With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced the horror film. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.
I have a new one up on The Cultural Gutter! Yesterday’s Tomorrow: A Visit to Tativille is a look at one of my all-time favorite films, 1958’s futurist farce Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati. Tati’s third film, and the second to feature the iconic character of M. Hulot, Mon Oncle is a film built largely on the shoulders of the persistent delusion that technology, automation, and progress makes our lives better, more efficient, and more logical and that anything marketed in the name of technological progress is desirable.
There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a relatively unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows — shadows with no physical source to cast them — creeping across a field. Either because of the particularly old source material or the specific intention of the director, the film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. And it captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr and why I love the film so dearly. Ostensibly a vampire film — thus the title — the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of bloodsuckers and murderers, but rather it comes from a much vaguer, ethereal place, something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, from unnerving mysterious powers, from murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about Vampyr that places it, for me, not so much among the famous works of vampire film and fiction, but alongside stories like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films like The Wicker Man.
It’s time for a Jean-luc Godard review, but where as I struggled with exactly what I should say in regards to Breathless, partially because it seems one of the most written-about films this side of Zombie Lake (which seems to be one of the most reviewed movies on the internet), when it comes to Band of Outsiders, my problem is with having too much to say. So we’ll start with the so-called general consensus: Band of Outsiders is Godard for people who don’t much care for Godard. Considered by some to be one of Godard’s lighter films because it is more accessible and less maverick in its approach, Band of Outsiders still offers up a fine example of the French maverick at his best, and the fact that he doesn’t imitate himself should be an example of Band of Outsiders‘ inventiveness rather than the other way around. Missing from the film, for the most part, are Godard’s signature jump cuts and unsteady camera. In their place is one of his more conventional and straight-forward narratives. But don’t let the surface simplicity of the film trick you. This is still Godard, and this is still the French New Wave. There’s a lot boiling under the surface even if it’s not as expressly obvious as in Breathless and the director’s other, better known, and more celebrated works.
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial effort on his part, although, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with the man. In my review of Death Trip, the fourth Kommissar X film, I described how Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserted himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes.
If I rack my brain, I can come up with an English language corollary by which to describe Fantomas. But that doesn’t change my perception that there is something irreducibly French about the character. Certainly, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is similar, in that he is one of those rare examples of a villain serving as the central figure and driving force behind a popular series. But, while Fu Manchu’s representation was that of a monstrous “other”, playing on the racial anxieties of the age in which he was created, Fantomas seems more like a personification of the id unleashed. As such, he engages his audience in fantasies of a life lived without borders or moral constraints, with the traditional heroes and cops-and-robbers aspects of the stories serving to house those fantasies within a socially acceptable context. It’s as if Bataille or De Sade had chosen to couch their transgressive works within the format of a dime detective novel.
France Gall might not have had the sophisticated mystique of Francoise Hardy, the it girl “oomph” of Sylvie Vartan, or the continental sensuality of Bardot, but she was nonetheless an integral part of the Yeh Yeh Girl pantheon. It could even be said that her young age — 15 at the time of signing her first recording contract — made her the most accurate reflection of that uniquely French musical movement’s teeny bopper audience. As such, she presented a guileless naiveté that perhaps made her an ideal blank slate upon which some of France’s best professional songwriters could project their pop fantasies — the most well known of those being Gall “family friend” Serge Gainsbourg. Because, really, who better to entrust your teenage daughter’s fortunes to than Serge Gainsbourg?
When Teleport City reviewed the French science fiction animated feature Gandahar, we delved into the history of French sci-fi in animated and comic form, including the birth of Metal Hurlant, the comic magazine that, when it was licensed for publication in America, became Heavy Metal. Tackling Luc “The Destroyer of French Cinema” Besson’s whimsical fantasy-adventure The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec allows us to continue our meandering history lesson on French comics and comics magazines. Adele Blanc-sec is an adaptation of a comic strip of the same name, which appeared in Pilote — coincidentally, the magazine that served as an incubator for the writers and artists (including Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, and Enki Bilal) who would leave it in the 1970s to launch Metal Hurlant. Pilote was founded by two writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artist, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard. The four of them worked previously on comics supplements to newspapers as well as providing strips for magazines. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix le Gaulois, a humorous strip about a village of Dark Ages Gauls was Pilote’s biggest hit in the early days and served as the foundation on which the magazine was built. The magazine boasted a number of other popular series, too, such as Blueberry, Barbe-Rouge, and Valerian et Laureline.
Born as I was in the early days of the 1970s, I am by law required to identify myself as part of the Star Wars generation. And to some degree I suppose that’s accurate. I’m not going to try and retcon myself into some cool iconoclast who hated Star Wars when he was five years old. I loved it. Saw it in the theaters, saw it at the drive-in, saw it more times than I care to count at my friend’s house when it finally came out on VHS. But Star Wars was not the sole reflection of my science fiction tastes. I started in on sci-fi at a very young age, exposed pre-concrete-memories to a lot of trippy hippy sci-fi freaks — the benefits of growing up with parents who were still in college. Neither of my parents were full-on hippies. My mom was a bookworm with hippy tendencies but too much anger, and my dad was basically one of those easy-going jock stoner types with a taste for Uriah Heep. So I was around a lot of college weirdos, some of whom helped invent stuff like Dungeons & Dragons, and some of whom played football or were on the swim team back from that strange era when even athletes had long hair and Fu Manchu mustaches and lava lamps. I was a kid obsessed with comic books superheroes, robots, ray guns, and Ultraman. I “read” a lot of old sci-fi comics as well, or read them as much as any three-year-old can, which is to say I looked at them and drooled. But I guess the crazy covers and artwork were the sort of colorful eye-candy to me that Teletubbies or Yo Gabba are to modern children. All things considered, I prefer my version.
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.