commissioned by the very wealthy Domenico Di Lenzi, who kneels at bottom left. He is dressed as a Gonfalonier of Justice, the titular head of the Florentine republic. His wife kneels opposite him; the tomb beneath them is a family tomb.

The surging structure of the image – leading the eye up from the tomb and its skeleton, past Domenico and his wife, and towards the Trinity, makes it clear that the way to Christ is through the pillars of Florentine society; its powerful families, its civic functionaries. Earthly political, judicial and financial structures are the first step on the way to divine structures. To question one is – by implication – to question the other. Wealth and power are divine properties, automatically deserved by those who hold them.

Much comment has been made on the supposedly subversive properties of ‘Avatar’. James Cameron’s film has been read as being deeply anti-corporate. Certainly, its narrative – proceeding in crude, black and white terms – shows those beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘bad’, and those not beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘good’.

However, when viewed from an economic and technical point of view, it becomes clear that ‘Avatar’ is in fact a ferocious corporate rearguard action, responding to the democratisation of film making and distribution that digital technology enables.

Budgetted at $500,000,000, it is an artefact whose cost is so huge that it – and others like it – can only be commissioned by corporate interests. Technically speaking, its central achievement – the 3D experience – can only be fully experienced in large or IMAX venues. Again, these are exclusively owned and operated by corporate interests.

‘Avatar’ masquerades as a radical critique of corporate power. Technically, it in fact reinforces that corporate power, attempting to reclaim peak cinematic experience (and, by implication, corporate resistance) as something that can only happen as a result of corporate mediation. In that, it is directly equivalent to Masaccio’s masterpiece which – for all its technical brilliance – preaches that the only way to enlightenment is through the state and its pillars. Both works are – in the final analysis – propaganda, surprisingly equivalent in their aims and achievements.

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