Thursday, February 12, 2004

Some bloggers can be more than a little cryptic. Michael Helsem, possibly better known as graywyvern or xvarenah, (tho under his own name he has an interesting little site on tanka that starts off with a quotation from Rae Armantrout) mentions The Saragossa Manuscript in a recent entry. But that’s all he does, save for a link first to a review in the Brightlights Film Journal, then a second link to a class on the film from a Slavic Studies course at Rice University. This latter link is tucked under the word “More.” “More” is not what I would call a fulsome discussion.


That reminds me of a story. In fact, everything in Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie reminds somebody of a story, which they’re only too happy to tell. The Brightlights review has a subhead that characterizes the film as a “legendary head flick from the ‘60s,” one of those grossly unfair shorthand gestures that isn’t entirely wrong. Made in 1965 in Poland by the director Wojciech Has & starring Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish equivalent of James Dean, not as the moody star he was in Ashes & Diamonds, but instead as a comic bungler, the film adapts what I’ve heard characterized as “the Polish national epic.” The novel, written by Jan Potocki at roughly the same moment in history when Wordsworth was penning The Prelude, was, however, written originally in French & its action takes place entirely in Spain. This, as it turns out, is typical.


Set during the Inquisition, the story begins when two soldiers put down their swords in the middle of a duel to examine a giant book in the room they happen to fighting in. One recognizes that it accounts the tale of one of his ancestors, Alfonse Von Worden, a captain in the Guards who was ordered to report to duty in Madrid, but had to pass through Sierra Morena, a mountainous regional along the Portuguese border rumored to have gypsies, kabbalists, Moors, bandits & other sorts whom a young officer in the Guards would be well advised to avoid. Needless to say, Von Worden has adventures that involve all of the above, but most importantly, virtually everyone he meets – my favorite is the possessed sheepherder Pacheco – first has to tell their story. Often, somebody within their story must tell their own as well. And somebody within that tale must tell theirs. And and and. At one point, I think that viewers of this film must be nine layers down into the tales – and one never does get back to the original duelists. Magic, heresy & incest are all suggested, along with some stereotypes of people – especially Muslims – that are wild even by today’s post-911 xenophobia. All of this filmed in a shadowy black & white with a haunting – well-chosen adjective – electronic score by Krzysztof Penderecki, largely unknown in the west at the time.


The film is pure narrative, but a narrative devoted to its devices & adamantly not going anywhere It’s the closest thing cinematically to the experience of a Thomas Pynchon novel – all it needs is a talking electronic duck. Back in the 1960s & early ‘70s, it was regular fare at the Cedar Alley Cinema in San Francisco. This was a cheapie art theater right along the border between Polk Gulch & the Tenderloin. There was a great fish & chips joint half a block up & directly across the alley was the unlabeled back entrance of the Edinburgh Castle, in those days very possibly the most colorful tavern in a city that took the color of its taverns very seriously. The pub had a parrot, Winston, whose vocabulary as I recall it was mostly obscene. A giant caber adorned one wall & periodically the local alumni group of the RAF would meet in one of the rooms upstairs.


The cinema, which was tiny & funky, with the requisite uncomfortable chairs that made sitting through a two-hour movie an ordeal, was also immediately next door to a fire house. At randomly spaced moments – always the worst possible ones – the entire theater would be filled for a few minutes with bells & sirens, then curiously quiet again even if mayhem was taking place onscreen.


I must have seen The Saragossa Manuscript ten times during those years. If, in fact, cinema is where narrative has fled from the printed page, this film that strives for what Viktor Shlovsky would call “plotless prose” – because it is all plot – is some kind of apotheosis. If Stan Brakhage & Michael Snow showed what cinema could be sans all those devices, Has’ film reverses the lesson. I never tired of watching its leisurely excursions into the absurd, especially when subplots would come together – just often enough to taunt the audience with possibilities of closure.


Indeed, Saragossa Manuscript is one of only two motion pictures that I have ever bought for myself on DVD*. I did this almost instinctively the instant I found it – I hadn’t seen the film in almost 30 years & had feared that it was lost. Fortunately for me, the film had other serious fans, one of whom, Jerry Garcia, arranged with the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley to rescue it in a viewable form, with the sole condition that he be allowed to view it whenever he wished. Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead guitarist died before the project was completed, so the Archives turned to another serious fan, Martin Scorsese, to underwrite the remaining preservation costs.


The film stands up some 30 years later – in fact, I think I got much more out of it watching The Saragossa Manuscript now than I did when I was a kid, since I have a much better grasp not only about its historic period, but also with what it’s trying to do as a film. Back in the 1960s, I would simply go to a film such as, say, The Red Desert, to watch the ship pass slowly behind the window of the little shed on the pier & to see the room turn subtly to pink after Richard Harris & Monica Vitti have their tryst, but with no real sense of why or how those details were important – let alone why they moved me so, especially the boat** – whereas now I can see them in a far richer context.


So it made my heart skip to see Michael Helsem link to this wonderful, but almost secret motion picture. But, Michael, say a little more.




* The other is the documentary Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan, although I haven’t watched it in the year since I got it – it’s still got the cellophane wrap on the box.


** I swear that that ship may be responsible for my writing longer poems. It made me realize, as did the Edith Piaf record in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, that the single most important aesthetic effect was the ability to slow down time. I have spent my entire life attempting to arrive at such moments with words.