Orpheus, Orpheus, Orpheus, And How To Drive Away A Potential Audience By Being Pointlessly Obscure.
Blood of a Poet
Generally, neither surrealism nor the French are exactly my cup of tea. This is primarily because I’m both sober and rather sensitive to body odor, ruling out first one, then the other. On the other hand, I’ve never been one for tea either, having deemed it a drink for unwashed twenty-somethings recuperating from a late-night mushroom binge before setting out on a day of tree-planting in some godforsaken British Columbian rainforest. So, torn by these two opposing revulsions, I settled down to watch famed French artist Jean Cocteau’s first film, The Blood of a Poet, the introductory installment of his Orphic trilogy. The trilogy is so named because an association with Classical mythology makes you critic proof, at least it did until Joel Schumacher turned admiration for Olympian physical ideals into molded plastic Pride parade float dancers. I’m an admirer of some of Cocteau’s other work, particularly Beauty and The Beast, though I find that some of his elaborate penile caricatures have since been outdone by the fellow who scrawls all sorts of delightful imagery and witty wordplay on the bathroom walls of that 24 hour diner full of scabrous hookers and dollar slots on the corner of Chomedy and St. Catherine. And while I was not disappointed, it should be noted that this is the sort of film everyone fears will greet them should they ever attempt a university film class. Though this fear is not completely unfounded, I can testify from experience that for every hour spent watching scratchy black and white prints of pampered bohemians miming their way though elaborate set-pieces and jagged, Kuleshov-style editing, there are three full hours of Titanic being passed off as a perfect blend of classical Hollywood romanticism mixed with modern day CGI fantasy. I will fully admit that I will squirm in my uncomfortable, coffee-stained seat during film class as much as the well-cologned simpleton on a football scholarship beside me who's trying to skate through a bird course by dropping in for the first twenty minutes of the screening before heading off the gym to work his triceps, but I would much rather watch ten, nay, twenty hours of early experimental Maya Deren films before I’ll subject myself to one more minute of what James Cameron seems to think is dialogue. Honestly, the man must write his screenplays by cutting and pasting Superfriends scripts, barely pausing long enough to delete references to Wonder Dog and Plastic Man. Not that Cocteau’s first film is an exemplar of subtle character development and masterful plot construction. After all, it’s essentially a silent re-enecatment of what reading a Freudian dream symbolism book must be like after a glass of absinthe, but it’s miles ahead of the droolingly obvious films that have been shown at the theatres ever since Jaws destroyed American cinema. So, while I don’t recommend film school for much more than learning how to use the word ‘oneric’ in a sentence or waste a solid decade of your life talking about the groundbreaking films you’re going to make right after you get a raise at the video store, at least it will give you a chance to see something other than the cinematic equivalent of a Backstreet Boys album.
The second film in the Orphic trilogy, Orpheus is the best of the lot, though considering it’s up against a 50 minute silent short and the artistic equivalent of a bourgeois circle jerk, that’s not necessarily saying much. This is, however, a great picture, provided you’re not the kind of person who likes a lot of plot, action, sense, or logic in your films. Actually, if you like pretty much anything except for 40s French beefcakes smoking Galois cigarettes while hiking up their pants to chest level, you’re shit out of luck here. Starring French star Jean Marais, who looks sort of like an effete Hercules in suspenders, the film retells the myth of Orpheus in a modern setting, replacing, as the Surrealists are wont to do, anything that could possibly be considered interesting or exciting with a lot of symbolism and an underlying sense of pomposity so severe you feel like you’re watching the Queen of England teach curtsey lessons at a charm school for Jane Austin heroines. Instead of a horde of mad women tearing Orpheus apart in a Bacchanalian frenzy, we have some very angry villagers yelling at Marais through a gate, which I guess is as close as the French get to action without popping a stitch in their culottes. The grim personifications of death from the original myth is replaced with a painfully skinny woman in black and two guys on motorcycles. The woman lacks a bit of majesty, as she’s about four feet tall and reminds me of that girl in the corner of every coffee shop near a campus with the dark nail-polish, reading Nietzsche and drawing dying roses in black ink on a Starbucks napkin, waiting to be noticed by the dickhead with the hemp necklace at the counter who plays acoustic guitar at open mike night on Mondays. The motorcyclists might be scary if they didn’t remind me so much of extras in a Kenneth Anger movie. Much of the imagery is, however, quite haunting, as is a remarkably modern portrayal of the underworld as a bureaucratic hell as opposed to the generally accepted Hieronymus Bosch styled inferno. While this vision of a punitive afterlife might not seem terrifying at first, throw in the threat of that coffee shop girl reading some of the poetry she writes when the necklace guy seems particularly blasé, and you’ve got yourself a hell worth suffering in.
The Testament of Orpheus
The final film in Cocteau’s trilogy is also the final film that Cocteau directed, bringing to a close his film career in the same fashion he opened it, with pretentious crap. Not to put to fine a point on it, but this is an awful film, one that nearly destroys the credibility of his earlier work; a overdone, indulgent, and endlessly self-referential picture that plays out like Cocteau’s masturbatory eulogy for himself. This is the kind of movie you have nightmares about the day before you let your girlfriend pick the date movie for the first time, when you half-expect to be dragged to a Jennifer Lopez picture but are terrified by the off-chance she saw the local repertory theatre schedule and was intrigued by a Michael Snow retrospective. Essentially, all this is is Cocteau wandering around, talking to characters from Orpheus, while the audience is expected to sit back and pick out all the annoying cameos from his rich and famous friends, sort of like a Tarantino movie but without the occasional amoral bloodbath to liven things up. Picasso, Charles Aznavour, Maria Casares, and many others clutter up the scenery in this picture, a relic of the time when French films were so self-consciously arty they forgot that they were being made for an audience, not for other artists. Then, of course, centuries of red wine based-alcoholism and aristocratic inbreeding dropped the mean IQ of the country about 40 points, and the whole industry concentrated on making sequels to Taxi. The times, they are a’ changin’, though it is odd that the barometer of this change is a shift in the specific ways in which French cinema sucks. Next week, we’ll study the progression of linguistic morphology through a list of movies in which people eat shit.