Thursday, 5 May 2011

Fantômas and Osama bin Laden

I owe the numerous loyal readers of this blog a long and detailed essay on the subject of Fantômas, one of the most extraordinary literary creations of all time, and one of my all-time enthusiasms.

But in a vague attempt – uncharacteristic of me – to be topical, I'd like to approach my subject backwards and first present this extract from a little book published in 2002 to coincide with a Fantômas exhibition at the Pompidou Centre (which I visited, of course). The references – which are in any case mainly to the dismal (in my opinion) 1960s spoof movie versions – will be over the heads of most non-devotees, but it's still quite interesting.

The book is called Fantômas, style moderne and it is written by Philippe Azoury and Jean-Marc Lalanne. On the back cover, they describe themselves as follows: 'Neither Juve nor Fandor, but rather a Heckle-and-Jeckle combo, and despite having published articles and fakes in Libération, les Cahiers du cinéma, Max, les Inrockuptibles, Trafic, Idol, Cinergon, Rebel, 1895, Cinémathèque, HK, Art Press, Philatélie Madame . . . Philippe-Azoury-Jean-Marc-Lalanne does not exist. What about you?'

(I'd like to point out that this biog, and the extract that follows, were both translated by me from the French. That's why it's clunky in places.)

Is it possible that Osama bin Laden watched the Feuillade, Jean Sacha or André Hunebelle films? Is Fantômas so pervasive in the global collective unconscious that even those most contemptuous of Western culture could have inadvertently adopted all its archetypes? If you watch the video recordings periodically released by the Saudi warrior, it seems as if Fantômas has suddenly re-emerged from the fictional realm that created him. The eternal fugitive, the real-life Elusive (as of 3 March 2002 he is still missing), Bin Laden has a dizzying number of similarities with the fictional baddie. Like him, he conceals himself behind a carefully constructed image, addresses the whole of Humanity, invades the whole world’s screens at once, scrutinizes his audience through the camera’s lens and speaks to us from a mysterious secret cave (though his probably less trendy than Hunebelle’s). 
Jean Marais in Fantômas (1964, dir. André Hunebelle)
There is, however, a point at which the two part company. Hunebelle’s Fantômas, contemporaneous with the rise of television, is intoxicated by its power to be everywhere at once. Through television, he can realise his former dream of complete ubiquity. His voice is deployed from a single point and disseminated through countless outlets, which listen as he speaks. It’s an Orwellian dream, and it is already outmoded. If Bin Laden’s videos have been effective, if the power of their utterances is at all surprising, it is precisely because they comprehensively demolish the myth that the visual impact of television depends wholly on the simultaneity between broadcaster and viewer. What did we see in that first video, sent ‘by courier’ by Osama bin Laden to the Al Jazeera headquarters on 7 October 2001? A rocky landscape leading to three men sitting cross-legged in the cold light. The group’s naturalism (reminiscent of Straub and von Stroheim), the pure calm of the phrasing, and the stony-faced inscrutability of the three figures: all combine to create an astonishing effect. Yet this complex effect owes nothing to the constant ‘live’ nature of cable news and other modern media. Broadcast on Al Jazeera’s evening news to the exclusion of every other programme, the tape cut clean through the usual raft of ‘live’ images (bombs over Kabul, opinions, debates, cross-cutting of footage). That very night, this makeshift VHS recording created a prophet, surrounded by a divine halo, which because of his golden tower, or phosphorescent cave, was by nature untouchable. Suddenly, the deferred became more vibrant than the direct, and all the ‘live’ images and on-the-spot real-time reports became obsolete, late for something that had already happened, which had been strategically carried out and preplanned with care, and which would happen a second time every time it was rebroadcast. ‘The image will come at the time of resurrection’, said Godard, paraphrasing the Bible in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Bin Laden not only organised 11 September, the most horrific and traumatising ‘live’ event in the history of mankind and images. He also subverted – with appalling cynicism – every principle of modern communication founded on the cult of continuous connection to the event. In its place he substituted the iconic aura of the prerecorded, the era of cinema (or even the era of the image) rather than that of the now redundant modern media.
How far can we push this idea of Fantômas reincarnated as Osama bin Laden? There are some further amusing coincidences. Reread, for example, the conclusion of an article ‘The Pure Poetry of Fantômas’ by Alexandre Vialatte, published in La Montagne in November 1961: ‘We shouldn’t be surprised to see Mme Toulouche, at the age of 70, sneaking aboard a luxury liner in order to kill American detectives. By biting them. Undetected. Allah is great.’

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