Dracula in the Avant-Garde, or, How Jess Franco got into MOMA

Posted by Glenn Ward on April 10, 2014 in Blog, Glenn Ward, Guest Blog tagged with , ,

Cuad 1 GWIn this blog I use the gothic sexploitation specialist Jess Franco as a case study in the vexed issue of cultural hierarchy. This is a large topic for a small space, but my central interest is Franco’s frequent brushes with legitimate, high-brow and arthouse cinema. Whether you regard his flirtations with reputability as sincere, tongue-in-cheek or opportunistic may depend on your cultural politics as well as on which part of which version of which film you are watching. Even then, the generally ragged quality of the films makes Franco’s position on elite culture difficult to establish and in any case the options aren’t mutually exclusive. In interviews Franco often name-checked more respected filmmakers who had influenced his work, or with whom he had crossed professional paths in the 1950s and ‘60s, including directors from the New Spanish Cinema like Juan Antonio Bardem and Fernando Fernán Gómez. Franco also dined out for decades on the fact that he worked as a second unit director on Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) (to my knowledge Welles never returned the compliment). By the same token, he seems to have kept both ‘mainstream’ and ‘status’ Spanish cinema at arm’s length, settling mainly for trans-European low popular erotic gothicism.

Many of the films themselves are similarly referential. Franco’s Venus in Furs contains nods to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Succubus (1967) mentions Godard and The Awful Dr. Orlof (1961) is a remake of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960). Whether this or that intertext is homage, rip-off, parody or pastiche is perhaps as unanswerable as whether Franco was ‘really’ a misunderstood experimentalist or a cack-handed sleaze-monger,  not least because many of his more high- and middle- brow referents were themselves informed or inspired by popular culture. This two-way traffic is particularly evident during the 1960s; for example, Godard’s love letter to B-movie science-fiction, Alphaville: a Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965), features Franco stalwart Howard Vernon and stars Eddie Constantine, lead player in Franco’s unofficial Lemmy Caution entry, Attack of the Robots (1966). Thus many of Franco’s films typify the dialogues and cross-pollinations that take place across the porous boundaries between different fields of cultural production. One fascinating example of this flow is the curious relationship between Franco’s Stoker adaption, Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula), and Pere Portabella’s experimental film Cuadecuc, Vampir.

count_dracula_poster_01Franco shot Count Dracula in 1969, with Christopher Lee in the title role. Britain’s Hammer Studios was at this time the market-leader in European horror, and Lee was their biggest star. Surprising as it seems in view of Franco’s later reputation, Lee relished the chance to play the Count again in what promised to be a more ‘serious’ production than Hammer’s recent offerings. In his autobiography Lee grumbles that Hammer had reduced Dracula to a clichéd, “pantomime figure”. In one interview, Franco offered a more direct assessment of the British ‘house of horror’, describing “all that shit from the English school – Christopher Lee and company which in my opinion is real shit.”

Franco and his producers sought to compete with Hammer by going back faithfully to source. At least in British prints, Count Dracula opens with an onscreen text clumsily declaring its literary fidelity: “Now, for the first time, we retell, exactly as he wrote, one of the first – and still the best – tales of the macabre”. In fact, Franco’s effort is workaday and, unlike Stoker, unexpectedly restrained. Perhaps partly out of deference to strict Spanish censorship laws, Franco plays Stoker so straight that he even foregoes the expected sexploitation thrills (as far as I am aware, there isn’t a ‘hot’ export version). Lee commends Franco for saving Dracula from silliness, and judges it (and by implication his own performance) “a damn good try at doing the Count as Stoker had meant him to be”. Contemporary critics were less enthusiastic, denouncing its “trite dialogue”, risible special effects, “static” acting, threadbare production values and such lapses in credibility as “very un-Victorian-looking heroes”, German Shepherds standing-in for wolves, and the use of Barcelona locations to represent Victorian England.

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At the same time, Pere Portabella made Cuadecuc, Vampir, a hard-to-categorise experimental film which traces the making of Count Dracula. As a kind of ‘making of’ film, it contains many behind-the-scenes shots of Franco’s cast and crew rehearsing, applying make-up and relaxing between takes. One memorable sequence shows Christopher Lee being helped into a coffin and wafted with cobwebs. Any fans craving insights into Franco’s working processes will be disappointed, however: Portabella allows him only a peripheral and transient on-screen presence. To the extent that the exploitation filmmaker is represented at all, he is refused the enthroned position we would expect to see in promotional ‘making of’ films and hagiographies. If Cuadecuc is a documentary, it is a reflexive and poetic one which eschews codes of objectivity and transparency. It is mainly dialogue-free, so that for the most part we see but don’t hear performers mouthing their lines; it replaces Franco’s colour with grainy monochrome; it uses solorisation and negative printing; lengthy shots of sets and locations extend to stretches of ‘dead time’ which exceed the norms of establishing shots; and where Franco opted for a lush orchestral horror score by Bruno Nicolai, Portabella alternates between ‘easy listening’ cues and Carles Santos’ atonal musique concrete. 


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Portabella’s film is often praised for, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “very unconventionally” documenting the shooting of Franco’s “very conventional” movie. This relationship between ‘conventionality’ and ‘unconventionality’ is commonly presented as a binary conflict, and in some ways this is not unjustified. In one corner, Portabella has impeccably elite credentials. Since the late 1950s, he has been closely associated with oppositional Catalan modernism and is renowned in Spanish cinema circles both for his own small body of work and for producing Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana. Portabella is also lauded for having worked consistently against Spain’s Francoist regime, often in collaboration with Catalan avant-gardists like the composer Carles Santos and the poet Joan Brossa. Cuadecuc was unofficially shown at Spanish film clubs and art galleries before premiering at the Cannes film festival in 1971, and Portabella’s reputation was cemented when his passport was confiscated by the Spanish authorities, preventing him from attending the American debut of Cuadecuc at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York in 1972. In the other corner, the critical mauling of Count Dracula reflects the consensus view of Franco as an itinerant hack-for hire churning out disposable, conservative fleapit fodder. 



Because its textual strategies could be readily accommodated to contemporary, neo-Brechtian ideas about avant-garde and counter-cinema, Cuadecuc is often praised as a virtually abstract dismantling of representational codes and cinematic illusionism, and as a critical commentary on horror, documentary and ‘dominant’ (i.e. popular) cinema in general. Indeed, Cuadecuc could be seen as a critique of Franco every bit as withering as the contemporary reviews. For one thing, it silences that “trite dialogue”.  For another thing, it seems to parody some of Franco’s favourite devices. At one point Portabella’s lens zooms rapidly in and out on an actor, in an apparent skit on the wild zooming that was epidemic in exploitation films of the period. Portabella’s use of negative printing and solarisation recalls similar effects in any number of horror movies. His overextended, unmotivated shots of sets and locations may remind some viewers of Franco’s own notoriously wandering camera. Seen only as demystifying parodies of exploitation filmmaking, these techniques confirm the clear opposition between the unclassifiable, elite avant-garde auteur and the disreputable exploitation genre journeyman.


2cb5e8e8c3Portabella doubtless targeted horror cinema because it had recently arrived in Spain. In 1969 the Spanish horror boom was still in its early days (spearheaded by Franco, who nevertheless kept his distance from it) and was treated with suspicion by both ‘official’ and ‘oppositional’ Spanish film cultures. Horror was widely seen as a non-nationally specific genre either imported into the country or consisting of international co-productions. Thus Count Dracula’s cast, crew and funding came from Italy, Great Britain and Germany, as well as Spain, while the director’s peripatetic pan-European career raises questions about the national ‘cultural identity’ of his work. Like Count Dracula, Cuadecuc opens with an onscreen text, this time erroneously explaining that it is based on Franco’s “Hammer” film. This may be a genuine mistake, reflecting the fact that Hammer had become so familiar to audiences that it was practically a subgenre in its own right, but it may also be a dig at Franco’s ‘selling out’ to trans-national co-productions and non-Spanish film industries. Considered in this context, the near-total absence of dialogue in Cuadecuc is politically overdetermined: while reflecting the fact that Franco often filmed sequences silently, Portabella’s removal of speech may allude to state censorship, but it also erases the multi-lingualism on set. Given that the film was shot in locations around Barcelona, this erasure resonates with the Francoist regime’s silencing of Catalan for the ‘official’ Castillian language.


0It can therefore be argued that Portabella’s address to an exclusive constituency enabled him to critically reinscribe Franco’s generic product. But, as usual with Franco, the situation is more complicated. Portabella often shoots the action with his camera near to Franco’s, with the result that although he often foregrounds artifice by keeping studio equipment and technical personnel in shot, his shadowing of Franco means that we often see the same pro-filmic action as Count Dracula shows us. In other words, although he does so through an interruptive aesthetic, Portabella partially duplicates Franco’s adaptation. In this respect Cuadecuc is an alternative, parallel version of Count Dracula rather than an appropriation of a pre-existing original. Indeed, Cuadecuc’s credits resemble Count Dracula’s because the two films share the same cast. Like many other exploitation filmmakers, Franco sometimes made films back-to-back on the same set, reused his own stories, actors, props and other materials, and frequently shot nude and clothed versions of the same scene for different markets. In a context where the ‘director’s cut’ was therefore an alien concept, it is plausible to see Cuadecuc as Franco’s, as well as Portabella’s, ‘alternative version’ of Count Dracula. 


Cuad 11 GWIt is all-too easy to call Cuadecuc an uncanny double of Count Dracula. But it is also true. If Portabella’s film deconstructs cinematic conventions of authenticity, transparency and narrative continuity, it does so with a sense of eeriness far more effective than Count Dracula. According to Rosenbaum, Portabella turns Franco’s “literally unwatchable” film into something “poetic, beautiful, and creepy”. For my money, both films are ‘watchable’ and ‘unwatchable’ in roughly equal measure but for different reasons – Cuadecuc possibly tests my patience a little more, although this depends on my mood – but it is true that Portabella’s use of abstracting sonic and visual processes renders actors, locations and sets more other-worldly (more “creepy”) than does Franco’s pedestrian direction. By incorporating cinefantastic aesthetics into modernist and non-fiction modes, unusually combining mystery with demystification, Cuadecuc can be seen as an experimental horror documentary more than a documentary about a horror film.


Cuad 10 GWOn this basis we can see the two films not only as each others’ Other, but as co-dependent companion pieces. The arrangement may have been mutually beneficial. Cuadecuc remains Portabella’s most well-known work precisely because of its link to a cult exploitation filmmaker. Many Franco fans may be more aware of it than they are of any other work of the cinematic avant-garde; long before it became available through more approved sources, I bought my DVD-R of it from a site called European Trash Cinema. For his part, Franco has said that he agreed “from the beginning to collaborate on the Vampire film” with his friend Portabella. By filming in Barcelona with the renowned Portabella at his side, he temporarily aligned himself with the cachet of an oppositional, leftwing filmmaker – a cachet denied at that time to exploitation movies. Franco’s consent to being marked on set by Portabella suggests complicity or collaboration between the two seemingly disparate film makers, but it is also likely that Franco’s work would have been affected by Portabella’s on-set scrutiny. Since the presence of the observer affects the behaviour of the observed, Franco and his personnel can’t fail to have been active participants in Portabella’s project.


El_Conde_Dracula-04Steven Marsh aptly describes Cuadecuc as a parasitic supplement to and “exploitation of” Count Dracula. But even this description implies that Franco’s film is an inert, passive object for Portabella’s active investigations, a genre specimen to be stripped bare or, as Portabella has expressed it recently, to “pervert”. Marsh refers to Portabella’s vampirisation of Count Dracula, but Franco was a willing victim. In view of the fact that his gothic films of this period tended to be less staid than Count Dracula, we can even speculate that he deliberately reined in his usual excesses in order to provide his friend with materials worth deconstructing: Portabella’s interruptive, abstracting treatments would seem redundant if applied to more oblique works like Vampyros Lesbos or Venus in Furs, which already effectively deconstruct themselves.


Cuad 9 GWMarsh rightly notes that the actors in Cuadecuc “are not characters as such: they have no depth, no psychology. Rather, they are oblique signifiers that point us in particular directions”; but the same can be said of most performances in Franco’s films – including Count Dracula­ – which rarely offer naturalism or identification. This apparent ‘failure’ or refusal to provide some of the conventional pleasures of film viewing does not, however, mean that Franco’s gothic exploitation can be unproblematically annexed to avant-garde or oppositional cinema. But by more or less collaborating with, or giving himself up to, Portabella, Franco did allow his critical friend to distil and highlight the potential political ramifications of the gothic, at least for the benefit of a taste community willing and able to watch semi-abstract films in elite cultural establishments. How else, in 1972, could Franco have got Christopher Lee, Soledad Miranda and himself projected at the Museum of Modern Art?

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