Grass Widow (Grass Widow, 2009)

For the last couple of months Grass Widow has been on my list of great bands that I failed to discover during 2009, and only came across during a trawl of Top 100 lists at the end of December. After an awful lot of repeated listens I’ve promoted the album ‘Grass Widow’ to one of my absolute favourites of 2009. Like The Drums’ ‘Summertime’, every track feels like the centre of the album. Grass Widow songs have the raw feel of first-attempt rehearsals, and evoke the naive joy of the much-missed Brighton trio Electrelane and the discordant mishmash of early Deerhoof.

They’re brilliant. And while I’m happy to have found them now, the question for me remains: how does one find out about new music these days? I sign up to plenty of blog RSS feeds, (over)use Spotify and read Boomkat newsletters – but in the absence of a trusted print music magazine or the Peel show, I still feel at a loss how to avoid missing a new band like Grass Widow.

Listen to Grass Widow on Spotify.

And while I’m ranting… I’m inordinately happy that Spotify have developed an update to their Spotify iphone app, currently with Apple for approval. The update will add Last.fm scrobbling functionality to the mobile app, meaning that my Last.fm profile should soon be a far better reflection of what I’m actually listening to. That I’m so pleased by this is, I realise, troublingly sad.

Lost John (Lonnie Donegan, 1956)

Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 recording of the traditional song ‘Lost John’ contains more wonderful moments than most artists manage in a whole career. Donegan was a lovably inclusive singer, treating his band and his listeners as part of the gang, as this intro to the song shows: ‘Now this here’s the story about an escaped convict called Long Gone Lost John / It’s got a nice chorus so if anybody wanna join in, here’s the way it goes…’ His band rattle and yelp through the tune and Donegan morphs from a jovial variety performer into a frenzied rock and roller, the recording equipment struggling to capture his rasping shouts.

The song is doubly significant to me. I was introduced to Donegan’s music when I avidly listened to, and recorded, Peel’s Radio 1 show around the millennium. Peel could hardly contain his glee when he contrived to play a Lonnie Donegan recording such as (my own favourite) ‘Ham ‘n’ Eggs’. When the singer was admitted to hospital in 2002 with heart problems, Peel visited him at his bedside, which I suspect was a pilgrimage of sorts for the DJ – Peel once remarked that in his opinion of rock and roll history, ‘Lonnie Donegan pushed the button that started it all’. When Donegan passed away in November of that year, Peel tearfully recounted the visit during one of his shows. He had sat at Donegan’s side and chatted, and together they had sung Peel’s favourite lyrics from ‘Lost John’:

Now Lost John made a pair of shoes of his own
Finest shoes that ever were born
Heels on the front, heels behind
So nobody know which way Lost John g’wine

…which, in fairness, are some of the finest lyrics I can think of too.

In the radio shows immediately following Donegan’s death, Peel could barely hold himself together. During the first show, he didn’t manage to speak in between songs and choked on his words each time he tried to talk about the singer. Even by the following week, Peel only stopped playing Donegan songs because his wife Sheila warned him not to.

When John Peel died in October 2004, the song ‘Lost John’ obviously took on an extra significance, not just because of the titular character, but because of the attachment that Peel himself had to the song and his favourite singer. To me, the song has become a celebration of both Donegan and Peel – two of my musical heroes.

You really must listen to ‘Lost John’ – click here to listen to it on Spotify. In fact, work your way through at least the first CD of Castle Music’s ‘Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955-1967’.

As the man said: ‘If anybody asks you who sung the song / Tell ‘em Lonnie Donegan been here and gone’.

Nicolas Moulin, Blindness and deserted streets

Via BLDGBLOG, I’ve just discovered Nicolas Moulin’s computer-altered images of Paris, with streets emptied of all life and the ground floors of each building sealed with concrete. You can see more of Moulin’s stunning work here.

One commenter on the BLDGBLOG post referenced the opening scenes of Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’ – but these images are perhaps even more affecting, as all traces of human life has been removed. I spent last night watching Fernando Meirelles faithful adaptation of José Saramago’s novel ‘Blindness’, and was particularly impressed/horrified at the scenes depicting the city, Sao Paulo, after the population has become blind. The streets are strewn with rubbish, but also with families, animals and bodies. While much of this speaks of death, it also shows that the city is resolutely full of life, even after the blindness epidemic has affected everyone.

I find Nicolas Moulin’s images compelling and disturbing precisely because of the lack of life, and because the comprehensive removal of all traces of humanity seems premeditated.

Spotify playlist: 30 Year Old Man (March 2010)

I’m terribly self-indulgent. This summer I’ll turn 30, and as I’m currently feeling more positive about my life than I ever have before, this playlist celebrates all the things that I’m not.

1. 30 century man – Scott Walker
2. Mr suit – Wire
3. You’re getting old on your job – Lonnie Johnson with Clara Smith
4. I’m a worried man – Johnny Cash
5. Look back in anger – Television Personalities
6. Shadows of tomorrow – Madvillian / Lord Quas
7. 50 year old man – The Fall
8. Getting old blues – Johnnie Temple
9. Working for the man – Roy Orbison
10. Dull life – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
11. Headache – Frank Black
12. Funny how time slips away – Elvis Presley & The Jordanaires & The Imperials Quartet
13. Sleepy man blues – Bukka White
14. Jack o’ diamonds – Lonnie Donegan
15. Getting old and gray – Howlin’ Wolf
16. Timothy – Henry Mancini
17. Tomorrow never knows – Jad Fair

And curse you Spotify for the lack of ‘Dignified and Old’ by The Modern Lovers.

Click here to listen to 30 Year Old Man on Spotify.

Lunar Park and required reading

I’m currently reading ‘Lunar Park’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book in which the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Ellis himself. I’ve read and watched ‘American Psycho’, and my knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis ends there. Lunar Park appears at first to be autobiographical, but it’s soon apparent that Ellis the narrator is an exaggerated portrayal of Ellis the author. Both Ellises are famous and successful novelists with the same bibliography. Narrator Ellis has extreme drug problems, an illegitimate child, and a self-obsessed and sulky attitude.

Given the caricatured nature of Ellis the narrator, I’ve assumed that there are lots of details in the novel that are also exaggerated or falsified. The narrator is married to Jayne Dennis, a Hollywood superstar actress who has starred in blockbuster films with Keanu Reeves. Now, I’m pretty sure that Dennis is a fictional character, but now I’m wondering about how prepared one should be to read ‘Lunar Park’. Should I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Wikipedia profile to find out whether he did indeed have massive drug problems after the publication of ‘Less Than Zero’? Should I find out who were his celebrity friends? Should I Google Jayne Dennis to determine whether she’s fictional – and if she doesn’t exist, should I try to determine whether the name is an alias for another Hollywood actress? Would my understanding of the novel be lessened if I hadn’t read ‘American Psycho’, and should I have read ‘Less Than Zero’ before starting this book?

Some fiction clearly signals whether there’s required reading. Series or sequels are usually numbered to indicate where to begin. But some novels and films are more difficult to judge. A couple of nights ago I watched Wim Wenders’ ‘The American Friend’, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’. The book is the third in Highsmith’s series of novels featuring Tom Ripley, and you could certainly argue that the series is richer if read in strict order. But with Wenders’ title change, and the lack of cohesion across the various filmed versions of the novels, the required reading (or watching) for ‘The American Friend’ is far from clear. Without prior knowledge of the character, perhaps it’s possible to get through the whole film without realising that Tom Ripley is a serial killer, given that in this particular story his motives are quite ambiguous.

Should works like ‘Lunar Park’ and ‘The American Friend’ come with a required reading list, or a set of instructions? What’s the correct or default way to approach them?

Talking of instructions for fiction, I’m interested in non-linear fiction, books that require you to determine some kind of unique path through the work. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ is a good example: a quarter of the book comprises a fictional work called ‘Pale Fire’, a poem in four cantos. The remainder is an essay on the poem, and yet both of these together make up Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. To read the book you have to decide whether you’ll read first the poem and then the notes in standard linear fashion, or whether you’ll dot between lines of the poem and notes relating to those lines. I’d argue that the latter is the ‘correct’ way to uncover the plot, but it’s up each individual reader to decide. The introduction to Milorad Pavic’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’ instructs the reader to refer to dip in and out of the fictionalised encyclopedia entries to piece together the story. Almost every page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ requires the reader to decide for themselves how to progress through the fragmented text.

Anyway.

I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions, but there does seem to be a lot to be said about non-linear narratives and prerequisites when approaching fiction. As a side note, it strikes me that while there are good examples of books and, more and more, videogames with non-linear narratives, there are no non-linear films that I can think of, apart from perhaps Mike Figgis’ ‘Timecode’, at a pinch. Maybe someone should attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure film to be ‘read’ via DVD chapter selections. Or has this been tried already?

This too shall pass – RGM version (OK Go, 2010)

This music video is really rather wonderful. Various advertisers and filmmakers have created these Heath Robinson-esque contraptions before now (and I’m a total sucker for all of them), but this one’s especially inventive. I imagine that some people will be upset about what looks like a cut at about the 2:30 mark, but I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to the overall effect.

On top of that, the fact that this video is embeddable in this blog is important. See here for an discussion of OK Go’s struggles against record company EMI to allow them to create and share their own music videos.

Every Plan B magazine ever, for free

In an admirable attempt to secure its status in the history of music journalism, the team behind the now-defunct Plan B magazine are offering every single back issue in pdf format, for free. You can download it here – you’ll first need to get hold of a torrent client though.

Plan B was a pretty bold publication. It had some really fantastic aspects, and I hope it’s not disrespectful to the journalists to say that I thought the often beautiful illustrations were among its best assets. Everett True’s snarky, self-congratulatory editorials often grated with me, and his indulgence often permeated into the rest of the magazine. Having said that, Plan B was a welcome forum for new music in the years following John Peel’s death, and since the magazine closed shop last year I’ve still not found a single source for music recommendations that feels so much like home.

Hauntology and nowstalgia

‘Hauntology’ is a word that’s appeared on my radar only recently. It was originally a term coined by Jacques Derrida, linked to the similar-sounding ‘ontology’, the philosophical study of the nature of being and reality. Derrida’s idea was that the end of history would be signalled by a preoccupation with nostalgic, ‘old-time’ aesthetics. I first came across the term in The Wire magazine, used to refer to the music of artists like Leyland Kirby and Broadcast & The Focus Group who create dreamlike aural soundscapes that conjure up nostalgic versions of the past.

This reminds me of a term that I and my friends used to joke about: we used the word ‘nowstalgia’ to refer to nostalgia for the present moment. I think we coined the term when the first wave of inexpensive digital cameras were available. One summer, every social event featured a common moment, usually two-thirds through the event, when people would gather around the tiny LCD screen of a digital camera to view the images. The appeal of seeing still images of an event that was still happening was a guilty pleasure. Spending time reviewing the images actually seemed to involve removing yourself from the moment, and seeing the event through a nostalgic filter. Years later, the proliferation of camera phones and latterly direct publishing of images on Facebook means that the phenomenon is far more common but perhaps a little more unsettling.

Today’s worry: is there an outside chance that Derrida might be proved right? Is ‘nowstalgia’ just a first step into our obsession with the recent, then more distant, past?

Every Day the Same Dream (Paulo Pedercini, 2009)

I already posted about this game on my serious games blog, but it definitely bears repeating. Every Day the Same Dream is a beautiful independent game from Paolo Pedercini as an entry to the Experimental Gameplay Project. Illustrating the tedium of routine office work, the game allows few interactions – for example exchanging brief words with your indifferent wife, a homeless man, the elevator operator. You can only ‘win’ the game by searching out the few ways to break the routine of everyday working life. It’s bleak and often tedious – and it’s one of the most consistent and affecting games I’ve played in a long time.

See Paulo Pedercini’s website for links to his other works, including a machinima video about post-traumatic stress disorder filmed with the recruiting game America’s Army, and online games covering subjects such as the unethical practices of fast food corporations and child abuse by the Catholic clergy.

Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear, 2009)

Up until this point in this blog, I’ve tended to write about music that I unreservedly love – songs that I replay as soon as they’ve ended. ‘Two Weeks’ by Grizzly Bear falls into another category. In 2009 Grizzly Bear escaped the long shadow of Animal Collective; in the indie press there were few songs that were as widely praised as ‘Two Weeks’. I love it too – but I’m not sure it’s a keeper.

I’ll avoid asking whether it’s a good track. The question that interests me is whether we – the music obsessives and list-compilers of 2009 – will like the song in 5 years time.

The track has a swagger unknown to Grizzly Bear up to this point. The piano line and ‘whoa-oh-oh’ backing vocals are infectious. The chorus swoons. But isn’t the production a little too perfect, almost clinical? There’s nothing wrong with a guitar band sounding more like Beyonce than Pavement, but something about this track rings false – there’s an inherent smugness that rankles.

It’s hard to predict how prevailing musical tastes will change – but when I listen to this track I always have the uneasy feeling that when we move on from 2000s-era American psychedelica-tinged indie, it’s tracks like this that we’ll guiltily ridicule. The grandiose follies of Sufjan Stevens, Akron Family’s freak prog – will they in retrospect sound like the last fart of early 21st century US indie before some pared-down music style sweeps them away? At the moment my money’s on Animal Collective’s work standing the test of time, partly because they’ve evolved significantly with each release. But Grizzly Bear? Ask me in 5 years time.

The album Veckatimest isn’t on Spotify, so listen to Two Weeks at Grizzly Bear’s homepage, here.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino, 1979)

This isn’t the actual beginning of Calvino’s novel ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, but it is the beginning of the first book-within-a-book, also called ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – so it still counts as one of my favourite opening passages of a novel.

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from the piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odour of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe odour. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.

I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) (The Turtles, 1968)

Formed in 1965 as The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, The Turtles were huge by 1967 – their biggest hit ‘Happy Together’ knocked ‘Penny Lane’ from the #1 slot in the USA. Their follow-up album, ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’, was a concept album in which the band pretended to be a series of different groups, credited with fantastic names like The Atomic Enchilada and The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul.

While ‘Eleanore’ and ‘You Showed Me’ were the big hits, the track ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)’ is a one-and-a-half minute nugget of mad genius. The band adopt what I think is supposed to be a Hawaiian tribal war chant – but the pounding drums, whoops and call-and-response shouts come off more like the Sugarhill Gang. Later sampled by the Beastie Boys (‘Jimmy James’) and De La Soul (‘Say No Go’), it’s amazing how well it measures up against early B-Boy classics like Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’.

The transition from ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea’ to the sublime ‘You Showed Me’ is a vindication of The Turtles daft multi-persona concept and – is it weird to have a favourite transition between songs on an album? Because that’s mine.

Listen to I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) on Spotify.

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

The drums from Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder, 1970)

While it’s a fantastic song all in all, for me it’s all about the drum track. It’s so unfussy, so methodical and regular, and then so satisfying when the drums break out into a quick rattle at the close of some of the vocal lines. I’ve not been able to find out for sure who the drummer is, but Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers are usually credited so the likely candidate is Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s amazing how much he’s able to achieve in the moments that he allows himself to escape from the standard beat, and I love the way that towards the end of the song he lets the rat-a-tatting take over little by little, threatening to transform the song from Stax-esque funk into a wild marching band.

Click here to listen to Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on Spotify.

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The lead guitar from So Not What I Wanted (Herman Düne, 2002)

David is my favourite songwriter of the Herman Düne brothers but this song by André is an absolute beauty. There are two guitar solos in this song and both are near-identical – I’ve always assumed that the solos were by David, but I’ve had trouble finding out either way.

At 02:10 André’s and Diane Cluck’s vocals drop out and the guitar solo begins – at first confident and clear, but then fading and rattling into uncertainty. As the next verse continues, the lead guitar shimmers in the background, and then at 4:38 the solo returns, this time accompanied by an insistent regular drum pattern, rising in volume gradually.

The lead guitar line’s naive simplicity and repetition mirrors André’s cracking voice and sometimes awkward French-Swedish accent. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of vocal and instrumental melodies that I can think of.

Click here to listen to So Not What I Wanted on Spotify.

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Summertime! EP (The Drums, 2009)

Although only released last year, I like to imagine Summertime! by The Drums as the soundtrack to my end-of-sixth-form summer holiday. It’s sunny, hopeful and nostalgic. Like Animal Collective, The Drums have Brian Wilson as an ancestor, but also mix in Factory Records reverb and melodies that you’d swear were hits back in the 80s.

This EPs one of those rare records that make me sure that whichever track I’m currently listening to is my favourite – but I think ‘Don’t Be a Jerk, Johnny’ has to be top, if only for the coda ‘You used to be so pretty / But now you’re just tragic / Believe in something / You’re full of horseshit’.

There’s a huge amount of buzz around for The Drums – Rose and I will be seeing them live on 23rd Feb and I can’t wait to hear a sample of their first full-length album.

Click here to listen to Summertime! on Spotify.

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The skiing scene in King, Queen, Knave (Vladimir Nabokov, 1928)

In just his second novel Nabokov had begun experimenting with narrative conventions. While it’s maybe not quite as impressive taken out of context, I love the trick he plays in the extract below. Chapter 8 of King, Queen, Knave begins in one scenario with Franz and his lover Martha, but as Franz examines a photo of her husband Dreyer, Nabokov smoothly transitions to the scene within the image, lingers for a few moments, then hops out again. It’s an effect that’s simpler to achieve in film, but in prose it takes you by surprise. It leaves you feeling hyper-aware of each sentence as you begin to suspect that any sentence might spring off on an unexpected tangent.

One such blurry morning, a Sunday, when he and Martha in her beige dress were walking decorously about the snow-powdered garden, she wordlessly showed him a snapshot she had just received from Davos. It showed a smiling Dreyer, in a Scandinavian ski suit, clutching his poles; his skis were beautifully parallel, and all around was bright snow, and on the snow one could distinguish the photographer’s narrow-shouldered shadow.

When the photographer (a fellow-skier and teacher of English, Mr. Vivian Badlook) had clicked the shutter and straightened up, Dreyer, still beaming, moved his left ski forward; however, as he was standing on a slight incline, the ski went further than he had intended, and with a great flourish of ski poles he tumbled heavily on his back while both girls shot past shrieking with laughter.

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Spotify playlist: I Keep Losing Heart (Dec 2009)

Here’s a Spotify playlist that I made at the end of last year. It’s a bit of a mishmash of old 78s, distortion and cheap Beatles pastiches (come on Spotify, surely you can talk the boys around by now?).

1. I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
2. Welfare bread – King Khan & the Shrines
3. So bored – Wavves
4. California girls – The Magnetic Fields
5. rr vs. d – Au
6. I keep losing heart – Electrelane
7. Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I show – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
8. The cracks are showing – Vivian Stanshall
9. Shake appeal / Tight pants (live) – The Stooges
10. Red shoes by the drugstore – The Wedding Present
11. Bottle opener – Giddy Motors
12. You can’t catch me – Chuck Berry
13. All my loving – Beatles Rumba Band
14. Living in hope – The Rutles
15. Making plans for Nigel – XTC
16. Two sleepy people – Hoagy Carmichael & Ella Logan
17. Say a litle prayer – Santo & Johnny
18. Barbados – Lord Invader
19. Staging the plaguing of the raised platform – Cornershop
20. Are animals – Au
21. You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve – Johnny Boy

Click here to listen to I Keep Losing Heart on Spotify

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Girlfriend is Worse (Ex Models, 2001)

I’m a total sucker for songs with modular, separate elements that eventually come together in surprising ways.

‘I lost my place / In your / Line of vision’ begins the song, the vocal line stop-starting, timing at odds with the lone staccato guitar line. Then on the second vocal phrase the rhythm guitar and drums hit, just two beats for a fleeting moment.

Fifteen seconds in, Shahin Motia emits the perfect phrase ‘I hate my body / I love your eyes’ and the drums thwack again and again, battling the guitar riff with bloodyminded steadiness.

And then, suddenly, the whole band are in agreement. Thick guitars mesh together, the off-kilter drums manage to underpin the melody without appearing to relate to it, and Shahin sings ‘You see, you see me, you see me / Hey, you see me, you see me’. It’s mindless but it feels eloquent, somehow.

The song’s modular, bitty. It never allows itself to reach a stable rhythm. The band occasionally drops out leaving just the knifing guitar, only to appear with a shriek moments later. Past the 50 second mark you feel that the band could fray and dissipate at any moment, and then at 1 min 03 secs it’s all over as abruptly as it began.

Click here to listen to Girlfriend is Worse on Spotify.

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The first 30 seconds of Zoo Station (U2, 1991)

Fair enough, U2 are now profoundly uncool. And on relistening, much of Zoo Station isn’t nearly as special as I’d believed in 1991 – a large proportion of Bono’s lyrics are banal (‘I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive / I’m ready to say / I’m glad to be alive’). But the first 30 seconds are magnificent.

The track begins with a barely audible ticking, then a huge formless guitar riff lurches in and drops like a stone. The second time round the riff is followed by an industrial clunking that might be distorted drums but is almost felt rather than heard, like the thump of a migraine. Finally, a percussive tapping begins off-beat, perhaps a spanner hitting a pipe in a vast warehouse space. The riff and percussions repeat, slightly out of phase with one another. For the next few seconds the two patterns compete until they eventually mesh into a cohesive rhythm. The undistorted guitars arrive, Bono ruins the party, and the song becomes more and more conventional as the song progresses… but those first 30 seconds were glorious.

Click here to listen to Zoo Station on Spotify.

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Films of the decade

For the record, my favourite films of the 2000s, in alphabetical order:

24 Hour Party People
28 Weeks Later
Adventureland
Caché
Children of Men
City of God
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Dogville
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Good Night, and Good Luck
I’m Not There
In the Bedroom
In the Mood for Love
Memento
Moon
Mulholland Dr
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rachel Getting Married
Shaun of the Dead
Spirited Away
The Incredibles
The Last King of Scotland
The Lives of Others
The Royal Tenenbaums
There Will Be Blood
This is England
Traffic

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John Hillcoat on societal collapse

John Hillcoat, director of the wonderful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, commenting on the swift degradation of society after a catastrophe:

To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

See Hillcoat’s film production journal here.

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To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

The Day of the Triffids is often cited as the first and archetypal ‘cosy catastrophe’ novel. The hero, Bill Masen, is one of the few not to be blinded by the sights of a green comet storm as his eyes have been bandaged in hospital – in the first and most memorable scene he experiences a panicked blindness, then removes his bandages to find that the rest of the population is permanently blind. Only a day into the disaster, Masen discovers a society already collapsed, with many of the blind suicidal or frantically looting food from abandoned shops.

John Wyndham performs a couple of sleights of hand in detailing the background to the disaster. The triffids, strange carnivorous plants with an unknown origin, have dispersed around the world several years before the catastrophe and are common enough to no longer concern Western society. The coincidence that the blinding of the population is enough to allow triffids to gain the upper hand is never explicitly linked to the arrival of the triffids themselves – instead, both the triffids and the green comet shower are usually vaguely linked to human experimentation within an impenetrable Soviet Union.

Throughout most of the novel the Triffids present a persistent obstacle rather than a major threat. Wyndham uses the triffids to illustrate the tenuous hold on power that the human race had before the disaster – but the novel is more concerned with various groups’ opinions on the best way for society to survive. Masen meets several groups with differing opinions, from fatalist isolated communities to benevolent dictatorships.

The primary survivor groups are:

  • Miss Durrant’s Christian group who insist that traditional gender roles and morals are preserved;
  • Wilfred Coker’s initial gang allocating one sighted person to lead a community of blind people in looting supplies in London;
  • Michael Beadley’s practical group who recognize that the human race can only be rebuilt with a version of ‘free love’ and a stable community providing education and safety for future generations;
  • The despotic government offering Masen a feudal lordship over a blind community.

Wyndham appears to stress the need for society’s moral code to reflect the circumstances, and he details Masen’s internal conflict about breaking taboos – for example, stealing from shops or sleeping with more than one woman.

As per Jo Walton’s observations (see my first post, below), while many of the working class survive the initial blinding comet shower, they’re generally wiped out through their greed and inability to adapt. Bill Masen and the eventual stable communities are certainly middle-class and the outlook for their Isle of Wight appears ‘cosy’, while still likely to be fraught with the problems of sustaining a benevolent dictatorship. Peculiarly, Masen is the only character looking for a loved one (and even then, someone he’d met after the catastrophe, not before).

Rereading the novel last month for a book group (the brilliantly garish Penguin copy on the right), I was surprised how little of the novel I’d remembered since reading it age 10 or 11. Other than the blindness disaster, the elements that had stuck were the free-roaming sections where Bill Masen steals one vehicle after another and loots shops for food. I hadn’t recalled the role of the triffids themselves, and even now they seem a McGuffin designed to exacerbate the problems facing the survivors. I’ll be interested to see how the BBC’s new TV adaptation (beginning broadcast on December 29th 2009) treats the triffids, as I’m sure it’s tempting to heighten their role at the expense of the general survival theme.

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The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona, 1964)

I’ve been thinking about this film a lot recently. What’s striking about The Last Man on Earth (partly adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel I Am Legend) is the sheer tedium of Robert Morgan’s day-to-day existence in the years following the vampire virus outbreak. Vincent Price spends a great deal of the film detailing his routine tasks such as barricading the doors of his family home, collecting supplies of garlic from the supermarket and whittling stakes to clear the neighbourhood of vampires during the day. There are few glimpses of a post-disaster society – Morgan has spent several years alone, hounded by his vampiric former neighbours and stubbornly trying to live as traditional a life as possible in the circumstances.

While the film was reportedly an influence on George A Romero’s 1969 Night of the Living Dead, I think The Last Man on Earth succeeds – and is unique – because it emphasizes the dullness of a post-apocalyptic world, rather than the threats or opportunities.

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Tim Major – writer & editor

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