Blood of a Poet: spectator as spiritualist

Katy Karpfinger

I have often wondered why it seems to be easier to let go of a search for coherent meaning and narrative with visual art and with music than with literature and film. With the former, I seem more able to relax into purely experiencing something moment by moment; to leave behind notions of what I expect to happen and to let the content take me by surprise. For me, it seems a conscious decision is necessary in order to translate this approach to a film or a book. This kind of open mindedness is certainly necessary in order to appreciate Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film “The Blood of a Poet”. It is through ceasing to expect and to search for narrative that this film takes its shape within the mind and produces a unique interpretation. Cocteau himself said that he couldn’t adequately explain the film; its success was to be measured in the individual responses of those who saw it. In other words, he sought not to enlighten or to educate, but to provoke thought and emotion. His creativity was meant to awaken the creativity in each of his viewers.

The film is essentially an exploration into the creative process; a self-conscious exploration of the subconscious, even the unconscious. Cocteau states that he was not thinking while he made the film but allowed images and ideas to present themselves to him, almost like the improvisation of a Jazz musician. Cocteau repeatedly spoke in interviews of the mysterious other self within an artist, saying that a poet (and by this he means artist of any genre) is a medium for the strange force which exists within him. He doesn’t shape this force, but rather the force shapes him. “My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinet maker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult” Cocteau was recorded as saying in a 1985 preface essay to ‘Two Screenplays: The Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus’. So, the film is a journey to the inside of the eponymous poet’s mind as he creates, unlocking the creative force within himself; it is also a journey into the mind of Cocteau. We, the viewers, are the spiritualists.

The first sequence of the film involves the poet drawing a figure onto canvas in a scantily furnished garret-type room. Once he draws the mouth he notices that it is moving. After hastily trying to erase the mouth with the palm of his hand, he finds the mouth has transferred itself there. He tries to wash it off, submerging it in water, but it gurgles, spitting out the water, and gasps the word “air”. He takes pity on it and holds it out of his window. Eventually he wipes it off onto the mouth of a statue in his room. The statue comes to life and orders him to climb through his mirror. This first episode is entitled The wounded hand or the scars of the poet and suggests the pain and difficulty of calling up inspiration from within.  Once called up, his inspiration takes on a life of its own, forcing the poet to go deeper into his own consciousness. As he goes through his mirror he passes from his physical self into his reflection; his alternative, poetic self. Once we are on the other side the film takes us into an even more dream-like, other world, where nothing is as we expect.

Falling through his mirror, filmed using a rectangular pool, the poet finds himself in a drab hotel corridor, shoes outside the rooms piquing our interest as to who and what might be behind the closed doors. One could interpret this section of the film as a search into the subconscious of the poet, unlocking the secret chambers of his mind. What he finds there in the episode entitled Do walls have ears? is often wantonly bizarre, sometimes disturbing and sometimes comic; it is always visually captivating. We are encouraged to abandon all notion of the world as we know it. Even movement is different here in the Hotel of Dramatic Lunacies; Cocteau filmed the corridor scenes with the set flat on the ground so that the poet seems to climb his way down the corridor apparently clinging on to the walls. Behind the first door, viewed by the poet through the keyhole, is a Mexican man who is shot by firing squad, dies and then comes back to life only to be shot by the squad once again. The next door is marked The Mysteries of China and the poet peeps through the keyhole to see the silhouette of an opium pipe being filled and leisurely smoked. In the third room is a young girl sitting next to a fireplace and wearing a costume decorated with bells. A woman whips her bare legs and ankles until she stands up and eventually flies to the ceiling out of reach, jingling and jangling as she goes. In the last room is a sofa on which reclines a hermaphrodite, never visible all at once, limbs and clothing appearing and disappearing suddenly. This sequence ends when the hermaphrodite removes the cloth covering its genitals and reveals the words Danger of Death. As the poet reaches the end of the corridor he is handed a gun and the voice of the statue gives him simple instructions on how to load and fire it. He calmly follows the instructions and shoots himself in the head, the blood of the poet spattering the walls behind him. He dies but returns to life and is then pushed back through the mirror and sets about smashing the statue.

As the white ceramic pieces of the statue crash to the floor amidst billowing clouds of dust, the voice over slowly tells us “By breaking statues one risks turning into one, oneself”. The action then shifts to a dingy courtyard with a large statue of a man at the bottom of a set of stone steps. The scene is covered in dirty snow and is entitled The Snowball Fight. A gang of school boys soon enter and raucously attack one another with snow. As they scoop snow off the statue they begin to scoop it away too, until it has disintegrated down to its plinth. The last snowballs seem to strike their victims hard, as if they contain the marble of the statue. One boy is knocked bleeding to the floor and the others scarper.

The setting remains the same for the final episode of the film entitled The Desecration of the Host. With the boy still lying bleeding on the floor, balconies overlooking the courtyard begin to fill with well-dressed theatre-goers who leisurely take their seats and exchange inaudible social niceties. Once they are settled, the camera settles back on the stage they are all there to see. There is a table placed next to the dying boy. The poet and a woman representing the smashed statue are playing cards. She tells him that he needs the Ace of Hearts or he is a lost man. While he deliberates about the card to play next the dead boy’s guardian angel appears and limps down the stairs to the table. The poet then reaches down to the dead boy lying at his feet and pulls the Ace of Hearts out of his pocket and secretes it back into his hand. The dead boy is then absorbed by his Guardian Angel. Before the angel climbs back up the stairs he pauses, looks around, and takes the Ace of Hearts from the poet’s hand. The poet then takes the revolver from the pocket of his evening jacket and calmly shoots himself in the head. This time he collapses after the shot and the camera focuses in on a star shaped wound in his temple, from which blood oozes. The audience applaud rapturously and begin to leave their boxes. The lady statue makes a slow exit and meets a cow outside which is draped in a map. As she leads the cow away, its horns turn into a lyre, the symbol of Orpheus. The film ends with a kind of still-life, with the statue, now lifeless, and her clothing, the lyre and a globe artistically arranged around her. The voice-over states “The mortal tedium of immortality” and the shot changes to one of a tall factory chimney collapsing following a blast of dynamite, an echo of the shot which opens the film.

Whilst we can never know what such an intensely personal and deliberately obscure exploration of creativity means exactly, we can pull out the main themes and ideas within it. Perhaps most striking is the idea of death and rebirth, mortality and immortality. It is no coincidence that this theme is so central in this, the first film of Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy. Orpheus was the greatest musician and poet in Greek myth and by virtue of his great artistry was allowed by Hades to enter the Underworld and rescue his dead wife. Although he failed in this, he is one of very few Greek heroes to visit the Underworld and return; his status as an inspired poet involves him in death and rebirth. Cocteau’s poet shoots himself twice in the film; the last time he seems to remain lifeless. True creativity, it seems, results ultimately in the death of the artist, or at least a piece of him, but at the same time makes him immortal, like Orpheus. Key to an attempt to understanding this seeming paradox lies perhaps in appreciating the relationship between the poet and his muse (the statue). The poet gives his muse life in the opening episode of the film and she extorts him to deeper contemplation and the unlocking of his creative mind; she leads him to discover and give birth to higher levels of creativity. When she also leads him to his first mini-death though, he tries to destroy her. But it seems she is indestructible, true art is immortal. In Cocteau’s mind then, it is not the poet who controls the muse, but the muse who controls the poet. When she leads him to his second, more final-seeming death, it is she who walks away to immortality. Whilst he must eventually succumb, his creation lives on in perpetuity; it experiences the ‘mortal tedium of immortality’. Cocteau stated in an autobiographical film he made about his life that this was the feeling he got when looking at ornate tombs; the body may die but the great products of the mind cannot.

Perhaps central to this idea of immortality is the audience who observe and applaud the final episode. Cocteau stated in his film autobiography that audience is essential to art. After all, an artist cannot make himself immortal but must be made so by those who appreciate the value of his work. However, Cocteau presents us with another dilemma here. The audience he shows us are inattentive and bored; more interested in their finery and conversation with one another than with what they see unfolding beneath them. They then applaud the suicide of the poet. Perhaps Cocteau seeks to remind us that the audience often misunderstands the poet but nonetheless require great sacrifices from him. They cannot fully comprehend the external presentation of an inspiration which is necessarily so internal. But however personal his inspiration, however obscure his meaning, he must have the Ace of Hearts; he must say or do something to win over that audience.

Yet, if art is immortal but requires an audience to make it so, what exactly is the poet required to do to solve this dilemma? Our particular poet is told that if he destroys a statue (which seems to represent the immortality of art), he risks becoming one himself. In this moment and in the still-life of the statue at the end of the film, the statue seems to represent a lifeless, wordless immortality, and perhaps that is why such immortality is so tedious. It might be possible to see this as a reference to modernity. Cocteau was highly involved, both professionally and personally, with the Parisian avant-garde in the early twentieth century, a set which included such revolutionary artists as Picasso and Stravinsky, arbiters of what is now seen as Modern art and music. But to destroy the old makes the poet mute and life-less and loses the hearts of the audience. Instead he must take inspiration from the old, dig deep within himself for his personal voice and use it to create something new. As the boys pull down the statue during their snowball fight, it becomes a weapon, which wounds and kills. Destruction, then, is not the answer. Neither is copying or stealing, as the episode when the poet tries to cheat at cards tells us. The title of this last section also echoes this thought, the word ‘desecration’ indicating the breaking of sacred laws about artistic integrity. But one of the central ideas of the artistic circle within which Cocteau moved was that old habits and styles must be rejected to ensure that art does not stagnate and subsequently die. Perhaps re-working and re-interpreting is then the answer. In the same way that Stravinsky took age-old Russian folklore to inspire his monumental ballets “The Rite of Spring” and “The Firebird”, Cocteau took Greek mythology and the myth of Orpheus as the basis of the three films which make up his Orphic trilogy. In both cases, the results of their artistic wrangling with their thematic inspiration can only be described as “new” and “modern”. Neither of them could possibly be said to represent artistic stagnation.

Whatever the poet does though, he must beware the follies in his mind. He must beware the dangers of self-love. He must go through his mirror to get to his true self rather than focusing on his external reflection. The hermaphrodite in the Hotel of Dramatic Lunacies also slows him that by becoming everything to himself, he stands in danger of death. Instead, the poet must be self-less; a vehicle for the inspiration which lies within. Another of the lunacies to which the poet may be tempted to succumb is that of addiction; a folly which Cocteau had many struggles with in his personal life. He must also beware the danger of repetition. The creative process then, is fraught with danger, pain, even death and the results are left to the vagaries of the audience to decide whether or not to bestow immortality. In Cocteau’s case, he is certainly not venerated by the public in the same way as his friends Picasso and Stravinsky are, but he is remembered. For NLP, ‘Blood of a Poet’ is an utterly unique portrayal of the inner workings of the mind of a creative genius; complex, sometimes inscrutable but coherent and profound.

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