I once had a friend who taught cinema theory at La Fémis in Montmartre. Dr. Stefan Fischer was an expert in early film art and was particularly interested in the role of celluloid in early screenings and installations. It was the celluloid, so he often told me, that allowed early film art to proliferate towards abstraction. Though we taught at different institutes and on differing subjects, Dr. Fischer and I would meet regularly in various cafes in Montmartre to discuss the developments and funding cuts at our institutions. Fischer was, by all accounts, a manic character whose obsessions developed such specificity that, even before his behaviour became more dramatically unhinged, I sensed that his mind was capable of snapping at any given moment. Walking up the hill of Rue Calaincourt towards our designated bistro, Le Refuge, for a talk one winter, I said to myself that the many steps that run up and down the roads of the district, to my mind, resembled that of Fischer’s mind.
On this particular visit, Fischer was keen to talk about his favourite obsession of the moment: the work of the American filmmaker, Stan Brakhage. Brakhage specialised in short film pieces and often physically augmented the film so that a number of his works were films made without the act of filming. Fischer had spoken to me at length already about his great admiration of the filmmaker and this meeting was mostly no different. Aside from the huge funding cut that had occurred to his side of the department, Brakhage took up our topic of conversation even though I was not especially interested in his work. Our friendship had been one built largely on humouring the academic’s curious ways. Yet something was not quite right in Dr. Fischer’s body language at our meeting that October day. I had wandered down the steps to Rue Lamark where Le Rufuge was and, as usual, I was early. When Fischer wandered in, I noticed instantly that he looked dishevelled and wide-eyed with excitement.
Without any sort of formal greeting, he began a flowing monologue regarding Brakhage’s work, pausing only briefly to catch the attention of the garçon to order a strong coffee. Fischer was excited, so he told me, because of what his latest research on Brakhage had apparently uncovered. The marked point of his success, he continued, was down to his experimentation with certain reels. But, and he was clear to point this out, there was a secondary aspect; an aspect outside of filmmaking talent which had led to Brakhage’s breakthrough as a relative success. I was a little uninterested at the time and was staring absentmindedly out of the window at life going by on Rue Lamark but I was brought out of my state by something Fischer had said. This aspect, so Fischer continued, was something to do with Brakhage’s dabbling in esoteric practices. In fact, I recall the phrase he used as being practices derived from an older time. Fischer went on to detail his theory regarding the main piece in question, Brakhage’s 1963 film work, Mothlight.
Mothlight was a film piece where the filmmaker had attached the wings of deceased moths onto each frame of celluloid, then playing it through the projector to animate the dead wings. I had seen the piece, or at least some stills from it as it was difficult to obtain at the time when I was interested in such things. Fischer was almost possessed with questioning the reason for Brakhage’s success. Though, so he told me, the artist really came to prominence after his Dog Star Man series of films, Mothlight appeared in between and it could not have been coincidence that this film marked his success. It wasn’t in an aesthetic sense but very much something outside of the filmic process. He then babbled about a highly secret second reel that Brakhage had produced of Mothlight from his first period of early experiments and how both had been made at the insistence of something referred to in Brakhage’s notes as “a presence”. I was, at this point, concerned by Fischer’s instability and vowed to contact some of his colleagues later in the week to alert them that one of their most respected lecturers was clearly on the verge of a breakdown.
Fischer left the cafe promptly, further chattering about picking something up later that evening, and I meandered back to my own department at the Paris College Of Art on Rue Fénelon. Taking a long diversion over Montmartre Cemetery at the other end of Rue Calaincourt, mostly to avoid going back to work in any great haste, I could not help but feel a little unnerved by Fischer’s clear belief that he had stumbled upon something esoteric regarding Brakhage’s work. Considering that so much of his archive was housed in America, in Colorado in fact, the idea that he had somehow come across knowledge of a second reel of Mothlight from this period was absurd. This was before even considering the original reel’s delicacy, the chances of something like that surviving being negligible. I failed to get much done that day and sat daydreaming out of the window, recalling what images I could from the original Mothlight film; that strange collage of dead wings and leaves that almost disintegrates before one’s eyes but somehow is retained on the retina for several moments after the reel has concluded.
Later that evening, Fischer rang my small flat on Rue Legendre. He was beside himself with excitement, almost verging on panic. He had not only discovered the reasoning behind the reels of Mothlight but was actually close to obtaining the supposed secret second reel. There was a possession in his voice that convinced me that he needed medical attention but, knowing that such a suggestion would be unwise, I agreed to meet him the following day in the Le Refuge once more so that he could explain. I opted to not go into the department that day, thinking that my task of convincing Fischer that he needed help was going to take some work. When he arrived forty minutes late, it was clear that he had not slept during the night. In fact, he was wearing the same clothes that he had worn the previous day, his suit even more impossibly crumpled than usual. Before saying anything, he sat down and put a battered looking reel of 16mm film carefully on the table, along with an old piece of paper that was wrapped around it.
I looked in detail at both items. It was clear that the reel was indeed at the least very much a similar enterprise to Mothlight with pieces of Lepidoptera wings and other debris perceivably stuck onto the celluloid. The parchment was, however, more unusual. It was written in a scrawled handwriting and, though I cannot recall the full detail of what it said, it suggested some sort of ritual had been performed regarding the reel, all in the name of something described as “Ales“. Judging by the description, “Ales” was clearly some sort of entity at the heart of this supposed narrative and I was dismayed with Fischer’s behaviour. Fischer said that it was the dæmon that Brakhage gave thanks to in return for his success, his eyes wide and disturbed, so I recall. I could no longer hide my worry and openly threw away all pretence of humouring the man. I begged him to get help as he was clearly overworked. He was appalled by my supposed ignorance of the matter, exclaiming loudly in German about his pride in such a find. The other customers in the bistro turned to see the commotion and I tried unsuccessfully to calm him down. He went on, talking loudly about how the image was retained in the minds of those who watched the film, that this was the exchange Brakhage had made in return for his subsequent success; to spread the dæmon through the image of his work. That was Fischer’s description: dæmon.
Fischer said that this was perfectly true and that repeat viewings of the first reel of Mothlight created this effect too, though at a lesser level. He pleaded for me to see the moth wings that were supposedly, even then, floating before us. There was a strange level of detail in this delusion and I could not help but partly believe him, at least in regards to his seeing of such images. The moth wings, so he told me before he left, had not left his eyes since viewing the first reel with a fresh perspective. He made to leave but I took hold of his arm and remember pleading one last time. Yet he only muttered something about my lack of understanding and that he was to watch the newly discovered reel on his own rather than allowing me the privilege of sharing in such a momentous occasion which had, so he said, initially been his intention. It was to be the last time that I saw him. A few days followed and Fischer’s silence was deafening. He did not call, either at the department or at my flat, and he equally did not answer calls that I made from a phone box on Place de Clichy. I rung his department at La Fémis but none of his colleagues had seen him since our meeting at La Refuge though they didn’t sound too worried at the time.
It was only when casually flicking through the back pages of Le Figaro eight days later that I learnt of Fischer’s death. It was embedded far back into the newspaper with a gaudy headline, translating something along the lines of “Respected academic found dead in apartment”. I read and re-read the article several times before taking it in. It detailed the finding of Fischer’s body in his flat on Rue Ordener. It then went into some detail as to how the body was found, a neighbour alerting the authorities after a small fire was detected in the apartment caused, so the article said, by a reel a film becoming stuck in a projector. Strangest of all was the innocuous detail regarding what else was found in the flat. For the authorities were said to have been baffled by large shards of dense, dusty material similar to the insulation found in the walls of more modern buildings, which they were partly blaming for the spread of the flames from the 16mm projector. The witness had also described these large objects, supposedly found scattered all around Fischer’s flat, and I could not help but consider how stark a resemblance, albeit much larger, the description bore to the shape and design of scales from the wings of a moth.