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Luminous Blows and Unforeseen Encounters:
An Introduction to Petr Král

 


Petr Král (born 1941) was among the film critics and scholars we lost during 2020; his death was shamefully little-noted in English-language film culture. Speaking personally, I have often gratefully drawn upon his rich and remarkable work spanning criticism, essays and poetry. The Czech magazine to which Král frequently contributed since the 1960s, Film a doba, has paid him special tribute in its December 2020 issue; its editors kindly asked to reprint this piece of mine from 2001, which I have corrected and slightly updated (see Notes). It was originally written to accompany and introduce the publication of Kevin Windle’s superb English translation (from the Czech version) of Král’s brilliant “Tarkovsky, or The Burning House” (8/12/20)

 

As part of a homage by the French magazine Positif to Marlene Dietrich, Petr Král contributed a page – somewhere between an essay, a short story and a reverie – called “The Visitor”. Like some other of Král’s writings, it is about the strange, historic coincidence between a dream – one in which Dietrich appeared at his birthday party, but incognito, behind a curtain – and a real-life incident. A friend rings Král from Germany only weeks after his dream, and asks him to go to a hôtel particulier in order to deliver flowers to the real Ms Dietrich. Král is not to present himself as an ordinary fan; he must name the acquaintance who has sent him, and insist that the star accept the offering. The writer, of course, gets no further than the receptionist. A call is put through to Dietrich’s room – her name is spoken, the message is conveyed, the flowers are taken and Král is sent on his way. But he preserves the delicious memory of a moment: what seemed to be the dead silence on the other end of the hotel’s telephone line.

 

Behind the dark curtain of the dream as behind the black hole in the receptionist’s telephone conversation, I imagine Marlene dressed in a black robe, the very opposite of the white suits she loved to wear in films. Whether in a robe or a suit, it’s true, a certain masculine aspect is inherent in her somewhat austere charm – the very same quality she seemed to transmit to our mothers when, without going so far as the suit, they followed her example and wore costumes with padded shoulders. Our mothers – upon whom the shadow of war and occupation (the penumbra from which they oversaw our first steps) also forever bestowed a sombre, widow’s dignity … (1)

 

As a young adult in the fateful year of 1968, Král moved from Prague to Paris. His prolific output in the years since has covered poetry, essays, periods of regular film criticism for Positif magazine, and an extraordinary two-volume work on the burlesque comedies of the silent era, Le burlesque ou Morale de la tarte à la crème (Stock, 1984) and Les burlesques ou Parade des somnambules (Stock, 1986). Král brings to all his writing a clipped, understated form of poetic observation. He is a master of the detail, the fragment, the aphorism. To those unfamiliar with his work, it may seem, at first blush, broadly phenomenological and subjective in its approach, with its profusion of recounted dreams, sensations, memories and reveries. Consider this self-contained fragment:

 

We were looking, I think, at Louis Feuillade’s Judex (1916). Insulated against both the cold and the “ordinary” activities of the town, we abandoned ourselves delightedly, there amidst countless panelled enclosures in this little cinema in the sticks, to the all-consuming comfort of another era. Suddenly on the screen there appears a clock set in the middle of the kind of sumptuous salon that epoch – and Feuillade – alone had a taste for: 4.40pm, it says. One of us automatically consults his watch: 4.40 to the second. For a vertiginous instant our present, across the ruins of several decades, has rejoined that of an afternoon in the 1910s. Even outside, a silence seemed to invade the surrounding lanes for a moment, before they were finally engulfed in night. (2)

 

It is too easy – as sometimes happens – to write off such an approach as merely “impressionistic”. On the contrary, the strength and value of Král’s contribution to film studies is its effortless demonstration of the generative ways in which close, material, aesthetic analysis can be married to the diffuse tradition of essayistic and poetic belles lettres.

 

Sadly, little of Král’s work (and none of his many volumes of poetry) exists in English translation. What has appeared is mainly due to the efforts of the surrealist specialist Paul Hammond, to whom Král dedicated his brilliant 1980 essay “De l’image au regard: les peintres de l’imaginaire et ses cinéastes” (“From Image to Look: The Painters and Filmmakers of the Imaginary”). (3) An early piece from Positif on Larry Semon (one of the first manifestations of his research into burlesque and slapstick) is anthologised in Hammond’s invaluable The Shadow and its Shadow. (4) Another short extract from the translated book by Král that Hammond published, Private Screening (London: Frisson, 1985) – devoted to a lifetime’s experiences of film-watching in various times, places and situations – is included in his and Ian Breakwell’s anthology Seeing in the Dark. (5) In the latter-day American surrealist publication Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices, Král joined in the game of “Time-Travelers’ Potlatch”, conjuring a list of gifts he would offer various historic figures from American popular culture on the occasion of their first, imaginary meeting:

 

For Groucho Marx: A whole ham enveloped in a bouquet of flowers

For Harpo Marx: A small potted tree with a possum permanently suspended from one branch

For Buster Keaton: A raft with a landsdcape-painter’s easel

For Larry Semon: An anthill

For Fred Astaire: A silk dressing-gown, with an ostrich egg in one pocket

For Lauren Bacall: A tie cut from the flag of England

For Cab Calloway: A bulldog with golden fangs

For Thelonius Monk: A complete edition, in Turkish, of The Animals of the World: Brehm’s Life of Animals

For Bessie Smith: A canopied bed (red) (6)

 

An indirect way for deprived English-language readers to gain some sense of Král’s very particular culture is to consult the translated work of his Positif colleague, Robert Benayoun (died 1996), such as his books on Buster Keaton and Woody Allen. (7) The two men shared an association with the surrealist movement, a broad appreciation of the poetic arts, a mode of writing as freely lyrical as it is immediately comprehensible, and a particular passion for film comedy (from Keaton to Monty Python). In print, they enjoyed a comradely relation comparable to that of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Král described Benayoun’s 1980 book Les frères Marx (the Marx Brothers) as one that “makes me really jealous – which says it all”; Benayoun returned the compliment in his review of Les burlesques, praising the “poet’s regard” which transforms the analysis of comedy into “an aristocratic activity”. (8)

 

In that review, Benayoun happily describes Král as “a surrealist with intimate knowledge of composite images, portmanteau words and visual ‘exquisite corpses’.” (9) Král’s association with the surrealist movement began in his homeland. According to José Pierre, an official historian of the movement, surrealism “never awakened deeper and more lasting echoes than in Czechoslovokia”. (10) Much of Král’s writing on film in Positif during the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s has a surrealist flavour. Take, for instance, this typically ecstatic passage on the “lucid delirium” of the cartoons of Tex Avery:

 

Impelling the absurd to the point of delirium, nonsense to the point of the surrealist Marvelous, and the gag to the point of nightmare; superbly rejecting every rational pretext, assaulting screen and spectator as with so many luminous blows of a thousand brilliant inventions; elevating the cream-pie fight to a cosmic level; discovering a powerful libido in the gentlest animals; and finally, returning the corrosive power of the gag against itself: Tex Avery’s work makes the work of others appear fatally conformist or, at best, as simple preludes to these magnificent orgies. (11)

 

Král’s surrealism mixes familiar tropes – the appeal to the irrational, the subversive, the perverse – with a side of the surrealist sensibility which is less well recognised today: a sense of grace, lyricism, and a giddy, infantile joy. L’amour fou, after all, has its lighter, more vital aspect. Closely related to the more or less directly surrealist subjects and readings that Král explored in this period was an immersion in Positif’s general pop culture sensibility (a love of musicals, animation, film noir, sword-and-sandal spectaculars) long before such a taste became fashionable and/or academic. Like Jacques Brunius, surrealist of an earlier generation, Král also cultivated an interest in the moments where films go “off the rails”, voluntarily or involuntarily – creating phantasmagorical experiences with little relation to a controlling auteur. Roger Cardinal has said of Král’s Le burlesque:

 

Král’s conclusion is that cinema must always betray authorial intention, since its vocabulary is inherently the concrete substance of the world, that which escapes men’s labelling: every time a director fancies he is speaking to us, reality is always there, signalling to us over his shoulder. (12)

 

It is worth noting, however, that with all the prolific Positif writers who were at one time or other certified surrealists – especially Král, Benayoun and Gérard Legrand – it is by no means the case that all their film criticism should be classified or understood under the surrealist rubric. All these critics had an equally strong classical side – which was anathema to the Cahiers du cinéma crowd – expressed in an appreciation of solid aesthetic structures, well-constructed dramas, and films with a historical-political conscience. (13) Král’s list for Positif of his favourite films of the 1980s captures well his diverse taste, mixing Víctor Erice and Jacques Doillon with Chen Kaige and Stephen Frears; Heimat (1984) with The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982); and an unclassifiable documentary by Joris Ivens & Marceline Loridan, A Tale of the Wind (1988), with an emblem of the ‘60s-style modernism he has so often championed, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman (1982). (14) Král’s broadest orientation, ultimately, might well be an expanded cinema of poetry, which he has explored in filmmakers including John Boorman, Dusan Makavejev and, supremely, Andrei Tarkovsky.

 

Král began to move away from surrealism in the early ‘80s. (15) Cardinal observes this shift taking place in Le burlesque:

 

Král adopts a surrealist strategy by isolating gags from their admittedly unimportant narrative context and treating them as so many independent poetic episodes. Repeatedly he finds himself pointing to the theme of the protagonist’s violent relationship to the concrete world – the world of ladders and motorcars, of grand pianos and faucets, of top hats and umbrellas. What is interesting is to see how the pressure of this material takes Král in a direction such that he ultimately abandons the premise of a surrealist criticism devoted to lyrical vignettes and susceptible to an oneiric, more or less irrational yet always human-oriented reading. Instead he finds himself giving way before the frenzied pressure of the objects in these movies, seeing slapstick as dominated by the “weight and texture of things”, a hymn to “the irreplaceable magic of undiluted reality”, rather than to a metamorphic surreality. (16)

 

In a 1998 interview, Král looked back on this evolution. He refers in this discussion to what has become, since the ‘80s, the principal topic of his writing: his “strolling” through the cities of the world.

 

In a certain way, my attraction to surrealism came from the fact that it forced me to face my own obsessions. And, paradoxically, the sensibility I discovered within myself was hardly surrealist. I was already drawn to the mundanity of reality, everyday details. (…) Surrealism uses an a priori formula in order to declare the presence of mystery. Now, for me, what is proper to the unveiling of mystery is the “unforeseen encounter”. (…) I believe, too, that my withdrawal from surrealism came more profoundly from the fact that my walks, my journeys through cities, had the consequence of separating me from the surrealist practice of the image – which is a sort of spasm, the sudden appearance of the incredible. (17) It was while walking that the intimate texture of reality hit me. (…) Working with the things all around you takes you somewhere – even if it’s simply the street where you live – whereas the surrealist image is a sudden “hole” that leaves you exactly where you began. (18)

 

In one sense, Král’s essay “Tarkovsky, or The Burning House” remains true to a crucial aspect of the surrealist legacy: it explores the marvellous-in-the-everyday, not as a flash or a black hole, but an omnipresent texture. For Král, the weight of the world, with its “irreplaceable magic of undiluted reality”, is laid bare in Tarkovsky. But its mystery remains to be teased out in the experiences recreated by Král’s writing: those “unforeseen encounters” rendered visible in the “luminous blows of a thousand brilliant inventions”.

 

 

NOTES (updated October 2020)

 

1. Petr Král, “La visiteuse”, Positif, no. 380 (October 1992), p. 78; thanks to Bill Routt and Helen Garner for help with this translation. A pertinent later (and remarkable) analytical essay by Král is “Josef von Sternberg et les personnages de Marlene”, in Jacques Aumont (ed.), La Mise en scène (Bruxelles: De Boeck, 2000), pp. 155-165. back

 

2. Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), pp. 10-11. (I have here used Hammond’s revised, later re-translation of this passage from Private Screening.) back

3. Král, “De l’image au regard: les peintres de l’imaginaire et ses cinéastes”, Positif, no. 353/4 (July/August 1990), pp. 68-77. (Král dates this essay “February 1980”.) back

4. Král, “Larry Semon’s Message”, in Hammond (ed.), The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1978), pp. 109-114. back

5. Král, “Double Death”, in Seeing in the Dark, pp. 46-47. back

6. Král et al, “Time-Traveler’s Potlatch”, in Franklin Rosemont (ed.), Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1980), p. 113. back

7. Robert Benayoun, The Look of Buster Keaton (London: Pavilion, 1984) and The Films of Woody Allen (New York: Harmony Books, 1986). back

8. Král, “Les livres”, Positif, no. 238 (January 1981), pp. 77-78; Benayoun, “Notes de lecture”, Positif, no. 314 (April 1987), pp. 78-79. back

9. Benayoun, “Notes de lecture”, p. 79. back

 

10. José Pierre, A Dictionary of Surrealism (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), p. 43. back

 

11. Quoted in Rosemont (ed.), Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices, p. 54. The original essay, “Tex Avery ou le délire lucide”, appears in Positif, no. 160 (June 1974). back

12. Roger Cardinal, “Pausing Over Peripheral Detail”, Framework, no. 30/31 (1986), p. 124. back

13. For an example of Král’s more classical criticism, see “Le film comme labyrinth: Orson Welles et quelques autres”, Positif, no. 256 (June 1982), pp. 29-33. back

 

14. For Král on modernism, see “La parole décalée”, in J. Aumont (ed.), L’image et la parole (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 1999), pp. 293-303. In “De l’image au regard”, Král (like some of his Positif comrades) sharply separates his preferred modernists from “avant-garde films, the American underground or the New German Cinema (from Fassbinder to Straub) (…) whose programmatic modernism seems to me to empty them of any purchase on contemporary reality” (p. 77). back

15. Several of Král’s major later prose works have been translated and published in English by Pushkin Press in UK: Working Knowledge (2008), In Search of the Essence of Place (2012) and Loving Venice (2013). I discuss this magisterial, post-surrealist period of Král’s career in my essay “Our House Now” in S. Baschiera & M. De Rosa (eds), Film and Domestic Space (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). back

 

16. Cardinal, “Pausing”, p. 123. back

 

17. For a succinct discussion of the surrealist definition of image, see Pierre, A Dictionary of Surrealism, p. 138. back

18. Emmanuel Laugier (interviewer), “Detours par l’antichambre de Petr Král”, Le matricule des anges, no. 23 (June/July 1998), accessible online through subscription to <https://lmda.net/>. back

 

 

© Adrian Martin March 2001 / October 2020


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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