Morel’s inventions

1: The Invention of Morel (1940), a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

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Cover art by Norah Borges.

A fugitive hides on a deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Tourists arrive, and his fear of being discovered becomes a mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them. He wants to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon keeps them apart. (more)

Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of The Screw and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy’s novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. Inspired by Bioy Casares’s fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own.

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The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel….Bioy Casares’s theme is not cosmic, but metaphysical: the body is imaginary, and we bow to the tyranny of a phantom. Love is a privileged perception, the most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.

Octavio Paz


2: Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a feature film directed by Alain Resnais.

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What are these images, actually? They are imaginings; an imagining, if it is vivid enough, is always in the present. The memories one “sees again”, the remote places, the future meetings, or even the episodes of the past we each mentally rearrange to suit our convenience are something like an interior film continually projected in our own minds, as soon as we stop paying attention to what is happening around us. But at other moments, on the contrary, all our senses are registering this exterior world that is certainly there. Hence the total cinema of our mind admits both in alternation and to the same degree the present fragments of reality proposed by sight and hearing, and past fragments, or future fragments, or fragments that are completely phantasmagoric.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1961

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between Morel and Marienbad, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently never discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

Rosetta Stone to Last Year in Marienbad

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Louise Brooks, Delphine Seyrig.

L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) is an adaptation that became a theft. It is plainly based on La Invención de Morel (1940), and this was immediately apparent to the critics who first viewed it. The Cahiers du cinéma that came out with Marienbad is full of references to Morel, of critics saying how immediate the connection was. And on a biographical level, it’s pretty obvious: in 1953, the screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet asked his editor at Critique magazine if he could write about an interesting Argentinean novel; he wrote an admiring but mixed review about the importance of the themes of solitude, memory, and the modifiable past, and how he hoped another artist could do them more justice; and seven years later, he wrote a screenplay with the same setting, characters, motifs, and themes, complete with, in first drafts, Hispanic names.
But the orthodox view about this connection, on the exceedingly rare occasions it is mentioned outside of the Hispanic world, is summarily dismissive: as a recent master’s thesis summarizes, “Since the release of Last Year at Marienbad in 1961, some critics have taken to circumventing the difficulty of the film by drawing on The Invention of Morel as the alleged inspiration for the film.”

Ann Manov, The Invention of Marienbad: Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Morel, and Adolfo Bioy Casares on the Left Bank

Without Morel, Marienbad is mostly an exercise in formalism; however, with the intertextual juxtaposition of the two, it becomes another, different work. It becomes an early false reality film, perhaps the first.

Thomas Beltzer


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Art on film: Providence

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Art by René Ferracci.

Continuing an occasional series about artworks in feature films. Most people know HR Giger’s work via his production designs for the Alien films; a much smaller number of people also know about his designs for Jodorowsky’s unmade film of Dune, but hardly anyone knows that his art first appeared in a major film two years before Alien was released. This isn’t too surprising when the film in question, Providence, directed by Alain Resnais, has been increasingly difficult to see since 1977; the film isn’t mentioned in any of Giger’s books either, a curious omission for an artist who spent his career logging every public appearance of his work.

Providence began life as a collaboration between Resnais and British playwright David Mercer, with the resulting script leading to a Swiss/French co-production that was filmed in English. The film has an exceptional cast—Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, Elaine Stritch, David Warner—marvellous photography by Ricardo Aronovitch, and a sumptuous score by Miklós Rózsa. If you’re the kind of person who regards awards as designators of quality then it’s worth noting that Providence won 7 Cesar Awards in 1978, including the one for best picture. Yet despite all this, and despite being regularly described as a peak of its director’s career there’s only been a single DVD release which is now deleted. I’d been intending to write about the film for some time but first I had to acquire a decent copy to watch again; this wasn’t an easy task but I managed to “source” a version that was better than the VHS tape I used to own.

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For most of its running time Providence is a film about artistic invention, more specifically about the process of writing. Clive Langham (John Gielgud) is an ailing author spending a sleepless night alone in his huge house, “Providence”, wracked by unspecified bowel problems, painful memories and fears of impending death. To distract himself from his troubles he drinks large quantities of wine while mentally sketching a scenario for a novel in which the people closest to him are the main characters. In this story-within-the-story Langham’s son, Claude (Dirk Bogarde), is a priggish barrister whose primary conflicts are with his absent father, his bored wife, Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), and a listless stranger, Kevin (David Warner), who Sonia has befriended and seems attracted to even though Kevin won’t reciprocate. While Claude cajoles and insults the pair he also conducts an affair of his own with Helen (Elaine Stritch), an older woman who resembles his dead mother. The scenario is elevated from being another mundane saga about middle-class infidelities by its persistently dream-like setting, and by the interventions and confusions of its cantankerous author. If you only know John Gielgud from his later cameos playing upper-class gentlemen then he’s a revelation here, boozing and cursing like the proprietor of Black Books. Between spasms of illness and self-pity Langham shuffles his playthings around like chess pieces, revising scenes while trying to keep minor characters from interfering; “Providence” isn’t only the house where Langham lives but also the watchful eye of its God-like author. Meanwhile, his characters bicker and chastise each other, paying little attention to the disturbing events taking place in the streets outside: terrorist bombings, outbreaks of lycanthropy, and elderly citizens being rounded up for extermination.

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Scarabus, a film by Gérald Frydman

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Another tip from Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies (1976) (previously) that’s also another short animated film I hadn’t seen before. Gérald Frydman is a Belgian director, and Scarabus (1971) was his debut film. As with a number of the selections in Strick’s book, Scarabus tends more towards Surrealism than science fiction, although this always depends how broadly you define SF: identical men in black clothes populate a crumbling urban environment where much of the architecture is inside out and upside down, and unidentified yellow blobs clutter the place. Airships drift overhead while the men interact with each other, sometimes in a violent manner. The meaning may be elusive but it’s all very well done, and the film was later chosen to accompany the French theatrical screenings of Alain Resnais’s Providence. That’s what I call a good night out.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Labirynt by Jan Lenica

Weekend links 468

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“The atom shall work for peace…” Soviet poster promoting the benefits of nuclear power.

• RIP Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John Creaux, The Night Tripper. Dan Auerbach remembers the man whose return to funky form, Locked Down, he produced in 2012. Elsewhere, Michael Hurtt details Mac Rebennack’s pre-Dr. John exploits; some of his music from that period is linked at the end of this post. Entries at YouTube are inevitably skewed to the present but among the older clips you’ll find these: The Doctor and his band in full voodoo regalia miming to Zu Zu Mamou on the Something Else TV show; audio extracts from a Dutch festival performance in 1970, here and here; more quality audio from a 1972 concert in Syracuse, NY; and an hour-long Chicago TV show from 1974 featuring Dr. John, Professor Longhair, The Meters, and Earl King.

• More Tangerine Dream: all the soundtrack music for Vampira (1971), a drama-documentary directed by George Moorse for German TV. Recommended to those who like the group’s Ohr period.

• More Chernobyl: a photo-essay by Tom Skipp featuring survivors of the disaster, and from 2013, Hari Kunzru‘s report from the Exclusion Zone.

• At The Quietus: Lottie Brazier on The Strange World of Stereolab, and Ned Raggett talking to Liz Harris about her Nivhek project.

• The sixth edition of Wyrd Daze—”The multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extra-ordinary music, art & writing”—is out now.

Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, a DVD of the feature-length documentary by Darin Coelho Spring.

• Moon Wiring Club is back this month with fresh releases at Bandcamp, a YouTube post, and the EVP MVP Mix.

• Once the “Swingingest Street in the World”: Rob Baker on pictures of Carnaby Street 1924–1975.

• New video footage of Coil playing live at All Tomorrow’s Parties, 6th April, 2003.

Dean Hurley explores life after death on Philosophy of Beyond.

Tom Walker on Harry Clarke’s uncanny visions of Ireland.

Alex Barrett on where to begin with Alain Resnais.

• Martin Parr’s Soviet space dog collection.

Dennis Cooper winds you up.

Storm Warning (1959) by Mac Rebennack | Morgus The Magnificent (1959) by Morgus & The 3 Ghouls | Sahara (1961) by Mac Rebennack & His Orch.

Weekend links 440

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The title of that film was originally different [Illusions]… I woke up one day and thought of Bad Timing which sounds exactly like the right title—for my career. Now there was a film I really thought was one to which there would be a different response. Whilst filming I felt sure that this was one for the streets, one that people would really want to see. — Nicolas Roeg

So long to the great Nicolas Roeg, always one of my favourite film-makers. Roeg’s works were naturally attractive when I was a teenager because he’d made a horror film and a science-fiction film; when these eventually turned up on TV it was evident that this was a director working on a level that had more in common with Continental Europe than Hollywood. Beyond the generic content it was his approach to directing that made his films essential: a fragmented editing style derived from Alain Resnais via Richard Lester (see below), a cosmic perspective almost entirely absent from the parochial concerns of British cinema, and a seemingly effortless ability to find visual rhymes in anything. Despite the “bad timing” comment above Roeg was fortunate to be working throughout the 1970s when having an approach that ran counter to the prevailing trends wasn’t an obstacle to maintaining a career; as with Ken Russell, you watch some of the films today and are amazed and grateful that they were made at all. When reading the forthcoming plaudits it would be worth remembering that even the films regarded now as Roeg’s best struggled for acceptance: Pauline Kael dismissed Don’t Look Now as “trash”, US screenings of The Man Who Fell To Earth provided explanatory notes for the hard-of-thinking, Bad Timing was described by its own distributors as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”, while the distributors of Eureka hated the film so much that for a time it could only be screened in the UK if the director was also present.

• Related: Where to begin with Nicolas Roeg, and Nicolas Roeg: It’s About Time (2015), a 59-minute documentary for the BBC directed by David Thompson. Previous Roeg-related postings on this site include: The Nicolas Roeg Guardian Lecture, 1983 (Roeg discusses Eureka and other films with Philip Strick); Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (charting the recurrence of a book title from Don’t Look Now); Canal view (using Google Street View to find the church in Don’t Look Now); and Petulia film posters (designs for a Richard Lester film from 1968 that was photographed by Roeg, and whose fragmentary editing style prefigures the familiar Roeg technique).

• Edward Woodward’s greatest screen role wasn’t a prudish policeman or a mysterious vigilante but was David Callan, a conflicted assassin working for a division of the British Secret Service. Joseph Oldham explains.

• Mixes of the week: A mix for The Wire by Jing, FACT Mix 681 by Kelly Moran, and Crépuscules d’Automne, a seasonal mix by Stephen O’Malley.

• More Gorey: in 1978 Jeremy Brett was playing Dracula in the touring version of the Edward Gorey-designed play.

• Liberated from the LRB paywall for a brief time: George Melly writing in 1992 about René Magritte.

• Welcome to the witch capital of Norway: Chelsea G. Summers investigates.

Space colony artwork from the 1970s.

• At I Love Typography: Magic printed.

Memo From Turner (1970) by Mick Jagger | Wild Hearts (1985) by Roy Orbison | Be Kind To My Mistakes (1987) by Kate Bush