Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Snapshots Of My Memories Of Alain Robbe-Grillet

My first contact with the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet came ironically enough when I discovered the infamous Golden Turkey Awards book by the Medved Brothers, in which they voted Last Year At Marienbad one of the fifty worst films ever made. I was 11 or 12 and I still remember the feeling just the photos from the film gave me and even at that early age I knew that there was no way the film belonged in any ‘worst of’ book.
The film was impossible to see for a teenager in the eighties while living in Newburgh, Indiana but one fateful day I did stumble across the screenplay in my favorite local used bookshop, the Book Broker. For just fifty cents I was granted my first entry into the world of Alain Robbe-Grillet and, like anyone who has been moved by it, I haven’t been the same since.
I didn’t want to completely spoil the film so I just read bits and pieces and stared longingly at the many photographs of Delphine Seyrig, who resembled Marlene Dietrich if she had been from another planet. The thing that I remember being most struck by in that printed screenplay was how different it felt to others I had seen. Robbe-Grillet’s writing was so vivid and so cinematic that I could literally see the film on the page. It was, and remains, quite a remarkable achievement. Certainly I don’t want to undervalue the work of director Alain Resnais, but Last Year At Marienbad is as much the work of Robbe-Grillet as it is the famed directors.
I finally did get to see Last Year At Marienbad via a lousy VHS copy in my late teens and I was as blown away as I hoped I would be. The film’s manipulation of time and questioning of memory remains one of my favorites, and I still think it is among the ten or so best films of the sixties, which is no small feat.

I first began discovering the novels of Robbe-Grillet when I came to college in the early nineties. I still remember vividly finding copies of The Voyeur and The Erasers in a run down Lexington bookstore in a dollar bin. I began devouring the works and felt like I had discovered some new literary portal. These didn’t feel like anything else I had ever read. It was like Robbe-Grillet tapped into some hidden language with his endless descriptions of the loneliest architecture and his uncanny ability to isolate memories. My favorite of all of his written works is actually a relatively minor one, a collection called Snapshots, which seemed to crystallize everything I loved about his work in a very slim and concise volume. I also adored some of the collaborative works Grillet did, specifically the two books that he worked on with photographer David Hamilton.
I was aware that Robbe-Grillet had himself become a filmmaker through a couple of French film history volumes I had but didn’t really get a chance to read about his work until I purchased the massively important Tombs and Cahill book, Immoral Tales, in the mid nineties. The chapter on Robbe-Grillet gave me the same feeling I had had so many years earlier when I first read about Last Year At Marienbad. I quickly set out on the near hopeless task of tracking down these elusive films that had mysterious and beguiling titles like Eden and After and Slow Slidings Of Pleasure.
I began to get scatterings of his collected film work throughout the late nineties thanks to Craig Ledbetter’s European Trash Cinema. The prints were atrocious for the most part and just watchable at best, but the pleasures and sometimes genius of the films were apparent no matter the print quality. I grew especially fond of his first film The Immortal and the two later ones I mentioned above. His movies, like his books, seem to contain an authentic magic…a furious blend of creation and eroticism that is rarely seen in film.

Discovering both the literary and film works of Alain Robbe-Grillet was of massive importance to me. In the period in my life when I did write a lot of fiction I attempted, sometimes unconsciously, to emulate his style to little or limited success. I have no doubt that if I would have chosen to follow my early dreams of becoming a film director, I would have done the same in that medium.
I am very sorry to realize that Alain Robbe-Grillet, who never stopped working, is no longer with us. To cap this off with a cliché though, his work will indeed live forever. I suspect we will soon start to see some reissuing of his out of print work here in the States and perhaps finally get some quality DVDS of his major film work as well. I am frankly envious of any young person in the future who is lucky enough to stumble upon the magnificent works of this major artist. I wish I could discovery it all again for myself…


Steve Langton said...

Some great memories there. I'll have to try to track down some of the books you mentioned. Can remember having a friendly arguement with a friend who deemed MARIENBAD to be pretentious nonsense. I think it's a truly beautiful film, and I'd love to read the script.

Aaron Lee said...

But then again, what film DID deserve to be listed in "Golden Turkey Awards?" I got my hands on that book when I was 10 years old, and read it over and over again until the cover fell off. It introduced me to so many amazing films, and I still jump at the chance to see any film the Medveds wrote about (last year, I finally tracked down a copy of the little person mob movie, "Little Cigars"; the Holy Grail Golden Turkey remains the lost Gay Porn Jesus movie, "Him"). I'd love to know which decrepit, old bookstore in Lexington you were rooting around! I always dug Chuck Whittington's old place.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Steve,
The script is amazing...his descriptions are so vivid. I adore LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and am always floored by people who don't admire it...although there are a lot of them out there...

Thanks Aaron,
God that's a good point...the crazy thing about that book is that it introduced me to several of my favorite films as well...what exactly were they trying to accomplish with it? My cover fell off too! Amazing...
What was the name of Chuck's store? The one I found it at was a place downtown, I think off Broadway, that I believed closed. The thing I loved about it was that there was no order whatsoever...just books stacked everywhere and then that magic dollar bin. Found Patti Smith's Babel there as well...I also remember two really nice ones that were really close to each other down I think on Rose close to a coffee shop. Sorry, I am horrible remembering names of places...anyway, thanks for commenting.

Aaron Lee said...

ALL of the Medveds' books are great - "50 Worst Films Ever Made," which came out before "Golden Turkey" and contains longer essays on each film; "Son of Golden Turkey"; and especially "The Hollywood Hall of Shame," which contains amazingly well-researched pieces on movies that bombed at the box office. As for what they were trying to accomplish - I'd say they were exorcising the demons of self-hatred that consume most of us in our early 20s by lashing out at the world around them... I did the same thing in my "fanzine" many years ago... ahh, youth! (Amazingly, Harry Medved was 16 when they wrote "50 Worst" - and according to Michael, Harry was responsible for 90% of the writing!) I would also say that, based on Michael Medved's current work, he never did successfully chase those goddamn demons away. He's still lashing out at Hollywood, God love him!

Chuck's book store was simply named "Whittington's," and it was across the street from Sayre School. I used to buy Mad Magazine reprint paperbacks there.