Saturday, 27 July 2013

Crystal Palace might rise from the ashes

The Crystal Palace was a milestone in architectural history but the Victorian original perished in a conflagration in 1936. It now seems that it might be recreated thanks to Chinese investment.

Designed for the 1851 Great Exhibition by Joseph Paxton the glass-and-steel original was located in London's Hyde Park. Its lofty, transparent halls hosted the many wonders that were brought from far and wide for what was arguably the event of the century. Even to the untrained eye, the building was a remarkable structure with its almost transparent walls and rooves. The science behind the engineering was equally innovative, for Crystal Palace employed modular design on a scale not previously seen. This step-and-repeat process, combined with new techniques of steel manufacture, was the thing which allowed the structure to be both so impressive and affordable.

It was always understood that the building would have to be moved once the Great Exhibition had closed its doors, and after some negotiation it was re-constructed at a location in South London (the area is now known simply as 'Crystal Palace' accordingly). The Palace proved lacking in its new home and failed to earn its keep as the years went by. Fire destroyed the structure in 1936 and the glow from the conflagration could be viewed from as many as eight neighboring counties. Since the ruins were demolished the site has had a troubled economic history, but the famous concrete dinosaurs (by sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings) which survived the fire still draw tourists and retro-paleontologists alike.

Today The Guardian newspaper has reported that Shanghai-based company wishes to create an exact replica of the Palace. However, it seems the project is in its early stages and the UK's notoriously strict planning laws (and all the associated local politics) might mean its years before the plans are approved. By then, the human race might have perished and concrete dinosaurs once again rule the earth.

Previous mention of the Palace in association with terrifying pterodactyls can be found here.

The Palace as it appeared in the Great Exhibition in 1851 at its original home in Hyde Park.

The same view of the Palace during the fire of 1936 in South London.

A photo I took in 2006 of some of the aquatic dinosaurs sculpted by Waterhouse Hawkins.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Mildly NSFW: Kenneth Anger's 'Lucifer Rising'

An interview with the underground author and filmmaker Kenneth Anger has just been published in The Guardian. In the piece he expresses frank views about some of those he collaborated with during the making of his film Lucifer Rising. Clearly it was not an easy shoot, plagued as it was with drug abuse and artistic fallings-out.

The film is a languid montage of Thelemite symbolism and features some amazing location footage. It has been interpreted as a prophesy of the death of the old Hebrew religions as humanity enters a new era of nihilistic worship of Lucifer.  For me the draw of the film is not simply its imagery of ancient locations and occult sets, but the equally strange set of real-world stories surrounding the production.  Most famously the actor and musician Bobby Beausoleil was fired from the film (allegedly for drug abuse) and thereafter fell in with Charles Manson. He was later convicted of one of the Manson Family killings and is still incarcerated. He and Anger repaired their relationship and Beausoleil later wrote the score for Lucifer from his prison cell.

Below is the full film, but I also urge you to listen to Beausoleil's soundtrack which is available on Spotify.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Amazing Aliens art

Some time ago I downloaded a massive package of material to do with Giger and the Alien franchise. Amongst the vast number of images were the gems below. I thought I'd share them with you as they're too good to be kept under wraps.

I have blogged before about my fascination with the way the Giger's Alien has become embedded in our culture as a modern day boogie man and replacement antichrist. These works of staggering genius serve to show that the xenomorph continues to inspire talented artists from across the globe.

These images are, I am sure you'll agree, quite terrifying.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Open world video games and The Drowned Man

Last weekend I went to see The Drowned Man, the latest show by Punchdrunk - the bleeding-edge UK-based theatre company. They have become the leaders for a kind of theatre-in-the-round variously termed "immersive" and "site-specific". In practical terms this means audiences are issued identical masks and then allowed to wonder at will through a series of intricately detailed rooms while actors (sans masks) perform amongst them. Inspired by the famously unfinished play Woyzeck by Georg B├╝chner The Drowned Man is a tale of betrayal, murder, paranoia and power set in a distinctly Lynch-ian Hollywood film studio in 1962.

I had seen Punchdrunk's 2007 Masque of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Centre and it was one of the most moving and seminal experiences I've had. Drowned therefore had a lot to live up to, but I am pleased to say it was an equally amazing night. I don't want to talk too much about the specifics of the piece here as it'll spoil the surprise for anyone who is yet to see it. However, I want to explore the production's relationship to open-world video gaming within the context of worldbuilding.

I heard a story (alas, un-verifiaible) that the designers of Half Life 2 posed  the question, "What happened here an hour ago, a day ago and a year ago?" when designing the locations for the game. Something quite similar to this has been used by Punchdrunk when constructing their sets. Their approach is the opposite to the broad-brush impressionism that has been the staple of theatre for centuries. Because audience members can, quite literally, crawl through their sets Punchdrunk load spaces with rich detail. In the case of Drowned genuine vintage 60s memorabilia is heaped along with lovingly re-created replica ephemera. This is very much in keeping with the current trend of open-world games which seek to create vivid and believable worlds in which their games are set. I have been playing Dishonored a lot recently and have been enjoying all the incidental diaries, textbooks, religious treatises and broadcasts as much as the missions themselves. Indeed, Punchdrunk have also adopted the use of the Easter Egg. I found graffiti on the backs of the film-set flats. It was lists of High School conquests scrawled by the supposed set builders during their work.

The world of Drowned is a perpetual twilight of a warm Californian night. All the film sets, costume rooms and offices that feature in the narrative(s) give the impression that they have been closed for the evening by staff who have just left. These murky spaces are peppered with tea lights or low wattage bulbs which cleverly serve to direct or draw attention to details, much in the same way as open world games. Not only does shadow provide an unsettling ambiance, it also reduces the work placed on the set designers (be they theatre or digital) by hiding large portions of space.

I think that the work of Punchdrunk and the open-world games which they (perhaps unintentionally) resemble articulates the growing importance of worldbuilding in entertainment. This is due to a complex set of reasons, two of which are predominant. Publishers are now increasingly aware of the value implicit in worlds that can sustain multiple stories and therefore multiple products. The dominance of The Sequel at the box office and in video game charts is testament to this, along with all the web-media, comic and animation spin-offs we increasingly see. Secondly (and more relevant to Punchdrunk), as technology continues to develop apace and we approach something resembling virtual reality with all its glorious detail, we need sufficiently detailed worlds in which to set these products. The endlessly repeating walls of Doom are a generation behind us now and audiences expect to move from one distinct, believable, space to the next.

A shot of the set dressing from Punchdrunk's 2007/8 production of The Masque of the Red Death. This one small desk was littered with exquisite props both vintage and re-created. This is typical of the level of detail found throughout their productions, and was a tiny fraction of what was used in Masque.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Leged of Hell House vs The Haunting

Screenwriter Richard Matheson died last month leaving an impressive collection of work including the novel and later screenplay for The Legend of Hell House. The story was filmed by John Hough and released in 1973 and is a solid addition to the canon of British horror movies. Matheson's novel is a knowing re-imagining of the 1959 story The Haunting of Hill House by author Shirley Jackson. This was filmed by Robert Wise and released as The Haunting in 1963 to an excellent reception. The two works are very similar in plot, but quite different in the execution of their celluloid adaptions.

Broadly, both tales feature small groups of psychic investigators who stay in a notorious mansion reputidly haunted by the ghost of a tyrannical aristocrat. The drama is played out through the in-fighting and paranoia amongst the group, and their battle against the house as it tries to breed discord and frighten them away. The more vulnerable psychics are battered, while the cooler scientists are baffled then antagonised (particularly through the ill-treatment of their spouses). Things don't end well and audiences are left with a muted sense of uneasiness.

The earlier Haunting is a tightly-woven supernatural thriller relying on clever lighting, camera effects and sound design. It is, I think, the better of the two by quite a distance. It is also noteworthy for featuring an early an relatively sensitive cinema portrayal of a lesbian character. The psychic Theodora's homosexuality is implicit in the script (although earlier drafts were not so subtle) and serve to add believable tension to the film. Legend is not without merit. Matheson's tale is more gratuitous and scares through graphic violence and sexuality.

Both tales are good exercises in the "Ten Little Indians" horror trope. This is the term for those tight tales set in single locations where the protagonists are lined-up to die. Their demise is assured, but exactly how it happens is what keeps the audience's attention. Legend and Haunting provide ingenious solutions to this and make great additions to the canon.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A Field in England

Ben Wheatley's A Field in England was released this week. A contemporary re-imagining of 70s explorations into witchcraft psychedelia the trailers show a startling blend of Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General and Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising. Hallucinogens made from ground mushrooms send Civil War-era dissidents into a frenzy as they search for buried treasure in the eponymous field.

The website features a wealth of 'making of' documentaries which are high on my to-watch list. I particularly like the bold graphic design of the film's posters. The high-contrast photography, watercolour toned 'sun' and vintage paper is quite striking.

Via feuilleton

Monday, 1 July 2013


'Tangiers is a dark, surreal game – a love letter to the avant-garde of 20th century. It’s a world built from the broken prose of Burroughs, from the social dystopic brought about by Ballard’s architecture. Looking at the Dadaists playing with the absurd, the grotesque, the playful – at Throbbing Gristle teasing the edge of public decency with homemade tape loops. Exploring the dark, ambient textures of Oophoi, of David Lynch, the contradiction in finding solitude in violent strokes of light and shadow. The uncivilized, primitive dance of Artaud.'

Oh god! This looks hands-down AWESOME!

Via feuilleton