#218. Orpheus (1949)

Roger Ebert’s essay fleshed this one out for me, as he did with Laura and a handful of others — movies that didn’t ring my bell but had this definite vibe of depth, a tight construction and something urgent about the tone, or where they were obviously very influential and revered but I couldn’t put my finger on why. He says that director Jean Cocteau’s handling of the Orpheus myth explores how an artist, so beholden to the beck and call of his craft, can end up neglecting his actual life, and hurting loved ones in the process.

And, going from there, I can see what Cocteau’s probably suggesting when his Orpheus, having to pass through a mirror into the underworld, ends up making such an impression on Death herself that she falls in love with him.

Death loves the poet.

It’s the sorta artful notion that feels heavy and clever and true but (at least for me) eludes explanation. Grim Reaper loves the Poet. Maybe it’s that the (generalized) Poet confronts death and life so much that (s)he knows them more than the average person? Like, (s)he’s one of the few people to’ve come to see a secular beauty in the whole arc of womb-to-tomb?

Or maybe Death’s fallen for the poet because Cocteau cast a gorgeous fucking man as his lead. Jean Marais, our angsty hermetic poet-protagonist (a neat and ominous component: his muse is a broken voice coming out of a car radio), also played the Beast in Cocteau’s last entry to the List, Beauty and the Beast, where under so many pounds of makeup and prosthetics he still manageda persuasive and menacing performance that transcends his appearance. The makeup of that monster is beautiful, brilliant, but when i think back on the character now, a few months removed from watching the movie, it’s his temperament, his veiled woundedness and yearning and anger that come to mind. I think Marais would’ve made just as effective a monster if he were done up like Lon Chaney Jr. in Wolf Man (not to knock the makeup there, its application was like a boulder up a hill, but it’s definitely small beans compared to the Beast).

And I’m getting a similar vibe in looking back on Orpheus. I didn’t enjoy it at all, to be honest — and maybe that’s because I was watching it at Tea & Poets, second movie of the day, and the shop was packed with families playing board games and I’d just gotten suckered into buying a terrible beer because it boasts on its label that the recipe’d been found on some parchment in a cave somewhere, a thousand years old, whatever. I can see why they buried it in a cave.

But yeah, so I didn’t enjoy it, and I thought that Death’s two leather-clad motorcyclist henchmen, and the latex gloves everyone awkwardly applies in order to pass through dimensions, were gaudy touches crafted by a filmmaker more interested in taking an old story and making it His Own than he was in expressing something genuine, let alone entertaining an audience.

It’s only in looking back (and perhaps doing so under Ebert’s critical canopy) that the overall story, shattered and scattered by memory, has some big, jagged, glittery shards of life that I maybe wasn’t appreciating during that first viewing. bits of meaning and sicnerity and pain.

Jean Cocteau

William T. Vollmann is a prolific writer and, when questioned by Michael Silverblatt about that feverish output, he said that there’s probably a way in which he feels that every word he sets in print is almost a bullet fired at Death. That his work is away of clinging to life. Paintings, sketches, short stories, photography, novels, compendious volumes of courageous, meticulous, polymathic journalism. I guess the idea is that maybe if he can leave a track record of such creative fertility, it’ll be harder for Death to wipe him from history.

Cocteau, a similarly prolific artist who traipsed across mediums and produced a shitload of work, might be depicting something akin to that anxiety in Orpheus. And if indeed this is a project forged out of worry, mortal fear and a concern about what the artist sacrifices in that hopeless pursuit of legacy or immortality, then yeah, it’s touching.

But maybe that’s me being too cerebral and trying to like it?

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