25 years after giving Un Chien Andalou a screaming chorus and a killer bass line to create Debaser, Black Francis of the Pixies has returned to silent cinema. While his latest endeavour is unlikely to rock your world in the same way that Doolittle did, there’s a little something here to entice fans of his jagged, surreal perspective. The Good Inn was written by Black Francis and Josh Frank, and its sublime illustrations are by Steven Appleby. A novel that occasionally borrows the form of a screenplay or a graphic novel, peppered with songs, intertitle cards and subtitles, this work is determined to be elusive. In the authors’ words, it’s “an illustrated novel, based on an in-the-works soundtrack, for a feature-length film that has yet to be made, about the first narrative pornographic movie ever made”. That all adds up to so much more than a mouthful, that it may well be a dog’s dinner.
With music, film history, cinema, and literature all vying for attention here, something had to give, and something has to shine. Hands-down, it’s the illustrations that carry the day here: Appleby’s diagrams, panoramas and visual gags elevate The Good Inn from messy indulgence to a book you may well want to treasure. As well as more conventional illustrations, Appbleby has provided annotated maps, visual gags, and charts to explain the passing of time, or the fallibility of memory. Without Appleby’s input, The Good Inn could be rather an ordeal.
As for the rest of this multimedia hotchpotch, The Good Inn is inspired by a lost pornographic film, possibly produced by Bernard Natan, with the scantest of plots: a soldier, a woman, a bed. On top of this, Francis and Frank overlay a smattering of history, fantasy and surrealism. The film within a film is imagined, shot, lived-in, viewed, lost, revived projected and destroyed. All the while, our hero “Solider Boy” stumbles through a living nightmare from the front line of battle, to a sleazy Paris cinema, via his shady encounter with the innkeeper’s daughter – who may or may not be a dancing girl called Nickie.
It’s all appealing loose and physical, a wandering narrative adorned with quasi-historical anecdotes and celebrity cameos from the silent era: an embellished account of the explosion of the French battleship Iéna in Toulon, say, or Bunuel and Renoir tripping up to the pictures together. But there is a serious problem with The Good Inn: in the course of these fanciful ramblings it throws away a strong premise. I don’t care that Black and Frank get their facts askew, or indeed seem entirely unencumbered by research – novels are meant to be works of imagination rather than scholarship. But what they make of their material is, by and large, a directionless, centreless morass, with charmless prose. There are surely many more good fiction books to be written about early film, early pornography and the first world war. These are powerful subjects, and the recent documentary Natan suggests that that the truth (and the hunt for it) can be far more interesting than story-telling. But The Good Inn doesn’t quite hit the mark. As with movies, so with this book: the pictures say far more than the words.
In an introductory note, Black promises us “the Gone With the Wind of French cinema’s blue movie history if it was written by the Pixies and directed by David Lynch and Terry Gilliam”. I’m not sure Gilliam and Lynch can take the blame for this, let alone Margaret Mitchell. As for the Pixies, we’ll always have Debaser.
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