Friday, January 28, 2011

Black Swan

                                   Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Yesterday I attended a screening of  the latest Darren Aronofsky film, the controversial  Black Swan. Set in  New York in the gruelling world of  a Ballet company in rehearsal, it’s the story of  Nina  who has to prove herself capable of performing the dual lead role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. The theatrical director thinks  she is too much a perfectionist and although technically  able to perform the part of Odette, the white swan, out of touch with her inner, sexual self  to  perform the role of Odile, the black swan.

It should be remembered that in some ways the dual role of white swan/black swan in Tchaikovsky's perennial masterpiece is the Hamlet role in the ballet world. It requires that the dancer not only projects the pure innocence of the white swan heroine, but also the seductive femme fatale role of the black swan. There's  not too many dramatic roles which demand acting both the goodie and the baddie.

It’s a slow burner of a film which deliberately plays tricks upon the viewer. Natalie Portman’s acting throughout totally engages the audience to empathize with her fate as she confronts her possessive and manipulative mother, jealous peers and predatory director.  Issues such as body image, sexuality, rivalry, madness, obsessiveness and the quest for perfection are explored as Nina’s psyche  slowly unravels under pressure into  a deceptive hallucinatory world.

Natalie Portman has already won numerous awards for her acting in Black Swan and may yet well win more in the coming Oscar season. Personally I feel she deserves to. She acted a  not dissimilar role of  disintegration of personality in Milos Foreman’s 'Goya’s Ghosts' (2006).

 Black Swan has been compared in its decent into paranoia and madness to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant as a psycho-drama. It's as scary as the aforementioned Polanski films in horror and subtle deception of the viewer.  Film critics  however seem to be sharply divided between hate and admiration of Black Swan, some considering Aronofsky’s offering  to be shallow, pretentious and stereotypical in its portrayal of ambitious women, and those who consider it  redeemed by compelling performances  and direction.

 Black Swan shares some of the thematic concerns of Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 ballet film The Red Shoes in its portrait of artistic destruction in the quest for perfection. In essence however Aronofsky's Black Swan is a  horror psycho-drama which exploits the physical and mental pressures of ballet for its own artistic agenda.

                   Prima ballerina Irena Kolesnikova in the role 
                     of the black Swan in  Swan Lake

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cosmo's Factory

 Probably the greatest American 70’s rock album ever !

 Can it really be 40 years ago today that I purchased for my birthday at the princely sum of 39 shillings and 11 pence, the album 'Cosmo's Factory'?  As a choirboy the  singing of John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s front-man simply astounded me.  Not only did he pen the band’s numerous hits, playing  a mean, lean, clean and bluesy lead guitar, but also sang  like some crooning Mississippi swamp bull-frog. It was unknown to me and to most Brit’s probably, that in fact the band hailed from Berkeley, California and  were  not from the south at all, but  were  creating a highly original pastiche, inspired by the music of New Orleans and the bayou swamp lands. In fact their first ‘hit ‘Proud Mary’ alludes to New Orleans.  When Tina Turner covered 'Proud Mary' it regenerated her career.  But what a lot of people don’t know is that  the British band Status Quo's  mega-hit  ‘Rockin’ all over the world’   was also penned by J .C. Fogerty.

Emerging out the late 60’s Creedence  Clearwater played at the swan-song  festival of the 60’s,‘Woodstock’, but because of the over-indulgence of the previous act, Grateful Dead, they didn’t appear on stage until 3 a.m. Not too surprisingly  given the circumstances, the footage of their performances is long lost.

 It’s just the sheer joy of hearing Creedence’s tight, 3 minutes  of feelgood songs with strong melodies which makes them  continue to be one of the most played bands on American radio. The quintessential all-American band, as  American as Mom's apple-pie, they have now sold over 26 million records world-wide. When other bands went for a slick studio production Creedence’s ‘keep it simple’ style ensured that they were as good to hear live as in the studio.

 During their meteoric and short-lived rise to fame CCR spawned number one hit after hit  in America and the UK.  Powered by the driving bass and drums of Stu Cook and Doug Clifford with Tom Fogerty on rhythm guitar CCR became the sound of early 70's American pop-rock. However, a grueling schedule of near non-stop recording sessions and touring meant that the  band did not last long with artistic conflicts between band-members, notably between John and his elder brother Tom Fogerty.

 At first hearing many believe the band’s  2 minute hit-single ‘Travelling Band’  on 'Cosmo's Factory'   to be a 50’s song, but its evidence  of  J.C.Fogerty’s genius to pastiche classic 50’s pop in an updated way. Every track on ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ is a classic.

One of the most amazing rock-guitar solo’s ever occurs on Cosmo’s Factory.  Fogerty, who is easily a guitar virtuoso equal to Carlos Santana or Jimmy Page,  covers Marvin Gaye’s ‘I heard it through the Grapevine' with soulful vocal and blistering guitar solo.  His funky soul-based guitar playing on the track confirms him to be  a musical  adept  of many genres, including country and western,  R 'n' B, pop, rock  and soul music.

I had the pleasure of seeing John Fogerty interviewed on a T.V. chat-show a few years ago.  A modest, soft-spoken, American gentleman, ever the musician-trooper he continues to successfully tour and is popular in  Scandinavian countries.

Tonight  I hope to be celebrating my birthday with  friends and a 1970’s cold war drink, vodka and coke, cranking  up the volume for what is quite simply in my humble opinion, the greatest guitar solo ever  - as heard on the 11 minute studio jam track of Creedence's cover version of ‘I heard it through the Grapevine’.  

Today is the birth-dates of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lewis Carroll and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It is also World Holocaust Memorial Day.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stargazer lily

                             When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
                             I summon up remembrance of things past. 

The translated English title of Marcel Proust's vast novel A la recherche du temps perdu originates from Shakespeare's Sonnet 30. The Stargazer lily was created in 1978 by Leslie Woodriff, a lily breeder in California, USA.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


My father died on January 22nd 1996, aged just 60, 15 years ago today. He was a sailor when this photo was taken on his wedding day. Just a few days before he died I picked up a copy of Sir Thomas Browne for the first time since my undergraduate days. On the day he died I had a numinous experience and several coincidences in my life occurred.  I remember my father's sound advice  - specialize in order to become an authority upon a subject. 

The figure of the cucullatus  points to the hooded, that is, the invisible one, the genius of the departed, who reappears in the child-like frolics of a new life, surrounded by the sea-forms of dolphins and tritons. The sea is the favourite symbol for the unconscious. -Jung CW 9 i 298.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Fiery Angel

Set in Renaissance Germany and the world of  magic and occult arts, ever since its first publication in 1907, Valery Bruisov's novel ‘The Fiery Angel', has been controversial. It’s full title is indicative of both its subject matter and stylistic tone

The Fiery Angel or a True Story in which is related of the Devil, not once but often appearing in the Image of a Spirit of Light to a Maiden and seducing her to Various and Many Sinful Deeds, of Ungodly Practises of Magic, Alchymy, Astrology, the Cabbalistical Sciences and Necromancy, of the Trial of the Said Maiden under Presidency of the Eminence of the Archbishop of Trier, as well as of Encounters and Discourses with the Knight and thrice Doctor Agrippa of Nettesheim, and with Doctor Faustus, composed by an Eyewitness. 

Written in an archaic style as if a Gothic romance or Renaissance adventure travelogue and with meticulous attention to historical detail, the story of Renata is narrated by the Knight Ruprecht, recently returned to Germany from his travels in America. Ruprecht recollects his tale from his first encounter with the beautiful Renata who is in a frenzied state. He tells of their relationship, study of the occult together and quest for the fiery angel of Madiel. Eventually the Inquisition are summoned to investigate Renata’s disturbed behaviour at a convent where an outbreak of collective hysteria erupts.

The three-cornered relationship between Renata, an attractive young woman who experiences visions, the Knight Ruprecht and Madiel, the fiery angel who manifests himself as the red-headed Count Heinrich and with whom Renata has an obsessive relationship, was in fact mirrored in the real-life menage-a-trois  between the novelist Bruisov himself, Nina Petrovskaya, a young 19-year old girl and fellow symbolist-decadent author, Andre Bely.

The Russian literary critic and novelist Valery Bruisov became a leading figure amongst Decadent and Symbolist artists of his time. He attended seances, spiritualistic meetings and lectures by scholars of the esoteric and became familiar with leading authors of occultism. Popular interest in the occult, the writings Madame  Blavatsky, founder of the theosophy movement and Rudolph  Steiner were enormous throughout Russian society during the first decade of 20th century. Bruisov's own complete knowledge of esoteric topics is evident throughout the novel which is in essence, like  Andre Bely’s ‘Petersburg’ (1916) a major  novel of  Russian Symbolism. 

It's often during epochs of intense socio-economic upheaval that Apocalyptic prophecies and visions proliferate along with revived interest in the occult arts. The early years of 20th century Russia were no exception to this phenomenon. The artistic movement of Russian Symbolism emphasised the  transcendent aspects of the arts to near religious status. 

Russian symbolist art’s messianic role is exemplified in Mikhail Vrubel's  'Six-winged Seraph' of 1904 (above painting). Composed as a kind of inner vision to the artist, reminding him of his mission and utterly Symbolist in theme and creed, Vrubal’s painting endeavours to rouse its audience from the trivia of everyday existence to awareness of spiritual phenomena. Moving in the same artistic circles, its impossible Bruisov was not aware of Vrubal’s  painting.

In brief, in the absence of social and political reform in Russia, the arts became imbued with religious fervour. The artist Kandinsky in his essay ‘Concerning the spiritual in art' (1911)  stressed this  religiosity of art, stating-

‘Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will someday reach to heaven’.

                                       Valery Bruisov 1873-1924

In Bruisov’s novel the heroine Renata falls victim to religious intolerance and an all-too-literal interpretation of a single line of Biblical scripture, Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live. ( Ex. 22 v. 18) This single verse tragically endorsed genocide throughout Renaissance Europe. Over-zealously interpreted by an exclusively male legislative and judiciary it resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of lives, mostly single women, especially those who were young and attractive, or old and ugly, throughout Europe over three centuries.

In essence the subject-matter of ‘The Fiery Angel’ is that of the complex relationship between sexuality and spirituality. Written only a few years after Sigmund Freud’s seminal work of psychoanalysis ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900) psychiatry eventually abandoned concepts such as female hysteria. Today the heroine Renata would be diagnosed as perhaps suffering from a bi-polar disorder or  old-fashioned existential angst. 

'The Fiery Angel' has a precedent in the French Symbolist writer Joris-Karl Huysman’s  novel La Bas (1891) with  its description of  a black Mass. Aspects of its subject-matter are also echoed  in Aldous Huxley’s novel,  'The Devils of Loundon' (1953) with its depiction of religious hysteria. More importantly the general theme of the occult along with the Passion of Christ also occurs in Mikhail Bulgakov’s  masterpiece ‘The Master and Margarita’ (1940).

Incidentally it's a curious cultural coincidence that the Russian craze for occult learning during the pre-revolutionary years of the 20th century coincides with a similar cultural phenomena in 1650's England. Both historical  epochs were  characterised  by political instability and uncertainty. Following the civil war, execution of Charles I and establishment of the Protectorate of Cromwell  large portions of English society, unsure of direction, apprehensive of an impending apocalypse, searched for new knowledge and spiritual guide-lines. The same social phenomena occurred  in Russia centuries later. While England experienced the trauma of civil war, deposition of Monarch and a radical change of Government and then engaged in popular interest in esoteric affairs, early 20th century Russian interest in the occult preceded the horrors of world war, regicide, radical change of government  and civil  war. 

Bruisov fleetingly alludes to the city of Norwich in 'The Fiery Angel'  and there exists a curious connection between  Czarist Russia to Norwich worth exploring; for the actions of the archetypal historical character associated with the occult, the charismatic, haemophiliac-healing 'Mad Monk' Rasputin can be linked to a 17th century Norwich resident.  Among the alchemical manuscripts Rasputin is recorded to have stolen from the Romanov Czar’s Imperial Library were those by the English physician Arthur Dee when resident  physician to Czar Mikhail circa 1614-30 in Moscow. When Arthur Dee, eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee, left Moscow he eventually settled at Norwich where he befriended the physician Thomas Browne.

When Arthur Dee died in 1651 a flood of esoteric literature began to  pour from British printing-presses. Many important esoteric titles made their first appearance in the English language during the 1650's decade,  including those of  the magus Cornelius Agrippa, author of 'Three books of occult philosophy' who makes a significant appearance in the action of  'The Fiery Angel'.

Arthur Dee’s close associate Thomas Browne confidently defended a belief in  angels in his Religio Medici declaring -

Therefore for Spirits I am so farre from denying their existence, that I could easily beleeve, that not onely whole Countries, but particular persons have their Tutelary, and Guardian Angels: It is not a new opinion of the Church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato; there is no heresie in it, and if not manifestly defin'd in Scripture, yet is it an opinion of a good and wholesome use in the course and actions of a mans life, and would serve as an Hypothesis to salve many doubts, whereof common Philosophy affordeth no solution. R.M.Part I:33

 Edition consulted -

'The Fiery Angel' by Valery Bruisov published by Dedalus  2005  with an  afterword by Gary Lachman

Monday, January 17, 2011


In response to  love of the Potto and as an excuse for neglecting blogging here's a photo of my new mentor. 

Sloths live in the rain-forests of  south America and have an extremely low metabolism. Like many animals they are rapidly becoming an endangered species. I can just about make the effort to find a Sir Thomas Browne connection here. Remarkably, somehow the worthy physician knew of the Sloth.  In what must be one of the very earliest recorded references to the creature and with typical  humour he makes the moral observation-

 To strenuous minds there is an inquietude in overquietness, and no laboriousness in labour; and to tread a mile after the slow pace of a Snail, or the heavy measures of the Lazy of Brazilia were a most tiring penance, and worse than a Race of some furlongs at the Olympicks. -Christian Morals  I:33