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Shocking Pink: ‘Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story’
09:24 am



Subversion. Such a tasty word tied the fine art of discovering the hidden in unlikely places. The finest treasures are always the ones you have to sift and work for. It’s one of the best perks of delving into any type of fringe entertainment that resides completely outside the county line of respectability. Fewer publications wear that description like a well tailored latex suit better than Hustler Magazine. Even to this day, people have a strong reaction to the name Hustler. Visions of crude cartoons, anatomical close-ups of assorted labia majora and minora and an overall commitment to bad taste in general usually comes to mind. Of course all of these are correct assertions but even better is that in addition to the obvious there is much more beneath the surface and for that, thank goodness for Michael Lee Nirenberg and his fantastic documentary, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story.

Unlike your typical documentary, Back Issues is a double story. It begins partially as Nirenberg’s own journey, with his father Bill, who was the magazine’s art director during its golden era of the late 70’s and off and on during the early to mid 80’s. The film opens with the two talking about one of Hustler’s more ridiculous covers, featuring a glammed out blonde and one very excited German Shepherd. Their interaction is humorous and revealing in a sweet-but-non-treacly sort of way.
Mount Rushmore of Smut Magazines
The other journey is that of the magazine itself. Founded by nightclub owner Larry Flynt in 1974, Hustler was originally a mini newsprint publication. It soon was expanded into a full fledged, glossy magazine. Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! author Mike Edison talks about the Mount Rushmore of the skin rag publishers which includes the staid Hugh Hefner, the vasaline-covered-lens loving Bob Guccione, the original subversive ground breaker Al Goldstein and the man himself, Larry Flynt.

The film delves into the origins of Hustler, which could not have taken root without Al Goldstein and his own equally infamous, legendary magazine, Screw. We’re talking right down from the latter’s “Shit List,” which begat Flynt’s “Asshole of the Month” column. There are some great interviews here with Goldstein, shot over a year before he passed in December 2013 and adult film star, Ron Jeremy, who jokes about “the Slime Pack,” which consisted of Flynt, Goldstein and himself.
Bill Nirenberg, Dennis Hopper & Larry Flynt
Dennis Hopper, Hustler’s Bill Nirenberg and Larry Flynt

One of the strongest qualities about Hustler was that it was a blue collar magazine with a strong intellectual streak that could border on surreal. Among the many quotable gems of Chairman Flynt is “I’d rather have ten truck drivers reading Hustler than one college professor.” What a perfect thumb up the bum of the bourgeoisie pretensions of magazines like Playboy. Even with that or maybe because of that attitude, Hustler still managed to get interviews and contributions with writers ranging from Charles Bukowski to Norman Mailer (whose finest work will forever be getting one-upped via hammer and insane LSD-laced brilliance courtesy of Rip Torn), among others.
Larry Flynt
Hustler got a taste of its first big infamy when they published nude paparazzi style pics of Jackie Onassis. (Screw, naturally, had published them first a few months before.) But that was only the beginning, as the film delves into the assorted trials and tribulations of both the magazine and its founder, ranging from assorted and legally important 1st Amendment fights, religious conversions, involving Larry having the entire staff watch the Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe detailing the activities of huckster traveling preacher and future character actor Marjoe Gortner, presidential campaigns and of course, the assassination attempt on Larry’s life that left him paralyzed. In one impressive and disturbing coup, the film interviews white supremacist, serial killer and the man who attempted to murder Larry, Joseph Paul Franklin. Franklin, who was later on executed in November 2013 and was in fact, never even convicted for trying to murder Flynt, talks about being incensed by an interracial pictorial in the magazine. This may surprise you, but Franklin is every bit as creepy and damaged as one would expect! Central casting couldn’t have picked someone to fit the multiple-murderer/racist/bent-case better than him.
Paul Krassner
The film then goes into the Paul Krassner years. A founding member of the Yippie movement who also got to work with the great and equally anti-establishment Lenny Bruce, Krassner was a fascinating, if not always popular fit for the magazine. Some of the most infamous covers came out during his tenure, including the crucified Easter bunny and the eternally misinterpreted “woman in the meat grinder” issue. Nirenberg goes into perfect detail about this particular issue, revealing the actual intent behind it. In a way, it perfectly represents the magazine. Crude irreverence inter-spliced with brutal social commentary, with the balls-out equal opportunity offensive attitude always putting the magazine at risk for misinterpretation.
Huster Infamous June 1978
One of the best things about Back Issues is that it highlights perfectly that there were no dummies at this magazine. Quite the reverse. Bill Nirenberg, Krassner, Dwayne “Chester the Molester” Tinsley, Stephen Sayadian, whom while not in the film, did work on the Thing Fish-themed spread for Frank Zappa (with 80s punk porn process Lois Ayres) and directed such legendary surrealistic skin flicks like Cafe Flesh and Dr. Caligari, and of course, at the helm, Larry and Althea Flynt. This is just the tip of the iceberg but the strong undercurrent of creative brilliance, working class ethos and a healthy disrespect for authority all shine sweet and strong in Back Issues. Even the soundtrack, which is a beyond stellar compilation of punk songs from legends like The Circle Jerks and The Adolescents, reflects the beautifully anarchic nature of Hustler and its merry band of smart misfits.

Featuring great interviews, spectacular editing and pulsating with plenty of heart, humor, piss and vinegar, Back Issues is a fine and very much needed documentary. In a cultural climate that is more conservative now than back when Hustler was still a little newspaper from a stripclub owner, we need to be reminded of the people that took a chance, that offended and that cared enough to never bullshit us. That is the heart-core of Back Issues.

Posted by Heather Drain | Discussion
‘I’m Your Man’: Biographer Sylvie Simmons on the life of Leonard Cohen
08:47 am



Our scene opens on the teenage Leonard Cohen attempting to hypnotize the family maid. Here’s Cohen, growing tall and lanky, losing the puppy fat, smiling, precocious, inquisitive, intense, with a zest for life.

Cohen has bought and studied 25 Lessons in Hypnotism How to Become an Expert Operator, a book that promises much—mind reading, animal magnetism and clairvoyant hypnosis—which the youngster hopes will deliver. As Sylvie Simmons explains in her biography on the singer I’m Your Man, the enthusiastic and earnest Cohen worked hard to master these powerful arts, and soon discovered he was a natural mesmerist.

Finding instant success with domestic animals, he moved on to the domestic staff, recruiting as his first human subject the family maid. At his direction, the young woman sat on the chesterfield sofa. Leonard drew a chair alongside and, as the book instructed, told her in a slow gentle voice to relax her muscles and look into his eyes. Picking up a pencil, he moved it slowly back and forth, and succeeded in putting her into a trance. Disregarding (or depending on one’s interpretation, following) the author’s directive that his teachings [on hypnotism] should be used only for educational purposes, Leonard instructed the maid to undress.

Simmons goes on to describe how Cohen must have felt at this “successful fusion of arcane wisdom and sexual longing.”

To sit beside a naked woman, in his own home, convinced that he made this happen, simply by talent, study, mastery of an art and imposition of his will. When he found it difficult to awaken her, Leonard started to panic.

Let’s freeze the frame on this “young man’s fantasy,” as there’s something not quite right, as neither Simmons or the young Cohen, appear to have considered the possibility that the maid was only feigning her trance, and had willingly taken off her clothes. This would turn everything on its head.

Cohen will later fictionalize the incident in his novel The Favorite Game, where the maid is also a ukulele player (the instrument Cohen first taught himself to play before the guitar), which his alter ego mistakes for a lute, and the maid for an angel. As Simmons puts it “naked angels possess portals to the divine.”

Simmons suggests this slim book on hypnotism had a greater affect on Leonard Cohen than just convincing the maid to take-off her clothes. The book was possibly a primer for Cohen:

Chapter 2 of the hypnotism manual might have been written as career advice to the singer and performer Leonard would become. It cautioned against any appearance of levity and instructed, ‘Your features should be set, firm and stern. Be quiet in all your actions. Let your voice grow lower, lower, till just above a whisper. Pause a moment or two. You will if you try to hurry.’

Scientific research has pointed out that some women are attracted to men with deep, low voices. While a touch of “breathiness” suggests a “lower level of aggression.” 

Cohen’s voice is instantly recognizable. He is aware of its power to mesmerize an audience: when he played at Napa State mental hospital in 1970, he jumped down from the stage and sang amongst the inmates, where anyone who could move “followed him around the room and back and forward and over the stage.” At the Isle of Wight concert, he was the only act not to have bottles thrown at him. Kris Kristofferson was booed off during his set, while a flare was thrown onto the stage during Jimi Hendrix’s performance, setting it on fire. Cohen was unfazed by such antics, he was mellowed out on Mandrax, and before he began:

...Leonard sang to the hundreds of thousands of people he could not see as if they were sitting together in a small, dark room. He told them—slowly, calmly—a story that sounded like a parable, worked like hypnotism, and at the same time tested the temperature of the crowd. He described how his father would take him to the circus as a child. Leonard didn’t like circuses much, but he enjoyed it when a man stood up and asked everyone to light a match so they could locate each other. “Can I ask each of you to light a match,” said Cohen, “so I can see where you all are?” There were a few at the beginning, but as the show went on he could see flames flickering through the misty rain.

As Simmons recounts the episode, Cohen “mesmerized” the audience, with just the power of his voice. Or, as Cohen described his talent himself in “Tower Of Song”:

I was born like this
I had no choice
I was born with the gift
of a golden voice.


More of Sylvie Simmons and Leonard Cohen, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
A human Tarot comes to life in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘The Dance of Reality’
09:11 am



There are those who make film for money. There are others that make film for the adventure or ego of it all. But then there is the most special kind of filmmaker—the true artist. That rare kind of maverick who is so driven by total, unsullied heart, soul and vision that such mainstream cinema conceits like compromise and whoredom are completely out of the question. These are the artists that truly love us because they respect us enough to never lie, never condescend and never ever play you for a fool. There is no living filmmaker today that defines all of this and more better than Alejandro Jodorowsky.

With a body of work that ranges from the literally riot-inducing feature film debut of Fando Y Lis (1968), the visceral yet spiritual El Topo (1970), the esoteric masterwork that is The Holy Mountain (1973) and the most heart searing film based on a real serial killer, Santa Sangre (1989), Jodorowsky’s major films are some of the purest and wholly unique contributions to cinema. That’s not even mentioning his status as one of the founders of the legendary Panic Movement or his comic book collaborations with the late, great artist Moebius. Now 85 years old, the easiest thing for Jodorowsky to have done was to rest on his laurels and bask in the light of past achievement. But true artists and warriors never rest. In fact, they don’t even know what the word means and after years of planting assorted cinematic seeds that have not borne any fruit yet, such as his scripts for King Shot and Son of El Topo, one finally did. (Lucky for us!)
Masked audience at the Circus
La Danza de la Realidad aka The Dance of Reality is Jodorowsky’s first feature film since Santa Sangre, almost 25 years ago. Time has only given the already instinctive director a deeper sense of the multitude of layers that make up the human condition. Even more striking is that it is his own personal human condition, as well as that of his family, that he explores here. The film opens with the imagery of money, blood and news. Jodorowsky’s voice comes in, saying “Money is like Christ. It blesses you if you share it. Money enlightens those who use it to open the flower of the world and damn those that glorify it.”

A circus tent comes into view. Young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) arrives with his father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky). They are greeted by two bizarre and cheeky clowns, who gently badger Jaime into first, climbing a rope, then bare fist fighting, all by basically challenging his masculinity. Alejandro is frightened and ends up running away to his father’s store, the Casa Ukrania. Outside is a little person dressed up as a devil, taking the carny barker route for advertising. He is greeted by this songbird built like Gaia, singing “Alejandrito!” This is his mother, Sara (Pamela Flores).
Queen of Cups comforts Young Alejandro
Alejandro runs to the beach and encounters the Queen of Cups, who tries to calm the child, who is throwing stones at the ocean. He is warned that “a single stone can kill all the fish.” In one of the most startling visuals in the whole film, this very thing happens as the beach is flooded with dead fish. The Queen is upset and yet the villagers are happy with this excess of food, even playing and throwing the little fish bodies around.

Grown up Alejandro appears and comforts his younger self, adding a sense of personal guidance to a child lost in a world of an over-masculine father, a mother whose is always one-two stepping away from reality and a landscape where the working man, in this case coal miners, are treated as thoroughly disposable by those in power. In fact, there is actually a scene where the police round up a group of protesting ex-miners, who have been forced to live on the streets after losing assorted limbs resulting from work-related accidents. One of the officials says, “Take them to the rubbish dump.” This is how the damaged working class was treated and really, things are not that different now.
The wounded and amputee ex-Miners
Midway the film switches from little Alajandrito’s journey to that of Jaime, his father. Most filmmakers would have not made such a bold move and most definitely would have not have had the intuitive insight to show such a strong character’s duality. In fact, duality is something that Jodorowsky has always had the testicular creative fortitude to explore. In a cinematic landscape often built on bold strokes of black and white, Jodorowsky from Fando y Lis onwards has full on explored the various shades of gray with his characters. Which is brilliant. Someone may be harsh bordering on abusive to their son and wife, but there are layers underneath that. There’s heart, there are personal demons and there is the light for redemption.

The Dance of Reality
is a one of the most intelligent films to have emerged in a very long time. It’s not just intellectually “smart,” but also visually and emotionally deep as well. Jodorowsky has managed to create this intricate, patchwork quilt of a story—his own story—and give you an experience that is at times surreal, other times brutal and beautiful and a 100% honest. There are zero false moves here.
The Two Alejandros
The way he approaches the story of both his childhood and his parents is fascinating. For anyone familiar with European filmmaker Louis Mouchet’s excellent 1994 documentary, La Constellation Jodorowsky, some of this technique will feel instantly familiar. In La Constellation, you see Jodorowsky build a human tarot deck. Think less divination and more of a therapeutic “psychodrama” technique that utilizes the tarot as a means to reveal facets about your family, your past and yourself. That brief description does not truly do this justice, but The Dance of Reality has a feel that this is Jodorowsky using the medium of cinema to conduct his own personal human tarot reading.

All of the players in the film are pitch perfect, with his son Brontis completely embodying the role of Jaime to the extent that you truly feel like you are watching his grandfather, as opposed to watching Jaime’s grandson mimic him. He pulls off and peels off the assortment of layers that this man has, seeing him evolve from one who wounds to a wounded man to something more transcendent. It’s a supremely strong performance. Anyone seeing interviews with Brontis, who comes across as very soft spoken and sensitive will be very shocked to see him here. You are seeing two completely different people and if that is not a testament to a great performance, I don’t know what is. The rest of the cast are great too, with Herskovitz doing an admirable job as young Alajandrito and Pamela Flores making a striking impression as his musical, magical and dysfunctional mother.

The phrase “cinema magic” is one whose power has faded from years of overuse and bad application. The Dance of Reality is the perfect film to re-infuse that tried and now true-again phrase. The magic of movie making vibrates with every frame of this film from one of the last truly innovative film maverick masters alive. Every movie lover worth his and her salt should have a little altar in their heart for Alejandro Jodorowsky. 

The Dance of Reality opens in select theaters beginning May 23

Photos via “Le Soleil Films” Chile; “Camera One” France 2013; Pathe; Courtesy of ABKCO La Danza, LLC

Posted by Heather Drain | Discussion
Blu-ray Audio won’t save music biz, but gourmet audiophile format is a step in the right direction
12:26 pm



If you haven’t noticed—and it would be easy not to, because they aren’t showing up in many retail outlets yet, mostly just Amazon—over the course of the past year UMe, the catalog division of Universal Music Group that puts out all of those “super deluxe” two and three CD sets of classic albums, has started releasing high definition Blu-ray “Pure Audio” discs.

The BD discs contain no video content, although they certainly could (hint, hint), but what they do offer should be considered as close to the master tape, as heard in the recording studio, as is possible to experience in your own home. In terms of their HD-DTS Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD tracks, it’s probably not possible to give any more definition to a digital audio signal and expect the human ear to even be able to detect it. If it’s feasible to add a 5.1 surround mix to the discs, they do so (although when they don’t, it becomes a bit problematic from a consumer standpoint, but more on this below.)

So far UMe’s roster of “High Fidelity Blu-ray Pure Audio” discs include stalwart titles like Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Miles Davis’ soundtrack album for Louis Malle’s L’Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground & Nico, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, Derek & The Dominos’ Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the fifty song Rolling Stones GRRR! comp, Let It Bleed, and Exile On Main St., Ella & Louis, I Put A Spell On You by Nina Simone, Selling England By The Pound by Genesis, John Lennon’s Imagine, Queen’s A Night At The Opera, Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson and a handful of jazz and classical offerings, about fifty in all. 5.1 surround mixes of The Who’s Quadrophenia and an expanded version of the Legend collection of Bob Marley’s greatest hits are scheduled to come out this summer via UMe.

Backing up a bit, the majors began releasing 5.1 surround and high resolution audio in 1999 with the introduction of the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) which allowed for the reproduction of DSD audio streams that had the same “warmth” as vinyl. The music industry did such a terrible job of marketing the SACD format that few people even knew it existed before they more or less pulled the plug on it. (Bob Dylan’s entire catalog and all of the Rolling Stones ABKCO albums were released as SACDs, but for whatever reason, this fact was downplayed to the extent that it is barely noticeable in the packaging, although they can be easily identified in used CD racks simply as the ones in the digipaks). Elton John’s classic albums came out remixed in 5.1 surround. Ziggy Stardust was remixed for 5.1 surround in a way that made the album sound totally fresh (and much more muscular). Peter Gabriel’s catalog came out on SACD. Once it went out of print, the SACD surround version of Roxy Music’s Avalon—an album audiophiles have always gravitated towards—started selling used for hundreds of dollars....

The first time I heard an SACD of Blood on the Tracks, I was hooked because not only did it sound like Bob Dylan was actually singing in the room with me, such were the sonic details that you could literally hear the guitarist’s fingertips moving across the ridges of the strings. Back in the days of Napster and Limewire, it was said that SACDs were not only impossible to rip, but that the files were too big for easy transport across the Internet (yeah, they really thought that). SACDs can only be played in a special SACD player but since hardly anyone bought one in the first place, the format was basically DOA. I have a ton of them, they sound great, but… yeah, who cares about SACDs? Cut to a few years later and since everyone has a DVD player, now the new thing is DVD-A. Mute put out Nick Cave’s back catalog remixed to 5.1 surround, setting the bar high for archival releases. Rhino put out a box set of Björk’s albums called Surrounded and the entire Talking Heads discography came out on so-called “Dual Discs” (one side a 5.1 surround DVD, the other a “red book” CD layer). Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson became the undisputed go-to-guy for 5.1 and produced newly created surround mixes of several Jethro Tull and King Crimson albums.

Last year Blu-ray audio releases starting to edge out the DVD-A releases, notably the excellent 5.1 surround mix of Van Morrison’s Moondance album, Steven Wilson’s new mixes of Close to the Edge by Yes and XTC’s Nonsuch and the approximately fifty Blu-ray Pure Audio releases from UMe. After watching them fumble the ball so many times on the surround front for the past decade, I’m finally starting to think they might get it right this time (and I do hope that someone at UMe in the Blu-ray department is reading this.) The UMe BD releases, especially the ones with 5.1 surround mixes (which sadly ain’t all of ‘em) are nothing short of stunning. The two best that I’ve heard, in terms of their audiophile ability to knock your socks off are Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (you can actually hear the sound of his foot on the pedal of his grand piano, it’s sublime) and Beck’s Sea Change (I don’t give a shit about Beck, but this album is the first thing I grab to demonstrate the possibilities of high resolution surround sound.)

Until the newly remastered version of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing came out a few weeks ago, I believe that UMe’s Blu-ray releases were only being test marketed in France (where they’re manufactured). Perhaps the “Pure Audio” discs were catching on as Nightclubbing is being released worldwide simultaneously on double LP, CD, as a deluxe two CD set, on digital download and as a Blu-ray Pure Audio disc. Apparently the Blu-ray disc is now being seen as another music format and for consumers, and for the record labels themselves, I think this is a good thing. I’ve been evangelical about surround sound—it’s simply the best way to listen to music outside of having the musicians show up at your front door—and high definition audio for years and at long last the industry seems to be sitting up and catering to the consumer wishes of the folks who still can be relied upon to buy music on discs.

Although I have noticed that the prices for the UMe BDs on Amazon tend to be in the $25 to $35 range prior to the street date for some of these discs, once they hit, the price drops to around $15 to $18 per. That’s not bad and considering that they are, in fact, noticeably better than regular CDs, I don’t feel like I am being ripped off for buying something that I have perhaps already owned multiple copies of—if I had to attempt to objectively quantify it in some way, I’d say that the stereo BDs are about 7-10% better than their regular CD equivalents and that the ones with 5.1 surround mixes, compared to CDs and even the best vinyl pressings, is like going from an old tube 20-inch TV set to a 50-inch HD flatscreen.

Consider the sort of leap in quality that gets made when a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” is opened up from two speakers to six and the data used to reproduce the music employs six times (or better) the data found on a regular compact disc. Since so many homes are now set up with home theater systems, it makes sense that the surround thing finally seems to be catching on to a wider public. You watch movies in 5.1 surround, you can listen to music on that very same system.

At this point, though, as someone on the picky audiophile side of things, I gotta say, there aren’t a lot of titles that I would buy on Blu-ray audio discs unless they’d been remixed to include a 5.1 surround option. It’s THE LEAST the labels can do when asking the public to re-purchase classic albums already in their collections. Want me to upgrade? Sure, I will, and trust me I want to, but only if you can give me a surround mix. If I don’t get that, you don’t get any money from me UMe, it’s that simple (Dear UMe executive who might be reading this, note that I purchased the DVD-A of Histoire de Melody Nelson in 2013 BUT that I would have bought it again (for the fourth or is it fifth time?) had UMe offered the 5.1 mix on the Blu-ray. But you didn’t, which makes no sense because it would have been so easy to do, so I will not be upgrading… and I would have!)

To address Nightclubbing as a product, or rather as a product line, I’d have to say that if you’ve got a Blu-ray player, unless you are a die-hard vinyl person, there is no reason whatsoever to buy either the 2XCD set (it’s more expensive) or to buy a digital download. The BD is a much higher quality piece of software than the CD, hands down, but you also get a free digital download with every UMe BD purchase anyway (there’s a coupon inside each one), so why would you want to go that route and miss out on the vastly superior Blu-ray? It’s easily the best value for the money.

Although there is no 5.1 mix included on the Nightclubbing Blu-ray—WHY NOT?—it’s still great and I wholeheartedly recommend it for all of the above reasons. Unlike with many of the UMe “Pure Audio” releases, Nightclubbing isn’t something I already owned, so I think I’m probably being forgiving on the “no surround mix” point simply because I’m listening to the album on repeat twenty times a day and can’t get enough of it. But I do hope that when UMe is considering the next batch of Blu-rays to release, that they’ll opt for giving the discerning consumer the extra added value of a 5.1 mix. For me, it’s practically a requirement, but give me that and I’d be willing to rebuy half my record collection.*

*If my wife would allow this, I mean…

Below, Grace Jones in her A One Man Show live video from 1982.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
Today is ‘The Day of the Triffids’
08:22 am



Bill Masen knew there was something seriously wrong from the moment he awoke in his hospital bed that fateful spring morning. He listened and heard only an eerie, disturbing quiet, occasionally infused with an unsteady shuffling. Last night the skies had been afire with comets burning-up in beautiful, Day-Glo colors. Masen had missed this spectacle, his eyes bandaged, temporarily blinded after a near fatal accident with a Triffid plant. Today his bandages were supposed to come-off, but when he rang for a nurse, no one came; when he called for help, no one answered; the only response was a soft searching of movement somewhere outside in the corridor. He knew it was a Wednesday, but it felt, sounded, more like a Sunday. It may have been mid-week, but this day, May the 8th, became known as the day the world ended, for this was the day of the Triffids!

(Cue dramatic music. Shaggy and Scooby say ‘Zoiks!’)

So begins John Wyndham‘s classic science-fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, which is one of the best known and and most influential sci-fi books of the twentieth century. Published in 1951, Wyndham’s tale of a world made blind after a strange comet shower and the giant, mobile and highly venomous plants that slowly dominate the planet, has inspired small libraries of books, films, TV episodes and series, all based around stories of nature gone awry and the ensuing world devastation. The zombie genre in particular owes much to Wyndham’s book, where zombies are interchangeable for Triffids—take for example Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic zombie movie 28 Days Later, which is almost a direct lift of Wyndham’s story.

That’s not to say Wyndham’s book was wholly original, by his own admission the author had been inspired by H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which set the bar for apocalyptic fiction. Rather than killer extraterrestrials from Mars, Wyndham offered an enemy taken from a more worldly source, the Russian biologist and agronomist, Trofim Lysenko. In a bid to feed the Soviet population, Lysenko developed a form of “agrobiology,” which mixed genetic modification with graft hybridization to produce new species capable of producing unlimited food supplies. Under Stalin there was a lot of this dubious state sponsored science, including the notorious attempt to breed humans with apes to create a “humanzee” army. Wyndham picked-up on Lysenko’s theories and applied them to a fictional hybrid plant. Or, as Wyndham puts it in his book:

Russia, who shared with the rest of the world the problem of increasing food supplies, was known to have been intensively concerned with attempts to reclaim desert, steppe, and the northern tundra. In the days when information was still exchanged she had reported some successes. Later, however, under a cleavage of methods and views caused biology there, under a man called Lysenko, to take a different course. It, too, then succumbed to the endemic secrecy. The lines it had taken were unknown, and thought to be unsound—but it was anybody’s guess whether very successful, very silly, or very queer things were happening there—if not all three at once.

It turns out, the Russians have created Triffids, which are capable of producing vegetable oil of such quality, it makes the “best fish-oils look like grease-box fillers.” Whether these plants are the product of genetic engineering or have come from outer space is never clear. Whatever their origin, a man called Umberto Christoforo Palanguez, an entrepreneurial crook-cum-businessman, steals a box of Triffid seeds from their heavily guarded nursery in the outer reaches of Siberia. The plane in which he absconds is shot down by the Russians leaving behind “something which looked at first like a white vapor.”

It was not a vapor. It was a cloud of seeds, floating, so infinitely light they were, even in the rarefied air. Millions of gossamer-slung Triffid seeds, free now to drift wherever the winds of the world should take them…

Soon, these plant grow and multiply like Star Trek‘s “Tribbles” or the monsters in Stephen King’s The Mist to gradually inhabit and take over the Earth’s surface.
But there’s a problem: Triffids are as dangerous as they are mobile, moving on three legs (like a man on crutches), and carry a deadly poison dispensed through a long “stinger” which is used to lash out at their victims. They are flesh-eaters and can also communicate with each other by tapping out a tattoo through small twigs on their lower trunk. They also respond to sound, moving towards any source of noise or vibration. At first the Triffids are secured by having their “stingers” docked, and are kept tethered to stakes in factory farms and parklands. This all would have been fine if the Triffids had not been set free the night the sky erupted in color with a comet storm that rendered all humans and animals who witnessed this beautiful event blind.

Bill Masen escaped the fate of billions of others by sheer accident. Temporarily blinded after an incident with a Triffid, Masen missed the night show and was spared complete blindness. Along with hundreds of others, he has to begin a new and brutal stage in human history.

Masen is a bit of a plank, rather pompous, po-faced and often unable to see things that are apparently obvious to everyone else. He is incredulous when a colleague, Walter Lucknor suggests that Triffids have “intelligence,” are able to communicate with each other, and may prove to be a deadly threat to humanity, as Lucknor explains:

‘Of the fact that [Triffids] know what is the surest way to put a man out of action—in other words, they know what they’re doing. Look at it this way. Granted that they do have intelligence; then that would leave us with only one important superiority—sight. We can see, and they can’t. Take away our vision, and the superiority is gone. Worse than that—our position becomes inferior to theirs because they are adapted to a sightless existence, and we are not.’

Of course. Masen’s naivety is a narrative device to filter information to the reader, but there are several instances within the book when this naivety is quite unbelievable. For example, when the child Susan points out that the Triffids respond to sound to locate prey.

Wyndham was probably influenced by the devastation caused during the Second World War, and the recurrent theme of food and its provision relates to impoverishment of food supplies, and the level of food rationing that continued in Britain after the war (this is something also reflected in George Orwell’s 1984, a book Anthony Burgess argued was actually a re-imaging of Britain in 1948). Wyndham’s descriptions of a post-apocalyptic London and rural England reflect how easily human existence can descend to chaos.

My father once told me that before Hitler’s war he used to go around London with his eyes more widely open than ever before, seeing the beauties of buildings that he had never noticed before—saying goodbye to them. And now I had a similar feeling. But this was something far worse. Much more than anyone could have hoped for had survived that war—but this was an enemy they would not survive. It was not wanton smashing and willful burning that they had waited for this time: it was simply the long, slow, inevitable course of decay and collapse.

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Even yet I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts, and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modern city seemed to me…

The Day of the Triffids was one of those set texts for UK schools during the sixties, seventies and early eighties, and that’s when I first read it. Though thrilling and thought-provoking, I found Masen lacked dynamism and appeared to have no natural inquisitiveness to his surroundings, or his engagement with others. He talks about how humans will have to evolve and think differently after the night of comet, but Masen himself hardly changes in his character (well, apart from falling in love) from first page to last. That said, I’d still recommend it.

The Day of the Triffids has been made into several below par TV series, and one enjoyable film, which depicted the Triffids as extraterrestrials, having drifted through space, land on Earth to colonize the planet. The film also suggests the comet show was part of the Triffids’ invasion plan, rather than a possible satellite accident as mentioned in the book. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the whole thing below. Or, better still give someone the book to read but not the badly edited Kindle version!

Happy Day of the Triffids!

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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