Caresses by Fernand Khnopff

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Details from Caresses aka The Caress (1896), the most famous painting by Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff which can now be explored in detail at the Google Art Project. Caresses was one of Khnopff’s more enigmatic works although the term is a relative one when it comes to an oeuvre in which enigma is the default position. The combination of a young male, a feline female and the trappings of antiquity suggests Oedipus and the Sphinx although the Sphinx of mythology is a far more threatening presence. Adding to the enigma is the fact that Khnopff’s sister, Marguerite, was his model in most of his paintings which means we can recognise her heavily-jawed features in the male figure as well as the female. The essence of Symbolism for me has always been an atmosphere of unresolved pictorial mystery, a quality which this painting exemplifies.

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Malcolm McDowell and Ruth Brigitte Tocki in a deleted scene from Cat People (1982).

The mystery would have been carried over to the cinematic world in 1982 if the producers of Cat People had kept their nerve. The “Leopard Tree” dream sequence was to have featured a moment when Irena (Nastassia Kinski) meets her dead brother and mother in a pose which recapitulates Khnopff’s painting. The painting itself also appeared earlier in the film although it’s so long since I watched it I forget now whether that moment was also excised. The dream sequence may have been stretching audience credulity too far but the symbolism is fitting not least for the incestuous nature of the story. Here’s the scene in the final cut set to Giorgio Moroder’s fantastic score.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The painting definitely did appear on-screen in 1993 where it overshadows a crucial conversation in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Given that the setting is New York in the 1870s the usage is slightly anachronistic but once again the symbolism works for a scene which concerns unacceptable and unrequited passions.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Symbolist cinema
Bruges-la-Morte

Screening Kafka

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Kafka (1991).

This week I completed the interior design for a new anthology from Tachyon, Kafkaesque, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. It’s a collection of short stories either inspired by Franz Kafka, or with a Kafka-like atmosphere, and features a high calibre of contributions from writers including JG Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Lethem and Philip Roth, and also the comic strip adaptation of The Hunger Artist by Robert Crumb. When I knew this was incoming I rewatched a few favourite Kafka-inspired film and TV works, and belatedly realised I have something of a predilection for these things. What follows is a list of some favourites from the Kafkaesque dramas I’ve seen to date. IMDB lists 72 titles crediting Kafka as the original writer so there’s still a lot more to see.

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The Trial (1962), dir: Orson Welles.

Orson Welles in one of his Peter Bogdanovich interviews describes how producer Alexander Salkind gave him a list of literary classics to which he owned the rights and asked him to pick one. Given a choice of Kafka titles Welles says he would have chosen The Castle but The Trial was the only one on the list so it’s this which became the first major adaptation of a Kafka novel. Welles always took some liberties with adaptations—even Shakespeare wasn’t sacred—and he does so here. I’m not really concerned whether this is completely faithful to the book, however, it’s a first-class work of cinema which shows Welles’ genius for improvisation in the use of the semi-derelict Gare d’Orsay in Paris as the main setting. (Welles had commissioned set designs but the money to pay for those disappeared at the last minute.) As well as scenes in Paris the film mixes other scenes shot in Rome and Zagreb with Anthony Perkins’ Josef K frequently jumping across Europe in a single cut. The resulting blend of 19th-century architecture, industrial ruin and Modernist offices which Welles called “Jules Verne modernism” continues to be a big inspiration for me when thinking about invented cities. Kafka has been fortunate in having many great actors drawn to his work; here with Perkins there’s Welles himself as the booming and hilarious Advocate, together with Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Akim Tamiroff.

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Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

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This is a post I’d been intent on writing for the past four years but kept putting off: why go to great lengths to describe another television drama which people can’t see? And how do you easily appraise something which haunted you for twenty years and which remains a significant obsession? My hand has been forced at last by a forthcoming event (detailed below) so this at least has some fleeting relevance, but before getting to that let’s have some facts.

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Penda’s Fen was a TV play first screened in March 1974 in the BBC’s Play For Today strand. It was shot entirely on film (many dramas in the 1970s recorded their interiors on video) and runs for about 90 minutes. The writer was David Rudkin and it was directed by Alan Clarke, a director regarded by many (myself included) as one of the great talents to emerge from British television during the 1960s and 70s. The film was commissioned by David Rose, a producer at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, as one of a number of regional dramas. Rudkin was, and still is, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter whose work is marked by recurrent themes which would include the tensions between pagan spirituality and organized religion, and the emergence of unorthodox sexuality. Both these themes are present in Penda’s Fen, and although the sexuality aspect of his work is important—pioneering, even—he’s far from being a one-note proselytiser. Alan Clarke is renowned today for his later television work which included filmed plays such as Scum (banned by the BBC and re-filmed as a feature), Made in Britain (Tim Roth’s debut piece), The Firm (with Gary Oldman), and Elephant whose title and Steadicam technique were swiped by Gus Van Sant. Penda’s Fen was an early piece for Clarke after which his work became (in Rudkin’s words) “fierce and stark”.

The most ambitious of Alan Clarke’s early projects, Penda’s Fen at first seems a strange choice for him. Most scripts that attracted Clarke, no matter how non-naturalistic, had a gritty, urban feel with springy vernacular dialogue (and sometimes almost no dialogue). David Rudkin’s screenplay is different: rooted in a mystical rural English landscape, it is studded with long, self-consciously poetic speeches and dense with sexual/mythical visions and dreams, theological debate and radical polemic—as well as an analysis of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. But though Penda’s Fen is stylistically the odd film out in Clarke’s work, it trumpets many of his favourite themes, in particular what it means to be English in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Howard Schuman, Sight & Sound, September 1998

Spencer Banks is the principal actor in Penda’s Fen, playing Stephen Franklin, an 18-year-old in his final days at school. The BBC’s Radio Times magazine described the film briefly:

Young Stephen, in the last summer of his boyhood, has somehow awakened a buried force in the landscape around him. It is trying to communicate some warning, a peril he is in; some secret knowledge; some choice he must make, some mission for which he is marked down.

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The magazine also interviewed Rudkin about the film:

“I think of Penda’s Fen as more a film for television than a TV play—not just because it was shot in real buildings on actual film but because of its visual force…

“It was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business—that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen…

Penda’s Fen is a very simple story; it tells of a boy, Stephen, who in the last summer of his boyhood has a series of encounters in the landscape near his home which alter his view of the world…
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Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka

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Do you detect a theme this week? The recent Pragueness had me watching this favourite film again. I unfairly dismissed Soderbergh after his debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), which I found to be two hours of yuppie tedium despite its winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes. That prize did enable him to make Kafka (1991), however, so I shouldn’t complain although I didn’t get to see this until it turned up on TV years after its release. The film was a major flop and put Soderbergh in the wilderness until Out of Sight (1998), his first outing with George Clooney.

Kafka is one of a small group of works wherein well-known writers become embroiled in stories which exactly parallel their fiction. Joe Gores’ Hammett (filmed by Wim Wenders in 1982) did this with Dashiell Hammett while Mark Frost in his novel, The List of Seven, had a pre-Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle becoming involved in a Holmesian mystery. The screenplay for Kafka by Lem Dobbs has the author falling in with anarchist revolutionaries in order to solve the death of a co-worker and a bureaucratic conspiracy. This was obviously too clever for a general audience, being littered with references to Kafka’s life and work and also to German Expressionist cinema with names like “Orlac” and “Murnau” comprising key plot elements. Dobbs wrote a couple of other noteworthy screenplays after this, Dark City, a noirish fantasy that does what The Matrix did only with greater imagination, and The Limey (1999), another Soderbergh film with a great performance by Terence Stamp as a vengeful Cockney gangster on the loose in Los Angeles.

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Alan Bennett had already done something similar to Kafka in his TV film for the BBC, The Insurance Man, which concerns a dye worker becoming enmeshed in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked as a clerk. Daniel Day-Lewis made a marvellous Franz Kafka in Bennett’s play and was far more suited to the role than Jeremy Irons is in Soderbergh’s film. This is a shame since everything else about Kafka is excellent, from the moody black and white photography and fabulous cymbalom-inflected score by Cliff Martinez, to the cast, which includes the wonderful Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm and—in one of his last performances—Sir Alec Guinness.

Kafka is also the Prague film par excellence, making great use of the city’s Old Town and landmarks such as the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, a building which dominates the story as well as many of the outdoor scenes. In fact I find myself watching it as much for the settings than anything else. Soderbergh enjoys cinematic pastiche and Kafka owes a great deal to The Third Man (which did for post-war Vienna what Kafka does for Prague) and—inevitably—Orson Welles’ Kafka adaptation, The Trial. Theresa Russell brings Vienna with her via Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, Joel Grey was in Cabaret, of course, and Alec Guinness isn’t so far removed from his role as retired spy George Smiley in the BBC’s John le Carré films. And halfway through the film there’s a great surprise which I won’t spoil here.

Kafka is available on DVD finally, although if you’re in the US you’ll have to import it. Soderbergh has talked about reworking the film in a longer version which I’d like to see if he ever gets round to it. Not an easy film to find but it’s worthy of your attention.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kafka and Kupka
Alexander Hammid
How to disappear completely
Karel Plicka’s views of Prague
Giant mantis invades Prague
Nosferatu
Barta’s Golem