Meetings with Remarkable Men

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Another Peter Brook film, and a very strange one it is, not for its content but more for the way you wonder how the director managed to get anyone to pay for it, and what kind of audience it was supposed to be aimed at. Meetings with Remarkable Men is a book by GI Gurdjieff which is supposedly an account of the mystic’s early life and youthful questing for truth, although there’s always been debate about how much of it was intended as straight autobiography and how much as symbolic instruction. I’ve known about Brook’s film since it was first released in 1979 but its resolutely uncommercial nature means it never had a wide cinema release, and I’ve never seen it listed for TV screening either.

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I’ve not read Gurdjieff’s book but know enough about the man’s life and general philosophies to at least appreciate Brook’s film. Many other viewers would have considerable problems when Brook and screenwriter Jeanne Salzmann make no attempt to elaborate on the details of Gurdjieff’s quest. From youthful worries about life and death, to a search for a secret brotherhood who may have preserved ancient philosophies, the film illustrates scenes in the sketchiest manner: old volumes are bought then discarded; a map is sought then forgotten; gurus are pursued only to be found unsatisfying. For a film about enlightenment it’s surprising to be left so unenlightened. Much of the film was shot on location in Afghanistan shortly before the Soviet invasion, and at times the film seems like a chase from one dusty location to another with little reason or purpose.

The most bizarre feature of all is the cast: Gurdjieff is portrayed by a Serbian actor, Dragan Maksimovic, but many of the other roles provide cameos for an array of British talent, not least Terence Stamp in between appearances as General Zod in the Superman films. Elsewhere there’s Warren Mitchell (!) playing Gurdjieff’s dad, Colin Blakely, Marius Goring, Ian Hogg (who was also in The Marat/Sade), and most surprising of all since I was watching him recently in Quatermass and the Pit, Andrew Keir as the head of the mysterious Sarmoung Monastery. The cast alone helps maintain some interest although at times it’s like one of those all-star features such as Around the World in Eighty Days where you’re wondering who’s going to turn up next. For those whose curiosity is piqued, the entire film is on YouTube.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Marat/Sade

The Marat/Sade

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The Marat/Sade (1967).

Good to find this Peter Brook film on YouTube (for the time being…) as I’d been watching Ian Richardson in a couple of things recently and wanted to remind myself of how he fares here. He’s excellent, of course, as the serious foil to Patrick Magee’s equally serious Marquis de Sade. Brook’s film is a recording of his stage presentation of Peter Weiss’s play, and the two actors embody the poles of a dialogue about the perennially knotty problems of revolution, freedom, and the interests of the individual in the face of political abstractions. What fascinates most about the play is the Brechtian nature of the drama: structured as a play-within-a-play (we’re watching the inmates of an asylum performing a fictional Sade drama), and with a proxy audience regarding the performance through iron bars, the staging is as far away from dry theorising as you can get. Brief moments of debate between Sade and the asylum inmate portraying Marat act as punctuations between scurrilous chorus songs and frequent scenes of outright chaos which erupt when the demands of performance become too much for the inmates. It’s loud, sardonic, cynical, and often riveting. One of the more miserable features of drama from the 1960s and 70s is the recurrence of ham-fisted political didacticism which, however well-intentioned, makes for a dismal viewing experience. Weiss’s play shows how well you can deliver political rhetoric when the staging doesn’t ignore the presence of a possibly sceptical audience who might also like to be entertained.

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Peter Brook has had a peculiar career as a film director, most of his films being screen adaptations of his stage productions, or odd one-offs such as his documentary-like (and somewhat superfluous) film of Lord of the Flies, and the bizarre Meetings with Remarkable Men. (More about that later.) Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the Weiss play was performed to great acclaim in 1965 so we’re fortunate that it’s captured so well here. The cast includes many first-rate actors, not only Richardson and Magee but Glenda Jackson as the inmate given the task of portraying Charlotte Corday, Michael Williams as the Herald, and (easy to miss among the clown-faced chorus) Freddie Jones. A low-grade YouTube copy does little for David Watkin’s superb photography which gives the film a very different look to other films of the 1960s. Studios films of the era tended to be horribly over-lit so it’s refreshing to find a film such as this using only the available light to illuminate the action. Searching around for DVDs reveals a single Spanish edition which I’m tempted to buy if I could be sure it was widescreen and with the English soundtrack intact. As for the play itself, the concerns may be typical of the period but many of the sentiments have lost none of their relevance. Highly recommended.

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Dalí’s Salomé

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Queen Salomé (1937) by Salvador Dalí.

Of all the Surrealists, Salvador Dalí had his fingers in the most cultural pies—designing for film and theatre, writing books (including a novel, Hidden Faces), even performing occasionally, or at least making a public spectacle of himself—so it’s no surprise to find him adding to the stock of 20th-century Salomé interpretations, first in a drawing then for the stage. The stage work was something I hadn’t run across before (not since this current obsession began, anyway), a 1949 production of the Strauss opera at Covent Garden directed by Peter Brook. The now celebrated theatre director was at the outset of his career when he chose Dalí as his designer but the resultant furore shows that Brook’s ability to challenge an audience (or at least, a gaggle of theatre critics) had an early start. The critics savaged the production and the show closed after only six performances. Brook, who was sacked, had this to say:

The critics all decided that Dali and I were only out to annoy them. There, at least, I might claim that they underestimated us; if that have been our intention I think that between us we might have done much worse… (More)

Getty Images has some tantalising photos here, here and here, but I’ve not seen anything in the way of production sketches. The objections seem to have been the usual tiresomely English revulsion against anything too original, too strange or too imaginative (it’s no wonder Leonora Carrington abandoned Britain for Mexico). An article about the production from the BBC’s Music Magazine includes this detail:

In the last scene for Dali and Brooke, [Salomé] was slowly covered over by a sort of green ooze of bile that came from the head of John the Baptist, an effect of luxuriant disgust which we can imagine without too much difficulty, bearing in mind others of Dali’s images.

That piece also mentions a proposed restaging of the opera with Dalí’s designs but I’ve been unable to discover whether this took place. If anyone knows better, please leave a comment.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Salomé archive