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”

The Art Teacher from Drohobycz: Bruno Schulz by the Quay Brothers

schulz1.jpg

How’s this for a coincidence? While re-reading Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass I thought I’d see whether anything new by the Quay Brothers had been posted to YouTube. I should evidently keep a closer watch on the channel maintained by the Polish Cultural Institute who posted this latest short by the Quays just over a week ago, an 18-minute biographical introduction to the very same Bruno Schulz. Any time is a good time to be informed about the works of the author/artist but it was 80 years ago this month that Schulz was shot dead in the street by a Gestapo officer, an act of casual brutality that throws an indelible shadow over the stories collected in The Cinnamon Shops (aka The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.

schulz2.jpg

The Quays’ video sketches the details of Schulz’s life as well as the events that led to his death in 1942. The town of Drohobycz where he lived and worked was formerly a part of the Galicia region of Poland, but since the upheavals of the Second World War has been situated in Western Ukraine. This is the place we find transformed in Schulz’s fiction, in a cycle of narratives that aren’t so much stories as reports from a dreamworld of shifting perspectives and fluid metamorphosis, where even the boundary between life and death is made tenuous and debatable. Wojciech Has did a superb job of conveying the mutable quality of Schulz’s fiction in The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), and the Quay Brothers are currently adapting the same material, a small fragment of which may be seen in this memorial.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Quay Brothers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Hourglass Sanatorium by Wojciech Has

Morel’s inventions

1: The Invention of Morel (1940), a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

morel1.jpg

Cover art by Norah Borges.

A fugitive hides on a deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Tourists arrive, and his fear of being discovered becomes a mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them. He wants to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon keeps them apart. (more)

Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of The Screw and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy’s novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. Inspired by Bioy Casares’s fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own.

morel2.jpg

The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel….Bioy Casares’s theme is not cosmic, but metaphysical: the body is imaginary, and we bow to the tyranny of a phantom. Love is a privileged perception, the most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.

Octavio Paz


2: Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a feature film directed by Alain Resnais.

marienbad.jpg

What are these images, actually? They are imaginings; an imagining, if it is vivid enough, is always in the present. The memories one “sees again”, the remote places, the future meetings, or even the episodes of the past we each mentally rearrange to suit our convenience are something like an interior film continually projected in our own minds, as soon as we stop paying attention to what is happening around us. But at other moments, on the contrary, all our senses are registering this exterior world that is certainly there. Hence the total cinema of our mind admits both in alternation and to the same degree the present fragments of reality proposed by sight and hearing, and past fragments, or future fragments, or fragments that are completely phantasmagoric.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1961

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between Morel and Marienbad, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently never discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

Rosetta Stone to Last Year in Marienbad

lb-ds.jpg

Louise Brooks, Delphine Seyrig.

L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) is an adaptation that became a theft. It is plainly based on La Invención de Morel (1940), and this was immediately apparent to the critics who first viewed it. The Cahiers du cinéma that came out with Marienbad is full of references to Morel, of critics saying how immediate the connection was. And on a biographical level, it’s pretty obvious: in 1953, the screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet asked his editor at Critique magazine if he could write about an interesting Argentinean novel; he wrote an admiring but mixed review about the importance of the themes of solitude, memory, and the modifiable past, and how he hoped another artist could do them more justice; and seven years later, he wrote a screenplay with the same setting, characters, motifs, and themes, complete with, in first drafts, Hispanic names.
But the orthodox view about this connection, on the exceedingly rare occasions it is mentioned outside of the Hispanic world, is summarily dismissive: as a recent master’s thesis summarizes, “Since the release of Last Year at Marienbad in 1961, some critics have taken to circumventing the difficulty of the film by drawing on The Invention of Morel as the alleged inspiration for the film.”

Ann Manov, The Invention of Marienbad: Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Morel, and Adolfo Bioy Casares on the Left Bank

Without Morel, Marienbad is mostly an exercise in formalism; however, with the intertextual juxtaposition of the two, it becomes another, different work. It becomes an early false reality film, perhaps the first.

Thomas Beltzer


Continue reading “Morel’s inventions”

Weekend links 622

balbi.jpg

Testa Anatomica (1854) by Filippo Balbi.

The New School of the Anthropocene is “…an experiment. But it is also an act of repair. In partnership with October Gallery in London, we seek to reinstate the intellectual adventure and creative risk that formerly characterised arts education before the university system capitulated to market principles and managerial bureaucracy… (more)”

• “Every once in a while, you come across old music that generates a shock of new excitement.” Geeta Dayal on Oksana Linde whose electronic compositions are being released in a retrospective collection next month.

• More Walerian Borowczyk: Anatomy of the Devil, a collection of Borowczyk’s short stories, newly translated into English by Michael Levy, and with a cover design by the Quay Brothers.

• Washing machines, garden snails, and plastic surgery: A stroll through the Matmos catalogue. Related: “Why scientists are turning molecules into music.”

• Coming soon from Strange Attractor: Boogie Down Predictions, Hip Hop, Time and Afrofuturism, edited by Roy Christopher.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Exploring Japan’s historical landmarks and shrines in the middle of streets.

• New music: Adrian Sherwood Presents: Dub No Frontiers, music by female dub artists.

Winners of the 2022 Milky Way Photographer of the Year.

• A Vision In Many Voices: The art of Leo and Diane Dillon.

Molecular Delusion (1971) by Ramases | DNA Music (Molecular Meditation) (1985) by Riley McLaughlin | Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop 1) (2008) by Stereolab

Quay Brothers posters

quays01.jpg

This Sweet Sickness (1977).

Looking around for Quay Brothers designs turned up an item I hadn’t seen before, a poster for the UK release of a French film by Claude Miller, This Sweet Sickness, starring Gérard Depardieu. I’ve not seen the film either, nor have I read the Patricia Highsmith novel on which it was based although a copy of the book has been sitting on my shelves for some time, together with a couple of other unread Highsmiths. The poster dates from just before the Quays started to get serious about their own film-making.

quays02.jpg

Nocturna Artificiala: Those Who Desire Without End (1979). The organ pipes, which don’t appear in the film, are an allusion to the improvised organ score by Stefan Cichonski.

Being graphic designers as well as film-makers puts the Quay Brothers in a very rare class, one where they not only make the films but also design the posters used to promote their films. Offhand, I can only think of the late Eva Svankmajerová as being in the same company so it’s perhaps fitting that her husband and artistic collaborator, Jan Svankmajer, was the subject of an early film by the Quays.

quays03.jpg

Street of Crocodiles (1986).

quays04.jpg

quays05.jpg

Stille Nacht: Dramolet (1988). An early use of Heinrich Holzmüller’s typographic designs.

Continue reading “Quay Brothers posters”