Seeing Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) again recently, my appetite was whetted to re-read Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, which uses Ulmer’s strange career as a master stylist exiled to a career toiling in B-movie obscurity as a jumping-off point for a sinister story engorged with a decadent and whispered history of movies. Three years ago I was commissioned to write about Flicker for writer Bill Ryan’s annual October consideration of horror at his great blog The Kind of Face You Hate. I had to admit, I never really thought of Flicker as a horror novel in the strictest sense while I was immersed in it-- the first half reads more like an indulgent orgy of movie lore woven expertly into a pleasingly reluctant, expertly teased detective story.
But the book certainly qualifies as horror in that it shares the obsessive nature of its protagonist, film historian Jonathan Gates, who follows the decaying nitrate trail of long-forgotten genre filmmaker Max Castle (apparently at least partially inspired by Ulmer and his travails, from set designer for a series of great German films-- Nosferatu and Metropolis included-- to a career as a subversive director of Poverty Row B-movies) all the way down the rabbit hole, beneath the deceptively tacky first layer of the director's strangely seductive imagery and into a nightmare world of secret movies. Here, bathed in the sinister interplay of shadows and light, where something always seems to be just hidden from view, the hooks of the past are set, dragging the academic, and us, into a present where Castle's subliminal text is developing, with the help of a mysterious religious sect and a newly emerging cult phenomenon by the name of Simon Dunkle, into malignant foreground.
Flicker's vampires and creatures of the night may remain locked in tattered celluloid, the remains of Max Castle's oeuvre, but like Castle's mysterious technique, known as the flicker, Roszak's book gets under your skin, makes you shiver, and makes you think about how elastic the horror genre really can be. Read Flicker and think of Max Castle, and of Edgar G. Ulmer, and much, much more. I did, and I will again soon. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2013:
“Tell me again, what’re we lookin’ at here, man?” he asked, peering, tilting his head this way and that. “Secret movies,” I answered in a hushed tone, trying to sound as mysterious as possible.
--Theodore Roszak, Flicker
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, one in which the movies had a much different relationship with their audience (and vice versa) than they do today, Pauline Kael suggested, in her review of Robert Altman’s Nashville, that it was “an orgy for movie lovers.” She meant, among other things, that the movie was capable of providing a level of ecstasy and engagement for the viewer, through its almost off-handed command of all of the elements of character and vision and performance that typically make audiences bliss out on the possibilities within the movies, that it was practically guaranteed to elicit a rapturous response comparable to her own. I thought of Kael and her Nashville review when I first began reading Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), a tantalizing, immersive and sometimes maddening investigative fiction revolving around a metaphysical mystery that traces deep into the musty corridors and crypts of ancient religion and of film history itself. (It would not be the last time the book would evoke the spirit and the specter of the late and great film critic.)
Flicker is an orgy for movie lovers too, but not precisely the kind Kael was suggesting. Roszak isn’t a humorless writer, but he’s not given to flights of fancy either-- in some circles he might be considered a bit of a scold—and the book, in its own dispassionate way, indulges in some of the sort of excess Kael, in her review, praised Nashville for lacking. Much of Flicker, especially in the book’s first half, is given over to analytical ruminations on the way cinema is processed, by cultists, academics and poseurs. Through a group of entirely concocted scenesters and various hangers-on, the author has a condemnatory boatload to say about the burgeoning avant-garde movement of the ‘60s, and Roszak isn’t much easier on what he sees as the indiscriminate, self-flagellating tastes of the cult cinema devotees who emerged in the wake of the reflection inspired by pieces like Kael’s “Trash, Art and the Movies.” Here he, as elsewhere in the voice of his narrator/protagonist Jonathan Gates (think “film gate”), names names:
“Watching a cult favorite like Jodorowsky’s El Topo-- it screened regularly once a month—I would have said this is the antipodean swamp, the absolute, godforsaken edge of the world. Mayhem, mutilation, rape, surrealistic sadism. Beyond this, nothing.”
But years later, when the world really does seem to be circling the drain in the presence of a strange new cult director sensation (or is that apocalyptic perception just the residue of all the imagery searing into the eyes Gates has managed to perhaps regretfully sensitize?), the post-punk aesthetic of a Super-8 production entitled American Fast Food Massacre manages to cut through Gates’ disgust, compelling him toward a hesitant level of respect:
“In its up-close details, the film was a stomach-turner, no question. But it moved briskly and with great precision, so that, in spite of myself, I was beginning to find it satirically effective. A great American cannibal feast as Mack Sennett might have handled it if he lacked all inhibition.”
For Gates, such concessions would have been unthinkable before discovering an almost-forgotten director, Max Castle, and the world beneath the world he conjured. And that discovery will most certainly change his life, as it has for many others…
On its most inviting level Flicker seems to be written to delight serious film buffs, critics and historians who will dig the cinephiliac name-dropping that begins within the first few paragraphs of the book’s dense 608 pages -- the book’s chronology begins in the mid ‘50s, when movies began to evolve into “films” worthy of increasingly serious academic study. But the book’s orgiastic impulses almost immediately extend beyond that sort of facile fun and toward the dark shadows and dank atmosphere of the lost, perhaps sinister ambitions of a past represented only by fragile plastics and nitrate, the fleeting images committed to film by a low-rent auteur who may have pioneered filmmaking techniques that might possibly have gained access to the darkest impulses lying dormant within the movies themselves.
That past includes the sketchy history of repertory and revival house culture, specifically represented by a fictional Los Angeles cinema called the Classic, a skuzzy 200-seat auditorium fashioned from the moldy basement of a once-opulent movie palace of the ‘20s, a venue not unlike a downtown theater like the Los Angeles (pictured here) or other beauties of Broadway whose vast auditoriums have fallen dark or been appropriated for other uses. The art-deco glory of the Classic, gutted by fire and eventually overtaken by soup kitchens, medicine show hucksters and fly-by-night evangelists, has been lost, but its basement is eventually reclaimed by the movies and refashioned into the vessel which facilitates Gates’ revival house refinement. Gates traces his own path down into the basement Classic, from childhood fascination with the exploits of a fictional serial heroine, busty Nylana the Jungle Girl, through an adolescent fixation on James Dean and Marlon Brando. But it’s the inevitable revelatory, college-age breakthrough, when he stumbles into Louis Malle’s The Lovers-- a more adult consideration (with subtitles!) of the erotic tremors Nylana had first snapped into action-- that precipitates his more serious immersion into the movies.
Afterward, Gates becomes a fixture at the Classic, under the guidance of Sharkey, the theater’s good-humored, burnt-out projectionist, and Clare, a proudly brusque would-be film historian (and failed student) who manages the cinema and writes its long, expressive, brutally honest program notes. Our narrator soon falls under the influence of Clare’s persuasive intellect, fired by the erotic spell she casts simultaneously for him as lover and teacher, the conduit for exposure to entirely new facets of film experience. (Clare’s personal history and temperament, as described by Roszak and his narrator, are clearly meant to invoke Pauline Kael, even though Kael herself is referenced later on as existing separately in Flicker’s parallel universe.)
One night, after having dismissed his work in the presence of some French enthusiasts, Gates discovers Clare viewing a tattered print of a low-budget horror film by one Max Castle, a minor and largely forgotten German expatriate whose trashy, poorer-than-Poverty-Row horror films of the ‘30s—Edgar G. Ulmer with a tendency toward the transgressive impulses of a Herschell Gordon Lewis—were largely lost or left to indifferent decay. Intrigued by her casual, dismissive interest in Castle’s Feast of the Undead, which seems to mask a strange fascination/revulsion for the movie’s surprising technique and grotesque imagery, Castle and the output of his marginal career-- which ended under mysterious, undocumented circumstances in the early ‘40s-- becomes Gates’ pursuit, his way of validating his own intellect in the shadow of Clare’s influence and ambition. What about the way Castle’s camera moves proves so mesmerizing, even when what he’s showing is, atypically for the time in which it was shot, the goriest sort of impaling and other violence? Why is the viewer left with the feeling, during the vampire seductions he choreographs, that there might be real sex going on beneath the veneer of familiar horror iconography? Gates can’t stop asking these questions, and his initially tentative curiosity becomes full-blown obsession, the apocalyptic celluloid through which Flicker casts its plays of light and ever-deepening shadows down into a seemingly bottomless rabbit hole.
To speak in much more detail about what comes of Gates’ pursuit would be to rob those inclined to gobble it up of the surprises set within the deliberate, yet intricate levels of metaphysical development, critical commentary and even historical inquiry into the cold clutch of religious zealotry (and its practical applications) that Roszak brings to the table. But I don’t think it’s unfair to reveal that woven into the thicket of Gates’ gradual understanding of the basis of his helpless attraction to Castle’s imagery, and the unshakable feeling of uncleanliness that it inspires, is a sort of playfully lingering commentary on, of all things, the viability of the auteur theory.
The author’s conceit is that lying almost imperceptibly beneath the visuals of vampires and werewolves and human sacrifices that make up the core of Castle’s disregarded American output are levels of imagery-- or perhaps more precisely levels of manipulation of imagery-- that express Castle’s specific point of view, or personality, about matters of, shall we say, urgency to the director. (Forgive me as I try to remain as spoiler-free and vague as possible.) It was Castle’s particular talent to bend the narratives and visual style of the piecemeal low-budget assignments he received as a bottom-rung Hollywood director to accommodate, in a manner both obvious and simultaneously subliminal, his own personal concerns.
This is certainly nothing if not Roszak’s pointed attempt to position Max Castle as perhaps the most extreme, and maybe even the most successful expression of critic Andrew Sarris’ assertion, in his “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” that "the way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.” When Sarris wrote, “Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material,” he might, if the man had actually existed, have been thinking of Max Castle, who Gates comes to realize is in some very important and horrifying ways the ultimate auteur. But Roszak, thankfully, is not a wielder of editorial frying pans in the manner of a Paddy Chayefsky-- given the way the book plays out, whether or not Castle’s status as an auteurist poster boy is something he should be proud of is left to the wisdom and consideration of the reader.
Flicker trades in a sort of free-floating anxiety about our relationship with classic cinema, meaning not just the movies that have been deemed “classics” by the usual cultural gatekeepers, but in a more sweeping and general sense the films of a classic era, the films that have spoken in echoes to us, some strong and bold, some faint and dying, from ever since the first films were made. Part of the experience of watching old films, especially on TV in the days predating VCRs and the home video movement but even during the heyday of revival theaters, was the feeling of being visited by ghosts, by thoughts and intentions and expressions that lay just outside of articulation, generated by people on and off screen who were often years, decades dead. Seen from this perspective, the whole of cinema history can be painted, if not with the malevolent strokes hinted at by Max Castle and his legacy, then at least with a sort of gothic mournfulness, pictures of a past that cannot entirely accurately represent or express the intricacy of their origins. The films have their own purpose, their own urgency, but they also call to us like a lighthouse through a very thick fog, and perhaps only part of that purpose makes it through the mist.
As one moves through Flicker it becomes clear that, for Roszak, some things should be unclear, should be left unseen. Even so, Roszak’s narrative, as it moves simultaneously forward and backward through time—a simple effect achieved without the clever structure of chronological compressing and stretching that marked Steve Erickson’s also-marvelous Zeroville—preserves not just the feeling that we, as the audience, cannot help but look. It’s also saying that the ominous shiver which makes us suspect that what we’re watching is somehow watching back, through time itself, is well justified. Flicker’s progression through the mysteries of Max Castle, the world that spawned him and the world that now seeks the successor who will fulfill his ominous potential, will seem at times perhaps a bit too dense and schematic, Roszak too in love with extrapolating the complex history that serves as a backdrop for his particular brand of anxious dread. But if this is so, it is also true that the author has reserved his most awful, frightening joke for last, and patience will reward the reader who makes his way toward the light at the end of the tunnel, and the dimming of that light, pinched off as if by the closing of an iris.