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M. Stern’s Short Ends (Movie Review): Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Alain Resnais, 1968)

Hey everybody, M. here.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I watch a lot of movies and, while I don’t consider myself a “film critic,” I like to talk about them a lot and write about them on occasion. I’ve decided to start posting movie reviews here in between author news, as that stuff tends to move slowly. You can expect some of my takes on gruesome Euro-horror, slashers from the classic era, and probably some new indie horror from time to time, as well as international art house stuff that I think could be interesting to genre fans, but may fly under the radar of strictly horror/sci-fi buffs (which is what this first post is).

A note on the name of this segment, “short ends” are the leftover, mismatched pieces of film stock that low-budget directors would often shoot movies on, leading to the variation in on-screen image quality you sometimes see. That’s sort of what I’m going for here.  Anyway, enjoy this first one–which sort of spiraled into an extended critical essay on memory and time travel. They won’t always be this long. I don’t think.

Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Alain Resnais, 1968)
I had only seen two of Alain Resnais films (the big ones, Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour) when I picked up the Olive Films release of Je t’aime, Je t’aime, but those earlier films are two of my favorites. In particular because at least in those movies, Resnais’ formal experimentation, even when it got way avant garde, had a distinct narrative purpose. As opposed to someone like the more frequently referenced Godard, whose visual experiments were (and are) showy and, in my opinion, not always particularly insightful. (An opinion that was shared, I discovered a few years ago, by frequent Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who in an interview said, to paraphrase, that in every one of Godard’s film there was 20 minutes of brilliance for an hour of stuff that was completely annoying. It was a relief to hear someone spell it out.). Resnais on the other hand, at least in Marienbad and Hiroshima, used the form to illustrate a particular aspect of how people think. In Marienbad it was the circuitousness, obsessiveness and murkiness of memory in the context of trauma. In Hiroshima it was how our memories serve as direct emotional pipelines, connecting disparate events through time.

So what would Resnais do with time travel? Even given France’s tradition of arty, experimental takes on science fiction that we see in Godard’s Alphaville, Marker’s La Jetée, etc. this one is unorthodox to the extent that I keep going back and forth on if it is a time travel movie at all. It might, instead, be another take on memory, or even a movie about autobiography. This is due in part, as some special features on the disc flesh out, to an idiosyncratic director and maybe more so to an equally idiosyncratic French science-fiction author, Jacques Sternberg, acting as the film’s screenwriter.

“Why the hell is there a mouse on the beach?” “… it’s on vacation.”
The film begins with Claude Ridder checking out of a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. Ridder has slogged his way up through the publishing ranks and is, at the time of the attempt, a science fiction author (though this fact is only addressed occasionally and in passing) who has written stories or novels exploring the nature of time. The hospital is somehow affiliated with the top-secret Crespel Research Center, which has been experimenting with sending mice back in time and, now that the mice are no longer exploding, is ready to try it out on humans. Ridder’s unreformed suicidality makes him, in his own approximation and that of the research center, an ideal guinea pig for the experiment (though it’s not 100 percent clear why). Center functionaries pick him up on his way out of the hospital, pitch the idea and take him to the secret test location. He is injected with a sleep drug and placed, alongside a mouse, in a big gourd-like structure with a pillowy, doughnut-ish sort of interior. The idea is that he’ll be sent back to experience one particular minute of the past and called back to report. Things go haywire.

Ridder, unstuck in time, starts bouncing back and forth between experiences in his recent past. We’re not given any visual indication that he has been physically relocated into the past; rather the film cuts directly to a scene of Ridder snorkeling during a specific vacation with his live-in girlfriend Catrina. The scene cuts and repeats a few times, indicating “hiccups” in the time machine’s functioning. He then hops around through the previous decade of his life, and we see his recent life story told in non-linear snippets. We see him making his way through boring, banal workdays at multiple jobs. We see him waiting for a bus. We see him on a train with Catrina, discussing his wartime experiences as a soldier. We see scenes of domestic intimacy and others of presumed infidelity. Ancillary characters appear for a scene or two and drop out. Associations between historical snippets sometimes seem arbitrary. Other times, it seems like they’re driven by irrational connections of sense, sensation, emotion and so on—eventually coming to circle in around his negligent murder of Catrina, which may or may not have happened. All of this mirrors how our memories work. It’s not exactly how we’d think of a time machine working, even a broken one.

The cuts in the past speed up as the research center’s mission control in the present loses control of the situation. Ridder appears back in the time machine at irregular intervals but can’t open the door (or is afraid too, not knowing where in time he might be) and warps back out. When he is in the pod, he is in a panic–or mulling his love of Catrina, or his regret over having possibly killed her. When he is in the past, he doesn’t seem particularly aware that he has traveled through time to get there; it seems like he is remembering it, not reliving it. This makes it difficult to process the leaps Ridder takes back in time, and from time period to time period, as being distinct from flashbacks. Time travelers, fictional ones (and for all I know, real ones too) go back in time to change something, or to observe but explicitly avoid changing anything. If this is time travel and not just memory, it seems the broken machine condemns Ridder to repeat parts of his life at random in some kind of disjointed eternal recurrence.

The only real time travel “tell” that appears in Ridder’s past is his time-traveling companion, the mouse, in one beach scene. There is reason to believe, though, that Resnais had something more ambitious planned, stylistically, to visually illustrate the first-person experience of time travel.

“You won’t appear on screen.”
In Je t’aime, there’s hardly any indication that Ridder has relocated to the past. If anything it seems in the “past” scenes that his mind has warped into his past body. What we are watching is snippets of 1968 Ridder reliving 1951 onward. On first watch it feels like Resnais overlooked what makes time travel clear to a viewer. He may, however, have wanted to take on the difficult problem of depicting time travel in the first-person and just didn’t get there.

In a 2007 interview with Claude Rich (who played Claude Ridder) the Je t’aime’s star says that Resnais initially told him he, as Ridder, would not appear in the movie after the “contemporary” shots in the mental hospital and time travel pod. Rather his parts in the past would be shot in first-person perspective, or close to it, with his face appearing only in mirrors and other reflective objects coincidentally in the room. It’s hard to think through if this would have made a difference to the viewer. Though for me the concept brought to mind a time travel version of a show like Peep Show.

Resnais opted instead to place Ridder physically at the center of every scene shot in the past, which would maybe be noticeable to a director but I don’t think would stick out to even the most scrupulous audience without a heads up. While I’d like to think a perspective shift to the first person would have made it feel more time travel-ish, there’s other stuff that indicates these might have been thought of as flashbacks from the outset. Even when Rich talks about Ridder’s experiences in the film, he talks about them as memories—not things present-day Ridder is experiencing having traveled to the past. In an interview from around the same time with writer Sternberg, the tension between making a science fiction story and a personal film is likewise clear.

“I am Claude Ridder.”
Je t’aime screenwriter Sternberg’s expansive body of work, much of it science fiction, appears to have been only rarely translated into English, but fans of left-field continental progressive rock may appreciate that one of his story collections is the inspiration for the band name Univers Zéro [link is in French].

In an early-’00s interview about the film, Sternberg explains that the character of Claude Ridder is at least in part autobiographical (though it’s not clear if that means he once, like Ridder on screen, committed negligent homicide). The screenplay was, in fact, based on hundreds of small stories that Sternberg furnished Resnais with, allowing the director to choose which ones best built a coherent narrative and string them together within the science fiction framework (which was also of Sternberg’s devising).

Knowing this, the movie takes on a bit of a different shape. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that in one scene, Ridder is discussing a translation of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story in which the radically skeptical metaphysics of a society that may or may not exist, described in an encyclopedia, reshape the reality of the world of the narrator. There is a Borgesian circularity to Je t’aime and Sternberg’s role in it: Sternberg was a science fiction author who was obsessed with time, writing a film about a science fiction author who is obsessed with time, who gets caught in exactly the kind of time travel loop he would write science fiction about.

Going beyond that, Sternberg utilized various concepts throughout the dialogue Je t’aime that appeared previously in his work (the quasi-science fictional notion, for instance, that humankind was created to tend to the needs of cats). And Sternberg’s own memoir, a critic explains, was built around precisely the same apparently disorganized, non-linear structure used in this film.

As movie fans, we go to the special features for clarification. These facts about Sternberg, however, seem to introduce even more ambiguity about what this movie is supposed to be.

“Why am I so interesting?”
So is Je t’aime, Je t’aime science fiction? Is it something closer to surrealism (at points, it certainly resembles the work of Buñuel in the late-’60s/early-’70s)? Is it a personal art house film shot cut-up style for the hell of it? Is it an experimental anthology with an Amicus-style science fiction wraparound story? Is it a work of cinematic proto-hypertext? Could what it does be accomplished with no science fiction element at all–having Ridder wake up in an asylum, obsessed with the same things, unable to escape the weight of his memories until he is eventually overwhelmed by them?

The action of the film itself raises questions as well: why towards the end of the film do we start seeing surreal dream vignettes interspersed between Ridder’s past experiences? Why does Ridder at one point sink up to his neck in the doughnut? Is that a hallucination? A result of the failing time machine? Another dream?

Around 2005 I got sort of obsessed with the then recently-released Shaun of the Dead. A big part of this was because the movie was driven by a heartbeat of realism—comic realism, but realism—it (and the two follow-up movies) seemed to fundamentally be about what would happen if people who would go to see a movie like Shaun of the Dead ended up experiencing a zombie attack. It wasn’t just a horror-comedy, it was a personal horror-comedy that spoke specifically to the idiosyncrasies of the lives of its audience. While I couldn’t tell you ever Edgar Wright and Co ever saw Je t’aime, maybe there’s something to be said for Je t’aime’s blending of hyper-personal and genre as a sort of artsier, distant ancestor of those types of movies. Or even a precursor to something like Fulci’s Cat in the Brain, (even with Fulci’s movie being more directly a gore-filled riff on Fellini’s 8 ½).

Je t’aime is definitely not Resnais’ most consistent use of visual style to explore facets of the human experience. And I do think the experimentalism at times competes with the storytelling. In Ridder’s suicide scene, for instance, the desperate, weary contemplation and sudden commitment has an air of verisimilitude that makes it resonate nearly as strongly as the suicide of Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) in Louie Malle’s heartwrenching The Fire Within (one of my favorite movies). It struck me that scenes like this could have been stronger were they tied together with a more conventional narrative. Sternberg had no problem reusing scenes for other literary purposes, but Resnais didn’t, to my knowledge, do the same thing on screen.

Je t’aime has, if anything, gotten me interested in reading the works of Jacques Sternberg and revisiting the discography of Univers Zéro. I am still stumped on if this is really a time travel movie or not, or frankly if that is even an important question. Anyway, a person purporting to be me from the future just materialized in my apartment, warning me not to post this review. I now have to go kill him.


Welcome to 2020 (with a Capital M.)

Hey everybody, M. here.

Happy New Year, or belated New Year I guess. While developments have continued to be a bit slow-going, they have indeed been developing and so I wanted to post a quick update to get everyone hip to the latest goings on as they get going.

Preparing to be Startled with Startling Stories #1
Back in November I received a much appreciated surprise email from editor Doug Draa containing the galley proofs for issue #1 of the relaunched Startling Stories, indicating that go-time was approaching. I ran through my edits and sent them back, knowing now that I bear the full existential weight of any typos which may appear in my story, but content that the hotly-anticipated Startling Stories #1 is getting ready to bust onto the scene ray guns a’blazin’ (Disclaimer: my story, Payload, features no ray guns). Not only that, but as Mr. Draa has mentioned elsewhere, science fiction legend Robert Silverberg joined on at the last minute with a previously unpublished story which will appear in the mag.

Though a firm release date has yet to be made public, the consensus appears to be that it’s coming quite soon, with the good people at Wildside Press making mention of it in their 2019 year-end newsletter. And while it has yet to be posted on the public Startling Stories Facebook page, there is in fact some cover art ready for the issue that has been floating around in various channels, so I’m posting it below:

I have to say my jaw dropped when I saw this artwork, as I think this merging of a classic pulp vibe with some contemporary design elements is hot enough to turn the ice cold vacuum of space into a balmy island paradise.

I also can’t help but feel a connection with the events unfolding in the image. Like the fellow suspended in goo there, his blood presumably replaced with onax (a la Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco) to prevent him from exploding like a ripe watermelon dropped from a rooftop due to the conditions of deep space, I’ve felt like I’ve been in stasis for some time. And that grey creepin’ around there, what is its agenda? Is it planning to plant a bunch of alien eggs in my brain? Shut off my life support just for shits? Steer me to the portal to hell from Event Horizon and leave me babbling in Latin and gouging my eyes out? Or does it want to be friends? Does it plan to unfreeze me in order to bring me to a super fun alien party?

Anyway now that I’ve extended this metaphor far beyond where I should have stopped, I’ll talk about how I should, at some point in the future, be … 

Gettin’ Weird with Weirdbook
Due to the delays I’ve been hesitant to talk much about this one, but as things seem to be cranking up I figured it couldn’t hurt to mention that sometime last year I signed a contract on my story titled Birth, which is slated to appear in Weirdbook #44. While issue #41 of that magazine has been out for a minute, it sounds as though things are also starting to pick back up in terms of the publishing schedule over there, as it was made public over at Black Gate that Weirdbook #42 is in the hopper, and is going to be an issue entirely dedicated to stories by cyberpunk legend John Shirley.

As with my story coming out in Startling, I am feeling a strong impulse to talk about the one appearing in Weirdbook, but it doesn’t make much sense for an author to go around spoilering his own stories. I’ll move on to other stuff, then.

Other Stuff, Then …
What else is popping at M. Stern Headquarters? In addition to a few stories I whipped up towards the end of last year, some which I think are kind of funny and others pretty serious, I’m working on about three right now which fall I think into those same categories or somewhere in between.

Elsewhere in the offing I’m supposed to appear on an awesome horror movie podcast where I’ll be discussing (as it currently stands) the heyday of Italian horror/gore movies, how this gritty cinematic underground connects to and interacts with the art house tradition, and probably a bunch of other stuff.

And in keeping with that, I’ve officially decided that I will start doing some movie capsule reviews here as it seems sort of silly not to. I’ve got flicks by Alan Renais, Alexei German, and on the other side of the snooty spectrum, Joe D’Amato and Claudio Fragasso that I’ve got a thing or two to say about.

All this and more planned for after Startling #1 drops… Now I’m going to wrestle myself away from my keyboard and try to stop refreshing social media for at least a couple of minutes.

Take care everyone, hope 2020 is treating you well.

The Beginning Was The M.

Hey everybody, M. here.

It’s been a minute — longer than I had expected, as the inaugural issue of Startling Stories has been delayed and I haven’t had much else to report in the way of fiction-related developments. I do prospectively have another story slated to come out at this point, but I’d rather not make the details fully public until there is a little more movement on that front. While I can’t imagine that there are many out there reading this, I wanted to post something to let those curious (or those stumbling by due to coincidence of keyword) know that I hadn’t disappeared off into the ether.

I suppose the one semi-significant development at M. Stern Headquarters is the creation of my Facebook author page, which I encourage you to “Like” if you haven’t already. The news has been, of course, really slow over there as well, but I’ve been posting interesting music clips from time to time in lieu of any substantial updates.

A note on the title of this post — it is a reference to the weird work of German pseudoscience from the 1970s, “Der Anfang war das Ende,” which translates to The Beginning was the End, subtitled: “der Mensch enstand durch Kannibalismus – Intelligenz ist essbar,” meaning roughly, the human emerged through cannibalism — intelligence is edible. Of course this may be more familiar to some as a lyric from the Devo track Gates of Steel, and in fact the synth pop band’s shtick was highly influenced by the book, especially in their early days as a more experimental, conceptually challenging act.

The book was written by a fascinating New Age-y type named Oskar Kiss Maerth (nutbar or grifter to some, OKM to his friends and/or adherents), and details the entirely baseless but nevertheless compelling idea that the mechanism which drove human evolution was cannibalism among apes. Maerth, having purportedly eaten some monkey brains while traveling through southeast Asia, concluded that consuming brains increased the sexual potency and the intelligence of the eater. In our pre-human history, some apes stumbled onto this, which sent them off eating each other’s brains at scale. They got smarter, ate more brains, and climbed up the evolutionary ladder to the top of the food chain where we now reside. These days we fail to eat each other’s brains in most cases, but are the beneficiaries of our cannibalistic progenitors’ lack of scruples.

For those who can understand German, here is some footage from German television of Maerth hanging out in a monastery in Asia wearing long flowing robes, surrounded by children and delicious monkeys.

When I initially had planned this blog entry I’d intended to also explore a theorist of consciousness whose ideas I take quite a bit more seriously than Maerth’s, Julian Jaynes, but I honestly don’t know if “idea blogging” still exists in the way it did say a decade ago. Have all those think-piece writers of the early Web 2.0 era become podcasters now? I barely pay attention. 

I’m also still considering putting a review or two of some of the art house and b-horror/exploitation stuff I watch up here, but while I certainly love writing that sort of thing I find that there are people and websites out there capable of doing it more comprehensively. Plus, this is here primarily for people to explore what I’m doing in terms of my work as an author, which I consider to be a separate kind of thing from criticism.

At any rate, hopefully I’ll have some actual news soon — I have actually just in the past few months been writing stories at an unprecedented (for me) clip, but I have never been one to talk about things as I’m working on them or to discuss the submission process. I suppose I am old-fashioned in the sense that I don’t like to pull back the curtain too much.

Hope anyone who is reading this is enjoying their summer. Be safe and don’t engage in cannibalism — it hasn’t been proven to make anyone smarter, but it can definitely lead to kuru.

It Starts …

Hey everybody, M. here.

As you may have noticed, this website is in a bit of a state of disarray at the moment, which I hope to remedy in the coming weeks/months/years.

If you’ve made it here then you probably already know this, but I’d like to announce for those who just happened upon this site out of curiosity, coincidence or some quirk of Google’s search algorithm that my science fiction story titled “Payload” will be appearing in the debut issue of the new Startling Stories — the classic pulp mag now being re-launched by Wildside Press and editor Douglas Draa.

This publisher/editor combo has been super successful in re-launching the time-honored weird fiction mag Weirdbook, and I’m stoked beyond stoked to have a place in their new science fiction-focused endeavor. I’ll be using this space to keep the world posted on the magazine’s release and how to get your hands on a copy either in print or via e-book. I’ll probably also be sharing these updates on my author page on Facebook (which is going to require me to start an author page on Facebook — so look for that, too).

I’m also thinking of ways I can make use of this space in between news about any fiction I might have coming out. While I’m not super hot to become an active fixture of the blogosphere or do much “media criticism,” I do read books and watch movies like they’re going out of style (in fact some of them have) and I have a tendency to go on at length about them. So some of that as it pertains to genre fiction might appear here soon. I am thinking this could be a better place for such things than social channels geared toward shorter posts (and memes, and baby pictures, etc.). And, for that matter, it might go over better here than it does when I occasionally strike up a conversation with a random, perplexed person sitting next to me in a coffee shop.

Other than that, I’ll leave you with a generic but sincere promise that I’m hard at work on more stories. There’ll be much more to come!