Arena: Andrei Tarkovsky

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More slow cinema. The Antonioni documentary was broadcast by the BBC in their regular Arena arts strand, as was this 50-minute profile from 1987. Andrei Tarkovsky is a favourite Arena of mine, one I’ve watched many times over the years, whether original broadcast, VHS tape or digitised copy. As with the Antonioni film it’s one of many such episodes which functions as an ideal introduction to its subject.

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1986 was the year of Tarkovsky’s untimely death so Charlie Pattinson’s documentary served as a memorial as well as a celebration of a director whose reputation had been growing throughout the decade. I love the way this one starts cold with a series of clips from all seven of the feature films; no comment required. Further clips follow but the real value is in the extracts from interviews and talks given by the director which punctuate the biographical chronology. The first of these is a declaration of Tarkovsky’s belief that film-making is a unique medium in its ability to capture and assemble temporal moments, something he explored in depth in his book, Sculpting in Time. In his talks and his writings he can often seem overly serious when discussing his work, especially in a world where film-making is largely regarded as merely another division of the entertainment industry. But he regarded both art and film-making as serious affairs, and many of his films required considerable effort to be made at all. Hollywood has long been notorious for confounding the endeavours of maverick directors but the apparatchiks at Goskino were seldom better, continually rejecting new proposals or interfering with the films after they were made; Tarkovsky’s diaries are filled with accounts of his struggles with the bureaucrats who oversaw film production. When he wasn’t fighting censorship attempts or refusals to release a new film he was dealing with other refusals to approve his projects altogether. We’re fortunate that Stalker exists at all when most of the exterior footage needed to be reshot after the negative was ruined by incompetent processing. This calamity wasn’t the director’s fault but Goskino were reluctant at first to let him finish the film. These constant struggles eventually compelled him to leave the Soviet Union in order to make films elsewhere, a painful decision which is discussed in the final part of Pattinson’s documentary by the director’s wife and production assistant, Larisa. The pair were allowed to leave the country but they were also forced to do so without their young son, a typically cruel and petty punishment by the Soviet authorities.

In the Antonioni post I mentioned that Tarkovsky’s present popularity is sustained by Solaris and Stalker much more than by his other films. People who only know the director from his excursions into science fiction may be surprised to hear him dismiss Solaris as his least successful feature on a personal level. Documentaries such as this may encourage some of those viewers to explore the rest of his filmography.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Zone music
Sine Fiction
Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side Of “Stalker”
The Stalker meme

Foss, Jodorowsky and low-flying spacecraft

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Discovered last week in a local charity shop (and for a fraction of the usual asking price), 21st Century Foss, the Dragon’s Dream collection of Chris Foss paintings from 1978. Foss’s book covers were impossible to avoid in the Britain of the 1970s, often to a ridiculous degree when publishers would stick a spacecraft by the artist or one of his imitators on a book containing no spaceships at all. His ubiquity made him the first cover artist who registered with me as exactly that, an identifiable name whose work suggested that this kind of artistic activity might be something worth pursuing.

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I bought a few of the books published by Dragon’s Dream/Paper Tiger in the late 70s/early 80s but many of them weren’t interesting enough to warrant the exhausting of my meagre finances. Ian Miller, yes; Chris Foss, no. Architecture, whether real or invented, was generally more interesting than spaceships, even when the latter were unique designs like the typical Foss behemoth. (There is architecture in many of Foss’s paintings but I preferred Roger Dean’s aesthetics, the fluid and organic buildings, the vehicles modelled on birds, fish and insects.) Foss also suffered from that process of mental evolution whereby you reject an early enthusiasm when you find something that has a more obsessive hold. In musical terms, his paintings were like glam pop, the first music that made a deep impression but which was swiftly displaced by progressive rock and electronic music. Despite the repudiation I still get a weird charge when I see one of his paintings, an instant jolt back to an adolescent mental space. His cover for Midsummer Century by James Blish does this to an excessive degree, being one of a handful of Foss pictures that caused me to attempt some imitative drawings of my own circa 1975. Those drawings, which went astray years ago, caused a minor stir of appreciation among schoolfriends, a reaction that made me realise I was doing something right, however amateurish the attempt.

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Ballard’s Low-Flying Aircraft collection is labelled on the rear as “Fiction”, and is spaceship-free, whatever the cover may suggest.

21st Century Foss belies its title by being more than a simple parade of spacecraft designs. There are Foss covers that you never see in internet galleries—pictures of submarines, ships and aircraft from the Second World War—together with a few pieces used on the covers of crank titles. Ballard aficionados may like to know that the cover for the Panther paperback of Crash is reproduced here on a full page. The latter is a good example of the thinking in paperback publishing at the time: “Ballard is science fiction so we need an SF artist for this one!” Foss had earlier illustrated two volumes of The Joy of Sex so must have seemed an ideal match. According to Rick Poynor, the artist hated the novel while the author disliked the cover.

Foss’s book opens with a section about his designs for three feature films: Jodorowsky’s Dune, Superman and Alien. None of his concepts ended up on the screen but it’s good to see the Dune designs in print. This section is also prefaced by two pages of hyperactive hyperbole for Foss and his art from Alejandro Jodorowsky. The same text may be found at Duneinfo but it bears repeating here as a further example of the manic director in full flight. Incidentally, the “English magazine” that’s referred to is most likely Science Fiction Monthly for February 1974, an issue which contained a collection of Foss paintings plus an interview with the artist.

Continue reading “Foss, Jodorowsky and low-flying spacecraft”

Weekend links 604

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Poster by Chris Ware for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).

• “He is a proponent of “slow cinema,” which is to say, movies that inspire reflection because they are unhurried but fluid, clear but framed by mystery.” Hilton Als on the metaphysical world of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

• “You could take off your clothes and lay in the sun, nude, with other guys looking for sex, right in Manhattan. And the police didn’t care. It was safe…” Stanley Stellar on his photographs of New York’s “Gay Piers”.

• At Wormwoodiana: An interview with RB Russell who talks about his new book, Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography.

• New music: Mysterium by Held By Trees; A Journey by Hinako Omori; Waves by The Soundcarriers.

• Get some cosmic perspective with an updated version of Charles & Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten.

• You Cut Your Hair and Made a Friend: Richard Conway on Ladytron’s 604 and Light & Magic.

• At Unquiet Things: The Tawdry Technicolor Horrors of Vicente B. Ballestar.

• Alexis Petridis compiles a list of the late James Mtume’s greatest recordings.

• Steven Heller’s Font of the Month is Valvolina.

Slow Motion (1978) by Ultravox | Slow And Low (1995) by Tetsu Inoue | Slow Burning Ghosts (1996) by Paul Schütze

Dear Antonioni…

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Sit through the credits for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and you’ll be rewarded at the very end with a written suggestion: “If you have enjoyed this film, why not go and see La Notte?” The joke being that a notoriously sombre offering from Michelangelo Antonioni is the antithesis of a laugh riot. In 1983 you could still poke fun at a director whose films were acclaimed as well as derided for being slow and serious; in 2022 this no longer seems likely. Antonioni hasn’t exactly been forgotten but his visibility as a cultural signifier has deflated considerably since his final feature in 1997, and the cinematic landscape has changed a great deal since 1983. The most significant change where Antonioni’s films are concerned is the way in which the techniques that once set him apart from many other directors have been thoroughly absorbed into the language of cinema. His predilection for sustained shots, for posing his characters in striking landscapes or architectural spaces, for refusing to offer simple explanations for the behaviour of those characters; none of this seems as radical as it did in the 1960s. We have a sub-genre today known as “slow cinema“, a form which Antonioni’s films helped make possible. It’s easy to characterise these aspects of the Antonioni oeuvre as running counter to a Hollywood that prefers everything to be swiftly delivered and comprehensible. But Antonioni’s techniques have followed the course of any aesthetic innovation which in time becomes a part of the available range of options for an artist, wherever that artist may be situated.

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In 1963 Stanley Kubrick put La Notte on a list of 10 favourite films, and there’s a case to be made that 2001: A Space Odyssey is science fiction filtered through Antonioni’s sensibility; or there would be if Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were more concerned with human beings. A better candidate for SF Antonioni-style is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and there’s a further case to be made that the continued popularity (or visibility) of Tarkovsky’s films is one of the main reasons we hear less today about the man Tarkovsky named in his diaries as “the best Italian director working today”. The first film Tarkovsky made after he left the Soviet Union was Nostalgia, a drama about a Russian writer in Italy that was co-written with Antonioni’s regular screenwriter, Tonino Guerra. (The pair began work on the Nostalgia screenplay while staying at Antonioni’s house.) Tarkovsky’s films are just as serious and slow as Antonioni’s, more so in most cases, but Tarkovsky remains visible because we’re living in a world where once-disreputable genres, science fiction in particular, are now a dominant form, and Tarkovsky just happened to make two cult science-fiction films. It’s difficult to imagine Antonioni being nakedly generic but Blow-up is partly a murder mystery, albeit one that refuses satisfactory explanation, while The Passenger is an extenuated thriller with all the dynamics pared away, and with the climactic event taking place while the camera is looking elsewhere. In Il Deserto Rosso Monica Vitti loses her mind in the industrial wastelands of Ravenna accompanied by the buzzes and whines of Vittorio Gelmetti’s electronic score. There’s nothing overtly science fictional about this but the film would make a fitting companion to a screening of Stalker.

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All of which brings us to Dear Antonioni…, a 90-minute documentary by Gianni Massironi which serves an an ideal introduction to the director and his works. The film was a co-production with the BBC, made to coincide with the release of Antonioni’s final feature, Beyond the Clouds, in 1997. Dear Antonioni… is also the title of an open letter to the director by Roland Barthes, passages from which are read by several of Antoninio’s actors. The readings punctuate a chronological examination of the director’s career, from his early documentaries and excursions into Neo-Realism to the features that established his reputation. If it had been made ten years earlier it might have hastened my appreciation of his films.

During my erratic self-education into the works of European directors I had a hard time getting used to Antonioni. I liked The Passenger very much, had a grudging respect for Blow-up, hated Zabriskie Point until the final 20 minutes or so, and for a long time regarded L’Avventura as over-rated. But my old video lists tell me that I taped this documentary anyway because I felt the problem was more a result of my own impatience rather than anything in the films themselves. A further problem was getting to see some of the films at all. I’ve mentioned before how difficult it used to be to appraise the work of directors outside the Anglosphere if you weren’t living in a city with a decent arts cinema. Il Deserto Rosso was never on TV, neither were La Notte or L’Eclisse, two major features which I still haven’t seen. The latter pair are mentioned in Dear Antonioni… but no clips are shown which makes me wonder if they were subject to a rights dispute like the one that kept several Hitchcock films out of circulation for many years. Antonioni himself is only present in historic interview footage but there’s plenty of production commentary from his screenwriters, Tonino Guerro, Sam Shepard, and Mark Peploe, plus more actors and collaborators including Monica Vitti, David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. I’d also forgotten that Alain Robbe-Grillet turns up to present a lucid argument for Antonioni’s films as “Modern” (or Modernist) works in contrast to the Hollywood idiom exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock. I won’t attempt a précis of Robbe-Grillet’s remarks, it’s easier to suggest you hear them for yourself. Whether you’re a neophyte or an aficionado this is an unfailingly intelligent and absorbing study.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912–2007

The art of Pinckney Marcius-Simons, 1867–1909

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Vision of the Demon.

The Symbolist movement in painting never really took hold in America the way it did in Europe so it’s a surprise to find a new name to add to the very small list of American Symbolists. Pinckney Marcius-Simons painted his share of 19th-century genre pictures but these give way in his later career to canvases that show a distinct Gustave Moreau influence, or perhaps Turner in those nebulous volumes of illuminated vapour. Marcius-Simons was born in New York but lived in Europe for most of his life; he studied in Paris so he would have been able to see Moreau’s work first-hand. A few of his later pictures are rather vague fantasies but his real obsession was with Wagner’s operas, and he spent the last few years of his life working as a set designer at Bayreuth while also creating a series of paintings intended to illustrate the entire run of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His most remarkable creation isn’t a canvas, however, but a French edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he painted over entirely, even decorating the binding. I’m surprised again that such a unique work isn’t more widely known. Happily the entire book is available online at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

All the usual caveats apply here with regard to the accuracy of titles and dates. There’s even some dispute about the artist’s birth year which is occasionally given as 1865. Most of these pictures have been found on auction sites where larger reproductions may be seen.

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Port City.

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Sunrise.

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The City of Dreams.

Continue reading “The art of Pinckney Marcius-Simons, 1867–1909”