Monday, April 30, 2012

The Raven Meets the Reverend

No roundup of critical opinion regarding the new John Cusack stinkbomb "The Raven" would be complete without having Rufus Wilmot Griswold himself weigh in on the matter. As you can imagine, the movie just killed him.
"I spent eleven dollars and nearly two hours of my afterlife for the privilege of sitting in stunned silence amongst fewer than three dozen other movie-goers, all of whose enjoyment of the movie was at first spoilt by some creep hurling obscenities at the on-screen Poe… Until at length the usher told me to quiet down or I would be escorted out of the theater."

"I’ve no complaint regarding the film’s portrayal of Poe as a drunk, a drug addict, a madman & a litterbug; I am in fact pleased to see that my posthumous characterization of the Poet Inebriate is alive and well!"

I say no more. Just head on over to the Reverend's place (enemy territory though it may be) and enjoy reading a truly fine tomahawking. Much as it goes against my principles to give this particular Devil his due, I can now say that "The Raven" has finally been given the critical respect it deserves.

A footnote. [Mild spoiler alert--as if I could spoil this thing more than the filmmakers already have.] Regarding the "dramatic climax" of this movie: Does anyone remember how a novel, which later became a film, called "The Vanishing," ended? It's obvious the writers of "The Raven" remember it very well, except that they made a complete botch of it. The bloody idiots can't even steal very well.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

World of Poe Goes Hollywood, and Heartily Regrets It

"...too purely imbecile to merit an extended of a class of absurdities with an inundation of which our country is grievously threatened..."
- Edgar Allan Poe, review of "Paul Ulric," Southern Literary Messenger, February 1837

"The fact is, the drama is not now supported for the sole reason that it does not deserve support...The common sense, even of the mob, can no longer be affronted, night after night, with impunity...if the playwright, we say, will persist in perpetrating these atrocities, and a hundred infinitely worse...if he will do this, and will not do anything else to the end of Time--what right has he, we demand, to look any honest man in the face and talk to him about what he calls 'the decline of the drama?'"
- Edgar Allan Poe, "Does the Drama of the Day Deserve Support?" Weekly Mirror, January 18, 1845

Quoth the Raven, "I'm calling my lawyer."

Something of a sense of professional duty compelled me to waste time and money on John Cusack's "The Raven." From what I had seen and heard of the movie, I wasn't expecting much, and it did not disappoint me in that regard. The premise--Poe plays detective to hunt down a serial killer who uses murder methods based on his stories--is one that has for years been an overused staple of crime fiction (not to mention a mercifully defunct TV pilot,) and the filmmakers did not make the slightest effort to improve the tired concept. "The Raven"--the title says it all about the film's lack of imagination--is simply a typical slasher flick with Poe's name pasted on as a quickie marketing tool.

Cusack, painfully miscast and hammy though he may be, is not the worst thing in this movie, (that honor goes to Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare's sorry excuse for a script,) but he's not Poe, either. His character (or, rather, caricature) does not have the slightest resemblance--physically, emotionally, or historically--to the actual man, although in a movie this stupid that's almost inevitable. Perhaps I take such things too much to heart, but seeing someone who was universally described--even by his enemies--as a quietly charming, dignified, refined, and courteous gentleman portrayed as an arrogant, childishly egomaniacal, rude smartass is deeply offensive.

Alice Eve, who plays his (entirely fictional) love interest, has some charm, and might have made a decent Virginia Clemm in another, better movie--despite being one of those actors who looks vaguely uncomfortable in period pieces. (Or perhaps her unease was due to the fact that she and Cusack made such a ludicrous couple. The writers could not have created a more unconvincing romance if they had paired Poe off with Rufus Griswold...the latter, incidentally, instead meets a bloodier fate in this film.)

Another source of irritation is that the film simply could not decide what it wanted to be. It was too campy and illogical to be taken seriously, and too intellectually pretentious to be any fun. And the true source of horror in this thing is the dialogue.

Not long ago, a literary agent told me, "Everybody in Hollywood has a Poe screenplay they're trying to sell." (This particular agent had three.) If that is the case, it is a marvel that with so many scripts to choose from, this silly mess is what finally gets produced. (And when this film is--as I predict--quickly hooted out of theaters, that will probably discourage the development of other, and possibly worthier, Poe-related projects.)

If you enjoy seeing people dispatched into eternity in various extremely gruesome ways, you might like "The Raven." There really is nothing more to be said about this production. (Although, to be fair, I did get a few moments of entertainment for my money--when Cusack-as-Poe went into his Dirty Harry impersonation and started waving a pistol around I fell into uncontrollable giggling fits.)

Otherwise, this tired, unpleasant film so bored me I could not even work up any real animosity. (It is not even necessary to include "spoiler alerts" for any review of the film, as it features the most idiotic denouement in recent memory. There is absolutely no challenge in guessing the murderer's identity, and what is more important, you simply don't care.) "The Raven" failed to even reach a level of "Mommie Dearest"-style enjoyable epic awfulness. It was just there, a perfect example of the generic, immediately forgettable, two-hour style-over-substance time-suckers that the film industry churns out with such monotonous regularity.

Look, gang. Do us all a great favor. Instead of putting more money into the pockets of everyone responsible for the half-witted exploitation of a dead genius, watch something like the following video instead. This is Poe:

Psyche, uplifting her finger, said...

"...This blog is up for an award? What the hell?"

Yes, strange though it may seem. One of my favorite people of the interwebs, Pauline, that Friend of Poe and nautical historian extraordinaire, has included me in her list of nominations for the Very Inspiring Blogger award. I was, naturally, quite surprised by this, as I am not known for inspiring much of anything, except perhaps calls to the police. Needless to say, however, I am humbly flattered and grateful.

With the nomination goes a certain amount of responsibility. It seems that I am to not only give all of you seven facts about myself, but to nominate seven other bloggers for the honor. I must say, I find the latter duty daunting, in view of all the fine blogs out there, and the former frankly appalling. Pauline, old girl, you don't know what you're letting my readers in for with that one.

Well, a deal's a deal. Here are--in no particular order--seven details about yours truly:

1. This may come as a great surprise, but I'm a really big fan of Edgar Allan Poe.

2. My mother was a psychiatric RN and my father a Hell's Angel. Yes, I know. It explains a lot.

3. I can't stand avocados. And mushrooms. And eggs. In other words, to me, Hell is an omelet.

4. I spend a disgraceful amount of time at the racetrack, where I have somehow become a well-known figure around the local circuit. Can't think why. In my defense, however, I plow all of my ill-gotten gains into donations to the many deserving thoroughbred rescue/adoption/retirement organizations connected to the sport, such as Old Friends, Tranquility Farm, United Pegasus, Friends of Ferdinand, and too many others to list here. They all do great work, and are sadly in need of donations. (Hint, hint...)

5. I consider the four main food groups to be red wine, coffee, cheese, and Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate With Almonds bars.

6. When I was three, one of my aunts was studying "Macbeth" in college. I was a very curious child--in every sense of the word--so I read it along with her. I became enamored with the scene where the witches are casting their spells ("Double, double toil, and trouble/Fire burn, and caldron bubble/Filet of a fenny snake/In the caldron boil and bake...") I wound up memorizing that whole passage, and for quite some time afterwards, I'd recite it at unexpected moments. It was, I am told, quite startling to people who didn't know me.

7. The only actor I've ever really swooned over is Lane Davies, who was on a quite nutty but often entertaining soap opera called "Santa Barbara" in the mid-'80s. That was the one soap I ever watched in my life, simply because I was so mad for the guy. I stopped watching in 1986, however, after they got rid of my favorite actress on the show, his onscreen love interest (a giant letter "C" killed her character--no, really) and they paired him up with an actress named Nancy Grahn whom I just loathed. The show, I am told, really went downhill soon after that point and it was eventually cancelled. Serves 'em right.

Well, thankfully, so much for My Back Pages. On to the nominations! It was quite difficult for me to narrow it down to seven, so I decided to concentrate on blogs or bloggers that have some sort of a Poe connection. I settled on the following, with my apologies to everyone I was forced to omit:

1. Edward II. Kathryn Warner's excellent blog deals with a completely different era, but her ongoing efforts to present the truth about this controversial king reflect what I have been attempting here. She has--only in a far more erudite and impressive style than anything I've done--shown the world the truth of Henry Ford's words, "History is the bunk."

2. Kristi P. Schoonover. Staunch Friend of Poe, and a fine writer.

3. Maria, aka @__Nevermore__. OK, I cheated with this one. She, unfortunately, does not have a blog, but her Twitter account is a must-follow for Poe fans. The Ninja Death Rays she sends out to anyone who does our Edgar wrong make me look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Great stuff.

4. The Midnight Society. A walk on the weird side of Richmond, Virginia. What could be more Poe?

5. The Sump Plug. For anyone following the Lenore Hart Wars, this post alone was an instant classic. As I explained in an earlier post, Archie Valparaiso not only decimated any claim Hart had to credibility, but he simultaneously demolished the legend--which I had long questioned--of Poe and Virginia's alleged honeymoon trip to Petersburg. For a Poe geek, it doesn't get much cooler than that.

6. Lifetime Reading Plan. Poe fan. Reader. Knitter. Great blog for anyone with a passion for books.

7. Last, but certainly not least, is none other than Rufus W. Griswold. "What?" I can almost hear you saying. "You're honoring your Twitter Nemesis, that infamous scoundrel, that sworn foe of all things Poe? How can that be, Undine?"

I'll tell you. I am bestowing this tribute to the Reverend for one very good reason. I can't wait to see what he'll do with it.

Well. Many thanks, once again, to Pauline, even though I suspect this post has tempted her to take the nomination back pronto. Later this morning, I will post my review of the new movie "The Raven," which I saw last evening. In the meantime, I'll sum up the experience in two words: Hoo. Boy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why It Was Never a Good Idea to Send Poe Hate Mail

Today, we look back fondly on a minor Poe feud that took place this week in 1845. Obscure an incident as it may be, I felt it was still worthy of remembrance.

It all started so amicably. In early April, Poe, in his role as drama critic for the "Broadway Journal," wrote to William Dinneford, the manager of New York's Palmo's Opera House, asking for the usual free admission granted to journalists. Poe indicated that he wished to see Dinneford's upcoming production of Sophocles' "Antigone," and was anxious to do it "Justice."

Palmo's Opera House
Poe's subsequent review of the play was utterly withering. In the April 12 issue of the "Journal," he wrote: "The idea of reproducing a Greek play before a modern audience is the idea of a pedant and nothing beyond...Many persons will be curious to understand the mode in which the Greeks wrote dramas and performed them--but, alas! no person should go to Palmo's for such understanding." He added, "We are really ashamed of wasting so much space in commenting on such a piece of folly."

Edgar Allan Poe Broadway Journal
Dinneford was not pleased. On April 15, he sent Poe an indignant letter focusing on his outrage that Poe had been able to savage his play gratis.

"SIR!" he spat, "In your note of the 2d inst. you request of me the favor of being placed on the free list of this theatre, because (as your letter says) you were anxious 'to do Justice to Antigone on its representation.' Your name was accordingly placed on the free list. Your Critique has appeared, in the Broadway Journal, characterized, much more by ill nature and an illiberal spirit, than by fair and candid, or even just criticism.

In justice therefore to MYSELF, I have withdrawn your name from the free list. I am always prepared to submit; as a catererer [sic] for public amusement, to any just remarks, though they may be severe, but I do not feel MYSELF called upon to offer facilities to any one, to do me injury by animadversions evidently marked by ill feeling. I am SIR!

With very great respect,

Your most obt servt W. DINNEFORD.
To Edgar Poe, Esq., &c. &c. &c., Author of THE RAVEN.
New York, Apl. 15, 1845. No. 8 Astor House"

Poe's response was no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Poe. The April 19 “Journal” carried the headline “Achilles' Wrath.” Below it, Poe commented, "At 'No. 8 Astor House,' in a style (no doubt) of luxurious elegance and ease, resides a gentleman and a scholar, who (without paying his postage) has forwarded us a note, (through the Despatch Post,) signing it either Mr. W. Dinneford, or Mr. P. or Mr. Q. Dinneford--for he writes a shockingly bad hand, and we are unable to make out all his capitals with precision. It is not always the best scribe, however, physically considered, who is capable of inditing the most agreeable note--as the note of Mr. Dinneford will show. Here it is."

Poe then reproduced Dinneford's letter. He went on to say, "We are not wrong (are we?) in conceiving that Mr. Dinneford is in a passion. We are not accustomed to compositions of precisely this character--(that is to say, notes written in large capitals with admiration notes for commas--the whole varied occasionally with lower case)--but still, we think ourselves justified in imagining that Mr. Dinneford was in a passion when he sent us this note from his suite of boudoirs at the Astor House. In fact, we fancy that we can trace the gradations of his wrath in the number and impressiveness of his underscoring. The SIRS!! for example, are exceedingly bitter, and in THE RAVEN, which has five black lines beneath it, each one blacker than the preceding, we can only consider ourselves as devoted to the Infernal Gods."

"Mr. Dinneford is in a passion then--but what about? We had been given to understand, that it was usual in New York, among editors newly established, to apply (by note) for the customary free admission to the theatres. The custom is a wretched one, we grant, but since it was a custom, we were weak enough, in this instance, to be guided by it. We made our note to this Dinneford as brief and as explicit as possible--for we felt that the task was a dirty one. We stated distinctly that we wished to be placed on his free list for the purpose of 'doing justice to Antigone'--just as he says himself. To this note the inhabitant of No. 8 Astor House condescended to make no reply. Supposing that the man 'knew no better,' and pitying his ignorance from the bottom of our hearts, we proceeded to the theatre on its opening night, in the full certainty of at least finding our name on the free list. It was not there. And the blatherskite who could behave in so indecent a manner, as to fail first in answering our note, and secondly in paying attention to the request it contained, has the audacity to find fault with us because we dared to express an unbiased opinion of his stupidity--that is to say, of the stupidity of a play gotten up by himself, Mr. Dinneford."

"...We are not wasting words on this Quinneford[sic]--it is the public to whom we speak--to the editorial corps in especial. We wish to call their attention to the peculiar character of the conditions which managers such as this have the impudence to avow, as attached to the privilege of the free list. No puff no privilege, is the contract. That is to say, an editor, when admitted to the theatre, is to be understood as leaving his conscience in the street. He is admitted not to judge--not to criticise--but to adulate..."

"We have spoken, altogether, of 'such managers' as Quinneford--but fortunately such managers are few. There is certainly not in New York, at the present moment, any other member of the theatrical profession, who either would have behaved with the gross discourtesy of this gentleman, or who, in inditing the preposterous letter published above, could have proved himself, personally, so successful a 'caterer for the public amusement.'"

Poe dismissed the hapless manager with, "We told him that we meant to do him justice--and we did it."

Episodes such as this make me wish longingly that Poe was around today to write a blog. What he'd do with trolls would be a perfect joy to behold.

(P.S. Poe's fellow critics and New York audiences all agreed with his opinion of Dinneford's "Antigone." The play closed after barely two weeks.)

Images via Wikipedia, NYPL.