- The Phantom of the Opera and the Performance of Cinema
Posted on YouTube under the "Film and Animation" category by "Movie Gamers" on March 13, 2017, "All Chandeliers Crashes" [sic] is a chronological montage of the fateful chandelier crash as shown in more than a dozen screen adaptations—including one cartoon—of Gaston Leroux's Le Fantôme de l'Opéra·.1 Consisting of low-quality video footage of the relevant film excerpts playing on a television set, the video may be artless but is not without interest. For it effectively underlines that, second perhaps only to the unmasking scene, the deliberate and indeed murderous dropping of the chandelier onto an unsuspecting opera audience is the true pièce de résistance of the countless screen versions of Leroux's novel. Not that Leroux does not sufficiently draw attention to the episode in the novel itself. The catastrophic accident is perfectly timed and encapsulates the novel's ambivalent appeal as an allegory of opera at once uplifting and lurid. It symbolizes the move from the allusiveness of neo-Gothic literature to the graphic literalness of a new, and wholly modern, sensibility, one which the cinema would be supremely well equipped to cultivate. But the chandelier scene also marks another important passage. Whether in novels, plays, or films, performances are often seen as an interruption of or at best a digression from the main line of action. In Le Fantôme de l'Opéra and its progeny, it is quite the other way around. Through the episode of the chandelier, it is the inexorable unfolding of the action taking place offstage that interrupts a performance. Recast as cinematic spectacle, moreover, the crash is an unforgettable image of how the screen adaptations of Leroux's novel have subsumed the representation of opera under a presentational agenda, the spectacle of cinema feeding off, engulfing, and ultimately moving past the reenactment of musical performance per se.
The Global Appeal of the Phantom
Notwithstanding their intrinsic interest as works of sometimes great technical prowess and artistic value, the screen versions of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra are fascinating methodological objects. This is particularly the case when we contemplate them as a [End Page 153] large family of cross-cultural, trans-historical, and inter-medial realizations of a resilient, easily identifiable, and yet surprisingly ever-shifting modern myth. We've lived with the phantom for so long that we have begun to take its presence—and its popularity—for granted. While Lloyd Webber's musical proved enormously successful, it did not create the myth; rather, it sanctioned it by building on an already existing string of cinematic versions, many of them flops, spanning several decades, four continents, and a dazzling range of film genres and conventions. The dual question of why the story "stuck," and why it flourished in cinematic form before it reached a kind of apotheosis on the West End and Broadway stages, therefore remains a compelling one.
In proposing a "memetic" framework for the investigations gathered in this special issue, Cormac Newark has implicitly suggested one reason for the grip the story has held on generations of image makers and their audiences: its ability to adapt to radically different sociohistorical conditions, cultural agendas, and mediascapes. Take, for example, the 1959 Mexican parody El fantasma de la opereta. Produced by industry veterans Óscar J. Brooks and Ernesto Enriques, the film is a classic star vehicle (for the proverbial "Tin Tan," as comedian Germán Váldez was then known). Leroux's original story was grafted onto the personnel and conventions of Mexican cinema of the late 1950s, while the production served the larger purpose of indigenization of Hollywood precedents.2 The metaphor of the meme goes a long way in capturing another important aspect of the myth, namely its emancipation from the ostensible source-novel. Like a species-jumping virus, the phantom story has not only moved across media but also provided the occasion for sequels and derivative works independent of Leroux s novel. This is indirectly but forcefully suggested by a lawsuit brought forward by Universal against The Phantom of the Paradise...