QUOTES: HERZOG’S NOSFERATU

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“As filmmakers coming of age in the early and mid-1960s, we were the first real post-war generation, young Germans with no one around who could give us points of reference. We were orphans who had no teachers and no masters to learn from and in whose footsteps we wanted to follow. The father generation had either sided with the barbaric Nazi culture or chased out of the country. A gap of thirty years opened up. As filmmakers you clearly cannot work without having some coherence with your own culture. Continuity is vital. So it was our grandfathers – Lang, Murnau, Pabst and others – who became our points of reference.

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For me, Murnau’s Nosferatu is the greatest of all German films, and feeling as strongly as I did that I needed to connect to this “legitimate” German culture in order to find my roots as a filmmaker, I chose to concentrate on Murnau’s masterpiece, knowing full well it would be impossible to better the original. When I finished Nosferatu I remember thinking, now I am connected, I have reached the other side of the river at last”.

Taken from Herzog on Herzog, published by Faber and Faber.

SAMMY HARKHAM ON WEDDING NIGHT

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At first glance, Sammy Harkham’s Wedding Night poster might seem like an exercise in ghoulish violence. The references of blood, urine and spit carry with them a feeling of anxiety and terror but also point to elements of ritual, magik and alchemy.

Creating a sort of “marriage” of elements, the image is also oddly self-referential. Pointing to some of Harkham’s previous early work – the anchor tattoo (from Poor Sailor) bandaged foot (from Typewriter) and the position of the figures is reminiscent of the Golem from Crickets.

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Martin: From what I understand, this image was taken from a painting you had done for an exhibition?

Harkham: It was a drawing that grew organically for a show at the Yerba Buena Art Museum with the theme of Werewolves. I started the drawing with the werewolf and nothing else. I had the hand out stretched in a typical monster lurch and was unsure where he was or doing. As I kept drawing I drew a female face under the hand and it started to make sense, it clicked … especially when the tongue part emerged.

As I worked on the drawing over the next couple days each element was clearly defined in my mind. I am not a fine artist, and rarely do stand alone pieces of art, but this was one of those rare drawings that went beyond being a nice drawing, and had a lot of content – at least to me. The anchor tattoo, the rings, the blood, the knife, the placement of her fingers, etc. None of these elements are just there to look good.

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Living in it, from my point of view, are ideas and symbolic imagery that address the underlying rapture and violence inherent in a ritual that proceeds to kill the individual and embrace the unity of the new bond. Mythology expert Joseph Campbell puts it as “In marriage you are not sacrificing yourself to the other person, you are sacrificing yourself to the relationship”. How does this all tie in together for you?

Harkham: It was drawn pretty soon after I got married, and it touches on a lot of things about love and lust and commitment I was just discovering (the anchor tattoo is as clear symbol of her commitment to the endurance of love that I could think of) The whole idea that’s interesting about men turning into animals is the idea of the inner self, the true-self emerging outward … I could go on and be more specific, but I rather viewers took from it what they will without my concrete interpretations.

It’s an uncomfortable piece because of its personal nature to me, and I am aware that it can be read in a sexist, violent way, but to me it is romantic and hopeful above all else.

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DVD REDESIGN: PHILIP GLASS

Really loving a film but really hating its DVD artwork is the motivation behind this series of unprompted DVD packaging redesigns, usually performed over the space of an average lunch break. Quick and fun. More nerding out here.

Glass_DVD_Final_1Seeing Chuck Close’s Philip Glass portrait above made me want to jump on the redesign of this documentary on the musician. Close’s amalgam of patterned micro dots perfectly captures the process of listening to Glass. Simple repetitions that don’t seem all that drastic or different when seen next to each other, but create a rich narrative when taken in as a whole.

Chuck Close’s unique technique of working within a pixilated grid system came out of a suffering from seizure in 1988, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. Close continues to paint with a brush strapped onto his wrist with tape, creating large portraits in low-resolution grid squares created by an assistant. The two artists have been friends and Close has painted Glass many times. They met in 1964 but didn’t become friends until 1968, when Philip Glass was pluming their lofts.

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Close first painted Glass in 1968 (above) – using a hyper realistic technique. Before his accident,  but still dividing the huge canvases in small sections. Photo on left, painting on right.

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I was able to see the 4 hour opera in September of 2012, written by Robert Wilson. Above is my redesign of the from cover of the cd box set, and below the back cover. It stands as one of my favorite artistic experiences and I was completely taken aback when I heard Wilson talk about his source inspiration for Einstein’s mysterious text:

“One of the biggest influences was when I met Christopher Knowles, a 13 year old child who was living in an institution for brain damaged, brain injured children. He was preoccupied with mathematics and geometry. Especially with language. And the way he was arranging words and sounds was not unlike Mozart. “Classical compositions” and things placed not arbitrarily but for content of the language but also very much with the sounds. And that’s when I introduced words in my play (his previous play was a 7 hour silent opera).

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I asked Chris once – who is Einstein? And he said – I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said – let me think.

And then he wrote 12 chapters and he gave them to me a couple of days later and it went something like: Would it get some wind for the sailboat. And it could get those for it is. It could get the railroad for these workers. It could be a balloon. It could be Franky, it could be very fresh and clean, it could be. It could get some gasoline shortest one” … which became the text in the piece.

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Five comments and observations taken after seeing Einstein on the Beach:

1 – Surprised that the Opera had already started when the doors opened, as people found their seats. Reminds me of a comment made about India music concerts. People are openly encouraged to come in and out whenever they want. An that there is an interesting moment that happens as the musicians tune up and people settle in … where the concert finds itself already started.

2 – Puzzled about people brushing their teeth and suddenly sticking out their tongues in the piece, till I saw this photo taken in 1951 where Einstein was persuaded to smile – but instead did this:

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3 – Movement and music. Not about narrative, but setting of mood – the delight in how they interact with each other. How the whole image / frame was flickering, little movements here and there from characters. Always mixing slow motion with normal speed, always in deep state of repetition. The effect is that it only takes a small shift in the image to suddenly OPEN up the piece. Setting it up where a sudden turn of a character’s head becomes an element of drama. You have to carefully build towards this kind of effect.

4 – Wondering about all the train imagery in it, then read Einstein’s train thought experiment: “A flash of light is given off at the center of the traincar just as the two observers pass each other. The observer on board the train sees the front and back of the traincar at fixed distances from the source of light and as such, according to this observer, the light will reach the front and back of the traincar at the same time.

The observer standing on the platform, on the other hand, sees the rear of the traincar moving (catching up) toward the point at which the flash was given off and the front of the traincar moving away from it. As the speed of light is finite and the same in all directions for all observers, the light headed for the back of the train will have less distance to cover than the light headed for the front. Thus, the flashes of light will strike the ends of the traincar at different times”.

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5 – The emotional highlight, and eventual payoff for me in experiencing the 4 hour Opera is found in the last piece called Knee Play 5. For some, Einstein on the Beach could be called modern, abstract and maybe even a little clinical in its presentation. There are highs and lows of emotions, mostly felt through the music – but its narrative doesn’t lean towards sentimentalization. And it’s all the better for it. In our over saturated world of plastic over-dramatization experienced in advertising and Hollywood films, knowing how and when to present proper drama to invoke genuine emotion is unique.

The last minute and a half of Eisnstein on the Beach does such a thing and explodes in an outpour of tenderness. The scene features an old couple holding hands on a park bench, expressing their love for each other. The emotional pull is all the more impactful because the piece has not abused, and maybe even refused to indulge in allowing such relief. The 4 hour build up of cryptic image making allows for the last minute and a half to give you contrasting kick in the face, but a gentle one full of heart.

 

 

RECORD COVERS: THROBBING GRISTLE

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Throbbing Gristle is one of the most enigmatic bands I’ve ever come across. From 1976 – 1981 they released harsh, noisy challenging music that explored the darker side of human behavior. In contrast, this record cover has to be one of the oddest visual representations of them. Confusing, bland, odd and cryptic all at the same time. Keeping with the spirit of the music on the record, something seems off with almost all of its decisions. The image is deliberately forgettable and aimed to please absolutely no one.

“From the very beginning an aesthetic of bleak, post-industrial and dehumanizing references to contemporary life were utilized in our graphics. Peter Christopherson (TG band member) worked as a part of Hypgnosis at the time. They specialized in lavish, conspicuously expensive and elitist photo-surrealist covers for the likes of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Led Zepplin and other super groups. His job also gave us, as an anarchic and status-quo-challenging cultural unit, access to the highest end of graphic design techniques and labs to execute all our packaging to the same level of quality as his other clients. This is important to remember especially in reference to the finished cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats”. – Genesis P-Orridge

The reactionary gesture is rooted in a relentless push towards alienating and violating expectations. On the surface of it all the whole enterprise ultimately allows them to break with their own past, but not without a suspicious feeling that something in the image is about to fall apart.

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The squeaky clean scenery takes a bleak turn when the backdrop is identified as Beachy Head, notorious for being a popular suicide point because of its steep dive down. The cliff there is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 531 feet above sea level. From 1965 to 1979 (the year the record was made) Beachy Head had a suicide count of 124. Approximately 14 jumps a year.

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“There was a photo that was a Hollywood still, this Hollywood still from Brigadoon that had Robert Mitchum standing wearing tweeds on a rugged clifftop … I was interested in this because it’s got a weird vibe, but I wanted to give it a bit of a twist. We were talking about having bodies in the bracken, in the grassy surface.” – Peter Christopherson

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In a very Duchamp-ian turn (who also did a piece that featured a cryptic body of a naked woman lying in a field) the above black and white image turned out to be an alternate cover used in a box set and a cd reissue. It is possible that the body was superimposed on the photo after the fact.

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Along with the revelatory bleak location and puzzling fifties retro look (before retro lounge references were trendy) the band mentions the Range Rover as being a key element of the puzzle. It was rented  (“at considerable expense, actually”) and drove down to the site of the photo shoot as part of the performance aspect of the event.

Where usual record sleeve designs try to open doors and suggest helpful paths to guide the listener in, 20 Jazz Funk Greats seems carefully considered to do the opposite. It’s a frustrating but liberating idea. The hardest thing to decode is the band’s own stance toward the image, but this distancing effect and clash perfectly sums up the spirit of the music.

In December 1978 during a visit to my parents my mother, Muriel, who was well aware of the controversial nature of our images mentioned to me after hearing that we were making a new record – Why can’t you make a nice record for a change? Something nice like flowers and why can’t you you all smile for a change? For some reason, for all the wrong reasons, this idea stuck in my head.” – Genesis P-Orridge

* Notes and comments above were taken from / after reading Drew Daniel’s book about the record, part of the 33 1/3 music book series.

10 GOREY DETAILS

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The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux is a 166 page book filled with notes, comments and stories about the oddball illustrator. The book isn’t interested in mapping our a straight narrative – most biographies are, but Theroux is satisfied with filling his pages with piles of oddities. No need for “Edward Gorey was born in …” jumps right into the good stuff. Here are a few of my favorite tidbits, along with images taken from the Gorey household after his passing in 2000.

1 – He bought a satellite dish for his roof to get hundreds of channels on his television set. “I’m a gadabout. I love having The X-Files on tape and stuff. The Golden Girls may have fallen off a bit, but they’re still marvelous. I tend to think that television movies tend to be better than regular movies.”

2 – Gorey never married. “I have never been emotionally involved with anyone.”

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3 – “My favorite thriller of all time is The Lady Vanishes,” Gorey once pronounced with finality. He agreed with me that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique was the most “terrifying movie of all time,”   and he insisted that every director plagiarized from it.

4 – He liked the way Humphrey Bogart said “Thursby” in The Big Sleep.

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5 – He was fond of Ian Fleming and the Bond books long before they became popular in the United States, and I believed joined in the peculiar if harmless habit Bond fanatics have in always sending cards to each other signed 007.

6 – He confessed to talking, during performances of Swan Lake, “little naps where the corps de ballet is thrashing through it and rushing about.” He once told me that he had seen 150 Nutcrackers, claiming that although he loathed that Christmas ballet, he had “just got in the habit.”

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7 – I Wanted to publish everything under a pseudonym from the very beginning,” Gorey told interviewer Robert Dahlin, “but everyone said, What for? And I couldn’t really explain why I wanted to. I still don’t know exactly, except that I think what you publish and what you are are two different things. I really don’t see that much connection.”

8 – Gorey’s stepmother from 1936 to 1952 was, curiously enough, Corinna Mura – the exotic looking guitar player cabaret-singer called Andrea who may be remembered for her vivid rendition of “La Marseillaise” in the classic movie, Casablanca in 1942.

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9 – I would have loved to have read one particular play that he wrote after college for the Poet’s Theater in 1952, part of an evening’s entertainment that quite prefigured his later work. It was called The Teddy Bear: a sinister play, and in it a stuffed Teddy bear strangles infants while their fat dopey parents gamble and play cards.

10 – The secret code to reach Gorey – one that he gave out to certain friends – was to call him, let it ring once, hang up, then call back. And he would almost always answer.

RASL: COMICS REVIEW

RASL_Full_Crown_1.1“It would be so simple to split the world like an apple.”  – Nikola Tesla

Context: In 1991 Jeff Smith released the first issue of a black and white comic book serial called Bone. It was an impressive debut that found Smith, already fully formed, producing unique adventure comics in a notoriously terrible time in the medium’s history. Bone became one of the biggest success stories in comic book publishing, eventually reprinted in color by Disney and Scholastics. Four years after Bone’s 2004 finale, RASL is Jeff Smith’s follow up series.

Story: A scientist turned art thief (RASL) is thrown into an adventure story that involves him having to travel through different dimensions in order to steal priceless, original artwork. His crime spree stops short when he finds himself followed by an odd-looking salamander secret agent and a phantom mute girl. He is being hunted down because of a series of lost journals he has in his possession that once belonged to renegade scientist Nikola Tesla.

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Influences and background: Smith’s background is in animation, and he even owned his own small studio called Character Builders in 1993. He’s also cited an early university strip called “Thorn” and its tight daily deadline for 4 years as a good schooling for making comics. His influences are deeply rooted in older works including Carl Barks, Charles Schultz and more importantly, Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

Look and feel: Above everything else what really stands out and is a real joy to look at in a Jeff Smith book is the artwork, especially in the original black and white runs of his books (he often colors them afterwards in updated editions). Another surprising element from Smith is that he is one of the rare cartoonists still working in individual 32 page serial outputs.

RASL_Sal_Face_1_6RASL’s artwork pops with a real focused line holding a mix of gentle curves and geometric page layout designs. Clean, fast and crisp. His drawings are intelligent enough to avoid using the page as a poor man’s film camera all the while relishing in the medium’s ability to present an exaggerated, malleable, hyper reality.

His animation background becomes apparent in the pacing and overall rhythm of how he makes you travel the page … building up to moments, holding beats, distracting the eye and finally handing you the payoff.

He mostly works within a 6 tier panel grid as the foundation of his design, and then deviates from that when needed. This is traditional, conservative comics pages that rely on grounded storytelling instead of flashy layouts. Seems simple, but too few do it well, especially in adventure comics.

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Film noir & science fiction: The tone and mechanics behind RASL is drenched in film noir mannerisms, and to align itself with its ethos Smith presents the story to us through an unlikable (or at least at first, an unreliable) protagonist. A friend of mine recently boiled down the elements to a film noir story as being: A hotel room, a dame and a bottle. RASL has all three.

But any new work in that genre projects, whether you like it or not, a sense of self-consciousness. If done well, the result carries a sense of homage and nostalgia, and at its very worst it turns into parody. Smith is able to keep a tight focus on injecting the story with the right amount of respectable genre elements and at times even jumps into parody, which feels intentional.

So while the dialogue is sometimes a bit clunky, it all evens itself out nicely because of the drawings … that is to say his writing and cartooning are one and the same, he writes in images. And he’s one of the best doing that in adventure comics.

RASL_Sketch_Coffee_1In seeing some process work for RASL, one thing that stood out for me was his use of computer lettering. I think he is the only cartoonist I follow that does this.

Even tho the story was divided into fifteen single issues (often months apart) Smith didn’t hold back from anchoring the story arch with proper pacing and slowing things down between the action. It meant leaner issues if you read in in the singles (I read it back to back in the softcover editions) but more than anything, it’s this attention and dedication to slower moments that make it enjoyable and rewarding.

RASL_Full_Page_1Favorite page: Some of the best cartooning in the book is Smith recreating the mysterious, and possibly Tesla related Philadelphia experiment (this section does not fit in the mini history lessons mentioned in the critisism section). The sequence underlines the frightening results of dimension traveling, logistics of emerging in the wrong place, most notably in walls or structures. The page ends up that acting as an emotional reminder of what RASL is fighting to stop.

RASL_Hand_1Favorite panel: At a point where the dimensions are rubbing up against each other, strange things start to happen. Sums up RASL’s fun, surreal and adventurous tone.

Criticism: RASL’s narrative sets up a system that allows the story to jump from its main narrative to small history lessons taken from Nikola Tesla’s life. This often breaks a bit of the pacing. They didn’t bother me much other than the fact that the visual treatment of these sections are slightly different than the fiction portions; less cartoony, a bit stiffer and not as polished. I suspect this happened because of possible photo references, but it creates a subtle shift in the mood. And I’m not sure yet if this was intentional.

DVD RE-DESIGN: GUMMO

Really loving a film but really hating its DVD artwork is the motivation behind this series of unprompted DVD packaging redesigns, usually performed over the space of an average lunch break. Quick and fun. More nerding out here.

Gummo_1.1Gummo is full of fuzzy images, polaroid pictures, lost super 8 footage, staged 35mm dolly shots, crunchy audio, metal music and pop tunes.

It’s a bombastic first film from a 24 year old Harmony Korine that has tunnel vision focus – forget about conventional narrative structures, only keep the good parts you’ve filmed and put them together. It reminds me of John Zorn talking about his musical block structures (they both use a similar cue card system). Taking independent ideas and imposing that they fit as a whole. Stravinsky did the same – and the overall effect it has for me with Gummo is the feeling of a structure that allows for endless cinematic possibilities. Its best moments are when Korine indulges in mixing images with music. When I think of movie moments that have resonated with me, they are often telling a story with only those elements.

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A favorite scene of mine is the introduction of the main character, a boy Korine found in a Dunkin Donuts commercial. He has a new face – one I’ve never seen in cinema before. The camera swoops down and a perfectly placed metal song by Dragonaut crashes in to give the mood a sense of false empowerment. Two boys are driving their bikes around the neighborhood, their BMX’s crisscrossing as they methodically scan the area. On the prowl, looking for cats to kill with their BB guns. A perfect moment happens when the music and lyrics sync up with the smaller boy slightly turning at the camera and looking at the viewer.

Following in the footsteps of his mentor Werner Herzog, Korine also uses a mix of real actors and non actors. While he claims that 75% of the film was scripted, many scenes seem improvised. It’s as if he wants to set up situations with the non actors that will surprise him and capture genuine moments, on the spot. I’ve noticed that he will often introduce an element of tension in these exchanges, and that sometimes actors will look off screen, or at at the crew when pushed into corners they didn’t expect or don’t want to follow.

GummoA good example of this is when 2 brothers are filmed fighting. Even Kubrick, in a film like Barry Lyndon uses overly dramatic audio effects when designing the sound in fight scenes – in Gummo all is shot in one take, no sound manipulations.

Did it just happen, or were they instructed to start fighting? Was one brother told to start while the other was unaware – or does he seem to anticipate something when crossing his arms before it starts, to protect himself? The scene is one shot, no edits, real punches (one brother seems to look at the crew at one point to indicate that it’s possibly passed his level of comfort). “I’ve seen them fight each other way worse. I’ve known those brothers since I was a kid” – Korine. The result is of genuine tension, the camera getting closer when curious and moving back when afraid. 

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