(Happy new year, my dears.)
Let’s start in London in 1968, with a kidnapping, and end in the high desert outside Twentynine Palms. Two kidnappings, actually, but the first was just a mannequin of Michael Caine taken from a massive psychedelic-mod Swinging London party held in a wax museum. The second was a willowy bowl-cut rock-and-roller abducted by four young women to help them solve “the problem of leisure,” spirited away from under the watchful eye of two rival pro wrestlers. These two abductions are the scenario of The Touchables, the only movie directed by Robert Freeman (best known as the preferred photographer of the Beatles).
Really good movies approach timelessness, with deeper durations at work, like Tarkovsky scouting for locations where the length of a life could condense down into a single long take; they give you back tenfold the time they take to watch. Really bad movies, though, are time capsules – they can’t help but epitomize precisely their immediate present circumstances. The Touchables is only a movie in the most technical sense; numbingly incoherent, perfectly captured by Renata Adler as “a sort of fidgety mod pornography,” it works best as a series of album covers brought to life. It’s a crass, softcore, miniskirted youth-culture cash-in, kind of racist, and dumber than a bag of tinsel, but it also unselfconsciously, ingenuously says exactly what its particular milieu thought was cool, futuristic, and now (then). Which brings us to the utterly surprising moment, 33 minutes in, when the girl gang bring their captive pop star home.
What the hell? It’s not a compositing trick: it’s a beautiful inflatable built on an enormous scale. One of the only people I’ve found with any connection to the film – the movie more or less vanished for forty years, with a single legendary print screened at mod festivals – mentioned having to take his shoes off to go on set, because the floor, those big tiles, were panels of chrome. The whole space seems dematerialized, floating in a cloud of light, stippled with the crosshatch quilting where the netting holds in the vast balloon. The two dancers whirling with their reflections in the gorgeous, hazy shimmer at 35m36s are the dream of an architecture of lightness in every sense. It’s a stunning set, the cultural antithesis of the massive bunkers and control rooms Ken Adam designed for the Bond movies around the same time. It realizes Reyner Banham’s daydream technological environments.
Here’s Banham hanging out in the “Environment-Bubble” in the buff in his 1965 “A Home is Not a House.” (Banham’s the one with the beard.) The Bubble was an answer to the question: what if you took the house away from the technology it shelters? Like Cedric Price (previously) he didn’t think much of architecture as enclosing space; he was interested in how it could enclose time, and make an experience or a moment or a way of life possible. Banham, trained as a mechanical engineer, thought of a campfire as a kind of architecture, creating a comfortable environment as it unwinds sunlight out the wood with a flourish. He loved tarpaper shacks, folding bikes, ductwork, outboard motors, LA freeways, and all the things he called “Not Quite Architecture” – like bubbles and balloons.
With plastic bubbles, foldable cardboard furniture, gantries and scaffolding, and paper dresses, everything in the Pop environment approached the condition of packaging, built to ship, for a mobile future made of logistics (big rigs, blimps, school busses, airdrops). The art-and-construction group Ant Farm puffed bubbles up as “display areas for alternate futures,” screens for film and video projection that you could live inside, habitable billboards for the nomadic “Truckstop Network” of renegade video freaks, shortwave tape-loop musicians, and Computer Lib programmers of loving grace: a distributed commune reticulated across the “technological ruins” of the military-industrial complex. A big translucent illuminated inflatable in the desert night was like a UFO hoax come in for landing, a visitor from the future. Of course they were a misery in which to do anything other than be futuristic. Ant Farm built a legendary double pillow design for the layout and production work on the supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. Planted in the Saline Valley (where it looked absolutely spectacular – a print shop on Mars), it was freezing under clouds and boiling under the sun, the heat lamps almost set it on fire, and it blew away in high winds. (Stewart Brand, bless him, shot some Super–8 film of the whole process.)
The other naked guy in the Environment-Bubble with Banham was named François Dallegret. (In fact, all the bodies in the image are Dallegret’s, with Banham’s head pasted on, since he wasn’t comfortable undressing for the shoot.) Dallegret’s work was – well, he put it best: “Mechanical drawings and editions Silkscreen and objects Construction of Sparks machines Walking cakes Jumping spheres Electrical and inflated garments Toys Modular playground structures Studies of multimedia package Mobile displays Collapsible structures and spaces for Multifunctional furniture.” Like Ray Eames recommended, he took his pleasure seriously, a machinist with a sublime sense of the ridiculous. He designed and built machines like Fleischer cartoons brought to life: the Ballomatic, the Mimisonic (a music system that only worked when you danced to it), writing machines, cooking machines, annoying chairs, public relations machines, and the ClicaCrocoTartoMatic, a slapstick engine which automated slapping someone, tripping them, and hitting them in the face with a pie. He built a combination bar-restaurant-working pharmacy in Montreal, Le Drug, with all the fixtures wrapped in wire mesh, sprayed with cement, epoxied, painted a severe white, and polished – a biomorphic interior with lighting and ventilation delivered by tubes over each table; you could have dinner in a space that fused a 747 with the Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. (It proved extraordinarily difficult to keep clean.) He produced a pharmaceutical, the ultimate placebo, the “KiiK”: a metal “hand pill,” like “a little dumbbell,” which would cure distracting thoughts and obsessions when held.
In January of 1964, Dallegret went to New Orleans and met up with Bernard Quentin. Quentin was at that time working at Olivetti, using oscilloscopes to try to generate a new kind of calligraphic writing process. A student of Kufic and Zen calligraphy, runes and runic practice, shorthand styles, and graffiti, Quentin spent many years working on “Babelweb,” a proto-emoji language with 3000 iconic symbols. He made inflatables, too, “breathing” pneumatic sculptures you could curl up in, groovy balloon chairs that were mass produced in the mid–1960s (here they are at the New York World’s Fair in 1964); he designed an enormous inflatable environment for Happenings, and various total audiovisual bubble environments. Dallegret and Quentin began driving west from New Orleans, all the way to Los Angeles, in “a small Fiat,” which must have felt like sharing a footlocker after a couple of days. On the way, they fell in love with the great western deserts.
In 1968, while the two women whirled in a gleaming sphere filled with sunlight in the English countryside, Dallegret was building costumes, props, and sets for 2020 West, an (unrealized) sci-fi cowboy comedy set in advance of a nuclear war, somewhere between Las Vegas and the Mojave (here’s one of the development shots), in a city of inflatables, bubbles, Perspex, and cushions of air – a floating world, about to lift off. “The desert is a laboratory,” Dallegret wrote, where an artist “works out his concept for the world of the future” – and so was the movie set. And what defined this world of the future? “The transitional and impermanent aspects of this environment,” he summarized: “controlled vacuums, temporary constructions and electromagnetic mirages.”
Transitional and impermanent: at the end of The Touchables, the bubble pops and collapses; in the desert light, the plastic became brittle and fragile; the electromagnetic mirages vanished, as mirages do. But they were gorgeous and strange, while they lasted.
As is annual tradition, here’s all my favorite new-to-me music of 2016 (210MB .zip). Twenty songs this time; I hope they bring you weird joy and bright light.
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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