Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Magician

Strange Attractor Press is probably my favourite source of esoteric lore and wonder. The work they publish is defiantly unpopular, weirdly odd, beautifully designed and intelligently written and their series of journals have provided years of fascinating reading. Despite being in a whirlwind of cultural activity, Strange Attractor Press editor, Mark Pilkington has managed to write an insightful and timely post in celebration of All Souls Day. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

"The Magician was, in fact, an appreciation of my genius such as I had never dreamed of inspiring."

A sly blend of self-depreciating humour and shameless immodesty here, from the Great Beast Aleister Crowley, writing in his Confessions.

An early 1908 potboiler by Somerset Maugham, The Magician features a malevolent svengali-figure, Haddo, clearly based on Crowley, who kidnaps a young sculptor in order to use her flesh and blood to construct a homonculus, a magical being that would, presumably, do his will on Earth. (Though, we might wonder, with his hypnotic abilities wouldn't it have been easier just to hypnotise her into doing his will on Earth?)

Crowley parodied the novel that same year in a piece written for Vanity Fair entitled 'How to Write a Novel! after W. S. Maugam', under the pen name of Maughum's magician, Oliver Haddo. The Magician is not a great book – Maugham later claimed to have forgotten it – and is actually quite dull compared to Crowley's own magical adventure novel of 1917, Moonchild, but it did spawn an interesting and very influential film by one of cinema history's first great directors, Rex Ingram.

Shot in Nice after Ingram refused to kowtow to the newly-formed MGM,The Magician appeared in 1926, at the tail end of the silent era, and makes up for what it lacks in sound with immense gusto and imagination. Highlights include an infernal pagan bacchanalia – bursting with prancing fauns and cackling satyrs –that could be an out-take from Benjamin Christensen's Haxan (1922), a brilliantly designed sorcerer's tower and laboratory, idiot dwarf servant included, that would be a key influence on James Whale's Frankenstein films, and a protracted, epic climax that, while a little slow-moving by modern standards, provides a fascinating insight into the development of the action film.

The film's real lynchpin, however, is it's star, Paul Wegener – as Haddo – who played the Golem in the eponymous 1920 film, which he also directed. Wegener's Haddo scowls, prowls and stares with wonderful hypnotic intensity, pinpoints of light shining in his eyes, effortlessly stealing every scene in which he appears, which, thankfully, is most of them.

Long considered lost, or at least missing, The Magician is finally getting a DVD release and is well worth your time if you're interested in popular representations of occultism, early cinema, horror film, cackling dwarves or leaping satyrs.

The Ragged Ragtime Band, featuring Zali Krishna, Gary Lachman, Frances Morgan, Mark Pilkington and Leila Salay will be performing a live soundtrack to The Magician at The Last Tuesday Society's Hallowe'en spectacular in London on 29 October.

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