Cinephilia can take the form of an insatiable hunger, an obsession that continually demands for more – films that cater to more exclusive and refined taste, more resurrected annals of long-forgotten film histories, and more works that pose ever-escalating challenges to the dominant language of cinema. It is no revelation to observe that the Internet has realized a newfound framework for such obsession, like a magic well that promises an endless depth of access to knowledge about obscure, lesser known, or forgotten works. The Internet is not a space where filmic knowledge is publicly available; it is a space where potential knowledge can be excavated and contested over.
The game of happenstance is addictive precisely because it carries an eternal promise of more.
It is this type of cinephilia that accompanies the recent emergence of several obscure auteurs in web, literary, and moving image culture. One is an Italian-American sicko visionary whose approach to giallo-style torture porn marries the snuff film with high cult art cinema. Another is a Russian émigré whose obsessive Kubrick-on-steroids brand of perfectionism arguably oversaw some of the greatest British films ever made. Yet another is Charles Manson meets Tobe Hooper, a schlocky and gore-obsessed B-auteur and countercultural burnout whose communal approach to filmmaking blurs the line between events behind and in front of the screen.
But none of these filmmakers ever existed. All were invented to explore the myth of the genius auteur in the complete absence of an actual body of work to talk about.
Stanislas Cordova is the invention of “Night Film,” a noirish mystery thriller/perfectly adequate airplane book by Marisha Pessl, author of the celebrated “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” The book follows the web of mysteries surrounding of the death of Ashley Cordova, daughter of the notoriously reclusive director (who produced most of his films in an isolated mansion-turned-studio in the rural northeast), through the efforts of a self-consciously intrepid and Cordova-obsessed journalist-turned-amateur PI.
Yuri Gadyukin is the creation of a yet-to-be-realized faux-documentary project by British filmmakers Gavin Boyter and Guy Ducker, who spent years developing the myth of the director by establishing pages on IMDb, Wikipedia, and Facebook (they even had a convinced playwright ask them about the director in hopes of staging a biography) until several Wiki-editors discovered and dismantled the hoax.
Karl Atticus is the subject of Mark Ricche and Christian Stavrakis’s found footage horror film Mortal Remains, a micro-indie currently attempting the festival circuit with a seal of approval by Blair Witch co-helmer Eduardo Sanchez. The film stages Atticus as a pioneer of the extreme, famous for his films Mortal Remains and Culture Shock, and an enigmatic figure of choice for more devoted and unsqueamish horror devotees. The film (which also hosted faux IMDb pages that seem to have been taken down) follows two fans as they unadvisedly attempt to uncover the mystery surrounding Atticus.
A bizarro world film industry is, in some ways, nothing new, especially to the actual film industry. The Bad and the Beautiful’s Jonathan Shields, This Is Spinal Tap’s Marty DiBergi, Boogie Nights’s Jack Horner, Mulholland Drive’s Adam Kesher, and Tropic Thunder’s Damien Cockburn provide diverse examples of the caricature visionary, and stand as the lineage of a continued mythification of filmmaking that has hardly lost steam since Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. But these are characters realized by flesh-and-blood actors – they’re tangible, comprehensible, even in their larger-than-life stature.
This more recent slate of fiction, by contrast, pursues its jollies in the myth in place of the man, envisioning cinephilia as a project of information gathering that carries the promise (as foreboding as it may obviously seem) of connecting the two.
The mystery thriller is a useful framework for staging such a pursuit, so its no surprise that each of these recent examples use the mystique of the director to both undergird the requisite sense of obsessive cinephilia/personality fixation used to drive each respective narrative. What is remarkable, however, is the unification between each these works in terms of how they see the acquisition of cinematic knowledge in 21st century movie culture.
In this famous interview, Gadyukin has one of his notorious outbursts.
All of these works place primary information about the filmmaker – webpages, newspapers, interviews, photographs, difficult-to-acquire film stock and moving image materials, and various other pieces of ephemera – first and foremost as a means of asserting the legitimacy of the pursuit and the existence of the figure, regardless of whether or not each respective case is actually attempting to convince anyone that the director is real. Mortal Remains places newspaper clippings prominently in its trailer. The Gadyukin project, prospectively titled Nitrate, went to great ends to stage print and moving image materials (including the interview above), and even invented an expert on the auteur. The pages of “Night Film” are frequently interrupted by screenshots of web pages and articles devoted to Cordova from both mass publications and dedicated fan communities.
The films themselves almost need not exist as they’re entirely beside the point; the myth of the filmmaker’s reputation – his unorthodox methods, his inscrutable personality, the devotion he cultivates from a select but steadfast community of viewers – becomes the spectacle instead.
But this invitation for cinephilic obsession isn’t only offered to the aficionados embedded in their respective narratives; we as viewers, readers, or bored web-surfers are asked to invest as well. The effect is perhaps more potent knowing that they never existed. By providing us the ephemera evidencing the myth of the director yet denying us the films themselves, our minds fill this Hitchcockian gap with the possibility of an unimaginably transgressive cinema.
That a bit of information about these invented figures ended up for some time on Wikipedia and IMDb – sites that, for better or worse, are many people’s first stop for keeping tabs on aggregated reality – either says something about how arbitrary and simulated the knowledge we consume on the Internet is, or speaks comfortingly to the fact that these sites do eventually take checks and balances to regulate reliable information. Take your pick.
As if modeled interchangeably and variably off of larger-than-life directorial personalities like Werner Herzog and Lars von Trier with the reclusiveness and perfectionism of Stanley Kubrick combined with a dash of the real life tragedy that met the ends of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Theo van Gogh, these works are not about filmmaking, but about what we talk about when we talk about the legends and myths surrounding eccentric and canonized filmmakers, taken to its most absurd and obvious extreme. These are filmmaking personalities so brash, so unrelenting, so daring, and so challenging that their work must involve some sort of conspiracy.
And that’s what is most telling about the investments these works have in investing in the myth of the personality of the filmmaker: they fetishize the filmmaking process, transforming it not into a collaborative and, at its core, mechanical and pragmatic procedure, but read it as an unorthodox ritual that is part of a grand design that goes far beyond the films themselves. These fictional filmmakers are who the “theorist-fans” of Room 237 think Kubrick was. Sure, filmmaking is mysterious work to outsiders: it’s exclusive yet collaborative, intimate yet pseudo-public. But it’s also incredibly arduous and boring. Yet these works evoke something all too familiar to anybody who has ever been invested in the myth of the mad genius director by envisioning the process not as a process, but an intricately controlled step necessary for the realization of a grand vision, complete with clues embedded subtly across a body of work that add up to a larger scheme.
But what this vision adds up to is where the narratives surrounding Cordova, Atticus and Gadyukin inevitably disappoint. This is to say less of the quality of invention by the respective artists who fabricated with these figures than it does about the fundamental contradiction in these efforts: that any tangential information about the films themselves – whether in the form of fabricated clips or concrete plot details – are inevitably disappointing.
Once the film itself comes into some semblance of being, it automatically seems “less than” the myth built around it. This is the same disappointment that the obsessive cinephile knows all too well – the sinking feeling that perhaps, for now, all radical reinventions of the medium have been achieved (at least, if you equate cinema with narrative filmmaking). While the Information Age always provides the promise of finding that hidden gem, it also universalizes knowledge and limits the possibility for a type of discovery that is truly world-shaking. Cordova, Gadyukin, and Atticus might sound like hybrids of existing beloved filmmakers, but there’s a reason they don’t exist in reality in quite this way.
I doubt we’ll see the end of fake auteurs, and I look forward to seeing what vague, imaginative possibilities the particular myth-building opportunities of web-based knowledge communities can provide for made-up cinephilia. But these recent examples are a helpful and perhaps necessary demonstration of the incredible distance that often exists between the larger-than-life myths we build around filmmakers and the flesh-and-blood practitioners they actually were. The unimaginable film, then, can only ever be a contradiction in terms.