The Sunday Intertitle: Birdman

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Look, I don’t mean to brag — probably what I do mean to do is GLOAT — but I was turned loose in the Criterion storeroom during my recent New York excursion (alongside Scout Tafoya). I don’t actually have a bucket list — too cheap to buy a bucket — but if I did this would have shortened it to the tune of one item. Bill Forsyth had described to me how his wife tried to drag him from the room as he frantically tried to stuff more swag into his Criterion carrier bag — “No, it’s free! They said it’s all free!” and I shared his Scottish thrill at the offer of unlimited audio-visual riches, while also bitterly regretting that the wretched laws of physics wouldn’t allow us to simply put the storeroom inside the bag. What one feels, in short, is a mixture of pleasure and panic, rather like what I imagine it must have been like to meet the young Brigitte Bardot.

JUDEX was one of the films I not-quite randomly snatched up. Georges Franju’s knowing recreation of Louis Feiullade’s unknowing surrealism moves at his usual stately pace, something which confused me when I first saw EYES WITHOUT A FACE — GF just isn’t interested in conventional dramatic tension. Here, he even fades to black in the middle of what is technically an “exciting chase.”

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Rather than tension, Franju relies on wondrous variety and what-fucking-next? plotting, mostly quite faithful to his source, but compressed and simplified. As I noticed while revisiting AN ACTOR’S REVENGE recently, movies based on serials pull all kind of tricks with narrative that normal movies wouldn’t go near — in particular, introducing new characters very late on, to reinvigorate the action. Ichikawa brings in a two-fisted priest, whereas Franju boldly has a travelling circus ride past, in a deserted street, at night, just when the plot requires the services of an acrobat (Sylva Koscina). And she turns out to be the detective’s ex-lover, newly liberated to marry him. The whole story is turned around because of this person showing up twenty minutes before the end (and having a girl-fight with the cat-suited villainess).

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It’s interesting to see how Franju mixes the film grammar of 1914 — irises and intertitles — with fluid camera movements which look more like the 40s than the early 60s when the movie was made. Really magnificent costumes, especially for Francine Bergé, and art nouveau sets and props — everything’s a triffid!

Elsewhere, we have the avenging hero sans motivation, who has invented closed-circuit television in 1914, who can bring dead doves back to life, and who communicates with a prisoner using a kind of ceiling etch-a-sketch intertitle ~

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And yet he has not thought to capitalize financially upon any of these inventions and abilities. Most extraordinary.

Extreme thanks to the great people at Criterion: Liz, Kim, Susan, Peter et al.

 

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17 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Birdman”

  1. “Art nouveau = Everything’s a triffid” I love so much.

  2. There’s a telephone triffid which is to die for. But, basically, it’s all triffids all the time in this movie.

  3. I think a daring heist utilizing his inventions could be undertaken in a modern Judex. The target would naturally have to be the Criterion product closet, the most precious treasure chest in all of North America. Bless those folks for making two grown children’s dreams come true.

  4. Seconded!

    Though it would take a Diabolik to penetrate the security: the friendly lady at the front door asking for ID, the elevator, the distractingly brilliant posters everywhere…

  5. He’d certainly need his own theme guitar riff. Would keep him focused, I should think.

  6. F here – And I was just standing outside talking to the staff about feral dogs in Eastern Europe. Maybe that’s what it would take; a cunning conversational tack to distract them, then a quick sweep through the cupboard. (wearing a cloak and a ‘balalaika’ of course)

  7. But of course. With eyes-only masks for one and all.

  8. Explanatory note: due to a great malapropism at dinner with the wonderful Jennifer Merin, we now habitually refer to balaclavas as balalaikas. I’m not sure if we also refer to balalaikas as balaclavas, we’ll have to watch Doctor Zhivago to find out.

  9. *That* is a delightful mistake. Next time you visit with the doctor, do relay the results. The rare movie with both Bala’s. Which now just leads me to want to design an edition of Clue around movies with nothing in common. “It was Miss Bala in the Balaclava closet with the Balalaika eating Baccala Baclava.” Or maybe I just like alliteration. Tough to say…

  10. Simon Fraser Says:

    The Bardot line made me exhale my breakfast.

  11. Wow, I hope it wasn’t a melon.

    Our late friend Lawrie once had Bardot run out of a thunderstorm at the Venice Film Fest in the fifties, into his arms. He didn’t panic: he knew exactly what to do. But he couldn’t do it because there were people around.

  12. Love this film so much. Could you maybe stop being all incredibly cool and stuff? It hurts.

  13. Something that didn’t hit me until some time after the movie (and not at all when I saw the serial a year before):

    Judex is established as having resources on a par with Batman or a Bond villain, in addition to the mental and physical gifts of a dozen pulp heroes.

    But once we’re past the kidnapping of the banker, he’s desperately fighting a lone woman whose only resources are a few unimpressive stooges and raw determination.

    In cold light it seems like Judex should have brushed her aside in the first round. But in serial and movie, she has him against the ropes almost constantly. And we buy it, fearing for Judex and his lady as if the cards were stacked against them instead of outrageously for them.

    It’s one thing to flip hero and villain in an audience’s estimation. It’s something else altogether to show a lion menaced by a mouse and make us believe it.

  14. Annie, sorry. I think it’s genetic.

    D, well observed. Diana Monti is arguably quite a bit smarter than Judex. This might have something to do with why Franju claimed his film was without drama, and it surely has a lot to do with why he was far more interested in the baddies than in poor Channing Pollock. As he said, Judex declines in interest from his first entrance. And the excellent comedy detective and the kid are the only human beings in it.

  15. Diana is human too. I especially like the scene where she plots while dancing with her boyfriend — played by Edith Piaf’s last husband.

    And the lovely Sylva Koscina’s “Daisy” is human too. She defeats Diana with genuine fighting skill — not superpower.

  16. “I could have done without her,” was Franju’s harsh verdict on Koscina, for whatever reason. I couldn’t! She’s essential to my wellbeing.

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