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

Phantom Cities by The Sodality of the Shadows

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Book by HV Morton (1926) not included.

I like night music, any kind of night music, whether it be the shimmering sonorities of Béla Bartók and George Crumb, Julee Cruise exploring the dark, or the rumbling atmospheres of Thomas Köner. Phantom Cities by The Sodality of the Shadows is night music of another kind, more musically determined than the numerous purveyors of post-Köner dark ambience, with a character defined by weird fiction. The latter quality is perhaps inevitable given the people who comprise the group: Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker have been running Tartarus Press for the past 30 years; Mark Valentine is an author and editor (and occasional publisher) of many story collections, and Jon Mueller’s name has appeared here in the past via the soundtrack CD for the Swan River Press edition of The House on the Borderland that I illustrated. Phantom Cities sidesteps Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City for an older lineage, looking back to Arthur Machen (the group’s name is borrowed from a secret society formed by Machen and AE Waite) and the spectral metropolis of pre-war London photographed by Harold Burdekin in London Night (1934). The music is slow, sombre and reverberant; guitars pluck notes from the embracing dark while Mueller’s drums maintain a funereal pace; sporadic squalls of feedback suggest a deeper darkness, the latent possibilities of unpeopled streets. Mark Valentine had an earlier musical persona as The Mystic Umbrellas but his contribution here is textual accompaniment in the form of 12 fictional pieces, some of which are read by Rosalie Parker over and between the music. This isn’t a collection of readings, however, the album may be taken either as illustration of Burdekin’s photos and the texts or as a work that stands alone. A soundtrack for the longer nights of encroaching autumn.

Phantom Cities
Strange Houses Of Sleep

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Smoke
Two albums
Thomas Köner

Marienbad hauntings

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Last Year in Marienbad (1961). Via.

In our age of cultural plenitude it can be salutary to remember the time when many things were easy to discover but often impossible to experience; albums, books, and especially non-American films could all too frequently exist as rumours, referenced but always out of reach. Two films in particular dogged me for years in this remote manner: The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) by Wojciech Has, and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the film that Alain Resnais made from a very novelistic screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Philip Strick alerted me to this pair of films with tantalising descriptions in a time-travel chapter of his book-length study, Science Fiction Movies (1976). Marienbad isn’t a time-travel film as such (a later Resnais film, Je t’aime, je t’aime [1968] does deal with the subject, however, and even features an actual time machine), but it is sufficiently open-ended to allow a science-fictional rationale into its enigmatic spaces. Strick’s book covered all the familiar SF territory as well as looking beyond the clichés of Hollywood and the SF genre, hence the inclusion not only of Marienbad and Saragossa, but also Je t’aime, je t’aime, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), and Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Most of these films, which were seldom shown on TV, I had to wait years to see.

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Marienbad page from Strick’s Science Fiction Movies.

I was reading Strick’s book in 1979, and since I was bored with generic clichés, and also reading a lot of reprinted stories from New Worlds magazine, I became a little obsessed with these inaccessible films, Marienbad especially. It’s difficult to say what was so fascinating about a few words of description, and a single photograph, but the picture seemed an unlikely inclusion amid so many pages filled with robots and spaceships. It promised a film that approached the themes of science fiction at the same oblique angle as many of the stories in New Worlds. A couple of years later I found a copy of the Robbe-Grillet screenplay whose pages of dogged description read like the kind of forbidding and formal exercise that Brian Aldiss had attempted in Report on Probability A (1967), a novel that first appeared in New Worlds. Among other similarities, both works share a dismissive attitude to character, presenting a trio of ciphers indicated by no more than their gender, and some initial letters. This confluence of influences, Marienbad included, fed into the chunks of New Worlds-derived prose I was writing at the time, trying to fix inchoate impressions on the page. I always failed each time I returned to that photo from Marienbad, the real charge—as I didn’t see at the time—being a result of the gap between the promise of the image and the inaccessible film itself. Finally seeing Marienbad in the late 1980s was a curious thing, like meeting somebody face-to-face after years of remote correspondence; the same readjustments needed to be made to accept that this was the reality of the work of art, not Robbe-Grillet’s embryonic version, or my own baroque imaginings.

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Screenplay book, 1962. Cover design by Roy Kuhlman.

If the above seems to strain for association by hauling a celebrated work of the Nouvelle Vague into a disreputable area then this essay by Thomas Beltzer is worth a read. Beltzer’s “Intertextual Meditation” compares Marienbad to The Invention of Morel (1940), a science-fiction novel by Adolfo Bioy-Casares which Jorge Luis Borges described as “perfect” (and which I really ought to read). If I’ve not written much about Marienbad itself that’s because it really needs to be experienced rather than described or explained. It’s a film that’s easier to admire than actually enjoy—I need to be in the right mood to accept its formalities—and given the choice I’d often sooner watch Providence (1977). But where Providence and other Resnais films have inevitably dated, Last Year in Marienbad remains out of time, a 20th-century dream held captive in 18th-century architecture where the airless rococo chambers might easily share a labyrinth with the hotel waiting-room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

• Alain Resnais obituaries: The Guardian | The Telegraph
Last Year in Marienbad at film|captures
Marienbad (2012) by Julia Holter

Sibylle Ruppert, 1942–2011

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La Bible du mal (1978).

Another painter gone, and a really extraordinary one at that. I wrote something about German artist Sibylle Ruppert two years ago, and only heard about her death this week following an email from Leslie Barany of Barany Artists. Leslie also sent copies of recent exhibition material from a Ruppert show last year at the HR Giger Museum in Gruyeres, Switzerland, from which these pictures have been taken. The picture above gives some idea of the intensely visceral nature of her paintings and drawings. Giger owns (or owned) the picture below as he reproduces it in one of his books, along with other works from his personal collection.

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Hit Something (1977).

There was an official site for Sibylle Ruppert’s work but, as is often the case with artist sites, it appears to now be defunct. This is frustrating since her work isn’t very visible on the web at all. Anyone interested could start with this set of Flickr views of the Giger Museum exhibition. She was a fantastic artist in all senses of the word.

The following is a note credited to Alain Robbe-Grillet and some biographical details taken from the gallery materials. They’re presented here as printed:

Je m’avance avec un croissant malaise, apprehension peut-etre, avec lenteur en tout cas, dans une sorte de souterrain tres encombre (engorge, meme, en depit de ses dimensions sans doute considerables), que j’imagine bourre de pieges. (J’allais dire pourri…) La lumiere est vive par endroit, sans que l’on puisse deviner d’Oll elle tombe, laissant tout a cote des plages d’ombre dense, et comme visqueuse. Cependant, meme dans les zones bien eclairees, la precision des lignes est suspecte, car on aurait du mal a rattacher ces fragments trop nets, trop dessines (le trace sans bavure d’une pointe aigue), a quelque figure d’ensemble nommement identifiable. L’impression qui domine, au milieu de cette dangereuse incertitude, est qu’il doit y avoir la une grande quantite de chevaux eventres, des etalons a musculatures massives, avec des herses, et des crocs de boucher, et des socs de charrues, avec aussi des femmes nues aux formes splendides, melees au carnage. Je pense a la mort de Sardanapale, evidemment, mais la scene qui m’entoure se situerait plusieurs minutes apres l’instant fragile immobilise par Delacroix, Oll toutes les courbes du desir sont encore rangees aleurs places diurnes. Tandis qu’icl, devant moi, derriere moi, sur ma droite ou sur ma gauche, et presque sous mes pas, ce qui s’offre aux sens revulses ce sont les hontes secretes de l’anatomie : les orifices ecarteles, les entrailles repandues, les secretions, les pertes. Une pointe aigue, ai-je ditQ Oui, le gluant et l’acere semblent, maintenant, s’engendrer en cercle l’un l’autre, le fin couteau du supplice appartenir au meme monstre que la chair ignominieuse qui s’ entaille (se debonde), les sexes s’invertir, insidieusement, et s’invaginer l’arme du crime. Parvenant non sans peine a vaincre mon horreur, ou bien au contraire enfin vaincu par elle, je me decide a toucher… J’approche une paume tendue, doigts ecartes, vers cette substance innomable… Ma surprise est immense : tout cela est en metal poli, sec, luisant mais dur, et froid comme de la glace. Non, je ne suis pas surpris : je le savais deja, bien entendu.

—Alain Robbe-Grillet

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Sibylle Ruppert was born during an air raid on September 8th, 1942. It was the night of the first massive bombing of Frankfurt during World War II. With a numbered tag around her neck, Sibylle was, immediately whisked from the maternity ward down to the bomb shelter in the basement, while her mother was moved to safety under a supporting column of the hospital staircase.

She spent her infancy between the nursery and an improvised bomb shelter in which plaster fell from the ceiling whenever the bombs hit the neighborhood. In spring 1944 her parents decided to flee Frankfurt for the countryside. Sibylle’s first memories were of the shoving and screaming crowds on the platform of the train station desperately trying to climb into the overcrowded wagons.

Although the family spent the remainder of the war in relative security, they were subjected to mistreatment and greed at the hands of the farmers who gave them shelter. After the war they were taken in by an aristocratic family who owned a castle and Sibylle spent her early childhood years as if in a dream world. Her father was a graphic designer and young Sibylle spent hours upon hours near his desk watching as he drew. One day she seized his hand and promised him that she would paint nice colourful pictures just like him. Her first drawing surprised everyone, it was a brutal illustration of a fist stricking the middle of a face – she was 6 years old.

At age of 10 she had a religious enlightment and she insisted on becoming a nun. Only the great efforts of her parents managed to dissuade her from taking up a novitiate. In school she was not the best, except in her art classes where she far surpassed all the other students to such an extent that her instructors could not believe that she painted the pictures by herself. Secretly she took the entrance examination of the Städel Akkademie and passed brilliantly.With the support of Prof.Battke she worked relentlessly and created up to 20 drawings a day.

Sitting immobile, continuously, behind the drawing board caused her to gain quite some weight, so her mother enrolled her in the neighborhood ballet school. Sibylle tackled her new activity with the same energy and will-power as she did drawing which prompted the school authorities to give her a choice: either art or dance, but not both at the same time. As soon as she turned 18 she solved the problem her own way by escaping to Paris, the city of her dreams, where she enrolled in a dance school in Clichy. During the day she followed the strict regimen of dance classes, but at night she roamed the notorious streets of Pigalle and Montmartre, fascinated by the ambiguous characters in these neighborhoods.

As she was too tall for classical ballet she joined the famous dance ensemble of Georges Rech. This was the beginning of an adventurous life as a revue dancer touring all over Europe and the Middle East. But while her colleagues relaxed Sibylle visited all the local museums and galleries and continued drawing her every free minute. Then all of a sudden, in New York, she decided to give up on her dancing career. She returned to her family in Frankfurt and started working as a drawing instructor at the art school founded by her father.

In addition to her teaching, at night she pursued her own personal work, inspired by the „divine“ Marquis de Sade and his frightful universe. Encouraged by notable German intellectuals like Peter Gorsen, Theodor Adorno and Horst Glaser whom she later married her drawings start to become well known. The exhibitions organised by the Sydow – Zirkwitz Gallery in Frankfurt consternated as much the traditional art audience as they produced raised eye brows among the intellectuals.

In 1976 she moves to Paris and exhibits her large format charcoal drawings, inspired by the writings of de Sade, Lautréamont and Georges Bataille, her collages and paintings at the Gallery Bijan Aalam. French intellectuals and great thinkers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pierre Restany, Henri Michaux and Gert Schiff show interest and are fascinated by and try to interpret her infernal work. When the gallery closes in 1982 she returns to teaching drawing and painting. She starts giving art classes in prisons, psychiatric institutions and drug rehabilitation centers. Today, Sibylle Ruppert lives a cloistered life, withdrawn from the public, in Paris.

• See also this later post for more artwork: Sibylle Ruppert revisited

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Sibylle Ruppert

Design as virus 13: Tsunehisa Kimura

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Waterfall by Tsunehisa Kimura.

Continuing an occasional series. Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura (1928–2008) was initially inspired by the polemical graphics of John Heartfield to create his own photomontages, a painstaking collage technique now rendered obsolete by Photoshop. Kimura’s work exchanges Heartfield’s satire for an overt and frequently apocalyptic Surrealism, as in his most visible piece, Waterfall. The copy above is one of a number of pictures reproduced by Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG from a 1979 Kimura collection, Visual Scandals by Photomontage.

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Design by Anne-Louise Falson & Paul Schütze.

I was first startled by Waterfall in 1996 when Paul Schütze released his Site Anubis album, the product of a “virtual group” comprised of musicians recording in different studios around the world:

The musicians comprising Phantom City—the name, incidentally, originating from the book title Topology of a Phantom City by French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet—never met for the recording of Site Anubis, as each one recorded in a different studio in a different country: guitarist Raoul Björkenheim in Helsinki, bass- and contra-bass clarinetist Alex Buess in a Basel studio, soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill in London, bassist Bill Laswell at Green Point Studio in Brooklyn, New York, trombonist Julian Priester in Seattle, drummer Dirk Wachtelaer in Brussels, and Schütze himself in London and Basel. Incredibly, Laswell had only Schütze’s electronic backing track to respond to. Wachtelaer had Laswell and Schütze to play against, Björkenheim had drums and bass,—in short, certain players had more information than others.

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Kimura’s picture is an ideal accompaniment to this excellent album, especially when you note a Ballard reference in the titles (not the first in Schütze’s oevre), and read the scene-setting piece of fiction on the CD insert, an explanation of the album title:

That morning a report came in from an unmarked helicopter somewhere over the city. The waters were subsiding and the smoke from a thousand fires had begun to drift inland revealing an impossible new structure. Towering some eight hundred feet over the gleaming devastation of the streets, its base occupying an entire city block, was a colossal black basalt figure. The body was male and human, – the head, which stared expectantly toward the boiling western horizon, was the head of a jackal. From the air it was clear that the pattern of destruction on the ground was radial and that the massive figure was sited precisely at its centre.

Continue reading “Design as virus 13: Tsunehisa Kimura”