Blog : Posts tagged with 'cube cinema'

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Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time


There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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Stranger In A Strange Land

In which we watch some films with sex in


It’s been a quiet month on the site this month, as regular readers might have noticed. There have been plenty of things to keep us busy, firstly; and the hot summer days leave me feeling rather drained each evening, not in a mood to sit down and write something. Not to mention that we spent three successive evenings this week going down to the cinema. We heard that The Cube was showing a mini-season of Japanese “Pink Cinema”. Reading the descriptions in the programme, we couldn’t resist any of it.

Pink Cinema” is, not to put too fine a point on it, pornographic. It is: dirty films, made to fit a strict template. An hour of film, with plenty of sex but nothing to concern the letter-of-the-law Japanese censors, made to fill up screen time in specialist cinemas which show nothing else. As the audience, such as it is nowadays, doesn’t really care what’s in the film,* the writers and directors can choose whatever topic or style they want to write about; as a result, pink cinema is an astonishingly broad genre. The season – curated by a chap called Jasper Sharp who is probably the world’s leading expert in the field, having written a comprehensive book about it – included five films over the three nights, but each of those five was radically different in style and contect, from serious drama through martial arts action to political satire.

First up was A Lonely Cow Weeps At Dawn, also known as The Cowshed Of Immorality. Before you start wondering, it had nothing to do with actual bestiality,** but was a sad tale of an elderly farmer who had been plunged into senility by the deaths of his son and his favourite cow. His daughter-in-law tried to take the cow’s place, and his wayward daughter, a prostitute, returned to their village and became involved in a scheme to trick the man out of his land. Hot on its heels came Sexy Battle Girls, which I’ve been assured was a big influence on Tarantino. Made in the mid-80s, its story concerned a man who, years ago, had been humiliated when a rival with a larger penis stole his wife away from him. He brought their daughter up as a martial arts expert who would one day seek revenge using her special superpower: a vagina of inhuman strength. How this superpower emerged, or how it was discovered, wasn’t quite explained; but we did see her father shoving an apple inside her underwear and shouting “Crush it!”, before four neatly-quartered apple pieces dropped to the floor. Scary. The villain of the piece turned out to be headmaster of a prestigious school. In typical villain fashion, he also turned out to be selling delinquent schoolgirls to top politicians. In slightly less typical villain fashion, a small stuffed bird was attached to his shoulder at all times.

Friday night’s films started with another serious piece: New Tokyo Decadence: The Slave. It was, as you might expect, about BDSM; rather like Secretary, it followed a masochist who starts an affair with her boss. It was a subtle film, which carefully showed the title character’s emotions as she struggled to balance physical pleasure with affection. It was followed by a film which wasn’t subtle in any way: S&M Hunter, an almost-slapstick tale of a laconic one-eyed bondage expert commissioned to rescue a gay man from the clutches of a group of rebellious and sex-mad young women. He triumphed, of course, suspending the gang’s leader from a construction crane, despite having lost his other eye in their final duel. The series was rounded off on Saturday night by one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, The Glamorous Life Of Sachiko Hanai. The title character of the film is a sex worker shot in the head during a dispute between two spies. Running away alive, she accidentally leaves with the object the spies were fighting over; moreover, the bullet in her brain gives her superhuman intelligence and mind-reading powers. She starts an affair with a philosophy professor,*** and then discovers that the object the spies were fighting over is a disembodied finger cloned from George W Bush.**** If you’ve never seen a girl being raped by a bright red finger, apparently able to fly, while the American President shouts things at her from a TV screen in the background, then, well, I’d recommend this movie.

Each night’s programme was followed by a question-and-answer session with the curator, Mr Sharp, which tended to turn into something more of a freeform discussion. Friday night’s, in particular, turned into a slightly vicious debate between a group of people near the back of the theatre who had been giggling, sniggering and reading out the subtitles all through the most serious bits, and a woman at the front who had told them to shut up.***** The let’s-laugh-at-the-dodgy-subtitles group defended themselves on the grounds that the whole programme was Exploitation Cinema, and therefore audience participation should be expected; and that it doesn’t matter if anyone talks over a subtitled film because as you can read the words, you don’t have to be able to hear the dialogue. I don’t really think either argument was particularly strong, and neither did anyone else we spoke to.

I’m glad we went along to the Behind The Pink Curtain season, and the titillation angle was neither a plus or a negative. “It’s definitely porn you can watch with a girl!” I heard one audience-member say during an interval. “Well, indeed,” said the girl he was talking to. I think he might have been missing the point of the films slightly. Unlike most hardcore porn, solely about the mechanics of sex, these films had characterisation, plot and sometimes subtlety. The sex, moreover, was realistic, naturalistic sex.****** Dirty, messy, noisy everyday sex. That, alone, sets “pink films” aside from most of what appears in the media. It makes me think that maybe, despite the offensive and extreme aspects to some of the films, maybe the Japanese attitude to sex is healthier than ours.

* other than the sex, natch

** which would now be very illegal to show in a cinema, I understand

*** who shouts out names like “Noam Chomsky!” and “Susan Sontag!” as he climaxes

**** This being a 2003 film

***** As we were leaving, I think I overheard this woman saying she thought she could have taken the others had it come down to fighting. I’m kind of disappointed it didn’t.

****** Well, apart from that one scene with George W Bush’s finger

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New Year’s Eve

In which we celebrate


Wednesday night was New Year’s Eve; and, for once, we went out. Counting on my fingers, I worked out, it must be about seven or eight years since I last went out to an event on New Year’s Eve, rather than just pop round to a graveyard or a friend’s house. Last year, I remember very clearly where I was at midnight: in bed, ill, groaning and wishing the bloody fireworks and cheering would shut up.

This year, though, as I said, we decided we’d go out. Find somewhere which sounded like Our Sort Of Thing, something new to try, and enjoy ourselves. And, indeed we did.

We ended up at the Cube Microplex, the independent cinema off Stokes Croft, for a night called Fascinating Virtue; and fascinating it was, with a stream of small folk-ish, indie-ish bands taking to the stage. One performer, Rachael Dadd,* had flown in from Japan that day, and flung a boxful of Japanese confectionary into the audience for us all to try. One landed right in my lap. We kept the wrapper:

Japanese confectionary wrapper

Other performers included alt-folk storyteller Jetfly, quiet harmonium-equipped duo love.stop.repeat, storyteller Hannah Godfrey telling a tall and beautiful tale in-between, and complex local five-piece Boxcar Aldous Huxley. The latter sounded like a cross between the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack and the Decemberists,** had not only a harmonium but also a saw, clarinet*** and euphonium, and sang lively songs about such things as the Hellfire Club and how debauchery isn’t as good as you might hope; or the difficulties of being an astronaut in the 19th century. The stage acts finished with Men Diamler, self-proclaimed drunkest act of the evening, who went on to DJ by the bar for a couple more hours. We danced, energetically; skilfully in K’s case, not so much in mine.

K pointed out that often, when you go out on New Year’s Eve, it can be a bit of a compromise: you go out to something that you wouldn’t normally go to, just because you feel you should be going out somewhere. Fascinating Virtue was an event we’d be excited to go to any day of the year.

* I was tempted to ask her if she was related to the famous mentally-ill Victorian artist Richard Dadd, but I didn’t get chance. Which is probably a good thing, because I’d forgotten his first name.

** It was me who thought they sounded like the Decemberists, and K who thought they sounded like the soundtrack. K rather likes klezmer.

*** Any band with a clarinet in has to be a good thing. Except possibly for Supertramp.

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