Strange Adventures: a film list

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This is science fiction.

Presenting the list I mentioned earlier in which I highlight a number of worthwhile science-fiction films (also some TV productions) that aren’t the usual Hollywood fare. I’ve spent the past few years watching many of these while searching for more. This isn’t a definitive collection, and it isn’t filled with favourites; I’ve deliberately omitted a number of popular films that would count as such. It’s more a map of my generic tastes, and an answer to a question that isn’t always spoken aloud in discussions I’ve had about SF films but which remains implicit: “Okay, if you dislike all this stuff then what do you like?” I tend to like marginal things, hybrids, edge cases, the tangential, the unusual and the experimental. And for the past two decades I’ve increasingly come to value anything that isn’t a Hollywood product. There are two Hollywood productions on this list but neither of them were very successful. Not everything here has been overlooked or neglected but many of the entries have, either because they made a poor showing at the box office or because they have the effrontery to be filmed in languages other than English. Not everything is in the first rank, either, but they’re all worth seeing if you can find them.

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Liquid Sky.

The starting point is around 1960 because prior to this date any marginal or unusual examples of SF cinema are harder to find. A genre has to be somewhat set in its ways before radically different artistic approaches emerge, and pre-1960 there wasn’t much testing of the SF boundaries in the film world. Science-fiction cinema has also tended to lag behind the written word, so even though the literature was growing more sophisticated during the 1950s, films from the same period are mostly filled with monsters, spaceships and mad scientists. By the 1960s enough written science fiction was playing with (or ignoring) genre stereotypes for a “New Wave” to be identified. Some of the films detailed here might be regarded as cinematic equivalents of SF’s New Wave but I’ll leave it to others to argue the finer points of definition. A few of the choices are a result of directors going in unexpected directions, with several selections being one-off genre excursions by people better known for other things. I’ve omitted many films and/or directors that receive persistent attention, so there’s no David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Andrei Tarkovsky or John Carpenter; and no Mad Max 2, Akira, Ghost in the Shell or The Prisoner. A couple of edge cases are so slight I couldn’t really justify their inclusion so you’ll have to look elsewhere for appraisals of The Unknown Man of Shandigor (a spy satire with Alphaville influences) and Trouble in Mind (more of a neo-noir fantasy). 2010 is the cut-off point. I’ve never been someone who watches all the latest things so it often takes me years to catch up with recent releases.

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Avalon.

I can imagine there might be questions about the availability of some of these films. All I can say is search around. I’ve managed to accumulate half the things on this list on either DVD or blu-ray so they’re not all impossible to find. I did consider posting links but the whole issue of region coding complicates matters. Most of the short films circulate on YouTube, as do a number of the features although these don’t always include subtitles. Have I missed something good? (Don’t say Zardoz….) The comments are open.



Invention for Destruction (Czechoslovakia, 1958)

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An evil millionaire named Artigas plans to use a super-explosive device to conquer the world from his headquarters inside an enormous volcano.

(Previously.) It seems fitting to start with a film that adapts a novel by one of the founders of the genre, Jules Verne. Karel Zeman’s third feature extended his technical effects to combine live-action with animation, creating a film in which the engraved illustrations of Verne’s novels are brought to life. With music by Zdenek Liska.


La Jetée (France, 1962)

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The story of a man forced to explore his memories in the wake of World War III’s devastation, told through still images.

Chris Marker’s haunting short is one of the great time-travel stories, a 25-minute film that JG Ballard often listed as a favourite. Memory was a recurrent theme in Marker’s work, and memories here provide a physical route into the past, with the predicament of the unnamed protagonist concentrated on a single memory from his childhood. Marker’s interests ranged widely but he haunts the margins of science-fiction cinema in France, assisting Walerian Borowczyk with an early animation, Les Astronauts (1959), as well as the Pierre Kast entry below.


Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (France, 1965)

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A secret agent is sent to the distant space city of Alphaville where he must find a missing person and free the city from its tyrannical ruler.

Another Ballard favourite, and not a neglected film by any means but the first in our collection of one-off SF excursions by directors better-known for other things. Alphaville is also important for being the first film to present itself as science fiction without any of the obvious or expected trappings of the genre. Paris in 1965 is Alphaville because Godard says it is. In part this is the director doing his usual thing of self-consciously adopting a genre; this is “science fiction” in the same way that Breathless is “crime”. But the conceptual leap was an important one for cinema, a step that freed film-makers from the need to build expensive sets and dress their cast in silver jump-suits. With Raoul Coutard’s high-contrast photography, Paul Misraki’s noirish score, Eddie Constantine’s bull-in-a-china-shop performance (he makes Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly seem soft-hearted), and the incomparable Anna Karina.


The Heat of a Thousand Suns (France, 1965)

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(Previously) A one-off animated short by Pierre Kast with assistance from Chris Marker, drawings by Eduardo Luiz, and an electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani. A young man with his own spaceship solves the problem of faster-than-light travel then heads into the cosmos with his pet cat.


Fahrenheit 451 (UK, 1966)

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In an oppressive future, a fireman whose duty is to destroy all books begins to question his task.

Francois Truffaut’s first colour feature has always seemed a little dull despite its incendiary subject matter and the Hitchcockian urgency of Bernard Herrmann’s score. It might have been improved with an actor other than Oskar Werner in the central role but there’s still a lot I like about this one: the music, the shots of the SAFEGE monorail, Nicolas Roeg’s striking photography, and Julie Christie in a double role. There’s also some amusement for Brits in seeing a Frenchman presenting ticky-tacky English suburbia as a soulless dystopia. With spoken titles, flat-screen TVs in every home (it’ll never happen…), and Genet novels condemned to the flames.


Je t’aime, Je t’aime (France, 1968)

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After attempting suicide, Claude is recruited for a time travel experiment, but, when the machine goes haywire, he may be trapped hurtling through his memories.

(Previously.) Much as I like toying with the idea that Last Year in Marienbad is science fiction there really isn’t anything in it that easily justifies the claim. Director Alain Resnais said that this one wasn’t SF either but it does at least feature a time machine. Resnais had collaborated with Chris Marker in the 1950s, and the pair remained friends, so it’s tempting to see this as a riff on La Jetée. (There’s even an echo of Marker’s film in the title…) Both films use a doomed romance as a focus for their examination of memory and time, and both feature choral scores, the music for this one being composed by Krzysztof Penderecki.


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Philippe Caza record covers

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Bad Taste (2014) by The Datsuns.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Druillet and Moebius have already featured in this series so here’s another French comic artist whose work was popularised in the Anglophone world by Heavy Metal magazine. In addition to comics, Caza has been a prolific cover artist for French fantasy, horror and SF novels, some examples of which are reused here. As with Druillet, many of his record sleeves are reprintings of comics panels, but he’s also created a few pieces specially for vinyl and CD.

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Aber Du (1985) by Haindling.

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Mémoire Des Ecumes (1985) by Torgue.

A soundtrack album (?) for the comic book of the same name by Caza and writer Christian Lejalé.

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Musique Originale Du Film Les Enfants De La Pluie (2003) by Didier Lockwood.

The soundtrack album for an animated feature film co-written and designed by Caza. This follows earlier Caza-derived animations by René Laloux including the feature-length Gandahar (1988).

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Sweat All Night (2013) by Nico’ZZ Band.

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The groovy look

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Peter Max, 1968.

Artists complain justifiably about the constraining effect of labels but sometimes you really do need a label in order to identify a particular idiom. The artwork here is what most people would regard as psychedelic even though the subject matter isn’t always psychedelic at all. I doubt that Citroën intended their new Dyane car to be associated with LSD when they asked Michel Quarez to create a comic book to promote the vehicle, while Quarez’s Mod Love comic is just as hallucinogenically chaste. I tend to think of this style as “groovy”, an unsatisfying term with other associations but “post-psychedelic”, while accurate, feels too cumbersome for such playful graphics. The groovy look is where the purely psychedelic style enters the mundane world, and where the intended audience may be youthful but isn’t always a crowd of experienced lysergic voyagers; a watering down of psych delirium mixed with a dash of Pop Art, all bold shapes, heavy outlines and very bright colours, comic art (or actual comics) with the edges and detail smoothed away and the gain pushed to the maximum. I keep wishing someone would put together a collection of this stuff. There’s a lot more to be found.

Update 1: I knew I’d forgotten somebody. I replaced the book cover by Gray Morrow—an artist who was never really groovy in the manner of these other works—with a contraception poster by Nicole Claveloux, who was very much in the Groove Zone in the 1970s.

Update 2: Added designs by Miguel Calatayud, Mike Hinge, György Kemény, and Tito Topin. Thanks to Vadim for the tips!

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Guy Peellaert, 1967.

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Guy Peellaert, 1968.

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Guy Peellaert, 1968.

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The Adventures of Jodelle by Pierre Barbier and Guy Peellaert, 1966.

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Jean Giraud record covers

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Disc design for Eight Day Journal (1998) by Sam Rivers / Tony Hymas.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. I’ve used the artist’s full name (or his Earth name, if you prefer) in the title of this one to distinguish Moebius the comic artist and illustrator from Dieter Moebius of Cluster, Harmonia, et al. As with Harry Clarke, it’s taken a long time for Discogs to compile a substantial collection of these covers, and the catalogue there is still incomplete thanks to a lack of credits on some of the sleeves. Unlike other artists whose cover work tends to be a repurposing of existing art many of the Giraud/Moebius covers were created for the albums on which they appear.

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7 Colts Pour Schmoll (1968) by Eddy Mitchell.

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An album by a prolific French rock’n’roller. Giraud (as he was credited here) was no doubt hired on the strength of his Blueberry strips.

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Blueberry (1973) by Dadi.

And speaking of Blueberry… Jean Giraud drew the adventures of Jean-Michel Charlier’s Western anti-hero for 15 years under the name “Gir”. The character was very popular in France, hence this spin-off single by Marcel Dadi.

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Dadi’s Folks (1973) by Marcel Dadi.

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Jazz Septet (1973) by Ogoun Ferraille.

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Are You Experienced / Axis: Bold As Love (1975) by Jimi Hendrix.

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A gatefold sleeve for a series of four reissues of the Hendrix catalogue on the Barclay label. The other covers were by Philippe Druillet, Jean Solé and an artist unidentified on the link above but it looks to me like the work of Philippe Caza. I’ve got most of the music but I’d buy these for the covers alone.

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Isles of the Dead

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The Isle of the Dead (version five, 1886) by Arnold Böcklin, Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste.

Reading old comics recently turned up the page below by Philippe Druillet which I didn’t remember having seen before. The drawing is from Gail, one of Druillet’s Lone Sloane stories (but not one included in the Six Voyages of Lone Sloane), and shows the entrance to a typically sinister Druillet city modelled on one of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead paintings. (Druillet’s original was in black-and-white but was later coloured.) This derivation manages to keep all of Böcklin’s details while cleverly turning the cypresses into a fanged mouth.

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Philippe Druillet (1976).

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Böcklin’s cemetery isle has been the subject of several posts here, being one of my favourite paintings and also an object of fascination for its continuing influence in a variety of media: novels, films, music and, of course, comics. Druillet quotes from other artists in his Lone Sloane stories—notably Escher and Grandville—so the Böcklin quotation wasn’t too much of a surprise. Toteninsel.net, the website devoted to works influenced by The Isle of the Dead, turned up a few more comic-related examples, some of which are featured below. What’s notable about the examples at Toteninsel is that they’re all from European artists; that’s not to say there isn’t an example to be found in American comics but European comic art seems much more aware of Symbolist painting.

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