Saturday 27 January 2018


Kings Place, London, Sat 20th Jan

Celebrated Minimalist composer (and regular Lucid Frenzy fave) Steve Reich has sometimes taken the view that regular musicians can be unattuned to his way of doing things. (My mental analogy for this is always luvvies hamming their way through Brecht.) Whereas he has dedicated a piece to Colin Currie (more of which anon), who by turn has formed this group primarily to play Reich’s music.

The two halves of the programme followed the same chronological structure, picking a piece from the Seventies, Eighties and post-millennium respectively. And in so doing gave a good primer in the changes to Reich’s music.

Reich spoke in the programme of an initial “desire to make music with the simplest possible instruments”. And ’Music For Pieces of Wood’ Having not listened to ‘classic’ Minimalism for a while, I found my ears needed to get acclimatised to it all over again. You need to stop picking out the individual lines and start taking in the overall piece, listening to the wood not the trees. (Pun not intended. Oh alright, it was intended.) As said after another Reich night: “In Minimalism the sounds are so similar they superimpose on one another before they even reach you and your ears are no longer quite sure what they're picking up.” There’s a kind of sonic ‘shimmer’ which takes over once you get there.

But it was the second Seventies work, part one of ’Drumming’ (1971) which most won my heart. Bongo drums were struck with sticks to create an unusual sound, which the players built up through cascades (at point pummelling with a blur of arms) before breaking back into slower and more basic tempos. Reich states enthusiastically “there is only one basic rhythmic pattern”, yet it’s enough to entrance you the whole time.

’New York Counterpoint’ (1985) and ’Vermont Counterpoint’ (1982) both featured solo wind players accompanied by pre-recordings of themselves. Perhaps the sort of thing already covered in previous instalments. But further proof that there’s nothing chin-stroking ‘difficult’ to Reich. Both were positively rhapsodic to listen to, and put me in mind of Spring sprouting despite the temperature outside.

If the title of ’Mallet Quartet’ (2009) suggests more non-standard instruments, this later work actually uses two vibraphones and two marimbas, merely struck with mallets. Unlike any of the earlier works, they quickly divided into ‘lead’ and ‘bass’ sections. (“The marimbas set the harmonic background which remains rather static” while “the vibes present the melodic material”, as Reich puts it.) All of which might make it accessible enough to be a good introductory work for newbies.

Or at least that’s what I was thinking until we hit the middle, slow movement. This was perhaps the most unReichean part of the whole programme, only suggesting the rhythmic pulses that normally seem the connecting molecules of his music. He confessed “I was originally concerned this movement might just be ‘too thin’, but I think it ends up being the most striking, and certainly the least expected, of the piece”. And Reich is right.

’Quartet’ (2013) was the piece dedicated to Currie, and as the most recent work did mark the other evolutionary end to ’Drumming’. Reich has described it as “one of the more complex I have composed”, and despite being the finale my reaction was almost the opposite to ’Drumming’. It was still recognisably Reich, but seemed to have lost his rosebud, it did more but signified less.

Currie promised the launch of a label, tracking their recordings of Reich. With perhaps more live shows to go with it…

Part of ’Drumming’. by the CCG but from elsewhere...

Cafe Oto, London, Fri 12th Jan

Regular readers won’t know of my love for Australian free improvising trio The Necks. Not because I don’t keep going on about them, but because there are no regular readers.

But those numerous sightings left me with no conception whatsoever of what drummer Tony Buck might do left to his own devices. More than most other bands, the Necks work as an ensemble – it would be an absurdity to abstract any individual element from their playing. So the only way to find out what he’d do seemed to be to show up and see…

It was in fact not quite a solo gig, as Buck was accompanied by three musical mobiles. One scraped metal sheets across the floor, another struck a cymbal and so on. As he could switch these on and off, and speed up and slow them down via pedals, these acted as somewhere between live-action samples and automated musicians. (Though at points he’d employ actual samples too.) Belying his day-job, it was mostly guitar he’d play over the top of these. In fact he only took to the full drum kit right at the end.

It was very much something else to the Necks’ measured serenity, with some of his guitar assaults going into full-on noise territory. But it was more than decibel-level different. Necks gigs have a muso/anti-muso quality to them, as if the music’s already present in the ether and is just being made manifest through the players. (They’ve said in interviews how things like their mood on the night doesn’t affect the music much.) Whereas this felt more being created from moment to moment, Buck setting up processes and then reacting to them, ellipses in the turning of the mobiles becoming part of the experience.

The gig was quite a ritualistic affair. Buck entered through the audience, playing bells and in the place of the traditional Australian corks wind-chimes attached to his hat. They effectively masked his face throughout. Then at the end, contravening the rock’n’roll orthodoxy of leaving ‘em on a high, he exited the same way while leaving the mobiles going. People sat listening to the mobiles alone for several minutes before breaking into applause.

A short series of edited excerpts of Buck doing something similar in his cellar…

Friday 19 January 2018


A Spotify playlist with a difference! During previous compilations, I found the things pretty much insisted on a maximum track length. I’d sometimes push things to the nine, ten, eleven minute mark, but even at that point there’d start to be an unbalancing effect. It’s like if a street otherwise composed of bungalows suddenly sported a mansion. No-one’s going to look at the bungalows then, right?

Now this could be described as something of a First World problem. But it bugged me. Particularly in the case of bands who solely trade in longer tracks, making themselves playlist proof. Until one day it hit me that you could compile a list just of longer tracks. (Yes, that’s right, I have been to college.) With the result being right here. Dali’s floppy clock ( a section of ’Persistence of Memory’ seemed to fit.

Sunn 0))): It Took the Night to Believe
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Fam/Famine
Faust: Accroche A Tes Levres
The Cosmic Dead: Anatta
Sun Ra: Space is the Place

Almost straight away, I then got the notion to make a companion playlist devoted to shorter tracks. (With a five minute maximum.) If I ever finish that one, I’ll yet you know. Until then, settle down for some sustained stuff…

Coming soon! Back with the gig-going adventures…
Coming slightly later! Back with the art exhibition reviews...

Saturday 13 January 2018


Design Museum, London

In the world of my mind this post would have gone up straight after the Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show, rather than four months later. My planning it seems is scarcely any better than Stalin’s. But on the upside it does mark my starting to catch up on my art exhibition reviews. As an added inducement to the reader, this time each section… yes, really, each section… has it’s own opening quote, and not all of them are by Mayakovsky.

“The streets shall be our brushes, and the squares our palettes.”
- Vladimir Mayakovsky

On The Up
“Hey, you! Heaven! Off with your hat! I am coming!”

Let’s cheat completely by starting with a work from another show – a film-clip from Friedrich Ermler’s ‘Fragment of an Empire’ (1921), shown in the Academy’s ’Revolution: Russian Art’. A solider is shown returning from the front to Petrograd. Almost like Rip Van Winkle, the long-bearded man arrives in a futuristic scenario which bewilders him.

To borrow from the show’s title, propaganda this film surely was. But was it not revolution but simply a lie, a mask for brute realities? In fact the truth... the actual truth of these times is more complicated. And so, inevitably, was the art.

This show is based around six unrealised architectural projects, all intended for Moscow. (Which had become the Russian capital shortly after the revolution.) This takes it somewhere different to the Academy’s ‘Building the Revolution’ exhibition, which was concerned with the history of buildings which had survived.

In exhibition book Jean-Louis Cohen’s essay ‘Lissitzky’s “Amerikanizm”’ describes El Lissitzky’s role as a “travelling salesman” between East and West. It also reprints an essay of Lissitzky’s own, titled ‘”Amerikianism” in European Architecture’ (1925). 

America was a New World country which had largely pioneered the use of skyscrapers, greatly influencing Russian architects. But it was also an avowedly capitalist nation which refused to recognise the Soviet Union, which through the White Armies had actively tried to destroy it. Arguably, Lissitzky tries to square this circle when he insists “Europe today is more American than America itself”.

And being more American than America of course largely meant being bigger than America, bigger being simply another word for better. The pissing contest of the Cold War is already here in earnest. The Palace of the Soviets, for example, was not only designed to be the tallest building in the world (stealing the crown from the Empire State Building), but to be topped by a hundred metre statue of Lenin – despite the fact that the Moscow climate would mostly obscure it with clouds. A full-size reproduction of one of the fingers, four metres tall, is somewhat surreally on show. One section of the show is appropriately titled ’Colonizing the Sky’.

Yet if this show merely recorded the to’s and fro’s between two super-powers, which didn’t even divide in aesthetics much let alone ideology, it would be of academic interest only. Happily, that’s not the case…

We’re told skyscrapers were then often called “cloud pressers”. (Though not whether this was local to Russia or not.) And even that minor variant of the term is enough to revitalise the metaphor in your mind. For example Lissitzky’s ‘cloud iron’ buildings (above) have a distinct, megalith shape distinct from the geometric block or tapering tower we’re so used to. But that just leads us into the most significant thing about them...

He conceived of a ring of these around Moscow, people living up above while the street level was reserved for transit and communications. The city was to be not an accumulation of places which happened to be clustered together, but as a set of connecting nodes.

Meanwhile, ’The Problem of the Scientific Organisation of Life’ by Nikolay Kuzmin not only designed a model miners’ apartment house but broke down their day into blocks, some as short as two minutes. Or at least from rising at 6am to 5.25pm after which he indulgently decreed “from here life dictates it’s own timetable”. Worker’s lodgings are no longer a refuge from, but an adjunct to the workplace. They helpfully wake you up in the morning and switch your lights out at night. They regulate your non-working hours almost as thoroughly as your working ones.

Two conceptions seem at work, which are surely rivals. One is based around not just the workers taking over the existing Moscow, but building an entirely new Moscow better adapted to their needs. The city becomes almost a kind of steel exoskeleton built at their arms and legs. With the other, the new architecture is more a mould in which the worker is poured to shape him. Contemporary Architecture magazine called for new buildings “that creates new social types” (1928).

The human body is itself likened to a machine, the USSR Conference on Workers’ Vacations stating “like a machine a person needs repair and recuperation: socialist leisure restores the proletarian machine-body.” Recuperative Health Factories were to be built, such as the one Sokalov designed for tired Muscovites by the Black Sea. It’s scarcely uncoincidental that infographic reductions of the human form, not previously widely seen, become common. If the world was to be transformed man must be too, and in art at least transformed physically, made by tools into a tool.

And this is perhaps at it’s clearest in Valentina Kulagina’s poster ‘To The Defence of the USSR’ (1931, above), in which robotised figures march dynamically out of the frame. They could even be produced in that factory on the lower left, along with their planes and guns. These are salutary reminders that true dystopias are all failed utopias.

Perhaps armed with our knowledge of what came next, we cannot help but notice the distinction which we perceive as a clash. For example Rowan Moore’s Guardian review commented on how 
“designs of wild ambition combine with homages to science and pedantic prescriptions for dividing up a worker’s day.” But it’s a distinction which, largely speaking, we make that they didn’t. And we make it precisely because for us it’s happened, because we can look back on it. (This of course cycles back to what was said about the Revolution in the Academy show write-up.)

Architecture as Fantasy, Science As Fiction

By setting itself in Moscow the show bypasses the era's most famous example of unrealised architecture, the Tatlin Tower (which was intended for Petrograd). And this lays the ground for Tatlin’s influence over the show to be exceeded by that of his arch-rival, Malevich. Yet that happens in a surprising way…

One day I was confidently explaining that Malevich was unable to realise his Suprematist visions in three dimensional space, that threshold tableware wasn’t really a thing. Then pretty much the next show I see, and El Lissitzky is doing it like he doesn’t even see the problem. And in so doing he came to influence both the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This is perhaps at it’s most pronounced in his children’s book ’Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale’ (1922) where he anthropomorphises those two squares (after Malevich, one black, one red) into a narrative. It’s an indication of how little we need images to contain for us to ‘read’ them.

But more significant here are his diagrammatic, geometric Prouns (Project for the Affirmation of the New, the acronym works in Russian). These demonstrate how artworks and architectural diagrams overlap to the point where it’s impossible to see the joins. Compare his lithograph ‘Proun 1E (The City)’ (1919) to Gustav Klutski’s ‘Architectural Study’ (1921/2, both above). (A 3D version of the Proun is also on show, though made by Henry Milner in 2009.)

But then Suprematism, even in its ‘pure’ rarified form suggested motion and often pictorial depth, even when it lacked an actual Z axis. In the guidebook, Eszther Steierhoffer describes Malevich’s art as “implying a sensation of levitation”. The disciples were merely going where the master couldn’t follow, taking up his dynamic forms more than the heraldic black square he used in place of a signature. Take for example Ilya Chashnik’s ‘Vertical Axes in Motion’ (1922/3, below).

Chashnik also demonstrates how recurrent verticality is here, the indicia remarking on “aviation motifs featuring prominently.” The show is so stuffed with audaciously imaginative but unsurprisingly unrealised projects it would be hard to sort them, but a favourite of mine was Seregy Gruzenberg’s proposal for a ‘Columbus Flying Monument’ (1923) an aerial sculpture which, while huge in size, would have drifted around the Earth like a stray balloon.

The notion this verticality can become literally gravity defying, already incipient in the flat iron buildings, can be seen in spades in two photo-collages. In Rodchenko’s ’Circus Acrobats’ (1938, above) two trapeze artists appear in the heavens, past a rocket ship. While in Piotr Gladzhev’s photocollage ’Female Tennis Players’ (1924), the players look as though they’ve leapt up into the sky. Though I could only find an image for Rodchenko, Gladzhev may be the more radical. If one figure stands on the wing of a plane, the image still feels as though they have hurled themselves up to this height. It’s as if the more more involved they grew in their game, they less connected they became to the ground. It’s an image of dizzying exhilaration.

(Like the cloud-pressing skyscrapers, these images may belong to their era as much as their place. In America, Phoebe Jane Fairgrave – among others - would wow audiences not just by wing-walking but dancing the Charleston while up there. But the notable thing is how readily they do fit into their place.)

And this new architecture of verticality might remind us of the ‘future city’ of science fiction. Given that one of Russia’s main proto-revolutionary art movements was called Futurism, we might expect to see some of the futuristic side of science fiction here. But alongside such techno-fetishism its cosmic dimension is also present, whose concerns are almost – and sometimes literally become – eschatological.

For example Ivan Ledinov’s ’City of the Sun’ series, with their clusters of elegantly slender towers which may or may not be mirages, seem to exist in the interchange between Suprematism and science fiction. (See ’City of the Sun, Distant View’, 1943/59, above.) Some are painted simply on plain board, as if a form of science fiction folk art. Yet for all his spaciness, Ledinov still contributed designs for buildings -including the Lenin Institute and even the United Nations Building.

While in 1933 Yakov Chernikhov produced a book self-styled as ’101 Architectural Fantasies’. Some might have been vaguely realisable, at least to the degree that they vaguely resembled buildings. With others, such as No 57 (above), ‘architectural’ might seem merely a synonym for geometric. Certainly it looks as influenced by Kandinsky as by Malevich. Yet while Chernikhov made no architectural designs he produced a book on design theory. There’s also a slideshow of entries for the design of the 1924 Lenin Mausoleum, which show a huge variety not only in styles and approaches but in attitudes to viability. Not a few we’d regard as outsider art.

Why should this be? Why, when the period finally granted so many opportunities to build did people stick with paper fantasies? Why, when it threw up so many immediate problems, when bellies so often rumbled, did people seem so unconcerned with even making a division between the practical and the fantastical?

Of course this question takes us back to Malevich. As said of his Tate retrospective “he was tapping into some heightened realm of pure geometry, something which could only exist through being painted – but was no less 'real' for all that. His term Suprematism does not relate to 'superb' but 'above' or 'beyond'.”

Take that titular term ‘imagine’. It may conjure up images of John Lennon at his grand piano, of the innocently well-meaning, as hopeless as they were hopeful. Yet the crucial thing was that the chains that tied us to the old world were finally broken. Now we were living in the future, today was already tomorrow. What wasn’t possible immediately was sure to be so soon. 

We had brought an end to capitalism in order to stop merely imagining and start building, but it was more than that – we meant to unfetter our imaginations. This wasn’t an end to dreaming, it was the start of dreaming. “Demand the impossible” and “let imagination rise to power” were not Russian revolutionary slogans, they arose later. But their sentiment is widespread here regardless.

Making New Men + Women
“The proletariat must destroy the family as a prime device of oppression and exploitation”
-Nikolay Kuzmin, 1928

One of the most recognised icons of post-revolutionary Russia, perhaps second only to the Hammer and Sickle, is the muscled man in a cap brandishing a lump hammer. And the veneration of that strapping male worker can be quite unguardedly homoerotic. Mayakovsky, always able to sum things up in a choice quote, insisted in ‘27 “there is no more beautiful clothing in the world than the bronze of muscles and freshness of skin.” Which normally goes only one way. Traditionally in art the more man is associated with the machine, which was at least in part about making him appear ‘manly’, the more women are with nature.

Yet here we see the very opposite. My guess would be that, is out of any Modernist movement, Russian Futurism had the highest number of women artists. And their work was often explicitly liberational. Maria Bri-Bein’s ‘Woman Proletarian’ poster (1931, above), has as it’s full text “women proletarian, seize aircraft, go to schools and colleges of civil aviation”. But neither do we see the muscled-up women, the girls-can-be-boys, the ‘women can make it work’ of Rosie the Riveter. The woman pilot in this image holds not a hammer but a map. The main instruments she needs to fly that giant plane are that map and her brain. She doesn’t need to be as strong as machines because these days we have machines for that.

Equality between men and women had been declared as early as 1918. Yet as the show sagely states “the emancipation of women was ultimately aimed at adding women to the workplace”. A poster for “nurseries, playgrounds, kitchen factories, canteens and mechanical laundries” openly boasts that this way “we will get 1,600,00 new working women” (unknown artist, 1930). The Bolsheviks’ embracing of women’s emancipation from ‘women’s work’ was ultimately merely tactical.

In Britain, during both World Wars, labour shortages meant women were encouraged out of their traditional roles. The fact that this lasted for a more extended period in Russia just shows how much of a war footing society was on.

And even within the art world, as Futurism became Constructivism, as art became chiefly interested in its practical application, women artists started to separate off into more traditional ‘female’ media, such as textile design. As said of the Tate’s earlier ‘Rodchenko and Popova’ show: “It would be a simplification to suggest that Rodchenko designed buildings and Popova cups and saucers – but not that much of a simplification!... As you walk through their exhibition, you don’t entirely shake the feeling that women’s art was a variant of women’s work.” Women’s gains were not illusory, but at best limited and conditional.

The New Idolatry
”We say Lenin, but we mean the Party”

Nikolay Kogout’s poster ’From Darkness To Light’, 1921, above), was designed as part of the official Liquidation of Illiteracy campaign. It’s full text reads “From Darkness to Light, From Battle to Book, From Misery to Happiness.” A gargantuan book stands open before some workers, pointed to by an orator in a red starred hat. Yet behind both is a cityscape, while greenery is pushed to the lower left of the composition.

And why? Illiteracy affected both workers and peasants, as emphasised in the text of another poster “Peasants and Workers! You Mastered the Rifle, Now Master the Quill” (1920, artist unknown). But as said over the Academy’s more recent ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show: 
“to them, nature was now out, mysticism was now out”. 

If nature was made up of curves and inclines, then we wanted straight lines and sharp angled edges. There is more of a visual connection between the bold geometric letters, and the straight sides or pure curves of those buildings than there would be with a nature scene. Note how some of the buildings are themselves shown sporting text.

And this visual similarity reflected ideology. Urbanisation and literacy are both seen as other terms for modernisation. The book, the plan, the diagram, the cityscape – all are being equivocated.

And, from a Western perspective, there seems something going on akin to Protestantism. Protestantism used the printed word to quite literally overwrite the image, in a bid to obliterate Catholic iconography. It wanted to strip Churches of their finery and instead fill them with Bibles. And this opposition to the fetishisation of images often became a fetishisation of the printed word.

In another quote from the Academy review: “The plan itself seemed interchangeable with communism, an ordering of things in opposition to the free-for-all ‘anarchy’ of the market... Like the Bible to an orthodox Christian, the Plan became the book of answers which could not be questioned, the book so important as to require guarding by the clergy.”

So for all the denunciation of icons, the era became exceptionally adept at producing them. It’s true that while the population remained largely illiterate, it had to be reached visually. As said over the Academy show, “only the image was going to spread the word”. Yet the dictionary gives two definitions of the term ‘icon’, which essentially reduce to “devotional image” and “representative symbol” - Jesus on the cross and those figures on toilet doors.

Yet these definitions are in practice mingled. You might, for example, expect to see frequent images of Lenin. But within these he strikes the same few stock poses, like the red version of classic Christs. For example he’s often shown with one raised arm, the pose used on the exhibition poster up top. (An appalling poster to advertise a museum devoted to design, but never mind that now.) Sometimes he’s pointing up, sometimes with fingers outstretched as if reaching to shake hands with a giant. Whichever, the iconography is of an elevated figure gesturing still higher. All of which is accentuated by the way that his death merely multiplied the images made of him. Mayakovsky pronounced him “even now, more alive than the living”.

Mikhail Balyasny’s ‘We Will Make the USSR the Country of Socialist Industry and Electrification’ 
(1930, above) centralises this figure, but makes of it a bold red silhouette, like it should be so familiar as to not require filling in. While John Heartfield’s ‘Montage of Lenin Over Moscow’ (1931) projects that silhouette half across the city. In Alexander Medvedekin’s film ’New Moscow’ (1938) Lenin’s statue is shown from below, as banks of airplanes fly above him. It’s like with that upraised arm he’s conducting the whole affair from that lofty perch.

And yet this seems to vie with the frequently-used form of the photo-collage. Perhaps this partly comes from our inevitable tendency to contrast them with the smoothness of modern Photoshop images, but they look rough-hewn, manipulated into existence. And the result is that they assert boldly, not insinuate, they seem innately disruptive, unafraid of their propagandist role. In Valentina Kulagina’s cover to ’Krasnaya Niva No. 12’ (1930, above) the black and white figures are not only shoehorned into those gridded streets, and juxtaposed against their boldly colourful surroundings, thee’s no attempt to find aerial views of them. They look like a demo of people of vastly different sizes, all lying on their backs.

Plans Unrealised
”There is no final one; revolutions are infinite”

Of the six unrealised buildings, the Palace of the Soviets (the one Lenin’s huge statue was supposed to top) might serve best as a summary of its times. It was to be built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which Stalin had dynamited in 1931. The destruction was filmed, with lingering close-ups of its iconography as if parading its guilt. To complete the site’s trajectory, it’s fairly close to the spot where one of El Lissitzky’s cloud irons would have been.

The winning design was submitted by Boris Iofan, who had studied under Armando Brasini – a fascist architect favoured by Mussolini. Kaganovich, Stalin’s appointee to the Moscow Soviet, had effectively decreed that by virtue of the Revolution Russia was already Socialist, so any suggestion of further change was suspect if not actually counter-revolutionary. And this palace looks… well, like a palace. It’s described in the guidebook by curator Dejan Sudjac as “the Socialist Vatican”.

War put a halt to construction, though Sudjic suggests it’s grandiosity was unachievable anyway. Khrushchev later made the site into an open-air swimming pool. Then, from 1995, the original Orthodox Cathedral was rebuilt, and was where Pussy Riot performed their “punk prayer” protest. The swimming pool looks by far the best option. And I’m not even kidding. A brief film-clip suggests it was heated for year-round use, and shows bathers climbing out from the steam amid icicle-dripping rails.

But we already know Stalinism was despotic. A more interesting question might be – what does any of this mean for today? The show’s video comments how “the contemporary landscape is populated by their dreams and ideas”. We can find examples of this aplenty, such as ‘paper architects’, who don’t necessarily design to be built, now being much more common. 

But of course this merely betrays their weaknesses, rather than addressing their strengths. It portrays them as literally an avant garde, planning for a future who was only realisable later. Which is to suggest they were never really that radical, that disruptive, that all existing society needed to assimilate their innovations was a little time. And yet our world is only their future in a linear sense. It’s a world they would neither want nor even recognise.

It’s like a window had cleared, and it was briefly possible to peer through into a future different from the present, before it occluded again. Looking at those city plans arranged around a bending river inevitably makes you try and project how it would have been had all this been happening in London. As the show amply demonstrates, there’s no neat transposing from then to now, no merely taking up of old blueprints. But hopefully one day we shall find out.

Coming soon! From Moscow to Washington…

Friday 5 January 2018


The deep midwinter seemed the right time to post this. Beware, those who keep to this path, of eyebrows that meet and YE OLDE PLOT SPOILERS

Us aesthetes have all become somewhat used to leaving cinemas sagely proclaiming “of course it wasn’t as good as the book”. Because of course a book springs from a single brain, while by necessity a film reaches us through many cooks. But like any rule exceptions apply…

‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984) originated in three short stories written by Angela Carter, and published in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979). And, despite lacking her strong prose style, rich without being flamboyant, it’s the film version which should be seen as definitive. For one thing Carter co-wrote the screenplay. (With director Neil Jordan, in his second ever feature.) Plus, rather than condensing down, it was able to extend and open up the original stories.

A 1980 radio version has already devised the nested structure; a reworking of Red Riding Hood (from which the film takes it’s title) becomes the main narrative, while the others are told diegitically by characters within it. The film then expanded the stories and built a framing device around this main narrative, where an adolescent girl in ‘our’ world is witnessed dreaming all this.

There’d been a spate of werewolf films at the start of the Eighties, mostly sparked by ‘American Werewolf in London’ (1981). But ‘Company of Wolves’ came later and was quite distinct from them. As the two titles suggest, one juxapositionally brought supernatural horrors into a recognisably modern world. While the other takes place within a fantastical world of forest-dwelling peasants. It’s unabashed symbolism and disinterest in realism is perhaps closer to films such as ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (1964). As Jordan put it: 
“The visual design was an integral part of the script. It was written and imagined with a heightened sense of reality in mind.”

But it doesn’t stop at such comparisons and often resembles fully fledged Surrealist films, such as Svankmajer’s ‘Alice’ (1988). And this is most obvious by the way the border between dream and waking worlds is not the neat airlock of the Narnian wardrobe but a porous and shifting hinterland. This is the very essence of what makes Carter’s work surreal, in fact it’s the very essence of Surrealism. Those floppy clocks and lobster telephones are merely its furniture.

As a primer of the film the FAQs on IMDB are surprisingly good, and can even be read through as an essay. But they also epitomise a common weakness. People rush to analyse the tales, as if the main story was merely somewhere to embed them.

Yet even the original stories are told with an active narrative voice, emulating folk tales, which already borders on metafiction. While this rush throws away the greater part of the film, which seems somewhat wasteful. Worse, it neglects a key question, in fact a key question whenever a story is being told – who is telling it and in what context. To quote Jordan again: 
“It's a film about storytelling, the central character being the grandmother [below]. It's about the use of stories.”

And who is this central character, and how does she use stories? She tells them to grand-daughter Rosaleen, dreamer Alice appearing in her own dream. Old she may be, but she’s no conservative. She’s frank speaking and distrustful of priests. Her wedding story, as with all her stories, is gender based - the wronged peasant woman made pregnant then ditched by the toff. But it’s also about class. The wedding party contains women beyond the obligatory bride. And, once they’re all transformed into beasts (below), the all-male servants bow courteously to the witchy peasant woman then open a bottle of bubbly for themselves. Here the predatory, animalistic wolves are the upper classes, their manners and fine ways a thin disguise for the most ravenous canines.

While the marriage story (above) might initially seem Freudian. We all know how horror films work, surely this writes itself. In his wedding bed, at the height of his ardour the amorous husband transforms into a savage beast. But not only is that not what happens, it’s strangely ambiguous when his transformation takes place. Ostensibly, he’s taken by wolves on the eve of his nuptials, when he nips out for a piss. Yet he’s played as a shady character from the get-go, skulking in the shadows rather than eager to get conjugal, pointedly described from the outset as “a travelling man”. His line about a “call of nature”, made after he spies the full moon, suggests he leaves the hut in order to become a wolf rather than have it happen to him. He is, in short, suspect from the start.

But perhaps most interesting is the story of the lad who meets the Devil (above). Here puberty isn’t a change which comes from within but is imposed from without. And, like any gift from the Devil, promises power but soon turns into something agonising. And of course puberty can feel like that to someone undergoing it; changes are sprung on you without you asking for them or even necessarily understanding what they are.

The through line is that Grandma’s stories, like her life, follow custom. She tells Rosaleen “never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.” The peasant woman should have avoided getting pregnant, the husband stayed indoors and pissed in a pot, the lad not gone out and met the Devil.

While held in opposition to the Grandmother is the Mother. They’re in precisely two scenes together, the funeral and the church, and they interact in neither. Rosaleen comments to her Mother “she may not have a kind word for you, but she's always been good to me.” The oroginal script (published in ’The Curious Room’, 1997) spells out “she’s Daddy’s Mummy, and you took her beloved boy away from her.”

And, rather than tell any stories of her own, her Mother flatly warns Rosaleen not to believe in the things. “You pay too much attention to your Granny. She knows a lot, but she doesn't know everything…. If there is a beast inside every man, he meets his match in the beast inside of every woman."

It’s not a film which reduces to one reading. And one of those readings would be that it sums up the paradox of parenting by splitting it into two characters. The Grandma is protective, the Mother enabling. When at Grandma’s Rosaleen sleeps in her bed. When at home, she watches from her own bed as her parents make out. Grandma tempers the child’s natural curiosity with cautionary tales, the Mother literally demonstrates to her the facts of life. Carter has described the stories as “Granny’s strategy to keep the child to herself.”

But there’s another reading… Carter’s interest in folk tales later extended to compiling two collections for Virago. In her introduction to the first (1991) she points out “a European convention of an archetypal female storyteller, ‘Mother Goose’ in English, ‘Ma Mere L’Oie’ in French, an old woman sitting by the fireside, spinning...”

And Grandma, described in the script as “an anachronistic old lady”, is that archetype - the voice of folk tradition. The parents, the sister... all are dream counterpoints to real world characters. Even the wolf relates to the family dog. Whereas Grandma reduces to a doll in the child’s room, which smashes and reveals itself to be an empty vessel.

In Marina Warner’s introduction to the second collection (published the following year to the first and, sadly, after Carter’s death) she says of their compiler “she turns topsy-turvy some cautionary folk tales and shakes out the fear and dislike of women they once expressed to create a new set of values, about strong, outspoken, zestful, sexual women who can’t be kept down.” And indeed many of the tales do spell out the dire consequences of not following custom. The African ’Tale of An Old Woman’, for example, ends “she dwelt in poverty till she died, because she did not heed the instruction given to her by the tree.”

The film takes on the conceit of a modern adolescent girl encountering the old folk tales, and trying to make sense of them. (We’re to assume, I think, this is a fresh encounter. So she’s somehow skipped the emaciated Disney versions.) Naturally she does this by, through her imagination, entering their world. But she enters it not as a passive witness but with her own mind. Told early in the film that her sister had no-one to save her from the ravanous wolves she replies “why couldn’t she save herself?”

So she starts to tell her own stories. Which correlates to her going off the path. She’s already intuited a part of her lies out there in the forest. The first time she strays, we naturally expect a horror film scenario to ensue, akin to her sister’s earlier demise. Instead the film switches on us, from Freudian to Jungian, as she finds the nest of eggs (above). When they crack open to reveal mini-statues of human babies, she calmly takes one home to show her mother, unconcerned by the threat of wolves which has everyone else so exercised.

Then the next time, she does meet the wolf - disguised as a huntsman (above). While others follow the customary routes, he makes his own paths and boasts of the compass which allows him to do so. The film associates horror with modernity, the Devil is shown chauffeur-driven in a Rolls Royce. And the compass is presented, quite literally presented, as a novel object.

She doesn’t defeat the wolf by virtue, in fact she willingly burns the protective red shawl her Granny has knitted her. Nor doe she defeat him by ingenuity. (Or rather she does, then decides not to press her advantage.) But neither does the wolf corrupt her. Instead she tells it a story. 

There’s been a kind of transitional point where she tells a story to her mother, but repeats one of Grandmas. This one is hers. It both articulates her dilemma and accentuates the nature of a thing between. It’s about a she-wolf who attempts to return to “the world above”. But of course she can’t. Unrecognised, she’s shot at. Ironically only the Priest gets it. “Are you God's work, or the Devil's? Oh, what do I care whose work you are?”

In this, a fantasy scenario to explain her situation, inside a fantasy scenario to explain her situation, lies the central paradox of the film. Finding him a better option than the “clowns” of her village, she willingly corrupts herself. Rosaleen has hit on that ‘horror’ is really maturity. But she also knows the one aspect of it that is genuinely horrific, that it’s a one-way street. If she runs off with the wolf, there’s no coming back.

And adolescence is like this. Her bedroom (in the real world) mixes up make-up and dresses with teddy bears. Described in the script as “adolescent turbulence”, it’s itself a thing between. In the earlier radio version she describes herself: “I’m twelve going on thirteen, thirteen going on fourteen… the hinge of your life, when you’re neither one thing nor the other, not child nor woman, some magic inbetween thing, an egg that holds its own future.”

And the setting is like this. The original stories are all set in winter and frequently at the solstice, with provides the same metaphor. The radio version describes it as “the hinge of the year, the time when things don’t fit well together, when the door of the year is sufficiently ajar to let all kinds of beings that have no proper place in the world slip through”. And the film is like this, a mash-up of surrealist art movie with cheap horror flick. Carter had described it as “perpetually in flux”.

And werewolves are the epitome of this. Earlier the father chops a forepaw from a wolf, which becomes a human hand. Seeing more curious than afraid, Rosaleen asks him if it should be buried or thrown on the fire - and he responds by doing the latter. But this is clearly a get-out, a way of ridding yourself of the thing and thereby denying its uncategorisable nature. Later she asks the Huntsman essentially the same question:

“Are you our kind, or their kind?” 
“Not one kind or the other. Both.” 
“Then where do you live? In our world, or in theirs?” 
“I come and go between them. My home is nowhere.”

If Grandma’s cautionary tales always portray men in a negative light, the problem isn’t that this unfairly disparages the male sex. In this female-centred film, it’s that this world of custom becomes limiting to Rosaleen – and so she decides to leave. Normally, you need to qualify the distinction between female-centred and feminist. It may be refreshing and appealing that Katniss is the protagonist of ’The Hunger Games’ or Rey of ’The Force Awakens’, but that alone doesn’t make them feminist films. Here, quite happily, is one time you don’t.

The difference is that Rosaleen doesn’t just act heroically. In fact as she rejects the whole system of morality around her, arguably she doesn’t act heroically at all. But in a sense that’s the point. She takes herself as her subject, and refuses to accept a narrative which assigns her the role of innocent victim. In short, she liberates herself.

Yet at the same time there’s a sense of inevitability to it all. How could things have ended up any other way? It’s no hippyish celebration of ‘natural’ unbridled sexuality. In perhaps another echo of Surrealism sexuality is a form of power, which makes it transformative, but also a combination of dangerous and irrepressible. Rosaleen and the wolf take up a new life, which is not the same thing as living happy ever after.

Rosaleen comments sympathetically on the wolves howling because they’re out there in the cold, before she willingly goes to join them. And this seems to echo a passage in the original story:

“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition. There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption.”

Carter also says in her her Virago introduction “if many stories end with a wedding, don’t forget how many start with a death.” And this film starts with a death, then ends with a (sort of) wedding that also is a kind of death. As the Magnetic Fields sang on ’I Was Born’ “growing older is killing a child.”

And the closing sequence, with the avaricious wolves bursting into Alice’s bedroom in the real world, perhaps illustrates the inherent danger of sexuality while literalising the idea maturity kills the child. And giving Alice and Rosaleen different names does suggest Rosaleen is not Alice transposed into a dream world, but a projection, the person Alice would like to be. 

Alas, however, it also seems a retreat into more conventional horror film fare. Asked about this in an interview, Carter smiled and replied “you’ll have to talk to Neil about that”. For her original script had Alice diving from her bed, the floor turning to water as she hits it. Which, as well as echoing the well of the Wolf Alice story, sounds a much more nuanced and ambiguous ending. In that ending the ‘real’ world is not invaded but distorts, becomes dream. 

Yet this had to be abandoned through cost concerns, and perhaps what we got was a workaround inserted simply because it was workable. Certainly, when you first watch the film it doesn’t seem to jar. The problems arise more as you reflect on it after the credits have run.

Otherwise unattributed quotes from 
this vidclip.