Strange Adventures: a film list

alphaville1.jpg

This is science fiction.

Presenting the list I mentioned earlier in which I highlight a number of worthwhile science-fiction films (also some TV productions) that aren’t the usual Hollywood fare. I’ve spent the past few years watching many of these while searching for more. This isn’t a definitive collection, and it isn’t filled with favourites; I’ve deliberately omitted a number of popular films that would count as such. It’s more a map of my generic tastes, and an answer to a question that isn’t always spoken aloud in discussions I’ve had about SF films but which remains implicit: “Okay, if you dislike all this stuff then what do you like?” I tend to like marginal things, hybrids, edge cases, the tangential, the unusual and the experimental. And for the past two decades I’ve increasingly come to value anything that isn’t a Hollywood product. There are two Hollywood productions on this list but neither of them were very successful. Not everything here has been overlooked or neglected but many of the entries have, either because they made a poor showing at the box office or because they have the effrontery to be filmed in languages other than English. Not everything is in the first rank, either, but they’re all worth seeing if you can find them.

liquid1.jpg

Liquid Sky.

The starting point is around 1960 because prior to this date any marginal or unusual examples of SF cinema are harder to find. A genre has to be somewhat set in its ways before radically different artistic approaches emerge, and pre-1960 there wasn’t much testing of the SF boundaries in the film world. Science-fiction cinema has also tended to lag behind the written word, so even though the literature was growing more sophisticated during the 1950s, films from the same period are mostly filled with monsters, spaceships and mad scientists. By the 1960s enough written science fiction was playing with (or ignoring) genre stereotypes for a “New Wave” to be identified. Some of the films detailed here might be regarded as cinematic equivalents of SF’s New Wave but I’ll leave it to others to argue the finer points of definition. A few of the choices are a result of directors going in unexpected directions, with several selections being one-off genre excursions by people better known for other things. I’ve omitted many films and/or directors that receive persistent attention, so there’s no David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Andrei Tarkovsky or John Carpenter; and no Mad Max 2, Akira, Ghost in the Shell or The Prisoner. A couple of edge cases are so slight I couldn’t really justify their inclusion so you’ll have to look elsewhere for appraisals of The Unknown Man of Shandigor (a spy satire with Alphaville influences) and Trouble in Mind (more of a neo-noir fantasy). 2010 is the cut-off point. I’ve never been someone who watches all the latest things so it often takes me years to catch up with recent releases.

avalon2.jpg

Avalon.

I can imagine there might be questions about the availability of some of these films. All I can say is search around. I’ve managed to accumulate half the things on this list on either DVD or blu-ray so they’re not all impossible to find. I did consider posting links but the whole issue of region coding complicates matters. Most of the short films circulate on YouTube, as do a number of the features although these don’t always include subtitles. Have I missed something good? (Don’t say Zardoz….) The comments are open.



Invention for Destruction (Czechoslovakia, 1958)

invention.jpg

An evil millionaire named Artigas plans to use a super-explosive device to conquer the world from his headquarters inside an enormous volcano.

(Previously.) It seems fitting to start with a film that adapts a novel by one of the founders of the genre, Jules Verne. Karel Zeman’s third feature extended his technical effects to combine live-action with animation, creating a film in which the engraved illustrations of Verne’s novels are brought to life. With music by Zdenek Liska.


La Jetée (France, 1962)

lajetee.jpg

The story of a man forced to explore his memories in the wake of World War III’s devastation, told through still images.

Chris Marker’s haunting short is one of the great time-travel stories, a 25-minute film that JG Ballard often listed as a favourite. Memory was a recurrent theme in Marker’s work, and memories here provide a physical route into the past, with the predicament of the unnamed protagonist concentrated on a single memory from his childhood. Marker’s interests ranged widely but he haunts the margins of science-fiction cinema in France, assisting Walerian Borowczyk with an early animation, Les Astronauts (1959), as well as the Pierre Kast entry below.


Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (France, 1965)

alphaville2.jpg

A secret agent is sent to the distant space city of Alphaville where he must find a missing person and free the city from its tyrannical ruler.

Another Ballard favourite, and not a neglected film by any means but the first in our collection of one-off SF excursions by directors better-known for other things. Alphaville is also important for being the first film to present itself as science fiction without any of the obvious or expected trappings of the genre. Paris in 1965 is Alphaville because Godard says it is. In part this is the director doing his usual thing of self-consciously adopting a genre; this is “science fiction” in the same way that Breathless is “crime”. But the conceptual leap was an important one for cinema, a step that freed film-makers from the need to build expensive sets and dress their cast in silver jump-suits. With Raoul Coutard’s high-contrast photography, Paul Misraki’s noirish score, Eddie Constantine’s bull-in-a-china-shop performance (he makes Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly seem soft-hearted), and the incomparable Anna Karina.


The Heat of a Thousand Suns (France, 1965)

heat.jpg

(Previously) A one-off animated short by Pierre Kast with assistance from Chris Marker, drawings by Eduardo Luiz, and an electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani. A young man with his own spaceship solves the problem of faster-than-light travel then heads into the cosmos with his pet cat.


Fahrenheit 451 (UK, 1966)

fahrenheit.jpg

In an oppressive future, a fireman whose duty is to destroy all books begins to question his task.

Francois Truffaut’s first colour feature has always seemed a little dull despite its incendiary subject matter and the Hitchcockian urgency of Bernard Herrmann’s score. It might have been improved with an actor other than Oskar Werner in the central role but there’s still a lot I like about this one: the music, the shots of the SAFEGE monorail, Nicolas Roeg’s striking photography, and Julie Christie in a double role. There’s also some amusement for Brits in seeing a Frenchman presenting ticky-tacky English suburbia as a soulless dystopia. With spoken titles, flat-screen TVs in every home (it’ll never happen…), and Genet novels condemned to the flames.


Je t’aime, Je t’aime (France, 1968)

jetaime.jpg

After attempting suicide, Claude is recruited for a time travel experiment, but, when the machine goes haywire, he may be trapped hurtling through his memories.

(Previously.) Much as I like toying with the idea that Last Year in Marienbad is science fiction there really isn’t anything in it that easily justifies the claim. Director Alain Resnais said that this one wasn’t SF either but it does at least feature a time machine. Resnais had collaborated with Chris Marker in the 1950s, and the pair remained friends, so it’s tempting to see this as a riff on La Jetée. (There’s even an echo of Marker’s film in the title…) Both films use a doomed romance as a focus for their examination of memory and time, and both feature choral scores, the music for this one being composed by Krzysztof Penderecki.


Continue reading “Strange Adventures: a film list”

Weekend links 390

possession.jpg

French poster by Basha (Barbara Baranowska) for Andrzej Zulawski’s extraordinary Possession (1981).

• “Alive from Off Center, renamed Alive TV in 1992, was an American arts anthology television series aired by PBS between 1984 and 1996. Each week, the series featured experimental short films by a mixture of up-and-coming and established directors. Notable episodes included As Seen on TV, starring comic actor Bill Irwin as an auditioning dancer who becomes trapped in a television, wandering among daytime dramas, MTV, and PBS’s own Sesame Street and the atmospheric puppet melodrama Street of Crocodiles, adapted by the Brothers Quay from the Bruno Schultz story. […] Arguably the series’ best-known episode was What You Mean We? a short film written by, directed by, and starring Laurie Anderson, which aired in 1986.” Alive from Off Center, 11 episodes at Ubuweb.

• “[Count] Stenbock was a homosexual convert to Roman Catholicism and owner of a serpent, a toad, and a dachshund called Trixie. It was said that toward the end of his life he was accompanied everywhere by a life-size wooden doll that he believed to be his son. His poems and stories are replete with queer, supernatural, mystical, and Satanic themes; original editions of his books are highly sought by collectors of recherché literature.” Of Kings and Things: Strange Tales and Decadent Poems by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock will be published by Strange Attractor in March, 2018.

• Music news of the week (in this house, anyway) is a new song, The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra, by Anna von Hausswolff. A new album, Dead Magic, is due in March, and I’m doubly-thrilled to read that Randall Dunn of Master Musicians of Bukkake (and producer/engineer for Earth, Sunn O))), etc.) is involved.

• “Why do Texas prisons ban Freakonomics but not Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf?” asks Lauren McGaughy. On the banned list is the three-volume The Graphic Canon, edited by Russ Kick, which includes my adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

• “To understand how other planets are made, exogeologists are synthesizing those planets in miniature in the earthbound equipment in their labs.” BLDGBLOG on speculative mineralogy.

• “What does the Bardo sound like?” Lauria Galbraith on Éliane Radigue‘s Trilogie de la Mort, three hour-long electronic compositions based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

• And speaking of Earth, Joseph Stannard talked to Dylan Carlson (Earth) and Kevin Martin (The Bug) about their recent collaboration.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 630 by Hanz, XLR8R Podcast 519 by Setaoc Mass, and Secret Thirteen Mix 239 by Blush Response.

• The League’s seven deadly sins: Reese Shearsmith on the cinematic influences behind The League of Gentlemen’s TV series.

Donnie & Laurie, a jam from the late 1970s with Laurie Spiegel on Electrocomp 101 synthesizer, and Don Christensen on drums.

• Guests and dates for the Dublin Ghost Story Festival have been announced.

David Bowie sang for Devo, and Mark Mothersbaugh might have the tapes.

• The albums of the year according to The Quietus.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Isabelle Adjani Day.

Possessed (1979) by MX-80 Sound | Possession (1988) by Danzig | Possessed (1992) by Balanescu Quartet

Weekend links 298

liu-wong.jpg

The Gathering (2015) by Kristen Liu-Wong.

• Tom of Finland’s house in Echo Park, Los Angeles, “is a trove of homoerotic masterpieces“. The house and its former owner are celebrated in Tom House, a book by Michael Reynolds with photos by Martyn Thompson. Related: Tom House exposed by Rizzoli.

• “Underlying the heightened nature of the films was a deep, questioning soulfulness related to literary antecedents coupled with a vision of cinema open to shifting levels of perception and fantasy.” David Thompson on Andrzej Zulawski.

• Memories of the Space Age: Photos by Roland Miller of the ruins of NASA’s old launch pads, bunkhouses and research facilities. A British equivalent (and a much more modest affair) is the Highdown Rocket Site on the Isle of Wight.

• Statues allegedly made for the John Huston film of The Maltese Falcon are among the most expensive props in cinema history even though there’s still dispute about their authenticity. Bryan Burrough investigates.

• Mixes of the week: The Solar Gate: Female Private Press New-Age Music – Vol.1 by Michael Tanner, and an “alchemical” Bowie selection by The Ephemeral Man.

• “What Does It Take To Be A ‘Bestselling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes.” Brent Underwood on why Amazon ratings can’t be trusted.

Edward Gorey/Derek Lamb title sequences from the PBS/WGBH show Mystery! (1981).

• A Painter Possessed: Kate Kellaway on the occult abstractions of Hilma af Klint.

Invertebrate Harmonics: a new composition by Chris Watson.

• Frozen in time: Inside Bangkok’s first ever department store.

Roly Porter’s Favourite Space Records

• Space-Age Couple (1970) by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band | Space Age Batchelor Pad Music (Mellow) (1993) by Stereolab | Space Age Ballad (2001) by Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.

Weekend links 297

floridxfauna.jpg

Crimson Metallic Emergent Skull Crystal Pendant by Kristen Phillips aka Floridxfauna.

The Noise-Arch Backup at the Internet Archive is 30GB of mp3s from noise-arch.net, a collection of cassette-based releases and artwork: “material represented includes tape experimentation, industrial, avant-garde, indy, rock, diy, subvertainment and auto-hypnotic materials…” 30GB is an intimidatingly large amount of material so it’s better to browse The Noise-Arch Archive, a selection of 468 releases.

• The week in erotica: Claire Voon on Ancient Erotic Dreams and Explicit Scenes in the New York Public Library Collection; Melanie Porter on Great Grandporn: Hardcore Pornography of the Silent Era; Cathy Camper on The Comics of Dale Lazarov: Illustrated Explorations of Sexual Inventiveness.

Void Beats/Invocation Trex by Cavern of Anti-Matter (Holger Zapf, Joe Dilworth & Tim Gane) was released this week. The opening number is Tardis Cymbals. Tom Furse condensed the 73-minute album into a 17-minute mini-mix.

Indeed, if you had to “place” ­Williams—put him alongside writers with whom he had something in common—it would be with the mystical autodidacts, the backstreet Rosicrucians more than with the pipe-smoking, tweedy Inklings. To that extent, the only unsatisfactory thing about Grevel Lindop’s book is its title. True, Williams went to Oxford when war broke out and became friends with the famous circle around C. S. Lewis. But he was not an Inkling in spirit. He was not at home in Oxford, and his arrival, far from consolidating the Inklings, actually broke them up by bewitching Lewis, and making Lewis neglect the central friendship of his life, that with ­Tolkien. Another scholar of Old English literature, C. L. Wrenn, said that meeting Williams made you realize why inquisitors thought they had the right to burn people. Tolkien agreed: “Williams is eminently combustible.”

Certainly, Williams’s books had an influence on the Inklings. Lindop is right to say that the central plotline of Many Dimensions suggests the story of The Lord of the Rings. In the Williams novel, it is a stone of great power, rather than a ring, but it has the same effect on those who bear it: They become its possession, not its possessor.

AN Wilson reviews Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop

• Russ Fischer recommends five films by Andrzej Zulawski (RIP). Possession (1981) is still the easiest to find, and a good place to start. I enthused about On The Silver Globe (1977–87) last year.

England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground by David Keenan has been published in a revised and expanded edition by Strange Attractor.

The Preservation Man (1962): Artist and collector Bruce Lacey (RIP) filmed by Ken Russell for the BBC’s Monitor.

Barry Adamson: “I’ve been called the outsider’s outsider”.

• At Dangerous Minds: Six degrees of Marty Feldman.

• Mix of the week: FACT mix 536 by Not Waving.

• The Alan Clarke page at the BFI shop.

Umberto Eco (RIP): Porta Ludovica

Possessions (1980) by The Residents | Possessed (1992) by The Balanescu Quartet | Possessed (2001) by Sussan Deyhim & Shirin Neshat

The edge of coherence: On the Silver Globe

otsg1.jpg

Science-fiction cinema has always suffered in comparison to its written counterparts; sets and special effects have to work hard to create believable worlds or futures, while the need to recoup enormous costs has often meant that film scenarios aren’t much better than those being written in the early days of the pulp magazines. Simplistic adventure stories yield bigger audiences and greater revenues. Computer technology has helped the effects problem but production expenses ensure that inventive or unusual SF films are scarce and invariably low-budget works. Anything too ambitious or challenging is unlikely to be funded.

otsg2.jpg

On the Silver Globe is an unfinished science-fiction film by Andrzej Zulawski that even in its incomplete state is that very rare thing: a film with a fantastic premise that doesn’t appear to have been staged for an audience at all. The film is long—over two-and-a-half hours—and much of it so disregards the conventions of commercial cinema that the immediate reaction is amazement that it exists in any form. Zulawski has a cult reputation outside his native Poland for Possession (1981), a unique horror film made when he was living in exile in Paris. On the Silver Globe was one of the reasons for his leaving the country; after two years of work in several countries, and with the film almost finished, the production was shut down in 1977 by a new vice-minister of cultural affairs who perceived a metaphoric subtext directed against the Polish authorities. The existing footage was supposed to have been destroyed but Zulawski and his production team hid the film and costumes hoping one day to shoot the missing scenes. After ten years of waiting it was decided to present the film as it was with the missing scenes filled by shots of Polish streets and countryside. A voiceover by the director describes the missing content.

otsg3.jpg

Continue reading “The edge of coherence: On the Silver Globe”