The following is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my Master's thesis, Specters and Spectacles: The Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade. The entire thesis can be downloaded here.
History written by a phantom
Yes, the kingdom of apparitions is of this world, today it is this world, and the serious or mocking men who handle the creaking gates open them to new phantoms, who carry strange rays of light in their footsteps, in the folds of their mantles. Watch out for the period that’s coming! This world is already cracking, it bears within it some unknown principle of negation, it is crumbling. Follow the rising smoke, the specters’ lashings in the midst of the bourgeois universe. A bolt of lightning is lurking beneath the bowler hats. Truly, there is diabolism in the air.
– Louis Aragon, “Challenge to Painting,” 1930
These words, written by the Surrealist Louis Aragon in his preface to the first exhibition of
collage art in France, gave voice to a culture that saw itself changed from the inside out. Aragon and his fellow first-generation Surrealists came of age in Paris during the fin de siècle, as French society was undergoing turbulent upheaval in its socioeconomic structure; in its conceptions of crime, the family, religion, and education; in its modes of vision, knowledge, and science; in its political attitudes regarding its own citizenry, neighboring European nations, and international colonialist territories and protectorates; in its entrenched forms of artistic expression and nascent media industries; in its ambivalent relationship towards the modern urban space and its interconnectivity with suburban areas; and in a seemingly boundless number of related transformations. “Challenge to Painting” in particular questioned what comprised worthwhile, socially acceptable art; no longer confined to painterly compositions framed and enshrined in respected galleries, the visual media were by this time (in 1930) patchworks of a number of concordant influences, culled from newspapers and tabloids, consumer goods, typographical arrangements, still photography and the cinema, non-representational imagery (such as Cubism and Fauvism) and more classical forms of painting and sculpture. One need only think of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” the first of which—“Bicycle Wheel,” assembled in 1913—was simply an inverted bicycle wheel mounted on a common stool. The visual arts were evolving, transforming, bizarrely transmogrifying. With “Challenge to Painting,” Aragon was quite directly confronting individuals’ (and France’s) opinions about what art really was. The “creaking gates” being opened were the musty entryways to new forms of expression; the world that was cracking and crumbling was that of stolid, classical, representational painting. These new specters were “lashing out” at the bourgeois universe by toppling artistic assumptions about the rupture between high art and a rapidly-expanding mass culture. The diabolism in the air was the unsettling aura of the Surrealists, Futurists, Dadaists, Cubists, and other artists who sought to foreground the material nature of artistic form, thus revealing its evocation of inner psychological states and of the spectacles of cultural ideology put forth by the modern capitalist state. “Challenge to Painting” indeed.
But Aragon’s words may be just as aptly applied to the films of Louis Feuillade. Though
written at least a decade after most of Feuillade’s celebrated works, Aragon’s challenge neatly encapsulates the discombobulating effect of Feuillade’s peculiar crime thrillers. Existing halfway between naturalism and Surrealism, popular art and subversive anti-art, and complicating ideas of a cinema of attractions in stark opposition to a narrative cinema, Feuillade’s first three crime series made during the teens--Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915-16), and Judex (1916-18)—concerned underground criminal gangs terrorizing the Parisian bourgeoisie, criminal masterminds who had a seemingly preternatural grasp of both the modern urban space and sinister magical forces, respectable heroes attempting to uphold virtues of justice and order in the face of such terrorism, car chases and mysterious murders and befuddling spectacles of violence and destruction.
Aragon and many other Surrealists saw in Feuillade's crime serials the epitome of the
dreamlike world of cinema. Their endorsement of Feuillade as the voice of their movement is succinctly conveyed by Robert Desnos, who claimed that only three films lived up to the Surrealists' “mission” of discovering a cinematic screen that “perhaps might be the equal
of our dreams.” These three films were Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Les Mystères de New
York—the last of which was a trio of American crime serials starring Pearl White (The Perils of Pauline , The Exploits of Elaine , and The Romance of Elaine ) condensed into a single serial released in France under its new name by the Pathé-Frères company in 1915. Only these films, according to Desnos, lived up to the Surrealist potential of film at the time of his article's writing in 1927. The transgressive appeal of Feuillade's crime serials was
heightened by the fact that they were mostly denounced by mainstream French critics as
lowbrow, tawdry hackwork, in sharp distinction to the prestigious films d'art—adaptations
of literary classics, prominent stage plays, and biblical stories—then being endorsed as the most respectable form of cinema.
The following project, then, attempts to answer this question: Why were the Surrealists so
fascinated by the crime serials of Louis Feuillade? In a style typical of such writers as Aragon, Desnos, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Maurice Raynal, and others, the Surrealists' endorsements of Feuillade often lionized the director and his serials through ornate proclamations, abstract prose, and striking dream imagery that offered no textual evidence or theoretical context to support their enamored hero-worship. (Since their aim was not film analysis but an immediate and raw appraisal of a visceral modern world and its troubling undercurrents, this should not be read as a flaw of the Surrealists.) It is my hope that further exploring the links between Feuillade's crime serials and contemporary Surrealist concepts may elucidate the kinetic, mysterious appeal that Feuillade's films hold even today, as well as the benefits we may gain by exploring both early cinema and fin de siècle society through a Surrealist lens.
In some ways, the reasons for the Surrealists' love of Feuillade are obvious in viewing his
crime serials. Thinkers like Aragon and Desnos saw in Feuillade’s films a revelation of the “marvelous” forces lurking beneath the vestiges of everyday life. The “kingdom of
apparitions” which Aragon claims defined the modern world could be traced in Feuillade’s works. The narratives of Feuillade's films hurdle forward from one implausible spectacle to the next, though they are conveyed to us with seemingly irrefutable naturalism. These new phantoms, embodied by the glamorous but merciless villain Fantômas, the erotic and malevolent strength of Irma Vep, the incorruptible justice of the caped crusader Judex, indeed burst open the creaking gates of cinematic form and narrativity, emitting “strange rays of light” through the fissures that were created between two cinematic paradigms: that of the “cinema of attractions” and of the classical linear form that would soon be perfected and consolidated by the Hollywood film industry. As the Surrealists may have been awed by the unsettling conflation of spectacular and shocking events portrayed in a realistic fashion, we may be similarly struck by Feuillade's historical context in a transitional period that combined the exhibitionist aspects of the cinema of attractions with the legibility of a burgeoning narrative form. Recognizing films' unique blend of spectacle and linearity during this transitional period (a duality hardly limited to Feuillade) is certainly clearer to modern-day film historians than it would have been to Surrealists experiencing a rapidly transforming cinema firsthand.
Louis Feuillade was the premiere studio filmmaker (as well as the artistic director) for the
Gaumont company, which was second only to Pathé-Frères as France’s most dominant studio during the teens. Born in 1873, Feuillade was raised in the small southern town of
Lunel. Fascinated by cycling and bullfighting at an early age, Feuillade underwent a conservative education that would seem to contradict the unsettling, shocking aspects of his later films. He moved to Paris in 1898 to pursue a career in journalism, and—to add to the paradox of his conservative upbringing in relation to his later filmmaking—was quickly allied with several politically right-wing publications, in which he published amateur poetry and articles about bullfighting. He was hired as a scenarist by Gaumont in 1905 and replaced Alice Guy as head of production in 1907. Over the next seventeen years (Feuillade would leave Gaumont in 1924, passing away only a year later), the astonishingly prolific Feuillade produced more than 800 films encompassing most contemporary film genres.
Throughout his entire career, Feuillade would readily proclaim that he made films for the
masses—he never separated himself from the pop-culture context in which he worked. Indeed, Feuillade considered cinema's ultimate vocation to be storytelling, its ability to
relate a narrative more compellingly than any other art form had been able to accomplish. He embraced this tenet with increasing vehemence as his career progressed, stating in 1921: “The only thing that counts is to know if, in its twenty-six inert reels, there lies a sleeping princess whom a magician eventually will awaken with the beam of his marvelous lamp—I mean a good story. That is the sole point: the story, the tale, the fiction, the dream.”
This being the case, one may wonder precisely how “Surrealistic” Feuillade's films really
are. While his reckless narratives, shocking setpieces, unexpected flashbacks, and formal
abstractions can be read as defying a nascent narrative form, Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex remain essentially conservative entertainments, firmly placed in the category of mainstream cinema and dedicated to swiftly resolving their serialized stories (though often through prolongation, recursion, and jarring cliffhanger endings). This apparent disparity is less surprising considering the Surrealists' penchant for uncovering a fantastic allure in the most banal and commonplace of items, exemplified by Aragon's article “On Décor,” originally published in the journal Le Film in 1918. In it, Aragon praises film for using “the false harmony of machines and the obsessive beauty of commercial inscriptions, posters, evocative lettering, really common objects, everything that celebrates life, not some artificial convention that excludes corned beef and tins of polish.” Perhaps, then, it's little surprise that the Surrealists would find such paradoxical pleasures in the hackneyed serials of Feuillade and his contemporaries—the cinematic embodiments of “really common objects.”
Categorizing Feuillade’s crime serials as Surrealistic may also be supported by a basic
overview of their narrative structures. The irony of Feuillade as a cinematic storyteller is
that in some ways the narrative was indeed paramount in Feuillade’s films, while in other ways it didn't matter in the least. On the one hand, narrative progression propels the entirety of his crime films: we move from one spectacle to the next in (mostly) sequential order, observing scenes that are stitched together in a jerky cause-and-effect pattern. Fantômas, throughout the five films that comprise the series, concerns the obsessive quest by the police inspector Juve and his faithful journalist accomplice Fandor to catch the eponymous archcriminal, whose arsenal of disguises allows him to evade the police as he commits audacious jewel thefts and grisly murders. Les Vampires offers a recursive echo of Fantômas’ storyline, as the upstanding journalist Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar-Cloud Mazamette track the underground criminal gang known as the
Vampires. (This underground gang, and others like it in similar French crime serials of the teens, were based on real-life criminal bands known as apache gangs, which had been terrorizing France’s urban areas—particularly Montmartre—since the late nineteenth century, instilling fear in the hearts of the upper class by regularly mugging and shooting members of the bourgeoisie.) Judex is a departure from its two predecessors, but in some ways functions as their mirror image: this time it is the heroic vigilante Judex who evades capture and terrorizes France’s legion of criminals, whether they be shady lower-class thugs or slimy capitalists who rape and kill for economic gain.
Yet while all three of these series tirelessly follow their overarching storylines, there are
also frequent diversions, sudden interstices in the narrative that allow for spectacular attractions and prolonged action scenes, characters who are abruptly excised and others just as abruptly thrust into the plot. The epitome of this is certainly Les Vampires, with its
shifting roster of villainous “Grand Vampires,” numerous gadgets, mysterious objects, and puzzling clues that receive prolonged screen time. In the second episode of the serial, “The Ring That Kills” (1915), Guérande’s fiancée, the ballerina Marfa Koutiloff, is introduced only to be killed off by a jealous Vampire a mere fifteen minutes later. A second fiancée is introduced with equal suddenness in the ninth (and second-last) episode, “The Poisoner” (1916); her introduction exists merely to provide the last two episodes with a romantic subplot for our hero (and to reassert the importance of the traditional nuclear family as a moral anchor in modern French society, an example of Feuillade’s moral conservatism that will reappear in Judex’s themes of horrible sins redeemed by familial love and romantic compassion).
Perhaps the strangest plot development in Les Vampires is the introduction of Mazamette’s son Eustache in the eighth episode, “The Thunder Master” (1916). Eustache had been
expelled from his boarding school, we are told in an intertitle, due to his “laziness and penchant for practical jokes of the foulest nature.” The character of Eustache performs several functions in Les Vampires: firstly, he is played by René Poyen, a child star who had earlier headlined Feuillade’s massively popular Bout-de-Zan comic series (1913-16), leading us to assume that his reappearance in Les Vampires is an attempt to capitalize on that series’ success; and secondly, Eustache is a mischievous prankster whose poor behavior undercuts the serial’s more traditional affirmation of the sanctified bourgeois family, mentioned above. This is made readily apparent in the conclusion to “The Thunder Master,” in which Eustache, after infiltrating the foyer of the sinister Grand Vampire named Satanas, fires a pistol at the villain and accidentally shoots his father in the face. Emerging from his hiding place (a piece of luggage that had been stowed in Satanas’ entryway) with a face smeared in blood, Mazamette proceeds to smilingly embrace his son as Guérande and several policemen look on in amusement—a bizarre juxtaposition of family love and gruesome violence that is typical of Feuillade’s conflation of the conservative and the transgressive.
There are numerous examples of unexpected narrative complications in both Fantômas and Judex also, many of which will be discussed later in this thesis. While the narrative flippancy of these crime serials, the sputtering of plot points and drastic shifts in the ensemble casts, can be partially attributed (in the case of Les Vampires) to production pressures imposed by World War I (actors suddenly being called off for duty, a sporadic shooting schedule to accommodate armed conflicts throughout France), they can also be attributed to an uncertain mode of cinematic storytelling that was caught between an earlier cinema of
attractions paradigm and a burgeoning narrative mode. Indeed, while Feuillade’s
narratives are astonishing in their simultaneous clarity and bizarreness—their shuffling between a distinctly traceable story and an exhibitionist tendency to provide us with visceral diversions—they are not alone among cinematic narratives of the transitional period in tenuously balancing these two paradigms. Theories regarding the cinema of attractions and narrative cinema and the transitional period between them are something I will return to shortly in this introduction.
While the messy narrative patterns of Feuillade’s crime serials and the Surrealists’ love for
common consumer goods may help us understand why such a mainstream filmmaker was embraced by this anti-establishment cultural movement, I should emphasize that this project is not an attempt to reiterate the claim that Feuillade's crime serials are unquestionably Surrealist. Indeed, in my opinion, the inability to easily place Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex in this category is yet another of the delirious enigmas we find in Feuillade: his crime serials are both disconcertingly surreal and resolutely mainstream. It is precisely this distinction that I find so fascinating in analyzing Feuillade's crime serials: they cannot be easily placed into any paradigm (surreal or narrative, cinema of attractions or narrative cinema, high art or lowbrow, etc.), but may be illuminatingly approached through a number of disparate analytical modes (surrealism, sociohistorical context, gender studies, the modernity thesis, national cinema, and so on).
Many of the paradigms through which we may analyze Feuillade's serials have already been perceptively explored by other theorists. For example, a gendered analysis of Fantômas and Les Vampires has been wonderfully articulated by Vicki Callahan and Elizabeth Ezra, among others, with particular attention to notions of female criminality and the blurring of gender lines achieved by Irma Vep throughout many of her disguises and charades in Les Vampires;
a thorough placement of Feuillade's short films and serials in their sociohistorical epochs
has been undertaken by Richard Abel, especially in his excellent history of early French
cinema, The Ciné Goes to Town; a remarkable formal analysis of Feuillade's distinct aesthetic has been explicated by David Bordwell in Figures Traced by Light and by Francis Lacassin in his monograph Louis Feuillade; and a broad conceptual analysis of issues of identity and mediation in Feuillade has been forged by Tom Gunning in “The Intertextuality of
Early Cinema: A Prologue to Fantomas.” These are only a few of the most remarkable analyses of Feuillade that have previously been published.
Conversely, while broader studies of Surrealism in early cinema have been achieved (with
particular insight by Robert Short in The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema, for example), they do not generally appear to draw correlations between French Surrealist thinkers and the man that many of them perceived as the fullest embodiment of their cultural ethos: Feuillade. The exception may be Haim Finkelstein, whose The Screen in Surrealist Art and Thought briefly yet compellingly recognizes Feuillade's use of urban spaces and modern architecture as unsettling in their conflation of the realistic and the surreal. A fuller analysis of the correlations between Feuillade and Surrealism will, I hope, yield unexpected insights into the unique power of his crime serials.
Mention must be made, however, of an additional theoretical paradigm that has often been
applied to Feuillade and will reappear often throughout this thesis. This concept is the “modernity thesis,” which essentially attempts to elicit the ways in which tenets of urban modernity at the turn of the twentieth century manifested themselves in early cinema. At this point I would like to offer a brief introduction to some of these tenets of cinematic modernity. The emphasis here, however, is on “brief”: in this introduction I hope merely to provide an overview of the rapidly-transforming modern culture into which Feuillade’s crime serials were released (and into which other like-minded serials were released by France’s quickly-multiplying film distributors).
The modernity thesis and Louis Feuillade
The analysis of modernity as manifested in early cinema is an enormous topic, and as
several theorists have pointed out, a problematic one. David Bordwell, for example,
emphasizes that film theorists should “examine the circumstances that impinge most proximately on filmmaking—the mode of film production, the technology employed, the traditions and the craft routines favored by individual agents”—rather than attempt to formulate broad theories that trace film style to a spirit, an age, or epochal conditions. Bordwell has a valid point: it's not enough to say that Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are so striking because they embody the massive cultural upheaval of the age of modernity, which is likely the most universally momentous change across nearly all realms of social life since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, Bordwell disparages the association of rapid editing and abrupt leaps in time and space with the sensory overload of modernity, and it’s true that such a broad association does a disservice to filmmakers’ deliberate use of rapid montage to serve a narrative, formal, or thematic function. Bordwell recognizes that the “modernity thesis” has been applied to Louis Feuillade in the past, particularly by Tom Gunning, but claims that such a broad analysis produces “no new knowledge but simply [uses] the case at hand to reaffirm commitment to a large-scale doctrine.”
Bordwell’s criticisms of the modernity thesis are legit, but let’s take another look at
Feuillade. We may recognize in the majority of his films (but especially in the crime
serials that I will be analyzing): the predominance of modern forms of communication, particularly the telegraph and telephone, as appropriated by both heroes and villains; a concern with speed and rapid transportation, especially railroads; the aesthetic collapsing of disjointed spaces as an embodiment of the lack of privacy in the modern urban space; the conflict between the lower class and the bourgeoisie; Feuillade’s love for the magnification of everyday objects and consumer goods; and many more indications of changes brought about the modern age. It seems obvious that Feuillade is intimately concerned with the impact of modernity on urban life, or at least that it seeps its way into the befuddling worlds of Feuillade’s cinema. In fact, I can think of no other pair of films that embody the disorienting effects of modernity as powerfully and creatively as Fantômas and Les Vampires. Modernity is a vast, somewhat amorphous topic, and attempting to delineate the precise relations between this phenomenon and specific textual instances may be a quixotic task; but it conversely seems like a dissatisfying gap to ignore it completely. I believe an interrelationship between Bordwell’s formal and industrial analysis and Gunning’s conceptual approach will yield the most fertile overall understanding.
First, we must ask what the process of modernization actually entailed. This broad framework is often applied with only a vague understanding of the sociocultural
transformations that were actually experienced. David Harvey’s Paris, Capital of Modernity is extremely helpful here. In his exhaustive social history, Harvey cites 1848 as perhaps the most significant year of Paris’ process of modernization. In this year, city planner Baron Haussmann transformed France’s urban spaces from an inchoate medieval urban infrastructure to a modern network of architecture and city avenues. Also in 1848, realism and impressionism in painting and the sparse, hard-edged prose of Flaubert and Baudelaire
in literature began to dominate the arts, while a modern, scientific pragmatism replaced waning philosophical tenets like romanticism and utopianism. In the same year, dispersed artisanal manufacturing industries started to give way to machinery and modern industry, and towering department stores began to be constructed upon ever-widening avenues. These and other concurrent transformations make it clear that most spheres of life in France (and many other countries) were experiencing turbulent upheaval in the mid-
nineteenth century, a modernizing trend that would have been firmly established by the
dawn of the new century (and, of course, the dawn of cinema).
One of the foremost tenets of the modernity thesis is the revolutionizing of concepts of
space and time as a response to new forms of technology and communication. In "Zones of Anxiety," Vicki Callahan notes what she calls the “changing parameters of time” in the modern age. These changing parameters included the disparity between “public versus private time,” as well as the formulation of time as either a fluid, ceaseless flow or a compendium of discrete, segmented units. These refashioned ways of thinking about temporality were primarily influenced by innovations such as the railroad, automobile, telephone, telegraph, phonograph, and radio—advancements that “collapsed” the distance between physical spaces as well as the junctures between discreet times.
By 1850, France had fully committed itself to “the era of massive investment in transport and communications throughout the whole of what was then the advanced capitalist world,” in David Harvey’s words. By 1870, the country’s railway system amounted to approximately 17,400 kilometers in total. The volume of traffic expanded twice as fast as industrial output during the decades in between, consolidating most of France’s transportation system at the time within the railways. The telegraph system, meanwhile, had expanded to 23,000 kilometers of wiring by 1866, only ten years after the innovation was introduced in France. With the rise of telegraphs came the revolutionizing of financial transactions, as the fluctuating prices of consumer goods in various markets became instantly transmittable between distant cities. During the same decades, France sought to
establish a new world market by investing about one-third of its disposable capital into
purchasing foreign lands, as French railway and telegraph systems spread through the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, and across central Europe into Russia. Given these swift and overwhelming transformations, it should not be too surprising that modes of vision, knowledge, and communication changed along with them.
Such innovations play repeated and central roles in Feuillade’s crime serials. For an example of the prevalence of the telegraph in his films, we may turn to the third episode of Les Vampires, entitled “The Red Codebook” (1915). Halfway through the episode, Philippe Guérande’s mother (who shares an apartment with her son—a family intimacy that acts as shorthand for Guérande’s upstanding heroism) is lured out of Paris by a telegram informing her that her brother has recently been in a catastrophic car accident. Too late, however, she realizes that this telegram is an elaborate ruse orchestrated by the Vampires, who intend to kidnap and imprison her in order to reclaim their titular codebook, which has fallen into Philippe’s hands. (Mme. Guérande escapes from her captors by stabbing her deaf-mute guard with a pen given to her by her son—a pen filled not with ink, but with lethal poison! If this brief plot summary sounds bewildering, it’s nothing compared to the episode itself.) For an example of the railroad as a site of treachery, meanwhile, we may turn to the second film in the Fantômas series, entitled Juve contre Fantômas (1913). Here, our central villain orchestrates an elaborate train accident by studying the timetable for France’s railway system, then separating the rearmost car of a train containing his pursuers, simply to elude capture.
If the aforementioned innovations of the modern age (the telegraph, the railroad, and so on) led to a rethinking of discreet temporal linearity, these same innovations led to an anxiety over proximity in the modern age. In David Harvey’s words, in France during the turn of the century (and before), “urban space was seen and treated as a totality in which different quarters of the city and different functions were brought in relation to each other to form a working whole.” The sudden collapsing of physical spaces and intermingling of populations engendered an anxiety over the urban area, a fear that one was always being followed, watched, preyed upon, simply because of the vastness and physical closeness of urban crowds. It was an era assaulted by a “fierce bout of space-time compression,” in Harvey’s
words. The numerous chase scenes in Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex—which undergo a variety of permutations (heroes chasing villains and vice versa on foot, in cars, on trains,
etc.)—are a testament to the uneasy suspicion that the modern city could harbor sinister forces within its ubiquitous forms of transportation and communication.
More specifically, Feuillade conceives of the modern urban space as a network of
interconnected passageways and windows, out of which sinister forces may emerge at any moment. This is perfectly manifested in Feuillade’s deep-space aesthetic, which often composes several simultaneous planes of action in one tableau—a static perspective observed in a long or medium shot that allows the entirety of a scene’s action to play out within a rigid frame. This aesthetic is especially powerful in Les Vampires—for example, a scene in the fifth episode, “The Specter” (1916), in which Irma Vep, posing as a secretary at a bank, is oblivious to the arrival at the center of the frame in the background of the aristocrat Metadier, whom she and a gang of Vampires had “killed” on a train the day before. (It turns out this new Metadier is the criminal Moreno in disguise, who had stolen the corpse of Metadier and posed as him in order to withdraw an obscene sum of money from the dead man’s bank account.) By filming this scene through an array of spatial planes collapsed into one deep-space tableau, Feuillade achieves the formal equivalent of modernity’s “collapsing” of physical spaces in the urban milieu. The coexistence of Irma Vep and the living corpse of the man she had supposedly killed in the same static shot achieves the uncanny echo of the modern city’s thrusting-together of individuals within
the same space—an uncanny effect that is essential to the Surrealists’ love of Feuillade.
Interestingly, Richard Abel applies these theories of spatiotemporal proximity in the
modern urban space to national contexts: he claims that crime thrillers about “the criminal
who preys on [modernity’s] new systems of mobility and circulation” were associated in
the popular press and by film producers as distinctly French, while American crime thrillers typically concerned “the detective, whose intelligence, knowledge, and perspicacity allow him…to uncover crime and restore order.” This generalization seems mostly apt: while Feuillade’s crime serials do feature criminal gangs who have a preternatural grasp of modern forms of technology and communication, the American crime serials sampled for this analysis glorify the heroic detective as a figure whose innate logic, intelligence, and deductive capabilities make him or her a formidable opponent against “tech-savvy” criminals. For example, Thomas Edison’s 1913 short The Diamond Crown, part of the Kate Kirby detective series starring Laura Sawyer, concerns (in the words of the Moving Picture World) “the clever young daughter of a police officer” who foils an attempted robbery through sheer luck, pluck, and perspicacity. Or we may think of the most well-known American detective form the silent age: Pearl White, in her incarnations as both Pauline and Elaine (The Perils of Pauline , The Exploits of Elaine , The New Exploits of Elaine , and The Romance of Elaine ), who found herself embroiled in one sinister criminal plot after another, escaping only through feats of athletic agility and quick-witted cleverness. In any case, we can see in both American and French detective serials that the modern space is the locus in which this battlefield of technology versus human intelligence plays out.
Related to the collapse of space and time in the age of modernity is a concern with the
velocity of new forms of transportation, a rush of speed that totally refigures conceptions of
movement and sensation in the twentieth century. Perhaps the clearest embodiment of this fascination with speed comes from a prose-poem by Blaise Cendrars, written in Cannes in 1917 (near the peak of Feuillade's popularity as a filmmaker). Cendrars writes:
Since the origin of the species, the horse moves, supple and mathematical. Machines are already
catching up, moving ahead. Locomotives rear and steamships whinny on the water… Cosmogenies find a new life in trademarks. Extravagant sideboards over the multicoloured city, with the ribbon of trams climbing the avenue, screaming monkeys hanging on to each other’s tails, and the incendiary orchids of architectures collapsing on top of them and killing them. In the air, the virgin cry of trolleys!
Screaming monkeys aside, Cendrars’ poem is a concise encapsulation of speed as a particularly modern fascination, primarily stemming from new forms of transportation
“catching up to” the supple and mathematical movements of the horse—in other words, of nature’s design. This concern with the simultaneous beauty and deadening overload of modern speed and architecture (as towering, “incendiary” buildings collapse on top of trams, killing aforementioned simians) mirrors the ambivalence with which Feuillade regards speed in the modern age. On one hand, Feuillade delights in showing us the precise functions of the modern railway system and the interconnectivity of roads in metropolitan Paris. The very mobility and excitement of the many shots filmed from moving vehicles—from railway cars, or especially from vehicles behind or in front of automobiles involved in car chases—suggests that Feuillade saw great beauty in the moving vistas provided by trains and automobiles. One astonishing example takes place in the ninth episode of Les
Vampires, “The Poisoner” (1916), in which the most irresistible member of the Vampire gang, Irma Vep, escapes out the rear window of a moving car. We observe Irma’s entire escape from a moving perspective, filmed from a platform affixed to a vehicle driven behind the one we see onscreen. The primary appeal of this scene is Irma’s daring stunt, performed by
the actress Musidora herself, as she covertly slides down the window, crawls onto the running board, and leaps from the moving automobile. However, a crucial and complementary visual attraction in this scene is the kinetic mobility of the shot, the movement not only of the car onscreen and of Irma Vep, but also of the camera. These three confluent movements (of machine, of human, of perspective) exhibit the visceral excitement that can be accomplished by a rapidly moving image. As an analogy, we may think of the invigorating (though, of course, morally repugnant) ride to the rescue performed by the Ku Klux Klan during the climax of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), in which the extremely rapid motion of the stampeding horses, filmed by a camera placed upon a speeding vehicle, astonishes by aligning us with the perspective of the moving vehicle itself. On display here (and in the aforementioned scene from Les Vampires) is the kineticism of both the cinematograph (an image in motion) and the automobile (a machine in motion). Released the same year as Les Vampires’ initial episodes, The Birth of a Nation offers a remarkable comparison to Feuillade’s crime serials, an analogy to which I will soon
If Feuillade conceives of modern forms of transportation as ravishing in their mobility,
however, he also envisions trains and automobiles as deadly opportunities for criminal
masterminds to orchestrate their murderous plots. The example of the train catastrophe in Juve contre Fantômas was raised above, but we may also cite the tossing of a corpse over a bridge from a moving car by the criminal Moreno in Les Vampires, or the concealment of the deranged banker Favraux aboard a ship commandeered by the villainous Diana Monti and her gang in Judex. This sense of movement is beautiful from a distanced perspective, but also dangerous as far as contemporary audiences were concerned, as it may conceal sinister forces and transport them throughout the urban space with ease.
We find another example of the simultaneous beauty and peril of new forms of
transportation in Feuillade’s 1912 short film La hantise. Here, the seabound journey of noble patriarch Jacques Trevoux to the United States is thrown in doubt by his wife’s conviction that something tragic will happen to him during the voyage. Halfway through the film, a cut-in to a close-up of a newspaper article reveals the impending tragedy of Jacques’ journey: the ship he is set to take to America is the Titanic! Or so we think: this close-up and the continued anxiety of Jacques’ wife lead us to assume that he is indeed boarding the Titanic, but a twist ending reveals that Jacques was forced to switch to the Carpathia at the last moment, which arrived in the States without a hitch.
Feuillade is obviously in awe of these monstrous sea vessels: several actualité-influenced
scenes feature actual documentary footage of French passengers boarding a towering ship moored at a French seaport. The camera observes the sloping contours of the ship in gawking admiration, moving slowly along the docks in order to convey the immense size of the vessel. But the recreation of the Titanic’s disastrous voyage (achieved through the use of models most likely shot in a tank at the Gaumont studio—a beautiful visual effects shot, if not at all convincing) reminds us that our awe towards such seemingly miraculous innovations, our faulty confidence in the infallibility of human intellect, can end in ironic catastrophe.
This all refers back to another central tenet of the modernity thesis, and the last one
I will be discussing here. This final tenet conceives of the cinema itself as the epitome of modern forms of vision and knowledge. This idea is succinctly reiterated by Leo Charney (who has frequently written about the concept of modernity as embodied by cinema); he writes:
The emergence of cinema at the end of the nineteenth century crystallized into one form of
technology, narrative, and experience the attributes of modernity expressed across the board in
other discourses and phenomena… If we cannot understand the birth of cinema without the culture
of modernity, we also cannot conceive modernity’s culture of moments, fragments, and absent
presents without the intervention of cinema, which became a crucible and a memorial for
modernity’s diverse aspects.
The intimate link between cinema and modernity was similarly espoused by Jean Epstein in 1921, who concluded that the “machine aesthetic,” in its embrace of velocity, light, and the harmony of interlocking mechanisms, “created its masterpiece” in the cinema. Their theories of presences and absences, of the ceaseless mechanical flow of the inside of the film camera, suggest a prioritization of fragments over durations, a celebration of brevity. In other words, the mobile vision achieved by the film camera, the transformations that cinema made possible in shifting perspectives and temporal leaps, offered an apt parallel to the sensory overload and reformations in time and space engendered by the modern city. Tom Gunning sees this “machine aesthetic” as cultivating an unpredictable delight out of the immediacy of the moment, which he in turn connects back to the cinema of attractions and its sudden flashes of spectacular moments.
This “machine aesthetic” becomes a bit clearer if we apply a concept articulated by David
Harvey in Paris, Capital of Modernity. Although Harvey expresses severe reservations about
the modernity thesis as a whole, he cites the theory of “creative destruction” as a site of
agreement among numerous analysts of modernity. This theory suggests that the new
social configurations enabled by modernization necessitated the superseding or even wholesale destruction of the past: modernity created a tabula rasa “upon which the new [could] be inscribed without reference to the past.” In this quote, I find a certain parallel with the aforementioned “machine aesthetic,” whereby the ceaseless flow of a strip of film
enabled a constant rewriting process that mobilized fragments of time—“shocking
moments,” in Gunning’s words—into a seamless illusion of linearity. If we link Harvey with
the theorists above, we may conclude that both cinema and modernity incorporate “creative destruction”—a process of rewriting that must necessarily displace what came before it.
Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex can be seen as embodiments of spectacular moments enabled by the fluctuation of space and time in cinema, but a particularly unsettling example occurs at the climax of Juve contre Fantômas. Inspector Juve, his journalist sidekick
Fandor, and the Parisian police have tracked Fantômas to an abandoned villa on the
outskirts of Paris. Having trapped his pursuers in the manor by diverting their attention via a gigantic python released in the heating ducts, Fantômas escapes through a basement window and races to a nearby garage, where he had previously connected an activation device to a bomb in the villa's kitchen. With our heroes trapped inside, Fantômas detonates the bomb, causing a breathtaking explosion that foregrounds the villain against a red-tinted
conflagration of dancing flames and skyrocketing debris. This is an astonishing cliffhanger ending to the second film in the Fantômas series, one that, as Tom Gunning points out, is clearly meant to horrify, baffle, and shock viewers into a frenzy. “How many of us, even today,” asks Gunning, “can imagine the nightmares provoked in a darkened theater by the triumphant gesture of the ‘man in black’ at the explosion which ends Juve contre Fantômas?” Undoubtedly, this sequence comprises one of Feuillade’s most impressive cinematic feats. Yet while we're certainly awestruck by this scene’s plot twist—surely our heroes haven't succumbed to Fantômas’ brilliant malevolence so early in the series!—as well as by the seamless visual effects, we are equally overwhelmed by Feuillade’s rapid editing and by the fluid spatiotemporal consistency between the film's distinct units. Each shot lasts approximately two to four seconds as Feuillade cuts from a long shot of Fantômas emerging from a basement window, to a long shot of the supervillain racing from the villa to the nearby garage, to a medium shot from within the garage that foregrounds Fantômas in a dim silhouette while the mansion erupts in a mad geyser of white flame and billowing smoke. It is the literal machine of the bomb as well as the “machine aesthetic” of the film camera, fragmenting space and truncating time, that provoked nightmares in darkened theaters in 1913 France.
The interrelationship between the “machine aesthetic” of modernity and the cinema of
attractions suggests why I am exploring the modernity thesis at such length: approaching
the crime serials of Louis Feuillade through a Surrealist mode of interpretation relies upon the coexistence of a cinema of attractions and a narrative cinema, which are both inextricably tied to the modernity thesis (as Gunning points out). Indeed, I believe we can't fully understand the artistic and cultural ideas of the Surrealists outside of the context of
modernity. In other words, Feuillade, Surrealism, modernity, and the duality of the cinema of attractions and narrative cinema form a tangled web that provides much of the
mystifying power that Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex still exert.
The modernity thesis is also connected to a broad cinematic concept that I will explore in
greater detail in my conclusion: that of the “mode of uncertainty,” especially as articulated by Vicki Callahan. While I will save my analysis of Callahan’s theory for my conclusion, here I would like to point out that the innovations and transformations of modernization instilled great doubt and uncertainty in French thinkers and scientists in the late nineteenth century. Though this age was known for its scientific positivism, it was a peculiar brand of positivism that was “beset by doubt, ambiguity, and tension,” as Harvey writes. Many thinkers and artists in nineteenth-century France—poets, economists, painters, historians, and philosophers among them—aspired to create a “science” out of their field of study. Yet this wave of scientific positivism was tied to the lingering power of traditional class structures and conservative sociopolitical institutions (religion, the monarchy, pre-modern labor structures, etc.). We may tie these aspirations to scientific positivism and its straddling between two historical paradigms to cinema itself, which
partially grew out of a desire to scientifically document forms of movement (recall Eadweard Muybridge’s 1879 zoopraxiscope and early attempts to record the stages of a
horse’s movement). The crime serials of Louis Feuillade, and other like-minded French films made during the transitional period, could be said to occupy a cinematic mode of uncertainty that echoed the scientific doubt experienced by French culture as a whole in
the mid-nineteenth century and beyond.
There is, of course, one aspect of this “tangled web” that I have yet to discuss, and that is
the transition from a cinema of attractions to a narrative mode of cinema. A topic of great debate in previous analyses of early film history, this transitional timeline is difficult (perhaps impossible) to trace definitively, and the specific features of both cinematic modes are often problematic when isolating them within certain films. In other words, where does a presentational cinema of attractions end and a representational narrative cinema begin, especially when both modes are coexisting within the same film? This question is especially difficult to answer in the context of Feuillade.
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