Scapegoats, Ken Russell, and the PRB

December 15, 2012

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Reading a  book about Victorian photography,Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine, I came across these statements about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) painter William Holman Hunt and his picture, The Scapegoat:

” …with its elimination of aerial perspective, its aggressive placement of the goat in the foreground picture plane (even Ruskin could not abide its proximity) and its hallucinogenic detail and color…”

“The Jewish sacrifice of the goat, bearing away the town’s moral iniquities, was for Hunt a clear Old Testatment prefiguration of Christ…”

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This called to mind those bizarre images from Ken Russell’s Altered States.  As usual with Russell, there’s a lot more going on in his weirdness than a shallow desire to shock and be outlandish.

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M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.

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The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.

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Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.

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He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!

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In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

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There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)

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Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.

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Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.

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Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…

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…which ends up being rather successful.

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The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…

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Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.

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click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.

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Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.
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Talk about a femme fatale!

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Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.

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The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.

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The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.

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Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.

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Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.

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Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.

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With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.

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Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!

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Chabrol & Playing God – 1925

February 7, 2010

Van Horn lives and rules in 1925 forever.

Ten Days of Wonder is a film by Claude Chabrol based on a mystery novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of two cousins who produced a stream of very popular mystery tales and products in the 40s and 50s.  Chabrol said he became an avid fan during the German occupation of France:  I don’t share his love of mysteries – even Poe’s tales of deduction leave me cold – but I liked this film a lot.  It’s a weird gothic tale with a soundtrack by Bach.

I find it hard to grasp the notion of Chabrol getting the idea to make a movie of a Queen book, but, like any culture-struck Yank, I guess French means Art to me.  On their side of the sea, they are fascinated by our pop culture – Jerry Lewis, murder mysteries, noir, and detectives.  I don’t quite get it, and thus, the New Wave of French Cinema leaves me cold.  Funny, this issue doesn’t come up for me with Hitchcock, another cinematic artist who was at home with the whodunnit, and to whom Chabrol has a close connection.

In the film, the elder van Horn (Orson Welles) lives in splendid isolation in an Alsatian manor, and likes to pretend it’s 1925 – everything was good then.  His drunken mother hangs out in the attic.  His adopted son, Charles (Anthony Perkins)  worships him, but has a father complex, as well as a passion for his young stepmother, a pretty, lithe thing that God, …er Dad, rescued from rural poverty and then married.  She worships him too, of course, but loves Charles.

The two lovers fear the wrath of Father and are being blackmailed by an unknown caller who is in possession of some love letters that Charles sent.  After the second money drop, I figured out the identity of the blackmailer – am I good with voices or was I supposed to know? – but since I don’t care about cinematic exercises in deduction, it didn’t matter to me.

Charles, poor stressed-out boy, is subject to blackouts now and then that last for days,  and he fears he may kill someone during one of them.  He invites Paul Regis (Michel Piccoli), his former professor, to the manor to try and help sort things out.  Paul’s renowned logical mind can surely produce some light in his darkness, and he consents to play the part of the Ellery Queen detective figure in this drama.

I have never read an Ellery Queen, and this plot doesn’t make me want to start now.  Ah…but in this film, the entire story is a complex fabric of themes related to patriarchy, oedipal frustration, sin, repression, arrogance, Original Sin, and more…There’s something about these lapsed Catholics (Chabrol was one) – the old black magic never quite lets go.  The film seemed to me to be two running parallel at once – the weird psycho-drama,  and the tedious detective story.  Clearly Chabrol is someone I must investigate further.  The only film of his I know is La Ceremonie.

The stills below are from the mesmerizing sequence when the elder van Horn/Yahweh (Welles) exacts his terrible revenge on his young wife, Helene (Marlène Jobert)

This sequence recalled to my mind another strange film that involves a mad, arrogant, male god-figure who dispatches passive beautiful women using a straight razor with balletic finesse, The Night of the Hunter.

On the DVD, there is a comment by Chabrol that is something like, “What I like is beautiful women being sliced with razors in circumstances  très distinguées.”  Hmm…and that chilling blue!


Acts of God

January 27, 2010

It seems that the Bill McKibben view of the world is gaining traction:  there are no “acts of God,” it’s all man’s fault!  Nature is now a fiction – we live in one big humanly engineered environment, including the weather.  It’s all because we insisted on moving beyond the hunter-gatherer stage of culture.

A point of reference in this evolution of views is the article in the NYTimes today, about the residents of a small island in Alaska who want to collect damages from energy companies because their shoreline is eroding.  They demand that the corporations pay to relocate them all to the mainland.  Why?  Fossil fuel consumption is causing global warming which causes sea level rise and ice pack melt which is threatening their chunk of dirt.

The chain of causation, which should be established by scientists, not lawyers, is weak and unproven, but then there are folks in New Orleans who want to bring similar suits to recoup losses from Katrina.  But if energy companies are at fault, what about the rest of us who drive cars and cook with gas?  If this kooky logic is taken to its logical conclusion, we end up in a dystopian fantasy out of Margaret Atwood or Huxley, in which it is a capital crime to light a match or cook food because it threatens the survival of the community. As Orwell’s animals might have chanted, “Sunlight good, firepower, bad!”

I wonder – was Prometheus chained to that rock because he angered Zeus by stealing fire and giving it to mortals, or did mortals fashion the story to express their unease with him for having giving them the gift of fire that raised them from the status of “natural” animals, to men controlling their fate in nature?  The Greek version of the expulsion from Eden..?  We’re still dealing with it.


The Christmas season is upon us…

December 25, 2009

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…And unto us a child is born…

Background material to this picture here, and original source material here.   (Und auch hier..?]  And here’another star-baby:


2001: A Space Odyssey

December 28, 2008

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Once or twice a year, I watch 2001, my favorite movie, although I don’t always watch it straight through.  I have seen it so many times!

2001:  A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and, I believe, one of the greatest movies of all time.  It is a poetic statement in movement and music, almost a ballet, of ideas and fantasies about the nature of man in the universe.

The brilliance of this movie is apparent in so many ways, but I will list a few of them that always strike me:

  • The special effects are stunning, imaginative, and convincing.  No other science-fiction film has produced imagined futures that continue to look so credible after forty years!  The technology he presents is not flashy, sometimes it even seems dull, but it always looks real.
  • There are several profound themes at play in this movie:  the nature and source of intelligence; man’s condition as a special sort of animal; man’s relation to his machines and the danger of dehumanization in technological society.
  • Kubrick has succeeded in distilling the poetic essence of the story that Arthur C. Clarke produced, and he has jettisoned the adolescent and simplistic element that Clarke’s writing always has.  [See my post.]  In much of sci-fi writing, a good idea is given a poor treatment.  Kubrick takes Clarke’s idea, and turns it into an epic meditation on human consciousness, and he avoids the literalness that torpedoes Clarke’s writing.  The story ends up ambiguous, provocative, puzzling, and engrossing the more you allow yourself to be teased by it.
  • The pacing of the film is wonderful – slow and stately, with minimal dialog.  The images and the music tell the story at a level below the consciousness of speech.

Take a look…

At the “dawn of man,” a mysterious slab appears and excites the ape pre-men.  They act as if they worship it.  What would you expect them to do in such a situation?  Is this the nature of religion?  What is this slab?  We never know, except that it is clearly sent by a superior intelligence.  This idea, fundamentally absurd, was seriously believed by Clarke, and is championed today by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.  What was the origin of that life, I wonder? Kubrick isn’t fazed – he grabs the essential weirdness of the idea, the feel of wonder about how we got here that is at the center of it.

Contact with the slab sets off a spark in the ape’s mind.  The notion of a tool is born.  Tools to hunt with, to get meat, to make the group stronger.  The entire clan must know of them.  And tools for defense, or offense against rival clans!

Ape men excited      Hmm..tool.  Good idea.   Visions of meat!

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Power!  Culture…teach the kids  Power for life or death!

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The ape roars and throws his bone tool in the air – it rises, rises, falls, rises and falls into the most breathtaking cut in history, leaping across four million years into the Space Age.  It’s such an outrageous edit, it demands that we accept it as artifice (Imagine a caption…”Four million years later…”) yet it astonishes and delights.

Exaltation: the power of life, and the power to bring death!

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A space shuttle and an orbiting station dance to the Blue Danube’s waltz.  A man dozes, alone in the passenger cabin while a pedestrian romance plays on the screen in front of him.  Of course, it’s a man and a woman in a car – a machine had to be there!  The shuttle lands on the station in a choreographed rotation, the first of many images of penetration acted out by machines. [A Kubrick trope:  Recall the opening refueling sequence in Dr. Strangelove.]  Machines that have human traits, humans that seem devoid of human traits, machines pulsating with sexual imagery – it’s a strange Kubrick world.

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Leaving the space station, a pod takes the traveler to the moon base.  The seed-like capsule is accepted into the interior of the moon through an enormous set of mechanical petals.  The interior is bathed in red light evoking the womb.

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After a briefing, the traveler flies with his colleagues to a secret excavation on the moon where the slab has been uncovered.  The men eat sandwiches and drink coffee, seemingly uncaring or incapable of absorbing the enormity of what they have found – clear and irrefutable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  They know nothing of the slab, except “that it was deliberately buried two million years ago.”

“Hmm…deliberately buried…Well, you fellas have certainly found something.”  “More coffee?”

At the site, the men pose for a group photo, as would any tourist.  Once again, Kubrick captures the cliche and the mundane, and puts it to work.  While they pose, the slab emits a piercing signal directed at Jupiter.

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A mysterious space mission to Jupiter is launched to get to the root of all this slab nonsense – the Odyssey begins.  Odyssey, a mythic, epic journey.  Also, let us not forget, a homecoming.  Odysseus was going home to his wife and son – is the crew going home to Jupiter, returning to the origin of their intelligence?

The ship looks like a giant phallus, or a mechanical sperm.  The all seeing eye of the on-board computer, HAL9000 is everywhere.  He speaks with a casual, flat, almost cloying warmth.  His ‘eye’ looks to me like an egg or a growth in a petrie dish – biologico/mechanico.

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Hal has his problems.  Only he knows what the mission is about, and he’s not sure that the men, i.e., the non-machines are up to it.  It seems to go to his head, and he makes an erroneous prediction that a component is going to fail.  Or was it all a clever stratagem to get the crew off the ship together?  Frank and Dave realize that HAL is kaput, so they retreat to secluded spot to plan their next move.  HAL, however, can follow their conversation by watching their mouths move.  Some say we will know we have developed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.

HAL kills Frank, and Dave goes out to get his body.  On returning, HAL refuses to acknowledge the command, “Open the pod bay, HAL.”  An awkward conversation ensues across empty space; HAL on the giant ship, Dave in the pod.  The mechanico-genital imagery is in evidence.  HAL tells Dave the obvious – “This conversation can no longer serve any purpose.”

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I offer the image below – Dave cradling Frank’s body with the mechanical arms of the pod – as an example of the only scientific “error” I have noticed in the film.  The lamps of the space pods and of the lights around the excavation on the moon are always shown with a corona glare – there is no such thing in space where there is no atmosphere to diffuse the light rays.  Was this an accident or poetic license?  (Kubrick never gives us sounds in deep space, unless we are meant to understand that they are heard by humans inside their suits or vehicles.)

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Here we have it, the epic struggle.  Man vs. his monstrous antagonist.  Man vs. machine.  Man vs. himself, his own creations?  Dave, in his haste to retrieve his comrade, Frank, left the Mother Ship without his space helmet.  He resolves to re-enter the ship through the emergency airlock, something that HAL cooly observes “will be rather difficult without your helmet, Dave.”

Dave is, however, our Odysseus, and Odysseus was always called “The wily Odysseus.”  He is clever, and never at a loss for an idea.  The essence of man the tool-maker triumphs over his own super-computer.  Dave blasts himself into the vacuum of space inside the airlock in the climactic moment of the struggle, and manages to activate the mechanism to close the door.  The abrupt transition from dead silence to the defeaning roar of life-giving air rushing into the sealed lock signals his sucess.

Dave moves resolutely to wreak havoc on the brain of the one-eyed cyclops, HAL, disconnecting his “higher functions” while the repentant computer pleads piteously with him to stop.  Are not these higher functions, the same ones that sent man on his trajectory to meat eating and war?

HAL reaches his second childhood and asks if Dave wants to hear him sing a song.  “Yes, HAL, sing it,” replies Dave.  Dave, too, will get to his second childhood.

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With HAL shut down, the rest of the crew killed by the computer while in their coma-cacoons, Dave learns from an auto-activated recording the purpose of the mission, and sets off in his pod to Jupiter, led on by the slab that mysteriously appears  in front of him.  In a tour-de-force of special effects beloved of potheads and acid-freaks everywhere, Dave goes to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.”  What that means, we don’t know exactly, but we don’t care.  Dazzling sights, weird sounds, and frightening stop-action imagery, derange our sense of time and space as we join Dave for his, and humanity’s last voyage.

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The cold, airless, and lifeless reaches of interstellar space reveal themselves as strangely organic in yet another metaphoric transformation by Kubrick.  The mineral shall be made flesh – is that not what we ourselves are, living, thinking matter, all of a piece with the elements of the universe?  We are mostly hydrogen and oxygen, i.e. water…

There is a hint of the birth to come in an image that resembles the star child at the end, and the purpose of Dave’s journey is made clear in the interstellar spermatazoa shown at the lower right below.  He is the seed.

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The mind-bending sequence that follows goes way beyond surrealism.  It succeeds in totally disorienting the viewer in his conceptions of narrative, time, space, and location, without resorting to easy avante garde tricks.  The music by Georgy Ligeti is wonderful.

Where am I?  Where is where?  When am I?  Where am I going?

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Why am I here?  What was that noise?  Oh, there I am.  On my deathbed.

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The slab returns once more.  Dave knows what he must do, he must touch it.

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Something new is born.

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A pair of pictures related to this final image:  Christmas & Christmas

The enigmatic blogger, Pancime, commented in an exchange begun  on the esteemed blogger Jahsonic’s pages (He thought 2001 was boring!) that he thought the story of  David Bowie’s  Man Who Fell to Earth might be the tale of what happened to 2001′s starchild once he actually landed back “home.”  An excellent observation, as that film is clearly influenced by and a comment on 2001.

 


Foxy Lady

July 5, 2008

This is a late 18th century print by Rowlandson called “Reynard put to his shifts.”  It is from my personal collection, and is one of my favorites because of the dense knot of allusions, mythological, sexual, political, and satirical that it contains.  Just what is it about?

“Reynard” is the French word for fox, and it is sometimes used in English fables (in the land of fox hunting) as the name as an animal character.  The Fox referred to here is Charles James Fox , Whig opponent of the Tories.  James Gillray lampooned him often and viciously, partly because Gillray was, for a while, in the pay of the Tory party.  (Though he didn’t spare James Pitt, the Tory leader, either.)  Here is a detail of a Gillray satire of Mr. Fox  that shows him assassinating British liberty in the costume of a French sans culotte revolutionary.  (He was, for a time, a supporter of that revolution, and Gillray pilloried him as an unpatriotic sympathizer with Napoleon long after the Revolution had devoured its children.)  In my print, Mr. Fox is, of course, shown as a fox chased by some vicious hounds that bark out the names of legislative bills he supported.  A fashionably dressed woman  calls out to him, “My dear fox, get into cover,”  inviting him to run and hide beneath her skirts.  The sexual innuendo is indirect, but clear.  What is going on?

In 1784, the year this print was made, two unusual things happened in British politics:  Mr. Fox had to actually compete for his seat in parliament – usually a seat once gained, was totally safe; and Mrs. Georgiana Cavendish, an educated, brilliant, cultured, and tremendously wealthy noblewoman (shown here in a portrait by Gainsborough – she was famously addicted to gambling) who was a distant cousin, friend and supporter of Fox, went out on the hustings to drum up support for him.  (He won in the end.)  Never mind the Age of Enlightenment, this was not women’s work, and she was ridiculed and lampooned for it.

Rowlandson himself, did several satires of her political canvassing, including these two, which show Mrs. Cavendish suckling foxes at her breast, and buying votes by selling kisses.  Other less subtle prints show her groping tradesmen, not just kissing them, or playing with voters on a see-saw balanced on a penis fulcrum.


There is an additional association:  the theme of “Reynard put to his shifts,” i.e., the hunted fox at his wits end, was a common theme in popular culture of the day.  Here is an image by Carrington Bowles (1779) that shows one representation of the story with some commentary:

Reynard’s Last Shift may be read satirically as a comment on the upper-class hunters’ callous indifference to the disruption their sport brings down upon a peasant family. But we know as well that the image takes place within a narrative that here begins to yield other possibilities, among them the lascivious joke of the huntsman grabbing tail, highlighted by his reach between the legs of the alarmed woman. There is also the problem of the two genteel bystanders, woman and man, whose amused nonchalance is so striking. Is this cruel indifference or is it just possible that the young man’s gesture and her gaze indicate that they share our lascivious joke, setting up a complicity with the viewer? And indeed who are we as the imagined viewer? Possibly our 18th Century counterparts—the purchasers for a print like this—would be more of the “middling sort” who would see themselves as neither gentry or peasant, but there were always openings for alignment one way or the other. It could be that part of what made “jokes” like this so resilient in the period was a fluidity of the social structure in which the boundaries were unstable, even while readily recognizable within the visual delineation the prints suggested through such markers as dress.
from Clark University

This sort of close and entertaining analysis of satirical prints from this period of English history is found in abundance in Vic Gatrell’s fabulous book, City of Laughter:  Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London.

In this image, Georgiana is given a sort of [mock] heroic aspect, standing tall and firm, while fox cowers beneath her skirts.  The dangers to Fox’s political personna are apparent – Karl Rove is not an original thinker.  My sense also is that Rowlandson here is alluding ironically to the myth of Actaeon, with which he was certainly familiar, as would any man of his standing, all of whom were educated on the classics.  That unfortunate man, Actaeon, loved nothing so much as hunting stags with his hounds, but one day he accidentally happened on the goddess Diana naked at her bath.  She splashed and cursed him, he metamorphosed into a stag, and his own beloved hunting dogs pursued himand tore him to pieces.  He couldn’t even form words to call to them to stop.  Here, the goddess is his protector, simultaneously saving him, and by implication, emasculating him, I think.


Destroy New York!

March 13, 2008

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Flying like a cosmic homunculus-sperm through the universe at accelerated light-speed, Stardust, the hero of Fletcher Hanks’ comics, repeatedly saves New York City from destruction. In fact, he saves civilization, wherever it may be, from destruction. This is the male side of the superhero comics collection I have just discovered in I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets. (It includes a heroine, Fantomah, too.) These comics were produced in a brief spate of creativity in the early 1940s, and are now collected in a wonderful book that is available through the link provided above.

I have said too much already – the comics are so weird, so wonderful…I have never seen anything like them. Look for yourself. Here’s the first page from my favorite so far. (Click to enlarge it.)

Stardust & Anti-Gravity:  Fletcher Hanks


Hashishims – Assassins

November 16, 2007
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Could it be that this is what the acolytes of The Old Man saw?

As a boy, I was fascinated by the history of Genghiz Khan and his descendants. One of them, Hulagu Khan, knocked off the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan-i Sabbah, who had terrorized his neighbors for decades. From him, so the legend goes, the word assassin is derived. Or rather, from his fanatical cult of followers, whom he drugged with hashish or opium, transported to a beautiful garden in the mountains while they were out, and left them there for a few days to taste the “delights of paradise.” By the time they were getting used to it, he drugged them again and brought them back down to earth. Upon waking, they were told that they had glimpsed the heaven to which they would go if they died in his service. Naturally, they were willing to do anything, and they made a handy cadre of murderers who would dispatch any of his enemies anywhere. One of the earliest recorded instances of suicide terrorists?

How true is all of this? The man did exist, but beyond that, we know that the story came to Europe from Marco Polo in his travelogue about China. He’s a writer that some scholars claim never even existed! Well, that’s an extreme position, but there is doubt about whether he ever visited China at all. Nevertheless, nobody seems to doubt that he did travel through the Old Man’s territory shortly after his downfall at the hands of Hulagu.

Here’s the text from Marco:

CHAPTER XXIII: CONCERNING THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN.

Mulehet is a country in which the Old Man of the Mountain dwelt in former days; and the name means ” Place of the Aram .” I will tell you his whole history as related by Messer Marco Polo, who heard it from several natives of that region.

The Old Man was called in their language ALOADIN. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it was Paradise!

Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his assassin. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.

CHAPTER XXIV: HOW THE OLD MAN USED TO TRAIN HIS ASSASSINS

When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man’s presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: “Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.

I should also tell you that the Old Man had certain others under him, who copied his proceedings and acted exactly in the same manner. One of these was sent into the territory of Damascus, and the other into Curdistan.

CHAPTER XXV: HOW THE OLD MAN CAME BY HIS END

Now it came to pass, in the year of Christ’s Incarnation, 1252, that Alaü, Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, heard tell of these great crimes of the Old Man, and resolved to make an end of him. So he took and sent one of his Barons with a great Army to that Castle, and they besieged it for three years, but they could not take it, so strong was it. And indeed if they had had food within it never would have been taken. But after being besieged those three years they ran short of victual, and were taken. The Old Man was put to death with all his men [and the Castle with its Garden of Paradise was levelled with the ground]. And since that time he has had no successor; and there was an end to all his villainies


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