The Pantom Empire,

              Mascot Pictures, USA, 1935

See Chapter 1

How to Make a Western/Crime Film/Sci Fi-Adventure Epic in Twelve Easy Installments

  His first starring role, in a 12-episode thriller called The Phantom Empire made for Mascot Pictures in 1935, calls for the popular singing cowboy Gene Autry to play the proprietor of a ranch—called “Radio Ranch” because Autry supports it by means of a daily radio program—at which urban kids can get a taste of the West.[1] In its basic concept, then, The Phantom Empire is not only a modern-day Western but also a musical Western (although the songs, such as “Uncle Noah’s Ark”—“the duck went ‘quack,’/the cow went ‘moo’”—aren’t necessarily the feature attraction). It so happens that Autry’s program must be broadcast every day at two o’clock, and if he ever misses a show, he’ll lose the ranch. This unusual stipulation engenders a crisis because the ranch sits atop a rich deposit of “radium” that’s coveted by a mob of big-city gangsters and evil scientists who will stop at nothing—including sabotage, assassination, and a plot to frame the hero for murder—to get their hands on the ranch.

Thus the modern-day musical Western has been grafted on to the urban crime film, and if all of this isn’t enough to sustain twelve episodes, there’s the complication of the mysterious “Thunder Riders” who periodically rampage across the open range. They are, it turns out, not sagebrush outlaws but rather denizens of the city of Murania, a 100,000-year-old subterranean kingdom located 20,000 feet directly beneath Autry’s ranch. The Muranians deploy robots and death rays and other weapons for which neither six guns nor tommy guns are any match, but, fortunately, they’re beset by internal political strife that ultimately destroys their underground world and enables Autry to foil the claim-jumping mobsters. So, on top of everything else, The Phantom Empire is also a science fiction adventure (and maybe even a little political parable) (see Figure R9.1).

Reality beyond Fashion and Taste: Surrealism and the Serial

  “What it lacks in terms of production values,” observes one critic, The Phantom Empire “makes up for in sheer wackiness,”[2] but such narrative concoctions—what another critic labels “genre amalgamations”[3]—were not always without devotees in highbrow places. In particular, the French writers and artists who called themselves “surrealists” were especially fond of both French and American movie serials of the 1910s.[4] Who were the “surrealists”? For the most part, they were young French intellectuals united by a program to promote what they deemed the “material” qualities of “reality” over the prevailing abstract principles which had, they argued, produced corrupt habits of philosophical, moral, and aesthetic thinking among the older generations who were ultimately responsible for the carnage on the battlefields of World War I in the years between 1914 and 1918.


                   Apostles of “Reality beyond Fashion and Taste”:

                      André Breton, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos

Mystery and Suspense, Sex and Violence

  Granted, what the surrealists took to be the material qualities of reality may seem at first glance to be perversely abstract. They insisted, for example, that “reality,” even in its apparently most mundane forms, is pervaded by mystery and suspense—by puzzling events and uncertain outcomes. Reality, they held, was full of surprises, being much less stable, predictable, and tractable than conventional wisdom and morality (the “wisdom” and “morality” of the old men who sent young men to the trenches in 1914) would have us believe. They considered resistance to socially repressive habits of thought to be the fundamental responsibility of art and literature and argued that the most effective themes for assaulting conventional wisdom and morality were sex and violence—themes which should be celebrated both because they reflect real human experience (especially as it’s expressed in such subconscious states as dreams and irruptions of desire) and because conventional wisdom and morality conspire to repress them. They extolled criminals and other instigators of disorder and subversion as apostles of reality because (by definition) they defied the repressive social codes which, ironically, classified them as “outlaws.”

The surrealists embraced serials because the best of them—particularly the French variations—featured master criminals for whom larceny, kidnapping, and murder were primarily functions of social terrorism. “At this astonishing point of moral confusion,” declared the poet Louis Aragon in 1923,

. . . how could those who were young not recognize in these spendid bandits their ideal and their justification? . . .The papers denounced the cinema as a school of crime . . ., [but] the young ran where they were called by crime. . . . To this magic, to this attraction was added the enchantment of a great sexual revelation. . . . There is an idea of voluptuousness which belongs to us and which came to us by this way of light, between the images of murder and swindle, while men were dying elsewhere, without our even taking notice.[5]

Many surrealists also regarded the cinema as a particularly powerful weapon in the campaign on behalf of surreality—the nature of reality as it’s revealed in subconscious states that can be accessed and expressed in exercises of the imagination. “For us and only us,” wrote the poet Robert Desnos, “had the Lumière brothers invented the cinema. There we were at home. That darkness was the darkness of our rooms before going to sleep. Perhaps the screen could match our dreams.”[6]

According to the writer-theorist André Breton, the cinema possessed the theoretical and technological capacity to reform the practice of representing reality because it “transcribes events which occur materially in reality and elevates them to a more direct state, more intense, more absolute: surrealist. . . . Film is the most realistic art possible, pure art.”[7]

What kind of films best performed this function? “I like films without stupidity in which they kill each other and make love,” explained Aragon:

. . . I like films where there is no moral, where vice is not punished, where there is no Fatherland and little soldiers, where there is no [peasant] girl at the foot of Calvary, where there is neither philosophy nor poetry. . . . I would like to see films made such that suddenly in the dark a woman would get up and say as she threw off her clothes, “To the first of these gentlemen!” Then the cinema would be worth a man’s while and he would lose his time and thought there voluntarily.[8]


                             Musidora, as Irma Vep, in Les Vampires,

                                Louis Feuillade, Gaumont, 1915-1916

The Surrealist Models

  Desnos, however, could identify only three films which celebrated mystery and suspense and sex and violence while under the spell of the surreal. All three were serials: “Fantômas, for revolt and liberty, Les Vampires, for love and sensuality, Les Mystères de New York, for love and poetry.”[9]

What, more precisely, were these serials about? Fantômas (Louis Feuillade, 1913-1914) is all about a police detective’s pursuit of an archcriminal, an inscrutable agent of dark forces who employs both underworld minions and occult powers to carry out projects whose motivation seems to be little more than the confirmation that evil flourishes in the everyday world. Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916) substitutes for the patriarchal figure of Fantômas the succubus figure of Irma Vep, an equally malefic creature clad in black leotards whose whisper of vampirism combines the appeal of the erotic and uncanny with that of amoral and antisocial disdain for mundane morality. Les Mystères de New York (1915) is actually a condensation of three American-made serials in which the life (and purity) of an adventurous heroine is constantly menaced by criminal masterminds, insane scientists, devil worshippers, Indians (North and South American), pirates, gypsies, and all manner of wild beasts terrestrial and marine (Figure R9.2).[10]

In a play called Le Trésor des Jésuites (1929), Aragon and Breton recall their adolescent delight in these generic hybrids by having a character named Eternity declare that “there was nothing more realistic and more poetic at the same time than the movie serials,” which probed a “grand reality . . . beyond fashion, beyond taste.”[11]

Modern Mythmaking

  As we’ve already seen, the impulse toward “genre amalgamation”—which is to say, filmmaking dominated by strategies of bricolage—is wholly consistent with the additive properties of the episodic action-adventure melodrama known as the serial, and to help explain the appeal of this impulse to the surrealists, let’s consider another tenet central to the surrealist understanding of “reality”: if human reality, they argued, is composed of experiences whose relationships are far more random—far less rational and unpredictable and far more marvelous—than conventional wisdom, morality, and art would have us believe, then our real-world experiences are much too rich to be contorted into conventional intellectual, social, and aesthetic models. Indeed, any artistic creation which appears bien fait (well made) is thus an illusion which does a poor job of reflecting reality.


                 Fantômas, 1913:

    The Mythologized Archvillain

See Episode One

Poeticizing Experience: Reappraising Perceptions of Time and Space

  Conventional art and literature, according to the surrealists, fail to see human experience (and the reality in which it transpires) for what they are, and they were convinced that the cinema was uniquely capable of “poeticizing” experience while simultaneously reaffirming its “reality.” Imagining cowboys and space aliens, for example, in a single movie—and in a single representative framework of reality—was merely a matter of ignoring conventional wisdom about the nature of time in favor of a notion of time that satisfied the logic of the dream. At the same time, the images in that single framework bestowed upon the representation of all experiences, whether with pirates or space aliens or recognizable contemporaries, the same material integrity in cinematic space. The ability of the cinema to satisfy this imaginative desire the surrealists called “poeticization,” and they extolled the film serial as a mode of “poeticization” that was particularly effective in encouraging spectators to construct what Breton called a “truly modern mythology.”

Mythicizing Experience: Extolling the Modern

  At first glance, characters such as Fantômas and Irma Vep may seem to make for curious “mythic” figures, and to appreciate them as such, we must obviously understand what Breton meant by a modern mythology. Basically, any myth—“classical,” “modern,” or otherwise—is a symbolic explanation of the universe and of human beings’ place and experience in it. For Breton, the operative term was modern, which connoted the world that was in the process of supplanting the world of a generation whose infirm habits of thought had led inevitably to the devastation of war. According to Breton, modern mythmaking was a process of “reappraising the basic perceptions of time and space,”[12] so that the reality of lived experience could be apprehended in its true temporal and spatial relations. For experience told us that these relations unfolded not according to the operation of predictable laws, but rather according to random collisions among different orders of things—among, for example, the disparate realities inhabited by singing cowboys, evil scientists, and subterranean space aliens. Surreality, which is accessed by the imagination, is the realm of experience in which these various realities come together.[13]


     Fantômas, “Fantômas vs. Fantômas”:

                     Fantômas’ Wound

Crisis and Resolution: “Fantômas vs. Fantômas”

  Let’s examine the sequence of shots excerpted from Fantômas in Figure R9.3. In Episode 4 (“Fantômas vs. Fantômas”), Chief Inspector Juve, who has made the capture of Fantômas a personal as well as professional crusade, finds himself accused of being the master criminal: How else, wonders the press out loud, could he have failed to catch him after so long a pursuit (Figure 9.3/Shot 1)? Juve is summarily arrested and placed in jail. Meanwhile, both Juve’s associate, a journalist named Fandor, and a police detective come up with the same idea of donning Fantômas’ signature black bodysuit in order to confront him at the Grand Duchess’ upcoming masked ball (Shots 2-4). When Fantômas himself attends the ball similarly attired (Shot 5), confusion inevitably ensues: Fandor finds the police detective dead while a third Fantômas figure flees the scene (Shot 6)—but not before he seeks aid for a wound on his right arm (Shot 7).


      Fantômas, “Fantômas vs. Fantômas”:

                    Crisis: Juve’s Wound

Informed that Fantômas has sustained a wound, the police seize upon the opportunity to see if Juve also has such a wound (Shots 8-9). The audience probably realizes that the deduction is absurd—after all, Juve has been in a jail cell for several days—and expects to enjoy the revelation that the police are as inept as the viewer has always suspected. At this point, however, Feuillade introduces an unexpected moment of crisis—a complication which confutes the audience’s impeccable logic and suggests that perhaps Fantômas does in fact possess powers that normal logic cannot fathom: for, lo and behold! Juve does in fact have a wound on his right arm (Shot 10). Ironically, nobody knows Fantômas better than Juve, who asks for his coffee cup but perpetuates the suspense by neglecting to explain his reasoning. When he detects traces of a narcotic in the cup, Juve understands that the wound was administered while he had been drugged unconscious (Shot 11). He then sets out to prove the validity of his own deduction by ordering that the prison guards be assembled, and, as he suspected, he recognizes one of Fantômas’ minions among them (12).


      Fantômas, “Fantômas vs. Fantômas”:

                 Resolution: Juve’s Cup

Juve’s speedy resolution of the crisis means that the dramatic arc of crisis and resolution is complete within the episode. American critic Ben Singer reminds us that when the crisis in a serial is left hanging from one episode to the next, we nowadays recognize the device as a cliffhanger. Within another year or so, Singer reports, “virtually all [serial] episodes culminated in a suspenseful cliffhanger ending,” but Fantômas can be regarded “as a transitional serial since some episodes presented complete adventures.” When the cliffhanger reflects the later convention of systematic “narrative overlap”—of presenting a crisis in one episode and delaying the resolution until the next—it’s easier to appreciate the strategy of “artificially perpetuated desire”: according to Singer, it caters to the audience’s serial desire “for the fix of narrative closure withheld in the previous installment.”[14]

Essential to every crisis in Fantômas, however, is the identity of the titular villain. In addition to his appearance at the masked ball en cagoule (in his monk-like black bodysuit), Fantômas appears in “Fantômas vs. Fantômas” as both a swindler calling himself “Père Moche” and an American detective named “Tom Bob.” From episode to episode, his identity is as elusive as the criminal himself, who has been dubbed “l’Insaisissable” (“the Unseizable”) because it doesn’t seem possible to apprehend him. “Not only,” says Robin Walz, “does Fantômas possess a series of elusive identitites, his recurring appearance and disappearance cannot be stopped,” and the pleasure that spectators take in anticipating his serial crimes and escapes is analogous to "the pleasure derived from recounting a recurring yet continually metamorphosing dream.”[15]

As a source of spectatorial pleasure, the ongoing pursuit of the criminal and the detection of his identity animates the entire serial narrative, providing a constant succession of crises and resolutions. In our episode from “Fantômas vs. Fantômas,” the withholding of “narrative closure” (the explanation of Juve’s wound) is quite brief, and the pleasure resulting from the resolution depends largely on the viewer’s appreciation of Juve’s deductive expertise. Juve, however, has “resolved” very little: his success in exposing the plot against him has only reaffirmed Fantômas’ uncanny ability to avoid capture by the endless manipulation of his identity. In Fantômas, then, the strategy of “artificially perpetuated desire” is anchored not in the pleasure of the familiar cliffhanger formula, but rather in the perverse pleasure that the spectator takes in sustained ambiguity and uncertainty. “Rather than a linear, goal-oriented story,” says Vicki Callahan, “we have a narrative loop,” and given the subject matter of the serial, the appeal of this strategy to the subversive morality of the surrealists is fairly obvious: “[T]he serial form,” explains Callahan,

means that the pursuit of criminality or evil is essentially an ongoing saga that can never be completed; the capture of the criminal is not a moment of closure but rather an opportunity to start the narrative anew, since capture is invariably, and sometimes immediately, followed by escape.[16]

A Dialectic of the Plausible and Implausible

  As we've seen, surrealist metaphysics requires that we accept random collisions among disparate orders of things as inherent phenomena in the nature of “reality” because it’s through such unexpected and often dramatic events that we experience reality as it’s lived both concretely and imaginatively, especially in those moments of surprise and wonder that inspire us to look beyond mere reality toward manifestations of surreality, whether marvelous or malefic. Among other things, what the surrealists loved so much in the episodic melodrama was the sometimes violent yoking together of disparate narrative elements—in particular, the imbuing of the generic elements of the action-adventure or detective thriller with suggestions of supernatural menace.

This collision of disparate narrative and generic elements made the serial an exemplary represenation of the realm of surreality, which reveals the collision of disparate orders of things and levels of experience. The surrealists held that such collisions are governed by chance, and we’re reminded that the serial depends on the irruption of random encounters, improbable coincidences, and unexpected outcomes both within episodes and in the larger scheme of improbability by which the narrative coheres across episodes: the narrative arc of crisis and delayed resolution underscores the sense that reality consists primarily of an implausible and unremitting series of unlikely experiences, lucky coincidences, and unexpected outcomes. Not surprisingly, the surrealists applauded plots that veered among generic conventions and, implicitly, even levels of reality, and they admired narratives in which the true nature of reality itself—surreality—emerged only as the result of an insistent dialectic between the realistic and fantastic, the plausible and implausible.[17]

We have thus arrived at two basic tenets of the surrealists’ understanding of the cinema:

  1. The cinema has a penchant for realism because it dwells on concrete reality and for surrealism because it lends itself innately to the dialectic of the realistic and fantastic.
  2. As for mythmaking, one commentator reminds us that, for the surrealists, “‘cinematic’ came to mean magic freedom as exemplified by the rapid unfolding of extraordinary images which defy space and time on the screen.”[18]

     Les Vampires, “Dead Man’s Escape”:

                      The Lure (Shot 3)

Narrative and Spectacle: “Dead Man’s Escape”

  So, what of the serial as a specific means of engaging the properties of cinema? As we’ve seen, the serial appealed to the surrealists’ delight in the juxtaposition of disparate generic and narrative elements. As such, it’s a form of what we’ve called bricolage filmmaking, which we’ve defined as a method of “structuring” movies by combining not only generic content but diverse strategies of expression as well. Callahan, for example, draws our attention to the sequence of shots from Les Vampires excerpted in Figure R9.4:

In Episode 5 (“Dead Man’s Escape”), intrepid journalist Philippe Guérand, who has for some time been on the trail of a criminal gang known as the Vampires, is working at his desk one night (Figure R9.4/Frame 1). Hearing a noise at his window, he gets up to investigate and peers out the window (2), gradually bending over the balcony to look down to the street below (3). Oblivious to a noose that’s being extended upward by a quartet of villains below (4), Guérand is suddenly snared and snatched from the window (5), falling two stories into the hands of the villains (6), who promptly stuff him into a basket.

Throughout Les Vampires, as throughout Fantômas, Feuillade’s style consists primarily of long takes—more or less lengthy single-shot scenes—staged in the deep space of detailed interior sets or exterior locations. This combination typically suggests a “realistic” approach to cinematic material: we watch uninterrupted or unfragmented action unfold just as it would in a “real” space and according to the passage of “real” time. But as Callahan points out, the scene in Figure R9.4 deviates significantly from this practice:


     Les Vampires, “Dead Man’s Escape”:

                  The Capture (Shot 5)

Feuillade’s approach to the cinematic material in this sequence is more thoroughly representational than his approach to scenes recorded in single-shot takes: the coherence of the material is imposed by the arrangement of scenic components across multiple shots (see Chapter 4.1). Indeed, the entire sequence demonstrates a clear mastery of basic principles of continuity in the arrangement of the material: narrative information—particularly information about pro-filmic space—is conveyed by the use of editing and camera distance, which also manipulate audience attention (see Chapter 5.1).

As we saw in Chapter 3.1, continuity entails the manipulation of both space and time: the deployment of such strategies as editing and camera distance signals the function of a surreptitious camera which can be in all places at all times and whose shifts in spatial and temporal perspective can be instantaneous. The camera, in other words, has taken on an explicitly narrative function, and its mode of perspective may be regarded as both privileged and “unnatural.” Only in theory, however, can we argue that the effect of continuity manipulation is inherently less “realistic” than the preservation of unmediated space and time in the single-shot take.

It’s thus more accurate to say that our scene from “Dead Man’s Escape” introduces an alternative form of “realism” into a “realistic” narrative governed generally by a strategy of single-shot takes. Consider, however, the narrative gist of the scene, which is a demonstration of the clever plot of the Vampires and, more importantly, the unlikely success of its execution. Callahan says that in detailing “every aspect of [Guerand’s] fall and catch . . ., the cinema has shown us something that is, in effect, impossible to see.” Whether it’s “impossible” or merely unlikely that such an event can be staged successfully (either in reality or before a movie camera), Callahan also points out that Feuillade resorts to a trick shot: Guerand’s fall is actually taken by a dummy which is substituted for the actor between Shots 2-3/Frames 4/5 and then replaced by the actor between Shots 3-4/Frames 5-6.[19]

The continuity cuts, therefore, between Shots 2-3 and Shots 3-4 mask the deployment of stop motion to substitute and replace the dummy. The camera, in other words, performs both a narrative function—supporting realism by making smooth spatial and temporal transitions between shots—and a spectacle or cinema-of-attraction function—demonstrating that the cinema can show an event which the spectator is unlikely to witness in everyday reality. Callahan argues that “our faith in cinema’s record of the real, and the very relationship between vision and knowledge, are thereby questioned. . . . [The] effect of the real,” she concludes, “. . . is quickly undone.”[20] Perhaps we may say, rather, that in his subtle manipulation of a deceptively “realistic” narrative, Feuillade has provided a portal for the realm of the surreal to enter into that of the real.

Bricolage and Illusionism in the “Pulp” Adventure Movie

  Ben Singer argues that “in its strongest sense, realism implies a mode of ‘illusionism’ in which the spectator experiences a powerful sense of absorption” in the fictional space and time established by the narrative of a film. He calls this mode of illusionism “absorptive realism”: “spectators are said to suspend disbelief and imagine they are witnessing an event happening in front of them in the real world.”[21] If Feuillade’s experiment in the manipulation of the “real” in Episode 5 of Les Vampires expresses an intuition into the heterogeneous properties of the medium itself, that experiment has obviously been replicated and the principle behind it—“absorptive realism”—confirmed as a reliable procedure for engaging viewers in the imaginatively constructed “reality” presented to them on the screen. Consider, for instance, the following scenario:

A bespectacled Midwest university professor supports a globe-hopping vocation and an urbane nightclub lifestyle by selling antiquities to reputable but perpetually cash-strapped nonprofit cultural institutions. To his credit, he secures his inventory not by striking deals in some black-market supplier network, but rather by venturing fearlessly into the field and recovering unique (and valuable) treasures—always at immense personal risk and typically by drawing upon a masculine fortitude and quick-witted aptitude that one associates less with academics than with comic-book heroes. Recruited by the U.S. government to beat a team of Nazi relic hunters to the Ark of the Covenant (the chest in which the Israelites stored the Ten Commandments), he seeks out the daughter of a former colleague—a beautiful young woman with whom he had once enjoyed questionable statutory relations and who has retreated to Nepal to relieve her pain by drinking yak herders under the table.

Using his signature bullwhip to defeat a gang of Nazis and rescue his ex-paramour, he departs from the icy mountains of Nepal for the scorching desert of Egypt, where the film now becomes a tale of treasure hunting amid ancient tombs buried for millennia beneath the shifting sands. Demonstrating his skill with bullwhip and pistol (as well as some martial arts expertise), he foils Arab assassins but loses the heroine to the Nazis, who are on the verge of locating the precious Ark at a nearby dig site. Drawing upon his superior aptitude as an archaeologist, he is able to reach the Ark first but eventually loses it to the enemy and is sealed (along with the heroine) in a snake-infested subterranean chamber. Clever enough to escape entombment, he rustles up a horse and, like a cowboy chasing a runaway stagecoach, catches up to the convoy in which the Nazis are transporting the Ark to the Führer.

Having recovered the Ark at no small risk to life and limb, he sets out to sea on a pirate ship, where, after the hero and heroine share an aborted shipboard romance, the Ark is again hijacked by the Nazis (as is the heroine), this time by means of a submarine. The action then shifts to a mysterious Aegean island, where the Nazis maintain a cavernous high-tech complex suggestive of those favored by James Bond villains, and before long—now decked out in a German uniform and armed with a bazooka—our hero waylays the Nazi column escorting the Ark to a secret hideaway in the mountains, only to be captured again when he finds that his love interest is (once again) a hostage of the bad guys. With hero and heroine tied to a post, the Nazis open the Ark, which, in classic horror film fashion, emits a host of ghostly demons and deadly firebolts that render the unholy villains suitable for Hell by melting them (Figure R9.5).


      Spielberg and Lucas on location,

         Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1980

What we’ve just described, of course, is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was concocted in 1981 by producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg as what Spielberg has called

a “pulp” movie. . . . I made it as a B movie. . . . I didn’t see the film as anything more than a better-made version of the Republic serials. . . . It takes all the license of an exotic entertainment that aims to thrill and scare and strike one with a sense of wonder—with the cleverness of the hero pitted against an enemy of despicable class and wit.[22]

Raiders, adds Lucas, was “based on the serials I loved when I was a kid: action movies set in exotic locales with a cliffhanger every second.”[23]

As our synopsis suggests, Raiders is certainly a “genre amalgamation”—an exemplar of “bricolage filmmaking” and diverse modes of cinematic expression. Its genesis, for example, is quite heterogeneous, ranging from the classic cinema (including Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, John Ford’s Stagecoach, and Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon) and the motion-picture serial of the 1930s and 1940s to the comic-book adventures of Donald Duck and his Uncle Scrooge, which both Spielberg and Lucas had absorbed in the 1950s (see Figure R9.6 [24]). As for its amalgam of modes of expression, Raiders integrates everything from on-location shots and carefully matched studio sets to miniatures, puppetry, cel animation, and elaborate matte compositions—all in the interest of “absorptive realism” (see Figure R9.7).

“More Than ‘Movie Mongering’”

  There is, of course, an obvious difference between the overall effect of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, though often nonchalant about credibility, rarely overstrains it, and that of The Phantom Empire, in which the impulse toward action and adventure usually trumps any concern for credibility. Obviously, however, Raiders unfolds on the cusp of the fantastic, in part because it takes its subject matter from the cinema rather than from real life, but we rarely question its fundamental “realism.” One commentator argues, for example, that

whatever one thinks of the sources, the humour, or the technique, [Raiders] amounts to more than “movie mongering.” For it returns us to the magical essence of storytelling in the cinema: [it is] based in our absolute conviction, when they are on the screen, that characters exist, and on our refusal to believe that when the camera cuts away, they die.[25]

“The Setting Is the Film”

  The “realistic” effect of Raiders is largely a function of its production design (once called “art direction”)—the process of designing the physical aspects of a film, typically including sets, costumes, and props. Production designers (PDs), observed one film critic in the early 1980s,

are practitioners of the art that conceals art. As genre films have taken center stage in Hollywood in recent years, the PDs most sought after are the ones who can confer believability on plots that are built on sequences of images rather than dialogue. . . . The kinds of films that attract the best PDs are “very visual.” This tautology refers specifically to action pictures set in exotic locales. . . . [Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, and Blade Runner], the American films that linger longest in our minds these days take place in enclosed worlds that are carefully designed right down to the last mote of dust. The setting is the film.[26]


         Lucas (left), Ford (center), and Spielberg on the

             jungle cave set at Elstree Studios, London

See the excerpt

Consider, for example, the opening sequence of Raiders, in which the hero, treasure hunting for an ancient idol in a sacred cave, manages to sidestep every booby trap in a diabolically conceived barrage, except one—a giant rolling ball (Figure R9.5/Frame 6). “The script,” recalls PD Norman Reynolds, “spoke only of ‘rocks coming down.’. . . The big round ball came in at the storyboard stage. It seemed the simplest approach. Having the ball roll straight at you, getting very much bigger in the frame very quickly, frightened you because you were never sure how far it would come.”[27] Star Harrison Ford insisted on doing the stunt himself. The “boulder,” made of plaster, wood, and fiberglass, did not weigh three tons, but it did weight 300 pounds, and Ford had to outrun it ten times (shots were made from five different angles, each taken twice). The interior of the cave was shot at Elstree Studios outside London and the exteriors in the “Peruvian” jungle on location in Hawaii.

A review of the onscreen shots and behind-the-scenes photos in Figure R9.7 reminds us of a principle that’s critical to the crafting of a film like Raiders—one which, in fact, may become clear only when it’s executed with the precision with which Lucas and Spielberg execute it: better special effects make for better fantasy filmmaking because visually credible realism smoothes over the narrative seams in a bricolage narrative. In The Phantom Empire, for example, the “effects”—such as the robot pictured in Figure R9.1—are functional only to the extent that the movie manages to wrap us up in a plot whose pace and inventiveness are designed to supplant narrative credibility with an elementary delight in unexpected adventures. One is reminded of E.M. Forster’s account of the story, “qua story,” as having only “one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.” (Conversely, of course, “it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”)[28]


                Filming Indiana Jones’ submarine ride:

  Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paramount/Lucasfilm, USA, 1981

See the excerpt

Consider, however, the sequence in Raiders that begins when the bad guys kidnap the heroine from the pirate ship and take her aboard a submarine. Cutting from a few shots aboard the ship, we then spot the hero, who, having swum to the rescue, climbs aboard the submarine, which, unfortunately, has been secured for diving. The next sequence, however, confirms that the submarine has nevertheless transported him to the villains’ secret hideaway, and it’s hard not to wonder how he survived what (we must assume) was an underwater voyage. Raiders, it seems, is so confident that its combination of production design and special effects—and, of course, its execution of both—will carry us expeditiously along its narrative path that it can even afford to indulge in moments of narrative ambiguity.

[1] See Blair Davis, “Singing Sci Fi Cowboys: Gene Autry and Genre Amalgamation in The Phantom Empire,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 33:4 (2013), pp. 552-75; Jeffrey Richardson, “Cowboys and Robots: The Birth of the Science Fiction Western,” Crossed Genres 6 (April 26, 2009), at (accessed August 16, 2016); Ron Briley, “Gene Autry and The Phantom Empire,” Journal of Texas Music History 10:1 (2010), art. 5, at (accessed August 16, 2016); Gary Johnson, “The Phantom Empire,” Images 4 (February 25, 2004), at (accessed August 16, 2016). For detailed synopses of Chapters 1-6, see Elizabeth Kingsley, “The Phantom Empire (1935) (Part 1),” And You Call Yourself a Scientist (April 23, 2016), at; Kingsley covers Chapters 7-12 in “The Phantom Empire (1935) (Part 2),” at (both accessed August 16, 2016).

[2] Johnson, “The Phantom Empire.”

[3] Davis, “Singing Sci Fi Cowboys.”

[4] See Steven Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema (Rutherford, Madison/Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 15-47. See also Richard Abel, “The Contribution of the French Literary Avant-Garde to Film Theory and Criticism (1907-1924),” Cinema Journal 14:3 (1975), pp. 18-40.

[5] From “Vampires” (1922-23); quoted by Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, pp. 19-20.

[6] From Cinéma, ed. André Tchernia (1966); quoted by Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, p. 15.

[7] From “Exemple de surréalisme: le cinéma,” Surréalisme (October 1924); quoted by Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, p. 26.

[8] From Aragon’s answer to “Appel à la curiosité,” Le Théâtre et Comoedia Illustré (April 1923); quoted by Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, p. 36.

[9] From Cinéma; quoted by Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, p. 15.

[10] For synopses of Fantômas, see Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 370-80; Robin Walz et al., “The Fantômas Films,” Fantômas (1997-2015), at (accessed August 16, 2016).

In Surrealism and the Cinema (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2006), pp. 21-24, Michael Richardson discusses Fantômas as a “celebration” of both “antisocial crime” and “the marvellous.” Jonathan P. Eburne shows how the political climate in France fostered the theme of criminal activity as a form of resistance to conventional codes of morality in such serials as Fantômas and Les Vampyres, which were part of “the basic cultural material” from which the surrealists developed their political and artistic principles; see Eburne, “Crime/Insurrection,” in A Companion to Dada and Surrealism, ed. David Hopkins (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), Ch. 15.

For an episode-by-episode synopsis of Les Vampires, see “Les Vampires (1915),” Progressive Silent Film List, Silent Era (August 14, 2012), at (accessed August 16, 2016). Vicki Callahan, Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2005), argues that “the mobility of the Musidora figure—socially, culturally, sexually”—makes her an apt figure to personify “uncertainty” and “disturbance” in the “realms of social, cultural, and aesthetic” activity. Similarly, Kristine J. Butler cites Irma Vep’s mastery of disguise as a sign of her freedom from conventional class and sex roles, making her a disturbing figure in a society that has long maintained rigid structures in both realms; see Butler, “Irma Vep: Vamp in the City: Mapping the Criminal Feminine in Early French Serials,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham and London: Duke Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 195-220.

On Les Mystères de New York, see: Marina Dahlquist, ed., Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze (Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2013); Daniel Eagan, “The Exploits of Elaine,” in America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry (New York and London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 39-40, at (accessed August 16, 2016); Margaret Hennefeld, “The Exploits of Elaine (1914): Expanded Essay for the National Film Registry” (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, n.d.), at (accessed August 16, 2016). For brief synopses of all three Elaine serials—The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The New Exploits of Elaine (1915), and The Romance of Elaine (1915)—see Tim Harbin, “The Exploits/New Exploits/Romance of Elaine,” Ithaca-Made Movies (2011), at (accessed August 16, 2016). (Pearl White is the subject of Biographical Sketch 12.1.)

[11] Quoted by Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, p. 16.

[12] Giorgio de Chirico (1920); quoted by Roger Cardinal, “Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealist Mythology,” Papers of Surrealism 2 (Summer 2004), at (accessed August 16, 2016).

[13] See Cardinal, “Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealist Mythology.”

[14] Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 210-11.

[15] “Serial Killings: Fantômas, Feuillade, and the Mass-Culture Genealogy of Surrealism,” Velvet Light Trap 37 (March 1996), pp. 51-57; rpt. Fantômas, at (accessed August 16, 2016). See also Walz, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (Berkeley and London: Univ. of California Press, 2000), esp. pp. 58-62, at (accessed August 25, 2016).

[16] “Detailing the Impossible,” Sight and Sound (NS) 9:4 (April 1999), p. 30.

[17] See esp. Walz, “Serial Killings.”

[18] Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage, p. 33.

[19] “Detailing the Impossible,” p. 30.

[20] “Detailing the Impossible,” p. 30.

[21] Melodrama and Modernity, p. 177.

[22] Quoted by Alison Nastasi, “10 Famous Film Scripts and What You Can Learn from Them,” Flavorwire (February 23, 2014), at (accessed August 16, 2016); and by Philip M. Taylor, Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies, and Their Meaning (New York Continuum, 1994), p. 107.

[23] Quoted by Taylor, Steven Spielberg, p. 104. On Raiders of the Lost Ark, see: Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (New York and London: Continuum, 2006), Ch. 6; Andrew M. Gordon, Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), Ch. 6.

[24] George Lucas quoted by Charsten Laqua, “Carl Barks—The Author” (1993), trans. Steve Ortman, Press Helnwein (October 1, 2001), at (accessed August 16, 2016).

[25] Chris Auty, “The Complete Spielberg?” Sight and Sound 51 (Autumn 1982), p. 279.

[26] Bart Mills, “The Brave New Worlds of Production Design,” American Film (January-February 1982), pp. 40, 41, 40.

[27] Quoted by Mills, “The Brave New World of Production Design,” p. 41.

[28] Aspects of the Novel (1927; rpt. New York: Harvest Books, n.d.), p. 27.

Back to top

Back to CHAPTER 9/Part 1