Monday, October 29, 2007

Bernd and Hilla Becher in Wales

Bernd and Hilla Becher were photographic artists famous for their industrial photography. Their pictures function on many levels. They can be viewed simply as an historical record of industrial architecture. Or, to borrow their own phrase, they can be seen as anonyme skulpturen (anonymous sculptures).

These industrial photographs work particularly well in series. Somehow they reflect the mass production process of which the chosen buildings are often an essential part. They are also anti-picturesque, systematic, almost puritan. Sometimes they resemble pure abstract art in their lack of a human dimension.

The Dusseldorf-based married couple travelled the world (until Bernd's recent death) snapping blast furnaces, pithead gears, gas works, grain silos etc. In 1966 they were in Wales where they photographed this cooling tower in Ebbw Vale (see pic). They also did studies of industrial edifices at Glynneath, Cardiff, Caerphilly, Bargoed, Pontypridd, Pontypool, Llantwit Fadre, Mountain Ash, Treherbert, Cwmdare, Aberavon, Treorchy, Tonypandy, Treharris, Tylorstown, Penrhiwceiber, Hirwaun, Caerau, Llanhilleth, Cymmer, Blaenavon, Blaenrhondda, Crumlin, Bedwellty, Gilfach Goch and a few other places.

It would be good at some point to see an exhibition of all their Welsh work here in Wales.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Sixth Finger

American cinematic (and televisual) interpretations of Welsh life, although rare, are always interesting. In films like The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1940); and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Wales functions as a kind of substitute eastern Europe - a place of perceived ancient superstitions and dark practices.

Hollywood's most famous depiction of Wales is of course in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941). This highly sentimental portrayal of life in a Welsh mining Valley (based upon Richard Llewellyn's book) set in stone a particular stereotype that even today is difficult to shrug off. Another film in the same twee vein is The Corn is Green (1945) starring Bette Davis.

Pitched somewhere between these two worlds (the superstitious and the sentimental) is The Sixth Finger (1963) an episode of cult American sci-fi TV show The Outer Limits. Set in a remote Welsh mining village the opening narration harks back to the ancient:

"Where are we going? Life, the timeless, mysterious gift, is still evolving. What wonders or terrors does evolution hold in store for us in the next ten thousand years? In a million? In six million? Perhaps the answer lies in this old house in this old and misty valley..."

We quickly learn that central character Gwyllm Griffiths (played by David McCallum) is a coalminer sacked for being a subversive agitator. Suddenly it's Germinal meets How Green Was My Valley as we encounter characters like Gert "the bread" Evans (I shit you not) and miner Wilt Morgan.

You know the proverbial is going to hit the fan when unemployed Griffiths volunteers to be a guinea pig in an evolutionary experiment conducted by reclusive scientist Professor Mathers. Confirming the old adage that you should never volunteer for anything the experiment, of course, goes completely pear-shaped.

The now highly intelligent and super-evolved Griffiths having grown a huge head (see pic) and a sixth finger becomes malevolent. Despite being an intellectual superman he is still resentful at the way locals have treated him and determines to destroy his own village.

Will Griffiths (now a kind of Frankenstein's monster) wipe out Gert "the bread" Evans? Has the sentimental How Green Was My Valley stereotype finally given way to a perverse Welsh dystopia? Or will Griffiths' girlfriend the lovely Cathy Evans restore the natural order of things? If you want to witness The Sixth Finger's thrilling conclusion for yourself then why not get hold of a copy here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

One of the most successful plays ever written by a Welsh author was Thomas Job's Uncle Harry. Regarded as the best drama of the season in America in 1942 it ran on Broadway for 12 months. Karl Malden played the lead in many of its 430 performances.

The play itself concerns Harry and his two sisters. When Harry falls in love one of his sisters becomes horribly possessive and tries to break up the romance. The tale ends in death with a poisoning. It's a dark, claustrophobic drama with more than a hint of incest.

The playwright Thomas Job hailed from Carmarthen - St David's Avenue, to be precise. He was a grandson of the famous Methodist Dr Thomas Job of Conwil (no, me neither). After gaining qualifications at Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities he went to America to take up an academic career. He lectured in English at Yale and Columbia and was chair of drama at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh.

In conjunction with his academic career Job began writing plays. Uncle Harry would prove to be his greatest success. In 1945 it was filmed as The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry with Robert Siodmak directing and George Sanders in the lead role. The film script was more linear in structure than Job's sophisticated play and relied less on flashbacks. There was one other fundamental difference: the ending.

Because the conclusion of Uncle Harry was deemed too shocking (and morally ambiguous) several alternative endings were shot for the film version. Amongst them was the lame: and it was all just a bad dream option. Surely they wouldn't pick that scenario for the final cut would they? Um, unfortunately yes they did. Miffed producer Joan Harrison resigned on the spot.

Today The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is regarded as a very fine film noir with a terrible ending. Still, Job's original text is ripe for resurrection. I'd love to see this virtually forgotten drama restaged. Even more I'd like a capable film director to update The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and give it the ending Thomas Job intended.

As for Job himself, after penning five (mostly) successful plays, he became a scriptwriter at Twentieth Century Fox. He wrote the adaptation of The Two Mrs Carrolls starring Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. Unfortunately, in 1947, not long after embarking on this exciting new career he suffered a heart attack and died in Santa Monica. He was survived by a wife and two children.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Streets of Tremorfa

The emergence of Dada at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916; Jean Paul Sartre's visit to New York in 1945 and the birth of the cool; Warhol opening The Factory on East 47th Street in 1963; Tremorfa in 2007...

Eh? You go a whole lifetime without coming across any cultural references to Tremorfa then two come along at once! This rather cut-off and slightly eerie council estate on the eastern fringes of Cardiff is suddenly, it seems, the inspirational epicentre of the Welsh capital.

Firstly there is Lewis Davies' Tai and the Tremorfa Troll (see pic), a new children's book which features a troll who lives at the bottom of Mrs Griffiths' garden in the aforementioned purlieu.

And secondly there is (Tremorfa-born) Anthony Reynolds' excellent Streets of Tremorfa - a reworking of Bruce Springsteen's Streets of Philadelphia which can be found at his myspace site.

So forget Chapter Arts, the Wales Millennium Centre, and other creaking cultural institutions - if you really want to plug into the zeitgeist get your artistic self down to, ahem, Cardiff's new "left bank" today.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mark E Smith: Big Arthur Machen Fan

Just been perusing a copy of Machenalia, the newsletter of the Friends of Arthur Machen edited by Gwilym Games. It's a great read and as you might expect it's wall to wall Machen info. What's evident is that the Welsh horror writer continues to exert an influence on the cult cognoscenti. For example Machenalia points to an interview in The Independent (Feb 22, 2007) given by singer Mark E Smith. Turns out incurable curmudgeon Smith is a big fan of the Welsh writer:

"I used to be in the Machen society... Been a fan since I was 16. Fanatical and all. He's one of the best horror writers ever. MR James is good, but Machen's fucking brilliant. Wrote the first drug story, The Novel of the White Powder. Before Crowley, all of them. Have you read The Great God Pan? Terrifying."

Referring to Machen's work in general he continues: "It's like another world. Goes to all these places, like, 'this is where the working class hang out, this is where the dandies hang out... I went in this pub, a bloke comes in with a knife in his back'. Like, the real occult's in the pubs of the East End. In the stinking boats of the Thames, not in Egypt. It's on your doorstep mate. Strikes a chord with me."

Apparently Machenalia are hoping to publish a definitive account of the connections between The Fall and Machen in a future edition.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Spillers Records

So I'm walking past Spillers Records in downtown Cardiff and I hear the strains of intriguing music emanating from within. Ducking inside I clock New York anti-folk singer Jeffrey Lewis doing an in-store gig. F**king A. Turns out he's got a show at Clwb Ifor Bach tonight and he's doing a little warm-up here first. Thank you Lord.

Lewis has just brought out an album 12 Crass Songs which he is currently promoting. His Spillers mini-set includes a Crass song (for those of a certain vintage it was Systematic Death) plus a ditty about cockroaches and another about being an ex-hippie. Whilst he performs this last number (unaccompanied) he shows the audience a storyboard of its lyrics. Lewis is also an accomplished cartoonist you see.

Anyway, it was great - Lewis up on the makeshift stage being clever and cool; the sound of street noises from the open door behind; and smart kids with haircuts lapping it all up. And it was free.

Now this is my point right - Spillers Records is one of those places (like The Vulcan, Staff Club, Bear Shop etc) that helps define this city to itself. For that reason alone it makes it a hell of a lot more important to most South Walians than, for example, the Wales Millennium Centre which was built essentially for tourists and the bourgeoisie.

For Mr and Mrs Joe Cardiff Spillers Records is its lo-fi Sydney Opera House - it's where most of us started our own cultural education. And it has been performing this valuable function for decades (see pic from 1957). So if you do nothing else today please sign the online petition to keep Spillers Records out of the oleaginous clutches of greedy landlords. And don't forget to buy some stuff next time you're in there. Because like Jeffrey Lewis says: "It's a great store!"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Experimentica 07

Here at Babylon Wales we enjoy a bit of weirdness. What luck then that Chapter Arts, Cardiff, are set to host Experimentica 07, their annual festival of live and time-based art.

Cast out that image of Marcel Marsaud negotiating an invisible pane of glass that is currently creeping into your brain! We are talking proper hardcore performance art action here.

There's Mr and Mrs Clark ("Terry and June on crack") doing cabaret. Submotion are putting on an Erik Satie-style sonic event described as "furniture music for the digital age". I'm particularly looking forward to seeing Jeong Geum-Hyung from Korea dueting with a vacuum cleaner. And there are loads of other great events too.

This smorgasbord of outlandish artistic expression will take place over six days from October 16-21. Be there or be a cube.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pan Magazine

Picked up a copy of Pan today - a new publication put out by the creative writing department at the University of Wales, Newport.

Between its covers you'll discover an imaginatively edited mix of poetry, short stories, memoir and art. Contributors range from sparky young writers to established creative types with strong links to Newport.

So, there's art from Jon Langford. Humour courtesy of Carlton B Morgan. Scribblings by the likes of Ray French, Richard J Parfitt and Andy Barding. Lionel Fanthorpe interviews comic Stewart Lee. And there is even some nudity. What more could you possibly want? Oh yes, it's absolutely free!

You can acquire your very own copy by emailing Pan at: Hurry while stocks last.