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 249

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The Philosophers (Homage to Courbet) by Christopher Ulrich. Another great tip from Full Fathom Five.

• “Mushrooms are the only psychedelic drugs that I take, and I don’t take them very often. But I would trust them. Once you’ve done them a few times it’s very easy to feel a sense of entity. You can feel that there is a characteristic in this level of consciousness which almost seems…playful? Or aware, or sometimes a bit spooky.” Alan Moore discussing art and psychedelics in Mustard magazine. Related: “Psychedelics not linked to mental health problems or suicidal behavior: A population study.”

• “Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant-garde star,” says Boyd Tonkin. At the BBC Chris Long looks at Leonora Carrington’s journey from Lancashire to Mexico. The Carrington exhibition at Tate Liverpool opened on Friday.

A Savoyard’s First Brush with Censorship, Clara Casian’s proposed documentary film about Savoy Books, is looking for Kickstarter funding.

Warner suggests that there are four characteristics that define a veritable fairy tale: first, it should be short; second, it should be (or seem) familiar; third, it should suggest ‘the necessary presence of the past’ through well-known plots and characters; fourth, since fairy tales are told in what Warner aptly calls ‘a symbolic Esperanto’, it should allow horrid deeds and truculent events to be read as matter-of-fact. If, as Warner says, ‘the scope of a fairy tale is made by language’, it is through language that our unconscious world, with its dreams and half-grasped intuitions, comes into being and its phantoms are transformed into comprehensible figures like cannibal giants, wicked parents or friendly beasts.

Alberto Manguel reviewing Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

De Natura Sonorum (1976) by Bernard Parmegiani: a free download at AGP of the original vinyl recording, something I overlooked several years ago.

• At Dangerous Minds: Real Horrorshow!: Malcolm McDowell and Anthony Burgess discuss Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange.

Meeting Bernard Szajner, a short film about the French electronic musician by Tom Colvile, Nathan Gibson & Abdullah Al-wali.

• Dismembrance of the Thing’s Past: Dave Tompkins on John Carpenter’s The Thing.

That Battle Is Over, a new song by Jenny Hval.

Mushroom (1971) by Can | The Mushroom Family (2010) by The Time And Space Machine | Growing Mushrooms Of Potency (2012) by Expo 70

Weekend links 187

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Delia Derbyshire (2007) by Iker Spozio.

Whatever you think of Doctor Who, Delia Derbyshire’s recording of Ron Grainer’s theme tune is a landmark piece of electronic music. Those glassy electronic tones still sound unique today, not least for their having been created using rudimentary oscillators and much laborious tape editing. In Radiophonic Workshop: the shadowy pioneers of electronic sound, Joe Muggs looks at the history of the BBC’s electronic composers. If you’re a Radiophonic-head then the Alchemists of Sound TV documentary from 2003 is essential viewing.

There’s more (there’s always more): Delia Derbyshire – Sculptress of Sound: part one of a seven-part radio documentary about the great electronic music composer, and Blue Veils and Golden Sands, Martyn Wade’s radio play about Delia. Related: Delia-Derbyshire.org, Delia Derbyshire: An audiological chronology and A History of the Doctor Who theme. And don’t miss: Silence Is Requested In The Ultimate Abyss (1969) by Welfare State and White Noise, an incredible slice of electro-psychedelia from the John Peel Presents Top Gear album.

• “Why don’t books for grown-ups have illustrations any more?” asks Christopher Howse. Some of them do, this past week I’ve been finishing a new series of illustrations for a story anthology.

• From 2006: Ian Penman on cigarettes, espionage, and the masterful (and superior) television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It was Malcolm [McLaren] who suggested that the main characters be a boy who looks like a girl who looks like a boy and vice versa. What was strange was that, actually, in 1985 this was nobody’s vision of the fashion industry. Since then, fashion and fascism have crept closer: you’ve got John Galliano doing his promotional bits for the Third Reich, you’ve got Alexander McQueen killing himself, you’ve got Versace and that horrible, violent stalker coming for him. Since it was written, almost all of it has come true apart from the nuclear winter, but I think we’re working on that. The actual society that the story happens in is much more like the society we have now than culture was in 1985.

Alan Moore on Fashion Beast, Situationism, and why he hates superheroes.

• KW Jeter talks about his latest novel, Fiendish Schemes, and the “cultural juggernaut” that is steampunk.

• Grit and Social Dynamics in Smoke Ghost: Elwin Cotman on the weird fiction of Fritz Leiber.

The Secret Lives of the Vatican’s Gay Cardinals, Monks, and Other Clergy Members.

Don Cherry & Organic Music Theatre, live in the RAI TV studios, 1976.

• Otherworldly Art and Photography: Mlle Ghoul finds the best things.

• From 1998: Rahma Khazam on composer Bernard Parmegiani.

• Mix of the week: Marshland: The Mix by Hackneymarshman.

• “Let’s colonize the clouds of Venus,” says Ian Steadman.

J. Hoberman on David Cronenberg’s Visual Shock.

The Delian Mode (1968) by Delia Derbyshire | Tom Baker (1981) by The Human League | Doctor Who? (1984) by Doctor Pablo & The Dub Syndicate

L’Araignéléphant

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L’Araignéléphant (1967) is another of the strange animations made by Piotr Kamler in the 1960s and 1970s, this one being a 9-minute piece concerning the travails of “the spiderelephant”. As with Kamler’s Le labyrinthe, the music is by the French electroacoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani whose death was announced this week, hence the link. Parmegiani had a varied career which included scores for a number of other films (among them a Jan Lenica short, A, which I’ve not been able to find), and more commercial music than people at his serious end of the composition scale usually produce.

Ubuweb has a selection of Parmegiani’s longer compositions, one of which, Pop’eclectic (1969–1973), chops up pop and classical recordings (spot the Small Faces!) in a manner which would become commonplace a decade or so later with the advent of sampling. The Kamler films, meanwhile, are all available on a single DVD where the narration for L’Araignéléphant—which doesn’t explain very much—is subtitled.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Psyché Rock
Le labyrinthe and Coeur de secours
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler

Le labyrinthe and Coeur de secours

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Le labyrinthe (1969).

Among the new arrivals at Ubuweb there’s the very welcome addition of more animated films by Polish director Piotr Kamler. Kamler’s incredible Chronopolis (1982) was posted there late last year, a longer work than these shorter films which are nonetheless fascinating in themselves. For a start they show the range of Kamler’s animation which differs radically from film to film. Le labyrinthe is the kind of thing SF artist Richard Powers might have made had he been offered an animation commission: a human figure paces through increasingly threatening corridors and empty spaces until the winged creatures that haunt the zone bear down on him. Coeur de secours is more a sequence of events than anything that might be easily summarised; I’d seen this one years ago on Channel 4 but didn’t remember a thing about it. Chronopolis was notable for its electronic score by Luc Ferrari, and both the earlier films have similar soundtracks created by Bernard Parmegiani and Francois Bayle respectively. All these films, Chronopolis included, are collected on a recent DVD which I’ll definitely be buying. Kamler’s work, like that of Patrick Bokanowski and the Quay Brothers, goes places that films with much larger budgets can never reach.

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Coeur de secours (1973).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler