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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Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay

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Did I mention the Brothers Quay? This is a mesmerising piece, and another short film to add to the growing number of Quay works yet to be collected on DVD. Maska (2010) is a 23-minute digital animation based on Stanislaw Lem’s short story, The Mask (1976), which the producers have recently made available on YouTube. It was perhaps inevitable that if the Quays were going to venture into science fiction they’d use an Eastern European source. Lem’s story concerns a sophisticated technological society which is nonetheless still a monarchy. The narrator is an artificial woman who the aristocracy have created for a special mission; her human exterior conceals a robot interior, but this is no Maria from Metropolis. Midway through the story the robot breaks free of its human shell and is revealed to be a mantis-like creature.

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The Quays’ corpus has tended to avoid genres of any kind so it’s fascinating seeing how they wrangle both sf and horror into a mise-en-scène which is remote from their decaying European scenarios but which, in its details, is completely familiar: puppet characters, flickering light, shifting focus, everything immersed in shadow. Maska also departs from form by having a spoken narration which offers some rudiments of explanation. The habitual atmosphere of unease is still present, however, and pushed to outright horror in places, assisted by extracts from Penderecki’s nerve-jangling De Natura Sonoris No. 1.

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As with Piotr Kamler’s Chronopolis, this is a good reminder of how sf material can be presented in a less obvious manner by animation, offering a view into a world that doesn’t have to be explained down to the last detail. Some of the best written sf, and some comic-strip sf (usually the Continental titles), delivers a strangeness that’s completely absent from most filmed science fiction. Vast budgets demand simple-minded narratives with mass appeal so it’s left to animation and low-budget films to venture into areas that would be off-limits elsewhere. Maska is an impressive film, one of the best Quay shorts I’ve seen for some time. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
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

A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic

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Bluebeard (1982) by János Kass.

I thought I might not be able to do a fresh playlist this year, so much has already been covered by the previous lists (see the links below to earlier posts).

The search for new tonalities and timbres in 20th-century orchestral music led many composers to produce works that sound like—and have been used as—horror film soundtracks although you’ll never find critical discussion acknowledging such a vulgar reaction. This is a very masculine list although some of the performers are women. I might have included Diamanda Galás but she was in the first list, as was Delia Derbyshire with her associates in White Noise, the subject of a longer post here.

The Isle of the Dead (1909) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Mentioned here a few days ago, Rachmaninov’s suitably sombre piece is one of many compositions to borrow the medieval Dies Irae hymn for one of its themes.

Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) by Béla Bartók
Frank Zappa once said that his initial response upon hearing the music of Edgard Varèse was “These chords are mean; I like these chords.” I feel the same about Bartók’s music which can get very mean indeed. The obvious piece to mention would be the Adagio from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining. Instead I’ve selected Bartók’s only opera, a psychodrama for two performers and orchestra in which Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, explores the castle (which also represents her husband’s character) only to find everything there stained with blood.

Visage (1961) by Luciano Berio
In which Berio records his wife and frequent collaborator, Cathy Berberian, then dissects her vocalisations to disturbing effect. “Visage contains no singing, and virtually no words,” says Martin Butler. “The product of days of gruelling recording for Berberian (leaving her physically damaged), it instead consists of her laughter, moans and groans, snorts and wheezes, and gibberish, all brilliantly edited, filtered, distorted and mixed with electronic backing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the wordless voice. The effect is shocking and extreme, but also hilarious and touching – and often all these things simultaneously.”

Bohor (1962) by Iannis Xenakis
In addition to making some of the most thrilling and advanced new music of the 20th century, Xenakis chose great titles for his compositions, frequently unusual words. Bohor is a recording of layered sound sources that include a Laotian mouth organ, prepared piano, Iraqi and Hindu jewellery, and should ideally be heard with the sounds surrounding the listener. Intended by its composer to represent “the onset of madness”.

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Design by Paula Bisacca.

Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by Themselves for Religious Reasons (1966) by Giacinto Scelsi
And speaking of great titles… The Italian composer uses orchestra, a choir and an Ondes Martenot to convey an ancient apocalypse. Part III was selected by Robbie Robertson (along with works by other composers listed here) for the Shutter Island soundtrack.

Lontano (1967) by György Ligeti
Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in three of his films. Lontano‘s piercing harmonics and growling chords prowl through The Shining together with pieces by Bartók and Penderecki.

Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970) by George Crumb
Many of the pieces here jangle the nerves but none more than Crumb’s composition for string quartet, glass and metal instruments, a part of which is used in The Exorcist. Composed “in time of war”, it’s a howl of despair whose opening manages to be even more disturbing than Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The 1990 Kronos Quartet recording is essential.

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Logos (Rituel Sonore) (1970) by Igor Wakhévitch
“Sound ritual for pop group, mixed choir and magnetic tape.” The first album by the elusive French composer, a composition for a ballet, described by Alan Freeman as “a soprano singer, strange orchestral textures and percussives (drums, cymbals, gongs, etc.) blended with effects and processing. As the ominous percussion sets off with drum-rolls and ritualistic tension, the mood is of a looming anticipation of what is to come. Here we go through phases of weird swirling effects, vivid reverb and atmosphere. The tension becomes overpowering, yet we are led on…”

The Dream of Jacob (1974) by Krzysztof Penderecki
The Polish composer wrote for film soundtracks as well as the concert hall so it’s no surprise that his work can be heard in The Exorcist, The Shining and Shutter Island. The atmosphere of sustained malevolence in this piece is perfect for Kubrick’s haunted house. Whatever Jacob was dreaming about, it wasn’t pleasant.

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Design by Heung-Heung Chin.

Necronomicon (2004) by John Zorn
A five-part composition for string quartet from Zorn’s Magick album.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Powell’s Bluebeard
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
A playlist for Halloween
The music of Igor Wakhévitch

Weekend links 71

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Manuel Orazi (1860–1934) was one of the best of the many Mucha imitators. An untitled & undated posting at Indigo Asmodel.

The mob now appeared to consider themselves as superior to all authority; they declared their resolution to burn all the remaining public prisons, and demolish the Bank, the Temple, Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, the Mansion House, the Royal palaces, and the arsenal at Woolwich. The attempt upon the Bank of England was actually made twice in the course of one day; but both attacks were but feebly conducted and the rioters easily repulsed, several of them falling by the fire of the military, and many others being severely wounded.

To form an adequate idea of the distress of the inhabitants in every part of the City would be impossible. Six-and-thirty fires were to be seen blazing in the metropolis during the night.

An Account of the Riots in London in 1780, from The Newgate Calendar.

In a week of apparently limitless bloviation, a few comments stood out. Hari Kunzru: “Once, a powerful woman told us there was no such thing as society and set about engineering our country to fit her theory. Well, she got her way. This is where we live now, and if we don’t like it, we ought to make a change.” Howard Jacobson: “One medium-sized banker’s bonus would probably pay for all the trash that’s been looted this past week.” Meanwhile Boff Whalley complained about the predictable misuse of the word “anarchy” by lazy journalists.

• For further historical perspective, a list of rioters and arsonists from The Newgate Calendar (1824), and an account of the looting in London during the Blitz.

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From a selection of works by Max Walter Svanberg (1912–1994) at But Does It Float. There’s more at Cardboard Cutout Sundown.

• NASA posted a gorgeous photo from the surface of the planet Mars. Related: Astronomers have discovered the darkest known exoplanet. Obliquely related: Julio Cortázar’s From the Observatory, a prose poem inspired by the astronomical observatories at Jaipur and New Delhi, India, receives its first English translation.

The Advisory Circle is still in a Kosmische groove. Not Kosmische at all, Haxan Cloak’s mix for FACT has Wolf Eyes, Sunn O))) and Krzysztof Penderecki competing to shatter your nerves.

• The wonderful women (and friends) at Coilhouse magazine are having a Black, White and Red fundraising party in Brooklyn, NYC, on August 21st. Details here.

• Sodom’s ambassador to Paris: the flamboyant Jean Lorrain is profiled at Strange Flowers.

Empire de la Mort: Photographs of charnel houses and ossuaries by Paul Koudounaris.

The Craft of Verse by Jorge Luis Borges: The Norton Lectures, 1967–68.

• Jesse Bering examines The Contorted History of Autofellatio.

Robert Crumb explains why he won’t be visiting Australia.

The Crackdown (1983) by Cabaret Voltaire.

Weekend links 53

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Ancient Egyptian capitals from The Grammar of Ornament (1856) by Owen Jones at Egyptian Revival.

• Golden Age Comic Book Stories has been pulling out all the stops recently with entries for Will Bradley, Alphonse Mucha’s Documents Decoratifs (a companion volume to Combinaisons Ornementales), and pages from My Name is Paris (1987) illustrated by Michael Kaluta, an Art Nouveau-styled confection which features scenes from the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Related: Alphonse Mucha in high-resolution at Flickr.

The Sinking Of The Titanic by Gavin Bryars at Ubuweb, the first release on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. Bryars’ Titanic is an open composition which has subsequently been reworked and re-recorded as more information about the disaster has come to light. The accompanying piece on that album, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, is the only version you need unless you want Tom Waits ruining the whole thing in the later recording.

• Hayley Campbell claims to have the worst CV in the world but she has a better way with words than most people with bad CVs. She’ll be giving a talk with Tim Pilcher entitled Sex, Death, Hell & Superheroes at The Last Tuesday Society, 11 Mare Street, Bethnal Green, London, on April 8th. Just don’t shout “Xena!” if you attend.

Monolake live at the Dis-Patch Festival Belgrade, Serbia, 2007; 75 minutes of thumping grooves. Related: A video by Richard De Suza using Monolake’s Watching Clouds as the soundtrack.

• “I preached against homosexuality, but I was wrong.” Related: Gay Cliques, a chart, and Sashay shantay épée at Strange Flowers, the last (?) duel with swords fought in France.

• Mixtapes of the week: Electronica from John Foxx and Benge at The Quietus, and Ben Frost mashing up early Metallica, Krzysztof Penderecki, and late Talk Talk for FACT.

• A 40 gigpixel panorama of the Strahov Philosophical Library, Prague, described by 360 Cities as the world’s largest indoor photo.

How Hollywood Butchered Its Best Movie Posters; Steven Heller on Saul Bass.

• Back issues of Coilhouse magazine are now available to buy in PDF form.

Absinthe minded: The ruin of bohemians is back in all the best bars.

Fade Into You (1993) by Mazzy Star.