Friday, November 21, 2008

John Boorman speaks!

It was wonderful to meet filmmaker John Boorman, who accepted the 2008 Excellence Award form the Boston Irish Film Festival this evening, in recognition of his achievements in cinema. Boorman made some brief remarks after the screening of his stunning film The General, and then answered questions from the audience. I had spoken with him briefly earlier, and even got him to sign my two souvenir items: the book John Boorman by film critic and scholar Michel Ciment, and a copy of a shooting script of Excalibur that I bought at least ten years ago in a bookstore in Harvard Square.

I didn't think I'd end up with any chance to do an actual interview, because t was already getting late, so decided to ask about the one film left out of the tribute clips shown: The Exorcist 2: The Heretic. When I mentioned it a couple of people in the audience laughed (rude!) and Boorman at first said "Oh, yes, we left that one out, didn't we?" as if he had not at first noticed it missing from the clips and introductory remarks. He then talked about how he had first been offered the chance to direct the first Exorcist film, but being committed to working n Deliverance made it difficult, and as well, he found the subject matter "quite horrifying: as the father of a number of daughters,I thought this was primarily about the torture of a child." He then said he later read a three-page treatment for The Heretic, based on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, and the central theme was the notion of goodness. He then said doing the film in the way he did ended up being "a terrible mistake" because audiences simply "wanted more of the same" and expected a sequel to be just like the original. He said audiences were "shouting and throwing things at the screen." In spite of this, Boorman said, "It's a good film and certainly it is some of my best work, I think." He then said that so much of what makes for success in film is "hitting the audience at the right time with the right film, it has to be in the zeitgeist of getting it right." He then mentioned that Point Blank did not do wel with American audiences until it was re-released two years after its first premiere, and insisted its success the second time was purely because of timing. "If you're ahead of the audience, you're all right, but if you're ahead of them it doesn't work."

There were some other interesting questions and answers. One man asked why The General was filmed in black and white. Boorman talked of an idea I often discuss in my classes: that the act of watching cinema is like being in a dream state. "Cinema is like dreaming, and we tend to dream in black and white (not me, John! in fact the night after this conversation I had a vivid dream in which I was wearing a rainbow colored gown). If you use black and white you can create a contiguous world that is much more powerful that portraying it in color. But I regret that it's not always possible to make black and white films these days. You can't sell them to television, because TV simply doesn't ant to show newer films that are in black and white,which cuts off your revenues and this makes it very hard selling distributors on the idea. I don't know why this is, it turns people away somehow, perhaps they think it's old or old-fashioned."

(There were more questions from the audience, and answers, including some fascinating comments on film versus video, which I will transcribe in when I have more time later.)

A bit later, when I had a moment to speak again to Mr. Boorman directly, I asked him about color in Excalibur, to which he replied: "We wanted a luminous quality for the entire film, and so we lit everything. Al the forest scenes in particular, we lit with green light, the rocks, the moss on the trees, everything." I asked why green? Was it about nature, or some fairy or magical meaning? He said this was "to underscore the importance and power of nature." A man near us was interested in this subject and brought up other colors (red,etc.) and I mentioned my theory of how each character has a unique color and element palette. I discuss this a bit in my film notes for the Brattle Theatre, where is showing again this Sunday.

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Boorman and hear his commentary. You all can have this same opportunity this evening, when the director will be present at the Harvard Film Archive for the screening of his excellent, controversial film Hell in the Pacific.

Friday, November 7, 2008

John Boorman coming to Boston

Filmmaker John Boorman will be honored with the Excellence Award at this year's Boston Irish Film Festival. The festival runs from November 13-24 at the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archive.

We plan to explore some of Boorman's films in The Celluloid Bough; namely Excalibur and Exorcist 2: The Heretic. I have requested the opportunity tointerview Boorman when he is here but his publicists tell ne he is tryong to avoid ding too many interviews; he had agreed to two, has ended up committing to three and mine would be a fourth. Fingers crossed he will wish to be interviewed for our book! The other interviews are, I imagine, for newspapers: mere ephemera!

Mr. Boorman's work stands out as some of the finest in contemporary British cinema. His artistry and skill have been somewhat undersung, I feel. Michel Ciment's book is a fine and fascinating exploration of Boorman's earlist films, through The Emerald Forest.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why Rob Zombie's Halloween is the Best Halloween

I rewatched Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween (now available in an unrated cut on DVD) and was once again stunned at what a gorgeous film it is. The first time I saw it, I thought it left too many things unanswered (why did this child who exploded in rage one day decide to suddenly stop speaking and stay silent for over a decade?). But I realized Zombie did go much further than any of the other films in the franchise in trying to offer at least some background on this compelling character, one of the scariest killers in horror cinema.

The film's casting is first rate, and the wonderful tongue-in-cheek choices of character actors who have played killers themselves (Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Udo Kier, Clint Howard, etc.) is a touch of genius, and Zombie faves like William Forsythe, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie (wonderful as Michael's imperfect but loving mother) and Ken Foree add their considerable talents even to small roles. But perhaps the shining star here is young Daeg Faerch who plays Michael Myers at age 10. Cherubic and world-weary, he is entirely believable as a child whose abuse at the hands of bullies causes him to snap.

Perhaps Zombie's finest achievement in this film is in the moods it captures. The photography (by the excellent Phil Parmet, who Zombie also worked with on House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects) and art direction (by T. K. KIrkpatrick) create a suburban community in the grip of Halloween circa 1978 and the present. The small details are mundane but atmospheric: all the pumpkins, the autumn foliage, the middle class houses and ramshackle bungalows. When we see an affluent neighborhood that looks strangely deserted during the killing sprees, the total silence that immediately ensues behind heavy wooden doors slammed shut, we understand the safety of such neighborhoods is really just a form of isolation. The final sequence, when Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) is scrambling deeper and deeper into the old house, trying to escape Michael Myers by squirming into holes and breaking through rotting walls, is terrifying and entirely plausible. Zombie is a thorough director who makes sense out of sequences of events, a skill lacking in much of modern horror direction.

Zombie succeeds as a director where earlier ones have failed; some of the previous versions (like Halloween 4) leave big chunks of narrative out, with characters going from being attacked to being outdoors, and talking about how they were "drugged"--huh? by whom? and ow long were you out? and what happened while you were unconscious? He follows character actions through to their logical conclusions. He also manages to fill in narrative information with effective visual shorthand (Michael's obsession with masks is particularly well handled). And if we are no closer to understanding why Michael Myers is an unrepentant killer, we are at least closer to understanding how the suburbs can easily produce monsters.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

True Blood: a pre-review

Saw the premiere of this show tonight. We don't have HBO but thank goodness, there was a free preview weekend going on (just enough to get people hooked maybe?)

I will be writing a longer review of this soon, but suffice it to say for now, I think this is going to be one addictive show. Ya know, like it will get under your skin. Keep you up nights. Okay, enough lame vampirism metaphors.

Though the overall tone of this was very different from Six Feet Under, Alan Ball's previous creation, it had the same level of complexity, if not the same subtlety, and there was definitely a sense of Ball's rich visual design elements. I found the acting occasionally a little underwhelming at times (though when it was good, it was very good), and the dialogue a little bit too expository at times, but then the first episode of SFU had a somewhat forced feel to some of the dialogue and acting, too.

Set in New Orleans, with what looks like a first rate (if mostly unknown) cast (kind of like SFU), this story of vampires in a world where vampirism has come to be accepted (if not embraced) is erotic, smart and shockingly violent. Maybe the occasional artificiality of the dialogue will cease to be a problem as the show finds it groove. Maybe I will get used to Anna Pacquin as a blonde. I am really look forward to seeing more of it; it would certainly be worth paying for HBO to be able to watch it!

Oh, and I can already tell, it's anthology worthy...we'll see if the usual suspects slobber all over it any time soon.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Interview with Raymond Salvatore Harmon

We are very pleased to present an interview with Raymond Salvatore Harmon. Raymond is an artist and filmmaker whose work uses the occult as a point of inspiration and practice. He has also lectured extensively, most recently at Goldsmiths University, London; New Nothing Cinema, San Francisco; and the University of Lodz Film School, Poland among others. Here he discusses with Hannah his recent performance of 'Rites of Eleusis' and his process as an artist.

Celluloid Bough: Hello Raymond, and thanks for taking the time to conduct this interview with us. I wonder if we could begin by discussing the relationship between your work and occultism as a living practice.

Raymond Salvatore Harmon: I have been fascinated by both film and the occult from a very early age. I devoured my middle school library for books of mythologies and witchcraft. Soon exhausting this I discovered that the local library had an "interloan" system that let me get books from any library in the system. I soon found myself in possession of books like Transcendental Magic by Eliphas Levi and Francis Barrett's the Magus. Good food for the growing mind of a 13 year old boy.

My personal practice has grow out of a wide range of interests in cultural traditions toward mystical ideologies. How we approach this sense of the beyond, what it means to be perceptually aware of this beyond state, and how the form of existence relates to our perception of reality. I have sought the state of being that is beyond self, fully externalized and yet experientially aware, and this quest has lead me to incorporate these questions into all of my work, be it film, sound, painting, writing, or performing.

As a filmmaker one possesses a role that incorporates that of painter, composer and writer. You are scripting the frames of reality that the viewer experiences. Whether these frames depict realistic narrative stories or abstract evolving forms the director of a film decides what goes where. At a certain point in my work these two sets of ideas and practices, the mystical and the cinematic, converged. That point was YHVH.

CB: Your work as an artist and experimental filmmaker is informed by occultism in varying forms. Can you tell us a little about how you came to this synthesis in your artistic work?

RSH: The use of occult and mystical iconography dates back to my earliest paintings. Throughout my life my artistic work has continually delved into the forms associated with the occult traditions. Yet the use of art, particularly cinema, for practical ritual exploration is something that came to me during the creation of my first occult piece YHVH. I realized during this particular piece that the video content was capable of accessing parts of the subconscious mind and that it would make a perfect carrier signal for subliminal content. I started experimenting that very minute with incorporating various levels of subliminal content, each layer that could actually be seen really just a distraction from the intended path of the initiate.

After several attempts to incorporate more complex subliminal content I stumbled onto my current frame of working and have been developing it since. I have been recently looking into further systems to deliver various kinds of subliminal content to the viewer. I think in the future I could see working with complex flash based video since the web seems to be taking over as the content source. But for now the only films that have actual sub content are the dvds.

CB: Would you describe for us something of the artistic process that you go through in approaching the construction of a new piece of work?

RSH: Much of my work in general, and all of the occult films to date, have developed out of an extended process of experimentation with different forms. These forms are constructed from various pieces of video equipment, mostly hand modified and circuit bent, all made to create a signal path in relation to the content. I push the video signal in various ways, attempting to discover new forms within the static and noise. Once I have captured a particular form to tape I then edit this down to various sizes. YHVH, for instance, started out as 6 hours of content but was cut to only 22 minutes of film.

During the editing process I correct the color to be in tune to certain frequencies and to resonate with other color frequencies that are known to affect the conscious mind in specific ways. Boosting certain reds, shifting blues to greens. All of this changes what the individuals experience with the piece is going to be. I notice that the major changes that occur in the creation process between each of my pieces is dependent on what music I am listening to while experimenting with the video signal path. I am an omnivorous music listener, not a fan of super pop but there is not a genre of music I do not listen to if I know about it.

The other side to all of this is when I start with video that documents my environment. About half of the pieces use a prerecorded source set for their original content. Most of this is now something I have shot on my phone camera. Low-res abstract movements. The way a cloud moves in the sky, or water on some surface. The Rites of Eleusis uses source documentation shot in Brighton and London on my phone. Mostly super closeups of tiny events happening around us everyday.

So I take footage of my life and the world around me and push it through various math patterns to see what it comes out like on the other side. Then I edit this down to an abstract film meant to carry a layer of subliminal content. I am subliminally feeding the world I experience to my viewers as abstraction while exposing them to various tracts of numerous mystical traditions.

CB: Your recent work, 'Rites of Eleusis', recontextualises the ritual performance piece designed by Aleister Crowley and Leila Waddell. Could you tell us a little about this particular work and its relationship to Crowley's envisioning of it?

RSH: Crowley originally scripted a set of seven individual rites, each of these rites a ceremonial recreation of a Greek mystery based on one of the seven planets of classic cosmology. His intent as far as is known, was to introduce this kind of theatrical form of occult practice to a wider public. Similar to the public acceptance to the original Eleusisian Mysteries in ancient Greece; making the mysteries known, etc.

In approaching the creation of my piece the Rites of Eleusis I intended from the start to remove the theatrical form of Crowley's original work. By stripping away a stage of people and replacing those variables with a set of evolving abstract shapes I am capable of tuning sensitive viewers into a form that is happening within the film. During this "tuned in" state the viewer becomes much more prone to subliminal suggestion. Within the context of the film I edit the entire text of Crowley's original Rites into the visual field at a subliminal level (roughly 1/30 of a second). Try as you may you can not see this content, but your retina is sensitive to it and your brain does capture the data. By reducing the 7 Rites to 7 seven minute long films the shape of the subliminal content is more intense. Requiring repetitive editing and shifts of scale within the visual field.

Using the score as a cement to meld the two layers of visual content together creates an almost immersive environment for the viewer. The goal is to achieve a perceptual submersion into the abstract form itself. Once "within" the visual field the viewer is then able to explore their own subconscious landscape without the confines of the perception of 3 dimensional existence. Though viewing this kind of work in a static form (say from a dvd) is practical for individual ritual working the best chance at a totally immersive experience is to see it performed live. It has been often pointed out to me that there is something more immediate and physical at the live performances. It probably stems from my reaction to the crowd.

CB: Obviously you are inspired by Crowley's work - but are there other occultists and filmmakers that inform your film making?

RSH: Probably the single biggest occult influence on my filmmaking has been the 17th century English alchemist Thomas Vaughan. His writings are astounding and his understanding of the complex nature of the universe is often overlooked in the history of the occult. His work "Lumen de lumine" is an astounding discourse on the nature of the universal light. Absolutely beautifully written.

Beyond Vaughn the ethno-musicologist and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith is a huge influence on my life. His films are amazing and his archivist tendencies at music preservation are unparalleled. Harry led an amazing life and left a great biography in his wake, some of it fictional but all of it inspiring. I am currently working on a documentary about Lionel Ziprin, whom Harry lived with and whose grandfather (renowned Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia) was recorded by Harry singing and incanting in Hebrew and Yiddish in the early 1950s. It may turn out that I am working on a Harry Smith documentary as well, in time.

My work is influenced by so many things, music, literature, culture, art. I am particularly drawn to minds that think outside of the norm, that approach life and existence from a new prespective. People like Joseph Gikatilla, Jerzy Grotowski, Stan Brakhage, Antonin Artaud, Alfred Jarry, Aleister Crowley, Georges Bataille, Julio Cortázar, John Cage, Moshe ben Shem-Tov, Alvin Lucier, Eddie Prevost - in general people who push at the boundaries of life.

CB: Your work has been described as filmmaking that goes beyond the purely visual, but instead is designed to be incorporated into ritual. Can you detail for us some of the ways you imagine this, of how film can be a ritual tool, if you will?

RSH: The use of light in the shape of ritual in any cultural context is already known. Candles, lamps, fire, all play an important part in detailing the form of the ritual practice of religion and magic in any culture. This controlled lighting is something that goes back to the earliest rituals of humankind. The advent of cinema in the 20th century lead to eventual study on its affects on the human mind and the shape of human conscious while experiencing the illusion of life that is film. From detailed accounts of such research man is now able to utilize color, form, and sound together to achieve certain desired affects on the human mind. (look at marketing research for television as an extreme example).

Once we are capable of knowing how specific colors and sounds affect us we can then approach using these controls as a means for creating specific psychological states. By utilizing transcendental cinema to expand the perception of reality beyond the sense of self we can achieve a state of mental contemplation in tune with a particular working.

From a passive meditation standpoint occult/transcendental film can be used to simply bring us perceptually out of ourselves, giving us the freedom to move around outside the confines of 3 dimensional existence. From an active magick ritual point of view these films can be used to focus the mind on a particular occult working, say a conjuration or invocation. All in tune with the purpose of the individual occult film.

What transcendental cinema offers the occult practitioner is the first new tool in the occult since the birth of audio recording/playback. It is the symbolic fifth tool, the Lamp, that accesses the mind through our most powerful sense - sight. Through it the viewer can begin their journey toward the light.

Obviam Lux Lucis!

CB: Thank you so much, Raymond, for taking the time tp speak with us. We look forward to seeing and experiencing more of your inspiring and provocative work.

Useful links:
The artist's website
Raymond's MYSpace Page
A press release on Rites of Eleusis

Friday, April 25, 2008

Two authors on fantasy, fairy tales and the gothic

This wonderful post on the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts blog has some wonderful links and snippets of conversations between Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, and a quote from A. S. Byatt. These are three of my favorite authors so it's nice to see them all mentioned together and easily accessed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cowboys for Christ. Yee haa!!! (not)

Looks like the start of shooting of the sequel to The Wicker Man has again been delayed...

The BBC has the story (they usually do).

I will be posting an article on Witchvox in the next few days on this whole brouhaha...

Monday, April 7, 2008

It is to laugh..or perhaps it is to cry...

But then perhaps you have already heard the news. There is going to be a remake of Rosemary's Baby produced by Michael Bay, starring Jessica Alba and Doris Roberts. Not clear yet who will be writing or directing. How the heck do they decide on a cast before they decide on a writer and director?

This is without question the most horrifying news of a classic horror remake since that misogynistic piece of tripe that dripped from the rotting fangs of Neil LaBute, yes, I am talking about the remake of The Wicker Man.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter/Equinox wishes

Here's to the rebirth of spring, and the appearance of blossoms, flowers and young animals, the return of migrating birds, reminders of life and fertility and renewal all around us...and bunnies!

And here, from, a wonderful list of movies that look at Easter in unorthodox ways.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hail, Anthony Minghella!

I was shocked to learn he died. Only 54 years old, from complications after a simple surgery. Only ten years older than me. A harrowing thought.

This is very sad. He was such an amazing filmmaker. I love Truly, Madly, Deeply (pictured here), and The English Patient, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and even Breaking and Entering. I have only seen part of Cold Mountain but I did like it a lot and want to watch the whole thing again soon. He was a master of making lush classical-looking cinema that often included unexpected images and tense, uncomfortable moments, as if challenging our definition of what big-budget art cinema should look and feel like...

He accomplished so much in his 54 years. The world of cinema is a richer place with him in it. And now many cinephiles may well wonder what other works of beauty and passion and sadness he might have wrought had he been given more time. Rest well, sir.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Why is it so hard to get hold of made-for-TV movies with occult themes from the 1970s on video?

I have been very lucky recently to be able to obtain a few films from this era for my research and teaching, namely:

Satan's School for Girls
The Initiation of Sarah
Summer of Fear
(original title: Stranger in Our House)

Still seeking:

Midnight Offerings

And when will someone put out the entire mini-series of The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, and not the lame 2 and a half hour version?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Very cool film website

This website by the BIFF's Neil Young is erudite, bitchy and brilliant.

A new favorite place to visit!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hail Belenus Blake Johnston!

A belated welcome to the world of the magically-named Belenus Blake Johnston, son to Hannah and Dan, brother to Somerled. His nascent presence shall, for a while, explain mum Hannah's absence on this blog!

The ecstatically happy, newly-augmented family are all doing well.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Kenneth Anger: Filmmaker, Demi-God

I've finally begun watching the films in the recent DVD release of Volume 2 of the films of Kenneth Anger, which includes Scorpio Rising, Invocation of My Demon Brother, Lucifer Rising and others, spanning the years 1964-1981. Volume 1 came out in 2006, with films made from 1947 to 1954.

I do not own it yet, though I want to get one for myself. I ordered it for my class on Cinema and the Occult. It is a very nice "boxed set" with a nice booklet with writings by various filmmakers and students of his, including an introduction by Martin Scorcese (which gratified me because I had always thought his early student work owed a lot to Anger), an excerpt from a longer essay by Guy Maddin from Film Comment, and one very intriguing piece by none other than Bobby Beausoleil, who portrayed Lucifer in Lucifer Rising and eventually completed the film's soundtrack from a California prison (where he has been incarcerated since 1969, having committed murder after being prompted by everyone's favorite Summer of Love occult revivalist, Charles Manson).

Anger's use of music, some popular (like all the girl groups, Elvis and Bobby Vinton songs in 1964's Scorpio Rising) and some original (like Mick Jagger's synthesizer drones in Invocation of My Demon Brother), his purity of vision, his arresting images, his ability to weave moods and ritualistic set pieces and cultural trappings into shocking and memorable dreamscapes is something that has really never been equalled. Nor, I suppose, could it be, since his films were not only ahead of their time, but also products of their exact eras, collaborators and momentary inspirations.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Frazerian Cinema

Chas Clifton has posted in his blog about the notion of The Scary Countryside and urban anxiety about nature. He also mentions the notion that Frazer's monumental work The Golden Bough is in part responsible for the attitude that the British countryside is a place full of dark secrets, being a repository of ancient beliefs and practices...

The notion of a Frazerian Cinema intrigues me. I am reminded of an essay written by Tanya Krzywinska on landscape imagery in British horror films, in particular its association with paganism (I have an earlier version of the article but it will soon be published in a collection called Cinematic Countrysides forthcoming from University of Manchester Press).

I also wonder if this might be an intriguing subject for a chapter in The Celluloid Bough, in terms of the pagan revival ushering in an era of obsession with "earth mysteries" and stone circles, monoliths and other so-called sacred sites. We have not completely finalized what the final structure of the book will be. Right now we are working with one based on a wide-ranging introduction, and chapters arranged by decade which will contain overviews and sub-chapters on individual films. This is the simplest approach, of course, being easy to organize.

But we've also talked about the idea of theme-based chapters, which I think might be very interesting. This would allow for chapters on our individual areas of interest such as color in cinema, music, popular culture, teen witchcraft, satanic panic, etc. Frazerian Cinema (or rather, the ideas and expressions of what a Frazerian Cinema might encompass) would be a fitting subject for an entire chapter.

And of course our title is a direct homage to Frazer, so...