Posted by David Kalat on October 13, 2012
There are some movies I know I will never see. I have to resign myself to the fact that Hats Off is gone. I’ll never see Harry Langdon’s final silent feature Heart Trouble. The Marx Brothers’ screen debut in Humor Risk is another permanent casualty.
But there are some movies that aren’t just lost… they never were.
For example, my kids have recently started getting into Seinfeld reruns and have started raiding my DVD box sets to catch up. That show was full of references to made-up movies, some of which were meant to sound insufferable, but gosh gee I’d enjoy seeing Death Blow.
And I am especially haunted by Mark Z. Danielewski’s terrifying meta-novel House of Leaves, and not just because the book itself is a haunting art-novel masterpiece. The book is presented in a recursive tripartite structure in which the innermost level is a documentary about a haunted house. One layer up from that is the film criticism of that movie, dense with footnotes and editorial allusions. That book’s incomplete manuscript is found by a lost and lonely soul who attempts to complete and collate the book, while also introducing asides about his own troubled past.
I’ve long held that someone needs to license this novel for the purpose of making the fake documentary described in it. If such a House of Leaves movie ever did get made, it should be in the same vein as Paranormal Activity (and for that matter, why are the Paranormal Activity guys allowing themselves to get so far out on that limb with increasingly threadbare material when there’s this fabulous fake-documentary horror idea just lying around waiting to be filmed?) I’d buy tickets right now.
Perhaps even more tempting are the films in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. It tells the story of a Harry Langdon-y silent comedian named Hector Mann who drops out of Hollywood, fakes his death, and becomes a reclusive experimental filmmaker (with echoes of Edgar Ulmer and Ed Wood tossed in to boot). Auster is one of the best writers today, but this book speaks to me for reasons other than just being a good novel. My odd tastes in slapstick comedy, 1940s low-budget exploitation filmmaking, and arthouse experimentation represent a tiny sliver of the film-geek Venn Diagram where I reside, but where I find few fellow travelers. Sure I meet lots of people who share one passion of mine, and others who share a different one–but rare is the person who is equally enthralled by Charley Chase, Edgar Ulmer, Ganja & Hess, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Doctor Who.
Auster’s book somehow captures my own dreams and puts them on paper. And he does it so richly that I forget the fictional nature of the things he describes, and was sorely tempted to commit the resources of All Day to tracking down the lost comedies of Hector Mann.
One last never-was that I ought to mention, since it provided the frame grab that adorns this blog post above. In the late 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock set out to make a film called Frenzy that was to have boldly gone in a new stylistic direction for him. He shot a fair bit of test footage exploring this new style–basically, a sort of cinematic concept art. In planning Star Wars, George Lucas had Ralph McQuarrie paint concept designs to make the ideas in his head accessible to others. Hitch shot actual footage with real people to achieve something of the same goal.
He never made the movie, and eventually shot a different film with that title. To avoid confusion with that Frenzy, his never-fully abandoned plans for this particular never-was took the alternate title Kaleidoscope.
I was sent some of this test footage by some parties trying to find a home video outlet for it, and it’s been haunting me ever since.
The thing of it is, when you tell people, “Hey, there’s about an hour of material from a Hitchcock movie you’ve never seen,” that creates what we can charitably call an unreasonable expectation.
You start to fantasize about being able to conjure up out of the ether something that can stand alongside North by Northwest and Rear Window. I’ll freely admit that I still log onto Amazon.com to browse for “Alfred Hitchcock.” It makes no sense–I have all of his movies. I have them in VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and now some in Blu-Ray. I even have one as 16mm print. Do I really expect to find something I haven’t already got? And then along comes Kaleidoscope, and whispers, “Yes, here’s something new. Something you haven’t seen…”
Nothing can survive that kind of expectation. Kaleidoscope isn’t a movie–it’s concept art for a movie you can’t see. It’s like reading about Auster’s Hector Mann comedies. Maybe a touch better than that, because there is actually film to sit and watch and enjoy, but it can never be a fully satisfying meal. All that exists is the appetizer…
Ironically, the story treatments and existing footage of the unmade Frenzy/Kaleidoscope are not all that far off from the actual real-world Frenzy–I say ironically, because Frenzy #1 was supposed to mark a new experimental path for Hitchcock, whereas Frenzy #2 is generally seen as a return to his roots. That they are so similar shows the extent to which he did veer off for unchartered territories around that time.
And you know what “experimental” means in this context? Boobies. That’s what the frame grabs here show–a Hitchcock who could finally depict nudity and casual sex, without the dodges and feints required by the censors of old. OK, I can see why that would appeal to him–but as a significant addition to the toolkit with which he already made such enduring masterpieces, it’s a bit “meh.”
And to be honest, that tempers my hunger a bit. If this lost, unmade phantom Hitchcock relic was going to be another Rear Window, then we’d be talking. Then it would be time to pour all our R&D money into developing a way to travel into alternate universes, where we could see that movie. So, instead of pining for Hitchcock movies that don’t exist, I’m going to spend the next several weeks exploring real movies that just aren’t by Hitchcock, but which stray into his orbit in various ways. And I’ll start by looking for another Rear Window (and I plan on finding 3 or 4).
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