Archive for Edgar Allan Poe

Poe-faced

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2023 by dcairns
The Pale Blue Eye. Harry Melling as Edgar Allen [sic] Poe in The Pale Blue Eye. Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

The history of Edgar Allan Poe on screen is patchy, when one looks at adaptations of his work — there are lots of really good films, though it’s questionable how many of even the best ones really understand or capture the essence of the writer’s work.

The history of Poe on screen as a CHARACTER is much, much patchier still. I haven’t seen THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE. Shepperd Strudwick, anyone? I do suspect that if Poe had had anyone like Linda Darnell in his life, literary history might be very different. He would have done less writing, let’s say.

Asides from the biopic, whose strictures Poe seems disinclined to conform to, there are those films that attempt to fold the author into his own work, or works inspired by it. This gets started early on with D.W. Griffith’s EDGAR ALLAN POE of 1909, which is mostly a garbled and romanticised version of aspects of Poe’s life, but shows him inspired to write The Raven by the arrival of an actual raven which sits upon a bust of Pallas and you know the rest. Poe decides to become a costumed crime-fighter who dresses up as a black, flying animal. (He doesn’t. But he should.)

Charles Brabin’s 1915 THE RAVEN juggles most of the same elements, but takes longer to do it.

1951’s THE MAN WITH A CLOAK, based on a story by locked-room obsessive John Dickson Carr, has Joseph Cotten as Poe, unnamed until the end, who turns up out of the blue to solve a murder. This goes way beyond the Griffith idea of speculating how life must have informed Poe’s work, and makes a stab out of creating a faux-Poe story that Poe can inhabit, making him the prototype of his own detective hero, C. Auguste Dupin. An amusing conceit, but the film, directed flatly by TV man Fletcher Markle (great name, though), is mostly a snooze, despite the presence of Cotten, Stanwyck, and the walking fontanelle Louis Calhern.

Poe had encouraged the idea that he had a detective’s mind, basing The Mystery of Marie Roget around a real case which he claimed to have solved, but when it turned out he was wrong, he rewrote the story. But most authors and screenwriters enlisting Poe as detective hero have preferred to see him as an unerring truth-magnet. Poe was also an alcoholic whose metabolism caused him to get very drunk very fast, but Carr (all of whose heroes are spectacularly skilled boozers) makes him a man who can soak up impossible quantities of liquor without any side-effects beyond melancholia and loquacity.

CASTLE OF BLOOD/DANZA MACABRA (1964) and its remake WEB OF THE SPIDER (1971) airdrop Poe into a haunted house mystery, which proves far more conducive terrain. Though the Dupin stories are exercises in logic, creating order out of a chaotic and sometimes terrifying world (especially Murders in the Rue Morgue), Poe’s stories are more usually MAD, with insanity or the paranormal gnawing at the very foundations of their reality.

I haven’t seen THE RAVEN from 2012, directed by James V FOR VENDETTA McTeigue, with John Cusack as Poe, joining forces with a Baltimore detective (Luke Evans) to stop a serial copycat killer who bases his murders on those in the author’s works. The idea is an amusing one, and one can see why one might need to pair the writer slash amateur sleuth with a professional — access to the official investigation, entertainingly contrasting modus operandi, conflict, etc.

But I HAVE seen THE PALE BLUE EYE, a new Netflix movie from director Scott Cooper (BLACK MASS, HOSTILES) which does almost exactly the same thing, only here Poe is a young cadet at West Point and the pro detective is a mature ex-cop employed by the Academy to investigate the death and mutilation of another cadet.

I hadn’t done my homework — if I’d know this was the BLACK MASS guy I doubt I’d have watched it. The films have a lot in common: the tone and pace are depressingly consistent., not much light or shade; the cinematography is moody; the direction is flat; Cooper does nice, atmospheric establishing shots with a slowly gliding camera, but then everything is just static headshots. At one point, a man who has been holding a rock, threatening to bash another man’s head in, drops the rock, and we only know it’s happened because of the sound effect. His hand is out of shot while the camera films his face. We can all, I’m sure, immediately see the dramatic potential of the suddenly empty hand in close-up, or the rock falling to the snowy ground, or even falling THROUGH a shot that’s focused on the fallen victim. If you’re just shooting coverage, not thinking dramatically-pictorially, the irony is you just cover faces and miss what else might be important.

The director, in other words, has not learned to SEE.

Christian Bayle as Augustus Landor, detective, is as dour as you might expect, but does bring some strangeness to his performance — based on this being a man from the nineteenth century, who needn’t be exactly like us. Harry Melling is a magnificent Poe, I think the first man to play the part who seems as neurasthenic, obsessional and weird as one imagines the author of The Fall of the House of Usher must have been (and not just because it’s a weird story, but because we have a lot biographical info). Again, though, this version of Poe has an astonishing head for drink, the very opposite of the real guy.

Cooper has filled the supporting roles with colourful thesps like Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall and Toby Jones, but they’re all playing stiff-necked military men so, although Spall pulls some extraordinary faces, their flamboyance is a touch constrained. Gillian Anderson has looked at what the main boys are doing and decided that she’s going to have some fun too.

Everything takes quite a long time to happen, and yet none of the characters has quite enough time to make themselves felt. Melling’s Poe has to fall in love with Anderson and Jones’ daughter, Lucy Boynton, but their few scenes together don’t make us feel it. He asks her out and there’s a fairly long negotiation about this which ends with the date and time of their next meeting undecided. It’s to be in a cemetery. Somehow, we next see them in a cemetery, but never learn which of them stood around in the snow for three days waiting for the other to show up (but I’d guess it was Poe). Then she collapses in a fit — that seems to be what confirms Poe’s love for her, which is somewhat credible for a guy like that, but the audience is left out in the cold — we don’t get to feel with or for him, and we don’t know the romance has blossomed until it’s suddenly life-or-death.

The trouble with literary detective stories is they’re usually not well enough written. And then they have to fit their silly stories into the author’s actual bio. At the climax of this one, Poe’s life is in danger, and I wondered if it shouldn’t have been Landor’s. Because a good part of the audience knows Poe didn’t die at West Point. But maybe that doesn’t matter, there are lots of stories where we know the hero isn’t going to die but we still feel suspense in life-or-death crises.

As whodunnits go, it’s not quite a fair play mystery. It breaks more than one of Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, and not one of the silly or dated ones like “Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable” or “No Chinaman must figure in the story.” Also, Knox forgets to include an eleventh commandment, which to me should go something like, “The reader/audience must be provided with the clues that could allow them to discern the killer’s means, motive and opportunity.” In other words, you can create a mystery where the crime seems to be impossible, but then you need to plant the clues that could allow the reader/viewer to guess the solution, but you hide them in plain sight (like Poe’s purloined letter) in hopes that nobody will figure it out. And you could write a mystery in which nobody seems to have any motive to do the victim in, but then you have to plant that motive, positioning it in such a way that the reader won’t spot it. Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d is a particularly nasty example of that.

Well, Cooper doesn’t do that in THE PALE BLUE EYE. There’s a key motive that hasn’t been stated or even implied. Some clues have been planted which eventually RELATE to that motive, but nobody could guess the motive, even if you cut away everything else and told them to assemble the puzzle from just this one minute of footage. He hasn’t done the mystery writer’s job.

Decent resemblance but couldn’t they part his hair on the correct side?

Also, the title doesn’t relate to anything in the film. OK, it’s a line from Poe. There’s a discussion about how Bayle’s Landor once got a confession out of someone by just looking at them. “The guilty party will interrogate himself.” But that never happens. Bayle gets information by asking questions and sometimes by asking questions while berating the subject with a knobbly stick or shillelagh. The Paddington hard stare is never attempted.

I can’t recommend this film. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Robert Duvall are in it, but they have nothing to do, they just deliver exposition. That’s kind of what everybody does, though some find funny ways to do it. When Michael Powell saw a film he disliked, he would storm out, saying of the director, “He didn’t teach me anything!” That’s how I feel about Cooper based on the two films I’ve now seen. He’s not bad enough to be interesting and he’s not good enough to be interesting. His work saps my enthusiasm.

Three grotesques, two all-seeing eyes, a drunken genius, and a prophecy

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2022 by dcairns

More Fellini sketches from another Fellini publication, L’Arc issue 45, Fellini, a collection of essays in French. Bottom right is Poe.

Back to Inspiring Fellini by Federico Pacchioni.

Pacchioni tells us that this drawing represents a dream Fellini had eight months before the murder of his former collaborator Pier Paolo Pasolini. ‘In this dream the two artists, in the company of one of Pasolini’s “amichetti” (young and reprehensible friends) are walking down a muddy dirt road on the far edges of the city where the countryside begins.’ [On the road to Ostia, where Cabiria lives and where PPP would die?] ‘The atmosphere is gloomy and sinister; a storm has left the road filled with puddles, the sky is murky with “large, ragged and ugly clouds,” and a phantasmagorical yellow moonlight is spreading through the clouds and reflecting its ill glow on the surroundings. Around Pasolini and Fellini are a number of monstrous bat-rats sneering and looming as if preparing to attack, and behind the scene stands the unsettling eye of a camera spying on the men’s every move. Furthermore, the actions and words of the men are described as artificial in the dream, “as part of a script,” in connection with their mutual experience of the pressure placed on them by the media.’

As a great believer in dreams, Fellini would understandably have connected this eerie and menacing nightmare with Pasolini’s later death.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: A Fistful of Nails

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2022 by dcairns

There are a surprising number of crucifixions in spaghetti westerns: here are some of them.

I wanted to start with teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter because his Calvary was in Spain, like so many of the crucified cowpokes and such pictured here, but Hunter doesn’t say the line I needed him to say, so I resorted to Max Von Sydow for the second bit. Max’s Golgotha is a Hollywood sound stage, but his Holy Land generally was Utah, an acceptable western landscape.

Alex Cox, in his study 10,000 Ways to Die, traces the injury to the hand motif, first scene in the Italian west in DJANGO, to THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and ONE-EYED JACKS, which seems bang-on. OEJ is probably the more direct influence, and as Cox points out, it also introduces the dilatory, Hamlet-like hero who hangs about for unclear reasons until his opponents can get him. Which is one of the few things the hero of JOHNNY HAMLET shares with his Shakespearean namesake.

This observation is one of my favourite bits of Cox criticism. Brando’s revisionist western, coloured by his streak of sadomasochism, seems like an ur-text for the Italian west, with its amoral hero and generalized corruption, almost as much as YOJIMBO.

But the crushed or perforated gun-hand also calls to mind the biblical cross, perhaps the one big ur-text of Italian cinema. (Cox also points out that Terence Stamp in TOBY DAMMIT is in Rome to star in “the first catholic western”; and that his payment, a Cadillac Ferrari, is also what Pasolini got for appearing in Lizzani’s western REQUIESCANT: he doesn’t draw the obvious inference that TD is in part a swipe at Pasolini, a former script collaborator of Fellini’s. Fellini we know often resented members of his team when they went to work elsewhere. But Toby is also based on Edgar Poe himself, and on Broderick Crawford, alcoholic movie star who came to Rome for Fellini’s IL BIDONE.)

The Italian gothic cinema, surprisingly, isn’t so crucifixion-heavy, and nor is the peplum, despite the obvious possibilities (but there’s plenty of sadism with the attendant homoerotic element); for all its violence, the giallo doesn’t evoke Christ overmuch; why not? You have to go to the spate of seventies EXORCIST knock-offs to find such an orgy of crosswork.