Dear Antonioni…

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Sit through the credits for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and you’ll be rewarded at the very end with a written suggestion: “If you have enjoyed this film, why not go and see La Notte?” The joke being that a notoriously sombre offering from Michelangelo Antonioni is the antithesis of a laugh riot. In 1983 you could still poke fun at a director whose films were acclaimed as well as derided for being slow and serious; in 2022 this no longer seems likely. Antonioni hasn’t exactly been forgotten but his visibility as a cultural signifier has deflated considerably since his final feature in 1997, and the cinematic landscape has changed a great deal since 1983. The most significant change where Antonioni’s films are concerned is the way in which the techniques that once set him apart from many other directors have been thoroughly absorbed into the language of cinema. His predilection for sustained shots, for posing his characters in striking landscapes or architectural spaces, for refusing to offer simple explanations for the behaviour of those characters; none of this seems as radical as it did in the 1960s. We have a sub-genre today known as “slow cinema“, a form which Antonioni’s films helped make possible. It’s easy to characterise these aspects of the Antonioni oeuvre as running counter to a Hollywood that prefers everything to be swiftly delivered and comprehensible. But Antonioni’s techniques have followed the course of any aesthetic innovation which in time becomes a part of the available range of options for an artist, wherever that artist may be situated.

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In 1963 Stanley Kubrick put La Notte on a list of 10 favourite films, and there’s a case to be made that 2001: A Space Odyssey is science fiction filtered through Antonioni’s sensibility; or there would be if Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were more concerned with human beings. A better candidate for SF Antonioni-style is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and there’s a further case to be made that the continued popularity (or visibility) of Tarkovsky’s films is one of the main reasons we hear less today about the man Tarkovsky named in his diaries as “the best Italian director working today”. The first film Tarkovsky made after he left the Soviet Union was Nostalgia, a drama about a Russian writer in Italy that was co-written with Antonioni’s regular screenwriter, Tonino Guerra. (The pair began work on the Nostalgia screenplay while staying at Antonioni’s house.) Tarkovsky’s films are just as serious and slow as Antonioni’s, more so in most cases, but Tarkovsky remains visible because we’re living in a world where once-disreputable genres, science fiction in particular, are now a dominant form, and Tarkovsky just happened to make two cult science-fiction films. It’s difficult to imagine Antonioni being nakedly generic but Blow-up is partly a murder mystery, albeit one that refuses satisfactory explanation, while The Passenger is an extenuated thriller with all the dynamics pared away, and with the climactic event taking place while the camera is looking elsewhere. In Il Deserto Rosso Monica Vitti loses her mind in the industrial wastelands of Ravenna accompanied by the buzzes and whines of Vittorio Gelmetti’s electronic score. There’s nothing overtly science fictional about this but the film would make a fitting companion to a screening of Stalker.

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All of which brings us to Dear Antonioni…, a 90-minute documentary by Gianni Massironi which serves an an ideal introduction to the director and his works. The film was a co-production with the BBC, made to coincide with the release of Antonioni’s final feature, Beyond the Clouds, in 1997. Dear Antonioni… is also the title of an open letter to the director by Roland Barthes, passages from which are read by several of Antoninio’s actors. The readings punctuate a chronological examination of the director’s career, from his early documentaries and excursions into Neo-Realism to the features that established his reputation. If it had been made ten years earlier it might have hastened my appreciation of his films.

During my erratic self-education into the works of European directors I had a hard time getting used to Antonioni. I liked The Passenger very much, had a grudging respect for Blow-up, hated Zabriskie Point until the final 20 minutes or so, and for a long time regarded L’Avventura as over-rated. But my old video lists tell me that I taped this documentary anyway because I felt the problem was more a result of my own impatience rather than anything in the films themselves. A further problem was getting to see some of the films at all. I’ve mentioned before how difficult it used to be to appraise the work of directors outside the Anglosphere if you weren’t living in a city with a decent arts cinema. Il Deserto Rosso was never on TV, neither were La Notte or L’Eclisse, two major features which I still haven’t seen. The latter pair are mentioned in Dear Antonioni… but no clips are shown which makes me wonder if they were subject to a rights dispute like the one that kept several Hitchcock films out of circulation for many years. Antonioni himself is only present in historic interview footage but there’s plenty of production commentary from his screenwriters, Tonino Guerro, Sam Shepard, and Mark Peploe, plus more actors and collaborators including Monica Vitti, David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. I’d also forgotten that Alain Robbe-Grillet turns up to present a lucid argument for Antonioni’s films as “Modern” (or Modernist) works in contrast to the Hollywood idiom exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock. I won’t attempt a précis of Robbe-Grillet’s remarks, it’s easier to suggest you hear them for yourself. Whether you’re a neophyte or an aficionado this is an unfailingly intelligent and absorbing study.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912–2007

Hamfat Asar, a film by Lawrence Jordan

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I was reminded of Lawrence/Larry Jordan recently when reading Deborah Solomon’s biography of Joseph Cornell, Utopia Parkway, in which Jordan receives passing mention for helping Cornell with some of his film work in the 1960s. One of Jordan’s short films was featured here in 2014 but I’d not been very diligent in looking for more, a considerable oversight when he was an early and accomplished practitioner of animation using collaged engravings and illustrations. He wasn’t the only animator producing work like this in the 1960s, Harry Smith, Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk also used these methods, but Jordan seemed to favour the idiom more than others.

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Hamfat Asar dates from 1965, and is immediately notable for moving its collaged figures over a shoreline landscape which remains fixed for the entire running time. The narrative, such as it is, concerns a stilt-walking figure attempting to cross from one side of the screen to the other but whose progress is continually impeded by a succession of figures, creatures and bizarre assemblages. The film has been described as representing “a vision of life beyond death” although this isn’t very evident at all. Jordan’s films are much more Surreal in the true sense of the word than many other collage animations which tend towards satire or comedy, Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python being an obvious example of the latter. The combination of Surreal engravings with black-and-white film stock gives Hamfat Asar a distinct Max Ernst flavour, which is no bad thing. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Carabosse, a film by Lawrence Jordan
Labirynt by Jan Lenica
Science Friction by Stan VanDerBeek
Heaven and Earth Magic by Harry Smith
Short films by Walerian Borowczyk

Blood And Rockets by The Claypool Lennon Delirium

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In an overburdened media landscape the words “Terry Gilliam-like animation” could easily mean some hastily-compiled film with a few nods to the collage style that Gilliam popularised in his interludes for the Monty Python TV series. Rich Ragsdale’s music video for The Claypool Lennon Delirium (Les Claypool and Sean Lennon) is much more than this, being a witty and inventive pastiche of the complete Gilliam style, replete with an abundance of sight gags, and familiar touches such as fizzing bombs, clutching hands and chattering heads.

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The subject of the song is Jack Parsons, the ill-fated Californian rocket engineer whose wild life and entanglement with the West Coast chapter of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis led to scandal and an untimely death. Parsons’ story is one of the more curious episodes in 20th-century occultism—a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard was also involved in the Crowley shenanigans—but this must be the first time the history has been recounted in the form of a psychedelic ballad. Ragsdale is no slouch with the occult symbolism either, adding a number of Thelemic touches to the inevitable Satanic iconography. As befits the sex-obsessed Parsons the video also contains a fair amount of phallic imagery and boob constellations that somehow evaded the attentions of the YouTube Penis Police. Watch it here. (Thanks to Erik Davis!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Aleister Crowley: Wandering The Waste revisited
Occult gestures
Konx om Pax
Aleister Crowley: Wandering The Waste
Brush of Baphomet by Kenneth Anger
Rex Ingram’s The Magician
The Mysteries of Myra
Gilliam’s shaver and Bovril by electrocution
Aleister Crowley on vinyl

The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine

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A final Orson Welles post for this week of Wellsiana. Welles was a familiar face on UK television in the early 70s, mostly for the notorious sherry adverts but he was also popular on chat shows. For Anglia Television he presented a number of short story adaptations in Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, but had nothing else to do with the series. His appearance on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (1971) is unusual for being an acting role in a sketch series, with Welles presenting and narrating a film about the preservation of endangered British aristocrats. There’s some crossover here with the London sketches Welles had filmed a couple of years before (see yesterday’s post): Welles played an English Lord in one of those sequences, and one of his co-actors was Tim Brooke-Taylor, a writer on Comedy Machine.

I’d hope that Marty Feldman needs no introduction. Most people know him as Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein but in the late 60s and early 70s he was almost another member of the Monty Python team, writing and performing in the pre-Python At Last the 1948 Show (the origin of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch). The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, which ran for 14 episodes, is very Pythonesque—there’s even a Terry Gilliam title sequence—but the format is much more traditional. Besides Orson Welles, a highlight of this episode is Spike Milligan reading some of his nonsense poetry, and performing in a sketch about competing undertakers. Watch it here:

The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine Part 1 | Part 2

Previously on { feuilleton }
Orson Welles: The One-Man Band
The Immortal Story, a film by Orson Welles
Welles at 100
The Fountain of Youth
The Complete Citizen Kane
Return to Glennascaul, a film by Hilton Edwards
Screening Kafka
The Panic Broadcast

The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn

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I probably should have posted this when the Monty Python reunion shows were in progress since the first time I saw it was as the support film for a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1974.

The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn (1956) is one of the few film outings for The Goons, the radio-comedy troupe who famously influenced the Pythons and The Beatles. Joseph Sterling was the director. The 27-minute film features a diminished Goons cast: regulars Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, with Dick Emery replacing Harry Secombe; all three have multiple roles, as they did in the Goons, and Emery did later in his TV shows. It’s a cheap production but packed with silly sight gags, some of which draw attention to the film medium: no wonder the Pythons liked it. Most surprising of all is seeing Michael Deeley listed as producer; Deeley started out producing lowly fare such as this but went on to produce some very notable British films including The Man Who Fell to Earth and Blade Runner.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film