I don’t especially want to talk about Secret Friends. On one hand, it was interesting to compare to Potter’s book Ticket To Ride, which I just read, and the flashbacks and ambiguous dream sequences a la Alain Resnais’s Providence should be worth discussing, but on the other hand I’ve overdosed on Potter’s poisonous misanthropy and just want to move past this one for now.

Our hero on the train, looking like he is wearing a wig and false eyebrows:
image

Alan Bates (Losey’s The Go-Between) is our guy, scheming against his wife Helen (Gina Bellman, title character in Blackeyes, later starred in the show Coupling) who doesn’t actually seem so bad. Riding the train to attempt to sell his obsessively detailed paintings of wildflowers, he has an identity crisis. Plenty of weirdness follows involving hotel prostitutes, affairs with neighbors, our contemptible protagonist’s painful upbringing, confused passers-by, and stuff that is happening which is not happening… which does not seem to be happening at all. Potter directed his own adaptation of his own novel.

Helen, spooked:
image

Strangers on a train:
image

“Are you connected to yourself?”

Watching for the second time (and reviewing the plot on wikipedia), I abandoned the thought that the plot would make any sense or come together in the end (the writer/director is apparently a poet, so that explains that) and enjoyed it for what it is, a bloody and effective horror movie. Movie features high-school kids dying en masse as a muddled critique of society, which I guess is why it gets compared to Battle Royale. What with the unexplainable deaths around the country, mysterious websites and themes of interconnection, I’d say it’s more similar to Pulse.

The wiki does a good job on plot, so I’ll make this quick. Pop group Dessert (aka Dessart, Desert) has annoying hit song. Backstage at their concerts, fans who are connected to themselves have patches of skin shaved off and mailed to the police, then a few days later the fans kill themselves. Female internet informant The Bat is kidnapped by flamboyant male “suicide club” leader Genesis, but I’m not sure that either of them have anything to do with anything. The cops fail to figure anything out, but a girl named Mitsuko does. At the end, instead of throwing herself under a train, she enigmatically steps aboard it, smiling at a cop, as Des(s)aert announces their final performance.

left: Ryo Ishibashi, star of Miike’s Audition, also in Big Bang Love, Kitano’s Brother, and that Masters of Horror called Dream Cruise. right: Kimiko Yo of Hou’s Café Lumière
image

Akaji Maro’s distinctive face has appeared in movies by Miike, Beat Takeshi and Seijun Suzuki, as well as the Maiku Hama trilogy and he is Ichi the Killer’s (the actor’s) dad.
image

Masatoshi Nagase is Mike Hama, also in The Hidden Blade, Pistol Opera and Mystery Train.
image

skinbag:
image

sega genesis:
image

“Send this by pneumatic tube, quickly!”

This is now the earliest feature film I’ve ever seen (and the next two runners-up are also by Feuillade). Really this is five movies, each a multi-part serial, so maybe it’s the five earliest feature films I’ve seen…


PART ONE: IN THE SHADOW OF THE GUILLOTINE

The criminal master of disguise Fantomas is introduced robbing a rich woman of her jewels in a clumsy-ass fashion… he gets caught in her house then just walks up, looks at her threateningly, and walks away with them. They couldn’t think of a better scenario for the opening of their movie? I guess it shows that he’s an imposing character, and his appearing-ink business cards are cool (see bottom of page). Then it’s on to introduce Inspector Juve with his funny mustache and his reporter buddy Fandor. A man has been found murdered, so Juve questions his widow (Lady Beltham), who it turns out is having an affair with Fantomas. When inspector and reporter discover this, they easily capture the criminal, who is imprisoned to await the guillotine. But through a convoluted scheme, the widow springs Fantomas – she flatters an actor celebrated for portraying Fantomas on the stage to agree to meet her, and pays off the incredibly dense prison guards to spring Fantomas to come meet her at the same place (with the understanding that he’d be returned to prison within an hour) and they do the ol’ switcheroo – but Juve notices before the actor can be mistakenly executed (in the novel he was too late).

The regular Feuillade style is apparent here – people with comical mustaches who look conspiratorially into the camera, lots of crime, outdoor scenes with actors in cool black capes, convoluted scenarios and a plot that seems to be making itself up as it goes, helping the cliffhanger feeling.

Some nice outdoor shots in this movie. Feuillade is fond of long walls. I like them too.
image

The actor has all these admiring women, yet he sneaks off eagerly when he gets the letter from Lady Beltham? I guess her letter made her seem more “loose” than the ladies in his dressing room.
image

Juve, triumphantly stymied. Fandor (on left) looks on.
image


PART TWO: JUVE VERSUS FANTÔMAS

Opening credits are cool, showing the main actors crossfade into their characters-in-costume (in Juve’s case it’s changing into a hat, a fake mustache and a less-nice suit). At the start, Lady Beltham is presumed dead – but actually she’s organizing a gang of bandits who rob passengers on a train car then cause a train accident to cover up their crimes. Or was that another woman? Either way, our reporter is on the train and escapes with another passenger. He and Juve are lured into a gun trap, but they escape and tail the woman, getting her to lead them to Fantomas, who escapes by putting on his suit with false arms then simply running away, leaving Juve and Fandor each holding an arm. Brilliant! Okay, then Fantomas has a list of people he’s having mysteriously squeezed to death, so Juve wears spiked bands over his body when he goes to sleep and has Fandor hide in the room – wakes up being choked by a boa constrictor, ouch. Later, they’ve figured out where Fantomas hides out, so they storm the house and kill the boa (for real, on camera, uncool) but the criminal mastermind was hiding in a tank of water in the basement, escapes, and blows up the house!! Will the cops survive?? Great episode, action-packed.

great train robbery:
image

wrestling a boa – notice the spiked suit:
image

awwwwwesome closing shot – note sprocket holes:
image


PART THREE: THE MURDEROUS CORPSE

Oh man, this is not gonna be a strong plot summary. I was tired, and I thought it’d be 50 minutes but it was 90. Wasn’t doing anything else while watching but somehow I still got confused. So Juve is missing presumed dead from the house explosion and Fandor is investigating stuff on his own. Fantomas I think is dressed as an old woman who trades stolen goods, or maybe that was an actual old woman, and Juve is made up as a retarded homeless guy who helps her out. A dude is framed for a murder, then killed in prison, then abducted from the prison… WHY this happens I never figure out, but Fantomas makes gloves out of the man’s hands (seriously) and commits a bunch more murders leaving the dead dude’s fingerprints behind. The cops are, of course, mystified, but Fandor comes across a list of the murder victims in the order they’re killed. He finally hooks up with Juve again, Lady Beltham reappears for a minute, probably some other stuff happens but our heroes end up tracking Fantomas to a house and cornering him in the one place where there was a secret trap door. Whoosh, through the trap door and our heroes are empty-handed (actually they got the skin-gloves). NOT as radical an ending as the previous part, and maybe a bit long and convoluted.

Fandor on the rooftops of paris:
image

Juve (in disguise) approaches Fandor (studying list of victims):
image

They’ve got him cornered! Note trap door and icky gloves:
image


PART FOUR: FANTÔMAS VERSUS FANTÔMAS

Juve is arrested straight away on suspicion of being Fantomas (what, because he couldn’t catch the guy?). The movie is telling us that the written situations are more important than the characters, since our hero Juve sits out most of the movie, making Fandor the hero by default. Fantomas reappears as Tom Bob (seriously, that’s his name!), American Detective. Lady Beltham has remarried and become the Grand Duchess Alexandra. She organizes a costume ball to collect reward money for the capture of Fantomas, and Fandor, not thinking things through, goes to the ball dressed as Fantomas. So do a police captain and Fantomas himself. A Fantomas-fight ensues, the master criminal escapes and the captain is killed.

After Juve is finally released, he’s captured about ten seconds later by Fantomas’s men, who believe that Juve is really Fantomas and want their share of the loot that they’ve helped steal (Fantomas ripping off his own men is a running theme). Fandor is on top of the plot and helps bag the men, capture the loot, rescue Juve and even capture Fantomas, but F. slips the men by walking them into two holes in the ground, the silliest escape in the whole series. I’m starting to doubt that this is a planned five-part series which is building up to something… think it’s just a regular movie franchise that makes it up as it goes along (nope, turns out they are closely based on a series of novels).

Left: “Tom Bob” Right-center: blood leaking from hole in the wall, 70+ years before Evil Dead 2
image

Fantomas vs. Fantomas at the costume ball:
image

Juve, kidnapped, hears Fandor hiding in the barrel. People are always hiding in barrels and baskets in these movies.
image

Juve fingers the crooked guard, an inside man who works for Fantomas:
image


PART FIVE: THE FALSE MAGISTRATE

I was hoping for an awesome ending but it seems the series peaked with part two. The plot gets more ludicrous, with Juve voluntarily taking Fantomas’s place in a Belgian prison under the logic that F. was gonna break out anyway, and Juve’s men can just catch him at the border to France. Of course Juve’s men suck at catching Fantomas, so F. runs around impersonating a judge while Juve rots in jail for the first hour of the movie. Fandor buzzes around of course, but doesn’t do all that much… this one is mostly about the criminal, with his disguises and lucky breaks, ripping off the wealthy and his own gang members.

These gang members scammed a rich guy and his jeweler, no big deal. F. takes it a step further, killing the thief with the jewels in a horrible way (he is rung to death inside a giant bell), killing the rich woman’s husband then blackmailing her for more money. Fandor finally figures out what’s up, Juve is released and they corner Fantomas… but a few hours earlier, as the judge, he’d told the warden to release the master criminal Fantomas secretly at midnight because it would actually be Juve in disguise. Juve, unwittingly this time, helps Fantomas escape again!

Fantomas helps dude up into the bell where jewels are hidden. Dude throws empty jewel case down and Fantomas takes away the ladder. The next day at a funeral when the bell is rung, blood and jewels rain down on the crowd. Wiiicked.
image

Note how the Belgian prison looks awfully like the French prison (above):
image

Fantomas, as the judge, feeling the pressure:
image

So is this one of the first great features of cinema? Does it meet expectation? Is it still a good movie today almost a century later? Is it as cool as that classic poster which now graces the DVD box cover? Well, no to that last one, but yes to the others. I still enjoy Judex better, but Feuillade’s crime serials are amazing fun, winking at the audience (sometimes literally) at times, getting cruel and serious at others, but always a good time to watch. And you can probably find someone who claims that they changed cinema forever… let’s see… yep, J. Travers says it introduces “not just the idea of a film series, but also [establishes] the crime thriller. The essential ingredients of film noir and the suspense thriller can be seen in this film which, remarkably, (when you consider when the film was made) still appears surprisingly modern.”

He qualifies the five movies: 1. most dreamlike and innovative, 2. best action, 3. most sophisticated, 4. most convoluted, 5. the weakest, comparatively mundane Each movie was divided into chapters with title cards – I didn’t realize each of these was a different serial episode! That means to see the complete Fantomas at the time of release, you would’ve had to go to the theater twenty-one times!

People are always mentioning how much the Surrealists loved these movies… I just read a whole website about it. Watched the bonus feature, wherein K. Newman immediately pronounces it “Phantom-ass.” Now I have to rethink the whole series, imagining Juve, wide-eyed, telling cops “this is the work of phantom-ass!” No wonder they eventually locked him up. Newman says the authors originally wanted to call it “Phant-o-moose” and now I think he’s just messing with us, under the “nobody watches DVD extras so we can say whatever we want” theory. Ahh, he says Diabolik was Fantomas-influenced – I can see that.

Edmund Breon (Juve) was in Les Vampires, took the 1920’s off, then appeared in fifty-some mostly British movies for the next two decades, waiting to die until after he’s been in Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, a good move. René Navarre (Fantomas) was in movies through the 40’s, including a sound version of Judex. Georges Melchior (Fandor) barely made it into sound films. Renée Carl (Lady Beltham was in 180+ silent films – her only sound role was in Pépé le Moko (but last-billed).


“Did you folks in the audience just SEE that?”
image


This just in: a great article by David Bordwell on the series.

NAFF says: “We celebrate their 45th birthday with this meticulously-chosen collection selected and introduced by Canyon Cinema’s executive director Dominic Angerame.” I don’t know what it means to be meticulously chosen. I mean, I assume Dominic is well familiar with Canyon’s films and he might’ve agonized over the selection, wondering how best to artistically and effectively represent his company’s holdings. Anyway, it was a very good selection, but NAFF could’ve been more meticulous with the presentation, misthreading one film which caused delays during which half the audience left early. But let’s face it, half the audience always leaves early during avant-garde film presentations. On with the descriptions… italic text is quoted from NAFF’s descriptions, regular text is from me.

Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold, Austria 1998, 15 min.), where Arnold remixes several clips of a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland Andy Hardy film to form an erotic Oedipal musical.

I talked briefly about this one here and here. Seeing again on a giant screen in a nice theater with a packed audience was rewarding. Lots of laughter when people caught onto the oedipal/sexual jokes. Brilliant movie and concept – still one of my favorites.

Autumn Leaves (Donna Cameron, USA 1994, 6 min.), where the splendor and pleasures of autumn are the focus of this richly textured and brilliantly colored paper emulsion film.

I don’t remember it! I know I liked it – I liked all of these, but I do not remember in what specific ways I liked it. A shame, possibly.

China Girls (Michelle Silva, USA 2006, 3 min.), a short composition of women posing for skin tone and color slates used in film leaders that reveal some skin and the aesthetics of their day through film stocks and fashions.

Didn’t love this one, actually – all slates and countdowns and blips and test patterns. I see that stuff at work all day. I mean, yeah they were vintage test patterns with subliminal shots of women with carefully-maintained hairdos. A minute longer might’ve been too much, but this was harmless, probably of interest to someone else.

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (Stan Brakhage, USA 1991, 10 min.), where four superimposed rolls of hand-painted and bi-packed television negative imagery are edited so as to approximate the hypnagogic process whereby the optic nerves resist grotesque infusions of luminescent light.

I mentioned this one previously here. Silent and gorgeous. Audience didn’t rustle around or yawn loudly or start to leave – they liked it too! Some of the multi-layered visuals are television images, and given the “molten horror” title you’d expect something like Light Is Waiting, but thankfully that’s not what you get.

Eaux D’Artifice (Kenneth Anger, USA 1953, 12 min.). Filmed in the gardens of the Villa D’Este in Tivoli, Italy, and accompanied by the music of Vivaldi, Camilla Salvatore plays hide and seek in a baroque night-time labyrinth of staircases, fountains, gargoyles, and balustrades.

Covered this one here. Light through water!

Ellipses (Frédé Devaux, France 1999, 6 min.), where a ripped strip of film is sewed back together following an aesthetic mode, in a celebratory end-of-century apocalypse of positive, negative, super-8, regular-8, black and white, color, saturated and faded found footage.

Oh god, I don’t remember this one either!

Georgetown Loop (Ken Jacobs, USA 1997, 11 min.), a reworking of 1905 footage of a train trip through the Colorado Rockies, where the original image is mirrored side by side to produce a stunning widescreen kaleidoscope effect.

Opens with the original film (discussed here) on the right half of a wide screen, kind of unnerving, then gloriously mirrors it onto the left. Images don’t overlap over themselves like in Light Is Waiting, but vanish into the center line, expanding and contracting, the train’s always-curving motion making it constantly split and merge. But it’s kind of an easy trick, doesn’t seem worth being called a great film, or even very “experimental.” I’m guessing they wanted to show something by big-name artist Jacobs and this was his shortest film?

In Kaleidoscope and Colour Flight (Len Lye, 1935/1938, 8 min.), Len Lye, pioneer kinetic artist, sculptor and experimental filmmaker, painted colorful designs onto celluloid, matching them to dance music.

Zowie wow, these are electric. They start out all hoppin’ jazz, colors and shapes and stripes and light and love, all in fast motion to the beat, then about three minutes in when you least expect it, they hit you with a cigarette ad. More, please!

Psalm III: Night of the Meek (Philip S. Solomon, USA 2002, 23 min.), a meditation on the twentieth century at closing time. Psalm III is a kindertotenlied in black and silver on a night of gods and monsters…

I guess it’s scenes from other films turned grey and treated with a heavy emboss filter. Often no recognizable details, then they’ll emerge suddenly from the murk. We see some nazi imagery at one point, pretty sure I saw Frankenstein a few times, and little Elsie’s balloon from M caught in the power lines. Longish, but nice, enjoyed it. Can’t remember the audio at all.