- Making a Modernist Masterpiece:The Elusive Location of Cultural Significance in Les Vampires
This article begins with an apparently simple question: is it possible to watch Louis Feuillade's serial masterpiece Les Vampires (1915–16) as it was originally shown—as the future surrealists André Breton and Louis Aragon would have seen it?1 Can we access the episodic unfolding, between 1915 and 1916, of the journalist Philippe Guérande's efforts to investigate and to thwart the machinations of Irma Vep and the criminal Vampire gang? Indeed, though fully restored, this film cannot hide the repeated alterations to which it was subject. And though critics have observed that war deeply inflects the images and themes of Les Vampires—the serial containing representations of poison gas, artillery bombardment, and espionage—the film's capacity to tell us about the time and place of its production seems all the more tenuous, given that close readings reveal evidence of the film's shifting and indeterminate nature.2 The elements of Les Vampires we might try to trace back to the original moment of the film's creation open instead on a multiplicity of mediated versions. Perhaps most unsettlingly, this interpretive uncertainty is different from the indeterminacy characterizing other modernist projects—for example, readings of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Unlike Woolf's novel, Feuillade's film belonged to a nascent medium whose cultural, social, aesthetic, and economic codes were rooted in nimbleness and variability. While contemporary categories such as literature, the novel, and single-author fiction represented stabilizing forces in Mrs Dalloway then, we cannot assume as much about cinema, film serials, or directorial [End Page 655] authority—categories which remained largely in flux at the time of Les Vampires, and have since evolved dramatically.
This is a distinction that calls to mind Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." Juxtaposing Menard's word-for-word reprisal of Cervantes's novel with the original, an imaginary critic concludes that the former's style is archaic and affected, while the latter "handles with ease the current Spanish of his time."3 Similarly, we might observe that the movie Breton and Aragon watched in 1915 and 1916 is a temporary commodity designed only to last as long as it could make—and that Vampires is a story conveyed by a fragmented, varied, and ephemeral medium whose narrative structures and visual form both functioned, by design, according to a form of textual variability. The movie we watch, on the other hand, is a modernist masterpiece whose breaks with cinematic convention bear the hallmarks of avant-garde experimentation; it is a "found film" whose preservation and stabilization helped define a unique form of cinephilic viewership that recognizes priceless artifacts in examples of early film.
Far from being simple, then, the question of this wartime serial's relationship with the context of its production forces us to reexamine the scope of Les Vampires's interpretable meaning, as well as the cultural location of this cinematic work's artistic significance. It is a task we can begin by defining the indeterminacy specific, if not to Les Vampires, then to similar examples of early cinema. Films like Feuillade's were subject to a material and cultural fragmentation that requires—and has always required—a unique relationship between the film and its reception. Indeed, though interpretations of Woolf's novel have changed through time, few, if any, of these readings have directly altered the textual artifact itself. This is not the case of Les Vampires, a work for which successive acts of reception have frequently implied distinct acts of (re)creation. Whether it was in response to the literal fragmentation of the film stock that had to be pieced together by each projectionist in 1915 and 1916, or to the historical and cultural fragmentation that has led to past and current restoration projects, Les Vampires has remained subject to mediating forces seeking to "make sense" of the film before showing it to the public. It is the evolution of these acts of "making sense," over the past hundred years, that has produced a network of Vampires versions, each reflective of a particular...