The Hotspur, October 1944. “GOOD-BYE, DEAD-WIDE DICK!”
Two accidental forays into surrealism by British boys’ paper The Hotspur, which amazingly lasted until 1981. I say amazingly, although on the other hand there were lots of British colonial era things that inexplicably carried on into the 1980s and beyond. Not to mention that The Hotspur‘s first issue had on its cover a plane-sized eagle attacking an actual aeroplane, and came with a free “Black Cloth mask” for no immediately apparent reason, so they definitely started as they meant to go on.
The cover above is almost certainly not referring to the fact that this football player has a feature likely to make him popular with the ladies and about 10% of the gentlemen, but instead that he scores goals by kicking unexpectedly wide. As for how and why somebody decided to counter this tactic by installing a gung ho bipedal elephant in football kit… I’ve got nothing. Dick’s certainly surprised, as you would be.
Perhaps it was the same genius who decided to deploy their centre-forward on the roof of a nearby building instead of on the pitch?
The Hotspur, January 1943. THE ROOF-TOP CENTRE-FORWARD.
(Let’s pass silently over the fact that I haven’t posted anything new for more than a month.)
The experimental films made by Ukrainian-American Maya Deren in the 1940s and 1950s are incredibly influential, whether most people know it or not. Once you’ve seen them you’ll notice reflections of them all over the place, in everything from art photography to pop videos. Her work has also definitely had a huge effect on me, particularly 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon, whose haunting imagery– and imagery of haunting– is done an injustice when it’s described as merely surreal or dreamlike, even though it is surreal and dreamlike among many other things. It’s actually as if time has been turned inside out like a glove, but when it turns right side out again it’s a different glove, belonging to someone or something else entirely. It’s particularly fitting that reflections or decontextualised fragments of her most famous film turn up so often in popular culure, given the way that Deren dwells upon imagery of reflection and fragmentation in Meshes of the Afternoon.
Her obvious interest in ritual, repetition, nonlinear time and the perils of inner journeys has found its way into some of my own work too; these subjects can all be seen obliquely in Deren’s Meshes and much more directly in her collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, Witch’s Cradle (also embedded here). In the late 1940s she took a more documentarian interest in the practice and ritual of Haitian vodoun.
Meshes of the Afternoon.
Although resident in Los Angeles, Deren resolutely resisted Hollywood and was proud to be involved in every aspect of her own films. She made them, she said, “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” She also gave the great advice that independent or artistic film makers shouldn’t try to ape Hollywood but instead “use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.” Deren paved the way for many of the independent American makers who created personal artistic statements in film (and later, video) rather than following a formula, but sadly Deren’s career wasn’t as long as it should have been. She died in 1961 at the age of 44, most likely because of prescription drug abuse.
Below you can watch Meshes of the Afternoon (with a soundtrack commissioned in 2012 by the late, lamented Bird’s Eye View Festival for film making by women) and Witch’s Cradle.
PS: There’s a Tumblr called Fuck yeah, Maya Deren! Of course there is.
An East German propaganda leaflet issued during the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949), when Stalin attempted to blockade the already geographically surrounded people of West Berlin into submission. American and British crews flew in food and other supplies, thereby demonstrating both the superiority of Western air capabilities and the extremes they would go to in order to check Soviet politicking. And so began the Cold War.
This leaflet about Amikäfer (“Yank Beetles”) claims that the airlift is just a pretext for ruining East German farming by dropping “imperialist weapons”: potato-devouring Colorado beetles (Kartoffelkäfer). The back cover warns about confusing them with harmless Marienkäfer (ladybirds).
Ridiculous propaganda even by the standards of ridiculous propaganda, but I have to admit that the adaptation of the beetle’s markings into the Stars and Stripes is pretty good.
Writers on writing
Some good advice for aspiring writers from successful writers, who are usually far better sources of such guidance than all the writing gurus who write nothing but books about how to write. These are all extracted from Shaun Usher’s splendid and beautiful Letters of Note book, based upon the always interesting and inspiring site of the same name in which the famous are humanised and the unknown are honoured.
Ernest Hemingway: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.”
Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934:
“You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump.
For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write [sic] but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right.
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”
Flannery O’Connor, responding in 1961 to a professor of English. O’Connor felt that the professor was over-analyzing:
“If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.”
Raymond Chandler, taking exception to an overzealous copy editor in 1947:
“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, responding to an aspiring poet in 1903:
“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you ) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”
Rita Hayworth in ‘Gilda’ (1946).
Just some splendid stills from thrillers (mostly) of the 1940s and 1950s, reproduced from ‘Film Noir’ (Alain Silver, James Ursini, Paul Duncan: Taschen). I love Film Noir. ‘Gilda’ is one of the best and most noirish. Above is Rita Hayworth doing a passive-aggressive musical number/striptease in a club to get back at her boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend for their machinations with each other and with her. As you do.
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944).
See the first post about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre) in the 1930s and the previous post about WWII kamishibai for more information and commentary about the origins and context of these images.
A postwar ‘Golden Bat’ serial. Nazo, the Emperor of the Universe, is apparently an overweight heterochromial cat with a black bag over his head. Sort of like a cross between David Bowie, the Baader Meinhof gang, and Bagpuss. Actually this sounds fabulous, but who knew? The expression of Nazo’s captive says it all: OH REALLY?
‘Mystery Train’, late 1940s or early 1950s. Mystery Train? I’ll say. Why did somebody in a man-sized glove costume just get on? Quick, put your bag down so he doesn’t sit next to you.
See the first post about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre) for more information and commentary about the origins and context of these images.
Here we move into the 1940s, WWII and the dodgy, overly-positive world of propaganda. Propaganda is almost by definition absurd and deceptive; if it wasn’t so cognitively dissonant and detached from observed reality then we’d just call it informative or documentarian. But there’s still something particularly disturbing about the hijacking of a medium intended mainly for children. The slides shown here are from How to Build a Home Air Raid Shelter and from Kintaro the Paratrooper. The latter is a militaristic rewrite of the traditional story about Momotoro the Peach Boy, who joined up with animal friends to defend Japan from invading demons. You can see what they did there, obviously.
Kintaro the Paratrooper. Here come the British soldiers. Their tank seems a bit wee, but perhaps that’s intentional. I’m British but I still can’t really object to this racist caricature of us with our stupid shorts and our sunburned ears and noses. Stereotypes all have an original.
Kintaro throws a grenade at the British tank. Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.
“Why worry so much about the future of a doomed world?”
A delightfully nihilistic quote attributed to physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the main architects of the Manhattan Project and of the first atomic weapons, although it’s probably apocryphal. It seems to originate in French from Michel Houllebecq’s book H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. The English translation of Houllebecq actually mentions in a footnote that the quote is untraceable.
Houllebecq is, shall we say, a not uncontroversial writer who may conceivably be projecting his own profound misanthropy and negativity onto Oppenheimer; Lovecraft’s, too. Even so, it’s in character for a man who made it possible for the human race to render itself and most other life on the planet totally extinct within a matter of minutes.
It’s also in character for Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “The first ten million years were the worst, and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.”
Control panel and plugboards of the British Colossus computer, 1944. It was not programmable, had 2500 vacuum tubes, and it had only one hardwired purpose and algorithm: to crack the encryption of Germany’s Enigma machines, processing up to 5000 characters per second. Based on the work of mathematicians and cryptographers such as Alan Turing at the top secret Bletchley Park facility, the ability to break German codes was one of the factors that eventually turned the Second World War in favour of the Allies.
Another notable thing about this photograph is the strangely timeless/time traveller style of the woman on the left. I think she could walk down the street anywhere in the developed world at any time between about 1930 and 2030 and look like she belongs there.
Bashful, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, and the worst little fella of them all, Nazi.
Two of Adolf Hitler’s favourite movies were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and King Kong. He chattered nerdily and constantly about King Kong for days after it was screened for him at the Chancellery. He also enjoyed whistling the Disney tune Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Hitler was a bit obsessed with wolves, and was undoubtedly very well aware that whistling this tune was some creepy shit. “Adolf” derives from “Athal” (noble) and “Wolfa” (wolf). One of his early aliases was “Mr Wolf”, and he surrounded himself with Wolfshunde (Alsatians/German Shepherds). His French HQ was named Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Ravine), a Ukrainian one was Werwolf.
PS: While Hermann Göring was staying at the Ritz in occupied Paris, the corpulent Nazi asked Coco Chanel to design some women’s gowns in his very large size. This was to help him “relax”, apparently. Not that there’s anything wrong with men wearing dresses, of course, although some men (including other leading Nazis) were summarily murdered or sent to concentration camps for similar so-called “perversions”. But it’s certainly, shall we say, an arresting image: a big fat genocidal war criminal kicking back with the latest copy of Vogue and choosing couture dresses for himself while the world’s most destructive and total war ever rages around him. Sort of like a grisly mashup of Inglourious Basterds with Sex and the City.
Source: David J. Skal’s excellent book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.