“A Plain Bastard”: a review of Le Cas Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Directed by Patrick Munrio Bernard and Pierre Trividic, Script by Pierre Trividic and Anne-Louise Trividic.
One of the ironies of being an American is that our artists are often better received abroad than they are at home. France, in particular, has often been a haven for American art and American artists. The French have a broad aesthetic palate which Americans do not. Over the last 150 years they have been far more generous with America’s avant-garde than we have been: jazz musicians, comic book artists, dancers, musicians, comedians and writers have all found an appreciative, intelligent audience in France, often when their own people were hounding them with police brutality and censorship, ignoring them to the brink of starvation, or letting a dead man’s work languish unread and unpublished for decades at a time.
Josephine Baker sought asylum in France in the 1920’s, a sanctuary from the Great American Bigot. Robert Crumb moved to France in recent years, to find some peace and eat good bread. The French have a lively appreciation for genre fiction of all kinds, and seem to be unburdened by the pretensions that force Americans to separate the mainstream sheep from the SF, fantasy and horror goats. If a writer is great, the French don’t need to make him live in a ghetto. That’s why they were able to hold Edgar Allen Poe in escrow for us, until Baudelaire could re-introduce him to the American reading public. It was Baudelaire who forced American academics to re-consider Poe’s work seriously, and put a few of his remarkable stories into the English textbooks that our youngsters read.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the French have once again showed us up by taking our own artists more seriously than we do. A small French production company, working with funding from French public television, sat down in 1998 and made one the best H.P. Lovecraft documentaries to date. “The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft” is just 45 minutes long, shot in black and white, and uses the simplest, cheapest techniques you can imagine to create its images. There is only one set, the interior of a shabby apartment with peeling wallpaper and raveling carpets. Lovecraft is symbolically represented by a two-dimensional black silhouette, which rolls around the apartment on a track. The film relies on a great deal of stock footage from the 1920’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s. It was clearly made on a shoestring, by just a handful of dedicated people who were pinching every penny until it screamed.
Nonetheless, the result of their efforts is a loving, open-eyed tribute to Lovecraft, and represents a far more serious grappling with the man’s life and work than I have yet seen on this side of the pond. The script for this feature is a delight, employing a bizarre 2nd person omniscient voice. There is only one speaker throughout the film, a narrator who addresses the audience as “You”–the “You” being addressed is Lovecraft himself. There is no hesitation at all in assigning thoughts, feelings and motives to the “you” of the film: for the sake of art, the writers assume that they can read the mind of a dead man and know his most intimate feelings at many crucial moments—including the hour of his death.
The film is divided into six narrative “chapters”, each of which is given a sly title heading with a “Lovecraftian” feel to it: “Chapter One: A Result and a Prolougue”; “Chapter Four: A Mutation and a Madness”, etc.. In it, the main details of Lovecraft’s life are quickly sketched in. There is a chapter on his childhood and adolescence, with the attendant nervous breakdown at 17. A chapter on his re-emergence as a social being with the United Amateur Press Association, and his eventual marriage to Sonia Greene. A chapter on the troubles he and Sonia encountered after they had settled in New York, the dreadful separation and financial privation which quickly drove him back into his agoraphobic nightmare…and eventually led him to divorce Sonia and run back to Providence, hiding in the family house with his Aunts until he died. A final chapter on his most productive decade as a fiction writer, living in Providence and spilling out one horrific story after another–each more pessimistic, misanthropic, and dripping with self-loathing than the last.
There are some moments of genuinely horrific brilliance in this film. It is truly disturbing to hear the narrator wax lyrical about the cancer metastasizing through Lovecraft’s body, against the stock footage of seeds germinating, petals spreading, tendrils uncurling and shooting upward with the cruel cold vigor of new life. “It’s like certain flowers. Like those plants that sprout six or even nine feet in a few weeks. What’s happening to you is a lot like that…” There are also some scenes which are almost unbearable: Lovecraft’s violent hatred of the human race being symbolized by the face of a sleeping black child, with a second image superimposed over the child’s forehead: a swollen, infected wound, cut open with a scalpel and spilling a sudden gush of milky flux.
There are many amazingly effective visual metaphors. We are Lovecraft, the paranoid agoraphobic, crouching like a mouse on the carpet and afraid to open the door when we hear a mysterious knock. “What did they think?” the Narrator scoffs. “That you would open the door? That you would want to make a contact of some kind? But you know how to ‘play dead’, as they say…” Our unseen visitor slips his letter under the door and leaves, and the Narrator begins to discuss our life-long habit of writing letters as a substitute for face-to-face human contact—since other humans really are our greatest fear.
What I like best about the film is the gloves-off approach to Lovecraft’s personality. There is a paradox in tone here which I very much admire: a great love of the man’s art, a great sympathy for his weaknesses, combined with an absolute refusal to make excuses for his ugly bigotry. You cannot beat the caustic simplicity of this line: “Basically, you’re nothing more than a plain bastard.”
We have many written biographies of Lovecraft available to us in America, all of which are much more detailed and thorough than this film could ever be. Unfortunately, these books are often written by men who identify with Lovecraft far too much. Ergo, either the author will dodge the issue of Lovecraft’s less attractive personality traits completely—or the reader will be forced to endure a litany of excuses for his appalling misanthropy and racism, all of which ring shrill and hollow to a person who is NOT an elitist bigot themselves. I.e., “Everyone was a racist back then! He couldn’t help it!”
I honestly recommend this movie. It is not an exhaustive documentary, and touches only lightly on a lot of interesting aspects of Lovecraft’s life—including the fascinating array of writers who corresponded with him. But it does present an interesting thesis about the underpinnings of his work. And it is certainly a very skillful and elegant piece of film-making. I can’t give it a star rating; I can only say the stars are right.
Length: 45 minutes
Taxi Video Brousse Production
98, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud 75011 Paris
Copyright 2004 by Arinn Dembo, all rights reserved.