I conclude my series of Midnight Movie Monograph interviews with the gentleman coming up to bat (literally and figuratively): Tim Major, who immediately earned by respect and my envy by choosing to write about Louis Feuillade's silent crime serial LES VAMPIRES. Like most other contributors to the MMM series, Tim is a published horror-fantasy author in his own right, whose works include CARUS & MITCH, INVADERS FROM BEYOND, YO DON'T BELONG HERE, and short stories published in various anthologies. His latest novel SNAKESKINS is coming from Titan Books in the Spring of 2019. He also has a blog called Cosy Catastrophes, where you can read more by and about him. His manuscript for LES VAMPIRES is just now going to press, and should be available within a month or so. You can secure your copy by pre-ordering now...
Tim, if you were to be asked by someone who had never seen LES VAMPIRES - say, a young person with a possible aversion to black-and-white or silent cinema - WHY they should take an interest, what would you answer?
I struggle to understand anybody that says they have an aversion to black-and-white films, though I’ve encountered several people who’ve said as much. I guess I don’t really believe that they’ve particularly tried, or that they’re expressing a subconscious issue with something subtler related to filmmaking styles. Like subtitling, monochrome tends to become unnoticed once you’re immersed in any film, I think. I have more sympathy with people who struggle to get along with silent films. I don’t want to make a statement about ‘pure’ cinema, but for me silent films – or those that are unafraid of silence, such as Tarkovsky’s films – are often the most magical cinema experiences. But I understand why some people might not be able to surrender fully to silent cinema, other than comedies. Despite intertitles, silent cinema often provides few cues to guide the viewer through a story. It’s precisely that lack of guidance, the requirement of dwelling on mise-en-scène, that I enjoy. Also, fuck story.
That doesn’t answer your question, though. LES VAMPIRES is an anomaly, and I feel strongly that it succeeds without the requirement of considering it within the context of the film canon. It isn’t particularly reflective of the progression of filmmaking style in 1915 – let’s not forget that Griffith was working on THE BIRTH OF A NATION, developing a directorial and editorial language that would become prevalent, at precisely the same moment that Feuillade was producing LES VAMPIRES. It exists in a strange hinterland between early, ‘primitive’ cinema and the mainstream/Hollywood style that would become so common. To a large extent it fed the imaginations of the Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s, and yet it also contributed to a template for the crime film and the action spectacular. Despite this, it feels like an example of a path that cinema didn’t take, in the sense that story is only a vehicle for peculiar set pieces, and coherence of plot is essentially irrelevant. Dreams and disorientation are foregrounded, spatial logic and character motivations are often gleefully ignored. Watching TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN last year, I had a strong sense that Lynch was directly calling back to these same preoccupations and Feuillade’s disregard for storytelling convention.
Ultimately, I think people should take an interest in LES VAMPIRES because it’s hypnotic and mind-expanding, yet also entirely down-to-earth and funny as hell.
How did LES VAMPIRES first come into your consciousness? Did your awareness of the film and its imagery precede your seeing it - if so, how did the viewing of it change or enhance that perception?
Like many people half-interested in film history, I suspect, a few key images from the film had appeared on my radar: the fantastic promotional poster featuring a caricatured Musidora/Irma Vep wound within a question mark, and the famous image of Marfa onstage in her bat costume. And, like most people, I assumed that it was a horror film. My first experience of any footage from the film was via Oliver Assayas’ terrific IRMA VEP, in which a director attempts to remake LES VAMPIRES. The director, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, introduces to Maggie Chung (as herself) the criminal Irma Vep played by Musidora via a clip from Episode 6, ‘The Hypnotic Gaze’. It’s a wonderful snippet, showing Irma sneaking along a hotel corridor, then being ambushed by rival gang leader Moreno, and that episode remains one of my favourites of the serial. Watching the serial proper for the first time, I was surprised by the non-appearance of Irma Vep until Episode 3, and also the humorous tone, the constant deviations from the investigation of what at first appears to be the central mystery, and so on…
You could have chosen anything - what was it about LES VAMPIRES in particular that made you decide upon it as your Midnight Movies Monograph selection?
I love it. When I first watched it, I eked out the episodes, often rewatching the same one several times before progressing to the next, savouring them. I watched the episodes in hotel rooms when travelling for work. I watched them at four in the morning with my newborn child lying on my belly when he refused to sleep. And I wanted to immerse myself more fully, to document how the serial made me feel, and I regretted missing the opportunity to do so as I came to each episode for the first time. The puzzle-box elements, the confusing relationships between different spaces, the in-camera split-screens... I wanted to understand what Feuillade was doing, or at least explore why each of these things left me breathless. Most of the art I love leaves me a little puzzled, or contains some aspect that I can’t unravel fully – for example, Tarkovsky’s STALKER, Skolimowski’s THE SHOUT, or even other media: Captain Beefheart’s SAFE AS MILK, Nabokov’s PALE FIRE. They can’t be deciphered neatly, so they deserve being revisited.
Is there a reason why you chose LES VAMPIRES over, say, Feuillade’s FANTOMAS?
I like FANTÔMAS well enough. In fact, I saw episodes of that serial before LES VAMPIRES, as in the UK it’s far easier to purchase on DVD. I’d read the Penguin Classics collection of some of Marcel Allain’s and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas stories, and enjoyed them very much, leading on to my reading E. W. Hornung’s Raffles stories, and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin tales – the latter is my favourite criminal antihero. Something is lacking in Feuillade’s translation of FANTÔMAS from book to screen, for me. The plots aren’t devious, the lead character isn’t dangerous. In comparison, LES VAMPIRES succeeds because it doesn’t adhere to strict genre conventions. Mystery is used as a structural device only on and off. Feuillade gives in to his tendency to go with the flow, resulting in outright weirdness and the rejection of any neat conclusions.
It’s quite a commitment to make to a single film, so I guess this also raises another question: What does your selection of LES VAMPIRES say about you?
As I’ve said above, writing this book allowed me to indulge myself in understanding why I fell in love with the film in the first place. The fact that LES VAMPIRES has a 7-hour running time felt like a point in its favour – while it’s daunting to devote oneself to a single film, surely with so much content there would continue to be things to say… There was also the chance to explore the historical context – the Great War was being conducted on Paris’s doorstep: several actors in the serial disappear abruptly due to being conscripted to fight on the front lines; the streets of the city are desolate. The underdog status of the film appealed to me too. It’s accepted as an important work and a key film in the development of cinema – however, as a film to watch it seems far less established in the public consciousness. It strikes me as fascinating that it can be revered and yet relatively rarely seen. Other than the poster, the most famous image of LES VAMPIRES is of a vampire bat preying upon its prone victim, and yet: i) there are no mythological vampires in the serial, ii) the image actually shows a sly recreation of events in a play-within-the-film, iii) the vampire is not the famous Irma Vep, but dancer Marfa Koutiloff. This confusion for would-be viewers is entirely in keeping with the majestic befuddlement of the film.
You made the decision to approach this book not just as a historian, or a fan, but as a novelist - you include some original fiction in it. Was this an early decision for you, in approaching the subject, or did it come about in progress?
That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’m confident enough of myself as a novelist to suggest that I approach anything in that capacity. I’m certainly not a historian and my interest in film is purely enthusiastic. However, the decision to respond to the film partly via fiction felt very natural. Partly that’s because that’s what I do, partly it’s because writing this monograph took the place of writing a new novel in summer 2017 (I moved house twice that year, so a more fragmented project suited my available working hours), partly it’s because I would struggle to express my reaction to the film in solely factual terms.
So, I’d always intended to include ten pieces of short fiction, one following each of the ten episodes of the serial. The nature of the stories developed over time. Rather than write ‘fan fiction’ or repeat elements of the film, I created a character, Louise Foyard, who combines the two lynchpins of LES VAMPIRES: Louis Feuillade and Musidora. Her adventures are fragmented and disoriented, and recall aspects of the film only obliquely. I tried to write the pieces quickly, in strict sequence after writing the analysis of each episode, to reflect the serialised production of the film. One of the pieces was actually written many years ago, as a nod to Feuillade’s usage of his earlier, abandoned projects, such as the lengthy sequence in Episode 6 that cuts away to the adventures of a fictional character in Spain in 1808.
In responding to LES VAMPIRES as a novelist, what about the film most intrigues you - the crime? The action? The fetishized Musidora aspect?
The disorientation. All of the elements you mention are terrific – Musidora’s stunt work! – but the overriding marvel of the film, for me, is its woozy, dreamlike tone.
Musidora is endlessly fascinating, onscreen and off: in a future project I’d love to explore her life in far more detail. Feuillade, too – his journey from the seminary to military service to journalism to filmmaking is interesting, not least because he was Gaumont’s artistic director for many years as well as having directed five hundred short films by 1914. That kind of output is inspirational: the ability to create, move on, create, move on.
As a novelist, LES VAMPIRES and the aforementioned TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN have acted as twin inspirations recently. They’ve made me realise that plot is generally not what I show up for.
I was interested to see that, in listing your most inspirational writers, you included mainstream as well as science fiction and fantasy writers. How do you think the influence of these writers expresses itself in your work?
This harks back to my first answer about people refusing to watch black-and-white films. Why would anybody silo themselves off into a single genre, in terms of reading, watching or creating? My earliest influences were genre ones: DOCTOR WHO was my first real obsession; John Wyndham and H.G. Wells were my gateway into adult fiction. But to a large extent these fictions are centred around ideas or high concepts, as are the works of other writers I love, such as Italo Calvino or Paul Auster. I’m equally as engrossed by strong character pieces. If pushed, I’ll often name John Updike’s Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom series of novels (beginning with RABBIT, RUN) as my favourites. I only wish I had the confidence in my writing to dwell on single moments to the degree that Updike is able to. Nabokov’s LOLITA was the novel that opened my mind to the power of fine prose. I like mysteries very much, but I find Patricia Highsmith’s messier, character-based psychological crime novels more interesting than whodunnits. My horror influences are far more cinematic than literary, having begun with a delicious fear of Talos in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS; I was never a reader of horror novels when I was growing up. An example of a modern novel I adore would be Jeffrey Eugenides’ MIDDLESEX – it has a big central idea, but it’s entirely a character piece.
The short answer to your question is that I don’t know. I like grand ideas, but without a focus on character in my own writing, I’m adrift.
Do you think readers familiar with your work as a novelist will bring a special insight to your work on this book?
It’s lovely to imagine that somebody might deliberately move from my fiction to my non-fiction. I think it’s far more likely that somebody interested in LES VAMPIRES, or silent film in general, or horror fiction, might read the monograph and then, perhaps, take a punt on my novels or short stories based on the ten pieces of weird fiction. Even that seems a stretch. Frankly, I’m very happy for my book on LES VAMPIRES to stand alone. I’m proud of it, and I think it’s an honest attempt to unpick my love for the film, and I hope that my enthusiasm, if nothing else, is apparent and infectious. I’d be delighted to hear of anybody watching the film as a result of the book: it deserves to be seen and celebrated. It’s utterly wonderful.
(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.