Flicker: Between the Frames
By Mike White
In his unrelentingly fascinating novel, Flicker (ISBN: 155652577X), author Theodore Roszak masterfully mixes conspiracy theory and film scholarship. Feeling like a detective novel by way of Christian Metz, Roszak blends fact and fiction with fantasy to tell the story of Max Castle (AKA Max Kastle and Max Roche), the oft-overlooked director of such films as SHADOWS OVER SING-SING and FEAST OF THE UNDEAD. Though Castle cranked out poverty row b-films, his work always held an artistry and mastery of his craft. In his early days, Castle was an UFA wunderkind. Emigrating from Germany to the United States like his contemporaries—Karl Freund, Fritz Lang, etc—Castle befriended fellow golden boy Orson Welles and even worked on Welles’s ill-fated adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness.
Almost everything we know about Castle comes courtesy of film scholar Jonathan Gates. Flicker serves as Gates’s memoir. The reader goes from Gates’s youthful appreciation of foreign films as a font of earthy sexuality, through his carnal tutelage by film critic and former art house owner Clarissa Swan. The specters of Castle’s work act as guideposts along the way, leading him into a cinematic underworld. Any reader with a passion for film feels a kinship with Gates as he unearths information about the forgotten director. Moving from simple passing curiosity to full-fledged obsession, Gates turns his hunt into a scholarly pursuit, using Castle as his Master’s thesis in a time when serious film criticism was in its infancy.
In time, Gates learns that Castle had mastered cinematic techniques that allow movies to have almost infinite sub-movies inside of them. “There was a second series of images lightly but distinctly blurred across the screen...It was nothing I could have taken in consciously, but I realized that the inexplicable impact [...] arose from this second, invisible movie.” The power of these insidious layers is that “people don’t put up their guard when they’re being entertained.” Castle uses these hidden images to create feelings of obscenity and to further the goals of his religious order.
The above description barely touches the first few hundred pages of Roszak’s 592-page tome. As the cliché goes, the fun of Flicker comes from the journey, not the destination. Gates’s investigation takes him around the globe: he meets fallen Hollywood luminaries, partakes in tantric exercises, pays a visit to a religious site, debates semiotics with French critics, and is recognized as the foremost authority on Max Castle.
POPCORN: BUY A BAG, GO HOME IN A BOX
Originally published in 1991, the 2005 re-release of the book by Chicago Review Press boldly stated that Flicker was “soon to be a major motion picture” directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Jim Uhls. The choice of film brat Aronofsky seemed like a stroke of brilliance. At the time, Aronofsky’s name was associated with no less than a half dozen other projects, including adaptations of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Cat’s Cradle and Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf & Cub. That Flicker didn’t come to fruition amongst all of his other projects comes as no surprise, and it may come as something of a relief.
While Uhls did a tremendous job adapting Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (with a polish by Andrew Kevin Walker), his work on the screenplay for Flicker leaves a lot to be desired. The first thing one notices when looking at Uhls’s screenplay (dated 6/22/2004) is that Roszak’s name is misspelled on the cover page. From there, things go downhill.
Jonathan Gates is a film preservationist. He meets the beautiful Clarissa Swan at a posh Hollywood party, where the two boost a print of F.W. Murnau’s FAUST. They’re saddened to find that while the cans were labeled “Faust,” the film inside is a work by Max Castle. Gates delivers the film to his friend, Sharkey, at The Classic, a hole-in-the-wall revival theater. Upon viewing the movie, Gates, Swan, Sharkey, and a few straggling Classic employees get snippy with each other, eventually resorting to physical violence. Almost as soon as Gates begins investigating Castle, those around him start dying under mysterious circumstances.
Of course, Uhls had to do a lot of condensing to make a sprawling life story into a two-hour film. Decades are shrunk to weeks. Some characters are combined (Zip Lipsky is married to Olga Tell, rather than Kay Allison) and others are omitted (the stuttering Milk Dud-addicted Simon Dunkle and Orson Welles are missing), but it’s the re-casting of Max Castle as some kind of psychotic prankster that proves the most irksome. The script’s first Castle film, JUDAS EVERYMAN, causes audience members to fight, and the second, QUEEN OF VENUS, acts as a cinematic aphrodisiac; something that Roszak’s Castle would never abide. A third Castle film—a solid black bit of film that runs one second—drives viewers into a suicidal frenzy. This makes for a chilling scene in Uhl’s script, but does nothing to capture the spirit of Roszak’s novel.
Other than making Clarissa “stunningly gorgeous” (rather than the slovenly Bohemian of the book), the strangest thing about Uhls’s work is the violation of the basic “show, don’t tell” tenant of screenwriting. Eliminating dialogue in Uhls’s script would remove all conflict and points of action. Essentially, Uhls boils down Flicker to a talky tale of movies filled with subliminal signals to fight, fuck, or self-destruct. He removes Castle’s lacing of his tremendous body of work (far more than two films and one scene) with his church’s dogma.
Among the most memorable moments in Roszak’s book are the descriptions of Castle’s films. The author beautifully conveys scenes from Castle’s work with such clarity that a reader feels as if they’ve seen a good portion of Castle’s oeuvre. Apart from a few fleeting images, Uhls concentrates more on the reaction of the audience than what’s on screen. This use of description via dialog and audience reaction feels reminiscent of the theater scene in FIGHT CLUB: “So when the snooty cat and the courageous dog with the celebrity voices first meet, that’s when you’ll catch a flash of Tyler’s contribution to the film.” In the audience, children suddenly start squirming, confused, and looking at each other. “Nobody knows that they saw it but they did.”
“IN THE INDUSTRY, WE CALL THEM CIGARETTE BURNS.”
While fans of Roszak’s book hope that Uhls’s derivative screenplay never gets out of development, the core of Uhl’s work has been pilfered for an episode of the “Master of Horror” series. Co-written by Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny (better known to webgeeks as “Moriarty” from the Ain’t It Cool News website), “Cigarette Burns” has also been justly compared to Roman Polanski’s THE NINTH GATE. Hired by Mr. Bellinger (Udo Kier), film hunter Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) seeks the long-lost LE FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE from director Hans Backovic (Christian Bocher). During limited screenings since its premiere in the ‘70s, LE FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE caused riots, blackouts, and physical deformities to audiences.
Laced with absolute evil, everyone involved with Backovic’s film has been cursed. The film should be viewed in the same way one should look into the Ark of the Covenant—keep your eyes shut! “Film is magic and, in the right hands, a weapon,” critic A.K. Meyers (Christopher Britton) warns Sweetman. The cursed film seems only slightly more controversial and harder to find than Jerry Lewis’s THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.
More than the method by which the movie was created, it’s what Backovic got on film that gives LE FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE its punch. Basically, it’s a mutilation movie with a showcase scene of an angel getting its wings removed. This outright evil plays well for the camera (with LE FIN looking like a longer version of the video in THE RING), but isn’t as satisfying as Castle’s method of speaking to the subconscious via the hypnotic 24-frames-per-second Flicker of film.
ADDENDUM: This same “killer movie” idea appears to have inspired G. Cameron Romero’s THE SCREENING, as well. Awash in fake blood and gore, THE SCREENING looks like a novice filmmaker’s schlocky attempt at shock.