Monday, May 28, 2007


Interesting that Matt should post about Donovan, when "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" is used to such numbly chilling effect in David Fincher's new film "Zodiac". Popped out to see it last struck me as a very good film, but not a great one. Like all Hollywood films, (at 3-ish hours) it's toooo long, but, in fairness, the Zodiac case is so incredibly labyrinth-like (and strange) that it's prob. a testament to Fincher's story-telling skills that it was (a) fairly coherent and (b) wasn't even longer than 3 hrs (tho' at points facts were fired at the audience in blipvert-like bursts of exposition)...not a Horror film as such, really, more an old-fashioned or rather retro-engineered Psychological Thriller...Perhaps my own response towards it was slightly muted by the fact that I had been up boozing and listening to Ian Hunter with Dom Zero until 4 am, and only had a couple hours sleep before the kids got up and started trampolene-ing on my head. Also, much of the surprise factor had been removed as I was already fairly familiar with the Zodiac story...back in the mid-90s I'd already read Graysmith's book (of which the film is a fairly straightforward-ish run-thru):

It is (no exagerating, guv!) easily the scariest book I have ever read. I bought it as a fluffy holiday read after seeing an intriguing review of it in an edition of Amok (a late-80s/early-90s Post-Industrial/Apocalypse Culture resources 'manual') a few years earlier. I read it straight-through in under 24 hours - it was one of those deals - and there were several passages that made the hairs on my arms literally stand on end. I literally couldn't put the book down. The whole Zodiac case is shot-through w/ elements of strangeness ...nah, sheer unreality...that almost defy belief. It's hard to describe the brooding sense of total weirdness that permeates this book...odd threads and coincidences that intersect and overlap with each's more mind-boggling than the oddest crank UFO book...unlike the usual serial-killer or Mansion Family cash-ins, it's not particularly gory or anything; the whole story is just incredibly find yourself in wincing in disbelief at the coded messages and the High-End Zodiac Conceptual Stuff (his adoption of certain symbols and what looks like magickal glyphs; did he really kill during certain astrological phases of the moon, blahblahblah, or near bodies of water, etc)....apart from a couple of scenes, Fincher's book never really comes close to replicating that whole hard-to-quantify atmosphere...the sense of unreality that washed over me while I was reading it...the only things that have come close are a couple of John Keel's books about UFO conspiracies/Men in Black/The Mothman...actually, have to say that the "Mothman Prophecies", though not a great film by any stretch of the imagination (and I can't stand Richard Gere), does have a couple of straaaaange spin-out moments that sync w/ the mood of the book: the phone that rings when it's unplugged and that whole Indrid Cold telephone varispeed voice thing is a bit brrrr *shudders*...the idea that someone down a phone is speaking from a place where time passes at a different rate, etc...

Anyway, speaking of actors I don't like: "Zodiac" has got Robert Downey Jnr in it, and I really can't bear him fact, if I'd known he was in it before I hit the flicks, I might not have even bothered...but, in fact, he's okay in this...he's ditched that smug (and highly annoying) hey-look-at-me-I'm-an-actooooooor smirk he usually gives the camera...(he's a real camera mugger - wh/ works for people like Busey or Mickey Rourke or even Bruce Willis, but not for him)...still, the rest of the cast are fucking stirling: loads of great character actors bubbling to the surface in this... I think the book has just been republished on the back of the film; tho you can still easily pick up 2nd hand copies of the 90s edition for a quid or two, and it's well worth a look...

I don't read 'Horror' books as a rule; to be honest, I'm not sure what their function is...they don't scare me much, and not because I'm such a hard-ass, but because they're just not scary really (cue avalanche in my comments-box of recommendations for really scary novels...)...I looove gore/splatter/exploitation films (mainly) for their gratuitous cheapo pseudo-Surrealist excess, their woodenness and 'artificiality'; the sense of process being partially revealed, of glamour/illusion being stripped away to create a new reality, a Third layer of Otherness...I don't watch them to be frightened or appalled; I watch them because (for the most part) they're Anti-Hollywood; they hint at other ways of making films, other ways of seeing things...Splatterpunk literature is good fun, but, tho I love the films, I'm not really that fussed about reading it for the most part; I guess it's the visuals that I enjoy, in the same way as I dig a great Surrealist painting: I want to be transported, I want to hear chemical wheels and cogs turning in my head and new vistas opening, new lines of thought taking root...without a playful or smart writer at the wheel, extreme Splat.Lit reads like an empty exercise in outrage. If I want to be appalled then I'll read a book on US (or UK!) foreign policy. Transgression for its own sake is pointless: just mere hollow posturing. The band Whitehouse seem to exist purely as a 'knowing', self-perpetuating proof that ramping up the porngore volume to 11 seems to switch on a sort of in-built psychological Atrocity Feedback Loop that invokes the Law of Dimishing Returns and maroons the listener/viewer/reader/participant on a sort of existential plateau similar to that experienced by junkies/gamblers/adrenaline addicts: Too much is Never Enough.

All of which begs the question: what is the point of Horror Novels? I've never bought into that "Oooh, people love being scared in a controlled way. It's like a rollercoaster ride; you know it won't really hurt you, but..." I dunno: it's too glib. Or maybe I just don't get it. I find most horror novels boring (and not thru a lack of visual imagination on my part)...stuff like Guy N Smith, for example, I might read not as a Horror Novelist, but because they're a good throaty ol' Late Pulp Era's the work of someone who was a jobbing hack, but had a lot of fun w/in the constraints of his deadline/conceptual parameters, eventually rising up to become the equivalent of the director of a superior C- or B-Movie that you can have a laugh about years later with your mates over a pint down the pub...but it's not, well, scary, is it? So what's it really about...? Who buys Stephen King and all that other rubbish that clutters up the bookshelves in they find that stuff scary...and, if not, then why the fuck are they really reading them?

Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is how everything gets commodified eventually...but it seems to me like the rate of commodification has accelerated recently, it's gone pedal-to-the-metal full-on fast-forward, as if Capitalism is approaching or has reached some sort of tipping-point, a Strange Attractor where it finally consumes/subsumes itself...inverting and unfolding like a malignant flower to reveal some as-yet unseen facet of itself. In the last few days I've seen a trainer advert that assimilates Situationism and the '68 Paris uprising, and a vodka advert with an animated Lenin...anyway, my point about commodification and "Zodiac" is less about the filming of the book (wh/ feels kinda strangely inevitable), but the fact that one of the papers (The Independent, I think) recently ran a cryptogram style cinema quiz, apparently to 'celebrate' the release of the film (cryptograms featuring heavily in the Zodiac story) felt, to me, as if some sort of weird taste barrier had been breached with this: a national newpaper running Zodiac Cryptograms - Ye Gods! Has the editor not been taking his irony tablets!? The Zodiac messages, when they were finally decoded, claimed that the reason he was killing was to create slaves for his afterlife in Hell...and (eep!) here's a daily newspaper running some sort of low-brow cinematic Sudoku for the jeep-drving classes. And they're not the only one: this film seems to have kicked off a lo-level media craze for prize-winning cryptograms...jeez.

Back to Donovan for one final mental cough: wasn't he the inadvertent catalyst for Vashti Bunyan's "Just Another Diamond Day"...? I seem to remember that he tried to set up an artist's/musician's colony on the isle of Skye...a disillusioned Bunyan travelled up there in a horse-drawn wagon, writing songs along the way. The journey took the best part of a year, I think, and was pretty traumatic, but eventually birthed a classic album. By the time she got there, the artistic experiment had failed and presumably Donovan and his entourage had moved on...still haven't read Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles" yet, which Matt recommended to me last summer: maybe the back-story is in there somewhere?

Donovan's 1968 album "Moon in Capricorn" (a title which seems, strangely, to hint at the Zodiac Killer's own troubled inner astropsychological cycles), meanwhile, still remains unreleased in its intended form...