Tag Archives: Flatpack Festival

Magic Lanterns


Flatpack Festival

23-28 March 2010, Birmingham

Flatpack website

Title: Comrades

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 27 July 2009

Distributor: BFI

Director: Bill Douglas

Writer Bill Douglas

Cast: Keith Allen, Dave Atkins, Stephen Bateman, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Norton

UK 1986

183 mins

Paris’s Cinémathèque française was closed. I was left staring at locked doors, an expanse of concrete and a poster for a Jim Carrey retrospective. Lemony Snicket wasn’t part of the plan. It was Lanterna Magica I wanted, not Ace Ventura. Still, I resolved to re-trace my metro ride and find my phantasmagoria. The exhibition – ‘Lanterne magique et film peint – 400 ans de cinéma’ – was fairly humble by the standards of a national film institution. Narrow and dimly-lit, the room presented long wooden cabinets simply filled with slides and magic lantern apparatus spanning nearly four centuries. There were some projections and cornered-off screening rooms but, on the whole, the viewer could leisurely pore over and ponder these illuminated glass artworks: from grotesque 18th-century caricatures to delicate, ethereal paintings of polar expeditions; from sentimental 19th-century stories of childhood illness to playful sequences on a skipping rope; from religious didacticism to diabolical, dancing figures of death. Links from the magic lantern to early cinema were plain to see: a painted Muybridge-like sequence of Loie Fuller echoed the Lumière Brothers’ Serpentine Dance (1896); a staged photographic enactment of a lunar voyage mirrored Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902). But with a primarily static presentation of the exhibition, it was left to the imagination to bring the majority of the slides to life. It was an enthralling, wonderful experience to spend a few hours trying, but I was eager to experience a full Lanterna Magica show for myself. The magic lantern bug had started to bite.

Luckily, two months later these enchanting slides came to life for real at Birmingham’s Ikon Eastside Gallery, as part of a special event organised by Flatpack Festival. The show demonstrated Flatpack’s continuing fondness for proto-cinema and early cinematic pioneers. Last year, artist Kevin Timmins presented his bicycle-powered phenakistoscope and filmmaker Mark Simon Hewis talked about making a life-size zoetrope. This year, magic lanternist Mike Simkin and his wife, Teresa, brought their Lanterna Magica to Flatpack audiences. There were travelogues with speeding trains and boats sailing across the channel. There were dancing American sailors and Victorian fairies. And there was my particular favourite: a dissolving view slide, which provided a feast of mesmerising, hypnotic optics, water pouring out of an ornate fountain. Like a strange 19th-century prog-rock video, the vision elicited a round of oohs and aahs from the assembled viewers. Happily, audience participation was actively encouraged as the lanternists asked for sound effects and heckles. This re-enactment of a historical show tied in nicely with the festival’s aim to explore not only film itself, but also how people view film. Elsewhere in the programme, there was a particular focus on the 30s’ cinema-going experience with a bus tour of art deco Odeon cinemas and a talk by Juliet Gardiner sharing surveys and diaries of everyday film enthusiasts. The limited technology – slides were mechanised with cranking handles; they accidently appeared upside down and back to front; they became stuck and were freed to a series of cheers – created a refreshing change from the uniformity of modern cinema experiences. There was a real sense of wonder rippling through the Ikon.

Read about the short films shown at Flatpack 2010.

It was this same magic that had bitten Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas back in the 1960s. Preceding the magic lantern show, Flatpack hosted a screening of Lanterna Magicka (2009), a documentary exploring the rather fraught making of Douglas’s epic film Comrades (1987), which was released on DVD by the BFI last year. Comrades tells the tale of the 19th-century Tolpuddle martyrs punctuated by magic lantern shows and pre-cinema illusions. (Mike Simkin himself acted as lanternist for the production). Douglas was an avid collector of proto-cinema paraphernalia; the London flat he shared with friend Peter Jeffries soon became an extension of his ‘brain’, filled with books, slides and advertisements relating to Lanterna Magica. Douglas continued to be enchanted by the ‘magic’ of the lantern’s optical effects until the end of his life, taking an escapist delight in the aesthetic and technology of the past. And this escape provided a perfect retreat from Thatcherite Britain – the thinly-disguised allegorical target of Comrades. Douglas’s extraordinary collection is now housed at the University of Exeter. After the screening, directors Sean Martin and Louise Milne explained how thrilling it was to visit and film this archive, the embodiment of ’30 years of tenacity and obsession’.

Another tenacious, obsessive lanternist to make an appearance at this year’s Flatpack was Julien Maire. Maire is a French artist preoccupied by the mechanics of technology and the possibilities of illusion. Unlike Douglas, who sought a refuge in the escapist fantasy of early cinema pioneers, Maire looks at ways to reinvent and expand on the concept of the magic lantern. In his projection-performance, Demi-pas, Maire uses a computer-assisted projector, which he has dismantled and rebuilt in order to project fantastically intricate, multi-layered motorised slides. By adjusting the focus to highlight different layers and by using mechanical devices, Maire creates a live performance within each slide. Demi-pas presents a simple story of one man’s daily routine, but the effects are far from ordinary; real-life water boils and fizzes within the slide as the man cooks his dinner; drawings appear outlined through a mini etch-a-sketch; rain droplets spatter onto the screen one by one.

Read about Flatpack 2009.

Flatpack presented work by three different types of people inspired by the magic lantern – a historian, a filmmaker and a performance artist. Those still glass slides I saw in Paris came to life; and they did so in so many different ways and formats. Flatpack put on a magical, joyful spectacle and simultaneously raised illuminating questions about what constitutes a ‘film’ by programming events based around proto-cinema technology. After all, cinema itself is born out of the illusion of rapidly juxtaposing still images, but how many festivals are exploring and celebrating this fact? It is an important technological element of film but also a key to understanding the potential playfulness provided by film. At the beginning of Comrades, an itinerant lanternist knocks on doors to promote his act as ‘a show for the family, a show of comical pictures and colour: endless rollicking laughter’. Here is a description befitting of the Flatpack experience and the possibilities of film itself.

Eleanor McKeown

Alucarda: The Seed of Panic

Ilustration by James Stringer

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 26 March 2010

Venue: Electric Cinema, Birmingham

Flatpack Festival

23-28 March 2010

Flatpack Festival website

Director: Juan López Moctezuma

Writers: Alexis Arroyo, Tita Arroyo, Juan López Moctezuma, Yolanda López Moctezuma

Original title: Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas

Based on the short story ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu

Cast: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Tina French

Mexico 1978

85 mins

Electric Sheep are very proud to present Alucarda as part of two late-night special screenings at the Flatpack Festival. See also the special preview of Dogtooth.

Having produced Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s incendiary first feature Fando y Lis (1968) as well as El topo (1970), Juan López Moctezuma went behind the camera in 1971 to make The Mansion of Madness (released in 1973), which was loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. He followed it up with two vampire stories, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary, shot in the USA with John Carradine in 1975, and Alucarda in 1978. Like Fernando Méndez and Carlos Enrique Taboada, Moctezuma was one of a handful of well-read Mexican directors who were interested in making horror films infused with cultural references and artistic ambitions. In Mexico, the genre was dominated at the time by populist lucha libre movies such as the Santo series, which pitched heroic costumed wrestlers against monsters, vampires and mummies. However, Chano Urueta’s take on Frankenstein, El monstruo resucitado (1953), and Méndez’s influential El vampiro (1957) had opened the way for a richer vein of horror, and the 50s and 60s were marked by a wave of delirious visions of terror that are still lauded for their visual beauty and atmospheric qualities.

Visit illustrator James Stringer’s website.

Moctezuma was part of the Panique Theatre, which Jodorowsky had founded in Paris in 1962 with the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal (on whose play Fando y Lis was based) and the French artist Roland Topor. The name was a reference to the god Pan, and the movement (or anti-movement, as Arrabal would have it) was defined by a combination of terror and humour. Influenced by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Panique embraced disorder, madness and excess, the grotesque and the irrational, to create an anarchic celebration of life. From Artaud they also inherited the interest in a magical and ritualistic kind of theatrical spectacle, which used violent sensory assault to open up new perspectives in the audience.

Moctezuma implemented these ideas in The Mansion of Madness, in which the patients of an insane asylum are allowed to run free as their doctor adopts an Aleister Crowley-influenced approach to their treatment. Set in the similarly confined environment of a convent, Alucarda took the director’s interest in strange cults and rituals further. Alucarda’s birth opens the film, her wretched mother, having been impregnated by the devil, delivering the baby in a crypt surrounded by diabolical, horned, half-goat statues. To protect the newborn from her terrible father, she asks a bizarre-looking gypsy to take her daughter to the convent. Fifteen years later, Justine, a young, orphaned ingénue, arrives at the convent to find herself sharing a room with the raven-haired, black-clad, wild-eyed Alucarda.

Alucarda is clearly out of place in the convent and her holy abode has not been able to suppress the devil in her blood. She draws Justine into her world, taking her to the derelict crypt of her birth where she proposes they take a blood oath, so they can be friends forever, ‘even after death’. The ritual is performed in their room at night, which, this being the 70s, involves both of them being naked as the gargoyle-like gypsy from the opening scene magically appears to make cuts on their breasts from which they drink each other’s blood. They find themselves in the forest, where a ritual performed by witches ends in an orgy. Intercut with this are images of Sister Angélica, who welcomed Justine into the convent, praying intensely until her face becomes bloodied and she levitates, apparently able to conjure up some sort of power that strikes down the gypsy witch leading the ceremony.

The clear lesbian undertones of the film come from Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, on which Alucarda is very loosely based (the other literary reference is obviously Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but Moctezuma and his team of writers have made the story their own. The friendship between Alucarda and Justine has the devouring intensity of first love, but in the enclosed, all-female convent/hothouse, the girls’ repressed desires translate into demonic possession. The figure of Sister Angélica adds an interesting twist, turning the story into a spiritual lesbian love triangle. Her attachment to Justine is as dubiously excessive as Alucarda’s and is sublimated into a frighteningly exalted religious practice. The love triangle is complicated by Alucarda’s satanic nature and Sister Angélica’s self-sacrificial (‘angelic’) Christian figure, meaning that there is a lot more at stake than Justine’s affection: demonic Alucarda and holy Sister Angélica are battling over nothing less than Justine’s soul (the character is named after Sade’s unfortunate heroine, whose virtue is repeatedly assaulted by one group of perverted tormentors after another).

Alucarda has been seen as anticlerical, yet the depiction of religion comes across as very ambivalent, confused even. For a start, the convent is a very unusual religious edifice, a womb-like cave carved inside the rock. The nuns are dressed in off-white, red-stained robes and tight-fitting bonnets that make them look like mummies. Initially, there are intimations that Alucarda may be an adept of a natural religion, a religion of life opposed to the Catholic worship of death. The witches’ orgy contrasts with a later display of self-flagellation among the half-naked nuns and priests. An early, sumptuously sinister, almost painterly sermon takes place against the backdrop of a multitude of crucified Christs, creating an oppressive, macabre atmosphere. This is echoed in a later scene where Alucarda and Justine, naked, are tied to crosses for an exorcism ceremony. The dark, rich colours, the high camera angle and the cruelty of the ritual again conjure a memorable vision of religious maleficence.

And yet, Dr Oszek, who interrupts the exorcism and calls the officiating priest barbaric, is soon confronted with a gruesome supernatural phenomenon that destroys his scientific certainties and validates the priest’s beliefs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an undead (and again naked) Justine comes out of a blood-filled coffin to attack the devoted Sister Angélica. Alucarda proves a worthy daughter to her father when she unleashes hell upon the convent, stopped only by the body of the Christic Sister Angélica carried cross-like by the other nuns. All in all, you could say the Christian characters come out of this looking fairly reasonable in the circumstances.

The truth is that Moctezuma seems much more interested in extreme rituals of all kinds than in putting across an anticlerical message. The devil here appears in the form of Pan, as seen in the statues in the crypt and later in the goat’s head that presides over the orgiastic celebration in the forest, which clearly ties in with the ideas underlying Panique Theatre. The same actor, Claudio Brook (a Buñuel regular), plays both Dr Oszek and the gypsy, so that reason’s representative is also our mischievous guide into the occult and spiritual world, further undermining the rational standpoint. The many rituals, whether Christian or satanic, the orgy and the flagellation, the blood oath and the exorcism, are all marked by excess and strangeness, violence and beauty. The contrast between the beliefs that inform them is not what matters here; rather, the overall effect of their juxtaposition as grotesque and startling spectacles may well be designed to shock the audience into a new mode of perception.

Virginie Sélavy

This article was first published in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Buy Alucarda [DVD] from Amazon