Today, the art of the magazine cover has been vanquished by celebrity worship and bad taste. Designers are simply fulfilling the dictates of their industry, not unlike the paint person on an auto assembly line. Innovation, creative expression, or even cleverness has been mostly abandoned. Artistic considerations are limited to how much retouching the celebrity headshot requires in Photoshop and how many headlines can be crammed in before the cover looks too "busy." The result: A world in which it's difficult to tell the difference between Playboy and Harper's Bazaar without cracking them open.
Today, you'd search in vain for a magazine that commissions covers like those. The best-designed mass circulation American magazines today - Details, GQ, Vanity Fair and, yes, Esquire - usually feature a really good photograph by a really good photographer of someone who has a new movie out, surrounded by handsome, often inventive typography. The worst magazines have a crummy picture of someone who has just been through some kind of scandal, surrounded by really awful typography ... today I also think that there is simply a general distaste for reckless visual ideas.
Why has the mainstream magazine publishing industry come to this artistic nadir?
Publishers would tell you that the only way they can compete with television and the Internet is through the magic drawing-power of celebrities. When faced with a choice between an illustrated cover or Julia Roberts, consumers will pick Julia every time, they say. Publishers may be right–but why did uninspired shots of celebrities promoting their latest products become the only answer? Why did putting almost the entire contents page on the cover become required? What's worse about these simple-minded solutions is that not many designers or editors trouble themselves over the inherent esthetic failings–this is the only way they've ever known magazines to be, so how can they be any different?
Neither passage explains why the decline happened when it did.
First, some biographical data. My animation career began in 1988. I was hired by Don Bluth's Dublin studio, and worked there for 5 years. Though computers were then playing a limited role, the future of hand drawn animation seemed safe.
The author. Younger, thinner, but not wiser.
Bluth had recently created 'An American Tail' and 'Land Before Time' (made in collaboration with Spielberg). Don's first feature 'The Secret of NIMH' was a commercial disappointment, but critically successful.
This was how a creative environment should be run, it seemed. Creatives, whether of the Don or Spielberg mold, made the big decisions. And when they wanted a poster, they'd hire a Drew Struzan.
That poster is everything that modern ones aren't. Appeal. Clean diagonal composition. Depth. Masterful yellow-orange-red background, contrasted with grey/blue foreground. Tonal contrast between foreground and back. Clean negative spaces. Texture.
In one image the protagonist, a little guy against a big world, embarking on the Hero's Journey. Behind him lies the entire continent, waiting to be explored, with the promise of triumph (Liberty) on the horizon.
In little more than a decade, posters like this vanished almost entirely:
Although that video shows a family of rote designs used by movie posters today, it really boils down to this formula:
Take head shots or generic poses of the cast and crudely arrange them in scale to their salaries and/or reputations.
'Little Fockers' isn't even trying. It's a tarted-up imdb page.
'The Family' is a punch to the cornea. Whoever made 'American Hustle' must have
shares in a black ink factory.
In 'The Family', De Niro seems to grow out of Pfeiffer's side like a conjoined twin. Note the inclusion of the dog! squished in to the bottom left. Shocking that they left out the gaffer and the best boy. How long before movie posters include the food truck?
This isn't design: it's the jerry-rigging of head-shots or poses of the major cast members. The audience, regarded as simpletons, has to say "Oh, it's that guy!", or "He's the guy from that thing with the other guy you know the one from that show that you like..." etc.
The situation is beyond parody, when a 5x6 grid constitutes the final product:
The instructions given to the hapless designer Photoshop operator were likely along these lines:
"OK, we have an ensemble cast of stars, we want them all on the poster".
- "Why all of them?"
"Because we have them all in the film. EN-SAWM-BELL-EH, du-uh".
- "Yeah, but why do we actually need all their faces on the poster?"
"Listen bud, you like getting a paycheck, right? Do what you're told".
Diagonal or triangular compositions? Good enough for Gustave Doré, Frank Frazetta, or Leyendecker, but not good enough for Bob Barnaby from Marketing, Joe Ferguson from Accounts, or Liz Barnacle, Deputy Head of Synergy. These techniques are no longer 'fit for purpose' or 'best practice', 'going forward'.
These corporate drones, the accountants, synergists, fakers, flakers, managers, spivs, skinnerbots, dandybags, flimflams and marketing drones will henceforth be referred to as "bean-counters". And they are in total charge now:
"We've got De Niro, and we need his big warty face to fill as much of that poster as we can stomach. Show them his nosehairs. Have him break the fourth wall. Make sure he pops, but keep it edgy."
They can afford De Niro's massive salary, but they can't afford to shave off a few grand to hire a half-decent designer, and trust him or her with a brief?
What happens if you hire a first rate illustrator and ask them to design a poster, and follow the typical production process of 30 or 40 years ago? What happens (absent too much bean-counter nit-pickery)
'The Sting' - elegant; it's like a Leyendecker painting (as the movie is set in the 1930s, the period in which Leyendecker was himself at his peak).
'The Wolfman's Claws' - even a cheesy horror movie has more visual invention and vim than a typical modern multi-million dollar blockbuster. Simple, eye-catching. Two tone wolf, painted with two colours. Chomp.
'A Fistful of Dynamite' - a ridiculously baroque composition, impossible to achieve with any grace when bolting live action images together in Photoshop. The comic rendering of the heroes matches the tone of the movie.
'2001' - A former boss used to have this hanging in their studio. Impossible not to be mesmerized by it. Strong diagonals, simple colour scheme, though it contains a lot of detail, the composition is fundamentally simple. It sucks you in.
'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' - Shadows. Fancy that! Lighting? When did they invent that? Oh yeah, the 1920s.
'Young Frankenstein' - Composition is a bit squished for my tastes, but the soaring triangular mountain/castle, Gene Wilder's mad face, and the fog-shrouded bodysnatchers at the base always make me want to to watch the movie (for the eleventeenth time).
'Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom' - Drew Struzan again. He makes the group composition look easy. This is a healthy application of a blue/orange colour scheme.
'Live and Let Die' - A bit cluttered, wouldn't consider this a classic, but even a sub-par poster pre 1994 far outclasses any of the photoshop horrors you'll see elsewhere on this page. And it has the virtue of 'What you see is what you get'.
'Forbidden Planet' - Again, not a first rate design, but it's simple, uncluttered, and iconic. You've seen the poster, now watch the movie.
So much for the Good. Now back to the Bad and Ugly...
To illustrate how fundamentally incompetent modern posters have become:
One of the most basic errors of design is the tangent. Allowing two separate design elements to graze one another creates an ugly, confusing region. In the 'Valentine's Day' poster, note the squares containing letters. Each contains at least one tangent, where the actor's face is squished up against the letter. Looking at the child's face in the 'V' square leads to the conclusion that the tangents were deliberate in this case! Someone clearly thought that they were a good idea!
This would be a great poster for 'Migraine, the Movie', or the sequel, 'Migraine 2: Grand Mal Seizure'. Only a few of the tangents are flagged - see if you can spot more. The photo in the bottom right (the people in the shape of a love heart) would have made a better poster design by itself: at least it tries to make a statement, and is graphically simple. Instead, it's used as a period.
Other principles of good design are negative space and silhouette. Never clutter the image by filling every space with detail: the areas around the character should have simply-shaped regions free of content. This creates texture, and allows the eye a restful place, a contrast.
Another principle is 'line of action' - a strong, dynamic pose...as opposed to the static, vertical pose that most posters use. Each walking figure has a strong line of action. The 'American Hustle' poster is a great example of dull poses devoid of this principle, and of life. Shop-window manikins have more vitality.
None of these basic principles are correctly applied in any of the movies above. The posters were chosen at random; no effort was made to find 'the bad ones'. They are typical.
What would happen to a 'Jaws' poster, were it made today?
The modern 'school' of poster design doesn't understand the meaning of the word 'iconic'. Think: the cracking egg in the 'Alien' poster, for example. As an exercise, imagine what the studios would do with the Alien poster, were it being made today. HINT: look at the modernised 'Jaws' poster, above.
As with the 'improved' Jaws poster, colour schemes are now bathed in a blue-orange vomit. In the samples below the hue of many of the oranges and blues is identical (compare 'Jumper' with 'Bourne Identity'). Even the blue/orange palettes have been reduced to a very narrow band - no doubt dictated by the studio's marketing/research department. I'll bet my Carter era bell-bottoms that the studio orcs hand out a 'style sheet' with the 'correct' values of blue and orange to the poor hobbits who toil in their design dungeons. They must stay 'on brand' at all times.
NOTE: If you ever use the phrase 'on brand', follow with 'my precioussss'.
Just as 'nobody ever got fired for buying IBM', no bean-counter ever got fired for ordering a blue-orange poster with ugly, generic poses:
There has always been a tension or struggle between artists and bean-counters. That isn't new. But who or what are these counters of beans, and whence comes their power?
What does it look like when a person intrudes on a discipline for which they have no qualifications? Having seen it first hand in animation:
1. They learn a few buzzwords and catchphrases.
"Make it edgy".
"Give it more tonality".
"Make the colours pop".
"Break the fourth wall".
"Add a moving hold".
Even if the words have a technical meaning (tonality) it's often used in a way that is meaningless. New buzzwords and catchphrases appear ex nihilo and spread through the massed ranks of bean-counters like herpes.
2. The hack-fad.
They find a couple of little graphical tricks (such as the blue/orange colour scheme), and instead of applying them judiciously (as in the 'American Tail' poster), they reduce them to formula and splatter them across all posters of a
given genre, because they are incapable of any visual boldness or originality...or creativity.
How could they be? The only truly creative decision that they are qualified to make is how to name the columns in an Excel spreadsheet, and how to justify the firing of a 20 year employee 4 weeks from retirement. That fact doesn't stop them from blundering into the designers' China shop like a hippo with blistered hemorrhoids.
In the good old days (pre ~1994), artists could push back somewhat and limit the damage.That tension no longer exists. ALL control of the design process has been lost by actual designers, and is now entirely in the hands of the bean-counters.
So what was the precise mechanism that allowed bean-counters to take over?
Theories about a dislike of big ideas (Bierut) or celebrity worship (Coury) or a lack of money and time (goodbadflicks) don't account for the fact that all those factors existed in the 60, 70s, and 80s, in abundance - and those decades somehow managed to push back and produce many great and good designs along with the bad. What is the secret weapon in the arsenal of the talentless?
Photoshop was created in 1988 by Thomas and John Knoll. Since then, it has become the de facto industry standard in raster graphics editing, such that the terms "photoshopping" and "photoshop contest" were born.
The early versions were primitive compared to what was to follow. The real power came in 1994, when Adobe added layers, which allowed the artist to have one layer for the background, another for the title, and others for character layers or effects. Thus, the artist could nudge a character into a different position, rotate it, or scale one up, another down, easily and quickly. In the past, even minor changes would have taken hours or days,
and involved physically scraping paint off a board or page, and would have entailed a price tag. But with Photoshop, layers could be brightened, colours could be changed, opacity, contrast, saturation all could be modified in seconds.
Our hypothetical designer in 1985 was painting (with paint or ink) on paper, canvas or board. Or, he/she was creating a photographic composition using analog techniques, working in a darkroom (DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR, YOU IDIOT). There were fewer points in the traditional process where witless and arbitrary changes could have been freely made by artless cretins. The job required arcane abilities (Hey bean-counter, do you know how to scumble?). Even small changes ("Can you make his head 10% bigger?") carried a penalty when the image was painted on a physical surface.
"Yes, I can make his head 10% bigger. How does next Thursday sound?"
"Oh, never mind, it looks great as it is".
Fast forward 20 years, and the relationship has transformed:
No longer is the artwork on paper, it's digital. Multiple versions can be saved. The image is on layers. Changes can be made for 'free' by any opinionated bumbleduff in a suit. Once the bean-counters realised that they could stand behind the artist's shoulder and issue commands, we entered the age of pixel-pushing.
The artist/designer no longer has any real autonomy as final decisions about tones, saturation, and composition were ceded to
bean-counters who have little knowledge of the concepts, beyond the crudest level.
Worse still, this process of bean-counter approval is often done by committee. There's only one thing worse than a bean-counter with delusions of creative grandeur: a room full of bean-counters with delusions of creative grandeur. They all have their tuppence haepenny's worth of wisdom - and everyone must have their input, in proportion to their status in the corporate sewer / cubicle hellhole.
In addition, the one-size-fits-all program (Photoshop) imposes its own aesthetic, especially in the hands of an unskilled user. The same happens in animation, when a cartoon is said to 'Look Flashy'. CGI animators can often tell which render engine was used on a specific movie, as there's a 'Maya look', a 'Lightwave look', and so on. This cannot occur when an artist works directly on canvas, paper or board, with brushes or pens, because there is no electronic mediator between the artist and the image.
Compare these wonderful hand-painted covers from low budget pulp magazines with the generic trash churned out for multi-million dollar features today:
Though the digital tools are great to have, unless the artist or animator forces their style upon the program, the program will impose its style upon them. It is difficult for a skilled artist to achieve this - for a bean-counter it is impossible.
Design has now become an exercise in gilding bean-counter stools.
Once total control of the design process passed to bean-counters, it created a negative feedback loop. There was no apparent penalty for this method, and the public continued to buy movie tickets or magazines. The expectation that a certain level of design competence was required unconsciously began to fade. Bean-counters couldn't resist the temptation to meddle further, and the process fed on itself catabolically: if the final work was going to be determined by the tastes of a bean-counter, then why hire a Drew Struzan at all? Get an intern or a recent school graduate who knows how to use Photoshop, and bully them to execute your bean-counter vision. Now you, the bean-counter technocrat, are transmuted into the True Artiste.
Imagine the delirium the bean-counter must feel as they 'design' the poster or magazine cover. They win a few precious moments away from their dreary excel spreadsheets and powerpoint slides, and get to live that alternate life, the one they really wanted but for which they lacked the talent. If only Mommy and Daddy had let them go to Art School instead of that awful Business Management course!
The actual art school graduate who put in the effort to learn their craft is a meat puppet to them. A spine, a brain stem, and a hand attached. The bean-counter shouts orders down the neck stump, and pictures appear on screen as if by magic.
"Move Vin Diesel's head to the left. Make it 10% bigger, add the blue orange tint, going forward!
Make his face pop!"
What bean-counter is going to give any control back to the designer? It's not going to happen. Liberties aren't given, they're taken - and that liberty got taken away 20 years ago. There is no mechanism that I can imagine for a studio artist to recover it.
This oatmeal cartoon illustrates that the same process even happens at the small scale, with clients who use the artist/designer as "a mouse cursor inside a graphics program which the client can control by speaking, emailing, and instant messaging." And yes, I've had a client (a lovely lady) who had this exact relationship with me. Hire an animator with decades of experience, but don't trust them to animate the project. Instead, sit over their shoulder and use them to push the images around the screen, to wherever you decide.
The final result of such practices, whether for book covers, magazines, movie posters, animation or websites is as predictable as it is horrible:
Ghastly things are happening around the globe now (aren't they always?) - so all of the above qualifies as 'First World Problems'. Be grateful that the same process doesn't happen with doctors, who at least have final say over your health...waaait a minute!
A similar process is happening in Western health systems, as power is transferred to insurance companies (bean-counters) and employers (bean-counters), as well as various bureaucratic abominations (e.g., the HSE bean-counters in my home-country, Ireland). The result on quality of care for patients when decisions are driven by bean-counters is as predictable as the quality of artwork when designed by same.
The seizure of power by technocrats is a theme of John Ralston Saul's 1993 book
'Voltaire's Bastards'. Many of the trends he identified have worsened since then.
Amazon link. The book
...argues that the rationalist political and social experiments of the
Enlightenment have degenerated into societies dominated by technology and a crude code of managerial efficiency. These are societies enslaved by manufactured fashions and artificial heroes, divorced from natural human instinct.
A similar rot infests architecture, journalism, writing, politics, and other areas. Where will it end? There seems to be a drift towards a contempt for excellence, a dumbed-down worship of the banal or third rate, and rule by bean-counters. Hopefully the aqueducts can be kept working, at least until king Theodoric arrives.
I do miss good posters, nice magazine covers, eye-catching books. It was fun in the previous century to pick up a novel and see that an attempt was made to create an engaging design. "You don't miss what you never had", so young 'uns today may be unaware that something has been lost. But old farts who remember the past know better:
In a future post, I will reminisce about experiences while working on interactive animated projects in the dot.com frenzy of the 1990s - which were my first exposure to this Brave New World. There are amusing stories to tell. Whether or not this account is written depends on how many people read this piece. So:
One of my favourite shows from the mid 1990s was 'Dr. Katz'. The style isn't
typical of recent American TV, as it has a quiet pace, wit, absurd
humour and charm over frenentic tricks and loud gags. Wiki:
Dr. Katz was a professional psychotherapist who had famous comedians and
actors as patients, usually two per episode. The comedians' therapy sessions
generally consisted of them doing their onstage material while Dr. Katz
offered insights or simply let them rant. Meanwhile, therapy sessions
featuring actors and actresses offered more interpersonal dialogue between
Katz and his patient to better suit their predisposition. Dr. Katz is a very
laid-back, well-intentioned man who enjoys playing the guitar and spending
time at the bar with his friend Stanley and the bartender, Julie.
Interspersed with these scenes were scenes involving Dr. Katz's daily life,
which included his aimless, childish 24-year-old son, Ben (Jon Benjamin),
his uninterested and unhelpful secretary, Laura (Laura Silverman), and his
two friends: Stanley (Will LeBow), and the barmaid, Julie, voiced by one of
the show's producers, Julianne Shapiro. In later episodes, Todd (Todd
Barry), the video store clerk, became a regular character.
Each show would typically begin with Dr. Katz and Ben at breakfast and
initiating a plotline. These plots included events like Ben attempting to
become a radio personality, believing he is in possession of ESP, or the
moral conundrum he suffers after receiving a chain letter. The development
of these plotlines would occur in alternation with the segments between Dr.
Katz and his guests.
The show would end in a similar way each week: while Dr. Katz was in a
session with a patient, music signaling the close of the show would begin to
play. Katz would acknowledge it by saying, "Whoops, you know what the music
means... our time is up" or some variant thereof.
link will take you to the youtube page, which contains all 80+ episodes.
Note something interesting: watching Dr. Katz can make you
extremely relaxed, like a mental massage. It's a stress-buster for those who can't sleep. Put it on, and halfway through a second or third episode, the dreamlike quality of the show will work its magic.
"Whoops, you know what the music means... our time is up". I want that
engraved on my crypt.
On New Year's Day 1934, Fr. Conifrey led a march through Mohill, County Leitrim, in which demonstrators shouted "down with jazz" and "out with paganism" and called on the government to close the dance halls and ban all foreign dances in Ireland.
De Valera sent a representative to the rally and wrote a letter of support.
Jazz, the campaign argued, was "abominable" music that originated in central Africa and was exported to the West by "a gang of wealthy Bolshevists in the USSR to strike at church civilisation throughout the world."
Jazz was an "engine of hell" deployed to do the devil's work. The Gaelic League weighed in on the day with an attack on then-Minister of Finance Seán MacEntee, who, in allowing jazz to be broadcast on Radio Eireann, was "selling the musical soul of the nation for the dividends of sponsored jazz programmes.
This documentary looks back at that anti jazz campaign.
Try listening to this program without imagining it made into a comedy film. The
mono-manical Fr. Conifrey, driven mad by the sounds of the Charleston, trying to
enforce "good, decent IRISH music"; dragging the Irish government into the fray,
and luring 3,000 Leitrim residents on a chilly New Year's Day march (shudder).
Comedy gold, low-hanging fruit - hanging right there, suspended in front of the
faces of film-makers.
Yeah yeah you're right, we need to make another 734 XMen and Spidermen movies first.
Poster: Dublin c.840~c.1540 'The years of mediaeval growth'.
During the years 1986-88 I worked for my uncle
Liam O Connor, who was a good friend of the poets
and Michael Hartnett. Liam had this
poster hanging in his studio, and it was the one possession of his that I wanted
after his death in 2010.
Click on the image above for the full sized version, which is very large.
The poster is from the late 1970s, so no doubt some of the archaeology is out
of date, but there's a great deal of information in it that will be of interest
to anyone familiar with Dublin. Note 'The Green Area of St. Stephen', which is
now St. Stephen's Green - this will allow moderns to locate the general area of
today's Grafton Street. Also note that hangman's lane and the gibbet mede are
very close to today's Four Courts, so that part of Dublin has had the same
function for at least 500 years. Also, Dolphin's Barn is 'Dolfynesberne' - the
story that it was named after the French Dauphin being a myth, sadly (Dolphyne
was a family who owned a storehouse there). Thomas Street is still there - and
was where I spent a farcical 9 months in a so-called Art College in the mid
I spent about 2 weeks working on the image in Photoshop, cleaning it up,
removing scratches and creases, fixing the contrast.
Comparison of the famous hospital scene in the movie 'Lawrence of Arabia' with
the actual account given by T.E. Lawrence in 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom':
The scene makes Lawrence seem to be callous, deranged and incompetent.
Contrast this with his personal account
from 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom':
At lunch an Australian doctor implored me, for the sake of humanity, to take
notice of the Turkish hospital. I ran over in my mind our three hospitals, the
military, the civil, the missionary, and told him they were cared for as well as
our means allowed. The Arabs could not invent drugs, nor could Chauvel give them
to us. He enlarged further; describing an enormous range of filthy buildings
without a single medical officer or orderly, packed with dead and dying; mainly
dysentery cases, but at least some typhoid; and, it was only to be hoped, no
typhus or cholera.
In his descriptions I recognized the Turkish barracks, occupied by two
Australian companies of town reserve. Were there sentries at the gates? Yes, he
said, that was the place, but: it was full of Turkish sick. I walked across and
parleyed with the guard, who distrusted my single appearance on foot. They had
orders to keep out all natives lest they massacre the patients--a
misapprehension of the Arab fashion of making war. At last my English speech got
me past the little lodge whose garden was filled with two hundred wretched
prisoners in exhaustion and despair.
Through the great door of the barrack I called, up the dusty echoing corridors.
No one answered. The huge, deserted, sun-trapping court was squalid with
rubbish. The guard told me that thousands of prisoners from here had yesterday
gone to a camp beyond the town. Since then no one had come in or out. I walked
over to the far thoroughfare, on whose left was a shuttered lobby, black after
the blazing sunlight of the plastered court.
I stepped in, to meet a sickening stench: and, as my eyes grew open, a sickening
sight. The stone floor was covered with dead bodies side by side, some in full
uniform, some in underclothing, some stark naked. There might be thirty there,
and they crept with rats, who had gnawed wet red galleries into them. A few were
corpses nearly fresh, perhaps only a day or two old: others must have been there
for long. Of some the flesh, going putrid, was yellow and blue and black. Many
were already swollen twice or thrice life-width, their fat heads laughing with
black mouth across jaws harsh with stubble. Of others the softer parts were
fallen in. A few had burst open, and were liquescent with decay.
Beyond was the vista of a great room, from which I thought there came a groan. I
trod over to it, across the soft mat of bodies, whose clothing, yellow with
dung, crackled dryly under me. Inside the ward the air was raw and still, and
the dressed battalion of filled beds so quiet that I thought these too were
dead, each man rigid on his stinking pallet, from which liquid muck had dripped
down to stiffen on the cemented floor.
I picked forward a little between their lines, holding my white skirts about me,
not to dip my bare feet in their puddled running: when suddenly I heard a sigh
and turned abruptly to meet the open beady eyes of an outstretched man, while
'AMAN, AMAN (pity, pity, pardon) rustled from the twisted lips. There was a
brown waver as several tried to lift their hands, and a thin fluttering like
withered leaves, as they vainly fell back again upon their beds.
No one of them had strength to speak, but there was something which made me
laugh at their whispering in unison, as if by command. No doubt occasion had
been given them to rehearse their appeal all the last two days, each time a
curious trooper had peered into their halls and gone away.
This is the point where the book and the film diverge - as Lawrence deals with the situation:
I ran through the arch into the garden, across which Australians were picketed
in lines, and asked them for a working-party. They refused. Tools? They had
none. Doctors? Busy. Kirkbride came; the Turkish doctors, we heard, were
upstairs. We broke open a door to find seven men in night-gowns sitting on
unmade beds in a great room, boiling toffee. We convinced them quickly that it
would be wise to sort out living and dead, and prepare me, in half an hour, a
tally of their numbers. Kirkbride's heavy frame and boots fitted him to oversee
this work: while I saw Ali Baza Pasha, and asked him to detail us one of the
four Arab army doctors.
When he came we pressed the fifty fittest prisoners in tie lodge as labour
party. We bought biscuits and fed them: then armed them with Turkish tools and
set them in the backyard to dig a common grave. The Australian officers
protested it was an unfit place, the smell arising from which might drive them
from their garden. My jerky reply was that I hoped to God it would.
It was cruelty to work men so tired and ill as our miserable Turks, but haste
gave us no choice. By the kicks and blows of their victor-serving
non-commissioned officers they were at last got obedient. We began operations on
a six-foot hole to one side of the garden. This hole we tried to deepen, but
beneath was a cement floor; so I said it would do if they enlarged the edges.
Near by was much quicklime, which would cover the bodies effectually.
The doctors told us of fifty-six dead, two hundred dying, seven hundred not
dangerously ill. We formed a stretcher party to carry down the corpses, of which
some were lifted easily, others had to be scraped up piecemeal with shovels. The
bearers were hardly strong enough to stand at their work: indeed, before the
end, we had added the bodies of two to the heap of dead men in the pit.
The trench was small for them, but so fluid was the mass that each newcomer,
when tipped in, fell softly, just jellying out the edges of the pile a little
with his weight. Before the work finished it was midnight, and I dismissed
myself to bed, exhausted, since I had not slept three hours since we left Deraa
four days ago. Kirkbride (a boy in years, doing two men's work these days)
stayed to finish the burying, and scatter earth and lime over the grave...
A few paragraphs describing the intervening problems of administering government in a war zone,
a day passes,
...Even the hospital was better. I had urged Chauvel to take it over,
but he would not...Still, the hospital was
improving of itself. Fifty prisoners had cleaned the courtyard, burning the
lousy rubbish. A second gang had dug another great grave-pit in the garden, and
were zealously filling it as opportunity offered. Others had gone through the
wards, washing every patient, putting them into cleaner shirts, and reversing
their mattresses to have a tolerably decent side up. We had found food suitable
for all but critical cases, and each ward had some Turkish-spoken orderly within
hearing, if a sick man called. One room we had cleared, brushed out and
disinfected, meaning to transfer into it the less ill cases, and do their room
And the movie now cuts back in, having ignored the context of the previous six chapters
- which completely alters the interpretation of what follows:
At this rate three days would have seen things very fit, and I was proudly
contemplating other benefits when a medical major strode up and asked me shortly
if I spoke English. With a brow of disgust for my skirts and sandals he said,
'You're in charge? Modestly I smirked that in a way I was, and then he burst
out, 'Scandalous, disgraceful, outrageous, ought to be shot . . .' At this
onslaught I cackled out like a chicken, with the wild laughter of strain; it did
feel extraordinarily funny to be so cursed just as I had been pluming myself on
having bettered the apparently hopeless.
The major had not entered the charnel house of yesterday, nor smelt it, nor seen
us burying those bodies of ultimate degradation, whose memory had started me up
in bed, sweating and trembling, a few hours since. He glared at me, muttering
'Bloody brute'. I hooted out again, and he smacked me over the face and stalked
off, leaving me more ashamed than angry, for in my heart I felt he was right,
and that anyone who pushed through to success a rebellion of the weak against
their masters must come out of it so stained in estimation that afterward
nothing in the world would make him feel clean. However, it was nearly over.
Historians argue to what extent Lawrence's book is fictional, as there are passages that are in conflict with known facts. That said, I'll side with the book's account of the hospital over that of the film, where it seems they took even greater dramatic license.
Incidentally, Lawrence gives his body weight following his arrival at Suez as
90lbs (you'll remember the scene where he walks into the officers' club and
orders drinks for his Arab boy). When an actor loses that much weight for a
movie today (e.g., Christian Bale in 'The Machinist', or Michael Fassbender in
'Hunger', we all nod in amazement at his bravery, stoicism, and dedication. But
Lawrence? What a crybaby. He should have taken up acting, dear boy. Now that's a
job for a real man.
'To Boldly Grow' is the third of five sequences from the film
Tomorrow' (34m) presented here by itself as a single work.
TBG works as a stand-alone, because it focuses on the central problem raised by
TNT: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet (such a statement
should not be controversial, but for a great many people today, it is
A little joy and strangeness came into my childhood around 1980 with the arrival of
'The Unexplained', a publication by Orbis. 165 issues were published; contributors / consultants / editors included Peter Brookesmith, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, Professor A. J. Ellison, Brian Innes, Colin Wilson and Rupert Sheldrake. The tone of the magazine, contrary to popular perception, was more agnostic - many phenomena were actually debunked in the magazine, others left open.
I recently re-acquired my collection. This is the scan I made of issue #1. I'd like to make more - but it does take a shocking amount of time. Depends on how badly people squeak for episode #2.
Notice the absence of adverts (barring the one for the binder on the back
cover). Also notice the simplicity of the design/layout. There are rarely more
than two fonts per page, the text is spaced out for legibility, and there are no
stapled inserts with free samples for mens' cologne.
In the remarkable novella 'The Machine Stops' (1909), E.M. Forster described a system that
very closely resembles the internet and modern life.
from THE MACHINE STOPS by E.M. Forster (1909)
Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric
buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere - buttons to call for food for music,
for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out
of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was
the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with
her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
Vashanti"s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three
minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new
food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one's own ideas? Would
she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? - say this day month.
To most of these questions she replied with irritation - a growing quality in that accelerated age.
She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public nurseries through press of
engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just been told one-that four stars and three in the middle
were like a man: she doubted there was much in it. Then she switched off her correspondents, for it was time to
deliver her lecture on Australian music.
Vashanti's online lecture, which "lasted ten minutes" sounds a bit like TED, though more high-brow:
The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred
from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and
saw her, fairly well. She opened with a humorous account of music in the pre Mongolian epoch, and went on to
describe the great outburst of song that followed the Chinese conquest. Remote and primæval as were the methods
of I-San-So and the Brisbane school, she yet felt (she said) that study of them might repay the musicians of
today: they had freshness; they had, above all, ideas. Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was
well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea;
there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she
fed, talked to many friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.
Today, these are called 'First-World problems':
The bed was not to her liking. It was too large, and she had a feeling for a small bed. Complaint was useless,
for beds were of the same dimension all over the world, and to have had an alternative size would have involved
vast alterations in the Machine. Vashti isolated herself-it was necessary, for neither day nor night existed
under the ground-and reviewed all that had happened since she had summoned the bed last. Ideas? Scarcely any.
Events-was Kuno"s invitation an event?
And just as today, the worship of the machine. Forster's imagination couldn't have run far enough to foresee the 'I f*cking love science' Facebook group, but this is pretty close!
By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter-one book. This was the Book of
the Machine. In it were instructions against every possible contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or
at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press. The Central Committee published
it. In accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound.
Sitting up in the bed, she took it reverently in her hands. She glanced round the glowing room as if some one
might be watching her. Then, half ashamed, half joyful, she murmured "O Machine!" and raised the volume to her
lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence.
Even more impressive was Forster's prediction of the effect of the internet on human culture - which like own seems incapable of creating much that's original, with the exception of the occasional spiderman or x-men or star wars or star trek reboot prequel sequel.
"Beware of first- hand ideas!" exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. "First-hand ideas do not really exist.
They are but the physical impressions produced by life and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a
philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that
disturbing element - direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine - the French Revolution.
Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought
LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten
great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to
an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and
varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepticism of Ho-Yung
and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position
to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for
they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time" -
his voice rose - "there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely
colourless, a generation
From taint of personality,
which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as
it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine."
And Orwell, a couple of decades later, on the debasement of culture and food that was well underway even at that time (for those who need reminding that historical processes are usually longer than a single human lifespan):
from “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell, 1937
To begin with, there is the frightful debauchery of taste that has already been effected by a century of mechanisation.
This is almost too obvious and too generally admitted to need pointing out. But as a single instance, take taste in its
narrowest sense – the taste for decent food. In the highly mechanical countries, thanks to tinned food, cold
storage, synthetic flavouring matters, etc., the palate is almost a dead organ. As you can see by looking at any
greengrocer’s shop, what the majority of English people mean by an apple is a lump of highly-coloured cotton wool
from America or Australia; they will devour these things, apparently with pleasure, and let the English apples rot under
the trees. It is the shiny, standardized, machine-made look of the American apple that appeals to them; the superior
taste of the English apple is something they simply do not notice. Or look at the factory-made, foil wrapped cheeses
and ‘blended’ butter in an grocer’s; look at the hideous rows of tins which usurp more and more of
the space in any food-shop, even a dairy; look at a sixpenny Swiss roll or a twopenny ice-cream; look at the filthy
chemical by-product that people will pour down their throats under the name of beer.
Wherever you look you will see some slick machine-made article triumphing over the old-fashioned article that still
tastes of something other than sawdust. And what applies to food applies also to furniture, houses, clothes, books,
amusements and everything else that makes up our environment. These are now millions of people, and they are increasing
every year, to whom the blaring of a radio is not only a more acceptable but a more normal background to their thoughts
than the lowing of cattle or the song of birds. The mechanisation of the world could never proceed very far while taste,
even the taste-buds of the tongue, remained uncorrupted, because in that case most of the products of the machine would
be simply unwanted. In a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned food, aspirins, gramophones, gas-pipe chairs,
machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor-cars, etc. etc.; and on the other hand there would be a constant
demand for the things the machine cannot produce. But meanwhile the machine is here, and its corrupting effects are
almost irresistible. One inveighs against it, but one goes on using it. Even a bare-arse savage, given the change, will
learn the vices of civilisation within a few months. Mechanisation leads to the decay of taste, the decay of taste leads
to demand for machine-made articles and hence to more mechanisation, and so a vicious circle is established.”
A work by an amazing man, Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri – his poem, the Luzumiyat. It consists of just over 100 quatrains. This is the 1920 translation by Ameen Rihani, whose book is posted in full, below. Al Ma’arri was a true skeptic, with a world-view that seems distinctly modern. I’ve pasted the text of the Luzumiyat at the top, then follow with the entire book, which is my corrected version of the doc on google’s site, which was riddled with computer generated typos. I’ve corrected them as best I can. I’ve also moved the quatrains from the middle of the book to the top – a better choice for a blog page.
It should be noted that most of the works of this famed agnostic were destroyed by the Crusaders when they flattened his hometown during one of their weekend excursions. More recently,
US/EU backed rebels in Syria decapitated his statue, in their quest for freedom.
Carouse, ye Sovereign Lords, the wheel will roll...
from THE LUZUMIYAT OF ABU’L-ALA
11 Ay, like the
circles which the sun doth spin Of gossamer, we end as we begin; Our feet
are on the heads of those that pass, But ever their Graves around our Cradles
15 With tombs and ruined temples groans the land In
which our forbears in the drifting sand Arise as dunes upon the track of Time
To mark the cycles of the moving hand
16 Of Fate. Alas! and we shall
follow soon Into the night eternal or the noon; The wayward daughters of
the spheres return Unto the bosom of their sun or moon.
Tread lightly, for the mighty that have been Might now
be breathing in the dust unseen; Lightly, the violets beneath thy feet
Spring from the mole of some Arabian queen.
19 Many a grave embraces
friend and foe Behind the curtain of this sorry show Of love and hate
inscrutable; alas! The Fates will always reap the while they sow.
21 And still we weave, and still we are content In slaving for the
sovereigns who have spent The savings of the toiling of the mind Upon the
glory of Dismemberment.
22 Nor king nor slave the hungry Days will
spare; Between their fanged Hours alike we fare: Anon they bound upon us
while we play Unheeding at the threshold of their Lair.
like a spider’s house or sparrow’s nest, The Sultan’s palace, though upon the
crest Of glory’s mountain, soon or late must go: Ay, all abodes to ruin
27 So, too, the creeds of Man: the one prevails Until
the other comes; and this one fails When that one triumphs; ay, the lonesome
world Will always want the latest fairy-tales.
“Indeed, it is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes,
not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate
protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.
The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger. Reason has proved itself
completely powerless, precisely because its arguments have an effect only on the conscious mind and not on the unconscious.
The greatest danger of all comes from the masses, in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up cumulatively and the
reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled. Every mass organization is a latent danger just as much as a heap of
dynamite is. It lets loose effects which no man wants and no man can stop. It is therefore in the highest degree
desirable that a knowledge of psychology should spread so that men can understand the source of the supreme dangers
that threaten them. Not by arming to the teeth, each for itself, can the nations defend themselves in the long run
from the frightful catastrophes of modern war. The heaping up of arms is itself a call to war. Rather must they
recognize those psychic conditions under which the unconscious [tsunami-like] bursts the dykes of consciousness and
“… We’re not reasonable and rational creatures. Far from it. We resort to reason when
it suits us. For most people life is comfortable today, and we have the spare time to be unreasonable if we choose to be.
We’re like bored children. We’ve been on holiday for too long, and we’ve been given too many presents.
Anyone who’s had children knows that the greatest danger is boredom. Boredom, and a secret pleasure in one’s
own malice. Together they can spur a remarkable ingenuity.
You’ve seen the people around here. Their lives are empty. Install a new kitchen, buy another car, take a trip to
some beach hotel.
People are bored, even though they don’t realize it … There’s one thing left that can put some energy
into their lives, give them a sense of direction … Madness … A willed insanity, the sort that we higher
primates thrive on.”
”Elective insanity is waiting inside us, waiting inside us to come out when we need it. We’re talking primate
behaviour at its most extreme. Witch-hunts, auto-da-fes, heretic burnings, the hot poker shoved up the enemy’s rear,
gibbets along the skyline. Willed madness can infect a housing estate or a whole nation.