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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Raven

THE RAVEN (Two Stars)
U.S.: James McTeigue, 2012


Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “Tapping at my chamber door —

“Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow — vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —

Nameless here forevermore.

Edgar Allan Poe: “The Raven”

On a dark day in October, 1849, the greatest poet America ever produced — the sharpest poetic mind and one of the most staggeringly gifted literary stylists we will generate, ever and evermore — was discovered wandering, distraught and probably dying, on the streets of Baltimore. Feverish, delirious, the victim of brain congestion and a host of other possible illnesses including tuberculosis, rabies and the DT’s, as well as all the dissipations and deterioration wrought by his addictions to alcohol (absinthe especially) and possibly to opiates — and the victim also of the literary jealousy and venomous literary politics that kept him poor and notorious and under-rewarded for most of his career.

Four days later, on October 7, this piteous wreck of a man — the flame of his genius guttering and whispering out as he lay, mostly silent (sometimes raving about a mysterious “Reynolds”), or collapsing on the sweaty sheets of a Baltimore hospital bed — died at the age of 40. He was, of course, Edgar Allan Poe.

What could be more horrible? Pits? Pendulums? Premature Burials? Mozart, Rembrandt, and other great artists also died sad deaths in undeserved hardship, but not as horrific as this one. The last few days of Poe’s life — when he found himself increasingly swallowed up by the darkness he had evoked so intensely in his stories and poems, found himself more and more facing the shadowy terminus of death that he had dreamt of and written about over and over — this is something to make you shiver and weep. Horror! Horror indeed.

But wait a minute. This isn’t the kind of horror that puts money in your pockets. A loser roaming the streets and expiring in a hospital? Not in our bottom-line, money-obsessed, failure-hating age. Let’s imagine something more horrible — and certainly more modern, more suitable to contemporary tastes.

A sick ragged, man, maybe in delirium tremens, dying on a park bench: That’s a downer. So we’ll make it all bloodier, wilder, gorier. Suppose that Poe’s last days (as imagined in the new movie The Raven by writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, directed by by James McTeigue and enacted by John Cusack as Poe, along with Luke Evans, Alice Eve and Brendan Gleeson) were not spent with Poe wandering sick and lonely through the chill autumn streets or expiring on a charity hospital bed, but instead with the great, self-destructive poet in a livelier, feistier, more glamorous incarnation: running all around Baltimore in pursuit of a serial killer who kidnaps and kills helpless young ladies and hapless critics and subjects them to Saw-like tortures and executions which copy the tortures and murders in Poe‘s own stories, playing grisly serial killer variations on the plots of “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Premature Burial” and others.

Suppose that this murderous fiend and crazed Poe-fancier, wrested bodily from the bosom of Se7en and supplanted to 1849 Baltimore, also kidnapped the young lady whom Poe adored — wistful Lenore-like blonde Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), protected daughter of grim-faced, wealthy, intolerant Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) — buried her in a coffin, threw dirt on it, and fills the murders with elaborate clues to where Emily is hidden?

Now, we’re cooking! Now we’ve found real horror, real chills. Now we’ve replaced sick loser Poe with sick but lively detective/adventurer/romancer Poe, fiercely pursuing the killer though dark woods on horseback, and into bustling theaters with backstage assassins and fearlessly into charnel houses of dread. We can have Edgar Alpha Poe picking fights in taverns unless somebody can remember the lines to ‘The Raven.’ (Nevermore.) We can find him verbally assaulting his irreverent and cheap editor, Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally), while tolerating the adoration of his biggest fan, typesetter Ivan (Sam Hazeldine).

We can have huge ballroom scenes and great chases. We can have Poe’s great literary enemy (and executor) Rufus Griswold (John Warnaby) tortured and murdered in the Pit, by the Pendulum. We can even have Poe suspected of the copycat murders himself, given the once-over by the hunky young Baltimore homicide detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans, who played Apollo in Clash of the Titans) and then we can have Fields realize the errors of this ways. (After all, how can poor, starving, alcohol-poisoned Poe bury anyone alive or accumulate such expensive murder devices? How can he afford a Pit, much less a Pendulum?) Fields is content to become a sort of Lestrade to Poe, perhaps even a semi-Watson. A Stanley Tucci or Paul Giamatti type might have been better.

But it’s impossible to imagine any kind of Poe, involved in this 19th century mass media fiasco. And even if you are inclined to be charitable (the charity Poe mostly didn’t receive, and which this movie doesn’t deserve) — it’s also impossible to believe that the killer would be able to finance and throw together his outlandishly elaborate Saw-mill of a scheme, which includes that huge pendulum mechanism, a hidden graveyard, and numerous cat-and-mouse games with the puzzled police and the determined Poe and Fields, (Plus the guy must have a day job.) This is just nonsense and not even played with the humor that might have saved it.

SPOILER ALERT (But why do you give a damn?)

So the two sleuths battle the maniacal Poe-fancier and damsel-distresser, following his/her trail (though always late) into masked balls and besieged theaters, through streets shrouded in shadow. (These streets look more like Budapest than Baltimore — because they are.) And finally following it into the grave itself — and into a blathering climax where Poe — who, after all, invented the detective story in” The Purloined Letter” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and knows the rules — stages a battle of wits with The Least Likely Suspect.


What could be more terrifying than that? Finally we ring down the curtain not on some more dying failed schmuck of a Poe but a two fisted Poe who could duke it out with Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes. Or even Iron Man. ..and who could write “The Raven” while he was rope-a-doping him.

But you will have discerned that I jest. Truth to tell, I found this film about as scary, or appetizing, as a plate of cold fried eggs with warm pickle slices and a drizzle of stale mustard. The interpolation of Poe into a super-lurid serial killer plot becomes ludicrous beyond words — even Poe‘s words.

It’s not that the movie has been totally badly done. Though you can’t believe a second of it, The Raven looks and occasionally sounds fantastic — thanks to McTeigue‘s hyper-kinetic direction, Roger Ford’s swank production design and Luc Vidal’s pop-percussive-Herrmannesque score. Even the obvious main culprit — the Poe-basher of a script by Livingston and Shakespeare — has its moments of literacy, sort of.

Though John Cusack has the brains and vulnerability to play Poe, he’s somehow a little too emotionally healthy for the part. Cusack is miscast, but he tries hard, and the others, especially Gleeson and Hazeldine, do about as well as anyone could, with lines like these. But you’d be better off knocking off a case of absinthe and then wandering around Baltimore raving — or simply finding a copy of the 1963 Roger CormanRichard MathesonVincent Price-Boris KarloffPeter Lorre-Jack Nicholson version (or even the 1935 Landers-Karloff -Lugosi one) — than expecting any real entertainment from this one.

As insanity swallows up the screen, and the movie gallops toward its outrageous end, and as Cusack’s Poe sinks more sadly into the pit of over-production and the pendulum of bad screenwriting, I wondered at the curious fate of that real-life dying genius Poe on the park bench or in the streets, or in the hospital bed. Could this movie and all the money it wastes be some curious revenge against all the people who ignored or reviled or neglected Poe in his grievously short and unfairly unrewarded life? What if the poet could have seen that his poem would receive such extravagant illustration centuries hence? (Even in the 19th century, the poem attracted visions by the artists Gustave Dore, John Tenniel and Eduard Manet.)

Who could have predicted that this cliche-ridden RaVen would be greenlighted, and all casks of Amontillado drained to the dregs, while Poe’s genius got another premature bnurial? Who can have wildly surmised such a preposterous destiny? And imagine how Poe, fiercest of critics, would have treated this botch. (I think I hear something…)

Indeed, is modern Hollywood so besotted with celebrity and superstars that they can only conceive of Poe the literary genius on screen, as Poe the two-fisted super-dick and ladykiller? Who is responsible for all this? Who dare they turn Poe into a hack? How dare they change even a line? (See below.) Who indeed….There! There! It is the beating of their hideous hearts!

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked, upstarting,

Get thee back into the tempest and the night’s plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul has spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken! Quit the bust above my floor!

Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon