Letter never sent
On Sunday, MoMA screened all 6-ish hours of Feuillade's Les Vampires. (A few weeks earlier, I was there by chance, and caught some of Fantômas.) The late Edward Gorey spoke of attending Feuillade screenings at MoMA, with the installments sometimes shown out of sequence.
Dizzyhead Benno heroically attended the recent LV screening, prompting me to dust off a "Guilty Omission" I wrote for Mark Peranson's Cinema Scope, back in 2002:
Thanks for all the letters, also the nice scarf. You asked why I finally saw Les Vampires, and what I thought. As to the first: Like most things, it’s your fault. Remember that night in Paris when we wandered through the rain? You crept along the roof, in that high-octane bondage suit, clutching a necklace thick with jewels. For a moment you’d merged with the spirit of Irma Vep, the feral heart of the ultra-criminous Vampires—i.e., your thankless role in René Vidal’s doomed retooling of Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 serial, the whole mess captured in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep. (But you know all this!) Hélas: my fondness for such vertigo had slacked, and though the snippets of Feuillade tantalized, I put the task of hunting down the nearly seven-hour original on the remotest of back burners.
Then H. moved out of New York, in the process divesting himself of anything bigger than a breadbox. His framed Irma Vep poster promptly went up in my apartment, itself about breadbox-sized. The glass doubled as a full-length mirror, perhaps accounting for my somewhat disordered appearance through much of the late 90s. Several times a day, then, your vacuum-packed form—surrounded by ecstatic pull quotes!—engaged me in a gentle brainwash. Years passed; I was a Mag-Cheungian candidate, if you will, unwittingly waiting for the push that would send me into the arms of Les Vampires. About a month ago I became absorbed in some republished Edward Gorey interviews, and his repeated citation of Feuillade as a singular influence proved to be the trigger—my Queen of Hearts.
Feuillade kicks off the proceedings with news of a decapitation, and borrows the viewer’s head for nearly seven hours of weird menace and happy savagery, spurious messages and labyrinthine ciphers—an impossible night’s worth of solid REM. I have grown haggard this past week, M., not just from watching all 10 episodes, but from searching the shadows as I walk, and from wondering: if "Irma Vep" anagrimes as "Vampire," what rearrangement awaits "Musidora," the name of the actress who plays her? My life has become an extended bout of paranoia and Boggle. Indeed, though Les Vampires is silent, it distorts language as thoroughly as it does the reality of its urban setting.
Unreal city: Is it just me, M., or is Philippe Guérande, the hero-journalist, a dead ringer for T.S. Eliot? Paris is a necropolis, the wartime chaos in the real world oneirically condensed to a secret society of murderous jewel thieves. Under cover of perpetual dusk, the Vampires, like their shapeshifting namesakes, infect the atmosphere, as seamless as air, striking unawares. In a terrifically malevolent scene, poison gas fells a room of tony partygoers, who mistake the odor for a new perfume. (There’s an awful lot of poison here: poison ink; a poisoned letter; poison champagne; a poison ring; a poisoned tack that emerges from a glove and causes a convenient five-minute, you-must-listen-to-every-word-I-say paralysis; a cyanide pill concealed in the ear; a poison spray delivered by atomizer. I should also mention the portable cannon, M., which they fire indoors.)
The Vampires are as much actors as twisted plotters; equal-opportunity impersonators, they masquerade as nobles, doctors, receptionists, maids. (Irma Vep is first seen singing—or just declaiming rabidly?—onstage.) This is art with artifice as its subject, M. Further convolutions: Our hero unwinds by going to the theater; unfortunately, the play is about murder and stars Irma Vep and her crew. A ballerina not long for this world dons wings for her performance in a dance with a title identical to that of the movie we’re watching. In another episode, a character declares, "I’m a film fanatic!"; after attending a movie called A Race to the Abyss, he gets erased and abyssed. Imagine, M., the collective chill that ran down the spines of the flesh-and-blood spectators. Did they look both ways as they left the Gaumont Palace? Jarring, too, is the habit of Guérande’s sidekick (the jolly opportunist Mazamette) of addressing the camera, in a style both proto- and postmodern…
But I should sign off here, M. Thanks again for the scarf. One last thing: The eerieness of silence, in audio and moral terms. Did you know the movie was banned briefly, for glorifying crime? The villains do not repent, and the triumph of order is patently a tissue. Les Vampires, heretofore my "guilty omission," is, among other things, a satisfyingly pure example of an omission of guilt.