Blake’s strong perceptions as a visual artist have long been influential on twentieth-, and twenty-first-century figures, but his appeal to filmmakers as an artist has been a slightly more peculiar one.
Blake is namechecked now and again in cinema – one of my personal favourites is Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) when the French Formula One racing driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), tells Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell): “As William Blake wrote, ‘The cut worm forgives the plough.'” Ricky’s response? “Well, let me just quote the late, great, Colonel Sanders. He said, ‘I’m too drunk to taste this chicken.'” Blake is also a favourite of Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie Savoy, in Bull Durham (1989) when she wishes to inspire each baseball progeny that she has chosen to have an affair with each year.
More substantially, however, Blake has been a much more enduring presence in the work of some American independent cinema since the 1990s. The most important, and well-known, is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), in which Johnny Depp plays an accountant from Ohio, William Blake, who travels to the western town of Machine for a job that turns out never to have existed. After a fight in which he accidentally kills the son of the town’s main employer, Blake flees into the wilderness where he is befriended by a Native American, Nobody (Gary Farmer), who was taken as a boy by the British and taught the poetry of England’s native son. Nobody spends much of the film citing Blake’s poetry to the bemused accountant, asking him impishly and poignantly why he has “forgotten his poetry”. Shot in beautiful monochrome, although it was commercially unimpressive at the time of its release the film has since gained acclaim as an original and innovative “acid” western.
I tend to be less impressed by another, Blake-inspired movie, Hal Hartley’s The New Math(s) (2000), but in part that’s because I tend to be less impressed by Hartley’s arch, self-parodying style in general. However, for the Blake afficionado this is a must see simply because Blake’s The Book of Thel has such an important role to play in this odd short film, in which two students fight with their teacher over the solution to a complex mathematical equation. The music is by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, and the whimsical nature of the highly choreographed production does seem to delicately balance Blake’s subtle text, with “catches” from the poem including the delightful lines:
Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
The final movie to be considered here, and one that has affected me much more than Hartley’s film, is Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005). This is a considerably more sombre affair, described by Van Sant as “a meditation on isolation, death and loss”, and inspired by the final hours of Kurt Cobain. The central character, Blake, draws on a cynical reading of the last days of a counter-culture where the hippie optimism of a Huxley-inspired personal liberation through LSD has become the despair of heroin-addicted, sold-out grunge. The Blakean allusions are subtle throughout Last Days (including Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Doors of Perception” soundscape), with Blake himself incoherent, virtually mute; at the end of the film, however, having committed suicide, Blake’s soul ascends from his body in a scene that directly references the illustrations to The Grave.
Interestingly, while the occasional visual motif is referenced in movies such as these, more generally it is Blake’s poetry that has the stronger role to play. If Blake were alive today, it appears that Hollywood would have preferred his skills as a scriptwriter rather than set-designer, although I am sure many will be able to contradict me with plenty of references to special-effects-driven science fiction and fantasy films. Likewise, of course, Blake has been an important subject for the Hannibal Lecter movies – more on which in my next post.