Punch and Judy, Michel de Ghelderode, and the Brothers Quay

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The Quay Brothers’ first animated film, Nocturna Artificialia, was released in 1979. Prior to this there had been some short experiments but since these are always described as “lost” it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see them. The artistic success of Nocturna Artificialia prompted the Quays and producer-colleague Keith Griffiths to consider fresh outlets for their talents, and resulted in funding from Britain’s Arts Council for two arts documentaries combining live-action film with animated interludes. Nocturna Artificialia has long been available for home viewing on the various Quays DVDs but the two early arts films, Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy (1980) and The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode, 1898–1962 (1981), are omitted from the reissue canon for reasons that have never been very clear. Both films have been impossible to see unless you’re an academic or film programmer, at least until now. Once again, YouTube has provided an outlet for exceptional rarities.

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Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy

Now that finally I’ve watched these films it’s understandable why they don’t fit so easily with the Quays’ more personal output. Punch and Judy has obvious superficial parallels with Jan Svankmajer’s Punch and Judy (1966) but Svankmajer’s film is his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the murderous puppet. The Quays film is much more straightforward, devoting most of its running time to a history of Mr Punch and the other puppet characters. The story of Punch himself (narrated by Joe Melia) is intercut with a contemporary performance of the play by a genuine Punch and Judy man, Percy Press. Animated sequences are limited to small inserts between the documentary material before a lengthier section at the end that illustrates Harrison Birtwhistle’s Punch and Judy opera. This last section shows how much the Quays had developed their animation techniques since their first film, and is reminiscent of the opera sequences in their later film about Leos Janacek. Animation aside, there’s little else that’s recognisably Quay until the credits which are lettered by the brothers. (For this film and the following one they credit themselves as the “Brothers Quaij”.) Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy was of sufficient quality to be screened by the BBC in 1981 as part of the Omnibus arts strand.

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The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode, 1898–1962

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Michel de Ghelderode was a Belgian playwright whose grotesque and macabre works, many of which feature masks and puppets, are favourites of the Quays. This is a shorter film than the previous one (30 minutes rather than 45) but the territory is closer to the Quays’ own concerns. The animated sequences are fewer but they’re marvellous pieces, especially the longer central sequence which animates Ghelderode’s Fastes d’enfer (Chronicles of Hell). The figures in the latter piece may depict Ghelderode’s characters but the decor is 100% Quay, with a nocturnal cityscape and shadows from one of the trams that drift through their early films. A bonus for me was the music by Dome (Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis), a duo for whom the Quays later designed a record sleeve.

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The rest of the film consists of archive footage of Ghelderode wandering Belgian streets, and live performance of other scenes from his plays. All of this is strange and fascinating, only spoiled a little by the picture being very dark in places. (The screen shots here have been brightened.) Keith Griffiths says that this was a result of the film not being properly exposed, a consequence of the company still learning film-making as they went along. This may also explain why the film is missing from the official canon. If so, it’s a shame since it’s closer to the Quays’ own interests than some of their later commissions.

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Now that these films have surfaced there’s one more short from the early years that’s still unavailable. Ein Brudermord (1981) is based on a Franz Kafka short story, and runs for a mere 6 minutes. Meanwhile, I’m also hoping that someone may eventually post better copies of the Stravinsky and Janacek films, both of which have been prevented from DVD reissue by the copyrights on the music.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The mystery of trams
Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Weekend links 85

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Group I (Convertible Series, 2010) by Monir Farmanfarmaian.

The four albums recorded by Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis under the name Dome are being reissued by Editions Mego together with Gilbert & Lewis’s Yclept album. I always preferred Gilbert & Lewis in their Dome incarnation (and Colin Newman solo) to the punk and post-punk stylings of their former band, Wire. Dome were (among other things) eccentric, awkward, noisy, hypnotic and experimental. Their recordings seemed to go largely unnoticed in the early 1980s so it’s good to see them being reissued.

A Children’s Treasury of American Cops Brutally Attacking Citizens: “…it takes quite a lot of tax money to keep a bunch of vicious thugs overfed and dressed like junior Darth Vaders with their portable hard-ons, on the off-chance some college kids might one day peacefully sit outside to protest this nation’s revolting descent.”

• “Stevenson, as has been said, was disarmingly candid about the material he borrowed for Treasure Island. One name, however, is missing from the extensive catalogue of self-confessed ‘plagiarisms’.” John Sutherland at the TLS.

• “Messiaen’s advice was revelatory. ‘You have the good fortune of being an architect and having studied special mathematics’, he told Xenakis. ‘Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music.'”

• “They always said punk was an influence. Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, what a load of old shit that was. It’s Thatcherite art care of Saatchi & Saatchi.” And don’t ask Jamie Reid about the Sex Pistols.

Dennis Cooper is interviewed at Lambda Literary. I was surprised last week to find my recent post about William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys linked on a feature about the novel at Cooper’s blog.

Cosmic Geometry: The art of Monir Farmanfarmaian at The Paris Review. Related: Monir Farmanfarmaian at the Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

• Paleolithic phallic art suggests that many early European men scarred, pierced and tattooed their penises.

FACT mix 301 is a selection of dub tracks, dubstep pieces and Middle Eastern songs compiled by Kahn.

Who left a tree, then a coffin in the library?

The Little Journal of Rejections (1896).

Clive finished another painting.

The Great Salt Desert of Iran.

Keep Drawing.

• Troisième (1980) by Colin Newman | And Then… (1980) by Dome | The Red Tent pts I & II (1980) by Dome) | Jasz (1981) by Dome.

Weekend links 73

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Johnny Trunk of Trunk Records reissued the soundtrack to The Wicker Man in 1997. Mr Trunk’s latest delve into the cultural past is Own Label: Sainsbury’s Design Studio, a book from Fuel examining the supermarket chain’s packaging design of the 1960s and 1970s. Creative Review shows some examples while I have to note the uncanny similarity between one of the posters for The Wicker Man and an old Sainsbury’s corn flakes box. Now we see that the Old Weird Britain wasn’t only hiding in the fields and the folk songs but was also lurking on the supermarket shelves.

Related: a new DVD set from the BFI, Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow: A Century of Folk Customs and Ancient Rural Games. And let’s not forget the ley lines of Milton Keynes, and a new edition of Ritual by David Pinner, said to be the novel which inspired The Wicker Man.

• “He wrote me…” Sans Soleil (1983), Chris Marker’s beguiling accumulation of memories, dreams and reflections, is recalled in a Quietus piece entitled Things that Quicken the Heart. Not the first time on DVD as it says there (Nouveaux Pictures released it with La Jetée in 2003) but it’s good to know it’s being reissued.

• Marker’s film references Tarkovsky’s Stalker a couple of times, most notably in the comment, “On that day there will be emus in the Zone.” Geoff Dyer has what he describes as “a very detailed study” of Stalker out next year.

I don’t like those commentators who keep on saying that London will never be the same again. London is always the same again. I remember those comments were made very loudly after the [July 2005] terrorist attacks – “London will never be the same again, London has lost its innocence” – it was all nonsense. London was exactly the same again the following day. Rioting has always been a London tradition. It has been since the early Middle Ages. There’s hardly a spate of years that goes by without violent rioting of one kind or another. They happen so frequently that they are almost part of London’s texture. The difference is that in the past the violence was more ferocious, and the penalties were more ferocious – in most cases, death.

Peter Ackroyd, reminding us that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse don’t wear hoodies and ride bikes.

Wolf Fifth: “rare vinyl records from the golden era of avant garde and experimental music”. And in FLAC as well, not crappy mp3; I want to hear all those scratches uncompressed, dammit!

Another great mix at FACT, this time compiled by snd who throw together Morton Feldman, Siberian shamen, Einstürzende Neubauten, Dome, Oval and many others.

• Colin Marshall asks “how weird is Australia?” in an appraisal of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.

A Comprehensive Solution to the Tokyo Umbrella Problem.

• More poster art from Hapshash and the Coloured Coat.

Morbid Excess, a series of drawings by May Lim.

Conrad Schnitzler (1937–2011) by Geeta Dayal.

Neopolitan cephalopods.

Willow’s Song (1973) by Paul Giovanni & Magnet | The Willow Song (1989) by The Mock Turtles | Wicker Man Song (1994) by Nature and Organisation.