Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flicker by Theodore Roszak

Repost from 2009.

Theodore Roszak's 1991 novel Flicker concerns a young academic named Jonathan Gates and his spiraling obsession with an obscure German horror filmmaker named Max Castle. Castle was one of many Germans who came to Hollywood after World War I. Due to his obscure religion and the handlers from the religion that came along with him to Hollywood, Castle was eventually reduced to directing trashy, incoherent horror films after being dismissed as "difficult to work with." Castle was rumored to have died in a plane crash over the ocean at the age of 42. The novel follows Gates for roughly 20 years in his hunt for information about Castle, Castle's religion, and the lost or uncut versions of his films. Roszak does show off his history degrees by having Castle's religion tied to the Knights Templar, as well as being knowledgeable about film history. It is only when Gates begins to ironically preach about the films that are now considered cult classics, but were midnight movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and how they are bringing about the downfall of the world does the novel start to lose hold. It is that Gates never resolves his opinion of the cult movies of the 1960s and 1970s, nor is self-aware enough to know that he is obsessed with them and that his work on Castle may have partially brought these films about (at least in this fictional world, Roszak almost fully ignores the real-world events of the 1960s and 1970s in the novel), as well as his obsession with a young director also in Castle's religion who is making nihilistic "cult"-type films. Roszak seems to be implying that these types of films will bring about the downfall of the world, either overtly or subtly, but if that is the message, then it is extremely muddled.



Roszak barely covers how the Vietnam War, the impeachment of Nixon, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and how these events effected the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is only treated in tertiary and occasionally humorous terms on why Gates was not drafted into the Vietnam War. But overall, these historic events are not given any coverage in Flicker. Considering that academic writing correlating the tragic events of the 1960s and 1970s with the edgier films of this time period did not emerge until the early-mid 1980s, Roszak may have cleverly averted the historical issues and their relation to films with good reason, considering the state Gates is narrating from by the end of the novel. Roszak makes a few clever set-ups throughout Flicker, things that are likely meant to annoy some readers for much of the novel, but eventually have some sort of pay-off. This includes Gates’ habit of sleeping with every woman that is introduced into the book. This aspect quickly became annoying to me, but Roszak has this as a part of the book for a reason, even if it is for purely contrasting reasons, as to eventually show how far Gates has become obsessed with Max Castle and his religion, the Orphans of the Storm.






Towards the end of the novel, he correctly equates himself to Joseph Cotten’s naïve character in The Third Man. Gates is perhaps not the most compelling or smartest character in the world, which is at a detriment to the story, whether it is an homage to The Third Man or not (side note: Orson Welles does make an appearance in the novel, as does John Huston via letter). While Flicker is in part a detective story (that takes about half of the book to get to), Gates spends the first half of the novel relying on one woman to teach him what he should think of film and film history. His obsession with Castle creates a break in this relationship, but he still trusts and relies on others too much, which is another factor in his downfall.


The character of Jonathan Gates may be a more modern take of Doctor Faustus. Gates does everything short of selling his soul to the Devil to acquire more knowledge on a single film director. It takes him around the world, and in the end, he loses what little he had to begin with. Like Faustus, Gates does not use his knowledge to benefit himself in any way. Although he is able to sleep with every woman he encounters, whereas Faustus is only given that option (such as it was in the sixteenth century), his friends encourage him to use his knowledge and his stature as an expert on this one director to gain tenure at UCLA, yet he continues this obsession because he thinks he can write a book once he figures everything out. His friends know that this obsession is going to lead to Gates’ end, and that according to the majority of the characters in this novel, searching for Castle’s films may not be the noblest cause to begin with. The main question Flicker seems to ask is if film has the ability to mask evil images and ideas either layered under the film’s main image in the print or within a film’s flicker, and if these “evil” images and ideas hidden within films can cause evil in people or in the world. Of course, this question is never resolved.


A stereotypical Robinson Crusoe device is used for the ending. It is a somewhat pampered Crusoe device, but a device nonetheless. Although I guess there are only so many ways to end a novel that heavily concerns conspiracy theories attached to a secret religion, but placing the narrator on an island is not the most compelling ending.













Flicker seems to have had an influence on a few films that have come out in the past few years. Cigarette Burns, one of the episodes in the first season of the television series Masters of Horror, concerned a young and troubled repertory film theater owner and his commissioned search for a film only screened once because it caused an entire audience to go insane and burn down the theater it was being screened in at a film festival. The search for the film of course leads the man on a dangerous path. Directed by John Carpenter, Cigarette Burns is both the most worthwhile episode in the Masters of Horror series and possibly the only worthwhile film Carpenter has made in the past 10-15 years. As a side note, Cigarette Burns was one of the first episodes of the 2-3 season series (at least if you count its major network-spinoff show Fear Itself), however, Masters of Horror got progressively worse from the end of its first season and into its second season. Carpenter’s second season episode, Pro-Life, is completely awful and preposterous. The recent DVD release The Hills Run Red follows a documentary film student and his friends as they try to hunt down the director and a print of a horror film called The Hills Run Red. The film was only screened once, immediately banned, and all prints were thought to be destroyed. While the first 45 minutes or so of The Hills Run Red are interesting in that it tries to subvert the typical horror film tropes, it fails in that the last 30-45 minutes return to other horror film tropes. It’s a shame really because the film, the film-within-the-film, and the film-within-within-the-film feature the creepy slasher Babyface. But The Hills Run Red and the documentary film inside of it do not focus on Babyface, and instead try to make the first two films a character drama, and a somewhat weak one at that. None of the characters are written or developed well enough to affect the audience when bad things start happening to them. This means that the filmmakers stuck to the biggest horror trope of them all. Not that sticking with Babyface would have likely been much better, but he was perhaps the only pitiable character in the films. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglorious Basterds shares a theory that Flicker puts forth. Lt. Archie Hickox (played by Michael Fassbender), the British soldier and film critic espouses the theory that while German Expressionist films of the 1920s reflected German’s damaged psyche post-WWI, it also weakened them and allowed the rise of Hitler. Of course, Flicker adds to it that secret images and messages may have been added to these films to allow that.


What Jonathan Gates and the protagonist of The Hills Run Red have in common in that both seem to pursue their obsessions with their one “lost” film director as a hope that in the end, they will also find themselves. While this idea is directly expressed by the protagonist in The Hills Run Red, we’re not given enough background on him for it to be compelling or valid. The same idea is not directly expressed in Flicker, but it would make sense for a person like Gates, who basically spends half of the book in the shadow of a smarter and eventually more successful woman, to attach himself to a cause so he can find himself and achieve his own success. Gates really does not have much of a personality, is not very bright, and it is frankly hard to accept him as a character to follow for 600 pages.


When Jonathan Gates compares himself to Holly Valens, Joseph Cotten’s character in The Third Man, it is not a totally correct assessment. Holly’s quest in The Third Man is yes, naïve, but almost completely unselfish. He wants to clear his old friend’s name. Even when his old friend turns out not to be an upstanding citizen, Holly does what is considered the moral thing. Valens has his own career, and has not seen his friend Harry Lime for several years when The Third Man opens. Throughout the story, it is his intention to be the good old moralistic American hero in the film, not to find himself. Holly has the elements of being a lost man-child, although on the surface he is too old and too well-dressed for it by modern standards. He comes to Vienna for a job with Harry, although what sort of job is not revealed until much later. His only reason for seeking work is probably because he is bored with writing cheap pulp western novels, and because he misses his old friend. This displays a sharp contrast of the men and young men in Flicker and The Hills Run Red. The Third Man takes place after the end of World War II. Flicker opens in the late 1950s while Gates is in college, and American culture is changing just as much as film culture, with each affecting the other and vice versa (although Roszak does not acknowledge this). Film criticism, especially post-war European criticism is beginning to be taken seriously, and film studies programs are opening up at universities. Within a decade, it is okay for people to say things like “I’m trying to find myself.” Cut to almost a decade into the new millennium, and a young person’s search for the self becomes intertwined with the mega nerdy fanboy era and the need to discover and revive the most obscure film objects for glory and a place in obscure film history books, or at least Wikipedia. Reviving lost art, literature, and film is nothing new and often results into the formerly lost works becoming canon, especially if the works were by a member of a marginalized group of people (i.e., not white heterosexual males). Flicker, first published in 1991, predates the meteoric rise of director Quentin Tarantino, a man who has almost single-handedly revived obscure genre films and brought them to the public, albeit usually indirectly. Besides his former Quentin Tarantino presents video series, just his endorsement of an ultra obscure film will cause a cheapo DVD boxed set to be produced by a company willing to cash in without providing quality DVD transfers, but wanting to cram as many supposed-Tarantino-endorsed films as possible onto 3-4 discs and sell them all in a boxed set for $15-20 at Best Buy. Finding and reviving these films are for a niche market. How would one find themselves in such a project? It shows how much the world has changed since the 1940s that one has the ridiculous combination of privilege, egotism, and naïveté to believe that they can discover who they are by trying to uncover a “lost” film or director.


What Flicker merely touches on, and Cigarette Burns and Hills Run Red do not, is that it is normally works of art by marginalized peoples that become part of the canon after they have been rediscovered. Max Castle is somewhat marginalized because of his ancient, obscure, and secretive religion, and his religion’s dark influence over his films. But part of the conspiracy Jonathan Gates is trying to uncover in the novel is the Orphans of the Storm’s attempts to use film as a way to make their views become mainstream, and Gates’ work on Castle, conspiracy aside, does allow Castle’s work to become somewhat canon, even if on a cult level. Since all of the protagonists in these three stories succeed in their individual goals at a terrible price, these stories imply that searching for “lost” films for purely selfish or egotistical reasons is a path to destruction on its own, nevermind the films.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Jane Eyre (1944)

Repost from 2010.


Dir. Robert Stevenson || 1944 || USA

Jane Eyre, while possibly one of my favorite books, is not a novel without some issues or critical debates that still surround it today, mostly in regards to feminist and post-colonial issues that surround Jane as well as Rochester's first wife, Bertha Mason, and Jane's cousin St. John's mission to India, which at the time the novel was written, was a colony of Great Britain.

The 1944 film adaptation of Jane Eyre does a pretty good job of cutting some of the fat away from the novel, although it takes some of the more Gothic elements away as well, such as Jane being locked away in the scary "red room" at her Aunt Reed's house before she is sent to Lowood School as a child. The entire St. John storyline is cut as well, which is a mixed blessing in the film. On the one hand, St. John is an insufferable and overly moral bore who tries to convince Jane to marry him solely to help him with his mission work in India. On the other hand, it is at the end of the St. John section of the novel where Jane comes into money and sees fit to attempt to return to Rochester as an equal. In the film, it is barely implied that Jane returns to Rochester with her own money because she is the last living heir of her Aunt Reed (whose brood was reduced to one child in the film, instead of three in the novel). Her redemption, so to speak, comes from caring for her dying aunt who was so terrible to her as a child.

Jane and Rochester's relationship is slightly less complicated than it is in the novel, although the film highlights Jane's need to befriend and be kind to the "friendless", Rochester does not put her through nearly so much testing before proposing to her. Rochester does not accuse Jane of being otherworldly nearly as much as he does in the novel either. The film does sort of bring into question why Jane would fall in love with Rochester to begin with, other than she is clearly the only woman he can trust, to an extent. Rochester is "friendless" and Jane can see a kinship there because she was orphaned and friendless for her entire life. But without St. John around as a comparison point to show why Rochester would be preferable, despite his faults, the film feels slightly rushed.

I did not realize until watching this film for a second time that Orson Welles is wearing a fake nose. It is quite distracting. I think Jane Eyre is one of those films that everyone seems to think Welles directed, although he did not. The night scenes are very shadow heavy and there are some disorienting slanted shadows and angles going on around the castle at times, but those call to mind The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari slightly more than Citizen Kane.