Book Review: Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy by Snorre Smári Mathiesen

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The story of a screen comedy giant’s rise and fall is a haunting tragedy.

Feted by Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Max Linder was one of silent era’s biggest stars. Born to wealthy vineyard owning parents, Linder would dazzle audiences all over the world. Shooting films nine years before Chaplin, Linder was a cultural icon but today is largely forgotten outside of French-speaking territories.

A comic genius Linder is now recognised as one of the first performers to introduce subtlety. His cane carrying, silk hat wearing screen persona “Max” foreshadowed Chaplin’s tramp. Chaplin would later refer to Linder as ‘his master.’ Following a meeting, Chaplin inscribed a photograph “To Max, the Professor, from his disciple, Charles Chaplin.” More productive than Chaplin, Linder is believed to have shot 500 films of which around 100 still survive.

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Traumatised by experiences in World War One he suffered from bouts of depression for the rest of his life. In February 1924 Linder and his wife made a suicide pact. An attempt to end their lives in a Vienna hotel was thwarted. Contemporary news accounts reported the pair had accidentally overdosed on barbiturates. In October 1925 Linder and his wife retired to a Paris hotel after attending a performance of Quo Vadis. Linder told staff that the room should not be disturbed. The following morning Linder’s mother in law tried to phone her daughter. When her calls were not answered she implored hotel staff to forcibly open the door. Entering the room hotel staff and Linder’s mother-in-law were confronted with the sight of two blood-soaked corpses. Max Linder was 41, his wife was 21. Immediately after hearing the news Charlie Chaplin closed his film studio for a day as a sign of respect.

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Despite being an important figure in the evolution of screen comedy Linder has become a footnote. His name and work are largely forgotten outside of France. A 1983 documentary The Man in the Silk Hat directed by his daughter Maud was a moving homage to an unknown father. More recently Linder has been referenced in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Kino Lorber’s release of a boxset containing four American films has been welcomed by cinephiles but the superior French productions are currently unavailable in English speaking territories.

Attempting to restore Linder’s reputation a biography by Norwegian writer Snorre Smári Mathiesen is an expertly research account of the early days of cinema and a life tormented by the horrors of conflict. Researching silent film the author became aware that despite references in noted European cinematic historical texts there was very little information about Linder in English publications. Similarly, in the pre-YouTube and DVD era, it was practically impossible to track down a VHS copy of Linder’s films. The absence of material made Linder seem more compelling and the author embarked on a quest to discover all that he could about the actor.

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An impressive first step on the road to ensuring Linder’s work is more widely known. The author acknowledges a forthcoming biography by Lisa Stein Havn and concedes that it will probably become the definitive text. Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy is an effective introduction to the actor’s life and legacy.

Demonstrating why numerous silent era comedians revered Linder the author presents a vivid account of an ascension to international megastardom and final years blighted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Due to the particularly dark nature of Linder’s post-war existence, the final chapters are uncomfortable. Even-handed in his analysis of screen icon and person, the author celebrates Linder’s cinematic achievements and is reassuringly frank about his off-screen persona.

Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy is published by BearManorMedia

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Book Review: I Am Not A Number: Decoding The Prisoner by Alex Cox

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Maverick indie filmmaker’s guide to the perplexing cult classic.

First broadcast fifty years ago, The Prisoner was a seismic television event. Viewers expecting a continuation of Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man were confronted with a challenging show that took inspiration from Franz Kafka and John Le Carre.

A product of its time and yet unlike any other series produced, The Prisoner continues to attract a large cult following. Each year fans visit the filming location Welsh village Portmeirion to attend a convention celebrating the series. Aficionados wearing natty blazers recreate terror filled scenes fleeing oversized beach balls, meet surviving members of the cast and crew,  share their interpretations of the series themes and its controversial final episode. Fifty years after the series was first broadcast its fans have yet to reach a definitive conclusion about the finale.

Reportedly on transmission night, the ITV switchboard was jammed with thousands of calls from irate viewers struggling to make sense of the final episode. Refusing to offer a tidy conclusion McGoohan delivered a bonkers hour of television which suggested he may have been sprinkling magic mushrooms on his cornflakes. Absurd, obscure, and confrontational, it was the ultimate kiss-off from a lead actor who had been granted too much creative freedom.

Was The Prisoner an avant-garde masterpiece or an incomprehensible mess? Cult classic or overrated nonsense? Repo Man director and Moviedrome host Alex Cox saw The Prisoner when it first aired. In his new book I Am Not A Number: Decoding the Prisoner he situates the series in terms of its differences to anything else being broadcast at that time on British television. After fifty years of debate about the show’s meaning Cox suggests that answers to all questions are on the screen. Advocating watching the series in order of production instead of transmission he attempts to definitively reveal number 6’s identity and who or what was number 1.

Redressing decades of critical imbalance which has emphasised McGoohan as the series’ primary author, Cox draws the readers attention to the contributions made by co-creator George Markstein. It was Markstein’s knowledge of a Scottish village used as a haven for spies during World War II that provided the inspiration for The Prisoner‘s location.

Avoiding salacious accounts of filming that have been told over the years at conventions, Cox’s analysis reveals layers of subtext in the episodes, references production decisions and reminds readers of political events that were being satirised. A worthy contribution to continuing debates about The Prisoner‘s meaning.

I Am Not A Number: Decoding the Prisoner is published by Kamera Books.

The Prisoner: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is available to order from Amazon.



Book Review: The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

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Dark story of deception and anxiety.

Mid-level clerk, Julian Calmer’s life is thrown into disarray when a chance encounter on a train shatters any semblance of normality. Another example of Simenon employing an Everyman to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche. The Venice Train is a suspense-filled novella which analyses how a turning point in a life might compel an individual to walk away from a lifetime of conformity and discover their previously repressed true identity.

Julian Calmer’s life has previously been dominated by rigidity and routine. After a family holiday in Venice, he boards a train to Paris and sits across from a stranger unaware that soon his every waking moment will be filled with paranoia. Chatting with the stranger, Calmer is surprised that his fellow traveller is taking such a keen interest in the minutiae of his life. As the conversation draws to a close the stranger hands Calmer an attaché case and asks him to deliver it to an address in Lausanne.

Calmer’s decision to take possession of the case has jeopardised the safe and comfortable lifestyle he has spent years creating for his family. The stranger leaves the carriage promising to return in a moment but is never seen again. Curious about the case’s contents Calmer delivers it and discovers the lifeless body of a manicurist.

Fleeing the crime scene he returns to Paris. Opening the bag Calmer discovers a fortune in foreign currency. With a sum of money in his possession greater than what he might earn in a lifetime working for his current employer Calmer is torn between wanting to enjoy the benefits of his find and the desire to maintain the pretence of a normal lifestyle. Fearful that the criminal underworld will find him and exact some revenge for absconding with the funds he is determined to maintain a low profile until he is sure that the no evidence of a trail exists. He trawls Paris’ newspaper stands and purchases foreign publications hoping to find some information about the bag’s owner, the deceased manicurist, and current stages of the police’s investigation.

Adhering to Simenon’s template of an individual confronting a new self when faced with a change in circumstances, The Venice Train is a below-par novella from one of Europe’s most prolific writers. Barely concealed traces of the author’s misogyny are littered throughout the book. Tension and plausibility is tossed out of the window in a deeply unsatisfying final chapter which stretches credulity and reveals a tired writer going through the motions.

One for completists. Readers new to Simenon should avoid The Venice Train.

The Venice Train is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Betty by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

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Lost soul’s facade conceals a dark past.

One of six books cited by Simenon to counter accusations of misogyny, Betty was reportedly inspired by a chance encounter with a drunken women in a Versaiiles bar. In the majority of his books Simenon’s mother is an ever-present figure. Men are represented as victims of symbolically castrating feminine forces. Temporarily jettisoning the recurrent mother motif, Betty features a traumatised woman who is a composite of Simenon and his second wife Denyse Ouime.

A twenty-eight-year-old alcoholic is seeking solace from the bottom of a glass in a bar on the Champs-Élysées. Trapped in a destructive cycle of exhibitionism and promiscuity, this depressed drunk has been cast out of the family home and denied access to her children. Potential salvation arrives when a doctor’s widow offers Betty a place to stay.

Confiding in her new found protector, Betty reveals a traumatic past. Loveless and hopeless, Simenon’s heroine is a war orphan, her father was murdered by German troops shortly before the cessation of hostilities. The irony of Simenon writing about the horrors of war and damage wrought upon survivors is not lost on Simenologists who have long been aware that he collaborated with the Vichy regime.

Betty is effectively an extended conversation with occasional flashbacks. The ending may fizzle out but this is fundamentally a book which reveals a great deal about Simenon’s neurosis and perversions. The inclusion of an incest subplot is particularly significant because during their conversation Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick noted that the author had a particular interest in familial abuse. Simenon’s daughter would take her own life in 1973 and many questions remain unanswered about the nature of her inappropriate feelings toward her father and the extent to which he may have in some way been responsible for both her lust and the eventual tragedy. This book certainly suggests he had entertained the notion of abuse.

Dark and unsettling, in this novel Betty reveals her trauma and comes close to exposing Simenon.

Betty is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon (Trans by Siân Reynolds)

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Madman on the run seeks refuge in Paris’ seedy underbelly.

A notorious frequenter of brothels, Simenon boasted of visiting thousands of sex workers. His experiences in houses of ill repute, cheap backstreet hotels, and conversations with prostitutes were mined for a credible recreation of a shadowy world filled with dawn police raids, jealous pimps, and treacherous friends. An ice cold naked city seen through the eyes of a man rapidly losing his grip on reality, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a supreme novel that explores many of the writer’s recurrent preoccupations and asks if truth is absolute.

Everyman Kees Popinga’s life falls apart when he learns that his employer has gone bankrupt and is about to flee from his creditors. Popinga has lived a life of strict routine in the Dutch city Groningen. A respectable mid-level executive with a wife and two children, thirty-nine-year-old Popinga travels to Amsterdam and attempts to seduce his former boss’ mistress. Convinced that his previous life was a form of self-deception, he views the probable imminent loss of family and home as an opportunity to discover his true identity.

Feeling emasculated after his boss’s former mistress laughs at his request he strangles her and boards a train to Paris unaware that he has killed the woman.

Hiding in France he mingles with the criminal underworld and finds temporary refuge in prostitutes boudoirs. Shortly after his arrival newspapers print stories about the murder of his boss’ mistress. Enraged at innacurate reporting Popinga writes to the papers to correct the information they are presenting about him and his crime. Deliberately ambiguous, at least initially, Simenon plays with the reader suggesting that a similar transformation of fortunes could transform anyone into the person Popinga has become.

Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick interviewed Simenon and published a paper entitled Simenon sur le gril. The psychiatrist who had spent a day questioning the author would later state ‘We all thought he was schizoid but we did not want to write that.’ The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a study of psychosis and it is highly probable that Simenon was using the format of a thriller to dramatise his personal desires and torments. Rentchnick’s study revealed that Simenon was an exhibitionist seemingly trapped in a state of perpetual adolescence so writing a wish fulfillment novel is no less improbable than the author’s oft quoted claims to have slept with 10,000 women.

Powerfully evocative The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By contains details plucked from Simenon’s life. Popinga’s arrival at Gare du Nord and subsequent discovery of back streets filled with street walkers recalls a similar journey made by Simenon in 1922.

Supremely crafted this taut exploration of dark desire and insanity is one of Simenon’s greatest novels.

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is published by Penguin.

Book Review: The Pitards by Georges Simenon (Trans by David Bellos)

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Disappointing novel offers few glimpses of Simenon’s greatness.

Determined to retire his most famous creation Inspector Maigret, Simenon intended to focus on writing literary fiction. Simenon used the term ‘roman dur’ to refer to his portraits of deviance. Freed from the crime genre’s conventions he explored themes present in the Maigret novels without the restriction of having to include a police investigation and a tidy resolution.

The famously prolific author was determined that his literary reputation would be based solely on these studies of aberrant behaviour and psychological torment. Unflinching in their examination of moral, social, and sexual transgressions, the novels presented accounts of people transformed by a moment of crisis. Unremittingly pessimistic, the 171 roman durs suggest that in an unstable world a change of fortune can shatter the veneer of a normal existence and transform an individual into a murderer, thief, or a sexual deviant. In Simenon’s fictional universe the everyman has lived a repressed life and is finally set free once their basest desires are revealed to the world.

The extent to which Simenon succeeded in transforming his reputation from that of a producer of well-crafted pulp fiction to a master of literary novels is debatable. In purely commercial terms his legacy largely rests on the widely translated seventy-five Maigret novels.

Simenonlogists consider the roman durs to be the author’s most significant literary achievements. The critical breakthrough came with the publication of seafaring saga The Pitards. French newspaper Les Temps published a critical essay by André Thérive which declared ‘I believe I have just read a masterpiece in its pure state, in its basic state.’ The journalist conceded that Simenon’s productivity had previously prevented critics from taking his work seriously and suggested that if The Pitards had been his first novel ‘there would be great enthusiasm in the republic of letters.’

Significant for ensuring critics began taking Simenon seriously, The Pitards is nonetheless a minor work from a major author. Unevenly plotted, the patchy novel is a laborious read. The account of a marriage disintegrating during a voyage to Reykjavik is a muddled work which only comes alive during the final twenty pages. Simenon’s trademark atmospheric prose is not enough to lift a novel tries to simultaneously romanticize the seafaring life, settle old scores (Simenon’s mother is present in the form of the ship captain’s wife Mathilde), and offer commentary on the French class system. The text’s primary appeal is that Simenon consciously drew from his life experiences. A lesser work in comparison to the remainder of the roman durs canon, it is nonetheless a key novel to read in order to solve the mystery of Georges Simenon.

The Pitards is published by Penguin.

Blu-ray Review: Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy)

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Retro-futurist classic from the Cold War era continues to delight.

One of the most significant names in the history of Czech animation, Karel Zeman has frequently been referred to as the Czech Méliès. Working in the pre-CGI era, his pioneering use of special effects anticipated digital techniques used in contemporary science fiction films.

Admired by Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson, Zeman was one of the few Czechoslovakian directors to receive international acclaim in the period before the Czech new waves searing satirical bite lit up art house cinema screens.

Previously the head of a department store’s advertising section, in 1943 he was offered a job at the Bata Film Studios in Zlín after film director Elmar Klos submitted a report on Zeman’s window-dressing. At the studio he collaborated with Hermina Tyrlova on the short film A Christmas Dream. Released in 1945, the film was Zeman’s first attempt at combining live-action footage with animation. The film won the Grand Prix International for best short fiction film at the Cannes International Film Festival.

In 1955 Zeman directed his first feature-length film Journey to the Beginning of Time. Predating Jurassic Park by several decades the film was a semi-educational adventure story that extensively employed animation, models, matte-paintings, and puppetry.

Today the director is best known to international audiences for his cycle of Jules Verne inspired films and The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen. Four years after the release of Journey to the Beginning of Time the director received widespread international acclaim for Invention for Destruction.

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A strong contender for the first steampunk film, Invention for Destruction (alternatively known as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne ) was exported to 72 countries. In America, a dubbed version was initially released as the bottom-half of a double bill with the kids’ friendly circus film Bimbo the Great. At one point 96 cinemas in New York City were simultaneously screening Zeman’s film.

Marketed in America as a children’s film, in other territories it was recognised as a major achievement in the development of European cinema. The film won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58 in Brussels and was praised by André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma.

Ostensibly based on Jules Verne’s 1856 book Facing the Flag, Zeman’s film incorporates plot points from the French writer’s Voyages extraordinaires novels. The film presages the phantasmagorical imagery offered up in CGI heavy blockbusters.

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A 2010 Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication stated that Invention for Destruction was the most successful Czech film of all time. Despite the acclaim washed upon it and international box office success, the film is perpetually out of time. The techniques employed by Zeman may have been reused by Terry Gilliam but the experience of watching the film offers no other reference point except other Zeman movies. The director created cinematic art which was undeniably unique and stretched the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve with special FX in a pre-Star Wars era.

Commentators have suggested that the film is Zeman’s response to the detonating of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A warning of the dangers of technology should it fall into the wrong hands. The film celebrates science’s advances but strikes a cautionary tone.

Emphasising artifice the film’s distinctive retro-futurist visual style is a homage to woodcuts and illustrations featured in early editions of Verne’s novels. Posters for the film’s American release declared it was ‘The First Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mysti-mation!’ Zeman’s smorgasbord of techniques incorporates multiple layers of effects and live-action to create one of Czechoslovakia’s most visually distinctive films.

Narrative cohesion is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of visual splendour but when every frame is filled with wit and inventiveness any discontinuities are swiftly ignored. Zeman’s playful juxtapositions emphasise the fantastic. The film is an inventive steampunk odyssey filled with mechanical wonders and an exploding octopus.

Invention for Destruction is available to order from the Karel Zeman Museum.