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‘Out There’: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg

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Scene: A medical facility in California, December 1960. Dr. Oscar Janiger, a research professor at the University of California-Irvine, carries out a series of investigations into the impact of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide 25, or LSD to you and me, on the creative processes. Janiger enlisted a variety of artists, writers, and actors as test patients, tasked with discovering the drug’s potency. Among those who signed-up for the trials was an artist named Burt Shonberg who had two sessions with Janiger. During his first session, Shonberg received an injection of 100ml of LSD. This led him to see a hidden structure to the universe where “Humanity is literally hypnotized by the Dream Reality of momentum caused by life (meaning external influences).”

There is an illusion of movement in life which is not the truth. This all relates to so-called time. Time is motion—is evolution. One might say that the Big Criminal in all this is identification. To be apart from the form is the answer to real vision—consciousness. To be awake is to be really alive—to really exist.

March 1961: Janiger carries out a second experiment with Shonberg upping the dose of LSD to 150ml. At first, the artist didn’t think the trip was working but suddenly he was propelled into an experience that led him to believe he had left the clinic and had witnessed an undiscovered world where giants danced in the sky. He quickly understood that this “psychedelic experience” could “possibly reach to actual magic and beyond.”

There are, of course, certain things that one experiences in the transcendental state that are not possible to communicate in the usual way, so new types of parables would have to be created to get the message through. These discoveries I refer to could be insights or revelations into various aspects of the world we live in, nature, the mind itself, the universe, reality, and God.

The experiments radically altered Shonberg and his approach to painting. He continued his own experiments with LSD which eventually led him to believe he was, in fact, a living embodiment of Baphomet—“a divine androgyne, a unification of light and darkness, male and female and the macro and microcosm,” or Aleister Crowley’s pagan, pre-Christian deity, or “the Devil in all his bestial majesty.”
 
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‘Waking State Consciousness’ (1965).
 
Burt Shonberg was born on March 30, 1933, in Revere, MA. He had a talent for art and started his artistic studies before enlisting in the U.S. Army. After his discharge in 1956, he continued his studies at the Art Center of Los Angeles. He had interest in the occult, UFOs, and horror movies, in particular, Frankenstein’s monster which was a suitable avatar for his life and work as a creature made from disparate elements with no understanding of his true significance. His paintings drew various admirers including Forrest J. Ackerman who signed him to his talent agency and introduced him to the film world. He gained respect and began painting murals for a selection of hip nightclubs and coffee houses including Theodor Bikel’s Unicorn Cafe, the Purple Onion, the Bastille, Cosmo Alley and Pandora’s Box, eventually opening his own venue Café Frankenstein in 1958 at Laguna Beach, CA, where he decorated the walls and windows with startling imagery of his favorite movie monster.

As his reputation grew, Shonberg started a relationship with Marjorie Cameron—widow of the notorious rocket pioneer, occultist, and Crowley-devotee Jack Parsons. Cameron believed she was Babalon incarnate and initiated Shonberg’s interest in magick and the occult. Together they started an artist’s colony called ERONBU—a name composed from “camERON+BUrt.” But Cameron was a “Lady Macbeth figure, with hooks in Burt that penetrated deep,” and their relationship was doomed to failure.

His mural work drew the attention of independent movie-maker Roger Corman who hired Shonberg to paint the family portraits for his film version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher starring Vincent Price. Corman and Price (an avid art collector) were deeply enamored of Shonberg’s work, which led to more movie, magazine, and album cover commissions in the sixties and seventies.
 
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Vincent Price in front of two of Shonberg’s portraits for Roger Corman’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’
 
Biographer Spencer Kansa was hipped to Burt Shonberg when writing his biography of Marjorie Cameron. Kansa is an acclaimed novelist, writer, and outsider maverick who is ideally positioned to write the first major biography of Shonberg, Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg.

Spenser Kansa: I discovered Burt’s work while I was researching my biography of Marjorie Cameron, Wormwood Star, in Los Angeles in the mid-2000s. I knew they’d been lovers but I got to meet two of Burt’s chums who raved about him and showed me some examples of his incredible artwork. And the more I got to know about him, the more I realized I just had to chronicle his life story once the Cameron biography was completed.

DM: Why do you think Shonberg is important?

SK: Firstly, he’s the pre-eminent psychedelic artist of the 1960s. Plus he’s an intriguing figure who straddles a mid-century cultural nexus that encapsulates the rise of alternative religions, the UFO phenomenon, the Beat Movement, the popularity of monster movies, sixties counterculture and psychedelia. 

DM: How did he meet Marjorie Cameron?

SK: My educated guess would be that they probably met at the Unicorn, L.A.’s first beatnik-era coffeehouse, which stood next door to what became the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. Burt designed its décor and menu and Cameron was known to frequent the place, as well as the bookshop upstairs.
 
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‘Self Portrait’ (1958).
 
DM: What was Shonberg’s relationship to drugs? How important were they to him?

SK: His mural work was often quite time-consuming and laborious, and amphetamines helped fuel the necessary energy he needed to complete such undertakings, without losing his concentration. He would stay up for days at a time working on pieces, and his speed usage helps explain why he was so industrious and prolific. His use of hallucinogens, firstly, peyote then LSD, sparked his inner visions, and on canvases like “Seated Figure and a Cosmic Train,” he captured his transcendent state in such a moving and powerful way that many of his contemporaries, who’d also experienced such altered states, instantly related to it. Also, it’s important not to forget that he was able to translate onto the canvas, not only the occult and Crowley-inspired themes he’d been exposed to by Cameron but some rather weighty metaphysical concepts, particularly those deriving from his deep interest in Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way system.
 
More from Spencer Kansa talking about Burt Shonberg, after the jump…

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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02.22.2018
12:40 pm
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Scary Monsters & Super Cheap Thrills: The awesome movie poster art of Reynold Brown

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House on Haunted Hill’ (1959).
 
If I had the money, I guess I’d buy an old abandoned cinema somewhere downtown or maybe one of those big ole drive-ins that’s been long left for dead some place out in the desert. I’d refurbish it then screen double-feature monster movies each and every day. Double-bill after double-bill on continuous performance. Choice picks from the whole back catalog of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, dear old Peter Cushing, and “King of the Bs” Roger Corman. Yeah, I know, I would probably go bust within six months—but hell, it would have been worth it just to see these classic horror movies and glorious science-fiction films on the big screen where they belong and not on flickering cathode-ray tube of childhood memory.

The walls of this fantasy cinema would be covered with the finest movie posters and artwork by the likes of Albert Kallis, Frank McCarthy, and Reynold Brown—“the man who drew bug-eyed monsters.”

Brown has probably impacted on everyone’s memory one way or another as he produced a phenomenal array of movie posters. Brown supplied artwork for B-movie features like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Attack of the 50ft. Woman, mainstream movies like Spartacus and Mutiny on the Bounty, to those classic Corman horror films House of Usher and The Masque of Red Death. I know I can hang large parts of my childhood and teenage years by just one look at a Reynold Brown poster. Straight away I can tell you when and where I saw the movie and give a very good idea of what I thought and felt at that time. Now that’s the very thing many a great artist tries to make an aduience feel when they look at a work of art. While artists can spend a lifetime trying to achieve this, Reynold Brown was doing it as his day job.
 
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The Thing That Couldn’t Die’ (1958).
 
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Tarantula!’ (1955).
 
More of Reynold Brown’s classic sci-fi and hooror movie posters, after the jump…

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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04.28.2017
01:18 pm
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Two Star Movies, Five Star Posters: The B-movie artwork of Albert Kallis

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‘The Beast with a Million Eyes’ (1955).
 
Albert Kallis was working as a graphic artist with Saul Bass when the twentysomething B-movie director Roger Corman met him at a poster exhibition sometime during the mid-1950s. Corman liked the high-end artwork Kallis was putting out for the big Hollywood studios like Paramount and 20th Century-Fox. He wanted to know what it would take to have Kallis come and work for him? Kallis said he’d be only interested if after any “general conversations about the approach to the picture” all decisions on the poster’s artwork and style was left entirely up to him. Corman agreed. And that’s how he bagged the talents of one of the greatest movie poster artists of the 1950s and 1960s.

Corman made B-movies. Exploitation. Cheap thrills. Schlock horror. He knew he could make a ton of money if only he could get the teenagers to come and see his films. This was the time of the drive-in when movies came into town for a week and then were gone. When the film houses would only take on a movie if they could guarantee a hefty profit. What Corman needed was someone to sell his pictures with a poster that made the audience say “I gotta see that!” Kallis fully understood this. He produced artwork that made even the trashiest z-list feature look like it was the Citizen Kane of cheap thrills.

Kallis spent some seventeen years working as art director for Corman and then at American International Pictures—-going on to share responsibility (with Milt Moritz) as head of advertising and publicity. Kallis’s artwork exemplifies the best of movie poster technique and composition, taking key elements from a film to draw in the viewer and excite them enough so that they create their own mini-narrative. One look at these beauties and it’s more than apparent no movie could ever live up to the thrills of Kallis’s artwork.
 
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‘The Day the World Ended’ (1955).
 
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‘The Phantom from 10,000 Fathoms’ (1955).
 
More cheap thrills, after the jump….

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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02.08.2017
11:47 am
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‘It Conquered the World’: The sci-fi atrocity that inspired Frank Zappa
07.03.2015
10:11 am
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“Cheepnis,” from Roxy & Elsewhere, is probably the most upful rock number in Frank Zappa’s catalog, celebrating two of the maestro’s favorite pleasures: eating hot dogs and watching monster movies. The song begins with a short monologue about Roger Corman’s 1956 no-budget classic, It Conquered the World:

Let me tell you something, do you like monster movies? Anybody? I love monster movies. I simply adore monster movies, and the cheaper they are, the better they are. And cheapness, in the case of a monster movie, hsa nothing to do with the budget of the film—although it helps—but true cheapness is exemplified by visible nylon strings attached to the jaw of a giant spider. I’ll tell you a good one that I saw one time, I think the name of the film was IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. Did you ever see that one? The monster looks sort of like an inverted ice cream cone with teeth around the bottom. It looks like a teepee or sort of a rounded-off pup-tent affair, and it’s got fangs on the base of it, I don’t know why, but it’s a very threatening sight. And he’s got a frown, and, y’know, ugly mouth and everything, and there’s this one scene where the monster is coming out of a cave, see? There’s always a scene where they come out of the cave, at least once. And the rest of the cast—it must have been made around the 1950s—the lapels are about like that wide, the ties are about that wide, and they’re about this short, and they always have a little revolver that they’re gonna shoot the monster with, and there’s always a girl who falls down and twists her ankle. [Laughs] Of course there is! You know how they are. The weaker sex and everything, twisting their ankle on behalf of the little ice-cream cone. Well, in this particular scene—in this scene, folks, they didn’t want to retake it because it must have been so good, they wanted to keep it—but when the monster came out of the cave, just over on the left-hand side of the screen, you can see about this much two-by-four attached to the bottom of the thing as the guy is pushing it out. And then, obviously, off-camera somebody’s going “No, get it back!” and they drag it back just a little bit as the guy’s going [gunshots]. Now that’s cheapness. And this is “Cheepnis” here.

 

 
It’s hard to believe Peter Graves was ever this young. He plays the wholesome scientist Dr. Paul Nelson, who plays by the rules and approves of the status quo, as against his best friend Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), the movie’s Promethean/Satanic figure, who wants to improve humanity by subjecting it to the rule of a superintelligent Venusian he talks to on his ham radio. To that end, he helps the space creature land in a cave in the West Valley, which it prefers to the doctors’ neighborhood, Beachwood Canyon (superintelligent, huh?). From its subterranean lair in Agoura Hills, the monster gives birth to space bats that enslave the powerful by biting their necks, and suddenly everyone’s a pod person. See what happens when you try to improve humanity? When will we ever learn to accept things exactly as they are?

Incidentally, Beverly Garland’s character, who Zappa remembers as “the girl who falls down and twists her ankle,” is the only badass in the movie; she tells the space creature “I hate your living guts!” and “I’ll see you in hell!” before she makes it eat lead. Also featured: the most clueless impersonation of a Mexican person in the history of celluloid.
 

Posted by Oliver Hall
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07.03.2015
10:11 am
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William Shatner leads a racist reign of terror in Roger Corman’s ‘The Intruder,’ 1962
09.10.2014
07:14 pm
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You may remember a post we did a while back on the all-Esperanto art house horror, Incubus, starring the immortal William Shatner. Although the film is beautiful in its ambition, fascinating in its inscrutability and kind of hilarious in its absolute weirdness, it is not my favorite Shatner deep cut. No, that great honor belongs to The Intruder,  a weird little anti-racist morality play directed by Roger Corman, the brilliant mind behind the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors, and producer of such classics as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Death Race 2000. Oh, and more recently, Sharktopus.

While The Intruder definitely exhibits Corman’s trademark outrageousness, itt does so in an earnest effort to engage the audience’s humanity. Shatner plays a sneaky white supremacist that rolls into a southern town with the covert mission of sowing racial unrest into the recently integrated community. At the time he was a young Canadian theater actor looking to break in to Hollywood, and the role was pretty juicy and subversive—Shatner later said “I’d have paid him to play that role.”
 

 
As far as drama and social analysis of bigotry goes, yeah—it’s pretty heavy-handed and ham-fisted to the modern eye (I mean it’s Roger Corman and William Shatner), but Shatner’s performance is uncharacteristically understated. He’s sleazy and sly and generally threatening as all hell. The picture follows him charming the previously peaceful citizens of Caxton into a a paranoid frenzy, even going so far as to seduce a teenage girl before pressuring her to frame a black man for rape.

The mob violence and virulent hatred is tidied up quite neatly by a level-headed salesman who eventually (basically) just gives Shatner’s character bus fare to leave town. It’s a pretty rosy Hollywood resolution to an obviously complicated and dire subject—racism is treated as an “intruder,” not a part of civic and political fabric. The movie fails to really indict the white citizens of Caxton for their own horrific crimes, nor does it really seek restitution for its black victims.

But you’re not watching The Intruder for critical race theory… you’re watching it for an evil Bill Shatner in a convertible with the KKK.
 

Posted by Amber Frost
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09.10.2014
07:14 pm
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Dangerous Minds at Fantastic Fest: Roger Corman discusses his wild wild career
09.26.2010
10:27 pm
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This past Friday night, Roger Corman was presented with a lifetime achievement award at Fantastic Fest and Dangerous Minds was there to film it.

After a screening of Machete Maidens Unleashed, Mark Hartley’s funny and informative documentary on exploitation films shot in the Philippines during the seventies, Corman took to the stage of Austin’s Paramount Theater to be honored for his unique cinematic legacy. Appropriately, Corman had produced many of the films featured in Machete Maidens. As a packed house enthusiastically applauded and cheered, film critic Elvis Mitchell (NY Times, At The Movies) presented Corman with his award: an impressive looking samurai sword. Standing with his wife and collaborator Julie at his side, Roger seemed to thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to talk about his extraordinary career.

In the following video, Roger discusses his past accomplishments and his latest project Sharktopus.
 

 
Watch the trailer for Machete Maidens Unleashed and Sharktopus after the jump…

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Posted by Marc Campbell
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09.26.2010
10:27 pm
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