Scarabus, a film by Gérald Frydman

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Another tip from Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies (1976) (previously) that’s also another short animated film I hadn’t seen before. Gérald Frydman is a Belgian director, and Scarabus (1971) was his debut film. As with a number of the selections in Strick’s book, Scarabus tends more towards Surrealism than science fiction, although this always depends how broadly you define SF: identical men in black clothes populate a crumbling urban environment where much of the architecture is inside out and upside down, and unidentified yellow blobs clutter the place. Airships drift overhead while the men interact with each other, sometimes in a violent manner. The meaning may be elusive but it’s all very well done, and the film was later chosen to accompany the French theatrical screenings of Alain Resnais’s Providence. That’s what I call a good night out.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Labirynt by Jan Lenica

The Heat of a Thousand Suns by Pierre Kast

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In an earlier post I mentioned how invaluable I’d found Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies, a large-format study published in 1976. Like Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), the book was intended as a cheap introduction to a popular genre but Strick wasn’t content to limit himself to familiar titles, offering instead a remarkably eclectic list of films, many of which are barely science fictional at all: Last Year at Marienbad, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hour of the Wolf, Teorema, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and so on. For my teenage self, and no doubt many other readers, this was my first encounter with these and other titles, and it was Strick’s descriptions that kept me on the lookout for them for many years (over 20 in the case of Saragossa). Strick’s equanimity treated cinema as a global medium, not one where Hollywood dominates the marketplace and all the conversation. Other films under discussion were definitely SF but unviewable to those of us who without access to an arts cinema, and little hope of ever seeing them on TV, European obscurities such as La Jetée, Fantastic Planet, Je t’aime, je t’aime and The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. Despite the book’s age, and the relative ease with which anyone can now see films such as these, a few scarcities remain, one of which I watched for the first time last week.

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The Heat of a Thousand Suns/La Brûlure de Mille Soleils (1965) is a 25-minute animated film written and directed by Pierre Kast that Strick not only describes but further tantalises the reader with a pair of stills, which may account for its title having lodged in my memory all this time. Strick discusses the film between two other animations that are now very familiar: The Green Planet, an early work by Piotr Kamler, and Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk. (If all this sounds like wilful obscurantism on Strick’s part, on the previous page he discusses a pair of classic Hollywood features, This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet.) Kamler’s film is a humorous one, while Borowczyk’s is strange and disturbing; Kast’s film is pitched somewhere between the two:

A young man in the far future becomes bored with the solar system he knows too well and goes for an unrepeatable trip to the stars, in the company of his robots and his cat. On a remote planet he encounters a tranquil civilization where something has only to be wished for, and it happens; he meets a girl, they fall in love, and their romance is frustrated by his complete inability to recognize the different standards of her society where sexual groups of eight comprise a family. Put together from paintings by a Spanish surrealist artist, Eduardo Luiz, whose suffused landscapes and delicate tapering figures provide the perfect balance to the gentle melancholy of the hero’s monologue, the film has the same touch of scorn at its centre as was evident in Kast’s other science-fiction works, Amour de Poche (1957) and Les Soleils de l’Ile de Pâques (1971), although its twinkling conclusion is more in keeping with his romantic comedy Vacances Portugaises (1961). It’s one of the most effective screen versions so far of science fiction’s crusade not so much for a better world as for better people on it.

Strick also mentions a detail about the production that I’d forgotten, namely the editing being the work of La Jetée director, Chris Marker. The latter’s credit makes the inclusion of a space-faring cat both funny and fitting although the animal is unconcerned by interstellar travel, and spends most of its time asleep. Another notable name is electronic composer Bernard Parmegiani who provided the score for this and other films by Kast; he also scored several shorts by Piotr Kamler and Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges.

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Now that I’ve finally seen Kast’s film I wouldn’t say it was worth the wait but it was definitely worth watching. The animation is very minimal, with most of the shots being still images that the camera wanders over. The SF scenario is very conventional, as are the trappings: a pointed rocket, bleeping robots, aliens that look and behave like Earth people even if they do have eight sexes. The film distinguishes itself much more with its design, the Giacometti-like figures, and the interior of the spacecraft which pre-empts Barbarella with its lavish chambers filled with period decor and artwork. Despite Strick’s praise, Kast’s conventionality seems a missed opportunity when animation can do so much more than ape live-action cinema. Piotr Kamler’s films, in particular Labyrinth (1969) and Chronopolis (1983), offer science-fiction scenarios that are remote from our own lives and preoccupations; so too with Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges, a film whose industrial nightmare is closer to David Lynch than Barbarella. Kast does have a late surprise, however, although this may only mean anything to those familiar with Chris Marker’s photography.

The Heat of a Thousand Suns is on YouTube but with no subtitles for its French narration. The copy I watched was from this page which includes a subtitle file. I suspect this may be a DVD rip, and therefore immoral, but the same probably applies to the YouTube version as well. The choice is yours.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford
Saragossa Manuscript posters
Marienbad hauntings
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler
Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk

Weekend links 440

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The title of that film was originally different [Illusions]… I woke up one day and thought of Bad Timing which sounds exactly like the right title—for my career. Now there was a film I really thought was one to which there would be a different response. Whilst filming I felt sure that this was one for the streets, one that people would really want to see. — Nicolas Roeg

So long to the great Nicolas Roeg, always one of my favourite film-makers. Roeg’s works were naturally attractive when I was a teenager because he’d made a horror film and a science-fiction film; when these eventually turned up on TV it was evident that this was a director working on a level that had more in common with Continental Europe than Hollywood. Beyond the generic content it was his approach to directing that made his films essential: a fragmented editing style derived from Alain Resnais via Richard Lester (see below), a cosmic perspective almost entirely absent from the parochial concerns of British cinema, and a seemingly effortless ability to find visual rhymes in anything. Despite the “bad timing” comment above Roeg was fortunate to be working throughout the 1970s when having an approach that ran counter to the prevailing trends wasn’t an obstacle to maintaining a career; as with Ken Russell, you watch some of the films today and are amazed and grateful that they were made at all. When reading the forthcoming plaudits it would be worth remembering that even the films regarded now as Roeg’s best struggled for acceptance: Pauline Kael dismissed Don’t Look Now as “trash”, US screenings of The Man Who Fell To Earth provided explanatory notes for the hard-of-thinking, Bad Timing was described by its own distributors as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”, while the distributors of Eureka hated the film so much that for a time it could only be screened in the UK if the director was also present.

• Related: Where to begin with Nicolas Roeg, and Nicolas Roeg: It’s About Time (2015), a 59-minute documentary for the BBC directed by David Thompson. Previous Roeg-related postings on this site include: The Nicolas Roeg Guardian Lecture, 1983 (Roeg discusses Eureka and other films with Philip Strick); Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (charting the recurrence of a book title from Don’t Look Now); Canal view (using Google Street View to find the church in Don’t Look Now); and Petulia film posters (designs for a Richard Lester film from 1968 that was photographed by Roeg, and whose fragmentary editing style prefigures the familiar Roeg technique).

• Edward Woodward’s greatest screen role wasn’t a prudish policeman or a mysterious vigilante but was David Callan, a conflicted assassin working for a division of the British Secret Service. Joseph Oldham explains.

• Mixes of the week: A mix for The Wire by Jing, FACT Mix 681 by Kelly Moran, and Crépuscules d’Automne, a seasonal mix by Stephen O’Malley.

• More Gorey: in 1978 Jeremy Brett was playing Dracula in the touring version of the Edward Gorey-designed play.

• Liberated from the LRB paywall for a brief time: George Melly writing in 1992 about René Magritte.

• Welcome to the witch capital of Norway: Chelsea G. Summers investigates.

Space colony artwork from the 1970s.

• At I Love Typography: Magic printed.

Memo From Turner (1970) by Mick Jagger | Wild Hearts (1985) by Roy Orbison | Be Kind To My Mistakes (1987) by Kate Bush

The Nicolas Roeg Guardian Lecture, 1983

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More Roegery. The recent BBC documentary about Nicolas Roeg has yet to appear on YouTube but this Guardian Lecture appeared there a few days ago. Roeg was in the news in 1983 following the release of Eureka, a film with a solid reputation today but one which the distributors weren’t happy with at the time. There’s no mention of these problems in this 37-minute interview with the late Philip Strick which ranges throughout Roeg’s career, and even includes some mention of his ill-fated plan to direct Flash Gordon for Dino De Laurentiis. It’s too short, of course, as these things always are, and Roeg has always been a somewhat rambling interviewee, but for Roeg-philes it’s worth a watch. The documentary I’d really like to see again is Nothing As It Seems: The Films of Nicolas Roeg, made the year before by Paul Joyce, and featuring contributions from two key collaborators: Donald Cammell and Paul Mayersberg.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space
Canal view

Marienbad hauntings

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Last Year in Marienbad (1961). Via.

In our age of cultural plenitude it can be salutary to remember the time when many things were easy to discover but often impossible to experience; albums, books, and especially non-American films could all too frequently exist as rumours, referenced but always out of reach. Two films in particular dogged me for years in this remote manner: The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) by Wojciech Has, and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the film that Alain Resnais made from a very novelistic screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Philip Strick alerted me to this pair of films with tantalising descriptions in a time-travel chapter of his book-length study, Science Fiction Movies (1976). Marienbad isn’t a time-travel film as such (a later Resnais film, Je t’aime, je t’aime [1968] does deal with the subject, however, and even features an actual time machine), but it is sufficiently open-ended to allow a science-fictional rationale into its enigmatic spaces. Strick’s book covered all the familiar SF territory as well as looking beyond the clichés of Hollywood and the SF genre, hence the inclusion not only of Marienbad and Saragossa, but also Je t’aime, je t’aime, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), and Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Most of these films, which were seldom shown on TV, I had to wait years to see.

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Marienbad page from Strick’s Science Fiction Movies.

I was reading Strick’s book in 1979, and since I was bored with generic clichés, and also reading a lot of reprinted stories from New Worlds magazine, I became a little obsessed with these inaccessible films, Marienbad especially. It’s difficult to say what was so fascinating about a few words of description, and a single photograph, but the picture seemed an unlikely inclusion amid so many pages filled with robots and spaceships. It promised a film that approached the themes of science fiction at the same oblique angle as many of the stories in New Worlds. A couple of years later I found a copy of the Robbe-Grillet screenplay whose pages of dogged description read like the kind of forbidding and formal exercise that Brian Aldiss had attempted in Report on Probability A (1967), a novel that first appeared in New Worlds. Among other similarities, both works share a dismissive attitude to character, presenting a trio of ciphers indicated by no more than their gender, and some initial letters. This confluence of influences, Marienbad included, fed into the chunks of New Worlds-derived prose I was writing at the time, trying to fix inchoate impressions on the page. I always failed each time I returned to that photo from Marienbad, the real charge—as I didn’t see at the time—being a result of the gap between the promise of the image and the inaccessible film itself. Finally seeing Marienbad in the late 1980s was a curious thing, like meeting somebody face-to-face after years of remote correspondence; the same readjustments needed to be made to accept that this was the reality of the work of art, not Robbe-Grillet’s embryonic version, or my own baroque imaginings.

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Screenplay book, 1962. Cover design by Roy Kuhlman.

If the above seems to strain for association by hauling a celebrated work of the Nouvelle Vague into a disreputable area then this essay by Thomas Beltzer is worth a read. Beltzer’s “Intertextual Meditation” compares Marienbad to The Invention of Morel (1940), a science-fiction novel by Adolfo Bioy-Casares which Jorge Luis Borges described as “perfect” (and which I really ought to read). If I’ve not written much about Marienbad itself that’s because it really needs to be experienced rather than described or explained. It’s a film that’s easier to admire than actually enjoy—I need to be in the right mood to accept its formalities—and given the choice I’d often sooner watch Providence (1977). But where Providence and other Resnais films have inevitably dated, Last Year in Marienbad remains out of time, a 20th-century dream held captive in 18th-century architecture where the airless rococo chambers might easily share a labyrinth with the hotel waiting-room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

• Alain Resnais obituaries: The Guardian | The Telegraph
Last Year in Marienbad at film|captures
Marienbad (2012) by Julia Holter