Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay

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Inventorium of Traces was made in 2009 but it’s taken a while to make its way out of Poland in any complete form. In this 25-minute video piece the Quays turn their attention to Lancut Castle, a celebrated Polish stately home, and the former residence of the Potocki family. Of the latter, Jan Potocki would have an understandable attractions for the Quays being the author of The Saragossa Manuscript, a book that’s briefly alluded to when the Saragossa region is glimpsed on a map. The first half of the film shows visitors to the Castle being observed by statues and paintings, one of which is a portrait of Jan Potocki; in the second half, night falls, the building is locked, and some typical Quay business begins with flickering light and spectral animation. The music is by Krzysztof Penderecki, a composer the Quays used a year later for their superb animation, Maska, and also the composer of the soundtrack to the Wojciech Has adaptation of Potocki’s novel. The quality of the uploaded video could be better (the frame seems to be cropped) but it’s good enough for Quay obsessives. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Saragossa Manuscript posters
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

Saragossa Manuscript posters

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Polish poster (1965) by Jerzy Skarzynski who was also the film’s production designer.

I love The Saragossa Manuscript, both the novel by Potocki and the movie by Has. I saw the film three times which, in my case, is absolutely exceptional.

Luis Buñuel in My Last Sigh (1983)

No surprise that a lifelong Surrealist was enamoured with Jan Potocki’s rambling collection of stories-within-stories. The 1965 Polish film by Wojciech Has had another famous enthusiast in Jerry Garcia whose efforts to restore and reissue The Saragossa Manuscript helped bring the film to a new generation of viewers in 1999. I was a beneficiary of this, having been intrigued for years by descriptions whilst hoping in vain that it might turn up on television. I prefer the film to the novel although to be fair to Potocki it’s a long time since I read his book.

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Another Polish design showing Zbigniew Cybulski as Alphonse.

Watching The Saragossa Manuscript again this weekend sent me looking for posters, some of which can be seen below. There are odd omissions: plenty of examples from the Eastern Bloc countries but few at all from Western Europe. The film suffered by having its 3-hour running time hacked about by distributors which didn’t help its reception outside Poland. The manuscript of the title is a book discovered during a skirmish in the Napoleonic wars, an account of the strange adventures of Alphonse Van Worden in the Sierra Morena region of Spain; one of the soldiers reading the manuscript is Van Worden’s grandson, the first of many coincidental connections. Van Worden’s adventures seem macabre at first—there are more bones in the opening scenes than in many horror films—but they soon turn farcical. As a burgeoning cast of characters appears, many of whom have their own tales to tell, the mood veers into outright sex comedy, albeit with mild philosophical overtones. Some scenes aren’t very far removed from Monty Python, especially those that feature an inept band of Spanish Inquisitors.

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Background drawings from the title sequence. Yes, the score is by Penderecki, his first.

All of which means this is another film that presents a challenge for a poster designer. Most of the early examples take their cues from the opening titles whose backgrounds feature drawings with a vaguely Surrealist and occult flavour that I’m guessing are also the work of Jerzy Skarzynski.

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Brothers Quay scarcities

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Igor: The Paris Years (1982).

More animation, and scarce in the sense that some of these films were omitted from the core Quay Brothers canon released in the UK by the BFI as Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003. Quay obsessives such as myself would have been happy to pay for an extra disc featuring more of their oeuvre but we can at least turn to YouTube to fill in some gaps. This is by no means everything so I may add more discoveries at a later date. Some of the DVD-issued films can be seen on the BFI’s official Daily Motion channel.

I was eager to see the Stravinsky film again having watched it one time only in a Channel 4 screening some 25 years ago. After a fresh viewing it’s not as impressive as I remembered, in part because the Quay’s distinctive approach to animation—and filmmaking generally—developed a great deal following the unforgettable Street of Crocodiles (1986). Igor: The Paris Years concerns the composer’s relationship with Jean Cocteau and Vladimir Mayakovsky, all of whom are animated as cut-out figures in a Modernist cityscape with The Rite of Spring playing on a piano.

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Leos Janácek: Intimate Excursions (1983). Part 2 is here.

In a similar vein, but more successful, is this portrait of Czech composer Leos Janácek. This uses the same cut-out character style but places the composer in Eastern European settings similar (down to the floating tram pantographs) to those seen in the very first Quay film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979). Among the other puppet characters there’s one figure singing an aria who later appears as Enkidu in This Unnameable Little Broom (1985).

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Old Piano (1988).

A very short (and poor quality) ident for MTV.

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The Hour-Glass Sanatorium by Wojciech Has

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The original Polish poster by the incredible Franciszek Starowieyski.

The shrinking pool of films still unavailable on DVD contracted by at least one title recently with the surprise appearance in the UK of The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydra; 1973) from the distinctively-named Mr Bongo Films. I’ve been waiting to see this for at least twenty years so being able to walk into Fopp and buy a copy for a mere £12 strikes me as one of those small but rarely acknowledged miracles of contemporary existence.

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Director Wojciech Has is more well-known for his long and weird 1965 adaptation of the equally long and weird Saragossa Manuscript, a rambling semi-fantastical novel by Jan Potocki from around 1805. David Lynch described Saragossa as “Simultaneously horrific, erotic and funny…this is one mother of a film,” and the same description could be applied to The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, as far as I’m aware the only other excursion Has made into full-on strangeness. If anything, Sanatorium outdoes his earlier work on just about every level. Readers familiar with the writings of Bruno Schulz will already have recognised the title as being a truncated variant of Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, the second and final collection of Schulz’s unique and very strange stories.

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