Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – V

Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.

  • You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder  of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
    Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
    With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?

  • In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
  • While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
    (Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)

  • A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
  • But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
    A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
  • Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?

Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.

  • Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
  • In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.

  • Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.

  • Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:

  • But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:

  • Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
    An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey DahmerEd Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.

  • Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
    Happy holidays!

(Click on image to open bookshop)

A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.

___________________

I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

Adam and Eve Raised Cain

We all know how hard it is for talent to emerge in the art field. That is why from time to time, in my own small way, I have tried  to give voice to young promising artists; some of them went on with their careers with excellent results, as did Fulvio Risuleo whose work I wrote about and who then won the first prize of the “Semaine de la Critique” at Cannes Film Festival.
I say this not to brag about my farsightedness, but in the secret hope that Bizzarro Bazar might turn out to be bringing good luck also in the future: today I would like to present you with a curious Italian stop-motion short film which in my view is a true little gem.

Entitled Adam and Eve Raised Cain, it was written, directed, animated and edited by Francesco Erba, born in 1986, from Bergamo.
Before discussing the short with his author, I advise you to take some 20 minutes off and let yourself drift into the fark, disturbing atmosphere of this little film.

The short film starts off with a declaration of love to Sci-Fi B-movies from the Fifties (Jack Arnold, Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon  and their giant radioactive monsters), and goes on to pay homage even to the father of fantasy in motion pictures, Georges Méliès.
But the true references here are to horror and science fiction film directors from the Eighties, Carpenter, Hooper or Cronenberg. These nods are perfectly inserted in their context (an all too rare occurrence these days): the main character’s passion for monster movies, for instance, becomes a pivotal dramatic element in a scene where the child’s toys are sold, a psychologically scarring moment for little Albert.
Any citationism, even when done with a purpose, entails the risk of breaking the spectator’s identification, projecting the public “outside” of the film, and lessening its emotional impact. It could be because of the visceral and painful nature of the themes addressed in this short, but Francesco Erba succeeds in the task of creating an even stronger connection with his character: it’s as if, when observed through the filter of the American movies the 80’s generation grew up with, Albert’s trauma became more recognizable, more humane – despite his rough stop-motion puppet appearance.

Since he was a child, Francesco has been living and breathing cinema. How could he tell a tale of fear and love, if not by going back to those films which frightened him or made him fall in love?
This, in my opinion, is the admirable subtlety of Adam and Eve Raised Cain, a sensitivity which many narratives of nostalgia lack.
Behind the animated film facade, behind the entertainment, Erba is depicting a world of solitude and mental cages. And whenever he relies on some vintage stylistic elements, he’s not throwing them to his audience like peanuts just to stimulate some cinephile pavlovian response: he is using them because, to him, they still represent the best (maybe the only) way to really tell us about the wounds and anguish tormenting his character, both a victim and a perpetrator.

I asked Francesco Erba a few questions about his work.

How was this project born, and how did you manage to make it happen?

The concept for Adam and Eve was one of many sitting in my “Ideas” folder, on my laptop. After spending much time working with and for others, I decided it was time to shoot something new for myself. Sifting through the folder (and discarding all million-budget ideas!), the one that was left was a live-action version of Adam and Eve.
I started working on it, inserting new elements and focusing on the structure until I realized what I was really trying to tell: my film was about imprisonment, in all its possible meanings.

Once the script was completed, it started to dawn on me that this film could – should – be realized in stop motion: enclosing some puppets in a 1.5x1m box would cartainly take this idea of “imprisonment” to the extreme.

I knew all too well that to shoot this film in stop motion, as I had it layed out and with the resources at hand, it would take at least 2 years of work. I had to prepare a complete storyboard, character studies and preliminary drawings, set and prop construction, sculpting and mold making, motion tests, all leading up to several weeks of shooting in a dark room. And then the digital effects, and compositing the live actors’ eyes on the latex puppets, a process that had to be done frame by frame…

I mustered up all my masochism, started filming, and in the end I discovered I was even too optimistic. It took nearly three and a half years to complete the short movie!

Was the choice of stop motion limiting or did it give you more freedom? Which challenges were the most tough in producing the film?

Stop motion, which I do not consider just an animation technique, but THE animation technique, has an unquestionable charm which transcends time and technological innovations. But it can also be a real bitch!
If on one hand it allows full artistic freedom even on a tight budget, on the other it is certainly demanding in shooting time, shooting process, scenic design (sometimes down to miniaturization). Every aspect needs to be considered in advance, carefully calculated and measured, and you very often have to use your ingenuity to bypass problems: if I cannot move my camera, then I need to build a slider rig, and so on.

All these limitations, I think, really disappear when looking at the final result, at what you can create with this incredible technique. Take for example the movies produced by Laika today: they teach us that stop motion, although very old and almost the same age of cinema itself, has no limits other than those dictated by budget or creativity.

Adam and Eve seems to tap into the current vein of nostalgia for the 80’s (Super 8, Stranger Things, the San Junipero episode from Black Mirror, etc.). Did any film in particular inspire you? Is there some director’s work you had in mind while writing the script?

The short was filmed back in 2011, before this new wave of nostalgia for the cinema of the 80’s and 90’s (at least I chose to put it online at the right time!). Inevitably, it ended up containing many elements from the films I grew up with, which are now part of my DNA; these are references I cannot leave out of consideration.

Actually when you think about it, even those cinematic references coming from my imprinting are enclosed, like the rest of the story, in a chinese box system. Besides the cinema from the 80’s and 90’s, I chose to include some references to the films those very directors took inspiration from and sometimes plagiarised, namely monster movies from the 50’s. Taking it to the extreme, as I did with every aspect of the short, I went even further, paying homage to Méliès himself.

Sometimes directors get asked to summarize in few words the style they’re aiming for. My answer, right from the start, was: “think Rob Zombie doing stop-motion animation”. A coarse, wicked, sharp and sometimes repulsive style, which had to be recognizable in each aspect of the film.
But ofcourse I’m semplifying. If I think back to all the directors who inspired me, it might look like a meaningless list, and yet in Adam and Eve‘s world of opposites and extremes they make perfect sense to me: Carpenter, Cronenberg, Jackson, Spielberg, Selick, Park Chan-wook, Harryhausen, Quay, Svankmajer, Peter Lord and Aardman, Laika… they all influenced in a creative way the approach I chose for this short film, and its genesis.

The film shows extremely adult themes: phobia, alienation, family violence, unwanted pregnancy, despair. Yet all this is filtered through obvious irony: the handcrafted animation and the homages to the imaginary of American cinema make the film a “second level” experience. I personally find this ambiguity to be one of the strenghts of the project. But in your intent, should Adam and Eve be seen as pure entertainment, or taken more seriously?

This is one aspect of the “research” which I very humbly try to carry on with my work. One of he constants that can be found in everything I’ve done until now, from short films to music videos, from a pilot for a children TV show to the feature film I’m working on, is a search for the limit and the balance between two opposite extremes.

Using stop motion (which is often regarded as a technique for “children movies”) to tell an adult story, making an adult film about imprisonment, alienation and phobias with latex puppets, this is already a strong combination. To “cage” a real actor’s eyes inside the puppet, thus closing him within these narrow limits, to me is a further exaggeration of this concept. If you then imagine myself, the animator, stuck in strange positions and “prisoner” of a small dark room, the narrative gets really dizzying!

And what about the entertainment? Well, I’m not one of those who think cinema has the power to save the world, but it certainly makes it a little better. To me, films should not try to give answers, just to ask questions and create emotions.  It you’re looking for important answers, you’d better get a ticket for the museum, rather than for the movie theatre.
According to this philosphy, Adam and Eve is of course to be taken as a visual experience and not just as an artistic research: I think the scenes in which I “physically” enter the main character’s brain to show his past. make it clear that it’s also meant to be a product of pure entertainment.

This short film must have been quite a training ground. Will you continue with animation? What are your future projects? 

I am finishing my first live action feature film: here my personal research has evolved even further, as my movie is narratively and stylistically composed of an investigative report, a mockumentary and a more “traditional” film.
In the last few months I have been working on a TV animated puppet series for 5/6-years-old children, a project I very much believe in, and which gave me the opportunity to experiment with a different kind of animation.

As for stop motion, its “call” is very strong, despite the huge sacrifices that Adam and Eve demanded. One day I would love to be able to film my peculiar horror version of Peter Pan, or another small short film on Tesla and Edison.
A director’s work is often based on human interaction and mediation… I confess I sometimes miss being alone in my little dark room, moving my puppet’s head frame after frame!

Here is Adam and Eve Raised Cain Facebook page.