[GUEST POST] Gilbert Colon on Biopics Fantastique: The Biographical Film as Fantasia

Like Franz Kafka, Gilbert Colon is a civil servant by day, writer by night, and full-time crime-solver in his own imagination. He has contributed to a range of periodicals including Filmfax, Cinema Retro, The New York Review of Science Fiction, as well as the book Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (Stark House Press). A guest post of his will soon appear on the author blog Bradley on Film.

Biopics Fantastique: The Biographical Film as Fantasia

“… I want my story back. It’s not much, but it’s what I do.”—Dashiell Hammett in Hammett.

A recent New York Magazine issue showcases John McTeigue’s The Raven (2012) with a sidebar list of supposedly similar biopics that includes Finding Neverland, Capote, Midnight in Paris, Shadowlands, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Miss Potter, Quills, Permanent Midnight, The Hours, and Ed Wood.  But those films are wholly unlike The Raven in that they are traditional biopics, treating their subjects in a purely straightforward manner.  John Cusack describes The Raven as “a mash-up”—“a straight biopic would be boring,” he claims—but that is insufficiently specific.  The Raven is the latest in a long line of unconventional biographical films in which the artist somehow literally encounters his or her art.  In other words, these biopics employ a metafictional literary device in which the character, usually a writer, steps into or inhabits his own created world.  There are enough of these “biographical fantasies,” for lack of a better word, to deserve consideration as a subgenre of the biopic, no matter what we call them (fantasy biopic, biographical fantasia, biopic metafiction, etc.).

Unless the author is Ernest Hemingway, whose life and fiction were one and the same, most writers live a solitary interior life, not generally the cinematic stuff of drama.  When the author writes “fantastique,” the solution almost presents itself wrapped up with a bow—literally bring to life their fictional world.  The choice to go inside the writer’s mind and works, thereby exploring their inmost imagination and turmoil, has long opened up the possibilities for filmmakers so that audiences could encounter mad scientists, talking bug typewriters, Evil Queens, Red Deaths, and other fantastical elements.  This subgenre of the biopic form, mixing fact and fiction to concoct a cinematic device not quite biography and not quite pastiche, has existed for many decades.

With Edgar Allan Poe, a filmmaker can either go the Richard Matheson route and faithfully adapt Poe’s work—e.g., House of Usher (1960) or Tales of Terror (1962), albeit with some feature-length elaboration—or make one big blockbuster-budgeted highlights reel of all the best parts of Poe, as the makers of The Raven (starring Cusack as Poe) opted to do.

Unofficially, The Raven crosses the historical Edgar Allan Poe, or at least the Poe of legend, with C. Auguste Dupin, his “Murders in the Rue Morgue” great detective who inspired Sherlock Holmes.  Cusack is this Poe in a whodunit showcasing elaborately choreographed serial murders, not unlike those seen in the gialli of Mario Bava and Dario Argento or, more recently, movies such as Seven (1995) and Saw (2004).  The twist is that the killer re-enacts each grisly murder—death by pendulum being one—from one of Poe’s tales, taunting Baltimore police a la Jack the Ripper.  The inspector in charge of the case enlists the macabre author as the most uniquely qualified man to enter the criminal mind of their copycat killer.

It is not the first time similar storytelling devices have been used to present Poe’s life.  Novels like Harold Schechter’s Edgar Allan Poe mysteries (Nevermore, The Hum Bug, The Mask of Red Death, and The Tell-Tale Corpse) and Nevermore by William Hjortsberg have visited this territory, as have previous film treatments such as The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974).  In the latter, Robert Walker Jr. plays a Poe who investigates the asylum to which his cataleptic fiancée, Lenore, after nearly being buried alive, has been committed, and uncovers a mad doctor’s experiments in horror that suggest his future fiction.  Like The Raven, The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe borrows from Poe’s works the way Theatre of Blood (1973)—a film whose premise shares much with The Raven—borrowed Shakespeare’s bloodiest scenes.  ABC is supposedly developing the series Poe with Chris Egan (Resident Evil: Extinction, Kings) as, you guessed it, a crime-solving Poe.

Decades before these, Poe masqueraded as Dupin in The Man with a Cloak (1951), but the film, based on the John Dickson Carr short story “The Gentleman from Paris,” is a simple mystery containing nothing from the literature of Poe beyond a few names and references.  Silvano Tranquilli portrayed Poe in Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (1964), yet none of the supernatural horror belongs to Poe’s fiction, despite its claim of being based on his short story “Danse Macabre” (the film’s original title).  Margheriti cast Klaus Kinski as Poe in his Castle of Blood remake, Web of the Spider (1971), allegedly based on Poe’s “Night of the Living Dead.”  It should be noted that there are no such stories in Poe’s bibliography.

Really The Raven owes more to Time After Time (1979), in which H. G. Wells is not only the author of The Time Machine but also the inventor of the actual vehicle, than it does to traditional biopics such as Amadeus (1984) or Bright Star (2009).  Time After Time has Wells use his time-traveling machine to pursue Jack the Ripper into the present, even if Wells never did write a serial-killer thriller.  Pursuing a mad Invisible Man might have made more sense, though director Nicholas Meyer’s adventure yarn acquits itself well as a breezy adventure romp, a feat he previously accomplished as the author and screenwriter of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), which gives us a swashbuckling Sherlock Holmes who predates Robert Downey Jr.’s.

A conventional biopic from a major motion-picture studio has yet to be attempted, but perhaps you could do worse than The Raven: past projects proposed, but never made, included the (mis)casting of Sylvester Stallone and Michael Jackson as the troubled inventor of the modern detective tale.

With all of this in mind, it seems evident that The Raven deserves a far different list than the one provided by New York Magazine because conceptually it has more in common with this sampling of biopic riffs:

“The Black Cat” (Masters of Horror, 2007)

A stylish and faithful adaptation of Poe’s short story, into which the real-life Poe is inserted as the tale’s protagonist.  Screenwriter Dennis Paoli draws upon extensive research (biographies, letters, and literary reviews of the time) to recreate the historical Edgar A. Poe, but it is when Poe suffers a nightmare break from reality—is it madness, laudanum, alcohol, imagination, or a dream within a dream?—that the feline fright tale we all know and love comes to life.  This episode stars an unrecognizable Jeffrey Combs in a transformative performance as the Baltimore bard of the grotesque and arabesque.

He reprised the role in a one-man show, Nevermore—An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, that premiered on Halloween 2011 at the restored Poe Cottage in the Bronx, and is now being performed monthly at Hollywood’s Steve Allen Theater.

With their scenes of cruelty to cats (simulated, of course), “The Black Cat” and H. P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator (1985)—both directed by Gordon, starring Combs, and adapted by Paoli—will do nothing to endear ailurophiles to this trio, though it should be noted that Combs boasts in the DVD commentary of being the proud and affectionate owner of a black cat of his own.

Incidentally, Combs portrayed Lovecraft, often regarded as Poe’s literary heir, in Necronomicon: Book of Dead (1993).

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)

Some in TV land might wish to include on this list Grimm (2011), the NBC series in which descendants of the Grimm brothers inherit special abilities that allow them to fight folktale monsters, but The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm may well be where it all started.  By having characters relate the familiar stories or, in the case of Wilhelm, feverishly dream them, co-director-producer-special effects wizard George Pal is given ample excuse to stage scenes from their fairy tales using stop-motion animation and Cinerama.  As far as classifying this subgenre of fantasy biopic goes, Pal’s film probably establishes The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm as the filmic father of the format.

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Terry Gilliam pushes his Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Enlightenment-versus-Romantic Era themes to entertainingly ridiculous extremes in this messy fantasy film that predates the current craze of dark fairy-tale adaptations (Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, the upcoming Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters).  In Gilliam’s world, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are huckster exorcists who are not simply compiling local lore and legend as the real brothers did so much as living it (and presumably penning it for posterity in between fighting monsters).  What follows is much like The Raven, a best-of-Brothers Grimm approach that allows them to encounter the “Red Hooded Girl,” “the Woodsman,” and the “Mirror Queen,” among others.

Naked Lunch (1991)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch presents a bleak tableau of nihilistic scenes from William Burroughs’s own life—his days as an exterminator, the fatal “William Tell routine” that ended his wife’s life, his Tangier pilgrimage to fellow writer Paul Bowles—recounted as part autobiography, part heroin (or, technically, “bug powder”) hallucination.  In many ways, Naked Lunch is not unlike Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), another drug-addled phantasmagoria, in which Johnny Depp embodies Hunter S. Thompson.  Both Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stand apart from other fantasias because the authors place themselves in their own fictionalized worlds, making them autobiographical rather than biographical.  It should be admitted that in both cases the roman à clef characters assume pseudonyms (Bill Lee for Burroughs and Raoul Duke for Thompson), a technique Jack Kerouac adopted when he named himself Sal Paradise in On the Road, perhaps disqualifying them from inclusion on this list.

Dreamchild (1985)

Dreamchild, written by Dennis Potter, gives us a Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, though it is not author Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) who dreams his own creation onto the screen, but his muse, Alice Liddell (the “Alice” of Carroll’s novels).  The Gryphon, Mock Turtle, March Hare, Mad Hatter, Dormouse, and Caterpillar are all here, inhabiting slightly sinister psychological landscapes in which Alice must wrestle with her ambivalent memories of Dodgson.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)

Honorable mention goes to Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, in which a painter, not a writer this time, lives in his own artwork.  In one of the film’s segments, “Crows,” director Martin Scorsese portrays Vincent van Gogh in brief but big, bold brush strokes.  A young art student enters van Gogh’s world through a museum painting and, on the other side, encounters the Dutch Post-impressionist master himself.  He crosses the Langlois Bridge at Arles and wanders fields of wheat and crows, beautifully rendered by George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic to capture van Gogh’s beatific vision of God’s created world in all its intensity of color and driving spiritual hunger.  “Crows” anticipates the painterly visions of Vincent Ward’s 1998 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come, in which a departed husband leaves a stained-glass afterlife of oil-painted splendor to rescue his soul mate, an artist, from a Dantean Inferno.

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) and Witch Hunt (1994)

In Cast a Deadly Spell and Witch Hunt, a Philip Marlowe-like occult P.I. by the name of “H. Phillip Lovecraft” solves cases in an alternate postwar L.A. where magic is a reality.  Rather than the reclusive pulp author who gave us tales of cosmic terror, these two made-for-cable movies portray Lovecraft as a brash, hardboiled private eye (played by Fred Ward in the first film, Dennis Hopper in the second) who would be more at home in the pages of Black Mask or Dime Store Detective than Weird Tales.  The only thing “Lovecraftian” about these two telefilms is the monster names, ripped carelessly from the pages of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and the dread Necronomicon spellbook as the substitute MacGuffin for the Maltese Falcon, or the “great whatsit,” or take your pick.  The rest is more low-rent Men in Black (1997) or Hellboy (2004) than “Call of Cthulhu,” only not nearly as fun or imaginative.

Kafka (1991)

Director Steven Soderbergh casts Jeremy Irons as the famed Czech man of letters, Franz Kafka, who, when not writing stories about metamorphosed bugs or metaphysical kangaroo courts, toiled at his day job as a civil-service clerk.  In Soderbergh’s German Expressionist take on Kafka’s life, the existentialist author finds himself investigating a noirish murder mystery, which eventually leads him into a proto-science fiction world reminiscent not only of his novel The Castle, but also of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), albeit more low-tech.

Hammett (1982)

Filmed by German director Wim Wenders, and based on Joe Gores’s imaginative mystery novel, Hammett is unjustly remembered more for the headlines surrounding it at the time than its more interesting elements.  Virtually the entire film was reshot, either by producer Francis Ford Coppola or at his behest (accounts vary).  The tangled tale of this troubled production would make for a terrific special-edition DVD or Blu-ray if it were to include a documentary, a commentary, and some of Wenders’s discarded footage.

In Hammett, the titular detective navigates a shadowy film-noir world peopled by characters who will later inspire some of his most famous fictional counterparts — the Fat Man, the Continental Op, and others.  With Hammett, unlike many other films that cast its author as a detective, there is at least a fig leaf of justification for this approach as Dashiell Hammett, unlike Poe, Lovecraft, and Kafka, was an actual private investigator (a Pinkerton in the vein of his Continental Op character).  Frederic Forrest captured Hammett so effectively that he reprised his role in the made-for-cable film Citizen Cohn (1992).

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire pretends that the German Expressionist filming of Nosferatu (1922), the unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was a case of “method moviemaking,” its leading man, Max Schreck (in the “Graf Orlok” role), an actual vampire, unbeknownst to the cast and crew.  Also unbeknownst to those involved in the production is the Mephistophelean bargain their megalomaniacal director, F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich), has made with the thespian nosferatu.  When it becomes apparent what this meta-Murnau with his Faustian filmmaking is willing to sacrifice for art’s sake, we are only a little more than a decade away from Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Hendrik Höfgen in Mephisto (1981) selling his soul to the Third Reich for art and fame.  The treat here, besides the deliciously diabolical performances of Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, is the recreation of silent filmmaking’s pioneering days, albeit seen through a darker lens than The Artist or Hugo (both 2011).

There are almost certainly other examples, as this list is by no means exhaustive or definitive.  It does, however, demonstrate that The Raven’s approach, applaud or vilify it, has antecedents upon which it draws, and it gives an idea of the mold from which today’s “biographers” are working.  For purists who worry for our treasury of deceased artistic geniuses and their original creations, it is probably more likely that the new fantasias and flights of fancy will inspire filmgoers to pick up one of their books than damage their literary reputations, or at least make audiences aware of or curious about their bodies of work.  The biographical fantasy is a template on its way to becoming a trope, and up till now has produced very varied results, but it is not without its masterworks, and we have probably not seen the last of it.

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Just in time for Halloween, The Raven debuts on Blu-ray and DVD the month of October 2012.