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

The Art of Tripping, a documentary by Storm Thorgerson

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How does this sound? 100 minutes of solidly informative documentary about the use of drugs by artists from the early 19th century on; a production that calls upon a remarkable cast of contributors (see below), with music by David Gilmour, and the whole thing “devised and directed” by Storm Thorgerson, better known as one third of the great Hipgnosis design team.

The Art of Tripping was broadcast in two parts in 1993 during the Without Walls arts strand on Channel 4 (UK). David Gale was the writer, with actor Bernard Hill playing the part of the narrator and guide. The programme managed to deal with a contentious subject without indulging in hysteria or insulting the intelligence of the audience, a rare thing today. Twenty years ago it was still possible to make a documentary about a popular subject without having any low-grade celebrity-du-jour offering their wretched opinion. The contributors here who aren’t medical people are almost all writers of one kind or another; Thorgerson and Gale punctuate the proceedings with a few actors who impersonate various historical figures.

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Without Walls was a very good series on the whole but this for me was a real highlight (no pun intended). In addition to it being a rare example of Storm Thorgerson working in television, the direction showed how it was possible to match the theme without recourse to cliché or flashy visuals. There isn’t a single moment of archive footage either. Thorgerson’s history of “socially unacceptable” drugs is structured as a journey through the levels of a multi-storey building, from ground floor to roof; being familiar with the director’s free-associative working methods I can imagine this being a result of thinking about getting high. Bernard Hill encounters the various commentators in successive rooms, each of which is furnished and lit to suggestively imply the drug in question. The use of lighting as a key motif is a smart one, and another metaphor, of course, for literal and symbolic (or spiritual) illumination. Editing effects are also deployed to thematically correspond to the different substances.

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This would be very successful even without a wide range of contributors but Thorgerson and company assembled a stunning array of different writers, many of whom I’d never seen on TV before, and many of whom didn’t turn up again. Some of them fill dual roles, so JG Ballard is on hand to enthuse about Naked Lunch, and appears later talking about his bad LSD trip. Similarly, Brian Aldiss talks about Anna Kavan, and also about Philip K Dick. Below there’s a rough list of the drugs covered and the people involved. In the two decades since this was made many of the people involved have since died, the director included, so the film now has the feel of a historical artefact. The Art of Tripping can be see in full at YouTube. This is how good British television used to be.

Opium
Dr Virginia Berridge (author), Grevel Lindop (author), Marek Kohn (author), Dr EMR Critchley (author), Phil Daniels (as Thomas De Quincey), Dr Tony Dickenson (neuropharmacologist), Dr Ian Walker (author), Thom Booker (as Edgar Allan Poe), Dr Peggy Reynolds (author)
Hashish
Prof John Hemmings (author), Ronald Hayman (author), Patrick Barlow (as Theophile Gautier), John McEnery (as Charles Baudelaire), Jon Finch (as Gérard de Nerval), Bernard Howells (lecturer, King’s College, London), June Rose (author), John Richardson (author), Margaret Crosland (author), Danny Webb (as Jean Cocteau), Robin Buss (translator), David Gascoyne (poet), George Melly (collector, Surrealist art)
Mescaline
Prof Eric Mottram (University of London), Francis Huxley (nephew of Aldous Huxley), Jay Stevens (author), Laura Huxley (widow of Aldous Huxley),
Psilocybin
Brian Cory (as Robert Graves), Paul O’Prey (author)
Marijuana / Nitrous Oxide
Harry Shapiro (author), Carolyn Cassady (author), Prof Ann Charters (author), Allen Ginsberg (poet)
Kief
Paul Bowles (author)
Heroin
JG Ballard (author), Prof Avital Ronell (author), Hubert Selby Jr (author), Brian Aldiss (author)
LSD
Dr Oscar Janiger (experimental psychiatrist), Diana Quick (as Anaïs Nin), Prof Malcolm Lader (psychopharmacologist), Dr Timothy Leary (author), Todd Boyco (as Andy Warhol)
Amphetamine
Lawrence Sutin (author)
Cocaine
Robert Stone (author), Prof. Annette Dolphin (neuropharmacologist)
MDMA

Previously on { feuilleton }
Storm Thorgerson, 1944–2013
Hipgnosis turkeys
Enter the Void
Opium fiends
La Morphine by Victorien du Saussay
In the Land of Retinal Delights
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
Storm Thorgerson: Right But Wrong
Demon rum leads to heroin
The art of LSD
Hep cats
German opium smokers, 1900

Weekend links 181

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Cover of Eye no. 86 vol. 22, 2013, a type special. Detail from 1970s Letratone brochure, overprinted by character from the Marsh stencil alphabet.

The new edition of Eye magazine includes my essay on the evolution and aesthetics of steampunk. In the same issue Rick Poynor’s feature on the prints of Eduardo Paolozzi mentions a forthcoming book by David Brittain about the artist’s associations with New Worlds magazine in the 1960s. I designed the Paolozzi volume which will be published by Savoy Books in a few weeks’ time. More about that later.

Still on steampunk, KW Jeter notes its popularity among the younger crowd: “If some old fogey peering through his smudged bifocals can’t discern the cool and important stuff going on, such as the tsunami of anarchic multiculturalists using the steampunk scalpel to dissect the past and reassemble it like a two-dollar watch, that’s his loss; the readers are picking up on it.”

• Musicians interviewed: Rhys Chatham: “The reason I got into trumpet playing is because I wanted to play like [Black Sabbath guitarist] Tony Iommi.” | James Ginzburg: “One of the strongest feelings I had was that the act of sitting down and making dance music was like playing a video game…I felt disconnected from it…” | Julia Holter: “I love working with the voice, I love mystery, I love creating atmosphere.” | Roly Porter: “I sit at home and listen to folk and blues from before I was born. I listen to a lot of dub and reggae and classical music. These are all genres which to me seem really interlinked and influential.”

• At Kickstarter: From the director of Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, a short film entitled Do Not Disturb. “Two men are forced to share a motel room on a dark & stormy night. One man’s snoring starts to summon creatures into our world.”

The Notting Hill of the 1960s – with Moorcock’s marriage, children, celebrity, the editorship of New Worlds, the collaboration with JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss and the rest – became the proving ground for the shape-shifting Carnaby Street dandy Jerry Cornelius. But all the numerous Moorcock characters, those undying and born-again clones, have a part to play in his “multiverse”, a concept he developed alongside the earlier model suggested by John Cowper Powys. Moorcock’s astonishing catalogue of speculative fiction works to prove his key equation, which is based on meta-temporal parallel worlds drawn from HG Wells, Chaos Theory, String Theory, the Edgar Rice Burroughs of John Carter of Mars and the William Burroughs of Nova Express and the “Interzone”. Publishing all the strange rafts and pods of Moorcock’s prodigious science fiction and fantasy output, as Gollancz have done, is like assembling a ghost fleet, under the joint command of Dr John Dee and Admiral John Ford, with which to invade that uncertain continent we know as the past.

Iain Sinclair on the new series of Michael Moorcock editions from Gollancz.

• “What does science tell us about the relative dangers of drugs? Alcohol is by far the No. 1 most dangerous drug.” Some graphs from the American Enterprise Institute who no one would accuse of being a bunch of stoners.

• “I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.” Alice Munro at The Paris Review.

Elena Smith on Literary Parkour: @Horse_ebooks, Jonathan Franzen, and the Rise of Twitter Fiction. Related: Boris Kachka has a list of Everything Jonathan Franzen currently hates.

• Mixes of the week: Joseph Burnett compiles Adventures in Modern Jazz while Kier-La Janisse puts together a British Horror mix for Fangoria.

Explore the planet Mars, one giant image at a time.

• At BibliOdyssey: The Turner’s Manual.

A Crimson Grail (for 400 Electric Guitars) (2007) by Rhys Chatham | Arrakis (2011) by Roly Porter | City Appearing (2013) by Julia Holter | Debris (2013) by Faint Wild Light

Weekend links 60

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Jean Genet (1950) by Leonor Fini.

• Bibliothèque Gay looks at a series of erotic engravings made by Leonor Fini for La Galère (1947) by Jean Genet. The author reciprocated with Mademoiselle: A Letter to Leonor Fini. At the hetero end of the erotic spectrum, Tate Liverpool will be showing a series of drawings by René Magritte produced for a proposed edition of Madame Eduarda by Georges Bataille. René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle opens next month.

George Clinton will be appearing with Nona Hendryx at the British Library on 18th June, to talk about “all things galactic”. In addition there’s a screening of John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, a documentary about Afrofuturism and black science fiction. See an introduction to that here. Related: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has acquired the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership for its collection.

• RIP Gil Scott-Heron. “Why does this colossus remain relatively unknown? Is he too political? Too uncompromising? Too angry? Too satirical? Too painful? Too playful? Too alive? Too black? Too human?” Jamie Byng in Gil Scott-Heron: poet, campaigner and America’s rough healer.

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Le Fils du Maçon (1950) by Leonor Fini.

China Miéville examines alternative histories in Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry, David Britton’s Lord Horror and Richard Curtis’s chilling dystopia, Notting Hill.

• What happened to Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and Gille Lettmann when the Kosmische Musik dream collapsed? Find out here.

• Mlle Ghoul interviews Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction about horror paperbacks, good and bad.

• Another Surrealist woman: Claude Cahun at Strange Flowers.

The Key of Hell: an eighteenth-century sorcery manual.

Partitura 001: realtime sound visualisation.

Scientific Illustration: a Tumblr.

Cosmic Slop (1973) by Funkadelic | Cosmic Slop (1991) by Material.

Eduardo Paolozzi’s Jet Age Compendium

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Detail from the cover of Ambit # 40, 1969.

A teenage enthusiasm for Pop Art meant I was familiar with the paintings and collages of Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005) long before I became aware of his association with sf magazine New Worlds, and his friendship with JG Ballard. Paolozzi was famously credited on the masthead of New Worlds as “Aeronautics Advisor”, a listing which impressed the relevant authorities when Brian Aldiss petitioned for an Arts Council grant and saved the magazine from collapse. Paolozzi’s work was featured in New Worlds now and then, and he provided a cover for issue 174, but it was to Ambit magazine one had to turn to see regular work by the artist.

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New Worlds #174, Aug 1967.

My favouritism towards New Worlds has always led me to see Ambit as NW-lite; frequent NW contributor JG Ballard was Ambit‘s fiction editor, and both stood to the side of the British literary scene, although Ambit editor Martin Bax didn’t share Michael Moorcock’s preference for pursuing generic or experimental means to Romantic or visionary ends. Quibbles aside, it’s good to see Paolozzi’s work for the magazine is now the subject of an exhibition, The Jet Age Compendium, at Raven Row, London, and also a book, The Jet Age Compendium: Paolozzi at Ambit from Four Corners Books. If you can’t see the former, the latter is priced £12.95 which strikes me as very reasonable.

The Jet Age Compendium runs until 1 November 2009. For an insight into the artist’s interests and attitudes, there’s a great Studio International interview here from 1971 with Paolozzi and Ballard talking to art critic Frank Whitford.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Sculptural collage: Eduardo Paolozzi
Revenant volumes: Bob Haberfield, New Worlds and others