The Desert of the Tartars

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The Desert of the Tartars (1976), an Italian film directed by Valerio Zurlini, is another of those cinematic works whose description in books would leave me tantalised and frustrated. A brief entry would tell you that the film existed but when would ever get to see it? Last week I finally got to see this one thanks to a recent restoration via a French blu-ray disc which, for once, had English subtitles.

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Zurlini’s film is an adaptation of The Tartar Steppe, the most popular of Dino Buzzati’s novels, and for a long time the only book of his that you could easily find in English. I often feel a little hypocritical when it comes to Buzzati. I’ve been telling people for years to look out for his strange stories—the phrase was used as a subtitle for a Calder & Boyars edition of Catastrophe—even though the translated collections were all out of print. The Tartar Steppe has been reprinted more than most yet I still haven’t read it. I’ll be correcting this now I’ve seen the film. Buzzati’s story concerns a young soldier, Lieutenant Drogo, being posted to a distant border fortress where a small company of soldiers awaits a barbarian invasion which they believe will come from the surrounding desert. All the soldiers are eager to experience the thrill of battle yet the invasion has so far refused to arrive. Matters are complicated when officers who were determined to stay are sent back home while Drogo, who says he was posted there by mistake, finds the place impossible to leave. A Cavafy poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, is credited as an inspiration for this, but the spectre of Franz Kafka haunts any story with a deferred or inaccessible resolution, and in that respect Buzzati’s novel, which was published in 1940, may be one of the first to learn from the example set by The Castle.

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Jean-Louis Bertucelli and André G. Brunelin wrote the screenplay which was apparently criticised for not doing justice to Buzzati’s story. I can’t comment, obviously, but it wouldn’t be the first time the subtleties of a novel have been lost in the translation to the screen. Faithful or not, I was happy to be watching the thing at all, and besides which, familiarity with the source material can sometimes blind you to the other qualities of an adaptation. The film has a minimal score by Ennio Morricone, and an impressive cast that includes Philippe Noiret, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant and a dubbed Max von Sydow.

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It also looks fantastic, with photography by Luciano Tovoli and spectacular locations in the Iranian desert. The ancient Bam citadel at Arg-e Bam in southern Iran provided the location for the Bastiani fortress, a massive and exceptionally photogenic ruin. A note at the end of the restored print tells us that the citadel and surrounding area was devastated in 2003 by an earthquake that claimed 26,000 lives and levelled the place. The citadel has since been rebuilt, so the film also serves now as a record of its former appearance.

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As for Buzzati, it’s still a mystery why his books haven’t been made more widely available in English but matters improved recently with the republication of Catastrophe and Other Stories. He was also an accomplished artist whose illustrations are deserving of more attention. Some of these were featured at 50 Watts a few years ago, together with samples from his book-length graphic adaptation of the Orpheus myth, Poem Strip, from 1969.

Animating the pinscreen

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Before the Law (1962).

The animated films of Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker have been featured here on several occasions even though they remain hard to find. I linked to a YouTube collection a few years ago but—typically for YT rarities—it’s no longer available. One example that many people will have seen is Before the Law, the short prologue and film-within-the-film that appears in Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Before the Law, like all the Alexeieff and Parker films, was produced with the pinscreen, a unique piece of animation technology invented by the couple. The pinscreen’s white board contains thousands of tiny pins whose angled shadows can be manipulated by pushing the pins in or out to create sharp lines or subtle monochrome shades.

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The pinscreen technique is almost always mentioned when Alexeieff and Parker’s work is being discussed but the structure and operation of the board hasn’t always been very clear. For a long time I thought that “pinscreen” was merely a useful name, and that the pins must be more like nails, rather like those desktop toys that mould your face or hand. This film from 1972, The Alexeieff-Parker Pin Screen [sic], opens with a detailed description of the device, immediately confirming that, yes, those really are thousands of tiny black pins set into a board. The documentary was made for the National Film Board of Canada by another great animator, Norman McLaren, who can be seen hovering in the background from time to time. McLaren and the NFB wanted to record Alexeieff and Parker discussing the pinscreen and its operation so a tutorial might be preserved for future animators.

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The pair are seen introducing a smaller version of their original pinscreen to a group of would-be users, a board containing 240,000 pins; the screen used to create Before the Law was four times the size with over a million pins. The operation of the device seems slow and cumbersome at first, especially when great care has to be taken to draw lines or shapes by raising or lowering the pins without damaging them at all. But having a surface that was both static yet manipulable must have offered advantages over more traditional animation methods using paint or charcoal. The most surprising detail for me was seeing Alexeieff and Parker working on both sides of the screen, with Alexeieff pushing in the pins to create light areas and Parker pushing them out again to return the area to its original black. The documentary ends with a short sequence showing animation experiments made by the students.

I said earlier that Alexeieff and Parker’s films can be hard to find but there was a DVD collection released a few years ago which I recall trying to order from some French website that wouldn’t co-operate. I thought it might be thoroughly unavailable by now but copies are still on sale at the very reliable Re:voir so I’ve just ordered one. For a taste of Alexeieff and Parker’s prowess with this kind of animation there’s En Passant (1944), two miraculous minutes illustrating a French-Canadian folk song.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The pinscreen works of Alexandre Alexeieff & Claire Parker
The Nose, a film by Alexandre Alexeieff & Claire Parker
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker

Weekend links 461

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Le Stryge (The Vampire) (1853) by Charles Méryon.

Notre-Dame-de-Paris in art and photography. Related: Chris Knapp on the Notre-Dame fire, and John Boardley on the print shops that used to cluster around the cathedral. Tangentially related: Mapping Gothic France.

The Bodies Beneath: The Flipside of British Film & Television by William Fowler and Vic Pratt will be published next month by Strange Attractor. With a foreword by Nicolas Winding Refn.

• “In his new biweekly column, Pinakothek, Luc Sante excavates and examines miscellaneous visual strata of the past.”

I also gathered underland stories, from Aeneas’s descent into Hades, through the sunken necropolises of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the Wind Cave cosmogony of the Dakota Sioux, to accounts of the many cavers, cave-divers and free-divers who have died seeking what Cormac McCarthy calls “the awful darkness inside the world”—often unable to communicate to themselves, let alone others, what metaphysical gravity drew them down to death. Why go low? Obsession, incomprehension, compulsion and revelation were among the recurrent echoes of these stories—and they became part of my underland experiences, too.

Robert Macfarlane on underworlds real and imagined, past, present and future

• Mixes of the week: FACT Mix 703 by Mary Lattimore, and The Colour Of Spring by cafekaput.

• A witty appraisal by Anna Aslanyan of a lipogrammatic classic and its smart translation.

• “Unseen Kafka works may soon be revealed after Kafkaesque trial.”

• “Why do cats love bookstores?” asks Jason Diamond.

Sunn O))) pick their Bandcamp favourites.

Le Grand Nuage de Magellan

Cathedral In Flames (1984) by Coil | The Cathedral of Tears (1995) by Robert Fripp | Cathedral Et Chartres (2005) by Jack Rose

Weekend links 446

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The Ghost Box label releases a new album by the excellent Pye Corner Audio in February (previews are here). The spectral design, as ever, is by Julian House.

• “In October 1966, Phyllis Willner arrived on motorcycle in San Francisco as a teenage Jewish runaway from Jamaica, Queens. She quickly fell in with the Hell’s Angels, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and, most crucially, the Diggers, who were just getting their street radical thing together in the Haight-Ashbury. The next two years would be eventful: many extraordinary highs, some really terrible lows.” Jay Babcock talks to Phyllis Willner about her involvement with “the executive branch of the hippie movement”, the Diggers.

• At Expanding Mind: Erik Davis talks with religious scholar Diana Pasulka about UFOs, scientific believers, book encounters, elite cabals, studying weirdness, and her new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology.

• Kenneth Anger is now 91 but he still appears hale, and looks even more magus-like than ever. This short film by Floria Sigismondi finds him reminiscing in the antiquated confines of the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard.

David Wojnarowicz did not write dark fantasy. He wrote real life. In The Waterfront Journals he brilliantly captures electric tales from the mouths of strangers, those he described as “junkies, prostitutes, male hustlers, truck drivers, hobos, young outlaws, runaway kids, criminal types”, whose lives echo his own ostracized existence. He was thirteen when he was first paid for sex and sixteen when he started “turning tricks” regularly. His mother kicked him out of the house. By the time Wojnarowicz came out to friends in New York, he was in his early twenties. He was on the cusp of finding his voice as a writer and his confidence as an artist. It was the mid-1970s. AIDS was about to tear through the gay community.

Lara Pawson reviews three books by artist and writer David Wojnarowicz

John Banville reviews Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint: “A scrupulous study of the squabble between Germany and Israel over Kafka’s papers, and the two women caught in the middle.”

• A sitting with the diva of the diode: electronic musician Suzanne Ciani in conversation with Christine Kakaire.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 076 by KK Null, and XLR8R Podcast 574 by SHXCXCHCXSH.

Cassie Packard on the colorful and clairvoyant history of aura photography.

Edward Gorey’s Children’s Books Illustrations, Revisited.

Alison Flood on the fascination of miniature books.

Magic Hollow (1967) by The Beau Brummels | Hollow Stone (1972) by Khan | Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd) (1977) by Brian Eno

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.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Quay Brothers archive