DVD Review Of The Blood Of A Poet
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/19/06
I recently got The Orphic Trilogy of films, written and directed by Jean Cocteau, and decided to start with the first film, 1930’s The Blood Of A Poet (Le Sang D’Un Poète), which runs about 50 minutes. I was dubious about Cocteau as a filmmaker since, as a poet, he was one of those laughably bad frauds that the decadent inter-war years of Europe produced, trying to be Surreal, when all that really meant was his writing was puerile, half-hearted, and soaked with clichés. He loathed the king of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, whom he sought to displace, and their antagonism has gotten both bad writers more play than anything either ever wrote did. So, it was no surprise that Cocteau’s initial filmic offering was as bad- or worse, as his verse. Perhaps the only valuable thing that such a pretentious, self-conscious, hodgepodge can offer is some historical continuity with and context for later student arts films and the Warhol Factory films of the 1960s, which were, it should be stated, far more evocative with far less attempted. As ‘art’, though, Cocteau’s film is virtually worthless.
Apologists claim that such a film is beyond like or dislike or good or bad, but having recently watched Werner Herzog’s early Even Dwarfs Started Small, a film that really fits that description, I can say that The Blood Of A Poet is not like that film at all because Herzog’s film a) presented itself as art, b) was not a vanity project, and c) was well made- despite a limited budget. Cocteau’s film was amateurish, even for its day. Silent filmmakers had done wonders onscreen that dwarfed what Cocteau did- even if a budget limited him. Instead, Cocteau was content to take the lazy way out, tossing meaningless faux symbolism at the screen, so the viewer does all the work the lazy artist refuses to do. This is an old and tiresome tactic many bad artists employ, and makes the film definitively a work of bad art, if art at all.
As in any ‘arts film’ one must endure, there is no real script, there is no plot, there are no real ‘actors’- only caricatures put on by hammy amateurs, and a hodgepodge of ‘found’ images designed to be deeply symbolic as a way to compensate for there not being an interesting nor original thought going on in the film’s interior. Of course, apologists take this mess as a sign of ‘genius’ because this is what they claim the artist intended, a mess. If I desire to write a bad book then, it is critic-proofed by virtue of the fact that I intended to write poorly. The term ‘logical dissonance’ comes to mind, but then, to the apologists, art is about emotion, not logic. There is no visual power in the film- it looks just as cheap and dated today as it did over three quarters of a century ago. There are a few episodes within- a bare-chested ‘poet’ (Enrique Rivero), a poor imitation of Rudolph Valentino, frolics about his loft, constantly sucking in his gut, and then passing through a mirror, as he falls through it when it becomes a pool, as the scene is filmed from overhead. He then discourses with a statue come to life, after a drawn mouth, crudely superimposed on his motionless hand, is smeared on her, and makes her come to life after he’s wiped it off a charcoal drawing. The ‘poet’ bounces around the screen as silly images, bad poetry read by Cocteau, and sexual voyeurism dominate the film. Then, we get a snowball fight, where a boy is killed, as a black male angel, with oiled body, does some crudely homoerotic things to the child (Cocteau’s bisexuality was legendary) whose body he covers. Cut to a scene of the female statue playing cards with the poet and driving him to suicide with taunts, forcing him to cheat. The black angel foils the poet’s cheating, and the poet, inexplicably, but melodramatically chooses suicide, as the statue gets vengeance for the poet’s earlier smashing of her form after the mirror episode. The film then ends with dissonant imagery and trite ideas, such as ‘mortal tedium of immortality’ being a bane of sorts.
In a sense, though, this film is too disjointed to be really considered Surrealism, Expressionism, or even Symbolism. Being such a mess, however, puts it in the realm of Proto-Postmodernism, yet, the effects are so bad, and the film so poorly edited, that there is not a moment of magic nor awe in the film. It is almost like a badly drawn cartoon with human actors. A film made just a year later, Vampyr, by Carl Theodor Dreyer, shows exactly what a great filmmaker could do with special effects, even with a limited budget. Ostensibly, Cocteau’s film could be said to all take place between the first and final images of a factory smokestack falling to the ground, but this could also merely be repetition, and not symbolic of a frozen moment in time. The film also fails on the claim that it represents dream logic. It does not. Dreams can shift in tone, but they do not have the jagged and ragged feel these images do, nor the pontificating somnolence that most of Cocteau’s words inflict upon the viewer. Viewers and critics also interpolate many things they’ve read of Cocteau’s claimed past into the film with absolutely no reason to (unlike, say the meager homoeroticsim), save to manifest that the images and words offer nothing to the apologists, save the opportunity to apologize for it.
This stilted film was clearly a vanity project made by a man with an ego out of control- a self-described ‘mad genius’- to borrow the cliché he bathed in, and is shorn of any emotional coherence, unlike dreams, much less the logical continuity that such dreamy films like Solaris or The Shining might offer. That Cocteau was the ultimate bourgeois poseur, sort of art’s equivalent to Che Guevara, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his writing or this film. Perhaps, as I watch his later films, this film can at least be justified as a ‘dry run’ for tactics that would manifest themselves in better, more serious, works, but that still does not justify this film’s place in cinema for the masses, any more than the drip paintings of a Pollock nor the masturbatory excesses of LANGUAGE poets do for their increasingly dwindling audiences. This sort of art is not even explained by its apologists, merely sustained by them, for the art immanent within them is sparse, if not wholly nonexistent. Even Cocteau seemed to winking at his audience when he opens the film with this title card: A realistic documentary of unreal situations. On a related note, perhaps the latter two films of this ‘trilogy’ will actually involve Orpheus, but both the ‘poet’ within this film, and the whole film itself, have absolutely nothing to do with poetry nor the Orpheus and Eurydice mythos- much less the varied misinterpretations of that mythos the film’s apologists try to twist into reasons for this film’s ‘greatness’. And this film in no way, shape, or form, recapitulates the true creative process, which is- as should be expected from such a limited purview, tritely seen as coming from the Muse, in the most over the top and puerile manner, rather than the result of genuine and earnest- much less competent- work. Yes, the idea of a Muse is classical, but it’s also wrong. Reality may be more boring, but this is why we don’t have film’s about writers at their desks, only those who do things like drinking, carousing, cursing, or suiciding.
As for The Criterion Collection version of this film, it’s surprisingly bad, for such a usually top notch company. Blotches and scratches are abundant, and the sound quality is bad in this print. There are still photos, a transcript of a Cocteau lecture, an essay by him in the insert, and a 66 minute 1984 documentary on Cocteau by Edgardo Cozarinsky, called Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait D’Un Inconnu (Autobiography Of An Unknown). This film is, predictably, more hagiography than a sober documentary and its insights into art and Cocteau are fleeting, at best.
The truth is that this film feels more like a rejected Monty Python or early Saturday Night Live skit, or something that, were it not for its dogged and pretentious defenders, would make great fodder for the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd. Yes, the poseurs (you know who they are) will masturbate over this unabated tripe, but even worse than its pretentiousness and banality is that the film is just plain old dull, as in BORING! One need only look to America, a few years earlier, to see the silent films of Buster Keaton, to get a sense of a true Surrealist filmmaker who learned to tame that tendency into real storytelling- i.e.- have a philosophy serve a greater purpose than its mere claims. Having long known and loved Keaton, I can state, definitively, that Jean Cocteau is no Buster Keaton. After watching The Blood Of The Poet I’d even settle for this film and its maker being Diane Keaton. Ah, such things that dreams are made of.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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