Short films by Gérald Frydman

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Scarabus.

After writing about Gérald Frydman’s animated short Scarabus (1971) last year it’s taken me all this time to get round to watching the other films on his Vimeo channel, most of which are also animations. Scarabus was of interest for its deftly-crafted Surrealism, and there’s more of the same in some of these later films, especially Agulana. As with another Belgian director, Raoul Servais, Frydman directs all his films but doesn’t always animate them himself, hence the variety of art styles.

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Agulana (1976) is a kind of sequel to Scarabus with human figures being menaced and oppressed in a transforming environment. The Magritte quotient in films such as this raises the question of whether Magritte-ness (for want of a better term) is a quality unique to René Magritte or a component of the general Belgian character. Jonathan Meades insists on the latter in an excellent film of his own about Belgium.

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Alepha (1980) is more Surrealism, which in this case brings to mind the animated films of Piotr Kamler. Naked figures drift over landscapes filled with ambulatory spheres, vast spikes and other structures. Where Kamler favoured electronic soundtracks by Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani, Frydman has regular collaborator Alain Pierre provide a score of electronic drones.

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La Photographie (1983) is the first of two short films set in the 19th century. This one is little more than an anecdote, with a bored family forced to remain motionless while their photograph is taken, a process that lasts for the entire duration of the film. Outside the studio we see a Jules Verne wonderland of new inventions—dirigibles, rapid transport, electric light, typewriters and so on—where the frenetic activity contrasts with the inertia of the photographic process.

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Le Cheval de Fer (1984) is another photographic anecdote, this time concerning the wager prompted by an argument about whether a horse’s legs left the ground when it was galloping (and if so, at what point). The argument was famously settled by Eadweard Muybridge who invented a system to photographically record animal locomotion, thus paving the way for cinema, and for film animation.

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Les Effaceurs (1991) is Surrealism of a dark and disturbing kind with people urgently trying to scrub away their facial features.

Also on Frydman’s channel is La Sequence Silverstein (2000), a short science-fiction scenario which he wrote but didn’t direct. This one is live action and with dialogue in unsubtitled French. It not bad but I prefer the animations.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Raoul Servais: Courts-Métrages
Scarabus, a film by Gérald Frydman
L’Araignéléphant
Le labyrinthe and Coeur de secours
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler

Révélations Posthumes by Rivière and Andreas

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Le livre est arrivé. Révélations Posthumes, written by François Rivière and illustrated by Andreas (Martens), turned out to be better than I expected: 58 pages of very sharp black-and-white illustration on coated paper, and in the hardcover album format which has long been my favourite mode of presentation for comic books. The quality of the printing has made me realise that the reprint of RHB in The Cosmical Horror of HP Lovecraft (see this post) had blacked in many of the fine lines of Andreas’s scraperboard drawings, resulting in darker panels with diminished detail. Here you see the story as it was drawn, and—more importantly—with all of its pages present. The reprint of La Femme de Cire du Musée Spitzner (The Spitzner Museum’s Wax Woman) fared much better in Escape magazine.

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Auteur et artiste.

The other three stories in this collection are all new to me. Amnésie concerns the strange disappearance of Agatha Christie in December 1926, an event which has been the source of much unresolved speculation (Monsieur Rivière is apparently a great Christie enthusiast); La Visitation d’Amiens recounts a meeting in 1899 between the young Raymond Roussel when he was posted to Amiens during his military service, and the aging Jules Verne, whose fantastic inventions would influence Roussel’s 1914 novel, Locus Solus; Le Crime de la Mosquée is set in Rochefort-sur-Mer in 1936, and concerns a young Englishman, Alfred J. Nobbs, visiting the home of the late Pierre Loti, another writer whose works inspired Raymond Roussel. Writers dominate this book, which no doubt explains the choice of typewritten captions.

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The introduction by Pierre-Jean Rémy suggests that all the stories are combinations of fact and fiction, but the Lovecraft and Robert H. Barlow story seems to be based in full on Barlow’s biography, while the Spitzner Museum story concerns a Belgian painter, Pol Delmotte, who doesn’t appear to exist at all outside these pages. (“Delmotte” is very probably based on Paul Delvaux but the events of the story would have prevented him being named as such. Thanks to Paul R. for the comments noting this.) Whatever the case—and it’s impossible for me to really tell when my French is so poor—the artwork is superb. The very similar look of the Barlow and Spitzner stories, all elongated panels and the occasional half-toned photograph, had led me to expect a similar form for the other stories but Andreas varies his layouts from story to story. Amnésie adds a black background to the pages, while La Visitation d’Amiens removes most of the panel borders to create a series of floating vignettes, Art Nouveau flourishes and other decoration. Le Crime de la Mosquée differs from the rest by filling each page with a landscape-ratio composition, a rare thing in comics. The backgrounds of the last few pages present a series of architectural interiors whose meticulous rendering rivals the engravers of the 19th century for veracity and detail. The book as a whole shows Andreas to be a master of the scraperboard technique but this volume also seems to comprise the totality of his work in the medium. His later books contain a great quantity of exceptional art but the pen-and-ink style he uses is often sketchier and more stylised, inevitably so given the pressures of comic-book production. I’m tempted to hope that Titan might one day produce a English translation of this book but they’d be more likely to do the Rork saga or the rest of the Cromwell Stone series first, and there are many volumes of those. Révélations Posthumes has at least been reprinted several times since 1980 so it’s easy to find.

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Rooms with a paranormal view

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The Room: the cosmic tabletop.

A few words of praise for the Room series from Fireproof Games. I don’t play many computer games, and I think this may be my first post dedicated to such a thing, but I maintain an interest in the medium. The Room and its sequels only came to my attention a couple of weeks ago when I was wondering if there was anything Myst-like available for the tablet. I never got to play the original Myst but enjoyed its follow up, Riven, although the enjoyment was mostly for the graphics, the music and the island environments. The game itself was less satisfying, requiring pen and paper to keep track of its complexities, and involving a great deal of fruitless journeying from one location to another in the search for new clues.

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The Room 2: the camera.

The Room follows the template established by Myst in presenting you with a number of mechanical artefacts, all of which have to be examined and opened or operated before you can proceed to the next stage. The dominant aesthetic is 19th-century-mechanical—there’s a lot of wood and brass to these devices—but to call it steampunk would be a mistake; there’s little steam involved, and most of the cogs are kept inside their cases. There is a hint of Jules Verne, however, in the notes from an absent inventor whose initials, “A.S.”, may be a nod to Journey to the Centre of the Earth. As the title suggests, the location is a single room, while in the sequels, The Room 2 and The Room 3, you’re presented with a series of connected spaces. The third installment is the closest to the original Myst with a central hub that leads to other areas of a rambling complex of buildings, not all of which are revealed at the outset. The main structure is based on William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey which pushes things into Gothic territory even without the developments outlined below.

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The Room 3: the oscilloscope is one of several which need to be powered up and manipulated in order to open the Null portals.

The MacGuffin for all the games is a new element, the Null, whose discovery and potential obsesses the creators of the games’ devices, and whose manipulation of space creates many of the portals that lead to new rooms. As the series progresses, the Null becomes a growing menace that leads to full-on cosmic horror, with oil-slick Tentacles From Beyond writhing around the interdimensional portals you have to travel through. This development was surprising and, for this player, very welcome, turning the games from a series of eleborate puzzles into something much more sinister. The aesthetic evolves accordingly, with an increasing profusion of occult sigils and pentacles, and, in The Room 2, Tarot cards and séance devices. (Fireproof have a set of their Tarot designs available as a free download.) In the second game there’s a further requirement to piece together mundane machines—a camera or a typewriter, say—before they will function properly. This process reaches a peak in The Room 3 where you’re faced with a succession of increasingly complex tasks, from woodworking and metal forging to electro-mechanical engineering and astronomy. As with the Myst universe, there are no monsters here (although there is the occasional ghost), nothing needs to be fought with weapons, it’s just you, a room full of objects and a continual background murmur of unnerving whispers and distant sounds. The gameplay in The Room 3 is sufficiently non-linear to lead to a variety of different endings, not all of which may be survivable. I managed to escape the Tentacles From Beyond when they finally destroyed the house but I also missed finding an important artefact. I’ll be returning, wiser and, I hope, more attentive to the half-hidden details.

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The Room—Old Sins: the haunted doll’s house as seen at the beginning of the game.

I’m currently playing the fourth game in the series, Old Sins, which returns you to a single room but plays with scale via a large doll’s house. The exterior of the building is all detailed model work, while the interiors—accessed through Null physics—are scaled-down replicas of the rooms in a house where another Null investigator and his wife have gone missing. It’s not clear yet whether the attic where the toy house is stored is also the attic of the real house the model is based upon but having dealt with a similar model in The Room 3 this seems likely.

While I enjoyed the surface details of Riven I was never very interested in the fantasy background of the Myst universe. The Room series is much closer to my own core preoccupations, a beguiling blend of antique technology with borderline occultism and those Tentacles From Beyond, a scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in an issue of Weird Tales. Just the thing for the darkening days of October.

Zemania

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Invention for Destruction (1958).

In addition to Jean Kerchbron’s Golem my weekend viewing involved a fresh immersion in the semi-animated fantasies of Karel Zeman, one of which, Invention for Destruction, I’d not seen for many years. It hadn’t occurred to me before how closely Zeman’s technique on these films matches some of my own recent illustration when it applies original drawn elements to settings constructed from old engravings. For Zeman, combining actors with animated models and pictorial backgrounds was an economical way of bringing to life the worlds of Jules Verne, Rudolf Erich Raspe and others while retaining the feel of the original book illustrations. These films are also closer to the Max Ernst school of engraved collage than they may at first seem. The mansion at the beginning of Invention for Destruction could easily have been an illustration of a single building but Zeman offers a hybrid construction with unrealistically conflicting perspectives; later on we see a desert cavalry of camels on roller skates. It’s no surprise that Jan Svankmajer admires Zeman’s films. And having recently watched all the Svankmajers it’s good to know there are several Zeman features still to see.

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Claude Shepperson’s First Men in the Moon

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In the week following the Moon-landing anniversary I’ve been re-reading The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells. This was a late entry in Wells’ extraordinary run of science fiction novels, and is both shorter and lighter in tone than his earlier novels, some of which veer at times into outright horror. The First Men in the Moon might have been a serious examination of interstellar travel but the narrative is overtly comic in places, rather like The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a Wells story in which a fantastic gift is offered to a character unprepared to make the most of it. Wells’ lunar explorers—Bedford, a failed entrepreneur, and Cavor, an absent-minded inventor—lurch from one mishap to another, yoked together through their own inadequacies. Early in the proceedings Cavor destroys his house when his gravity-repelling “Cavorite” generates a violent funnel of air before launching itself into space. Cavor regards this as fortunate, explaining that a slightly different set of circumstances might have removed the breathable atmosphere from the entire planet for a day or so. The trip to the Moon is conducted almost on a whim: Cavor has no real reason for going, and Bedford tags along in the hope of finding some future business opportunity. Like the hapless protagonists of Withnail and I, this is a lunar voyage undertaken “by mistake”.

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It’s probable that Wells regarded absurdity as being the best way to approach a story that was less original than his earlier works. The first edition of the novel opens with an epigraph from Lucian’s True History (or True Story), a book from the second century AD which includes a journey to the Moon among its planetary travels. Lucian’s book was the first to feature such a journey (and is often regarded as the first work of science fiction) but many others followed, even before From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by Jules Verne, a book which Bedford mentions during the expedition discussions. (Cavor has never heard of it.)

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The illustrations here by Claude Allin Shepperson are also from the first edition, and are closer to the tone of the novel than those by other artists. E. Hering’s illustrations for American readers are in a style which is more detailed and inventive than Shepperson’s but which also suggests a more serious story. Readers expecting a new War of the Worlds would have been surprised. Shepperson’s drawing of Cavor’s spacecraft evidently provided the model for Ray Harryhausen in the 1964 film adaptation, although Harryhausen’s Selenites differ from both Shepperson and Wells’ descriptions. Nigel Kneale’s screenplay deviates from the book elsewhere but the film is still a more faithful adaptation than those based on Wells’ more popular novels, as are many of the other screen adaptations, the first being a lost silent from 1919. All of which reminds me that I’ve not seen Harryhausen’s film for many years. I’d welcome another date with the Grand Lunar.

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