Monday, 8 April 2013


 Ploughing through the internet looking for Franco obituaries, I thought of the painting The Fall of Icarus and the Auden poem about it. In the painting, the momentous event happens on the far horizon, hardly noticed, while in the foreground a man happily ploughs a field, oblivious to the tragedy occurring behind him. Franco is dead, but life goes on; The gossip, the trivia, the big deals made, the small deals collapsing. Lindsay Lohan isn’t pregnant; or is she? Nicolas Cage denies he’s an actual vampire. R-Patz has gone on a bender. The movie business rolls on. Yet in a way, cinema died with Franco. Of course films will continue to be made. Thousands of them, every year. But the kind of films that Franco represented in his prime, strange perverse little artefacts, seen by chance in malodorous backstreet cinemas, praised by no-one, here today, gone tomorrow - that world has vanished forever. Vanished along with the celluloid on which the films themselves were printed, now no longer to be manufactured. That “commercial underground” from which his films emerged (or escaped…) exists no more. Nowadays every film has to be an “event”. Raising even modest capital to make a movie is a task more difficult almost than making the film itself. And so the publicity, the marketing, the hype are in gear months before the film is released, months before it is even shot. What chance now for the serendipitous discovery, that rare gem stumbled across in the dark? That’s what Franco represented for me and he was maybe the best example ever of an artist happily toiling away in the shadows, embracing obscurity, even revelling in the freedom it gave. And now he’s gone.

 One of the most interesting Franco related items I’ve seen recently is a short by a Spanish film maker who took the “behind the scenes” sections of Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir and set them beside the actual scenes from Count Dracula, on the set of which the Portabella film was shot. Franco at work is always fascinating and seeing him helming what was for him a big budget production is a revelation. For the other extreme, Franco on a micro budget project, Brian Horrorwitz’s Antenna Criminal is an essential watch. From these one gets the feeling that the real Franco only ever existed there, behind the camera, marshalling his tiny army and leading them off into battle. Even whilst working on one film, he was planning, and maybe even shooting, the next two or three.

 I first met Franco at the beginning of the 1990s. Our friend Simon Birrell had moved to Spain and Cathal and me had set him the task of “finding Franco”. One day, at work, I got a call from him.

 “Do you want to meet Jess?”

 Amazingly, our mystery man was in London. Simon gave me the address of a hotel in Paddington and told me to be there at seven. I arrived early. Sitting alone in the dimly lit basement bar of the run down Edwardian flophouse, I began to wonder if it was some sort of set up. This was in the days before mobile phones (or at least, before I had one) and so there was no choice but to sit and wait. Eventually the door opened and in walked Antonio Mayans. His was a face I recognised from so many Franco films. He introduced himself and was the model of politeness, speaking perfect English, learned in his days studying the dramatic arts at RADA. He told me Jess was on his way. I was nervous, to say the least. What the hell was I going to talk about?

Back then, to me at least, Franco was an almost mythic figure, a wild man of cinema, a provocateur, probably capable of anything. Would he be on drugs… drunk? In a fighting mood? Maybe all of those. I’d brought my tape recorder as we were in the midst of work on Immoral Tales and even snippets of info would have been invaluable, there being so little in English about him.

 I was talking to Mayans about West End theatre when I suddenly saw Franco had arrived, he had shuffled silently in and was standing right beside us. He sat down, lit up a cigarette and, without him even asking for it, the ancient, white-coated barman bought him a double espresso. They exchanged a few words in what sounded like Portuguese.

 Franco chuckled and told me that he always stayed in this hotel. He had discovered it when working for Harry Alan Towers, who lived just round the corner. I got the impression that Franco might have been the only person who ever stayed in this hotel.

 “So, what can we say?” he asked, lighting up cigarette number two.

 My mind went a blank. Antonio Mayans glanced at his watch. I could see this great opportunity slipping rapidly away from me.

 “I really like your films…” I blurted out.

 Franco looked at me like I’d just farted.

 “What?” he asked, with what seemed genuine astonishment. “I don’t.”

 There was a moment’s pregnant silence. Mayans watched attentively, his eyes flicking from my face to Franco’s. And then Franco started to bubble over with laughter. I joined in and soon we were off. We talked for about an hour, on every subject EXCEPT his films. I'd forgotten to turn on the tape recorder so it was just as well. Art, music, comic books, architecture, food, the changing face of London… He seemed to have instant recall for faces, places and facts. He said he would give me Daniel White’s address and phone number in Paris and I was expecting him to look them up, but instead he just reeled them out off the top of his head, along with the address of Montparnasse 2000, the great library music label that had released so many of Daniel White's recordings, including one made with Franco himself.

 He told me he was here to meet a producer and to talk to Troma (yes, THAT Troma) about making films together. It seemed an unlikely combination. But before I could say that, our hour was done and he was up and off. I guess punctuality was one of the habits he acquired from decades of making films in a few weeks. 

We met again a number of times over the years and I was very happy to have been involved with a film about Franco that played on UK TV. But in a way I’ll always associate him with that first chance encounter and that now long gone hotel bar that seemed lost in some sort of 1970’s time warp.

 His star was not exactly in the ascendant at the time. The international fanzine fury that elevated him to the canon had not quite kicked in, but even so I suspect that Franco remained pretty impervious to the ministrations of fans and their attempts to fix him in aspic. Typical were his comments on receiving a prestigious Goya Award from the Spanish film industry in 2009. “I don’t deserve this. I’m just a man in love with cinema who wanted to make films,” he said. And there was not a single note of false modesty in his words. He wasn’t that sort of person. He lived to film and he filmed to live. His body is gone now, but I think his soul is still here, flitting about, from scene to scene, from cut to cut, like a shimmering ghost, within that vast edifice of the work he left behind. Jess Franco is dead… Long live Jess Franco!

- Pete Tombs,  April 2013


  1. When I read: "The kind of films that Franco represented in his prime, strange perverse little artefacts, seen by chance in malodorous backstreet cinemas, praised by no-one, here today, gone tomorrow - that world has vanished forever", I couldn't help but think of YouTube and Vimeo—It seems to me that while it's not celluloid, it's exploded 'film' and put it in the hands of the everyman. The 'cheese' of "that world" was moved. No one needs the "movie business" or the process of marketing. The audience makes the movie an "event". Internet-publishing filmmakers (with talent and vision) have exploded "the best example ever of an artist happily toiling away in the shadows, embracing obscurity, even revelling in the freedom it gave." The ability to make and publish films for the world with the "movie business" is purest example of art for art's sake where it concerns 'film'. "That 'commercial underground' from which his films emerged (or escaped…) exists no more." It morphed and expanded, and has retired the concept of distribution. Now the potential of having (them being successful) many more Francos is exciting to me because I don't need to venture out to "malodorous backstreet cinemas", although that's certainly part of the mystique, I can see 'his' films at home for free, and he can still make money. So many more people have a chance to make "strange perverse little artefacts" that will be seen! Yes, "Long live Jess Franco", living on in the spirit of those who "[live] to film and [film] to live". Every time we watch a YouTube or Vimeo 'film' we can celebrate the ability for the audience to promote and share that "serendipitous discovery" or "rare gem".