Punch and Judy, Michel de Ghelderode, and the Brothers Quay

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The Quay Brothers’ first animated film, Nocturna Artificialia, was released in 1979. Prior to this there had been some short experiments but since these are always described as “lost” it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see them. The artistic success of Nocturna Artificialia prompted the Quays and producer-colleague Keith Griffiths to consider fresh outlets for their talents, and resulted in funding from Britain’s Arts Council for two arts documentaries combining live-action film with animated interludes. Nocturna Artificialia has long been available for home viewing on the various Quays DVDs but the two early arts films, Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy (1980) and The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode, 1898–1962 (1981), are omitted from the reissue canon for reasons that have never been very clear. Both films have been impossible to see unless you’re an academic or film programmer, at least until now. Once again, YouTube has provided an outlet for exceptional rarities.

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Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy

Now that finally I’ve watched these films it’s understandable why they don’t fit so easily with the Quays’ more personal output. Punch and Judy has obvious superficial parallels with Jan Svankmajer’s Punch and Judy (1966) but Svankmajer’s film is his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the murderous puppet. The Quays film is much more straightforward, devoting most of its running time to a history of Mr Punch and the other puppet characters. The story of Punch himself (narrated by Joe Melia) is intercut with a contemporary performance of the play by a genuine Punch and Judy man, Percy Press. Animated sequences are limited to small inserts between the documentary material before a lengthier section at the end that illustrates Harrison Birtwhistle’s Punch and Judy opera. This last section shows how much the Quays had developed their animation techniques since their first film, and is reminiscent of the opera sequences in their later film about Leos Janacek. Animation aside, there’s little else that’s recognisably Quay until the credits which are lettered by the brothers. (For this film and the following one they credit themselves as the “Brothers Quaij”.) Punch and Judy: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy was of sufficient quality to be screened by the BBC in 1981 as part of the Omnibus arts strand.

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The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode, 1898–1962

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Michel de Ghelderode was a Belgian playwright whose grotesque and macabre works, many of which feature masks and puppets, are favourites of the Quays. This is a shorter film than the previous one (30 minutes rather than 45) but the territory is closer to the Quays’ own concerns. The animated sequences are fewer but they’re marvellous pieces, especially the longer central sequence which animates Ghelderode’s Fastes d’enfer (Chronicles of Hell). The figures in the latter piece may depict Ghelderode’s characters but the decor is 100% Quay, with a nocturnal cityscape and shadows from one of the trams that drift through their early films. A bonus for me was the music by Dome (Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis), a duo for whom the Quays later designed a record sleeve.

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The rest of the film consists of archive footage of Ghelderode wandering Belgian streets, and live performance of other scenes from his plays. All of this is strange and fascinating, only spoiled a little by the picture being very dark in places. (The screen shots here have been brightened.) Keith Griffiths says that this was a result of the film not being properly exposed, a consequence of the company still learning film-making as they went along. This may also explain why the film is missing from the official canon. If so, it’s a shame since it’s closer to the Quays’ own interests than some of their later commissions.

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Now that these films have surfaced there’s one more short from the early years that’s still unavailable. Ein Brudermord (1981) is based on a Franz Kafka short story, and runs for a mere 6 minutes. Meanwhile, I’m also hoping that someone may eventually post better copies of the Stravinsky and Janacek films, both of which have been prevented from DVD reissue by the copyrights on the music.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The mystery of trams
Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
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

Weekend links 347

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Dream Animal (1903) by Alfred Kubin.

• The week in Finland: A set of Finnish emojis includes icons for notable cultural exports such as Tom of Finland and Moominmamma. Tove Jansson’s creations have received fresh attention this month with the debut release of the electronic soundtrack music for The Moomins, an animated TV series made in Poland in 1977, and first broadcast in the UK in 1983. Andrew Male talked to Graeme Miller and Steve Shill about creating Moomins music with rudimentary instrumentation.

• Russian company Mosfilm has made a new copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction masterpiece, Stalker (1979), available on their YouTube channel. Tarkovsky’s films have been blighted by inexplicable flaws in their home releases, as Stalker was when reissued on a Region B Blu-ray last year. The new Mosfilm upload looks better than my old DVD so for the moment this is the one I’ll be watching.

• Before straight and gay: the discreet, disorienting passions of the Victorian era. Deborah Cohen reviews A Very Queer Family Indeed by Simon Goldhill. Related: Kevin Killian reviews Murder in the Closet: Essays in Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall, edited by Curtis Evans.

• “How many graphic designers owe their introduction to typography to a teenage encounter with the typefaces and lettering found on album covers?” asks Adrian Shaughnessy.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 210 by Ascion, FACT Mix 587 by Seekersinternational, and The Séance, 4th February 2017.

Pankaj Mishra on Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis”. Related: The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel.

Hans Corneel de Roos on Dracula‘s lost Icelandic sister text: How a supposed translation proved to be much more.

• “I live outside the world in a universe I myself have created, like a madman or a holy visionary.” — Michel de Ghelderode.

• The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes 375,000 images of public art freely available under Creative Commons Zero.

Richard H. Kirk on Thatcherite pop and why Cabaret Voltaire were like The Velvet Underground.

Emily Gosling on what David Lynch’s use of typography reveals (or doesn’t).

White Noise Sounds of Frozen Arctic Ocean with Polar Icebreaker Idling.

John Gray on what cats can teach us about how to live.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Day of the Mellotron (Restored).

The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database.

Sastanàqqàm by Tinariwen.

Tanz Der Vampire (1969) by The Vampires of Dartmoore | Dracula (1983) by Dilemma | Vampires At Large (2012) by John Zorn

Le Grand Macabre

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Yesterday I mentioned Leslie Megahey’s Ligeti film, All Clouds Are Clocks, an hour-long documentary based around an interview with György Ligeti filmed in 1976. A unique feature of that film was that Megahey returned to film Ligeti in the same room in 1991 where they discussed the composer’s work during the intervening period. Of these, Le Grand Macabre, written in the late 1970s, was the most ambitious piece.

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Bartók and Ligeti share some attributes: both were Hungarian, and both were forced to flee their native country. Both composers also wrote only one opera apiece. Le Grand Macabre is Ligeti’s opus, an absurdist drama based on Michel de Ghelderode‘s 1934 play, La Balade du grand macabre. In the film Ligeti explains that he didn’t want to repeat the mid-century concept of the anti-opera but was also dissatisfied with the traditional variety, hence Le Grand Macabre‘s description as an “anti-anti-opera”, a work that combines the tradition and its reaction.

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Continue reading “Le Grand Macabre”