Trailer for Dead Man

Trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man with Johnny Depp as William Blake and Gary Farmer as Nobody. Read more about it in the article on Blake and Film.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Cannibalising Blake

Following on from my last post, William Blake and Film, now it is time to move from arthouse and indie cinema to the most resolutely populist presentation of Blake at the movies – the Hannibal Lecter trilogy (and, yes, I mean trilogy. Does anyone even remember Hannibal Rising?).

In the first of his novels to introduce the world’s favourite gourmet-sociopath, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris interleaves the influence of Blake throughout the book. The title refers to the early nineteenth-century painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun created by Blake for Thomas Butts and now housed at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Another painting of the same title is now located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.)

This image, one of the most powerful ever created by Blake, embodies the diabolical creature that the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, wishes to become. While this striking motif is repeated throughout both film and book, notably in Dolarhyde’s tattoo but also when he goes to Brooklyn to eat the painting, it is not the only reference to Blake: in Harris’s novel Dolarhyde’s “copperplate” handwriting is explicitly compared to Blake’s, and he also takes the blind woman he starts dating, Reba McClane, to visit a tiger that is undergoing surgery for toothache at a zoo. As Dolarhyde’s tabloid nickname is “The Tooth Fairy”, it is clear that there is a connection between him, this creature, and Blake’s Tyger.

Two film versions of Red Dragon have been released: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), starring William Petersen as the detective Will Graham and Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde, with a cameo from Brian Cox as Lecter, is a serious and often low-key affair, one that has rightly attracted critical acclaim although I must admit that occasionally I find myself distracted by the 80s soundtrack. The film was remade by Brett Ratner in 2002 to take advantage of the success of subsequent Hannibal Lecter movies, a version that is closer to the book and restores Blake’s centrality, for example in the marvellous scene where Dolarhyde devours the original painting of the Red Dragon. Edward Norton as Graham and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde provide fine performances, although Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Lecter was starting to look a little tired.

The next book in Harris’s series, the most famous of the films (and still the best), Silence of the Lambs, appears to be the one of the original trilogy in which Blake has no role to play, an appearance emphasised by Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film version. However, as Michelle Gompf points out in an essay on “The Silence of the Lamb and the Tyger”, Agent Clarice Starling’s decision to try and save a lamb is an important contrast to the tiger/dragon becoming of Dolarhyde in Red Dragon.

The links to Blake are more explicit in the the third film of the trilogy, Hannibal. In Harris’s book, this is made manifest by the fact that Mason Verger owns a copy of The Ancient of Days, an image that is emblematic of his own, Urizenic morality. Although this copy is not explicit in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film, when Verger wishes to manufacture an apparent contact from Lecter to Starling his choice is the favourite of all psycopath’s, a postcard of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea. In the novel, Lecter’s writing is compared (like Dolarhyde’s), to a fine copperplate, but unlike Dolarhyde he is the contrary rather than the negation of Starling – so much so that they elope together in the novel.

Gompf points out that Harris uses Blake to provide a view of morality outside conventional laws of behaviour (as, indeed, do the films of his novels to a lesser extent), for the union of Lecter and Starling is a marriage of heaven and hell, innocence and experience (although not always in ways that the reader expects). For me, Harris’s vision of Blake is occasionally somewhat trite, but I cannot deny the vicarious thrill of pleasure I experience whenever I witness this Blakean parade through pop culture.

William Blake and film

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.

The Last of England: Jarman’s Blakean vision

Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.

He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.

A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:

When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.

Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:

“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”

Is Blake just bad, or crazy as well?

I’ve not had chance to see Crazy Heart yet, the new film that has been released in the US starring Jeff Bridges as a country singer/songwriter, Bad Blake, but a few reviews namedropping another famous Blake have attracted my attention.

In the film, Blake battles the booze and struggles for money as he tours a succession of dead-end towns until he finds (inevitably?) the hope for redemption after an interview with reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Bridges performance has attracted most attention, having received an Oscar nomination for best actor (with Gyllenhall being nominated for best actress), with many critics remarking this is well-deserved.

Bridges, in an interview with Under the Radar Magazine, lists a few of the influences behind the character of Bad Blake, including Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Greg Brown, as well as country blues in the style of Kris Kristofferson.  Such figures suggest that the name of the lead role in Crazy Heart was not entirely accidental. While Blake may actually be only one of many European poets enjoyed by Cohen, though Kevin Dettmar in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan considers the music star to be “the spiritual twin of the English Romantic poet William Blake”.

More substantially, Kris Kristofferson discovered Blake while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, even naming his eighth child after the poet in 1994. When asked about the effect of Blake on his life, Kristofferson told Andrew Denton in a 2005 interview:

He was such a passionate artist and he believed that it was his duty, because God made him that way, to be a creative poet. He said if you didn’t – he said: “If he who is organised by the divine for spiritual communion refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death shame and confusion are faced to eternity.” So for a young guy who wanted to be an artist it was a perfect inspiration. (Enough Rope with Andrew Denton.)

While Bridges says that he was “late coming to the party of getting turned on to Greg Brown”, this is the strongest indication that William Blake is more than a shadow behind the character of Bad Blake. Born in Fairfield, Iowa, in 1949, Brown began singing in New York before moving to Portland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Establishing a reputation as an original folk singer, in 1986 he recorded Blake’s poems on Songs of Innocence and of Experience, sixteen tracks ranging from “The Lamb” to “London” and “Ah! Sunflower”. With Brown on vocals and guitar and accompanied by Michael Doucet on violin and Dave Moore on accordion, it is a vivid and simple invocation of the poems. Never has mad Blake sounded more sane.

You can here samples of Brown’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience here.