Long, strange, trippy 

The Saragossa Manuscript tingles

Here’s a poser to put to your Deadhead friends: What was Jerry Garcia’s favorite movie? As someone not particularly invested in his life and legacy, I would love to tell you it was Uncle Buck or Gleaming the Cube, but the real answer is so surprising and unusual it deepened my respect for Garcia at a stroke.

The movie in question is The Saragossa Manuscript, an obscure Polish epic based on an obscure Polish novel, glimpsed only fleetingly on American art-house screens since its limited release over 40 years ago. Garcia himself saw Saragossa with lifelong pal Robert Hunter in San Francisco in early 1965 and for the rest of his life championed the film as a massive influence on his music. Like a 45-minute “Dark Star” jam, The Saragossa Manuscript both rambles onward and folds inward, nestling story within story and abandoning traditional structure for a peculiar dreamlike logic. It opens with the discovery of a dusty manuscript in a tavern during a battle between two armies, but the complexity of the ensuing story transcends and alters this simple framing device: each time the dreamer awakes, the waking environment has changed profoundly.

The book version, written in French by a Polish aristocrat and scholar named Jan Potocki, first appeared in 1814 as a semi-autobiographical account of its author’s Munchhausenesque adventures in the wilds of Europe and Russia. An army officer and rumored Freemason, Potocki was said to have ascended in one of the first hot-air balloons, trained as a Knight of Malta and sired five children. Both Garcia and Hunter read Potocki’s book before seeing the movie, and both were sufficiently moved by the singular weirdness of the film adaptation to spearhead efforts to bring it to a wider audience.

These efforts, alas, were hampered by an extreme scarcity of archival materials. A print secured through the efforts of archivist Edith Kramer turned out to be a recut 152-minute version, not the 175-minute original its seekers had hoped for; Garcia himself died the day before a scheduled inspection. The only remaining copy of the original version resided with its director, Wojciech Has, and the original negative had been destroyed, prompting two of the film’s other notable champions, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, to step in with the funds to strike a fresh print from Has’ copy—and a tellingly Haight-Ashbury design for its DVD release.

The Saragossa Manuscript is a challenging, bewildering movie—a potential acid experience, but certainly not a dude-let’s-get-baked-ha-ha experience. At a buttock-tingling three hours and presented in the original Polish, with subtitles, it’s bound to cull the uncommitted. But for those who dare, it might just offer a lifetime of rewarding residue. Jerry Garcia sure thought so.

The Saragossa Manuscript shows Sunday, May 6, at 7 PM at The Crystal Theatre. $5.
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