Another advantage of the recent WordPress upgrade means I can now do things like this. The photo is a Prague street scene that I found in a newspaper years ago which I decided to depopulate in Photoshop. In the past you could only do this with a special plugin but WordPress changed the user interface a while back from a basic write-text-and-add-media arrangement to a more complex editing system known as Gutenberg. The new editor uses CSS-style blocks which you fill with different types of “content” then shuffle around until you have a layout that you’re happy with. You can do a lot with these blocks but most of the tools that control them are hidden from view behind multiple menus and sub-menus; using the system means you first have to learn and memorise the location and function of all these hidden tools. Users of standalone installations of WordPress are a loyal bunch but there was a very negative reaction to the new editor, so much so that a plugin appeared almost immediately which reverts the interface to the former system. WordPress continues to evolve Gutenberg, however, and now provides a variety of media blocks like this picture-comparison thing. The utility is limited but it looks nice.
I’m in the anti-Gutenberg camp for the most part, especially when looking at the code that makes something like this possible. Most of the posts here are written outside WP as plain text with handwritten HTML tags; Gutenberg adds loads of new tags and instructions that clutter up the back end. I may work as a book designer but a print-style layout isn’t what I want to emulate for these pages. (And the Adobe applications I use don’t hide all their controls unless you really want them to.) Gutenberg is no doubt useful for people with big media websites using WordPress as a CMS to create layouts filled with articles, video and the like. But I’ll be sticking with the old system for now.
Le Golem is a 110-minute film based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel which hasn’t received as much attention as you’d expect considering the dearth of Meyrink adaptations. The production was for French TV so its obscurity may be a result of unavailability as much as anything else, television being a medium notorious for burying its own history. The DVD I was watching is an official release from INA with no subtitles (merci!), but English subs may be found online.
Meyrink’s novel isn’t an obvious choice for film or television adaptation despite the popularity of the Golem theme. His story is an uneven blend of mysticism and melodrama related via many digressions and rambling conversations. The title and the Prague setting suggest Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920), with the ghetto monster dominating the proceedings, but Meyrink’s Golem remains in the shadows (if it exists at all), being more of a symbol for the mystical and psychological challenges that beset Athanasius Pernath, the novel’s protagonist. Given all this I’m curious to know who decided to adapt the story when there’s so much about the film that would confuse an audience who hadn’t read the novel. The opening scenes move rapidly from a stylised city of the 1960s to the Prague ghetto of the past while omitting the attempts of Meyrink’s narrator to make sense of his situation. A note on the DVD states that the film was broadcast at 8:30pm on the national channel, ORTF, which makes its peculiarities even more surprising.
The director, Jean Kerchbron, spent much of his career filming adaptations of classic plays and stories for French television, ranging from adventure serials to Molière and Shakespeare. Writer Louis Pauwels was co-editor with Jacques Bergier of the popular Planète magazine, a journal of fantasy, science fiction and scientific speculation, but had little experience in the film world; Le Golem was his first feature for which he supplied the dialogue and adapted the story with Kerchbron. Pauwels and Bergier are names familiar to Anglophone readers of Fortean literature for The Morning of the Magicians (1960), their discursive treatise on “Fantastic Realism” whose success launched Planète and later gave David Bowie some ideas for lyrics. The pair refer to Meyrink in their book as a “neglected genius” prior to running an extract from one of the author’s later novels, The Green Face. Pauwels and Kerchbron manage to condense the work of the neglected genius without doing too much harm to his story, compressing some sections (a request for an explanation in a later scene is wisely rejected as “too complicated”) while omitting the overly mystical episodes that might have posed problems for a limited budget. Pauwels moves what’s left of the mysticism to Pernath’s philosophical voiceovers. Kerchbron’s direction is lively and much more elliptical than is usual for the plodding television medium. Novel and film only depart near the end when various plot threads are hastily tied together.
I looked away from him, and gazed instead at the discoloured buildings, standing there side by side in the rain like a herd of derelict, dripping animals. How uncanny and depraved they all seemed. Risen out of the ground, from the look of them, as fortuitously as so many weeds. Two of them were huddled up together against an old yellow stone wall, the last remaining vestige of an earlier building of considerable size. There they had stood for two centuries now, or it might be three, detached from the buildings around them; one of them slanting obliquely, with a roof like a retreating forehead; the one next to it jutting out like an eye-tooth.
Beneath this dreary sky they seemed to be standing in their sleep, without a trace revealed of that something hostile, something malicious, that at times seemed to permeate the very bricks of which they were composed, when the street was fllled with mists of autumn evenings that laid a veil upon their features.
In this age I now inhabit, a persistent feeling clings to me, as though at certain hours of the night and early morning grey these houses took mysterious counsel together, one with another. The walls would be subject to faint, inexplicable tremors; strange sounds would creep along the roofs and down the gutters—sounds that our human ears might register, maybe, but whose origin remained beyond our power to fathom, even had we cared to try.
(Translation by Mike Mitchell)
Watching Jiri Barta’s films again, and thinking about his unfinished adaptation of The Golem, prompted me to return to the source.
This week I’ve started working my way through the filmography of Jan Svankmajer, having finally acquired a blu-ray set of his feature films. I’ve also been reading interviews and rewatching some of the documentaries about the man and his work, which in turn prompted me to look up some of his associates and precursors among the Czech Surrealists. Prague was unusual in being a centre for the early development of Surrealism at a time when the movement (for want of a better term) was centred on Paris. André Breton encouraged this, and cultural exchanges took place, with Breton and Paul Éluard visiting Prague, while Vlatislav Netzval and his colleagues journeyed to Paris. The outbreak of war severed the connection but this also had the inadvertent effect of perpetuating the Czech brand of Surrealism by cutting off Prague from the rest of the European avant garde. While Breton and co were forced to flee to the United States and Mexico, the Czech Surrealists went underground, hiding their illicit explorations first from the occupying Nazis, then from the disapproving Communist authorities. It’s always important to bear this in mind when considering Svankmajer’s films and artwork; his Surrealism is a serious motivation with a long history in Czech and Slovak art.
Vlatislav Netzval is best known today for being the author of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1935), the source novel for the cult film by Jaromil Jires. Abeceda (1926) is a much shorter work, a Modernist abecedary created by Netzval (who wrote a short verse describing each letter) with Milca Mayerová (who choreographed a series of letterform poses) and Karel Teige (who designed the book and took the photographs). I’ve not seen a complete translation of the verses but I love the page design which is like something the Bauhaus might have produced for the Modernist Children of the Future. The form being used here had a name—Poetism—a Czech variation on similar movements elsewhere such as Constructivism and Futurism but with an intention to create works accessible to all, hence the abecedary. I can imagine Milca Mayerová’s poses being animated by Svankmajer’s staccato edits although his design preferences have always been more florid and baroque. A Surrealist he may be but he also favours Jean Midolle’s Alphabet Lapidaire Monstre.
(As before, the Czech names here should include their proper accents but the coding on this blog throws up errors when it encounters certain letters. My apologies to Czech readers.)
As I have always said, my aim is to make Surrealist documentaries. I want to show that our world is imaginative by nature, that you can look at it imaginatively. It has something that escapes the quotidian gaze. And it is possible to reveal it through the technique of animation. Animation thus becomes a sort of new alchemy.
Thus Jan Svankmajer whose production company, Athanor, is named after the furnace used by medieval alchemists. Jan Svankmajer, Director (2009) is an hour-long documentary by Martin Sulík, one of several films from Golden Sixties, a Czech television series about film directors. Svankmajer has been the subject of several documentaries following his rise to international prominence, one of which, Les Chimeres des Svankmajer (2001), may be found on the BFI’s DVD set of the complete short films. Martin Sulík’s documentary doesn’t cover as much ground as the French film—the focus is on the 1960s—but has an advantage by allowing Svankmajer to talk at length about his work. Topics include his discovery of the usefulness of animation, his approach to filmmaking (and art in general), and peripheral subjects such as the soundtrack music of Zdenek Liska, and the activities of the Prague Surrealist group. (Via MetaFilter.)