The Marvellous

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The marvellous is always beautiful. Anything marvellous is beautiful. In fact only the marvellous is beautiful.

George Melly (above) quoting André Breton’s declaration from the first Surrealist Manifesto, 1924

Two posts in one week—quelle surprise. This is partly because I’m trying to get WordPress to post updates to Twitter, something that hasn’t been possible for many years without going through the long-winded process of signing up as a Twitter developer. Anything that limits my involvement with Twitter’s burning café feels like a positive thing at the moment, so thoughts that I previously cast into the flames may find their expression here instead.

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The two screengrabs are from recent re-viewings. George Melly’s short guide to Surrealism for the BBC’s Arena, and Jan Svankmajer’s equally short BBC profile have both been featured here in the past, but my recent purchase of a box of blu-rays from Svankmajer’s shop has prompted a journey back into the Surrealist praxis via whatever books and videos I have to hand. It’s been interesting looking again at René Passeron’s Encyclopedia of Surrealism (1975), a book which for many years was more interesting for the 24-page section devoted to the precursors of Surrealism, all the artist-eccentrics, architects, illustrators, Mannerists, and (especially) the Symbolists whose works I spent most of the 1980s pursuing. Today there are more threads to be followed in the Surrealist section of Passeron’s study so I’m looking forward to seeing where they lead. As for The Marvellous, the Svankmajer discs are this with and without the capital “M”. I recommend them.

Update: And the post didn’t announce itself at Twitter which isn’t so surprising; I’ll keep working at this behind the scenes. Social media is the anti-Marvellous.

Weekend links 440

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The title of that film was originally different [Illusions]… I woke up one day and thought of Bad Timing which sounds exactly like the right title—for my career. Now there was a film I really thought was one to which there would be a different response. Whilst filming I felt sure that this was one for the streets, one that people would really want to see. — Nicolas Roeg

So long to the great Nicolas Roeg, always one of my favourite film-makers. Roeg’s works were naturally attractive when I was a teenager because he’d made a horror film and a science-fiction film; when these eventually turned up on TV it was evident that this was a director working on a level that had more in common with Continental Europe than Hollywood. Beyond the generic content it was his approach to directing that made his films essential: a fragmented editing style derived from Alain Resnais via Richard Lester (see below), a cosmic perspective almost entirely absent from the parochial concerns of British cinema, and a seemingly effortless ability to find visual rhymes in anything. Despite the “bad timing” comment above Roeg was fortunate to be working throughout the 1970s when having an approach that ran counter to the prevailing trends wasn’t an obstacle to maintaining a career; as with Ken Russell, you watch some of the films today and are amazed and grateful that they were made at all. When reading the forthcoming plaudits it would be worth remembering that even the films regarded now as Roeg’s best struggled for acceptance: Pauline Kael dismissed Don’t Look Now as “trash”, US screenings of The Man Who Fell To Earth provided explanatory notes for the hard-of-thinking, Bad Timing was described by its own distributors as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”, while the distributors of Eureka hated the film so much that for a time it could only be screened in the UK if the director was also present.

• Related: Where to begin with Nicolas Roeg, and Nicolas Roeg: It’s About Time (2015), a 59-minute documentary for the BBC directed by David Thompson. Previous Roeg-related postings on this site include: The Nicolas Roeg Guardian Lecture, 1983 (Roeg discusses Eureka and other films with Philip Strick); Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (charting the recurrence of a book title from Don’t Look Now); Canal view (using Google Street View to find the church in Don’t Look Now); and Petulia film posters (designs for a Richard Lester film from 1968 that was photographed by Roeg, and whose fragmentary editing style prefigures the familiar Roeg technique).

• Edward Woodward’s greatest screen role wasn’t a prudish policeman or a mysterious vigilante but was David Callan, a conflicted assassin working for a division of the British Secret Service. Joseph Oldham explains.

• Mixes of the week: A mix for The Wire by Jing, FACT Mix 681 by Kelly Moran, and Crépuscules d’Automne, a seasonal mix by Stephen O’Malley.

• More Gorey: in 1978 Jeremy Brett was playing Dracula in the touring version of the Edward Gorey-designed play.

• Liberated from the LRB paywall for a brief time: George Melly writing in 1992 about René Magritte.

• Welcome to the witch capital of Norway: Chelsea G. Summers investigates.

Space colony artwork from the 1970s.

• At I Love Typography: Magic printed.

Memo From Turner (1970) by Mick Jagger | Wild Hearts (1985) by Roy Orbison | Be Kind To My Mistakes (1987) by Kate Bush

Monsieur René Magritte, a film by Adrian Maben

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Until the end of his life, [Magritte] preferred to take the tram.

Now there’s an attitude I approve of. George Melly in his BBC film about Surrealism mentions visiting Magritte at his home in Brussels, and we see Magritte’s house at the beginning of Adrian Maben’s 50-minute film about the artist’s life and work. Maben’s film was made in 1978 as an Franco-German TV production but the narration, by Maben himself, is in English. Surrealism seemed to be back in vogue in 1978: as mentioned yesterday, the Hayward Gallery in London staged an exhibition of Surrealist art that year, the BBC commissioned George Melly’s film as a result of this, while over on rival network ITV there was the marvellous documentary about Surrealist patron Edward James who modelled for one of Magritte’s most famous paintings, La reproduction interdite (1937).

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Adrian Maben’s name will be familiar to Pink Floyd obsessives as the director of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), and if you’re familiar with that film you can recognise the same shooting style in his Magritte film which deploys similar slow zooms, tracking shots and images sliding in and out of the frame. The music is credited to a surprising combination of Béla Bartók (mostly piano) and Roger Waters, although some of the pieces from the latter are actually by Pink Floyd, there’s even some of the opening of Obscured By Clouds. In style and content the film is as good as anything the BBC were producing at the time, with extracts from a TV interview with the artist, and also some of Magritte’s high-spirited home movies made with his wife and friends.

Magritte and Pink Floyd are a fitting match, some of the Floyd’s album covers could be Magritte paintings rendered photographically: two men shaking hands, one of whom is on fire; a giant pig adrift over a power station. Storm Thorgerson always acknowledged the debt that Hipgnosis owed Magritte’s example, it’s there in the title of the first Hipgnosis book, Walk Away René, and in this short Tate interview from 2011 where he mentions the Wish You Were Here album as being a very conscious Magritte homage.

Previously on { feuilleton }
George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley

George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist

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It’s a short step from Dada to Surrealism, and George Melly provides a brief skate through the philosophies of both in this 25-minute BBC film from 1978. Melly, like JG Ballard, was struck by Surrealism at an impressionable age, and the love affair was a lasting one. Both Melly and Ballard championed Surrealism during periods when it was deeply unfashionable, an oppositional stance that Ballard at least often seemed to relish.

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Melly’s enthusiasm was so well-known that he was often called upon as a token advocate of Surrealism whenever one was required by the TV channels, hence this film whose title implies an admission of something disreputable. A major exhibition of Surrealist art was taking place 1978 at the Hayward Gallery in London, and it’s to this exhibition that Melly journeys, explaining (and demonstrating) what it means to be a Surrealist along the way. I saw this when it was first broadcast, and the absurd phone calls to strangers inspired myself and a few school-friends to similar activities; teenage pranks seemed less frivolous with an artistic justification. There’s a slight connection to yesterday’s post in Melly’s recounting of an anecdote from the 1950s when he was spared a night-time beating by his reciting of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate to a group of belligerent youths. Elsewhere you get to see punk band The Stranglers scowling at the camera—Melly suggests that the punks might be inheritors of the Dadaist attitude—and director Alan Yentob standing at a urinal.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley

The Trials of Oz

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If it’s a surprise to see Cockney geezer Phil Daniels masquerading as the erudite (and non-Cockney) Thomas De Quincey in The Art of Tripping, it’s even more of a surprise to see Hugh Grant in wig and hippy gear as Richard Neville in this 1991 dramatisation of the obscenity trial against Neville’s Oz magazine. Grant wasn’t exactly unknown when this was made but it was prior to Four Weddings and a Funeral so the casting didn’t seem very notable at the time.

The play was written by Geoffrey Robertson QC from the trial transcripts to observe the 20th anniversary of a lengthy and very public trial. Robertson in 1971 was an assistant to John Mortimer, the magazine’s lawyer, so the reconstruction may be taken to be an accurate one. In addition to Grant as Neville, Simon Callow plays Mortimer, Nigel Hawthorne is prosecutor Brian Leary, and Leslie Phillips is Judge Michael Argyle. Among the witnesses there’s Alfred Molina as George Melly (yet again; see yesterday’s post), and Nigel Planer as DJ John Peel, both of whom were called to testify that the notorious “School Kids” issue of Oz wasn’t an obscene publication. The trial, like the earlier drug busts against the Rolling Stones, was as much about the State trying to clobber a bunch of anarchist upstarts as anything that involved the pros and cons of antiquated laws. The three defendants—Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson—were also accused of “conspiring to corrupt public morals”; the obscenity issue was merely a pretext for getting the longhairs into the dock.

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Oz 28 (1970). Art by Raymond Bertrand.

This isn’t a lavish production—it’s stylised to the extent that the public gallery is made up of cardboard figures—but it’s good to know that there’s a (rough) copy out there after my tape of the original broadcast developed a fault. Not available, unfortunately, is the live studio discussion that followed in which Jonathan Dimbleby spoke to Geoffrey Robertson, Germaine Greer and others about the trial. The discussion featured a delicious moment when Dimbleby referred to Greer’s feminist issue (no. 29) as “C-Power Oz“. “Come on, Jonathan,” said Greer, “it was Cunt Power Oz!” Dimbleby then spluttered “Anyone can say ‘Cunt Power Oz‘…” and hastily moved on the discussion.

A year after his TV appearance Geoffrey Robertson was in Manchester Crown Court appealing an earlier ruling of obscenity against David Britton’s Lord Horror (1990) novel. I was in the public gallery on that occasion, and it was an education seeing how little had changed since the Oz trial, with a similarly Philistine and deeply ignorant judge presiding. Robertson overturned the ruling against the novel but a ruling against one of Savoy’s Meng & Ecker comics was upheld. In 1995 we were back in court attempting to argue for a jury trial against further rulings of obscenity, this time against one of my own comics, Hard Core Horror 5. (That issue is now the opening section of the Reverbstorm book.) We failed that time thanks to a magistrate who was even less inclined to listen to any argument.

The Oz trial may seem quaint and farcical today but the issues remain pertinent: some forms of art will always be in conflict with laws that are out-of-date, badly written or maliciously applied. And once you’re standing in a courtroom your opinion about the situation is of no consequence; you’re at the mercy of the people who make the rules.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Martin Sharp, 1942–2013
Raymond Bertrand paintings
Raymond Bertrand’s science fiction covers
The art of Bertrand
Oz magazine, 1967–73