Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Inspirations: Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky

The clip above includes (from about 41:00 onwards) the final sequence in Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky, a (very) unorthodox biographical film about a fifteenth-century monk and icon painter in Russia. The action of the film directly dramatises selected scenes from Rublev's life in black-and-white, but after the action concludes, we enter this colour sequence, which consists of a series of slow tracking shots (interspersed with equally slow zooms and / or push-ins) over the painted surface of Rublev's surviving icons. This method of animating static paintings has become a cliche in TV documentaries about art, and Tarkovsky's production notes from 1962 indicate that it was already established as a convention even then.

In our film there will not be a single shot of Rublev painting his icons. He will simply live, and he won't even be present on-screen in all episodes. And the last part of the film (in colour) will be solely devoted to Rublev's icons. We will show them in detail (as in a popular scientific film). The on-screen demonstration of the icon will be accompanied by the same musical theme which sounded in the episode of Rublev's life corresponding to the time during which the icon was conceived [quotation taken from Robert Bird, Andrei Rublev, p. 37].

In the colour sequence, the music fills the entire soundtrack and thereby assumes an importance that recalls the ending of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped: i.e. it seems to signal transcedence even as it literally emphasises immanence and materiality (the surface of the painting).

Robert Bird describes the significance of the colour coda to Andrei Rublev in the following terms (p. 10):

[It] consummates the halting narrative, retrospectively revealing its underlying logic and transforming its deep textures into glorious surfaces. However, the icon display also suspends the complex weave of dialogue, music and ambient sound in a pious supplication. In effect, it dissolves the film's heavy temporality in its eternal patterns, as if Tarkovsky was ceding authorship to St Andrei Rublev. Several of Tarkovsky's subsequent films end in a similar confusion of temporal and spatial planes, a feature which irks some viewers as an 'easy transcendence' of the characters' otherwise torturous progression across the dolorous earth. However, by extending his searching gaze into the transcendent plane, Tarkovsky is also raising the stakes of his aesthetic gamble. Instead of the certainty of faith, he contemplates the possibility that there can be no true ending, possibly no true story at all, under the weight of time [Bird, Andrei Rublev, p. 10].

I first saw Andrei Rublev in about 1991. Its coda had a transfixing effect on me, and I have spent the twenty years since trying to re-enact this effect in one way or another. One of the immediate, enabling ideas it seemed to suggest was that the dialectic of realism vs. abstraction was a question solely of the scale of observation: that is, any image becomes abstract if you zoom in close enough; and any apparently flat surface is revealed to be sculpted if you blow it up large enough. I have therefore engaged in numerous attempts to photograph the surface of historical paintings in microscopic detail. Below are two attempts at this: close-ups of the surface of paintings from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which are part of icon-like renditions of gold fabrics, in which imprinted abstract patterns achieve their effect by textural means.

Painting Close-Up 1

Painting Close-Up 2

In Five Wounds, Dan and I do something similar by isolating a fragment of Tintoretto's Paradise, and then translating it into a collage of abstract shapes of different colours, which are juxtaposed as if in an insane painting-by-numbers exercise. This exercise combines the literal and abstract within the same scale of representation: i.e. by means of a mosaic effect, it combines the perspective of the 'establishing shot', which shows the whole painting, with the isolation of particular details or fragments that characterises the close-up.

Synaesthetic Paradise (left panel)

In the endpapers of Five Wounds, this manipulated visual citation from Tintoretto is rendered even more abstract by being presented as a blown-up fragment of a fragment, thus:

Five Wounds Endpaper

Many icons are literally mosaics of course, and Tarkovsky compared the unusual structure of Andrei Rublev to that of a mosaic:

You can stick your nose into some fragment, beat it with your fist, and scream: 'Why is it black here? It shouldn't be black here! I don't like to look at black!' But you have to look at a mosaic from afar and on the whole, and if you change one colour the whole thing falls apart [quoted in Bird, Andrei Rublev, p. 38].

The mosaic is an ancient pictorial technique, but the ending of Andrei Rublev is - despite its eschewal of dramatisation and mise-en-scene - intrinsically cinematic, or rather, photographic, because slow-motion and the close-up are both quintessentially photographic effects, which initiated a new way of looking at the world by giving us access to what Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious. Photography also revolutionised the way we think about paintings, not only by making it easy to reproduce them, but also by making it easy to isolate details from them (and even, via X-rays, to analyse their constituent elements).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Inspirations: Gerry Anderson

Above are the title sequences to Thunderbirds (1965-66) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68). Both shows were created by Gerry Anderson, working with his then-wife Sylvia Anderson. Most of their programmes involved elements of science-fiction, and were ‘Filmed in Supermarionation’, as the inventive title cards put it. In other words, they featured puppets and miniature models rather than actors on full-scale sets. Puppets were both cheaper and easier to direct than actual human beings. Unfortunately, they were also far less expressive, a limitation that Anderson tried to overcome by creating more and more ‘realistic’ facial features and bodily proportions as his career progressed, with mixed results. Ironically, greater verisimilitude meant less mobility, and so the most detailed puppets also had the clumsiest movements.

Of course, no-one watched Gerry Anderson’s programmes for emotional catharsis. In most cases, the rudimentary and highly repetitive storylines were obviously pretexts for the special effects sequences, which involved intricately-designed futuristic vehicles (rockets, aeroplanes, spacecraft, submarines), and lots of explosions. The most characteristic setpiece in any Anderson series was the sequence in which pilots were delivered (usually via tubes or hydraulic chairs) to their waiting vehicles, followed by a complicated lift-off protocol. Below is the title sequence from Stingray (1964), which is exemplary in this regard. Indeed, the title sequence of an Anderson show is usually the most dramatic and effective statement of the show's themes. It often features flash-cut excerpts of the episode to come (a device borrowed recently by Battlestar Galactica), and it always has an extremely catchy theme tune.

In most cases, the characters in an Anderson show were members of a quasi-military organisation with a ludicrous acronym and an entirely abstract structure, most notably the colour coded SPECTRUM agents in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, in which the titular protagonist was aided in his struggle with the titular alien antagonists (and their possessed factotum Captain Black) by agents such as Captain Blue, Lieutenant Green and Colonel White.

Less obviously schematic, but along the same lines, was the distribution of the various Tracy brothers (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John) among the consecutively numbered Thunderbirds in the show of the same name, in which they were in effect extensions of the craft that they piloted, or at least they were only ever distinguished in terms of the different functions assigned to the various Thunderbirds. These latter were all vehicles organised under the umbrella of the secret philanthropic organisation, International Rescue, which operated from a disguised island headquarters, under the direction of the Tracy brothers’ father, Jeff.

The obvious absurdity of these various premises (I have not even mentioned Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility, which severely limited dramatic tension in his adventures) did not affect their popularity, which derived in part from their effectiveness as early examples of what is now sometimes described as '360 degree marketing': meaning, in this case, that the programmes were accompanied by a multiplicity of associated toys, which ultimately derived their justification from the original television narrative(s), but which could also be used to create quite different narratives in the heads of consumers at home.

The most famous example of this kind of cross-platform marketing is the Star Wars universe, but the closest recent equivalent to the spirit of Anderson’s output is something like Pixar’s Toy Story, in which the synergy between the films and the related products is built into the premise on which the fictional world rests, since the characters are all toys, whose appearance can therefore be duplicated exactly by toy manufacturers.

Toy Story is (much) better written than Anderson’s work, but his programmes are better designed, and the worlds they depict are three-dimensional, even if they are miniaturised. Indeed, every aspect of their production – sets, objects, vehicles, costumes – is remarkably coherent. This unity is only emphasised by the literally wooden acting, which adds to the impression of an entirely self-contained fictional environment, but the production design remains striking even in the live-action successors to Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet: UFO (1969-70) and Space 1999 (1975-77). And since all the futuristic vehicles were models, they, like the characters of Toy Story, were relatively easy to duplicate as die-cast metal toys.

Dinky Spectrum Patrol Car

Dinky Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle

Above are the toy versions of the Spectrum Patrol Car and the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle from Captain Scarlet, made by Dinky, in whose catalogues they joined versions of British Leyland cars and other tediously mundane vehicles. The Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds toys were more exciting, not only because of their ready-made backstories, but because they incorporated spring-loaded weapons and other detachable gadgetry. Their only obvious competition at the time in this regard was from the Dinky versions of various James Bond cars, such as the Aston Martin with ejector seat and retractable machine guns, originally from Goldfinger. Models that were too delicate or complicated to cast in metal – such as the Angel interceptors from Captain Scarlet – were instead sold as plastic model kits, which were assembled and painted at home. These were produced by Airfix. They were less robust than Dinky toys, but they afforded the additional pleasure of participating in their process of their recreation.

In many of Anderson’s programmes, the original narrative therefore served as a set of instructions for how to play with the toys, but this strategy can only work when the template provided by the programme is as generic as possible. Every episode of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet is more or less interchangeable with every other episode: the former always features a daring rescue in the face of an imminent disaster (often the result of sabotage), while the latter always involves a race to foil the latest Mysteron conspiracy against Earth (which the Mysterons always announced helpfully at the beginning of the episode), usually culminating in some new test of the limits of Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility.

One might describe this process as quintessentially postmodern, since it invites the reader / viewer to participate directly in the story, or rather to invent new variations upon simple story types, which are, in another sense of the word, ‘modelled’ by individual episodes. It is not, however, a new idea. A similar process is perhaps implied in the various reiterations of story cycles like the Arthurian and Grail legends, which the original listeners were encouraged to internalise and imitate in their own behaviour.

My novel Five Wounds shares a tendency towards highly schematic organisation with Gerry Anderson’s work, notably in its application of colour coding to the five protagonists, who are also puppets, in the metaphorical sense that their fates are overdetermined. They are at the mercy of their allotted role in the story structure: that is, at the mercy of forces external to their own nature. Indeed, the idea of the miniature, along with the related ideas of the doll and the automaton (both closely related to the puppet), all suggest a world that is simultaneously hyperreal, in its use of precise detail (as in the production design of Anderson's shows), and weirdly artificial, in its recourse to caricature (as in Anderson's use of puppets).

I doubt that anyone has ever described Anderson’s work as uncanny before, but that is what this combination of elements suggests.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bernard Caleo on Montage in Comics

Check out the video above from Readings Bookshop in Melbourne, hosted by Oz comics impresario Bernard Caleo, who is talking about montage in film and comics (some - maybe all - of the featured art is by Michael Camilleri, who also appears). The first of a series of events on comics run by Bernard for Readings.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Five Wounds: Archetypes

We often think of fairy tale characters in terms of archetypes, but many such characters – the werewolf, say – are now so over familiar that they have been tamed imaginatively. They have lost their teeth. One way around this problem is to retrace the genealogy of a particular figure, and return to its primitive prehistory rather than use its domesticated modern variant.

Cur and the black dog

For example, Five Wounds features a character, Cur, who is not a werewolf, but is nonetheless animated by the same conflicts that drive the character type of the werewolf (human vs. animal, reason vs. instinct, free will vs. involuntary response). Cur is not affected by a full moon; nor is he ever physically transformed into an animal. Rather, he has a mutant strain of rabies. This links his condition to very old ideas about the physiological origin of anger, which was once thought to be caused by the heating of the blood. That’s why ‘in cold blood’ is still a synonym for ruthless premeditation, as opposed to reactive, spontaneous violence, which is by contrast ‘hot-blooded’. Anger was thought to make men brutish, and in particular to make them canine, so rabies was understood as an acute case of infectious anger in its most concentrated form. [1]

[1] These ideas are explained in more detail in Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli during the Renaissance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Five Wounds: A Fairy Tale

Traditional fairy tales have a kind of casual viciousness entirely alien to modern sensibilities, which distinguishes them not only from comic books (with which they otherwise have much in common), but also from the lavish gore of modern crime fiction. In fairy tales, there is never any attempt to ‘explain’ cruelty in psychological terms. It is not motivated by trauma and it does not result in trauma. It is simply there, an accepted part of the fictional world, just as starvation, premature death and casual violence were an accepted part of the lives of those who first listened to such tales in pre-modern Europe.

The violence in fairy tales is described in a matter-of-fact tone or (even more scandalously) is relished for its comic possibilities. Its cruelty is thus doubled. The narrative not only subjects the characters to all manner of ghastly events, but it refuses to acknowledge their right to be psychologically damaged, or to grieve.

This use of violence underlines the fact that fairy tales are not 'realistic,', by which I don't just mean that they feature magical plot devices. In general, their events do not occur as a result of modern, scientific relations between cause and effect; their characters are not explicable according to modern, post-Freudian notions of personhood; and the context in which their narratives occur is often composed only of a few isolated and impressionistic details. To put this last point in terms familiar to consumers of modern science-fiction and fantasy novels, fairy tales are not at all interested in 'worldbuilding.' Connections - between successive events, characters or apparently separate contextual details - are often made according to the same principle that links the two terms in a metaphor: i.e. by means of a violent imaginative leap.

Style is not just a matter of how you write. It is also a matter of what you miss out: what you do not feel it necessary to explain. Fairy tales take this principle to an absurd extreme. The wild imaginative leaps they make, and the gaping holes in their narrative logic, are another kind of cheerful violence that matches on a formal level all the amputations and violent transformations and deaths that occur in the content of their stories. These absences, taken together, constitute their distinctive voice, but that voice, judged according to the more familiar terms of a realist narrative, sounds like that of an affectless sociopath with a tenuous grip on reality.

Five Wounds takes the disturbing contradiction between fairy tales and realist narrative as its starting point. The five protagonists begin the story as irredeemably traumatised, and this trauma manifests itself physically, as deformity, but this is their natural condition, which they take for granted, and which in turn defines the world they live in and the limits of their choices. Those choices do not change their natures, but rather reveal them. Everything is simultaneously overly literal and overly symbolic. Everything is fixed in advance and everything is subject to arbitrary reversal.

This should not be taken to imply that Five Wounds is cold or detached. On the contrary, it is a boiling pot with the lid pressed down tight.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Guest Post at The Spectator Book Blog

I have a guest post up at The Spectator book blog, which is about the influence of the King James Bible (published 400 years ago this month) on the design of Five Wounds. Here's an extract:

The modern paperback is not a natural object. The advent of e-books has made this painfully obvious. In the current state of confusion as to what a book is or should be, it might be an opportune moment to review the sacred prehistory of the novel. Five Wounds reaffirms the relevance of the King James Bible to modern storytelling, but it also draws on medieval traditions that were erased in 1611, just as the novel erased its own sacred origins.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Five Wounds: Review at 'Shelf Abuse'

Following on from my guest post at the Shelf Abuse site, Carl Doherty has posted a review of Five Wounds there. A quotation is below:

Five Wounds' story would stand proud in any format, but the combination of Walker’s rich cityscape and Hallett’s spidery imagery results in something beyond a conventional book with superfluous pictures. Text and imagery feed off one another like Siamese twins, to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine either element surviving if separated.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Influence of Comic Books on Five Wounds

A short article I wrote on this topic has now been posted at the Shelf Abuse site. Thanks to Carl Doherty for arranging this. An extract is below:

Long decried as reductive and simplistic, comic books are actually, as Douglas Wolk has recently suggested, a vehicle peculiarly suited to allegory: that is, to the representation of abstract ideas through narrative. Wolk argues that superhero comics in particular ‘provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction. They’re the closest thing that exists right now to the “novel of ideas.”’ (Wolk, Reading Comics, p. 92) All superhero characters and plots are, in some sense, allegorical, but this in no way detracts from their integrity as stories.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Release of Five Wounds!

Cover image for Five Wounds

Five Wounds is released today in the UK. The official US release will follow shortly, although it is already available to buy in both countries (links are on the right). It is published by Allen & Unwin.

Five Wounds is fantasy noir, and is presented in a unique 'illuminated' format with many original illustrations created by Dan Hallett (see the video below for more information on the format). You can download the opening chapter for free here. Here is the publisher's synopsis of the story:

In a cruel and arbitrary world, where disturbing lapses in logic are commonplace, five orphans must face their traumatic origins.

Gabriella is a crippled angel, haunted by her inability to interpret prophecies. Cur is the rabid leader of a sect of dogs, desperate to escape his inheritance. Cuckoo is a gambler with a wax face determined to find a fixed identity before his luck runs out. Magpie is a thief in search of the perfect photographic subject, but terrified of going blind. Crow is a leper trying to distil the essence of death as an antidote to dying.

Each of them is deformed; each has a special ability; each is connected to all of the others. And each gets exactly what they deserve. Or do they?

Here are some quotations about the book:

In a world of increasing vacuity and self-concern, this beautiful illustrated edition of Five Wounds is like a medication - a mystical, elegant treatise on empathy that is at once also a novel and an anti-novel. It’s a turning-point book, but one that can live on a coffee-table like a beating heart. I’ve seen nothing so rare, curious and beautiful in a long time. – DBC Pierre, author of Vernon God Little and Lights Out in Wonderland

If I say this fable is peculiar, it’s a compliment. Not so much steampunk as, what? Canalpunk? This elaborate macabre book plays games, runs riddles, leaps in flights of fancy and dives down chasms of nightmare with Tarot, murder, jokes, and angels thrown in for good measure. The illustrations are Goya meets comic-book, the text is Perfume and Pan’s Labyrinth, Gogol, Calvino and Casanova’s memoirs of Venice all in one. Extraordinary. – Kate Holden, author of In My Skin and The Romantic

The template suggests an old-fashioned children’s classic: handsome proportions, elegant print, fancy chapter headings, centre plates on shiny paper. But a virus has gotten in there: the illustrations are nightmarish and hermetic, calling on the Tarot, Escher, psychotic heraldry, and the text here and there is scribbled through, the nice fonts mocked by scrawled block capitals. And the story likewise takes the blackness that underpins traditional fairytales and brings it front and centre. .... [T]he book takes you places, and the illustrations are wonderful. - Owen Richardson, review in The Age

Think back to your first trip with Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, or how it felt to enter the Matrix after Neo takes the red pill. Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel takes you down a similarly twisting path and leaves you pondering the journey well afterwards. .... a thought-provoking and beautifully presented work. - Aliese Millington, review in Transnational Literature

The five senses are a common theme in Five Wounds and it seems fitting then, that it appeals to the senses in such detail. I have literally tried everything short of licking the book. The hardcover, thoughtful selection of paper stock and red ribbon page-marker makes the book seem like an artefact; it is a privilege to hold it. .... The scribblings peppered through out the book add to its mystery. I feel as if I am reading a diary, a draft, a spell book; something personal that was not meant for the eyes of others. .... [They] lend the book a desperate sense of urgency. - Dave Drayton, review at Vibewire

Here is a video interview (courtesy of the Wheeler Centre) about the unique format of Five Wounds:

I'll be posting some additional discussion about Five Wounds here over the next couple of months. I'll also be doing some guest posts on other blogs and sites, which I'll link to from here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Five Wounds: Video Trailer

The video above is an extremely abstract trailer for my novel Five Wounds, which is released this month in the US and the UK. The trailer is adapted from the 'Teaser' section of my website, and it consists of a sequence of twenty short phrases, which are displayed via twenty successive screens. Each screen uses two colours, out of a total of five: one for the text, and one for the background. In the book, and thus in the trailer, each of these five colours represents one of the five protagonists: blue for Gabriella; red for Cur; black for Cuckoo; silver for Magpie; gold for Crow.

Amateur statisticians may note when viewing these screens that the entire sequence represents every single possible combination of two of the five colours (excluding those combinations in which the same colour appears twice). The first few screens run through these combinations according to the order that they appear in the Five Wounds hand, after which the sequence progresses systematically. The lettering on each successive screen is in the same colour that appeared as the background in the previous screen. The logic of this progression is therefore not entirely dissimilar to the terza rima rhyme scheme used by Dante, which I described in a previous post.

The entire sequence of twenty screens is as follows:
1. Blue text on a red background: Get out while you still can.
2. Red on black: Don’t turn back.
3. Black on silver: You have to choose.
4. Silver on gold: Don’t move.
5. Gold on blue: You can’t win.
6. Blue on black: Run faster.
7. Black on red: I can’t keep up.
8. Red on blue: He’s right behind you.
9. Blue on silver: I don’t understand.
10. Silver on red: It’s your funeral.
11. Red on gold: It’s eating me up.
12. Gold on silver: I’m not your friend.
13. Silver on blue: Cut it off.
14. Blue on gold: I’m not like you.
15. Gold on red: Give up.
16. Red on silver: Dust to dust.
17. Silver on black: No-one will help you.
18. Black on gold: I’m not afraid.
19. Gold on black: Don’t scream.
20. Black on blue: Bet everything.

These short phrases - mottos or slogans - are rather banal when taken individually, since they are entirely without narrative context here, and they also use a restricted vocabulary, which is deliberately inexpressive. Individually, they are flat and affectless; but collectively they should give a sense of increasing menace and claustrophobia. This echoes the style of the book, which similarly lapses into flat, affectless tones during the most violent or disturbing episodes. The sequence itself is also a coded message. Each screen represents one of the five protagonists 'talking' to one of the other five, and, in doing so, revealing the way in which they understand their relationship to that other person. So the first screen, which says 'Get out while you still can', in blue letters on a red background, represents Gabriella talking to Cur; the second screen, 'Don't turn back', in red letters on a black background, represents Cur talking to Cuckoo; and so on, until the final screen, 'Bet everything', in black letters on a blue background, which represents Cuckoo talking to Gabriella. Like the heraldic coats-of-arms at the beginning of Five Wounds, the sequence is therefore a coded map of the book's contents.

The schematic nature of this exercise caused some problems. The sequence is in part derived from heraldry, but it ignores the heraldic 'rule of tincture', which forbids placing, for example, gold against silver, because with this and similar combinations it is difficult to distinguish the foreground from the background. However, since the sequence here must by definition include every possible combination of two of the five colours, it follows that it must break this rule. Moreover, the cross-hatched patterns under the pigments sometimes 'interfere' with the letter forms, making it difficult to read the text. The (imperfect) solution to this problem was to display the text for each screen in two states: first in empty white, with the letters reversed-out, and then in the relevant tincture, on the theory that at least one of these two states would be legible. It's not perfect, aesthetically, because of the legibility issue (compounded in this version by a noticeable image deterioration: the silent version is much cleaner visually).

Nonetheless, the sequence gives a flavour of Five Wounds, which also includes puzzles, riddles and allusions. Both the trailer and the book use text visually, as an element in the design, and both are structured according to hidden principles. But the trailer probably works better as commentary for those who have already seen the book than as an introduction for neophytes.

[Video credits: Painted textures by Dan Hallett; video created by Sarah Lyttle and Adam Hinshaw; concept and art direction by Jonathan Walker. Thanks to Peter Newman for permission to use an edited extract of one of his compositions as the soundtrack.]