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From the Files of the RJ's Surrealist Research Bureau

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From the Files of the RJ's Surrealist Research Bureau

The curious history of the Saragossa Manuscript

I was astonished to come across, in the midst of the Sandpoint Library’s video shelves, a rare copy of the 1965 Polish film “The Saragossa Manuscript.” How the labyrinthine, surreal movie was filmed, lost, and finally restored is a tale truly worth a book of its own, featuring characters like the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and early surrealists like Luis Bunuel, Washington Irving, and Cagliostro.

But first, a note on the strange book itself. For over 200 years it has been bowdlerized, published illegally, plagiarized, lost, rediscovered, mis-titled, and attributed to everyone from Washington Irving to Cagliostro. Its author, Count Jan Potocki, is recognized as the father of Slavic archeology and made one of the earliest European balloon ascensions. He printed 100 copies of The Saragossa Manuscript on his own presses in 1805 and thereafter undertook scientific and diplomatic missions to Mongolia and Peking on behalf of his government. On his return in 1815, reportedly depressed, he ordered his silver awards and medallions to be smelted into bullets, which he had blessed by a priest before shooting himself in the head. He was not yet 50 years old and more than three-quarters of his bizarre, supernatural tales remain unpublished to this day.

The Saragossa Manuscript movie was released in 1965, with a score by rookie composer Krzysztof Penderbocki, who would later go on to score films such as The Exorcist and The Shining. Male lead Van Worden was played by a young actor considered “the Polish James Dean,” perhaps prophetically, for he was killed in a train crash less than a year later. The 3-hour film was severely shortened for its US release (under the title The Nobleman’s Adventure) and went nowhere save for a few appearances on the art house and college circuit and would likely have disappeared forever if not for a young art student fan of the book named Jerry Garcia who saw it in San Francisco in 1965. He was entranced by the surrealist dialogue like, “a true researcher proceeds amongst riddles” and “woe to he who in his pernicious obstinacy refuses to confess his sins” or “I understand your mind is rebelling against improbable phenomena.” Years later, a now wealthy Jerry Garcia financed a search for and restoration of the film, aided by fellow film fans Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola.

The film and book are both dazzling in their complexity and strange twists and turns. An Army officer’s unit successfully storms a city and as the enemy counterattacks the officer finds a large tome and begins to read aloud, in which an army officer finds a book and begins to read…, characters appear, ghosts, alluring demons, succubi, debauched royalty and mystical shamans, all of which span both centuries and continents, tales within tales, plays within plays, both gleeful and surreal. Luis Bunuel, an early surrealist, has stated, ‘I love The Saragossa Manuscript, both the novel and film by Has. I’ve seen the film three times.”

“Who are you people, really?” asks the hero Van Worden in the film, before, in shades of The Matrix, he’s given the skull/chalice to drink from and the movie morphs into a surreal nightmare of epic proportions.

The film is currently on the shelves of the Sandpoint Library and can be ordered at almost any branch. The book itself is extremely hard to find but it’s worth a try ordering it through the library as well. Poor Jerry Garcia died the day before a rough print was finally discovered so was tragically unable to view the fruits of his labors. My own copy of The Saragossa Manuscript is the scarce Avon paperback edition of 1960.

“We are beholden to every man we meet that they do not kill us.”  Thomas Browne

April Fool’s Update: In my last column, I stated that everybody’s favorite stooge Curly Howard was really the infamous Black Dahlia killer. As most of you know, it was an April Fool’s Joke. Besides the April First date twice in the story, other clues were the names of “Doctor” Munchausen, Cliff Irving (of the Howard Hughes diary hoax), and Roger Patterson (the “Bigfoot” film hoax).

I’d also like to note a reader of the Jack the Ripper article (River Journal of February, 2010) pointed out it was not foggy in the London autumn of 1888, Trish G., TRJ’s omniscient Editor, pointed it out to me beforehand as well, but I felt, in the words of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

‘til next time, All Homage to Xena!

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Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

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