(Roughly) Daily

“We have met the enemy, and he is us”*…

 

Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain started writing thrillers together for the motor-car racing magazines and rags about bicycle adventures and trucking for which Paris in the early 20th century had a limitless appetite. They knocked out a novel together in 1909 (monkey-men, tire ads, electric corselets and flying bat-suits) and two in 1910 (including a proto-fotonovela of adventure in the theatre), and then they found their lightning bolt, the main line: Fantômas. They wrote a four-hundred-page Fantômas novel every month for almost three years. The books were so cheaply printed that whole pages of the minuscule type were smeared or unreadable, but they were throwaway cheap (65 centimes, about the cost of a week of the daily paper) and sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies. The rules were simple: Juve, the cop, would pursue Fantômas, and Fantômas, l’insaisissable, the uncatchable and elusive, would always escape to wreak fresh havoc.

Fantômas was the ultimate industrial criminal: he was the crumbling gothic castle for an age of masses, cities, shopping, and machines. Always in disguise, the faceless genius of disaster could look like anyone and disappear into the metropolitan crowds he would occasionally massacre… He thrived by perverting modern spaces: releasing plague rats onto luxurious ocean liners, lining gloves with toxic chemicals and chic shoes with broken glass and filling department store perfume atomizers with poison, dumping sleepers off moving locomotives into the canyons outside, opening gas valves to asphyxiate victims. He did his evil on a mass production basis, sinking ships, crashing trains, and packing so many victims into a building that the walls started bleeding. Crowds gathered at the scene of some new outrage were showered in blood, jewels, and banknotes; chaos reigns.

The core of Fantômas’s criminal project is a kind of psychopathology in modern technology itself: in the trucs, the gadgets and elaborate machines he employed. A rigger of trick techniques and special effects, a cheater, a fixer of loaded dice and stacked decks, he turned the world into a movie set…

A kind of free-floating evil – a way of looking delectably askance at electricity and electric light, photography, telephones and telegraphs, industrial equipment and the glittering city – Fantômas was perfectly suited to new formats. There were five French silent films, then a twenty-part American serial; there were translations, knockoffs, and pirate editions of both the books and the character – Belphégor, Tenebras, Judex, Phantomas, Diabolik, Ultus, Za la Mort. The Surrealists created suites of fan fiction devoted to what Blaise Cendrars called “the modern Aeneid”; Alain Resnais made 8-mm test films towards a Fantômas movie in 1934. There was a sound movie, then another, and then remakes after the war and in the 1960s, three of which had a strange cultural afterlife playing over and over in Cuban movie theaters for more than a decade. There was a TV series in the 1970s. He had an enormous parallel career in comic books in Mexico…

Much more (including a pointer to an exquisite Julio Cortazar novella) in Finn Brunton‘s “L’Insaisissable, the latest installment in his always-illuminating newsletter series, Passing Current.

[Image above, one of Gino Starace‘s striking covers for the Fantômas series]

* Walt Kelly, Pogo

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As we find ourselves in a crowd, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow mortally wounded a constable in Miami, Oklahoma and abducted a police chief, whom they also wounded.  The FBI and local law enforcement redoubled their efforts to stop the pair, and succeeded, in a hail of bullets, the following month.

Bonnie and Clyde

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Written by LW

April 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

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