Thursday, July 10, 2008

Devilry Afoot

I have recently viewed two silent films, both of which were interesting (among other reasons) for their demonic/occult imagery.

L'Inferno (1911) is hailed as the first Italian feature film, and fittingly uses the Dante epic, via close parallels to Gustave Dore's inspired imagery, for the poet's excursion through Hell. While the actors playing Dante and Virgil have all the finesse of a high school drama club, the visual settings are interesting. We don't necessarily get the wide vistas of Dore - huge lakes of the damned writhing in agony - but each circle is a set piece showing the agonies of heretics, usurers, gluttons, and other medieval ne'er-do-wells. The torturing demons, with their large strap-on wings listlessly flapping, are a hoot, and the special effects are state-of-the-art (for 1911). An acquaintance with Dante's poem, or a copy of the Dore illustrations on your lap so that you can follow along, are recommended. The modern soundtrack by the electronica band Tangerine Dream is forgettable.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), a Swedish film, is a more satisfying production, replete with little old ladies riding brooms through the air and kissing the Devil's buttocks. An attractive young woman is tortured, with the filmmaker dwelling lovingly on the torture devices, and there are also lecherous monks. Particularly giggle-inducing is the seducing Devil, with his perpetually wiggling tongue. The film takes the form of a rational essay on how witch hysteria during the Middle Ages arose from psychological disorders and persecution of social misfits. Several vingettes tell the story, which, after the introductory "chapters", moves a bit faster than most silent films. The end of the film provides "modern" examples of hysterical activity. *

Watching silent films, especially if you haven't been exposed to them before, can be an exercise in patience. My son and I have made a game of reading the story cards as many times as we can before we get back to the action. Apparently, people in the early 20th century read veeeerrrryyy ssssloooowwwwlyyyy. But once you get into it, it can be a satisfying experience, especially for anyone interested in history of the cinema.

*Addendum: I neglected to mention that the Haxan disc also includes a 1968 reissue of the film with narration by everyone's scariest uncle, William S. Burroughs. He supplies a suitably spooky incantation at the beginning, but, as I didn't discover this version until I had already sat through the original, I didn't watch much of it. A soundtrack featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, among others, is also featured.

Both films are available from Nexflix and Amazon.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Little Men

Sven Delblanc (1931-1992) was a well-regarded Swedish author who, according to the sources I've seen, often used fantastic themes in his fiction. Homunculus: A Magic Tale (1965) was a product of its time, a lampoon of Soviet and American military fanaticism during the Cold War. The object of their military/industrial interests is Sebastian, an unpleasant and unemployed chemist who, having discovered the elusive "Essence", creates a homunculus (literally, "little man") named Bechos in his bathtub.

Now, the homunculus is an interesting concept in alchemical and scientific tradition: the famed Golem of Prague was a kind of man-made man (but more monstrous than a true homunculus), and renaissance alchemists/charlatans could proudly display their little humanoid creations cavorting in glass beakers like some tiny detail in a Hieronymus Bosch painting as evidence of their chemical prowess (see also the menagerie of the campy Dr. Praetorius in the film "Bride of Frankenstein"). In science, early physiologists posited that each sperm contained within its head a very tiny yet well-formed homunculus, obviating the need for the mother's genetic influence and, apropos of that paternalistic era, making her essentially a simple vessel for the maturation of the wee nipper. Any resemblance of the mother to the child must, I suppose, have been shrugged off as coincidence.

But I digress. Our hero Sebastian lives in a mental world all his own, derived from mythological and alchemical tradition and alternating between paranoid states and episodes of mental and physical abuse of the various women making up the furniture of the novel. As the story is set during the Cold War, Sebastian's experiments are closely monitored by operatives of both sides, broadly caricatured in the best Strangelovian style as psychopaths and sexual fetishists. Each wants Sebastian's secret in order to create armies of homunculi, although why that would be necessary, since each side already bristles with arsenals of nuclear weapons, is unclear. It is essential to the story that these same nuclear weapons have foolishly been left in the hands of ideologically fanatical perverts for use at their own discretion. Both sides have in mind the vaporization of Stockholm, rather than allow Sebastian's secret to fall into the wrong hands.

I will cut the synopsis short in the unlikely even that you wish to search out a copy of this book for yourself. The book was passably enjoyable, but rather dated. I was perhaps too uninspired to puzzle out all the mythological/Jungian references, although the Sibyl who encounters Sebastian and the Prime Minister in the park was all too obvious. In the corpus of Delblanc's work, it does not seem to rank too high, so I wouldn't wish to pass judgement on the man based on this early work.