Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Dossier Found in Saragossa

Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time
Apologies for the forced title, but I wanted to hit on something I see in Mr. Arkadin, a touch of the gothic, particularly in the scenes set in Spain early in the film.

(I don't think a deeper connection is there to be drawn between Mr. Arkadin and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. The latter, incidentally, is one of my favorite gothic novels, written by Jan Potocki, who reputedly committed suicide by silver bullet because he thought he was a werewolf.)

But what appeals to me in those scenes is the setting of what Rexroth called Black Spain. The penitentes wearing capirotes, the Goya masquerade, the castle, and Arkadin himself all lend gloomy gothic mystery to the film. Of course, Franco's Catholic despotism weighs like a medieval nightmare on 1950s Spain, and that's where Arkadin situates himself.

Arkadin is something of a gothic villain, a vampire in his castle. In the traditional account, the vampire returns to feed on its family and friends, and Arkadin, now a successful capitalist, murders everyone from his criminal past, something foreshadowed in his dream of the graveyard where tombstones mark the end of friendships. He even has a network of spies in place of Dracula's network of gypsies.

It's common to read Mr. Arkadin in terms of capitalism. It's a reading that occurred immediately to me and became firmer as the film went on. But I haven't found anything on Arkadin as a vampire, though it was something I saw upon his entrance in the masquerade. Maybe it just brought to mind Hammer's Kiss of the Vampire, which has a masquerade too. Arkadin claims not to know his age, making him as ageless as any undead bloodsucker, although we learn that this amnesia is part of a pattern of deception, of effacing one's past.

There is a pivot point here between the two readings. I watched the film (in the comprehensive edit) for the first time last night, and it was only this morning as I was writing this that I remembered something Jack Graham introduced me to, Franco Moretti's reading of Dracula as monopoly capital. I'm not sure I have the energy to get terribly in depth here, but I want to get these ideas down while the memory is fresh. I'll be appearing on an upcoming Pex Lives Orson Welles retrospective, so perhaps I can elaborate in more detail there. Moving on.

Arkadin is a kind of underworld Charles Foster Kane, and the journalist conceit of Citizen Kane is present too: Van Stratten travels and interviews people about Arkadin's past, although Van Stratten only poses as a journalist, in line with the pattern of deception in the film.

That deception, that effacement of the past, is found everywhere in the film, and not just in Arkadin himself. Van Stratten resembles an early Arkadin and tries to set himself on the same path. He's a man of many deceptions who erases his past, down to denying his father's surname, just as Arkadin has assumed a false name. Their origins must be obscured. A successful criminal is no longer a criminal.
Arkadin: Criminals aren't ever very amusing.
Nagel: It's because they're failures. Those who make real money aren't counted as criminals. This is a class distinction, not an ethical problem.
Capital must deny its origins in criminal expropriation. It effaces its history, its brutal primitive accumulation, and sells a lie, a false representation. It does this not just to workers, but even to the inheritors of its privilege, like Raina. Van Stratten unearths the repressed criminal history of vampire capital. But he doesn't really drive a stake in its heart, does he? He doesn't destroy it. It just passes on to Raina, and he's deprived of participating in it. He always aspired to capital.

Upon the revelation of Arkadin's past, what do we have? The empty plane. We see capital's self-representation as it really is, hollow, but somehow capital remains in motion, though we're given a moment of hope here as the plane eventually sputters out and crashes. A moment of hope that doesn't amount to much, for what do we get during the credits?

One of these days I gotta write about class struggle in Scars of Dracula


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! I'd like to write something on F for Fake, but the film speaks eloquently for itself.