Locarno 2013. The Question of Vintage. Part 3: Norbert Pfaffenbilcher's "A Masque of Madness (Notes on Film 06-B, Monologue 02)"

Following up on his series "Notes On Film", artist/filmmaker/theoretician Norbert Pfaffenbilcher proposes a tragicomedy starring one of Hollywood's most famous figures, Boris Karloff—and him only. The film is composed of shots from Karloff taken from his career in cinema and television—as ages, styles, and even genders, all blend into one narration.

The director himself describes it best:

"In this feature length experimental film the British actor Boris Karloff (1887 - 1969) embodies approximately 170 different characters. An acting career spanning 50 years (1919 - 1969) is compressed into one mind fucking movie. The protagonist experiences a schizophrenic horror trip in which he faces only versions of himself in different masks, at different ages, of different genders and races. Karloff started his career in the silent era and continued working constantly until his death, so one can witness the aesthetic and technical developments of the medium in one single film. All in all he appeared in more than 200 films, TV-series and -shows of almost every genre. The range of quality of these productions could not be greater. He played in unforgettable cinematic masterpieces and worked for directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk, Peter Bogdanovich or James Whale but also appeared in a series of Low-Budget-Horror-movies and cheap TV shows. This nightmarish concept movie is an homage to a great actor and also a weird film history lesson."

Pfaffenbilcher's work is not a collage: it is a show of virtuosity in raccord editing (Boris opening a door from which Karloff emerges), in mastering the rules of classical decoupage, in shot-reverse shot editing (Boris looking at Karloff), in dialog editing (Karloff answering Boris). It may sometimes look facile, but just think of the research it implies. It is a lesson in classical film narration, and when the editing includes kaleidoscopic and video color effects, it keeps in sync with the history of cinema that Karloff here embodies and with the hallucination the "character" is subject to. Pfaffenbilcher may call it a "concept movie", yet the film is far from being a strictly theoretical piece. The art of the actor, his face and voice, his irresistible lisp, his elegance and sad eyes transcend masks and make-ups, growls and calls: what the film builds up is a tragedy (with its comedy moments as in the best classical tradition), in a complex topography of cinematic spaces (castles and underground caves, apartments and labs) and with a sense of hellish fatality in time and repetition.

A Masque of Madness is not "cultural", it is cultured, in its ability to escape the cinephilic quiz in order to produce a vision, and to reveal a secret story running ill-noticed inside cinema. Karloff is the monster and the monster's victim, a portrait of 50 years of madness, in which Pfaffenbilcher identifies some themes (war, oppression of the weak, colonialism, criminal science). Fifty years of the death drive; Karloff as mankind; cinema as psyche.

From Pfaffenbilcher's work emerges a cinematic Creature that should be called cinema itself: infinity of the possibles, ubiquitous, doubling, transforming the mutation, constructing imaginary spaces, contiguity of diverse times. The "madness" of the multiple Karloffs comes from an everlasting suffering—being both a tortured creature and its tormentor—leading to a quest for mutation (through experiments, machines, thunder and lightning, chemistry) that produces danger and risk (fear and horror).

Human "evil", the co-existence in one creature of all moral and amoral states, as represented by the editing. With seriousness and humor, the film takes up an old challenge: to dig up stories in the "already filmed" without looking for anything "new" (a delusion) but for something deep. Between the pioneer challenge of an Alberto Grifi (to force Hollywood fiction to make its own auto-criticism) and Pfaffenbilcher's efforts, a fever of technology and of the omnipresence of images has spread, allowing everybody to show off his (possibly) good ideas through the editing of existing film or video material. Basically putting together an image with another which resembles it (analogy) or could be considered its opposite (counter analogy). Images boiled and re-boiled in the same electronic kettle, resulting mostly in tautology (this is—or not—like that). While neither Grifi (at the time) nor Pfaffenbilcher (today) ignores that each shot is pierced through by a double line: that of history and mise en scène. This is the source of Pfaffenbilcher's fiction. In his editing room, he may well be a sort of shaman (or be "shaman-ized" by his own meticulousness) who would gather stories (or, who knows, announcements) until now hidden in the shots (le plan), the films, and the tribulations of the actor. The directors of the original films are here convened not as the makers of individual films, but as the makers—and instruments at the same time—of a common story: a more secret one, organic to their work yet left in the unconscious, a collective story that can be brought to light only by the (re)creation of this one creature's destiny.

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  • de Cinema - de Cuir

    Nice write-up. I much prefer his “Conference”, which seems to have a wider range of emotions and a darkly comedic edge, plus a sharper and more surprising montage structure.

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