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Bells of Atlantis (1952)

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Dream-journey of Anais Nin (she narrates her "House of incest")
29 May 2004 | by (Toronto, Canada) – See all my reviews

Anais Nin is best known for her diaries depicting her psychological and artistic growth, published House of Incest in 1958. This dream-journey features Nin reading an extract from her novella House of Incest, in particularly the line "I remember my first birth in water," Bells of Atlantis evokes the watery depths of the lost continent of ourselves, and the images suggest the aqueous beauty of that lost world. It is a lyrical journey into another time, an imaginative film exploration of a poet's world. Her episodic text recites a narrative of the agonizing birth of consciousness from the indistinct fluid realms of Atlantis, the film's metaphor for the subconscious. The visual track of the camera sways gently in contrasting directions over each of the three layers of superimposed images that are usually present.

Born Hugh Parker Guiler in Boston, Ian Hugo lived his childhood in Puerto Rico (a "tropical paradise" the memory of which stayed with him and surfaces in both his engravings and his films). Parker then spent his school years in Scotland and at Columbia University where he studied economics and literature. He was working with the National City Bank when he met and married Anais Nin in 1923; they moved to Paris the next year, and in that city Nin's diary and Parker's artistic aspirations flowered. Parker feared his business associates would not understand his interests in art and music, let alone those of his wife, so he began a second life, as Ian Hugo. In 1940 he took up engraving and etching, studying under S.W. Hayter of Atelier 17, producing surreal images that often accompanied Nin's books. For Nin his unwavering love and financial support were indispensable, he was "the fixed center, core...my home, my refuge" (Sept. 16, 1937, Nearer the Moon, The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin, 1937-1939).

A fictionalized portrait of him appears in Philip Kaufman's 1990 Henry & June. Responding to comments that viewers saw motion in his engravings, Hugo chose to take up film-making. He asked Sasha Hammid for instruction, but was told "Use the camera yourself, make your own mistakes, make your own style."

What Ian Hugo did was to delve into his dreams, his unconscious, his memories. With no specific plan when he began a film, Hugo would collect images, then reorder or superimpose them, finding poetic meaning in these juxtapositions. These spontaneous inventions greatly resembled his engravings which he described in 1946 as "hieroglyphs of a language in which our unconscious is trying to convey important, urgent messages."

In the underwater world of Bells of Atlantis all of the light in the film is from the world above the surface - it is otherworldly, out of place yet necessary. In Jazz of Lights, the street lights of Times Square become, in Nin's words, "an ephemeral flow of sensations"; this flow that she also calls "phantasmagorical" had a crucial impact on Stan Brakhage who now says that without Jazz of Lights (in 1954) "there would have been no Anticipation of the Night" (in 1958). Hugo lived the last two decades of his life in a New York apartment high above street level; in the evening, surrounded by an electrically illuminated landscape, he dictated his memoirs into tape recorders and would from time to time polish the large copper panels that had been used to print his engravings from the worlds of the unconscious and the dream.

Louis and Bebe Barron show their pioneering strength with one of the earliest use of electronic music ever used in a film. They also composed the infamous Hollywood film Forbidden Planet (1956), and worked with John Cage, Frank Zappa, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.


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