Saturday, January 25, 2014

The uncommon sense of nonsense

"Do you remember how, when we were children, we'd leaf through picture books and, pretending we could read before the children older than us, fantasize about the images we saw there? Who knows, I thought to myself, perhaps unintelligible and alien writing could make us all free to once again experience those hazy childhood sensations. At the time, the quest for this new alphabet seemed to me to be the most urgent thing that had to be done." (Luigi Serafini)

So, finally, Luigi Serafini's masterpiece Codex Seraphinianus has recently been re-published by Rizzoli. This masterpiece of creative imagination has never been surpassed since its latest release in 1981. There is simply no other book like it. I don't think there ever will be either.

On page after page we can study exquisite color pencil drawings of weird warps of perception made by Italian architect, artist and designer Serafini between 1976 and 1978. Figurative beauty melts away into grotesqueries, ordinary things are rearranged into extraordinary, perspectives are skewed and screwed, colors are saturated to enhance extra dimensions... Hundreds of drawings get stuck in your mind, which reacts to each single one with a flashing question mark and a soft tilt of the entire perceptive system.

Close by the literally incredible drawings are writings in a language and alphabet entirely of Serafini's own making. It's a beautiful script which makes perfect sense in its own way. Of course, one becomes curious... What does it say? What is the meaning? But those kinds of petit-bourgeois angles become redundant already on page one. There is nothing to be understood here. Or everything. You can decide for yourself (I hope).

The mysterious impressions of such an ambitious project naturally got metaphysical problem-solvers started already after the first editions of the book... Is there perhaps a code in the Codex? Is there a hidden meaning? Comparisons with the Voynich Manuscript of the 15th century have been made, and speculations have been overflowing... In comparing the two as phenomena rather than as single books, it's not unlikely that Serafini has been inspired by the Voynich Manuscript. But that in itself says nothing of coherence or meaning in either volume. Which is probably a good thing.

Serafini himself discloses some of the genesis of the project in a booklet called Decodex (included in the book). As a 27 year old artist, he was making drawings of humans with strange prostheses and realized he needed some texts and captions to go with them. To get back to the childlike fascination and amazement when flipping through encyclopedias, he simply made up his own.

The idea is of course interesting. The execution is that of a master's. But, let's not forget that he himself also ascribes many of the ideas for both drawings and letters/sentences to a stray white cat that he took in at his apartment in Rome. The symbiosis with the cat was apparently instrumental in the creation of the book. Echoes of Lovecraft and Burroughs, anyone?

Petty provocations create petty responses. But a book such as Serafini's, besides being a truly magnificent work of art, is a penetrating provocation on so many sophisticated and subtle levels that I wouldn't hesitate to call it almost "corrupting". Not in any essentially "moral" way, but simply in how it so elegantly draws you into a world overwhelmingly alluring and attractive, yet also completely coercive and persuading in its relentless energy. It's very hard to leave the Codex Seraphinianus once you're inside. And why would one want to leave this remarkable universe?

In terms of creative mania, perhaps one could compare Serafini with Henry Darger or similar more pathological artists. But the comparison stops there, in the intensity and devotion to a massive and more or less incomprehensive oeuvre. Where Darger's legacy left us/the art world with a million pathetic and slackered infantilists, regurgitating the same baby-noir mannerisms over and over, Serafini's work is like a Leonardo da Vinci's for the imminent apocalypse.

He delves through flora, fauna, technology, the human being, construction, engineering and fantasy in an inimitable way – he might as well have illustrated a "real" flora and would have done a great job at it.

This brilliant perversion of figurative skill is the very essence of the art of the 21st century that will be deemed valuable in the future. Valuable, as in carrying an "impact", and not necessarily based on monetary worth. The more upheavals of the anticipated, the greater the possibility of healthy mutations in a stagnant, entropic western culture. Serafini is a master not only on detail level (each drawing, each sentence) but also on the bigger one (the book in itself is an artwork: an encyclopedia for those who strive to know everything and nothing in new ways). This psychedelic Magnum Opus stirs and jolts the sedated minds of complacent art consumers in ways that can perhaps (hopingly) open the door to a more vital sense of humor and wit on general levels.

So, what is it? Mere mind games in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and other pun-driven brainiacs? Trip art for armchair psychonauts? Surrealism taken to a contemporary level? A nonsensical mockery of the rational? A celebration of human ingenuity taken out of utilitarian context? The questions are basically as many as there are pages in the book. And of course they don't have to be answered at all. Perhaps they shouldn't? It's quite enough to just enjoy the book. Let the images sink in and who knows...? Perhaps you too will morph into a new kind of being stemming from the pen and genius of Luigi Serafini?

Luigi Serafini: Codex Seraphinianus, Rizzoli, 2013.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Handshakes and Mindquakes

Mere frat clubs or real deal-changers on the grand and global scale? Murky conspiracy strategists or beacons of individual liberty? Esoteric dreamers or intelligent architects of human development? The Feral House book Ritual America (by Adam Parfrey & Craig Heimbichner) presents a wonderful and quirky peek into a freemasonic world most of us can only fantasize about. Or... Perhaps you, dear reader, are a mason? Even so, this book is amazing in its abundance of radical and sensational(istic) tidbits and images from a world of secret handshakes and initiatory mindquakes.

Perhaps there is an inherent human need to be a part of an order structure, ie a collective with very set rules and regulations that are more concrete than those of society in general? If you have a structure like that, some esoteric bling to dazzle with and promises of something revelatory higher up on the initiatory ladder, you're in for success. The interesting thing about fraternal orders is that they often claim to be models of an ideal structure but quite often become overwhelmed with the ego-driven chaos and disorder emanating from the "real" outside world anyway.

Care to join the Shriners?
Freemasonry is especially interesting not only on this psychological level but of course also because "they" have really been an integral part of creating large chunks of modern history as we know it. The usual example given is the history of the USA, a country or phenomenon that simply wouldn't have existed without masonic engineering (and perhaps that's still the case). If we generalize and say that the USA is a masonic blueprint for the rest of the world and an experiment still in the making, then we have to seriously look at both the ups and downs so far. There are many of each, and we are presented with them both daily in the media. The greatest mistakes this far, from a strictly masonic perspective, have been constitutional upheavals or changes. The bedrock of the masonic presence and thought exists in the American constitution. When one messes with that, the nation as such no longer exists as a masonic experiment. What then remains...?

For good or bad, the republican, democratic and individualistic energies have all been mason-driven for the past 250 years, both in America and Europe.

But what happens when things are in (masonic) place? When there's an existential platform to build one's life on in liberty and, most often, peace? Then the fraternal aspects become more social, visible and generally nepotistic of course. This is where Ritual America comes in handy. It's not a heavy study or analysis of masonic history, themes or ideas as such. It's rather a highly entertaining volume of ephemera and freeze-frames from a wonderfully bizarre piece of American/Western history. Where masonry has always been a conservative and esoteric business/endeavor in Europe (the Scottish & Swedish rites, for instance), its sections in America have taken on a multitude of expressions (with ditto costumes and hats) not only in masonry proper but also in the kook contingent (Ku Klux Klan, Shriners, Elks et al).

Shriners showing off a good fraternal spirit in style...
It's no secret that freemasonry (and its many offshoots) is an integrated part of the civilized world. The conspiracy buffs' paranoid delusions about global control via masonic orders must be taken with a huge pinch of salt though. The general consensus among freemasons I've talked to in different countries is that there is a strong need for new blood and influx. The organizations have become static, stagnant and geriatric. When young people prefer to get their networking kicks and possible nepotistic fringe benefits online, it's hard to compete.

It's no secret either that freemasonry, just like other more minor occult orders and groups, attracts oddballs and crazies. Most often perhaps just dreamers steeped in a lore and mythology of ancient teachings and magical secrets, happy and satisfied to pass through psychodramatic rituals together with equally romantic "brothers". Considering how many people are masons in the world today, no wonder that there are also unwanted or renegade expressions. From earlier offshoots with even more goofy, humorous and perhaps cosmic theories (the Benevolent Order of Monkeys, the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers, the Supreme Order of White Rabbits et al) to concrete and contemporary criminals like mass murderer Anders Breivik (who was immediately expelled from the Norwegian freemasons after his assassination spree in 2011).

Serious study would likely show that influx into masonry has been greatest during times of general depression. When people become angst-ridden because of existential movements beyond their personal control, they look for solutions that are safe and solid and integrate the individual in an environment that promotes mutual assistance and gradual self-aggrandizement – real or illusory.

Hollywood tough guy John Wayne receiving his masonic 33°.
"... Sometimes the richest and most exotic aspects of the fraternal brotherhoods can be seen in personal snapshots, newspapers, magazines, and period scrapbooks – the extraordinary once passed over as ordinary and, to those who opposed the uncoventional, perhaps the profane was made mundane." (Parfrey & Heimbichner, from the book's introduction)

As with many books from Feral House, this literally great tome serves as an introduction to the kooky, sinister and oddball side of things. Packed with incredible illustrations, quotes, illuminating passages and much fodder for thought, Ritual America sums up a part of Western culture that is usually either kept unnecessarily secret by the protagonists or unnecessarily exposed by the antagonists. The truth usually lies somewhere in between. Ritual America is an entertaining introduction to that sphere of strange inbeteweenness.

Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence on American Society – A Visual Guide, by Adam Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner, FeralHouse, 2012.

All material on this blog is copyright © Carl Abrahamsson, unless otherwise stated.
WWW.EDDA.SE – Great books on subjects that matter and matters that subject!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Act of Killing: A Killer Documentary

Indonesia, 1965. Civil war and a military coup that led to over one million deaths in a mere year's time. Then it just kept on rolling. The estimation is that 2,5 million people were killed by the military and various paramilitary groups during that first phase of dictatorship. And also by freestyle gangsters who joined the fun for empowerment and a fierce hatred of communism. Perhaps not so much for the overall political ideas but because they had been told that the communists would ban American movies. Reason good enough for you?

This surely sounds like insane chaos and violence en masse. No one really in charge and everyone out to slaughter someone. This was of course a perfect environment for small time hoodlums like Anwar Congo and his buddies. They made a living scalping cinema tickets, but soon found new friends in the (para)military world. Why? Because they had no objections whatsoever to killing plenty of people, as long as these were communists. And as there were indeed many communists around, Anwar and his new cohorts were suddenly busier than ever. Blood lust, cash-flow, and securing all American movies in the cinemas.

Zoom forward to 2012. Anwar Congo and his friends are still alive and well in Indonesia and are being interviewed by documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer about their killing spree days back in the 1960s. Some regret it, some don't. They are fully supported by people in government and administration all over Indonesia still, not forgetting the mighty Pancansila Youth paramilitary organization, whose leaders were once killing buddies of Anwar & co.

This in itself would have been enough great fodder for a documentary. But this is only when the fun begins. Oppenheimer lets the aged mass murderers reenact the killings, complete with details about how to best strangle, club or knife someone to death. And they want to do it in a realistic way, yet also make a good movie out of it. Meaning, emulating American gangster movies, musicals and war films. So suddenly we're in the midst of real killers reenacting brutal memories and at the same time nourishing some kind of strange movie star fantasies. Anwar Congo mentions his own liking and likeness of Sydney Poitier on a local TV show to promote their coming blockbuster. I wonder what Mr Poitier would think of the association.

These reenactments mean the surfacing of emotional debris for those sensitive enough. Most of them aren't. They should be grateful. But head henchman Anwar becomes almost possessed by all this suppressed guilt within himself and suddenly acts like a man in serious need of A) an exorcism and B) a fierce trial at the Hague.

But, of course, it doesn't end here either. The movie within the movie not only contains bloody slaughters and painful decapitations, helped out by local make up artists and gore-wizards. For some reason they also start to integrate dream sequences (?) of religious prayers by waterfalls (seeking forgiveness?), seductively dancing hula girls, Anwar as a priest-like figure and his fellow murderer Herman in colorful drag (at times hauntingly resembling John Waters' superstar Divine). It's a heavy mind jolt to watch.

The Act of Killing is a bizarre film. Just like his co-producer of this film, Werner Herzog, Oppenheimer seeks out people who are so cast out they can never find their way back "in" again. And then just let the cameras record what happens. Although this is never a guaranteed formula of documentary success, I have to say that the integration of these insane murderers' meta-movie is absolutely amazing and makes the film more than a success. It's a complete sui generis experience. The weirdness of The Act of Killing makes it an absolute must-see. To become acquainted with these primitive hooligans and see how they function when they get a chance to express themselves artistically is priceless. And, I should add, quite terrifying.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, 2012. Out on DVD in all civilized countries just about now. Probably not in Indonesia though.

All material on this blog is copyright © Carl Abrahamsson, unless otherwise stated.
WWW.EDDA.SE – Great books on subjects that matter and matters that subject!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nymphomaniac & Shame: A good feel-bad double bill

What happens when the sex drive goes into compensatory overdrive? Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac  (2013) and Steve McQueen's Shame (2011) show us just what, and therefore deserve to be compared. Great and at times (literally) penetrating filmmaking or merely exploitation of human weaknesses? That I leave for you to decide, but I do strongly recommend both films. If you have the time, preferably as a wonderful feel-bad double bill.

A four hour Lars von Trier display of a nymphomaniac's exploits and adventures, from childhood to womanhood. Enticing concept, eh? After Antichrist's (2009) darkly humorous exposure of the inherent risks of non-resonant relationships, and Melancholia's (2011) purely emotional angst romanticism, this new offering is pure flesh and then some. The catch phrase of the film's marketing campaign is "Forget about love" and that is certainly true to the (hard) core.

Protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a slave of her own libido and her entire life is based on navigating through brief encounters during which she can temporarily (very temporarily) be free of the compulsive addiction that confuses her as much as it satisfies.

When she eventually falls in love with the man (Shia LaBeouf) who, when they were young, brutally freed her of her virginity, all lust suddenly disappears and she becomes even more  frustrated. Forget about love, indeed. Like most people, she would rather not leave her comfort zone of compulsive indulgence, and hence destroys the bourgeois pseudo-safety in order to experience more of everything. Very much more.

The overall story is told by Joe to her new friend Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) – he finds her beaten up in an alley and takes her home to his spartan, almost monastic apartment – through explicit yet often poetic tableaux. This is interwoven with Seligman's intellectual responses, reasonings and attempts at explaining to Joe what she already knows in the non-intellectual flesh. It is in a way a brilliant mockery of psychoanalysis, in which two psychos end up analyzing each other. I'm not a fan of spoilers, but let me just say that the end is worth waiting for, in its violent annihilation of all hope of redemption (or whatever they're looking for). Bleak, stark and dark? You bet.

I can almost see how von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen went through Krafft-Ebing's classic manual of kink, Psychopathia Sexualis, in order to find explicit fodder for Joe's adventures. Critics went into a frenzy even before the film had been shown and talked about sexual exploitation and debasement. True in a sense, but let's not forget that the victims in Nymphomaniac are all male. Well, some families get their fair share of Joe's exploits too. Uma Thurman's performance as a humiliated wife deserves a lubricated Oscar, at least.

A new form of psycho-analysis for protagonist Joe.
Nymphomaniac is a highly relevant and well-needed film because the usual contemporary feministic discourse about female victimisation here gets a thorough kick in the balls. The scene where Joe sincerely takes on her suffering sisters in an AA-like meeting of intimate confessions, all programmed to lead up to the great nivellation katharsis, becomes a crucial turning point for her, on par with her total submission to the film's suave young sadist. Beautiful political incorrectness!

von Trier continues successfully onwards on his trail of exploration, predominantly of the female psyche, and the specific themes are not new at all. Even as far back as in Menthe (1979), we can find elements of female sexuality striving for sadomasochistic release. But I would say that his three latest films constitute one distinct thematic totality. And the expressions are also so brilliantly tied together. What makes Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac different from his other films is that they're all more or less perfect (let's not forget he's made some really poor films too). The relationship between Antichrist and Nymphomaniac is obvious when you've seen them, and Melancholia becomes like an intermediary, a stepping stone, an orchestrated opera of heavy depression in between Thanatos and Eros.

I've heard from different women that von Trier is particularly good at analyzing the female psyche. If that's the case, what we're experiencing in Nymphomaniac and his other recent films is a perfect vindication of Otto Weininger and his theories.

A brilliant script and brilliant performances by all: Gainsbourg, Skarsgård, Uma Thurman, as mentioned, Willem Defoe, Christian Slater, Shia LaBeouf, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier... All the usual von Trier suspects... And Stacy Martin as the younger Joe is beyond brilliant. I don't buy von Trier's disclaimer in the beginning of the film about him not being satisfied with the version currently shown in theaters. There is apparently a five and a half hour version coming up and perhaps that will be more to his own liking. But still, it is a magnificent film just the way it is. The only single flaw I could experience is the horrible music, made by some kind of heavy metal band that unsuccessfully tries to imitate Laibach. Absolutely awful.

Michael Fassbender ponders his next compulsive conquest in Shame...
What about Shame then? Well, the story is basically the same. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a robotic Manhattan yuppie type who can't commit to relationships or, actually, to other people in general. He copes by masturbating, consuming porn, humping whores, one night stands (more like ten minute stands) and generally acts like an "emotionally challenged" person.

The only one who can rock the boat is his depressed and self-destructive sister, aptly called Sissy (Carey Mulligan). When she has sex with his sociopathic boss in his own bed, that does it. And when Brandon actually does become emotionally attached to a woman at work and is about to have sex with her, he fails. "Forget about love", all over again. Not a good aphrodisiac, apparently. In order not to flip his masculine wig completely, he immediately tries a whore instead. Et voilà... Mission accomplished successfully!

Shame is a very simple/simplistic story, which is, despite its apparent distance, highly moral(istic). The sister leaves a message on Brandon's answering machine just before she tries to commit suicide: "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place". Well, what was that place, I wonder? What is the background to the story of the protagonist's excessive compulsion? We are only left with Brandon's emotional struggles back and forth, indicating that something is indeed wrong with his behavior – to him, anyway. Strange that so many people all over the world manage to be promiscuous and multisexual without succumbing to the very key concept here: Shame.

In this respect, McQueen's film differs enormously from von Trier's. It's imbued with a Mosaic morality that in itself fucks people up, and has done so for thousands of years. Shame plus the inability or unwillingness to commit to morally sanctioned heterosexual relationships (long term, preferably) of course equal disaster in this mindframe. It's therefore a healthy shift of perspectives and paradigms we're seeing in von Trier's film. Joe in Nymphomaniac is a woman who eventually copes with her affliction by being honest and willing to take the consequences of her actions, regardless of the sacrifices it requires. That's tough and that's honest. Brandon in Shame is a man who is existentially impotent, who compensates by erectile work-outs and disregards the consequences entirely. As he himself eventually realizes, that's neither tough nor honest.

What these oversexed individuals do share however, is the apparent inability to combine sex and the emotional cluster generally called love. von Trier and McQueen thereby address an issue which is deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian psyche. And they do it well, albeit very differently. von Trier is a bona fide Fingerspitzgefühl Wagnerian and wants everything to end in total Ragnarök. McQueen is a Mosaic morality messenger who keeps his distance. Need I say which film is the most entertaining?

Let's hear it for the best feel-bad double bill of recent times!

All material on this blog is copyright © Carl Abrahamsson, unless otherwise stated.
WWW.EDDA.SE – Great books on subjects that matter and matters that subject!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Oh my God, it's the Devil!

"Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in business all these years!" Thus wrote Anton LaVey in his The Satanic Bible in 1969. And how true that has been all through the centuries since that dire Church Council in Nice in 375 AD, when human decency and civilization took a considerable turn for the worse. Without the Devil as a terrifying scapegoat figure, the (mainly) Catholic Church would probably not have been able to secure its imperialistic ambitions.

No wonder then that Satan as a visual icon in our Western mythology comes mainly from a Catholic culture. From the Church-organized morality plays of the middle ages for the analphabetic proles, with villains lavishly dressed up as devils, and up until the massive Satanic onslaught in French 19th century decadent culture, there's always been only one protagonist that really matters: le Diable.

Two recent books have focused on a very interesting phenomenon: stereoscopic visions of life in Hell from late 19th century France. Diableries, A Trip to the Underworld: 19th Century Images of Satan and Hell, edited by Candice Black and Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell by Brian May (yes, of Queen infamy), Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming.

Both books touch upon the same series of images and both are genuine labors of love. I feel a little bit sorry for the A Trip to the Underworld people though, as their book is only in black and white, whereas the Brian May Diableries tome comes complete with color reproductions and a set of stereoscopic goggles. How can you beat that? But I still want to mention them both with admiration. Bringing attention to these truly WONDERFUL images deserves nothing but praise. And they both look stunningly good side by side on my "coffee table".

An interesting phenomenon, to say the least. The craze for stereoscopic experiences combined with an overabundant Christian love affair for all things infernal brought together the brilliant talents of clay artists, photographers, printers and opticians. And businessmen too of course – the Diableries series was massively successful at the time.

Of course the images bring to mind the genius of Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion cinematic adventures 100 years later. The same kind of awe, but in motion. But for these devoutly Catholic people of 19th century France, the experience must have been even stronger than Hollywood special effects. There had simply been nothing like it before. Moralistic tales in fiction with infernal themes, yes. But here suddenly was a mind boggling visual experience that brought together amazement, prurience, heavy sinning and a great deal of fun. Only the most dim-witted and superstitious could have been scared by these infernal vistas, of course. The main consumer of the original Diableries, I suspect, just smiled and realized that Hell is perhaps not such a bad place after all.

Now, for Heaven's sake, buy both these books. Or go to Hell!

Diableries, Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell, by Brian May, Denis Pellerin, Paula Fleming, London Stereoscopic Company, London, 2013.

Diableries, A Trip to the Underworld: 19th Century Images of Satan and Hell, Edited by Candice Black, Sun Vision Press, 2013.

Images © London Stereoscopic Company

All material on this blog is copyright © Carl Abrahamsson, unless otherwise stated.
WWW.EDDA.SE – Great books on subjects that matter and matters that subject!