The Orphic trilogy

The Everyday God

Film essay by: Witney Seibold


Orpheus with his lute made trees,

And the mountain tops that freeze,

Bow themselves, when he did sing:

To his music plants and flowers

Ever sprung; as sun and showers

There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.


            -William Shakespeare

             from “Henry VIII” 

            For those of you I don’t know, I, along with my friend/stepmother (Hi, Nora!), have spent the last number of months catching up on a long list of book I never got around to. Thanks to our self-assigned Canonical Quest, I have had the good fortune to read a number of wonderfully enlightening classic books recently, including Frankenstein, Faust, Don Quijote and, currently, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Why do this? Because we want to. Because we feel we will learn more about humanity through the best selections of its literature. More importantly, though, because we want to be able to be the well-read braggarts at parties who will casually breeze through the fact that, yes, we have read all seven volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and while Proust is a brilliant writer, I was more impressed with the abstract prose in Finngeans Wake. In short, we’re snobs-in-training.

            I bring this Canonical Quest up merely to point out that I have recently read some books pertinent to my upcoming point, so to it:

            Frankenstein, Faust, and Quijote all seem to be struggling with a similar dilemma: the Old Storytelling vs. The New. There seems to be a vast difference in the manner we told stories thousands of years ago, and how we tell them today. Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell and all those high-minded intellectuals who have written books on the subject, would have us believe that all stories are inherently similar; that cultures entertain each other in similar ways, and in many ways, those guys are right. But in my limited reading (which, of course, makes me so much more qualified than Bill and Joe to discuss these matters), I have begun to observe a vast difference.

            I’m not referring to anything as basic as cultural or language differences, but something more profound. Namely: the presence of Magic. Why is magic so prevalent in old stories, and not so much in the tales of today, post-Renaissance? Why was magic everywhere once, and where did it go?

            True, magic exists in today’s stories: one doesn’t need to go further than the immensely popular melodrama that is The Lord of the Rings to see that. But when looking on modern fantasy, I get a feeling that the Magic is no longer believed in. It’s not a vital and necessary natural force of the universe the way it was when Ovid was writing his epic poems in about 8 C.E. Let me expound: The Bible is a grand example of this. The Bible is full of burning bushes, tongues of flame, resurrection, parting seas, forty-day floods, miracles, magic. When was the last time any modern man witnessed such an extraordinary event? Did the miracles stop at some point? This is a point made by many people arguing for atheism.

The Ancient Greeks are probably the best example, though: In the time of the Ancient Greeks, the Gods seemed to exist among the humans. Planting seeds, causing mischief, cheating on their wives, the ancient Greek gods were palpable, very powerful magical beings with very real, very human flaws. They co-existed with the people. What happened to these Gods that they no longer hover over Greece? Is this why the recent film version of “Troy” looked so bad?: That it gave a Humanist approach to an otherwise God-riddled story? I guess the Trojan War story isn’t interesting unless Zeus pops in from time to time, or Achilles really is invulnerable.

A few examples from my recent literary adventure:

Frankenstein rides the line between the Magical and the Humanist with it’s two lead characters. Victor Frankenstein is a man who was raised in plush mansions, and who buried himself in arcane science. He never read philosophy or fiction, but was a mind completely devoted to the logical experimentation of half-baked alchemists. His creature was a child born of the old sciences, but who had a much more emotional view on life. He was alone, and sought only companionship. The creature taught himself through found books (like Plutarch’s Lives), and found humanity to be full of thought, philosophy, love and magic. Victor and the monster represent the opposites of the book: the cold science of humanity, and the magic creature of our fancy. Of course, when the two worlds try to mix, it only leads to misery (i.e. lotta death and killing in this book). The conflict between our Humanist leanings and our imaginations is everpresent, and will likely destroy us.

Faust does something similar. A man gives up real life as a scholar on Earth in order to explore the magic promised by the devil. The magical world provides wonders and joys unheard of by humanity, but the real world provides him with his objects of love and contentment. Faust must choose between fancy and humanity.

            And of course Don Quijote, driven mad by reading old stories. He was a dated and archaic knight errant in a modern post-Renaissance world. Can the fictions of the past really exist in a modern era of cynicism and imagination-lessness? Read this book if you haven’t.


Finally… The movies:

            And now, finally, to film: Film exists in a similar state of flux as these Magic vs. Humanism tales. Jean-Luc Godard’s statement of cinema being “Truth at 24 frames per second” is at a right angle to the often magical content of film; not just in the fiction elements, but also in the very artificiality of any art form (i.e. it was created by someone, hence it is not natural). So while we may be seeing Godard’s filmed facts (THIS actor at THIS time in THIS set), we’re also being transported to wherever the filmmaker has pointed us. Reread my “Rashomon” essay if you’re not confused enough.

            (Aside: Most films are dramas featuring real actors in written dramatic situations. They may be real people speaking real words, but they are enslaved by dramatic conventions. Melodrama.)

            Nowhere is this complicated truth more evident, though, than in the films of Jean Cocteau, the plucky French poet/playwright/illustrator/filmmaker. His images reach far past the usual dramatic falsities of most films into a pseudo-surreal universe of abstraction. Cocteau’s films possess a certain kind of eerie unreality, while being firmly grounded in very clear human minds. Cocteau, primarily a poet and a writer has made a series of career-spanning films that deals with the battle between Magic and Humanism – Between the self-involved fancy of an artists creations, and the realities of being separate from one’s creations. “The Blood of a Poet” (1930), about a sculptor who finds a mouth growing on his hand, “Orpheus,” (1950) which retells the Orpheus myth on modern day, and “Testament of Orpheus” (1960) which features Cocteau himself coming to terms with his own creations. And while they are, admittedly, very pretentious (who’s the guy in the horse-head? And what’s with the guy sticking through the wall half-way?), rather opaque, and decidedly French (and students of French films know what I mean by the adjective “French,” namely poetic, deep, depressing, and really confusing), the films possess a certain spark, a vitality that reveals deeper truths than they do at first glance.

            Here they are then, one at a time:


The Blood of a Poet

            Jen Cocteau, in interviews and essays, has insisted that none of his films should be described as “surreal.” He insists that, since Surrealism implies that a piece of art must be symbolic or representational, his art is unsullied and nonrepresentational images straight from his head. In light of my recent viewing of “The Blood of a Poet,” I think that this smacks a bit of hooey. True, he may not have intended any direct “meaning” to be given to his strange images, and indeed any “meaning” one applies to Surreal art usually stems from the viewer and not the artist (David Lynch is a good example of this), but that he claims to be striving for a kind of poetic purity is right in step with Andre Breton’s theories of Surrealism back from when the whole Surreal mess began.

            “The Blood of a Poet,” Cocteau claims, is a poem come to life. Poetry, as an art form, is less concerned with tell a story, providing a narrative, giving us characters, or any of the other preoccupations of narrative writing, but instead strives to reveal deep abstract human truths through the lens of one’s language. “O that this too, too solid flesh should melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a due” sounds a lot better than “I wish I could, like, melt, y’know?”

            And, with that definition, the film makes sense. Let me give a grief description for those of you not familiar with it: A sculptor, alone in his workshop, paints a mouth. He wipes it off in anger, and finds that it was transferred onto the palm of his hand. He is baffled, tries drowning it, pleasures himself with it. HE wipes it off on his sculpture that tells him that he cannot destroy his art so readily, that his creations have a power of their own. He steps into a mirror, and finds himself in the hallway of a hotel. He peers in the keyholes of each, seeing a strange tableau inside each. We are then transported to someone’s childhood. A group of upper-class types gather around above a courtyard and watch a snowball fight which ends in death. Card players appear above the dead body and play cards. One is shot. We go back to the sculptor, and we see a few images of Greek origin. End film.

            Does any of that make sense? Not really. And indeed many modern audiences would have a difficult time watching that without, depending on their disposition, snickering or rolling one’s eyes. But as a “living poem,” and under the aegis of Breton’s definition of Surrealism, it all makes perfect sense. We are seeing a beautified version of the language (in this case, film language), to give us a deep and abstract human truth.

            What is the truth being presented to us? Well, there are obviously statements of art, and I gleaned the above mentioned Humanist vs. Magic battle from it (direct actors, timeframe, film editing vs. sculptures, pots, abstraction. Human vs. The Outerworld of Fancy), but one can apply whatever meaning they like to it.

            But there’s something more about “The Blood of a Poet” that makes it feel more fun and vital than any stuffy artistic analysis. This film was made in 1930, which was actually about the time Surrealism was coming into vogue. Breton was just writing his manifestos, and the European art community was thriving. It was a time when artists and poets were respected, brilliant celebrities. And the more opaque they were, it seems, the more brilliant they were considered. It was a time when Man Ray was taking pictures, and Tristan Tzara was publishing pamphlets. New things were being tried in art. “Experimental” art was abounding, and new artists were given license to try new and weird things. Film only recently achieved sound, and filmmakers like Cocteau, Buñuel, and Dziga Vertov were trying out what the new art for was capable of in films like “Un Chien Andalou” and “Man with a Movie Camera.”

“The Blood of a Poet” captures that sense of artistic immediacy that must have been hanging in the air all over Europe. The sense that the artist really in trying out new things, that he is truly interested in finding new ways to relay a message, and not merely trying to cash in on what was hip (although, we post-Warholians can only think that some of that was going on). He was trying to show that he could indeed invent new images from the core of his being, rather than just re-express the influences of his forebears.

I love watching this film for it sticks me in the brain a bit, and even if my mind is sluggish, I get the feeling of the community in which Cocteau lived. When art and film were new things and everything was bursting full of possibilities. Yeah, it’s opaque. But even if you hate it, it feels vital, and, hey, it’s only 50 minutes long.



            And we move from the vital arts community of the 1930s, to the post-modernism that sprung up in 1950. Jean Marais (Cocteau’s one-again-off-again lover, and star of “Beauty and the Beast”) is the broody, sweater-wearing, whiny fellow who speaks in tired epithets, lounges about cafes, and feels nothing but carefully staged ennui at the thought of his fame. This is Orpheus. Orpheus is no longer with his lute making trees, but scribbling poetry, mistreating his girlfriend Eurydice (Marie Déa), and ripping off poetic phrases he happens to catch on a car radio.

            The original Orpheus myth is a brief one: Orpheus loved Eurydice. She is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus so loved her, that he traveled into the Underworld to retrieve her. Hades allows her to go free under the condition that he never look upon her. As they were just clearing the borders of the Underworld, Orpheus, no longer able to stand it, turns and looks at her. She vanishes. He mourns for her and creates new things in her memory. 

            It is in “Orpheus” that Jean Cocteau most clearly expresses the conflict I spent so long describing in this essays’ introduction. Orpheus is now a modern man, finding himself in an Old World story. The place, despite Cocteau’s disclaimer at the beginning (“it is without time and place”) is very obviously post-war France, and the fashions and attitudes reflect that time and place. But we also have Death herself stalking around (played with a seductive panache by María Casares from “Children of Paradise”), we have strange resurrections and odd (and oddly effective) special effects and entrances into the Land of the Dead. The real world overlaps with the world of fantasy.

            An aside on the special effects in these three films: I love special effects from this era, because they were much more hand-made than the CGI-drowned spectacles of today. When you see someone spring up off of the bed, it is clear that the film is just running backwards, or when Orpheus and Huertebise (François Périer) are struggling, gravity-impaired, along a wall, it is clear that they are only being filmed from above and not the side (The “Batman” effect). But these camera tricks, as they are actually on the film, and not added later by an animator, give these odd effects weight and energy and vitality. When we see Orpheus enter a mirror, when someone assembles a mutilated flower, we feel that sort of unsettled and exhilarated sense of reality being pulled around underneath us. Cocteau could have probably used the usual tricks of the time, like animation, mate painting, and miniatures to get his point across, but I sense he wanted that unreality. But enough of this.

            Death has rules in this Orphic universe. Death needs helpers, sets out on assassinations, and, in a twist on the original myth, falls in love with Orpheus (a love triangle involving Death? Wicked). When Death comes to claim younger upstart poet Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), she enlists him. She is alluring and persuasive. She is a very human character, bound by very official rules. Indeed, we see judges later on, who dictate exactly how these things are supposed to work. I love this brand of magical realism: that the extraordinary is still bound by the mundane, and vice versa. Death, in this world, drives around in a big black car, and has a chauffeur.

            Orpheus doesn’t notice that Eurydice is dead at first, and doesn’t seem to care much when he learns. He is obsessed with finding the source of odd poetic transmissions coming through his car radio (how modern!). Of course, he seems to be being lured by Death, as she and Cégeste are the source of these transmissions. Orpheus, upon meeting death, does indeed enter the Land of the Dead to retrieve Eurydice, but he also falls in love with Death. To make matters even more complicated, Heurtebise, the chauffeur, is also in love with Death. The tribunal faces them on all these matters, they set things straight, and Orpheus and Eurydice are returned to the land of the Living with the same rule as the Greek myth.

            Eurydice vanishes. Rather anticlimactically, startling us by shoving us into the gap of real and unreal. And then there’s a sort of odd ending, in which Orpheus’ place is ransacked by an angry mob.

            Death needs a chauffeur. Magic vs. Human. The magic universe is interrupted by the outside human world.

What a brilliant way to involve us in a film that is a) a love story, b) a special-effects fantasy, and c) an ancient myth, all the while fascinating us with the odd unreality of d) a new and vital film universe. “Orpheus” is easily the best of these three films, and can be understood and appreciated as a stand-alone. If you are only to watch one of them, you can safely make it “Orpheus.”

Testament of Orpheus

            “Testament of Orpheus” is probably just as unclear, just as pretentious, just as French as “Blood of a Poet,” but more detailed, more thoughtful, and, dare I say, funnier.

            Jean Cocteau has finally involved himself in his creations. He is now taking an active participation in his own art, and is not shy about addressing this fact. He has taken us another step back toward reality, and yet still keeps us in that unsure world of effects-laden unreality. In the first film, he shows us a deep fantasy. In the second, he has brought the worlds of fantasy and myth closer the “reality.” In the third, he does everything to indicate this is false, this world is a false one and the characters we are seeing are merely players within that false universe, short of addressing the camera.

            It was made ten years after “Orpheus,” and was the last film Cocteau made. He was, I assume, trying to, in a mere 100 minutes, encapsulate his entire career as an artist, filmmaker and poet into a simple and surreal film. It has the same Orphic themes of death and traversing the Underworld, but this time it is Cocteau himself who is traveling them. It is he who is put on trial, this time for creating characters (indeed, the tribunal are played by María Casares and François Périer from “Orpheus”), for giving them life, and then allowing them to roam free in the world (“the world,” I think, meaning our imaginations). How Frankensteinian.

            We see in this film, Cocteau displaced in time (the opening sequences, on a bare soundstage, of Cocteau appearing to a single man at various points in his life are hysterical), we see Cégeste again, but played by a different actor now, resurrected from the sea. We see Cocteau sketching and building a flower…

It’s during this sequence that we get another essential truth from these films. It may be a truth that applies to only artists, but if you consider a man as a creator of thoughts and ideas, it is relevant to us all: “an artist can only draw self-portraits.” Despite whatever new ideas we come across, they usually only fit within the confines of our experiences. Does that mean humans can grow? We can, but we must make quite an effort.

We see horse-headed people, a statue that grants fame, purgatory as a waiting room, a flash of color as the flower that is central to the film’s images grows for a moment upon Cocteau’s death, and he finally works his way to the sea with an angel watching over him. Cars pass. The end. He passes once again from the extraordinary to the ordinary.

Yeah, difficult to discern, and facing the same problems as “The Blood of a Poet” when it comes to deciphering images. But it remains true to the “poem as film” idea of the first film, while incorporating the mythic feeling of the second. And, by featuring himself as the one experiencing death and fantastical trials, Cocteau has eliminated all subjectivity from the film. He is no longer the aloof artist throwing confusing images at us, and hoping that we get them. A complaint that some people have about art of this nature is the superiority of the artist: they are The Creator of what we see, and if we, the audience do not understand, then we are somehow inferior to The Creator, and are just not as smart as we should be. I can see how this would create resentment.

I think that Cocteau, though, by making himself the “hero” of “Testament” is not lording over us, egotistically, including his own saintly image among the myriads of others that are washing over us, but is revealing to us, his audience, that he, The Creator, is just as lost, confounded, and ultimately destroyed by his own images as we are.

The Creator may have the power to bring things into being, but once they are alive, they have a life of their own, and are just as capable of affecting The Creator as anyone else.


And in conclusion…

            I admit that the Orphic Trilogy are not the most accessible of films. Only “Orpheus” with its use of story and myth combined really has sway over our emotions. The other two appeal more to our intellects, and there are indeed confusing.

            What the films do, though, is amazing. They create a world of unreality rarely found in today’s films. They remind us of a time when artistic experimentation was vital and exciting. They allow us to reflect on matter of myth and how myth has become realism. And, ultimately, with “Testament,” they allow us to think of ourselves as creators of our destiny, artists and creators by default, who may not have control over the effect that our creations and thoughts and ideas have one the world, but our only way of staying in control is to create more.

            So, when you think about it, the Old Age of myth and epic story and magic has never ended. It was and has always been an eternal plane of existence; a place where we are subject to the rules of reality but, thanks to our imaginations and thoughts, is a vast and magical landscape where anything is possible.

             And thank goodness for that.

Published in: on July 16, 2007 at 9:51 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I think that Cocteau though by making himself the hero.

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