I had the opportunity to chat with artist Cristóbal López, aka Kerbcrawler Ghost, about his astonishing artwork. There's nothing NOT extraordinary about his work, from his draftsmanship to his willingness to push erotic boundaries. The story of how he came to this mode of creating is even more amazing: he began honing his technique a mere three years ago, after spending over a decade in advertising and commercial work.
I was sad to learn about the death of Mel Gordon on March 22, but he left the world with an incredible legacy of writing and scholarship. Jack and I decided to discuss the impact Mel had on both of us in our podcast. If you'd like to read my interviews with Mel, you can read them on Heathen Harvest:
In Search of the Extraordinary: An Interview with Mel Gordon [quoted in his New York Times obituary]
Jack and Kate take a different approach in this mini episode by paying tribute to author, scholar, theater expert, and collector Mel Gordon. Mel's books had a huge impact on both of your hosts and they discuss his importance and the legacy he leaves us with. Kate talks about her personal encounters with Mel and Jack dives into where he fits within an academic context.
How does one get cast in a Mel Gordon theatrical production? What kind of gift would one receive from him at one's wedding? Why is there no Weimar Berlin simulation for the Oculus Rift and how do we fix that? Where does Werner Herzog fit into all of this? Find out all this and more in this month's mini episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
Books discussed include:
There are an almost infinite number of enticements I could use to convince you to watch Henrik Galeen's 1928 screen adaptation of Hanns Heinz Ewers' decadent occult romance novel "Alraune," but for the purposes of brevity and impact, I've selected the five GIFs below to plead my case. While the film departs from the source material in several particulars, it retains much of the cruelly humorous eroticism while adding in a tension-filled train ride and an extended circus interlude. Those are both terrifically Weimar Era touches to which I simply cannot object.
Backing up a few paces: the novel "Alraune" tells the story of a woman created by a scientist through artificially inseminating a prostitute with the seed of a hanged convict (deftly harvested during the criminal's death throes) that the resulting child might take on the magical characteristics of the mandrake (alraune) root. This daughter brings both incredible luck and tragic misfortune to every person who attempts to get close to her, from bewitched fellow students in her convent school though besotted men who bend to her whims.
The English cut of the film adaptation glosses over Alraune's conception, though for Those In The Know it's all pretty much there, opening as it does on a fantastically moody gallows with lurking figures beneath. What the film does maintain, though, is the novel's overarching spirit and (spoiler alert for an almost-100-year-old movie based on an over-100-year-old book) while the ending is significantly more upbeat, there's something deliciously subversive about transforming a tale of a born-and-bred femme fatale into a redemption arc.
With that, I'll proceed onto the facts of the case.
FIRSTLY: "Alraune" features an actual "train going into a tunnel" cut to indicate two characters having sex. That's fucking terrific.
SECONDLY: Have you ever wanted to see Brigitte Helm, Maria from "Metropolis," performing an adorable calisthenics routine? Then I admire the specificity of your tastes and will inform you that this is your film, friend.
THIRDLY: There is a beer-drinking bear.
FOURTHLY: I direct you to GIF Left, in which there is a woman wearing a monocle. The monocle was frequently donned by cosmopolitan German women who wished to indicate their lesbian identity, in a supreme gesture of elegant sartorial BAMF-ery.
FIFTHLY (and perhaps most importantly): "Alraune" features some of the best exchanges of Significant Looks ever captured on film. The smoking! The gazes! The cheekbones! It's more than the heart can stand.
And with that, I leave you to watch "Alraune" (aka "A Daughter of Destiny"):
“Senso:” the title of Camillo Boito’s 1882 novella evokes the senses, primal feelings that are more immediate than reason. A stunning work of decadent fiction, “Senso” is the story of Livia, a 22-year-old countess married to a much older man who recounts her obsession with her “strong, handsome, degenerate, reprobate” lover, the soldier Romigio. I have a soft spot for horrible leading characters, and Livia is truly dreadful: she’s vain, impulsive, and vengeful with a complete disregard for anyone by herself. The very name “Livia” evokes the deified wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, known as an idealized, queenly matriarch, but this Livia is called “Messalina” by her lover, linking her more closely to the wife of Emperor Claudius who was rumored to be wildly promiscuous. Romigio proves himself to be precisely the kind of scoundrel he’s always presented himself to be, wheedling lavish gifts from Livia, who delights in stealing her husband’s money for her roguish, beautiful side piece. Things turn sour when Livia discovers that—in addition to his gambling, drinking, and excesses—Romigio also keeps other lovers, she finds a final way to squeeze pleasure out of her relationship with him: ratting him out as a deserter and watching his execution. A story of lust, extreme selfishness, and power against the backdrop of war, “Senso” begs to be adapted for the screen.
Luchino Visconti’s 1954 version of “Senso” is a lavish period piece set, like Boito’s novella, in Italy during the 1860s at a time of escalating tension with Austria. Livia (Alida Valli) is married to an aristocrat with ties to Austria, but Visconti adds a “competing loyalties” storyline with the new character of Livia’s cousin, the leader of an Italian rebellion against the Austrian occupiers. Visconti’s Livia is not the arrogant young woman depicted by Boito; instead she an aging beauty plagued by anxieties who is swept away by the dashing Lieutenant Franz Mahler (the renamed Romogio, played by Farley Granger who used the time in between filming to carry on an affair with Jean Marais). It’s clear that Franz is bad news, but Livia convinces herself he loves only her, in spite of his known reputation as a drunk and a womanizer. Rather than being a headstrong femme fatale—the Satanic Female so favored by the decadent movement—Visconti’s Livia is a tragic figure and this is the story of her downfall.
Key moments of sensuality populate the novella: Livia examines bruises on her body, her first tryst with Romigio takes place while swimming nude in a public bath, and there are references to her body being “crushed” and “bitten” during sex. Visconti transforms this physical sensuality into a purely visual beauty. Bruised, bitten shoulders are replaced by sumptuous layers of silk gowns and crushing sex becomes smoldering eye contact of the kind Visconti films so adeptly. It’s a breathlessness not of exertion and exhaustion, but of constraint. This Livia doesn’t pant from her unrestrainable sexual urges, but is unable to breathe due to tight bodices and heavy gowns.
Toxic intimacy gives way to sweeping battlefield sequences, shifting focus from Livia and Franz to the greater impact of war on the country. Livia’s obsession feels trivial when contrasted with images of wounded soldiers and chaotic fighting. Livia isn’t so much driven by desire, as she is hysterical. In fact, her neglect of duties to her countrymen is made explicit when she gives money earmarked for her cousin’s resistance efforts to her lover so he can avoid active duty. The consequences of her choice are made terribly obvious when the Austrian army defeats the Italian partisans.
In a final departure from Boito, Visconti constructs a confrontation between Livia and her cheating lover that doesn’t exist for Boito. It is enough for Boito’s Livia to witness Romigio’s unfaithfulness without being seen, but Visconti depicts a heartrending scene in which Franz, caught in the arms of a prostitute and bragging about taking Livia’s money, rants his explanation at Livia, maddening her with grief and regret. This Livia musters the last of her dignity to turn him in, instead of ruthlessly informing on him and taking pleasure in his death.
Visconti’s film is a breathtaking one in its beauty, if not due to the dark sensuality evoked by Boito. To watch one of the director’s period pieces is to be put into an idealized, luxurious vision of the aristocratic past, where rooms are decorated in museum-worthy furnishings, every uniform is crisp and spotless, and one can hear the rustle of crinolines in the gowns worn by the women. While Visconti’s “Senso” leaves a lot to be desired in terms of decadence, it’s a stunner of a melodrama.
The view of Visconti’s “Senso” as a none-too-authentic adaptation Boito’s novella was one held by the director himself (who at one point wanted to rename the project entirely) as well as by Tinto Brass. Brass has mastered bringing the decadent aesthetic to the screen: plush, beautiful, immersive, horrific, and explicitly sexual, Brass fills his films with images designed to provoke a reaction. If decadence is defined as the rejection of realism in favor of artifice, then movies like “Caligula” and “Salon Kitty”—rooted in history but not terribly mindful of depicting it accurately—were cast in the decadent mold.
Tinto Brass’ 2002 “Senso ‘45” (aka ”Black Angel”) is the director’s attempt to connect the “Sensos” of Boito and Visconti, taking the latter’s adaptation and reworking many of the threads missing from the former’s novella. Revisiting the operatic fascism of “Salon Kitty,” though this time in the declining days of the German occupation of Italy, Brass recasts Livia (Anna Galiena) as the wife of an Italian fascist official and Romigio as SS Lieutenant Helmut Schultz (Gabriel Garko, sporting a regrettable bleach-blonde hairstyle).
The older woman/younger man dynamic of Visconti is present in “Senso ’45.” It’s noteworthy that the age shift on the part of the woman makes her a sympathetic figure—for a woman to begin to lose the beauty traditionally associated with youth is seen as tragic, but to depict a young woman in full realization of the power of this same beauty makes her demonic and threatening. To have the demonic female in a relationship with the demonic male (made explicitly demonic in Brass by his Nazi affiliation) creates an ambiguous balance of power and one that’s arguably closer to Boito’s original intent.
What Brass does bring to the forefront from Boito is the emphasis on sexual passion. The bodies so carefully disguised in meticulous period costuming in Visconti are on full display here—Brass’ no-less-gorgeous costumes are designed to be stripped from the players in moments of animal passion, with all the “crushing” and “biting” described by Boito. “Senso ‘45” is an extremely dark and cynical romance, with Livia frequently put into situations that force her to “overcome” some kind of inhibition (in contrast to the fully-realized sexuality of Boito’s protagonist). Of course, this being a Tinto Brass movie, we get a first row seat to Livia indulging in oral sex, group sex, public sex, anal sex, and transforming herself into a sexually awakened being as a result. There’s even a tonally bizarre scene—likely included to show us her point of view—where Livia and her SS boy-toy frolic at the seashore in a moment that feel like it would be at home in “The Blue Lagoon.”
Where Boito’s Livia is responding to her true nature and acting on her impulses, Brass’ Livia finds herself guided down a path of decadence. A character invented by Brass is Elsa, the procuress who ushers Livia into her first sexual encounter with Helmut and later is shown running a bordello and gambling den.
It’s noteworthy that, unlike the vast majority of Italian Nazi epics, “Senso ‘45” is set in and explicitly features images of Italian fascism. The streets of Venice are plastered with huge images of Mussolini and rifle-toting black-shirted troops roam the streets. While the movie never shows the front, the realities of war are present with blackouts and air raids a constant reminder that the social order is collapsing (or being returned to its proper alignment, with the ever-advancing Allies). World War II atrocities are evoked when Livia and Helmut witness the shooting of an unarmed woman in the streets. This does little to dampen their ardor, however, as they’re shown in their love nest apartment moments later.
The degree to which Helmut has exploited Livia is revealed when she discovers him spending the money she’d given him to save him from the front alongside a prostitute. The cruelty of the confrontation is emphasized here, with Helmut pointing out Livia’s age and laughing at her conviction that he loved her. What’s devastating to Livia has been obvious to the audience from the moment Helmut’s black-uniformed figure appeared on screen: he’s a vicious, amoral degenerate without a care for any other human being. The eroticism of Livia’s revenge on Helmut is emphasized in Brass, but a feeling of justification detracts from the shock at her final act of vindictiveness. Helmut/Romigio was not her equal in degeneracy, as is implied in Boito, but rather a far more horrible creature whose seductive power overwhelmed the already morally ambivalent politician’s wife.
This shift of power away from Livia as the stunning young noblewoman of Boito that transforms her into the elegant neurotic of Visconti and the late-blooming hothouse flower of Brass is an interesting choice. It’s almost as if the directors find it impossible to think the audience would be able to watch a movie focused on the demonic woman of decadent literature. Do they see her as a misogynist relic of a time past? Do they simply feel the viewer requires a sympathetic woman at the center of their stories in order to "sell" a narrative that hinges on revenge, rather than on Boito's carnal death drive climax? Is it possible that, in recasting Livia as the “woman scorned” they’ve missed a key part of the power at the heart of the source novella?
The concept behind Pat Mills and Olivier Ledroit’s sumptuously perverse serialized comic “Requiem Vampire Knight” concentrates everything I want in a story into one super-powered hit of insanity. After his death, a Nazi soldier is reborn as a vampire on Resurrection, an alternate universe that functions like an eroticized Bizarro where Earth’s most unrepentant villains hold supreme power, aging in reverse and engaging in apocalyptic factional warfare. There’s a mix of gruesome fantasy, historical fiction and fast-and-loose world-building that combine to create a story so complete over-the-top bonkers that, upon reaching the end of the story thus far, I was non-figuratively*crying out for more.
*I feel this is the only way I can express “literally” in our current environment of Language Terrorism.
Much of the beauty of “Requiem” is tied to the fact that it is a true labor of love on the part of its creators. Mills is a seasoned comics author and editor, whose credits include the foundation of beloved British anthology 2000 AD in the 1970s, and “Requiem” marks his first work designed and produced for the French comics market. The fact that the book is published by Mills’ own imprint, Nickel Editions (licensed to Heavy Metal for translation and publication in the United States), has freed the story to metastasize into the gorgeous, kinky beast that it has become.
In contrast to the visual ugliness one might expect to match the story’s content, Ledroit’s artwork is instead packed with intense detail, beautiful character design, and evocative use of saturated color in sweeping panoramas. “Requiem” is the lushest form of exploitation entertainment, using the freedom provided by the comics format to create a horrific landscape that would cost a fortune to replicate on film. A painterly approach to the comics page comes with potential pitfalls—lack of clarity and challenges with reproducing for the page are foremost among them—but Ledroit’s use of color and detail define place and character within the story, from the blood-saturated landscapes of Resurrection to the stark, white vistas that characterize the pages detailing the exploits of a band of Teutonic knights.
The audacity of this comic cannot be overstated. Not only is there absolutely no fear of pushing boundaries, leading to horrifying—and thrilling—juxtapositions and tonal shifts to push the crazy quotient off the chart. This is a book in which an aged-in-reverse vampire lord has the body of a macrocephalic infant and is tended to by a wet nurse kitted out in studded leather who provides him with vampire-themed baby toys, whereas a scant few pages prior, a brutal rape scene during the battle of Stalingrad is portrayed. This disregard for tonal consistency is one of the hallmarks of my favorite exploitation films, indicating as it does a willingness to throw absolutely anything that crosses the creators’ minds into the mix.
The universe Mills has created lets him pile every historical baddie possible into his story. Notorious figures from Nero to Elizabeth Bathory to Aleister Crowley are imagined as powerful, supernatural beings, committing atrocities while scheming against one another to amass power. Supplementing these figures with colorful fictional creations like an uber-kinked femme fatale, a wise-cracking swashbuckler and fanatical vampire nuns, Mills provides abundant character-texture within the epic scope of his story.
With an additional five issues anticipated in the Requiem saga, I can assure you I’ll be on tenterhooks awaiting the next outrageous installments.