Three short films by Marcell Jankovics

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Sisyphus (1974).

Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics died in May last year but he lived just long enough to see his most celebrated feature, Son of the White Mare (1981), restored and released for the first time in the USA. The film—which I haven’t yet managed to see—is one of those that gets described as “most psychedelic ever”, a grand and rather unwise claim when other animated features such as Belladonna of Sadness (1973) and Paprika (2006) are very “psychedelic” in their own different ways (and both films I’d recommend, incidentally). Psychedelic or not, Son of the White Mare is beautifully styled and vividly coloured, to a degree that puts it at the polar extreme to these three shorts from Jankovics, all of which are exercises in hand-drawn, black-and-white minimalism.

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The Struggle (1977).

Hungarian animation from the Cold War era tends to be overshadowed by the films produced by the studios in Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, but animated films from all the Eastern Bloc nations were a fertile medium for symbolic expressions of frustration with the politics of the time. It’s a commonplace observation that repressive regimes inspire a flourishing of metaphor and symbolism in the arts. I don’t know whether Jankovics was being deliberately allegorical with these three shorts but when two of them concern familiar figures from Greek mythology you start to look for subtext. The films are all very brief but they’re also technically impressive. I especially like the way Sisyphus manages to convey a sense of colossal weight with nothing more than a few calligraphic flourishes.

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Prometheus (1992).

Short films by Gérald Frydman

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Scarabus.

After writing about Gérald Frydman’s animated short Scarabus (1971) last year it’s taken me all this time to get round to watching the other films on his Vimeo channel, most of which are also animations. Scarabus was of interest for its deftly-crafted Surrealism, and there’s more of the same in some of these later films, especially Agulana. As with another Belgian director, Raoul Servais, Frydman directs all his films but doesn’t always animate them himself, hence the variety of art styles.

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Agulana (1976) is a kind of sequel to Scarabus with human figures being menaced and oppressed in a transforming environment. The Magritte quotient in films such as this raises the question of whether Magritte-ness (for want of a better term) is a quality unique to René Magritte or a component of the general Belgian character. Jonathan Meades insists on the latter in an excellent film of his own about Belgium.

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Alepha (1980) is more Surrealism, which in this case brings to mind the animated films of Piotr Kamler. Naked figures drift over landscapes filled with ambulatory spheres, vast spikes and other structures. Where Kamler favoured electronic soundtracks by Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani, Frydman has regular collaborator Alain Pierre provide a score of electronic drones.

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La Photographie (1983) is the first of two short films set in the 19th century. This one is little more than an anecdote, with a bored family forced to remain motionless while their photograph is taken, a process that lasts for the entire duration of the film. Outside the studio we see a Jules Verne wonderland of new inventions—dirigibles, rapid transport, electric light, typewriters and so on—where the frenetic activity contrasts with the inertia of the photographic process.

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Le Cheval de Fer (1984) is another photographic anecdote, this time concerning the wager prompted by an argument about whether a horse’s legs left the ground when it was galloping (and if so, at what point). The argument was famously settled by Eadweard Muybridge who invented a system to photographically record animal locomotion, thus paving the way for cinema, and for film animation.

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Les Effaceurs (1991) is Surrealism of a dark and disturbing kind with people urgently trying to scrub away their facial features.

Also on Frydman’s channel is La Sequence Silverstein (2000), a short science-fiction scenario which he wrote but didn’t direct. This one is live action and with dialogue in unsubtitled French. It not bad but I prefer the animations.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Raoul Servais: Courts-Métrages
Scarabus, a film by Gérald Frydman
L’Araignéléphant
Le labyrinthe and Coeur de secours
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler

Ray Harryhausen’s swords and sorceries

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It was the 1970s: promoting Sinbad with a Zodiac poster for the blacklight brigade.

Last month I took advantage of the recent Indicator sale to buy blu-rays of a couple of favourite Ray Harryhausen films, together with Indicator’s reissued box of the three Harryhausen Sinbad features: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). I’m very familiar with these films but hadn’t seen them for many years. Watching them again made me realise for the first time what perfect examples they are of sword-and-sorcery cinema even though you never see them classed as such. I’ve been reading sword-and-sorcery fiction for almost as long as I’ve been watching Ray Harryhausen films but this rather obvious insight hadn’t occurred to me before, no doubt because I’d always regarded the Sinbad cycle as Arabian Nights fantasies in the manner of The Thief of Bagdad. The 1940 version of the latter happened to be a Harryhausen favourite which prompted his decision to film an Arabian adventure following his monster-on-the-rampage pictures of the 1950s. He subsequently asked The Thief of Bagdad‘s composer, Miklós Rózsa, to score The Golden Voyage when Bernard Herrmann was unable to do so.

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Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) with a shrunken Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant).

The 7th Voyage is at least based on the original Sinbad tales but the second and third films have little to do with The Arabian Nights beyond Sinbad’s persona and a handful of cultural references. If you swapped the Arabian names for invented ones then you’d be even closer to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith and his colleagues at Weird Tales than the films already are. Smith’s sorcery-infused fiction is the key here even though his stories are light on sword-play. The sight of a shaven-headed Torin Thatcher as Sokurah, the duplicitous magician in The 7th Voyage, was so strongly reminiscent of one of Smith’s many sorcerers—he even looks a little like Virgil Finlay’s depiction of Dwerulas from The Garden of Adompha—that I couldn’t help but watch the films this time as though they were adaptations of Smith’s fantasies. In The 7th Voyage the similarity is most evident in the scene where Sokurah demonstrates his powers to the caliph by temporarily turning a handmaiden into a serpent-woman, and the later scenes in Sokurah’s underground fortress. Smith and his cohorts in the pulp magazines were of course refashioning elements from The Arabian Nights and from other legends so none of this should be surprising. The 7th Voyage may take some of its scenes from The Arabian Nights but the story establishes the template which the sequels follow, with Sinbad pitted against a magic-wielding adversary.

Continue reading “Ray Harryhausen’s swords and sorceries”

11 Preliminary Orbits Around Planet Lem by the Brothers Quay

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Here come the Quays again with another short documentary for the Polish Cultural Institute. This was posted only a few days ago to acknowledge the centenary of the birth of writer Stanislaw Lem. It’s only the briefest run through Lem’s career as a writer of science fiction but it does include a sequence that lists the films adapted from his work which is a useful reminder of all the ones I’ve yet to see. And the piece ends with an extract from Maska, the Quays’ own adaptation of a Lem short story, and a favourite of mine among their recent films. (Thanks to Tomas for the tip!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
VadeMecum by the Brothers Quay
Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges
Punch and Judy, Michel de Ghelderode, and the Brothers Quay
The mystery of trams
Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

VadeMecum by the Brothers Quay

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After mentioning the Brothers Quay last week it occurred to me that I hadn’t searched around for a while to see what they might have been up to recently. They continue to be productive, and only a couple of months ago released a new 12-minute short, VadeMecum, which was produced for the Polish Book Institute. This is the Quays in their documentary mode, presenting the troubled life of Polish poet and artist Cyprian Kamil Norwid, together with extracts from his poetry and examples of his drawings. Norwid’s existence was news to me so the piece successfully achieved its goal of informing the unenlightened. Last month the brothers talked to Mikolaj Glinski at Culture.pl about their fascination with Polish art and literature.

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Meanwhile, the Quays are no doubt continuing to work on their third feature film, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, in which they return to the writings of Bruno Schulz. Schulz’s story collection was adapted by Wojciech Has in 1973 as The Hourglass Sanatorium, a film I recommend most highly. The quality of the Quays version may be judged by this six-minute preview which immediately sets itself apart from the Has film with its puppets modelled on Schulz’s illustrations. I’ll be waiting impatiently for this one.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges
Punch and Judy, Michel de Ghelderode, and the Brothers Quay
The mystery of trams
Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD