Thursday, December 8, 2011
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
April, 1993 Bantam Books
This hefty book was first published in hardcover in 1991, then brought out in an "expanded" trade paperback edition in 2006, featuring a new appendix and fragments of material cut from the original version. But regardless this original print (shown here in its mass market paperback incarnation) is long enough, and will already be a mostly-trying read for the average reader, even if like me you're fascinated by Hollywood's golden era of the 1930s and '40s.
Film critic Jonathan Gates narrates the tale, which spans the late 1950s through the late 1970s. Gates is the foremost authority on once-forgotten filmmaker Max Castle, who left his native Germany in the age of the silents to make films in Hollywood. After a notorious, overbudgeted flop, Castle was from thence on relegated to quickies or horror films, in particular churning out stuff for Universal. He progressed through the talkie era on through the '30s, finding opportunity to instill his own art into the schlock he was forced to film. Finally in the pre-WWII years he was announced dead, his ship destroyed while he was on a European voyage to acquire funds to produce a film of his own.
Gates relates for us how he came to discover Castle's work, and this provides the meat of the tale. A college student in late '50s California, Gates begins going to The Classic, a dank little theater run by Clare Swan (ie Pauline Kael), an opinionated critic who provides copious notes for each film shown on the Classic's small screen. Here Gates encounters the nascent French film movement, all the cinema verite so popular at the time. By chance Clare gets hold of a beaten old vampire flick, an old Universal film none of them can place. This turns out to be one of Castle's many forgotten films, and is Gates's introduction to the man and his story. Clare reacts negatively and leaves all of the Castle research to Gates, who she nevertheless continues to tutor in her own private little way.
Clare has taken a shine to Gates and has made her his latest consort/pupil. After instilling her harsh opinions on practically every film ever made, Clare takes Gates to the next level and continues to teach him while they're having sex. Seriously, she will blab on and on about Sergei Eisenstein or whoever while they're making the beast with two backs. I would say this is the very definition of a bore, but regardless Gates (and therefore Roszak, his creator) wants us to believe this is a wonderful way to soak up all sorts of esoteric film lore. (But then if film classes were actually taught this way, I probably would've gone to UCLA.)
The reader must be prepared to wade through thick paragraphs of in-depth film chatter, as Gates meets one industry person after another. I have never had any love for the cinema verite of the '50s and '60s, so this stuff was hard going for me, as Gates will indulge in endless chatter with students and whatnot. Finally though he gets to the more interesting material of Castle; the best parts of the novel are when Gates details many of Castle's classic horror pictures, all of which sound pretty great. (One of them, Zombie Doctor, sounds supiciously like the real movie Island of Lost Souls -- out now on Blu Ray, by the way.)
In some ways these early parts of Flicker are fascinating because they show how simpler life is for the classic film fan, these days. Gates and his friends must search high and low for prints of the films they want to see, usually coming up with nothing but beaten 16mm chain prints that are barely watchable. Meanwhile today one can find pretty much anything on DVD -- and if it hasn't been officially released, there's always the gray market of DVDRs.
Gates finds that he and other viewers often react with horror to otherwise-innocuous scenes in Castle's work. For example Clare, who shows a particular revulsion, though she can never understand why. Gates discovers why with the appearance of the awesomely-named Zip Lipsky, a midget curmudgeon who worked as cameraman on most of Castle's films. Lipsky has managed to hang onto "uncut prints" of all of Castle's released films; Gates begins visiting the man regularly to watch them. During these showings Lipsky relates the story of Castle, how he had so much struggle in Hollywood and how he always inserted another level into his films. Producing a "Sallyrand," a "stripper" Castle named after the actual stripper Sally Rand, Lipsky shows Gates how if you look through the viewer you can see another film buried within the shadows of the main film. Gates sees grisly imagery of decaying flesh and even pornographic moments which never would've gotten past a censor, then or now.
The Sallyrand allows a viewer to plainly see this hidden footage, but to the naked eye it's invisible. However the viewer still unconsciously sees it, and this explains the feelings of revulsion and etc which set in upon viewers of Castle's work. Subconsciously they are seeing a spectrum of revulsion, only they don't realize so on the conscious level. The question remains, of course: why the hell was Castle going to such trouble?
Gates is determined to find out. After Lipsky's passing (which is unfortunate, as he's the only memorable character in the novel), Gates determines to meet up with others who worked with Castle. This leads him eventually to Orson Welles himself -- Gates learns that Welles, when he came to Hollywood with a full ticket in '39, personally sought out Castle, as he was such an admirer. The two men devised the idea to film Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (something Welles himself did in reality), and Castle and Lipsky filmed a lot of jungle footage before the project was dropped. Welles, regaling Gates and the reader for pages and pages in Clare's NYC apartment (she's since gotten famous as a newspaper film critic), goes further to mention that Castle also provided a bit of assistance on Citizen Kane, and that he even worked with John Ford on The Maltese Falcon.
On Gates goes, searching for the truth behind Castle's esoteric work. He goes to Holland, where he meets the still-ravishing Olga Tell, Castle's girlfriend in the '30s; it was her nude form cavorting in the "hidden layer" of many of Castle's films. Roszak continues the "teaching via sex" bit as Olga, despite her vast age difference with Gates, teaches him a bit of New Agery she learned from Castle while they engage in bouts of sexual congress. Here the novel begins its gradual freefall, as Gates eventually learns that Castle's religion, which he hid in his films but still promoted subconsciously, was that of the Cathars.
Early editions of Flicker compared the novel to The Name of the Rose; no surprise that the newer edition compares it to The Da Vinci Code. For that's exactly what it resembles, only of course it's a hell of a lot more literary. As the novel winds into its third half it becomes more focused on esoteric religions and less on film, which isn't a bad thing; it's just that it sways off into fantasy, as Gates finds himself a target of a shadowy religious sect which runs a global chain of orphanages. He visits one of them -- Castle, you see, was raised in such an orphanage -- to find that the children are being taught how to edit film. The entire aim of the orphanages is to teach children how to work in film and thereby promote their cause.
Castle disappears from the novel for large sections as Gates becomes fascinated with a teenaged albino who makes grindhouse gore films on dime budgets; the kid also was raised in one of these orphanages and is himself an admirer of Castle. Finally all of it spirals out of control as Gates discovers he is in more trouble than he could've imagined, eventually finding himself a prisoner on an island off Malta; a fully-staffed island, as it were, with Gates treated like a guest. It's all just, I don't know, goofy. And you'll never guess who Gates's fellow prisoner is on this island. (Actually, you will guess; you'll see it coming miles away.)
By turns enthralling and boring, Flicker is nevertheless an interesting "other side" of Hollywood history. It is a bit annoying that Max Castle is presented as such an influential film personality (who nonetheless went forgotten), with a hand in pretty much any classic film you could name, which seems to me to take a bit from the actual filmmakers themselves. (I'm sure Ford wouldn't have taken kindly to the novel, let alone Welles.) The Cathar stuff seems a lame and unnecessary draw; easy to say in this post-Da Vinci Code era, but there could've been a more compelling "truth" behind Castle's hidden layers of film than the usual "forbidden religions" angle of Foucault's Pendulum and others.