Art by René Ferracci.
Continuing an occasional series about artworks in feature films. Most people know HR Giger’s work via his production designs for the Alien films; a much smaller number of people also know about his designs for Jodorowsky’s unmade film of Dune, but hardly anyone knows that his art first appeared in a major film two years before Alien was released. This isn’t too surprising when the film in question, Providence, directed by Alain Resnais, has been increasingly difficult to see since 1977; the film isn’t mentioned in any of Giger’s books either, a curious omission for an artist who spent his career logging every public appearance of his work.
Providence began life as a collaboration between Resnais and British playwright David Mercer, with the resulting script leading to a Swiss/French co-production that was filmed in English. The film has an exceptional cast—Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, Elaine Stritch, David Warner—marvellous photography by Ricardo Aronovitch, and a sumptuous score by Miklós Rózsa. If you’re the kind of person who regards awards as designators of quality then it’s worth noting that Providence won 7 Cesar Awards in 1978, including the one for best picture. Yet despite all this, and despite being regularly described as a peak of its director’s career there’s only been a single DVD release which is now deleted. I’d been intending to write about the film for some time but first I had to acquire a decent copy to watch again; this wasn’t an easy task but I managed to “source” a version that was better than the VHS tape I used to own.
For most of its running time Providence is a film about artistic invention, more specifically about the process of writing. Clive Langham (John Gielgud) is an ailing author spending a sleepless night alone in his huge house, “Providence”, wracked by unspecified bowel problems, painful memories and fears of impending death. To distract himself from his troubles he drinks large quantities of wine while mentally sketching a scenario for a novel in which the people closest to him are the main characters. In this story-within-the-story Langham’s son, Claude (Dirk Bogarde), is a priggish barrister whose primary conflicts are with his absent father, his bored wife, Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), and a listless stranger, Kevin (David Warner), who Sonia has befriended and seems attracted to even though Kevin won’t reciprocate. While Claude cajoles and insults the pair he also conducts an affair of his own with Helen (Elaine Stritch), an older woman who resembles his dead mother. The scenario is elevated from being another mundane saga about middle-class infidelities by its persistently dream-like setting, and by the interventions and confusions of its cantankerous author. If you only know John Gielgud from his later cameos playing upper-class gentlemen then he’s a revelation here, boozing and cursing like the proprietor of Black Books. Between spasms of illness and self-pity Langham shuffles his playthings around like chess pieces, revising scenes while trying to keep minor characters from interfering; “Providence” isn’t only the house where Langham lives but also the watchful eye of its God-like author. Meanwhile, his characters bicker and chastise each other, paying little attention to the disturbing events taking place in the streets outside: terrorist bombings, outbreaks of lycanthropy, and elderly citizens being rounded up for extermination.
Continue reading “Art on film: Providence”
Quantum Entanglement by Duda Lanna.
• An hour-long electronica mix (with the Düül rocking out at the end) by Chris Carter for Ninja Tune’s Solid Steel Radio Show.
• “…a clothes-optional Rosicrucian jamboree.”: Strange Flowers on the paintings of Elisàr von Kupffer.
• A Paste review of volume 2 of The Graphic Canon has some favourable words for my contribution.
It is an entertaining thought to remember that Orlando, all sex-change, cross-dressing and transgressive desire, appeared in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s sapphic romance The Well of Loneliness. The two novels are different solar systems. The Well is gloomy, beaten, defensive, where women who love women have only suffering and misunderstanding in their lonely lives. The theme is as depressing as the writing, which is terrible. Orlando is a joyful and passionate declaration of love as life, regardless of gender. The Well was banned and declared obscene. Orlando became a bestseller.
Jeanette Winterson on Virginia Woolf’s androgynous fantasia.
• Jim Jupp discovers the mystical novels of Charles Williams.
• Michael Andre-Driussi on The Politics of Roadside Picnic.
• Les Softs Machines: 25 August 1968, Ce Soir On Danse.
• At 50 Watts: Illustrations and comics by Pierre Ferrero.
• Soviet posters: 1469 examples at Flickr.
• Oliver Sacks on drugs (again).
• At Pinterest: Altered States.
• Farewell, Kevin Ayers.
• Darkest London
• Why Are We Sleeping? (1969) by The Soft Machine | Lady Rachel (1969) by Kevin Ayers | Decadence (1973) by Kevin Ayers
Lower Manhattan (1999) by Lebbeus Woods.
RIP Lebbeus Woods, an architect and illustrator frequently compared to Piranesi not only for his imagination and the quality of his renderings but also for the way both men built very little from a lifetime of designs. Lots of appreciations have appeared over the past few days including this lengthy piece by Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG. (Geoff interviewed Woods in 2007.) Elsewhere: A slideshow at the NYT, Steven Holl remembers Lebbeus Woods and Lebbeus Woods, visionary architect of imaginary worlds. See also: Lebbeus Woods: Early Drawings and this post about Woods’ illustrations for an Arthur C Clarke story collection. Woods was at his most Piranesian with Gothic designs for an artificial planet that would have been the principal location in Vincent Ward’s unmade Alien 3.
• Arkhonia draws to the end of a year of blogging about and around the Beach Boys’ errant masterwork, Smile (1967). Witty, discursive and frequently scabrous accounts of how Brian Wilson’s magnum opus was derailed and marginalised until it became convenient for commercial interests to exploit its reputation. Anyone following those posts won’t have been surprised by Wilson’s sacking from his own group by Mike Love in September.
• “We’ve been underground for 27 hours now. Everyone is caked in mud, with grit in their hair.” Will Hunt explores the catacombs and sewers of Paris.
I think the only remotely interesting drug was acid. I had a slightly peculiar attitude towards it I think. Just about everything about hippydom I hated. I liked the 60s up to about ’65 or ’66. I liked the mod clothes, I liked the look. I wasn’t a keen taker of speed because I didn’t like the comedown from it. Then everything changed and became looser, I didn’t like the clothes at all. I felt rather out of step with it. The acid thing was interesting though. I come from Salisbury and from the age of 12 I had a friend who was 30 years older than I was who I saw regularly up until when he died a couple of years ago, whose obituary I wrote in The Times. This man was called Ken James and he was deputy head at the chemical warfare unit at Porton Down [the MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory]. He then became head of the scientific civil service; he was the man who introduced computing into the civil service and he had taken acid as early as 1950. This was long before Aldous Huxley.
Sharp Suits And Sparkle: Jonathan Meades On Acid, Space And Place by John Doran. Marvellous stuff. Meades’ new book is Museum Without Walls.
• In New York later this month: A Cathode Ray Séance – The Haunted Worlds of Nigel Kneale.
• More acid: Kerri Smith talks to Oliver Sacks about his drug experiences.
• “It starts with an itch”: Alan Bennett (again) on his new play, People.
Lower Manhattan last Wednesday. Photo by Iwan Baan.
• Back issues of OMNI magazine can now be found at the Internet Archive.
• Alan Moore & Mitch Jenkins present their new film, Jimmy’s End.
• At BibliOdyssey: Atlas title pages part one & part two.
• Raw Functionality: An interview with Emptyset.
• Athanasius, Underground
• Vintage Caza
• Stormy Weather (1979) by Elisabeth Welch.
La Perspective Curieuse (1663) by Jean François Nicéron. From Curious Perspectives at BibliOdyssey.
• 1612 Underture is a forthcoming album by The Eccentronic Research Council and Maxine Peake which extends the electronics + occult concept to encompass Kraftwerk and the Pendle Witches. The Quietus has a review of their album, and an interview and report about a recent live performance (I missed the latter, unfortunately), while the Guardian’s interview with the splendid Ms Peake reveals that “musically, her tastes range from Japanese black metal, garage rock and folk, to techno and psychobilly.” The famous Lancashire witches also happen to be the subject of Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, The Daylight Gate.
• Yet more Marker: The Owl’s Legacy: Chris Marker’s 13-Part Search for Western Culture’s Foundations in Ancient Greece, and J. Hoberman on The Lost Futures of Chris Marker.
• Dr Oliver Sacks talks about how hallucinogenic drugs helped him empathize with his patients.
Paulo Coelho’s ill-judged Joyce-bashing has made him a butt of scorn this week, but he’s a safe target because, with books that multitask a little too openly as self-help manuals, he’s not so clubbable. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan, who not-that-differently declared against “the dead hand of modernism“, for all the world as if the dominant literary mode in post-war England was Steinian experimentation or some Albion Oulipo, against which young Turks hold out with limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition(TM).
China Miéville on the always contentious future of the novel.
• The Foliate Head: a new book by Marly Youmans with illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
• Hysterical Literature: Session Two: Alicia reads from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
• Dreaming in Dirigibles: The Airship Postcard Albums of Lord Ventry.
• The Art of the Literary Fake (with Violin) by Jeff VanderMeer.
• RIP Neil Armstrong, first human on the Moon.
• Macho Man: Morgan Meis on Robert Hughes.
• Book covers by Hannes Bok.
• This Is Now!
• Squid Moth
• Lunar Rhapsody (1947) by Dr Samuel J. Hoffman | Lunar Musick Suite (1976) by Steve Hillage | Back Side Of The Moon (Steve Hillage’s Under Water Deep Space Remix) (1991) by The Orb.