This is an excellent short film, Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, written and directed by the immensely talented Peter Capaldi. It stars Richard E. Grant, Elaine Collins, Phyllis Logan, Cripin Letts and Ken Stott, and is a comedy about Kafka’s frustrations in writing Metamorphosis - with a little nod towards the work of Frank Capra. This was a deserved Oscar winner back in 1995, for best short film, and Capaldi is now better known for his foul-mouthed Maloclm Tucker form The Thick of It. One hopes he will return to writing and directing soon.
The rest of ‘Franz Kafka…’ plus the best of Capaldi as the foul mouthed Malcolm Tucker - NSFW, after the jump….
For its access to interviewees and the archive alone this should have been a better documentary, but its proposition, the Final 24 hours of Hunter S Thompson’s life, stops it from being excellent. It’s too morbidly obsessed with why the great good man killed himself (just count how many times we’re told HST was in “constant pain”), his addictions, his operations and the method by which he died. All fine and dandy for Forensics 101, but Thompson deserves better.
The problem stems from TV commissioners, who don’t trust their audiences to sit through a straight documentary on Hunter S Thompson (or Jim Morrison, John Belushi or any of the other talents who’ve been included in the Final 24 series) without having a gimmick, a hook to keep them watching during the adverts. Most of the time these gimmicks just get in the way of what is usually a fascinating, full and inspiring life.
Okay enough from me, here’s the blurb from Biography:
He was an author trapped in the body of a rock star. His drug-fuelled adventures were legendary and became the basis of one of the classics of 20th century literature. Thompson’s constant questioning of authority and wild antics made him a hero for a generation of rebels across the globe. But in the end it wasn’t enough. A lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse was taking their toll and at 67, with a broken leg, two hip operations and in chronic pain Thompson could no longer live up to the legend he’d created. On February 20, 2005, he decided to end it all with one of his favorite possessions, a Smith and Wesson 45. We chart the life of this troubled genius and uncover why a bullet to the head was the only way out.
Almost 14 years after his death, William S Burroughs is on trial for corrupting Turkish morality. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into Burroughs’ novel The Soft Machine, which was recently translated and published by Sel Publishing House in January. Tukey’s English Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review reports:
The court referred to a report written by the Prime Ministry’s Council for Protecting Minors from Explicit Publications that accused the novel, The Soft Machine, of “incompliance with moral norms” and “hurting people’s moral feelings.” Sel Publishing issued a press release that included parts of their testimony in the court.
“It is impossible to understand the insistence in sending books written and published for adults to councils that specialize in minors. If we consider things from this perspective, then dozens of such reports could be written about TV channels, newscasts and thousands of books,” read the testimony given by the publishing house.
The testimony also argued that the Prime Ministry’s council had no credentials in literature, aesthetics or translation, thus causing what the representatives of the publishing house called a “freakish” decision by the council.
The council also accused the novel of “lacking unity in its subject matter,” “incompliance with narrative unity,” for “using slang and colloquial terms” and “the application of a fragmented narrative style,” while claiming that Burroughs’s book contained unrealistic interpretations that were neither personal nor objective by giving examples from the lifestyles of historical and mythological figures. None of the above, argued the publishing house, constitutes a criminal act.
The council went further and said, “The book does not constitute a literary piece of work in its current condition,” adding it would add nothing new to the reader’s reservoir of knowledge, and argued the book developed “attitudes that were permissive to crime by concentrating on the banal, vulgar and weak attributes of humanity.”
The representatives of the publishing house responded to these charges. “Just as no writer is under any special obligation to highlight humanity’s fair attributes under every circumstance, the measure of whether a book has any literary value or not, and the judge of what the book may add to the reader’s reservoir of knowledge, is not an official state institution, but the reader himself,” they said.
“Once again, societies comprised of modern, creative and inquisitive individuals are formed by reading and being exposed to literary texts and works of art that can be considered as the most extreme examples of their kind,” further asserted the defendants’ statement.
The testimony also invited members of the council to conduct “a simple Internet research” about the writer, and learn about the fact that Burroughs was one of the pioneers the “Beat Generation” that rebelled against the stagnant morality of the middle class in post-World War II America. The testimony also drew attention to the fact that the “cut-up” technique used in the book was once heralded as a great novelty among literary circles.
“Through this technique, Burroughs runs counter, not just to entrenched attitudes in people’s lifestyles but also in contradiction to [older] literary techniques. That being the case and since the aim of the book itself is to push boundaries, it is clearly absurd to search for criminal elements in the book by suggesting that the book does not conform with social norms,” further stated the press release.
“Moreover, it is also meaningless to expect William S. Burroughs, who was not raised in accordance with the National Education Law, or as an individual who ‘identifies with the national, moral, humanitarian, material and spiritual cultural values of Turkish society, and who always tries to exalt his family, country and nation,’ to have produced a text within this framework,” read the testimony. “It is clear and obvious that this case carries no weight nor any respectability outside of the borders of our country.”
“We demand an end to investigations that constrain our activities and the prosecution of books for any reason whatsoever,” concluded the statement.
Bonus: William Burroughs reads ‘Junky’ (abridged version)
The family home featured in H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Shunned House” is up for sale. Situated at 135 Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, this south-facing house was built circa 1764, and offers:
Original wideboard floors, period details, 1/3 acre landscaped garden, 4 terraced areas, pergola, koi pond, 2 car garage with potting shed
All of which can be yours for $925,000, details here.
Lovecraft’s story describes the mansion house on Benefit Street, as the building where Edgar Allan Poe:
...the world’s greatest master of the terrible and the bizarre was obliged to pass a particular house on the eastern side of the street; a dingy, antiquated structure perched on the abruptly rising side hill, with a great unkempt yard dating from a time when the region was partly open country. It does not appear that he ever wrote or spoke of it, nor is there any evidence that he even noticed it. And yet that house, to the two persons in possession of certain information, equals or outranks in horror the wildest fantasy of the genius who so often passed it unknowingly, and stands starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous.
Interestingly, it was a house in New Jersey that inspired Lovercraft’s tale, though 135 Benefit Street does have its own strange history:
Because of its policy of religious tolerance, early Providence had no common burying ground, no single place where everyone agreed to bury their dead. So, in accordance with the practice of the day, each family had a plot on their own land which served as a family graveyard. To us, this might seem a bit ghoulish, but it was just business as usual in colonial America.
Around the time of the Revolution, Back Street was widened and straightened and renamed Benefit Street, to relieve the heavy traffic along the Towne Street (now South Main) and to be “a Benefit for All.” The remains in all those little family plots were removed to North Burial Ground, then just recently opened. Allegedly, though, some of the bodies were left behind, and still remain buried here to this day. And, according to local legend, a Huguenot couple lived, died, and was buried on the site of #135, and were among the bodies that were missed.
When Stephen Harris built this house, his family fell on hard times. Harris was a well-to-do merchant in Providence, and owned several merchant vessels; it is said that a few of those vessels were lost at sea shortly after the completion of the house. This led to other financial problems. Mrs. Harris also had a hard time—several of her children died, and others were stillborn. (I was told by the current resident, who has done her own research into the house’s history, that there was never a live birth in the house.) Probably the most (melo)dramatic part of the legend, however, is Mrs. Harris’s descent into madness, and her confinement to an upstairs room. She was occasionally heard to shriek out the window of this room, but in French—a language she didn’t know. Where could she have picked it up? Dead Huguenots, anyone?
In The Real Cabaret, actor, Alan Cumming goes in search of the people and places that inspired Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Goodbye to Berlin and the muscial Cabaret.
Starting with Isherwood’s arrival in Berlin in 1930, and taking in a visit to his original apartment (immortalized in the opening paragraph of Isherwood’s novel), Cumming takes the viewer through the sex clubs and cabarets, to the performers, and writers who turned the Berlin stories into a multi-award winning musical. With contributions from Liza Minelli, and Ute Lemper.
Alan explores the origins of the Cabaret story in the writings of Christopher Isherwood and uncovers the story of the real life Sally Bowles, a woman very different from her fictional counterpart.
He talks to the composer of Cabaret about the inspiration for the film’s most famous songs and discovers the stories of the original composers and performers, among them Marlene Dietrich. Finally, Alan reveals the tragic fate of many of the cabaret artists at the hands of the Nazis.
The documentary pays tribute to the magic of the original film and explores the fascinating and often shocking reality of the people and stories that inspired it.
This is an excellent documentary, and Alan Cumming is quite superb as our host,
At his lowest ebb, it was the book that kept Ken Russell believing in his talents.
Alone, unrecognized and poor, the struggling, young film-maker found faith, during the 1950s, in a slim biography of the Vorticist sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The book, Savage Messiah by H. S. Ede, consisted of letters from the young artist to his soul mate, the older, writer Sophie Brzeska. Of the artist’s life, Russell later said:
“I was impressed by Gaudier’s conviction that somehow or other there was a spark in the core of him that was personal to him, which was worth turning into something that could be appreciated by others. I wanted to find that spark in myself and exploit it for that reason.”
Born in 1895, H. S. Ede became a curator at the Tate Gallery London, in 1921, where he promoted works by Picasso, Braque and Mondrian. Ede often found himself frustrated by the more conservative tastes of the gallery directors. However, the position allowed Ede to become friends with many avant garde artists, and, more importantly, offered him the opportunity to obtain most of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s work through the estate of Sophie Brzeska. An event that helped ensure Henri’s art and reputation.
Gaudier-Brzeska was one of the leading artists of the Vorticist Movement, formed by Wyndham Lewis in 1913. Vorticism developed from Cubism and was linked to Futurism and Impressionism. However, Lewis and some of the other Vorticists, saw themselves as separate - a group of artists focussed on Dynamism, or as the Vorticist and poet, Ezra Pound wrote in his memoir on Gaudier-Brzeska:
“It is no more ridiculous that a person should receive or convey an emotion by means of an arrangement of shapes, or planes, or colors, than they should receive or convey such emotion by an arrangement of musical notes.”
“Vortex :- Every concept, every emotion, presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. It belongs to the art of this form.”
Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary application.
Gaudier-Brzeska’s early sculptures had a hint of Rodin, though this wasn’t to last, as the dynamic young artist soon adapted Chinese and Japanese prints and paintings for his needs, before using the processes of Cubism to develop his own unique artistic vision. As Pound later wrote, Gaudier-Brzeska, “had an amazing faculty for synthesis…” which, Pound believed, had the Gaudier-Brzeska lived, would have made him as famous as Picasso. He didn’t. But the fact he produced so much work, “a few dozen statues, a pile of sketches and drawings, and a few pages about his art,” in just a few years (whilst living in desperate and impoverished conditions), only confirms Pound’s belief.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska : after months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in a charge at Neauville St. Vaast, on June 5th, 1915.
He was twenty-three.
Born in 1891, the son of a carpenter, Gaudier had been a translator, a forger of paintings, and a student, by the time he met Sophie Brzeska in 1910. Brzeska was almost twice Gaudier’s age, but there was a connection that kept them together for the next 5 years. To mark their bond, they adopted each other’s surname, and became Henri and Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska.
Sophie’s life until meeting Gaudier, had been one of misery and heartbreak, a tale no author of Gothic romantic fiction could have conceived. Sophie was a writer with ambitions to publish her autobiography, Matka, of which she wrote several versions. With intentions to revolutionize art, the pair moved to London, and began their creative life together.
It wasn’t easy. Henri worked by day and sculpted by night. Sophie wrote and rewrote, worked and kept house. Henri forged his own tools, and carved directly into stone. He used off-cuts and (allegedly) a marble headstone to make his sculptures. One story goes, that after an idle brag to an art dealer, who he told he had three new statues ready for show. Henri worked through the night to deliver the statues. When the dealer didn’t turn up at the expected time, Henri carried his sculptures round to the dealer’s gallery and hurled them through its window.
Gaudier-Brzeska was passionate, industrious, creative and dynamic. You can see the attraction Henri’s life and work would have to a young Ken Russell.
In London, Henri met and mixed with Pound, Lewis, and Edward Wadsworth, who together exchanged ideas and loosely formed the short-lived Vorticist group. It was through his association with Vorticism that Gaudier-Brzeska formed his own ground-breaking maxims about sculpture, which he published in the Vorticist magazine Blast:
“Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation.
Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.”
Henri was re-defining sculpture, using “the whole history of sculpture” as his Vortex, to give a “complete revaluation of form as a means of expression.”
As Henri slowly flourished, Sophie started to weaken. Her health was poor, and their bond constricted. While Sophie recuperated outside London, Henri enlisted in the French army. They never saw each other again.
Even on the front line, Gaudier-Brzeska sketched, carved small statues from the butt of a German rifle, and wrote down more of ideas:
With all the destruction that works around us nothing is changed, even superficially. Life is the same strength, the moving agent that permits the small individual to assert himself.
After his death, Sophie went slowly mad, and wandered the streets of London, her fingers knitting together, distraught over the loss of her love.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska at work in his studio.
In 1972, having succeeded in establishing himself as the best and most original British director since Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell repaid the debt he felt he owed to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and that slim volume by H. S. Ede, by adapting Savage Messiah for the screen. Russell made a beautiful and inspiring film, with a cracking script by poet Christopher Logue, set design by Derek Jarman, and sterling performances from Scott Antony as Henri, Dorothy Tutin as Sophie, along with Helen Mirren and Lindsay Kemp. As Joseph Lanza noted in his biography of the director, Phallic Frenzy:
...Russell draws bold battle lines between artists and society, as well as true art and commercialism…
Or, as Russell explained:
“Gaudier’s life was a good example to show that art, which is simply exploiting to the full one’s natural gifts, is really bloody hard work, misery, momentary defeat and taking a lot of bloody stick - and giving it…If you really want to show the hard work behind a work of art, then a sculptor is your best subject. I was very conscious of this in the sequence when Gaudier sculpts a statue all through the night. It’s the heart the core of the film, the most important scene to me.”
As the book Savage Messiah had inspired the young director, so Russell’s film inspired me. Though I doubt I will ever be able to pay back this debt, as Russell did so beautifully for Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Ken Russell’a film Savage Messiah can be watched here on Veoh.
The Vorticist magazine Blast, with contributions from Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, is avaiable as a PDF. Issue 1 can be found here and issue 2here.
Kenneth Anger gives a wonderfully loose and informative talk on Aleister Crowley. From his birth in 1875 to his death in a boarding house in 1947 (not 1974 as said here), Anger gives snapshots of Crowley’s life through commentary on his painting, his use of writing paper, his mountaineering expeditions, his potboiler Diary of a Drug Fiend, Cefalu, the Blitz, to his involvement with the Occult and why the “Most Wickedest Man in the World”:
Crowley was not afraid of devils, in fact, they were part of his family. He was never afraid of anything on the other side - angel, devil, these are names you put on entities - but he said, ‘Welcome friend.’”
Anger also sketches in his own life and interests, and explains why he was officially declared a fire hazard.
Ivor Cutler was a poet, humorist, singer/song-writer, and performer, who was, by his own admission, “never knowingly understood.” Born into a Jewish middle-class family, in Glasgow’s south side, Cutler claimed his life was shaped by the birth of younger brother:
“He took my place as the center of the Universe. Without that I would not have been so screwed up as I am and therefore as creative. Without a kid brother I would have been quite dull, I think.”
Being so usurped, the young Cutler attempted to bash his brother’s brains in with a poker. Thankfully, an observant aunt stopped him. As more siblings were born, another brother and two sisters, Cutler’s resentment lessened after he discovered poetry and music. When he was five, he discovered politics after witnessing the bare-foot poverty of his school friends, and aligned himself to the Left thereafter.
After school, he worked at various jobs before he settled as a school teacher, teaching 7-11-year-olds music and poetry. His work with children inspired and reinforced his own unique view of the world:
He recalled how, in an art class, “one boy drew an ass that didn’t have four legs, but 14. I asked him why and he said it looked better that way. I wanted to lift him out of his cage and put my arms around him, but my intellect told me not to, which was lucky, because I probably would have been sent to prison.”
In the 1950s, Cutler started submitting his poetry to magazines and radio, and soon became a favorite on the BBC. His poetry was filled with “childlike wonder of the world”, created through the process of “bypassing the intellect.” He was, by his own account, a “stupid genius,” , as the London Times explained
Such genius derived from his ability to view life from the opposite direction to that taken by society, and his ability to empathise with the implications of that viewpoint, as in his one-sentence poem: “A fly crouching in a sandwich cannot comprehend why it has become more than ordinarily vulnerable.”
Cutler had a cult following of loyal fans, which included John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who cast him in their The Magical Mystery Tour film; DJ John Peel, who devotedly played Cutler’s releases; Morrissey and more recently Alan McGee and Oasis.
Ivor Cutler: Looking for Truth with a Pin was made shortly before Cutler died. The program has contributions from Paul McCartney, Robert Wyatt, Billy Connolly and Alex Kapranos, and is a fitting testament to the great man, who made life so much more fun. More interesting. More mysterious.
Admittedly, he might not be everyones cup of warmth, but as Cutler said himself:
“Those who come to my gigs probably see life as a child would. It’s those who are busy making themselves into grown-ups, avoiding being a child — they’re the ones who don’t enjoy it.”
Ah, the drum solo. The moment when the other band members retreat backstage to hoover the sherbets, gargle the fizz, change instruments and discuss the merits of the audience. Depending on the drummer’s talent and stamina, this can be a short interlude, or a half-time intermission.
The late, great John Bonham’s “Moby Dick” is one hell of drum solo, and his performances of the track ranged from two minutes to twenty. Like the book - epic. Bonham may have died thirty-one years ago, but he is still considered the greatest drummer who ever lived. An incredible accolade for a self-taught musician, who started banging out rhythm at the age of five, on tin boxes, coffee cans and whatever came to hand. His mother bought him a snare drum and 10, and he received his first drum kit for his 15th birthday. Bonham favored heavy sticks, or “trees” as he called them, which delivered the best and heaviest sound possible. As Roger Taylor of Queen once said
The greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer of all time was John Bonham who did things that nobody had ever even thought possible before with the drum kit. And also the greatest sound out of his drums - they sounded enormous, and just one bass drum. So fast on it that he did more with one bass drum than most people could do with three, if they could manage them. And he had technique to burn and fantastic power and tremendous feel for rock`n`roll.
Artist Alex Itin has used Bonham’s epic track, to great effect in his brilliant stream-of-consciousness, short animation Orson Whales. Itin has pulled together Welles reading of Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick (with some added champagne), over Bonham’s genius drumming and his own wonderful and distinctive illustrations, drawn on pages from Melville’s book. Itin is artist-in-residence at the Institute for the Future of the Book, you can check out more of his excellent work here.
Bonus clip of Bonham’s ‘Moby Dick’, after the jump…
I was a teenager, browsing the shelves of Better Books in Edinburgh, where amongst the imported copies of Grove plays, Pinter, Beckett, Behan, Arden, Delaney, and the City Lights’ volumes of Ginsberg and Corso, there was a small collection of Kerouac books. I picked up The Subterraneans and started reading:
Once I was young and had so much orientation and could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unselfconfident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won’t do - just start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that’s what I’ll do -. It began on a warm summer night…
I was filled with “nervous intelligence”, yet still “unselfconfident” I was hooked. And this is why Kerouac appeals best to the young, whose lives are starting out, giddy with living, filled with self-belief and self-doubt, in need of someone to say, “it’s all right.” And here was Kerouac saying just that.
John Antonelli’s 1984 film Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, tells Kerouac’s story through dramatized sequences, archive footage and interviews with the regular cast of players - William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. At times, it skates across, and avoids those cracks that’d reveal troubled depths, but it is still a reminder as to how and why Kerouac very much matters.
Jack MacGowran was a frail-looking, bird-like man, whose frame belied his power and talent as an actor. You’ll recognize him from The Excorcist, where he played alcoholic director Burke Dennings, or perhaps from Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, or as Professor Abronsius, in The Fearless Vampire Killers.
If Billie Whitelaw was Samuel Beckett’s favorite actress, then MacGowran was his favored actor. The pair met in the bar of a shabby London hotel, an unlikely start to an “intimate alliance” that saw MacGowran collaborate with Beckett on the definitive versions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame. From this, their partnership led to a further legendary collaboration Beginning to End. As Jordan R. Young noted in his book, The Beckett Actor:
...Jack MacGowran in the Works of Samuel Beckett (aka Beginning to End) [is] one of the most highly-acclaimed one-man shows in the history of theatre, [which] changed forever the public perception of Beckett from a purveyor of gloom and despair, to a writer of wit, humanity and courage. It also brought the actor widespread recognition as Beckett’s foremost interpreter. “The first time I saw Jack, in Endgame… I came away haunted by the impression he made on me,” said Paul Scofield. “I have remained so ever since.”
The production was filmed to celebrate Beckett’s sixtieth birthday:
Beginning to End [which] features the peerless Jack MacGowran in his one-man show, devised with Beckett and recorded for RTÉ Television in 1966. “Jack’s stage presence stays with me more than anything,” said Peter O’Toole. “This frail thing with this enormous power. He walked a tightrope as if it were a three-lane highway.” Martin Esslin, in The Theatre of the Absurd, commented on Beckett’s deep affection for MacGowran: “If ever there was a perfect congruence between a great poet’s imagination and an actor, this was it ... Jack MacGowran’s individual quality and life story are an essential ingredient in our understanding of the life and work of one of the outstanding creative minds of our time.”
Rarely seen, and long thought lost, this is a must-see, for it is one of the greatest stage performances ever committed to film.
The actress Billie Whitelaw couldn’t imagine what it was like. The theater darkened, apart from a spotlight on Whitelaw’s mouth, as she delivered Samuel Beckett’s babbling stream of consciousness Not I.
It’s one of the most disturbing images in theater: a disembodied mouth, telling its tale “at the speed of thought.” It takes incredible discipline and strength for the actor to perform: the text isn’t easy to learn, its full of difficult instructions, pauses, repetitions and disjointed phrases; add to this the speed of delivery, which means the actor has to learn circular breathing in order to deliver the lines. Jessica Tandy once gave a performance that lasted twenty-four minutes, only to be told by Beckett that she had “ruined” his play. And let’s not forget the rigidity of the piece: the actor’s lack of mobility, the mouth tethered to a spotlight, all of which says everything for Whitelaw’s brilliance as an actor.
Here, Whitelaw introduces Not I in the short documentary, A Wake for Sam, and explains the effect it had on her:
Plenty of writers can write a play about a state of mind, but [Beckett] actually put that state of mind on the stage, in front of your eyes. And I think a lot of people recognized it. I recognized it. When I first read it at home, I just burst in to tears, because I recognized the inner scream. Perhaps that’s not what it is, I don’t know, but for me, that’s what I recognized, an inner scream, in there, and no escaping it.
The idea of a film had its germination during a house party given by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles at Hyeres in 1929. Georges Auric, Cocteau’s lifelong musical collaborator, surprised his hosts by announcing that he wanted to compose the score for an animated cartoon. Cocteau was asked on the spot to provide a scenario. After some discussion, the Noailles agreed to give Cocteau a million francs to make a real film with a score by Auric. This became The Blood of a Poet, still one of the most widely viewed of all Cocteau’s screenworks. Cocteau described its disturbing series of voyeuristic tableaux as “a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body.”
Blood of a Poet can’t even be classed as the first Surrealist film, as Entr’acte had been made by René Clair, in 1924; The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman) arguably the first true Surrealistic film, directed by Germaine Dulac, and written by Antonin Artaud, was made in 1928; and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí had made two landmark Surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), by the time Cocteau was ready to put his thoughts on celluloid.
While there are undoubted references to Surrealist imagery (i.e. the lips on the artist’s hand), The Blood of a Poet shouldn’t be tied into any group or movement, for it is a film very much centered in Cocteau’s artistic sensibilities:
The Blood of a Poet like so much of what Cocteau created, abounds in autobiographical motifs: the macho Dargelos and the snowball fight, the opium smoker, the poet with his sexual stigmata, and the gunshots that, intentionally or not, echoed his father’s suicide long before.
Like all great artists, Cocteau sourced ideas from what was around him, what was new, to create his own distinct artistic vision. Of course, such magpie instincts left him open to the criticism of dilettantism, which was unfair, when considered against the range and diversity of his output as artist, writer, film-maker, designer, poet and man-about-town.
It was while out on the tiles at his favorite hot-spot “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” that Cocteau met the model, and later photographer, Lee Miller. Cocteau was casting for his film, and Miller breathlessly volunteered her services. It was her only film, and she would later describe the difficulties in making the film:
Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and became an angel with a limp. Cocteau put a star on Enrique Riviero’s back to cover an old bullet wound from the pistol of some cuckolded husband. The mattresses used to soundproof the studio walls were, unfortunately for the cast, infested with ravenous fleas and bedbugs. When the “bull” (really an ox) rented from an abattoir arrived at the studio with only one horn, Cocteau made a second one himself.
The film was financed by Charles, Vicomte de Noailles at a cost of one million francs. The Vicomte and his wife agreed to appear in the film, a scene where they talked amongst themselves and, on cue, began applauding. However, Cocteau intercut this footage with a another sequence, which ended in a suicide. Upon seeing the completed film, they refused to let Cocteau release it with their scene included. It was therefore re-shot with Barbette, the well-known female impersonator, and some extras.
Prior to its release, there was further controversy when it was rumored the film was filled with hidden symbolism:
Cocteau himself always denied the presence of hidden symbolism in the film, but word got about that it had anti-Christian undercurrents. This greatly distressed the Noailles. After the scandal caused the Viscount to be expelled from the elegant Jockey Club, and even brought threats of excommunication from the Church, they forbade Cocteau to allow public release of The Blood of a Poet for over a year.
It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it. the interest that it still arouses probably comes from its isolation from the works with which it is classified. I am speaking of the works of a minority that has opposed and unobtrusively governed the majority throughout the centuries. This minority has its antagonistic aspects. At the time of Le sang d’un poète, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth.
I applied myself only to the relief and to the details of the images that came forth from the great darkness of the human body. I adopted them then and there as the documentary scenes of another kingdom.
That is why this film, which has only one style, that, for example, of the bearing or the gestures of a man, presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.
My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.
The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols. As far as the former are concerned, it initiates their mechanism, and by letting the mind relax, as in sleep, it lets memories entwine, move and express themselves freely. As for the latter, it rejects them, and substitutes acts, or allegories of these acts, that the spectator can make symbols of if he wishes.
I’ve been re-reading Kurt Vonnegut recently, which has been a blast, and led me back to this peach of an interview Mr. Vonnegut gave shortly before his death. Listening to it now only makes the great man all the more missed.
In August 2006, the national, weekly public radio program, The Infinite Mind, made broadcast history as it aired a four-part special taped inside the 3-D virtual on-line community Second Life. Among those interviewed in front of a live, virtual audience was author Kurt Vonnegut. The 40-minute conversation with Vonnegut was the author’s last face-to-face, sit-down interview. The host was The Infinite Mind‘s John Hockenberry, who was with Vonnegut in the studio where the program was created. This is a machinima video of Vonnegut’s interview, taped at the 16-acre virtual broadcast center in Second Life built by Lichtenstein Creative Media, which produces The Infinite Mind.