Strange Adventures: a film list

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This is science fiction.

Presenting the list I mentioned earlier in which I highlight a number of worthwhile science-fiction films (also some TV productions) that aren’t the usual Hollywood fare. I’ve spent the past few years watching many of these while searching for more. This isn’t a definitive collection, and it isn’t filled with favourites; I’ve deliberately omitted a number of popular films that would count as such. It’s more a map of my generic tastes, and an answer to a question that isn’t always spoken aloud in discussions I’ve had about SF films but which remains implicit: “Okay, if you dislike all this stuff then what do you like?” I tend to like marginal things, hybrids, edge cases, the tangential, the unusual and the experimental. And for the past two decades I’ve increasingly come to value anything that isn’t a Hollywood product. There are two Hollywood productions on this list but neither of them were very successful. Not everything here has been overlooked or neglected but many of the entries have, either because they made a poor showing at the box office or because they have the effrontery to be filmed in languages other than English. Not everything is in the first rank, either, but they’re all worth seeing if you can find them.

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Liquid Sky.

The starting point is around 1960 because prior to this date any marginal or unusual examples of SF cinema are harder to find. A genre has to be somewhat set in its ways before radically different artistic approaches emerge, and pre-1960 there wasn’t much testing of the SF boundaries in the film world. Science-fiction cinema has also tended to lag behind the written word, so even though the literature was growing more sophisticated during the 1950s, films from the same period are mostly filled with monsters, spaceships and mad scientists. By the 1960s enough written science fiction was playing with (or ignoring) genre stereotypes for a “New Wave” to be identified. Some of the films detailed here might be regarded as cinematic equivalents of SF’s New Wave but I’ll leave it to others to argue the finer points of definition. A few of the choices are a result of directors going in unexpected directions, with several selections being one-off genre excursions by people better known for other things. I’ve omitted many films and/or directors that receive persistent attention, so there’s no David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Andrei Tarkovsky or John Carpenter; and no Mad Max 2, Akira, Ghost in the Shell or The Prisoner. A couple of edge cases are so slight I couldn’t really justify their inclusion so you’ll have to look elsewhere for appraisals of The Unknown Man of Shandigor (a spy satire with Alphaville influences) and Trouble in Mind (more of a neo-noir fantasy). 2010 is the cut-off point. I’ve never been someone who watches all the latest things so it often takes me years to catch up with recent releases.

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Avalon.

I can imagine there might be questions about the availability of some of these films. All I can say is search around. I’ve managed to accumulate half the things on this list on either DVD or blu-ray so they’re not all impossible to find. I did consider posting links but the whole issue of region coding complicates matters. Most of the short films circulate on YouTube, as do a number of the features although these don’t always include subtitles. Have I missed something good? (Don’t say Zardoz….) The comments are open.



Invention for Destruction (Czechoslovakia, 1958)

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An evil millionaire named Artigas plans to use a super-explosive device to conquer the world from his headquarters inside an enormous volcano.

(Previously.) It seems fitting to start with a film that adapts a novel by one of the founders of the genre, Jules Verne. Karel Zeman’s third feature extended his technical effects to combine live-action with animation, creating a film in which the engraved illustrations of Verne’s novels are brought to life. With music by Zdenek Liska.


La Jetée (France, 1962)

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The story of a man forced to explore his memories in the wake of World War III’s devastation, told through still images.

Chris Marker’s haunting short is one of the great time-travel stories, a 25-minute film that JG Ballard often listed as a favourite. Memory was a recurrent theme in Marker’s work, and memories here provide a physical route into the past, with the predicament of the unnamed protagonist concentrated on a single memory from his childhood. Marker’s interests ranged widely but he haunts the margins of science-fiction cinema in France, assisting Walerian Borowczyk with an early animation, Les Astronauts (1959), as well as the Pierre Kast entry below.


Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (France, 1965)

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A secret agent is sent to the distant space city of Alphaville where he must find a missing person and free the city from its tyrannical ruler.

Another Ballard favourite, and not a neglected film by any means but the first in our collection of one-off SF excursions by directors better-known for other things. Alphaville is also important for being the first film to present itself as science fiction without any of the obvious or expected trappings of the genre. Paris in 1965 is Alphaville because Godard says it is. In part this is the director doing his usual thing of self-consciously adopting a genre; this is “science fiction” in the same way that Breathless is “crime”. But the conceptual leap was an important one for cinema, a step that freed film-makers from the need to build expensive sets and dress their cast in silver jump-suits. With Raoul Coutard’s high-contrast photography, Paul Misraki’s noirish score, Eddie Constantine’s bull-in-a-china-shop performance (he makes Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly seem soft-hearted), and the incomparable Anna Karina.


The Heat of a Thousand Suns (France, 1965)

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(Previously) A one-off animated short by Pierre Kast with assistance from Chris Marker, drawings by Eduardo Luiz, and an electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani. A young man with his own spaceship solves the problem of faster-than-light travel then heads into the cosmos with his pet cat.


Fahrenheit 451 (UK, 1966)

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In an oppressive future, a fireman whose duty is to destroy all books begins to question his task.

Francois Truffaut’s first colour feature has always seemed a little dull despite its incendiary subject matter and the Hitchcockian urgency of Bernard Herrmann’s score. It might have been improved with an actor other than Oskar Werner in the central role but there’s still a lot I like about this one: the music, the shots of the SAFEGE monorail, Nicolas Roeg’s striking photography, and Julie Christie in a double role. There’s also some amusement for Brits in seeing a Frenchman presenting ticky-tacky English suburbia as a soulless dystopia. With spoken titles, flat-screen TVs in every home (it’ll never happen…), and Genet novels condemned to the flames.


Je t’aime, Je t’aime (France, 1968)

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After attempting suicide, Claude is recruited for a time travel experiment, but, when the machine goes haywire, he may be trapped hurtling through his memories.

(Previously.) Much as I like toying with the idea that Last Year in Marienbad is science fiction there really isn’t anything in it that easily justifies the claim. Director Alain Resnais said that this one wasn’t SF either but it does at least feature a time machine. Resnais had collaborated with Chris Marker in the 1950s, and the pair remained friends, so it’s tempting to see this as a riff on La Jetée. (There’s even an echo of Marker’s film in the title…) Both films use a doomed romance as a focus for their examination of memory and time, and both feature choral scores, the music for this one being composed by Krzysztof Penderecki.


Continue reading “Strange Adventures: a film list”

Weekend links 596

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Jam III (2021) by Kotaro Hoshiyama.

• “Powell and Pressburger are peerless in realizing what Orson Welles would term plotless scenes—extra bits that ostensibly do not advance the story, but are a story unto themselves, and aggregate such that they’re vital to how we understand the characters who are living the story.” Colin Fleming says thanks for the Archers.

• A short promo for The Incal: The Movie. Hmm, okay. A film that adapted all 300 pages of the original story without changing anything or trying to explain away the weirdness would be worth seeing. But I doubt that’s what this will be. Read the book.

• “If a single word distills the New Wave aesthetic, it’s plastic…ironically flaunted artificiality became a leitmotif of the era.” Simon Reynolds reviews Reversing Into the Future: New Wave Graphics 1977–1990 by Andrew Krivine.

• Mixes of the week: a mix by Princess Diana Of Wales (not that one) for The Wire, and At The Outer Marker Part I, a Grateful Dead Twilight Zone mix by David Colohan.

The Bloomingdale Story: read the never-before published Patricia Highsmith draft that would become Carol (aka The Price of Salt).

• At Spoon & Tamago: Multiple panels form collaged portraits painted by Kotaro Hoshiyama.

• New music: Pyroclasts F (excerpt) by Sunn O))), and Loop return with Halo.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: William E. Jones Day.

Plastic Bamboo (1978) by Ryuichi Sakamoto | Barock-Plastik (2000) by Stereolab | Black Plastic (2002) by Ladytron

Weekend links 595

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Dig the eldritch letterforms, man. Dean Stockwell as Wilbur Whateley making the High Sign on the cover of Les Baxter’s soundtrack album, 1970. That gesture, incidentally, goes back a long way.

• If you have an abundance of interstellar credits burning a hole in your stillsuit then you may be interested in bidding for the original of the book commonly known as The Dune Bible, the complete set of storyboards by Jean “Moebius” Giraud, together with designs by other artists for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned feature film. I keep hoping someone might turn this into an animated feature, something like René Laloux’s Time Masters but on a grander scale and with better animation (hello, Japan). 46 pages of scans from a limited printing of the book may be seen here.

• RIP Dean Stockwell. His 1995 interview in Psychotronic Video magazine is much better value than any potted biography.

• Bed-hopping, martinis and self-loathing: Emma Brockes on Patricia Highsmith’s unpublished diaries.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Tracing the footsteps of travelling Ukiyoe artist Kawase Hasui.

• Culture.pl examines the theoretical revolution of Nicolaus Copernicus.

Killian Fox on the cover designs for Penguin’s Modern Classics.

Nick Mamatas on his favourite genre-breaking mysteries.

• New music: HYbr:ID oval p-dance by Alva Noto.

• Mix of the week: Isolatedmix 114 by R.A.D.E.

Justin Robertson’s favourite music.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Clock.

Jay Babcock at Substack.

The Clock (1968) by Ruth White | Clock Factory (1993) by The Sabres Of Paradise | Internal Clock (2009) by Monolake

Philippe Caza record covers

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Bad Taste (2014) by The Datsuns.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Druillet and Moebius have already featured in this series so here’s another French comic artist whose work was popularised in the Anglophone world by Heavy Metal magazine. In addition to comics, Caza has been a prolific cover artist for French fantasy, horror and SF novels, some examples of which are reused here. As with Druillet, many of his record sleeves are reprintings of comics panels, but he’s also created a few pieces specially for vinyl and CD.

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Aber Du (1985) by Haindling.

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Mémoire Des Ecumes (1985) by Torgue.

A soundtrack album (?) for the comic book of the same name by Caza and writer Christian Lejalé.

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Musique Originale Du Film Les Enfants De La Pluie (2003) by Didier Lockwood.

The soundtrack album for an animated feature film co-written and designed by Caza. This follows earlier Caza-derived animations by René Laloux including the feature-length Gandahar (1988).

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Sweat All Night (2013) by Nico’ZZ Band.

Continue reading “Philippe Caza record covers”

Weekend links 588

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Gerry Barney’s logo for British Rail. A page from the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual (1965).

• RIP Russ Kick, writer, editor, and founder of many websites/blogs such as Rare Erotica, Books Are People Too and (notoriously) the several iterations of The Memory Hole, a space dedicated to keeping visible information that successive US governments would have preferred to remain unseen. I’d known Russ remotely for many years, initially as a reviewer of the Savoy comics in Outposts. Savoy Books later helped find him a publisher for Psychotropedia: A Guide to Publications on the Periphery, a wide-ranging overview of alternative/underground print culture in the late 1990s. In 2004 his information activism gave him a fleeting taste of world-wide attention when he forced the Bush administration to make public the photos of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq. The scandal put his name on the front pages of newspapers that should have been finding those photos for themselves instead of cheerleading the war. A run of books for Disinformation presented his archival researches for the general reader, then in 2012 he edited The Graphic Canon, a massive three-volume collection of comics and illustrations based on classic works of literature. I was among the many contributors to the latter with an adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and would have worked on the follow-up collection of crime stories if I hadn’t been busy with other things. I had hoped that we might work together again in the future.

• “‘The new mainstream has attempted to erase the innovations of the avant-garde from jazz history,’ the film declares.” Geeta Dayal reviews Fire Music, a documentary about the jazz innovations of the 1960s.

• I don’t have the hardware to play this but Sable is a new computer game from Raw Fury whose design owes much to the desert landscapes seen in comics by Moebius.

• New/old music: Stealing Sheep and The Radiophonic Workshop reimagine the score for René Laloux’s animated science-fiction film La Planète Sauvage.

• At Spine: Savannah Cordova on how to perfect your book cover’s typography. Having recently designed an all-type cover design this is timely.

• Mixes of the week: Isolatedmix 113 by Sunju Hargun, XLR8R Podcast 714 by Soela, and Holograficzne Widmo ze Bart De Paepe by David Colohan.

• “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Gerry Barney, designer of the British Rail logo, doesn’t like the green reworking of his design.

• Scottish lord goes blood simple: a teaser for The Tragedy of Macbeth by Joel Cohen and some bloke called William Shakespeare.

• “It’s unmanageable.” Ellen Peirson-Hagger on how the vinyl industry reached breaking point.

Macbeth (1973) by John Cale | Rail (1994) by Main | Logotone (2013) by Steve Moore