Saturday, 30 August 2014

Erik and René… Entr'acte (1924)

Erik Satie
Read casually, like a goat: By the early 1920s Erik Satie was one of the grand older men of the French avant-garde some thirty years on from his youthful pop classics Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes… He was an influence on Ravel and, of course, Debussy, his more disciplined friend and occasional rival, and seems to have pursued a life of uncompromising eccentricity.

Satie it was who composed using his own technique and wrote highly specific instructions to musicians asking them to play such titles as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear with “much more illness” or “light as an “egg”.  But he wasn’t flippant; heartbroken after his split with famous artist and muse, Suzanne Valadon, he composed Vexations,  a single theme to be repeated 840 times in succession - anxious musical ponderings that lead nowhere: despair remains the same and no feelings are excised.

Satie and Francis Picabia
Satie’s art was expressed through every facet of his work and much of his life and, yes, he strove to avoid pretension: he had his own discipline. No wonder his appeal endured even to the more casually bookish students of the late twentieth century…

He collaborated and influenced waves of Parisian artists across a variety of media and in 1917 he scored the ballet Parade for typewriters, sirens, ticker tape and a lottery wheel amongst other artefacts. The scenario was written by Jean Cocteau and stage design was by Pablo Picasso.

Under the roofs of Paris...
Satie scored Francis Picabia’s 1924 ballet, Relâche, which included a surrealist film sequence, Entr'acte, filmed by René Clair and featuring a host of heavy friends such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp: Les Deux Magots must have been empty that day.

Satie himself gets things off to a bang as he and Picabia leap in exaggerated slow motion towards a canon overlooking Paris. Taking their time they load the gun and fire a shell directly to camera: this one’s for the audience.

Mystery Train
Satie’s score is what he described as “furniture” music, background or what we might today view as ambient although you cannot ignore its insistent, occasionally jarring passages. It must have been one of the earliest examples of a synchronized score (in the lose sense) as it plays along over a series of seemingly un-related images – two men playing chess on a rooftop, a ballet dancer (Inge Frïss) filmed from under a glass floor (she has sturdy knickerbockers – don’t worry - and later a beard…) and three balloon-headed dolls which deflate and reflate as a train ploughs through the countryside.

Inge Frïss
A more formal narrative emerges after a young man (Jean Börlin) shooting at an egg in a carnival stall ends up shooting at a bird in flight which comes to nestle on his shoulder. As he revels in the miracle of nature he himself is picked off by another hunter… and he falls to his doom.

Jean Börlin
The young man’s funeral is well attended by many well-dressed citizens who form an orderly queue behind his coffin and the camel pulling it. The cortege moves on and those following glide gently up and down like slow-motion stallions or the wooden horses of a merry-go-round…  if life is ridiculous then death is sillier still.

The funeral cart becomes separated from the camel and develops a life of its own, speeding off through Parisian streets with the mourners in hot pursuit. Eventually it reaches the countryside and spills the coffin into a field… those who had managed to keep up surround the casket only to reel in shock as the lid is lifted to reveal the young man fit as a fiddle and dressed as a magician.

He pulls out his wand and one by one magics the mourners away before turning it on himself and with a short flourish making himself disappear. All gone, as if they never really existed…

Vivaient-ils dans le film ?
It means what you think it means and to be honest I’m never really sure if dada or surrealism is a puzzle to be worked out and explained or just a statement… but let’s not go there.

It’s amusingly done by Clair and it would interesting to see the film in the context of the ballet as a whole as intended - it might explain more... Yet what we have gives a clear impression of the surrealist intent and its  all the more precious for Satie’s contribution and the footage of the great man taller than I expected in top hat and beard, smiling at all the mischief.

He died the following year overcome by the effects of years of alcoholic abuse; the absinthe got him in the end.

Entr'acte is available on the under card of the Criterion DVD of Clair’s A Nous La Liberte. You can find it on Amazon or order direct from Criterion themselves.

There are also over nine hours and forty minutes of Vexations available on YouTube... played by Nicolas Horvath. I'm listening to them as a type...

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