The Heat of a Thousand Suns by Pierre Kast

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In an earlier post I mentioned how invaluable I’d found Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies, a large-format study published in 1976. Like Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), the book was intended as a cheap introduction to a popular genre but Strick wasn’t content to limit himself to familiar titles, offering instead a remarkably eclectic list of films, many of which are barely science fictional at all: Last Year at Marienbad, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hour of the Wolf, Teorema, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and so on. For my teenage self, and no doubt many other readers, this was my first encounter with these and other titles, and it was Strick’s descriptions that kept me on the lookout for them for many years (over 20 in the case of Saragossa). Strick’s equanimity treated cinema as a global medium, not one where Hollywood dominates the marketplace and all the conversation. Other films under discussion were definitely SF but unviewable to those of us who without access to an arts cinema, and little hope of ever seeing them on TV, European obscurities such as La Jetée, Fantastic Planet, Je t’aime, je t’aime and The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. Despite the book’s age, and the relative ease with which anyone can now see films such as these, a few scarcities remain, one of which I watched for the first time last week.

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The Heat of a Thousand Suns/La Brûlure de Mille Soleils (1965) is a 25-minute animated film written and directed by Pierre Kast that Strick not only describes but further tantalises the reader with a pair of stills, which may account for its title having lodged in my memory all this time. Strick discusses the film between two other animations that are now very familiar: The Green Planet, an early work by Piotr Kamler, and Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk. (If all this sounds like wilful obscurantism on Strick’s part, on the previous page he discusses a pair of classic Hollywood features, This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet.) Kamler’s film is a humorous one, while Borowczyk’s is strange and disturbing; Kast’s film is pitched somewhere between the two:

A young man in the far future becomes bored with the solar system he knows too well and goes for an unrepeatable trip to the stars, in the company of his robots and his cat. On a remote planet he encounters a tranquil civilization where something has only to be wished for, and it happens; he meets a girl, they fall in love, and their romance is frustrated by his complete inability to recognize the different standards of her society where sexual groups of eight comprise a family. Put together from paintings by a Spanish surrealist artist, Eduardo Luiz, whose suffused landscapes and delicate tapering figures provide the perfect balance to the gentle melancholy of the hero’s monologue, the film has the same touch of scorn at its centre as was evident in Kast’s other science-fiction works, Amour de Poche (1957) and Les Soleils de l’Ile de Pâques (1971), although its twinkling conclusion is more in keeping with his romantic comedy Vacances Portugaises (1961). It’s one of the most effective screen versions so far of science fiction’s crusade not so much for a better world as for better people on it.

Strick also mentions a detail about the production that I’d forgotten, namely the editing being the work of La Jetée director, Chris Marker. The latter’s credit makes the inclusion of a space-faring cat both funny and fitting although the animal is unconcerned by interstellar travel, and spends most of its time asleep. Another notable name is electronic composer Bernard Parmegiani who provided the score for this and other films by Kast; he also scored several shorts by Piotr Kamler and Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges.

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Now that I’ve finally seen Kast’s film I wouldn’t say it was worth the wait but it was definitely worth watching. The animation is very minimal, with most of the shots being still images that the camera wanders over. The SF scenario is very conventional, as are the trappings: a pointed rocket, bleeping robots, aliens that look and behave like Earth people even if they do have eight sexes. The film distinguishes itself much more with its design, the Giacometti-like figures, and the interior of the spacecraft which pre-empts Barbarella with its lavish chambers filled with period decor and artwork. Despite Strick’s praise, Kast’s conventionality seems a missed opportunity when animation can do so much more than ape live-action cinema. Piotr Kamler’s films, in particular Labyrinth (1969) and Chronopolis (1983), offer science-fiction scenarios that are remote from our own lives and preoccupations; so too with Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges, a film whose industrial nightmare is closer to David Lynch than Barbarella. Kast does have a late surprise, however, although this may only mean anything to those familiar with Chris Marker’s photography.

The Heat of a Thousand Suns is on YouTube but with no subtitles for its French narration. The copy I watched was from this page which includes a subtitle file. I suspect this may be a DVD rip, and therefore immoral, but the same probably applies to the YouTube version as well. The choice is yours.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford
Saragossa Manuscript posters
Marienbad hauntings
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler
Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk

Weekend links 266

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Spine and cover art by John Schoenherr for the first American edition of Dune, 1965.

• “[Herbert] had also taken peyote and read Jung. In 1960, a sailing buddy introduced him to the Zen thinker Alan Watts, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Long conversations with Watts, the main conduit by which Zen was permeating the west-coast counterculture, helped turn Herbert’s pacy adventure story into an exploration of temporality, the limits of personal identity and the mind’s relationship to the body.” Hari Kunzru on Frank Herbert and Dune, 50 years on. Related: “To save California, read Dune,” says Andrew Leonard. There’s a lot more Dune cover art at ISFDB.

• “Embedded in Adam’s footage were several dark forms, human-ish in outline, unidentifiable but unmistakable, visible within the leaves or the shadows.” Holloway is a short film by Adam Scovell based on the book by Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards and Stanley Donwood.

The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors by Roger Dobson; edited and with an introduction by Mark Valentine. Roger and Mark were my first publishers in 1988 when their Caermaen Books imprint produced the large-format edition of The Haunter of the Dark.

• “…over the years he created a series of ‘Pharmacies’: rows of glass bottles filled not with medicines to cure the body…but objects to stimulate the mind.” Clare Walters reviews Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London.

• “The sound machines we build today are invariably one-offs, made from salvaged parts, with all the precariousness of a prototype.” Sarah Angliss on the art of making music machines.

Mission Desire is a new single by Jane Weaver whose video is “set to scenes from Marie Mathématique – the French 1960s mini-series about Barbarella’s younger sister”.

• Ghost signs, ginnels and hidden details: an alternative guide to Manchester by Hayley Flynn aka Skyliner.

• “I want to be despised,” says John Waters who has a new art exhibition at Sprüth Magers, London.

Sonic Praise, an album of “Krautprogbikermetal” by Ecstatic Vision.

• The Evolution of the Great Gay Novel: an overview by Rebecca Brill.

* At Bibliothèque Gay: more homoerotic drawings by Jean Cocteau.

Wyrd Daze Lvl2 Issue 3 is a free download.

Nicolas Winding Refn: vinyl collector.

Art With Naked Guys In It

Caladan (2011) by Roly Porter | Giedi Prime (2011) by Roly Porter | Arrakis (2011) by Roly Porter

Saga de Xam by Nicolas Devil

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Saga de Xam, a large-format comic book published by Éric Losfeld in 1967, is another example of French erotic psychedelia that remained off my radar until I got my hands on the exhibition catalogue for the Musée d’Orsay’s Art Nouveau Revival show in 2010. The glorious drawing below was used as the background for the exhibition poster, and appeared inside the catalogue with two more pages from this rare and sought-after book, described in the catalogue as “the best and most precocious example of French BD directly inspired by American psychedelia”.

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Éric Losfeld is a fascinating character, a kind of pop-culture equivalent of Maurice Girodias, the founder of Olympia Press. Both men published erotic novels, and both had problems with the authorities as a result; but Losfeld also found a niche in art and graphics, producing albums of erotic comic strips—Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella, Guy Peellaert’s Jodelle and Pravda, Guido Crepax’s Valentina, Philippe Caza’s Kris Kool—and lavish portfolios from the weirder end of the erotic art spectrum, showcasing work by Raymond Bertrand, Jean-Marie Poumeyrol and others. It’s common for Brits to consider France a more enlightened nation where sex and comic-art is concerned but in the 1960s comics in France were considered an unsuitable medium for sexual material. Many of Losfeld’s comic-books of the late 60s and early 70s endured the kind of censure that was occurring in Britain and elsewhere. An early non-erotic title was Lone Sloane: Mystère des Abîmes in 1966, the first Lone Sloane story by Philippe Druillet. This no doubt explains Druillet’s involvement with Saga de Xam a year later.

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Saga de Xam: les créateurs.

The comics by Forest, Peellaert and Crepax all featured attractive (often naked) woman as their lead characters. Saga de Xam continued the trend, a story in seven chapters that reads like an amalgam of all the comics Losfeld had published up to that point, Druillet included. The book is credited to Nicolas Devil, and based on a scenario by film director Jean Rollin. (Druillet would later design some posters for Rollin’s vampire films.) Devil, aka Nicolas Deville, was one of Rollin’s art directors who also worked for a time as a comic artist and illustrator. For Saga de Xam Devil was the principal artist in the first six chapters, and wrote most of the text and dialogue. In the final chapter other hands are involved: Jim Tiroff, an actor from Julian Beck’s Living Theatre, provided a poem in English, while the artwork is an unusual exercise in the Surrealist “Exquisite Corpse” technique with Devil, Druillet and several other artists—Barbara Girard, Merri, Nicolas Kapnist—collaborating on a series of improvised splash pages. The final chapter also features arrangements of text that resemble layouts from avant-garde art magazines. Druillet’s contributions are easy to identify since they resemble invasions from his Lone Sloane series, even including references to the Necronomicon.

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Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller

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I said, “Girl, you drank a lot of Drink Me,
But you ain’t in a Wonderland
You know I might-a be there to greet you, child,
When your trippin’ ship touches sand.”

Donovan, The Trip (1966).

Most of the key texts of the psychedelic period tend to be either non-fiction—Huxley’s Doors of Perception, Leary’s Psychedelic Experience—or spiritual works such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead , the volume upon which Leary’s book is based and which subsequently provided John Lennon with lines for Tomorrow Never Knows. The key fictional work of the era has to be Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a fact that would no doubt have surprised the book’s legions of enthusiastic Victorian readers, never mind its author. Grace Slick created the definitive Alice song with White Rabbit in 1965, written while she was with the Great Society but only recorded properly in 1967 after she’d joined Jefferson Airplane. But Alice’s adventures run a rich seam of Victorian whimsy through the music of 1966 to ’69, especially among the British bands whose lyrics tend to be far more childish and frivolous than their American counterparts. Donovan probably got there first among the Brits with The Trip on his Sunshine Superman album. Among the profusion of later references can be found one-off singles such as Alice in Wonderland (1967) by the Dave Heenan Set (who recorded songs for the Barbarella soundtrack as The Glitterhouse) and Jabberwock/Which Dreamed It? (1968) by Boeing Duveen & The Beautiful Soup, a band whose songwriter is better known today as Hank Wangford.

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John Phillip Law, 1937–2008

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Pygar the angel, Barbarella (1968).

John Phillip Law, who died on Tuesday, was featured here last year in a look at Mario Bava’s crazy live action fumetti, Danger Diabolik (below). Law made that film the same year as he played a blind angel in an equally crazy slab of Sixties’ decadence, Barbarella. In a more serious role, he played opposite the very formidable Rod Steiger in The Sergeant which was released the same year; together with Victim, this was one of the first films I remember watching that dealt with same-sex attraction (albeit in the usual angst-ridden mode), with Law’s character being the understandable object of Steiger’s doomed affection.

After those heights, things tended to be more down than up but I do have an affection for Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). Law’s Sinbad was pretty good even if he spends much of the time fighting monsters while Tom Baker was great as the villainous Koura. And I always appreciated that screenwriter Brian Clemens made Lemuria the destination of the voyage, a lost continent mentioned by Madame Blavatsky and many of the Weird Tales writers, including HP Lovecraft in The Haunter of the Dark.

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Danger Diabolik (1968).

Previously on { feuilleton }
CQ
Danger Diabolik