Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Raven & the Raccoon: Edgar Allan Poe & Karl Marx

Once again, I have managed to thoroughly enjoy a film given a ridiculously low rating by the critical establishment (21% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes). Why? To me, James McTeigue's  The Raven not only gives us a wonderful chance to "play" with Edgar Allan Poe, but we are given clues throughout the film, just like the killer leaving clues on the body of the victims, and those clues are meant to lead us to a "bigger game" namely, the relationship between art and money.
Why call the film The Raven? In many ways, Edgar Allan Poe is  his best known work: we know Poe because we know The Raven (the poem). Poe himself was well-known, but mostly for his criticism of art and literature published in newspapers. Now, as then, his best known literary work is the poem The Raven and since there is a raven at the beginning and end of the film, we could almost take the bird in the film (as in the poem) to be a kind of double for the writer himself, i.e., the creature and created are the same, and to some degree at least, the villain, Ivan, wants to be linked with Poe in the same, vain way.
Because it is a literary film, the film makers will reward those who are avid readers of Poe's works (just as Poe himself will reward with a drink any man in the opening bar scene who can complete the line, "Quoth the raven, ___). For example, Inspector Emmet Fields (Luke Evans) asks Poe (John Cusack) if he has ever written a story about a sailor, and Poe says no. The first story referenced, however, was The Murders In the Rue Morgue which was about a sailor (the owner of the orangutan). Those who have read the story get a moment to indulge a superiority complex, one that rarely gets to be indulged (but please do not think you have to have read all his works to see the film; it does a wonderful job carrying you along).
Poe had many enemies during his lifetime, mostly because of his attempts to raise the standards of American literature, which led to him critically criticizing nearly all his contemporaries. The bar scene in the beginning of the film cannot be underestimated in its importance. In many ways, it accurately reflects, for example, the hostility of other writers towards Poe. That only one person in the room--a Frenchman--is capable of completing the line "Quoth the raven, ____" reminds Americans today how it was the French who had greater admiration for Poe than his own country. Yet the scene reveals a deeply political one, the relationship of art to the economy. Poe doesn't have the money to buy a drink because he's broke but wants a drink on the merits of being an internationally lauded poet, which he was (well, to some degree then) but no one will give it to him. Is this a bad thing? No, because, as Maddux (Kevin McNally) Poe's publisher at the Baltimore paper says to Emmet Fields, "Poe never killed anything but a bottle of Brandy." Poe's drinking will become the metaphor of what "buries his art alive" because alcohol has pickled his brain.
Something else the informed reader of Poe knows is that Poe never had a pet raccoon, as he does in The Raven. What's the purpose of this? Raccoons wear "a mask" just as members of Emily Hamilton's (Alice Eve) masquerade birthday ball in Baltimore do. A mask hides the features and covers something up, so what is the raccoon hiding/covering up?
The mask of a raccoon. After Poe's house is burned down by the killer, all the windows deliberately knocked out, a fireman brings a cage to Poe that is covered with a blanket. He tells Poe that they found him and inquires if the raccoon belongs to Poe and Poe says, "I recognize his voice," and takes him by that identification alone. Of all the books and all the writing of the poet burned up in his house, the animal, what most people would consider "a pest" is left. The windows of the house knocked out means a lack of or inability to "reflect" and self-meditate (houses are symbols for the soul) and the house being burned symbolizes, as Poe himself recites watching it be destroyed, the soul in damnation and hell. Carl's voice is all, then, we need to identify him in the rest of the film, but who is Carl?
Poe calls him "Carl," but we know the film takes place in 1849, the year Poe died; in 1848, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx was published, laying the foundations for nations to transit to a new economic model of socialism then communism. What does the film think about The Communist Manifesto?
Poe and Emily both wearing masks (like Karl the Raccoon) at the costume party given by Charles Hamilton, Emily's father, on behalf of her birthday and just before Emily is abducted by the killer. It's important that Emily tells her father that she's decided to change her costume for the ball and he refuses to let her; why? Because that shows us that everything could have been changed in the film, yet it was specifically kept for a reason and we just have to find what that reason is.
When we first see Karl the Raccoon, Poe has a human heart he dissects on the desk, reciting thoughts/lines from Eureka! also from 1848 (Poe considered it to be the most important of all his works), and telling Karl how "All the secrets and mysteries of our species" lie within the chambers of the heart; then, there is "a tapping at his chamber door," and Emily enters reciting Annabell Lee. Poe and Emily then go to the couch to discuss marriage and Emily asks what C/Karl is eating and Poe tells her a human heart. Is this Karl Marx, the materialist, eating the secrets of the human soul, the very divine heartbeat of the universe (as Poe describes it in Eureka)?
Yes.
As Emily and Edgar are courting, Karl eats the heart in the corner of the room. Emily's youth, she's about half Edgar's age, being born (as we know from the wooden cross at Holy Cross cemetery) in 1826, the 50th Anniversary of the United States Declaration Of Independence and the day that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson die. Why is this important? From their death, the future of the country would come, the era of the Founding Fathers having past. There is another, important detail to The Raven (film): the paper publishing Poe's work is called the Baltimore Patriot, "patriot" referring, of course, to the American Revolution, love of country and devotion to its cause. So Emily both symbolizes America, as a Hamilton, and Poe's art since she is his love and inspiration (so the film tells us). What happens to her happens to both the country--the United States--and Poe's art. When Poe is dying, towards the end, and he finds the door leading downstairs into the unknown basement, Poe metaphorically goes within himself to find Emily--his art--in that place where only he knows to look for her, and only he can hear her faint voice and save her by sacrificing himself.
While Karl eats the heart, Poe espouses Emily. Emily's last name is "Hamilton," the same last name of the United States' first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton who, unlike Marx, set the US on a path of capitalism and industrialization. So, visually, we have the poet Poe (who is poor) espousing Hamilton and capitalism while Karl and socialism eat away at the very humanity it claims to serve and protect. You probably have two objections: first, her last name of Hamilton is random, that it doesn't man anything, and secondly, Poe criticizes industrialization later in the film in the poem of Mrs. Bradley's. 
First objection first.
Detective Emmet Fields (Luke Evans) with his fellow police officer John Cantrell (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) from a scene later in the film. The killer has led them to Holy Cross church but the church is locked; Cantrell sees an unlocked door and goes to enter when the killer jumps from the roof, slashing Cantrell's throat. Fields comes to his aid and is shot in the shoulder so that only Edgar is left to pursue the killer. Why does this happen? Much of The Raven is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie's 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes, a hero owing his existence to Poe's invention of the modern detective and the film makers wanting to remind audiences of that. Cantrell getting his throat slashed before he can enter the church is the killer's way of saying that he doesn't want the detective stories to be Poe's legacy (or the police to succeed where he wants Poe to succeed) rather, the killer wants the literary works to succeed, although it's precisely the qualities in the detective stories that must be employed to catch the killer. The killer jumping down from the roof symbolizes his "bird's eye view" of everything taking place and his wanting to direct the events above everyone else's understanding.
Emily's name was intentionally changed to Hamilton.
Towards the end of his life, Poe became re-attached to a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, a widow (it's unknown/disputed if they were engaged in real life or just seeing each other). Emily is both much younger than Sarah and they have different names, (although Sarah's and Emily's fathers both seek to keep their daughters from Poe) so Emily Hamilton really should have been named Sarah Royster, but this is an altered fact in the film. The youth of Emily reminds us of when the country was young--the Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, wanting the country to be prosperous and wealthy--and the decisions made about who Emily will marry translates to the decisions made in the country's early history about what it would become and how.
Captain Charles Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) the father of Poe's love Emily Hamilton, or, as Poe puts it, "The gun-toting Philistine." He's involved in one of the murders in an interesting way: Hamilton's watch is stolen and sewn into the mouth of the sailor killed in Emily's dress (more on that below). As a Hamilton who thought he had lost his watch (which had really been stolen) we can understand his watch to symbolize history and that we should look at history when looking at him; that he thought the watch had been stolen can be taken to mean that someone stole Alexander Hamilton's role from history as the economic founder of the country. (To re-enforce the idea of history being associated with Captain Hamilton, the masquerade he throws for Emily's birthday is being held in the Baltimore Museum, which of course is a depository of history).
So, the name "Hamilton" isn't coincidence, but intentional,  and Alexander Hamilton, the father of American capitalism, is meant to be a deliberately juxtaposed against the father of Socialism, Karl Marx, in the scene. To show us that the audience is supposed to be thinking of the economy in this moment of espousal, Emily asks--as Edgar kisses her--"How much money did you make for the poem of the bird again?" referring to The Raven, for which he received $9 and change. This presents us with The Raven's (film's) critique of capitalism: there are things which are beyond money, which are beyond price and, while Poe received a meager $9 for The Raven then, it's influence of art across the world could never be measured.
Poe with his clothing soiled by the muddied puddles on the road. He has just gotten out of the coach of the Hamiltons' wherein Captain Hamilton has threatened to shoot him; the mud splattered upon Poe reveals a deeply accurate truth about artists in America: they are spit upon. Since art is a very different type of occupation than medicine or the army or law, it's easy for artists to be regulated to the lowest class of society, as Poe is in this shot.
At one point, we see Poe reciting The Raven for a gathering of women and he invites Mrs. Bradley to read one of her poems, in which she refers to "the butterfly and brother bumble-bee" as a "honey-making thing" so it would rhyme with "spring." Poe, with his great skill at interpretation, makes the case of Mrs. Bradley's brilliance by pointing out the drama of  the "beauty of nature" against "recently mechanized society" and how "thing" turns the bumble bee into nothing but "a clog bent on destruction."  Just as we are all revealing more of ourselves in interpretation of art than anything about society or the artist (myself included) so Poe reveals more about himself in his interpretation of the poem, because he then sees himself in the bumble bee--Poe's art is the nectar of culture--but, despite Poe's "lauded" status as a poet, he's naught more than a clog bent on destruction because society has mechanized individuals in mechanizing production.
Emily in a coffin with dirt on top of the coffin (it's not known by her or the audience at this point how deeply she's buried) but she's managing to stay alive. Emily takes the boning from her corset and uses it to carve a hole into the coffin to allow fresh air in; her captor, however, realizes what she has done and comes over, looking at her through the hole; Emily, brave girl, takes the sharpened boning and rams it through the hole into the eye of her captor, but it doesn't do anything to him; why not? Poe claims that no one has ever inspired him like Emily, so, again, we can take her to be an metaphor for his art, but attempts at hurting Ivan have failed elsewhere int he film, which means we are to take Ivan as a metaphor for art as well (the third time I saw the film, when this scene came up, the women behind me actually screamed out, so real is the audience's anticipation that Ivan's eye has been completely shattered). But we can easily argue that Ivan is a perspective on Poe's art, an insight that may or may not be legitimate, but is metaphorically there nonetheless, and that's why Ivan doesn't die, he's not a real character who can die.
So, how does Mrs. Bradley's poem about industrialization--an inherent aspect of capitalism--not undermine the anti-socialism of the film? First, industrialization is a part of capitalism, but not owned by capitalism (the Soviet Union and China had/have tons of factories) but Mrs. Bradley's poem does site the tendency of capitalism to not value art, to disregard beauty. Poe's interpretation, it could be argued a work of art itself, is the very "thing" (the honey-making thing) saving capitalism from becoming overly mechanized to the point that society is ruined by its own advances in technology and production. So the production of art hinders the damaging effects of production of technology.
Why does Poe call Fields "the infamous?" Because of a large number of cases which Fields had failed to solve.The real-life detective leaves much for Poe to desire, given that Poe's detectives are able to determine crimes simply by setting back and thinking about them, but the fight the two of them have reminds the audience that a person can be neither completely emotional nor completely logical, but both. Perhaps the most important contribution Fields makes to the case (besides tracking down Reynolds in Paris) is recognizing the attributes of Ivan's killing spree as a "game," a game which can be liked in scope to other games we have been seeing, specifically in Moneyball and The Hunger Games.
Which brings us to the point of the story, the whole engine of the plot: why is there such a blurring of the line between fact and reality, between the writings of a man and someone trying to realize them and actually carry them out? Because that's exactly what's happening in America today, President Obama trying to turn the writings of Karl Marx into a reality in the United States. The film makers of The Raven seem to be arguing that not only would it be bad for the economy, but for art as well.
Poe with Ivan (Sam Hazeldine), or Reynolds, if you prefer. Why is he named "Ivan?" Simple, because of the Russian associations with the name "Ivan," (as in the iconic ruler of Russia, Ivan the Terrible who not only oppressed people's liberties, but oppressed the upper classes as well, as is occurring in the United States today) and because it was Vladimir Lenin who brought Russia into the socialist/communist system, which is what--many of us believe-- is trying to be done to the United States today. But Ivan appears to be a man actually rich who poses as being poor, something we will need to keep in mind in upcoming films where the villain is a double (such as G.I. Joe Retaliation).
Before furthering this line of thought, let's pause to consider other angels of the film, such as Rufus Griswold and why he's butchered by the pendulum. In real life, Griswold outlived Poe, and became the executor of his literary estate (how, no one knows) and was the first to write the terrible obituary of Poe hence, since Griswold "butchered" Poe, one of Poe's stories (The Pit and the Pendulum) butchers Griswold.
On one level, the pendulum reflects the way Griswold treated Poe's work in real life; in another way, just as Griswold's body is "divided" by the Pendulum, so the country is being divided by the issues and policies of the current administration.
What about the reference to William Shakespeare's MacBeth?
The exact scene being quoted is the famous sleep-walking scene of Lady MacBeth (MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 1)  wherein Lady MacBeth tries to wash all the blood off her hands from the murders she has ordered. In understanding why this particular scene--instead of a different play or different scene--should be used, we can simply ask ourselves, "Who in the film has blood on their hands?"
Ivan.
This scene is particularly well-thought out: in searching for the killer, Fields--the name which ties him to the earth--goes into the basement of the theater as Lady MacBeth acts out her scene on the stage above and Poe chases Ivan in the rafters above the scene (meaning, symbolically, on a higher level of thought). Poe is above Fields on nearly every level.
The next body to be found, after the MacBeth scene, is a man dressed in Emily's ball gown, so the cross-dressing invites us to put another man in a woman's dress, and that would be putting Ivan in Lady MacBeth's night gown, someone responsible for murders and with blood on their hands. Just as Lady MacBeth intends to make MacBeth king by killing Duncan, so Ivan intends to make Poe king by killing Griswold (and Henry, the Baltimore publisher, and Emily who is Poe's art itself). It's interesting, as Poe mutters under his breath, that the killer Ivan would lead them to the Imperial theater where Poe's mother was an actress, so we can correlate that which gave birth to Poe--his mother, Shakespeare, MacBeth--to that which is trying to kill him and all he loves--Ivan.
Just after the opening scenes of the killings in imitation of The Murders In the Rue Morgue, we find Poe walking the dark and murky streets of Baltimore. He comes upon some ravens feeding on a dead cat, run over by a carriage. Stopping to examine the cat, Poe mutters about the ways of God and nature, as of Providence, are not our ways, and realizes the cat was "with kittens." The scene isn't just an exercise in the macabre, but introduces us to what will happen to Poe himself in the film, run over first by Hamilton's carriage in Hamilton's refusal to let Poe marry Emily (but that's not even serious, it only throws up mud on him), then later Poe is run over by Ivan's carriage (Ivan is called to his carriage while Poe is dying in the Baltimore Patriot office and it's in Ivan's carriage in Paris that Fields waits for Ivan to apprehend him).
Why does Ivan cut out chunks of Henry's wrists and leave him at his desk? This is the same posture in which we first meet Henry when Poe comes complaining that his review hasn't been published and Henry "cuts his own wrists" by cutting Poe off from the paper and potential earnings; Ivan punishes Henry just as Griswold is punished. Arms, symbolizing strength, allows Ivan to illustrate how Henry made the wrong choices about who to publish--Longfellow's poem over Poe's review--because the real strength of the paper wasn't coming from selling papers, it was coming from writers such as Poe and what he was doing (and raising the standards of American literature in the process). Idealistically, we want to say yes, that's correct, Ivan is right about that, but without the mediocrity (so to speak) of the Longfellows, would the brightness of the Poes shine half as bright? The film isn't placing blame at Henry's door, it's Ivan who kills Henry, so neither should we put blame at Henry's door.
The sad fate of the cat mirrors the sad fate of Poe, that he probably had many more tales left to tell (the kittens) had he been given more time, yet, that ultimate sacrifice is often what is required of artists to insure immortality. (Ivan makes a reference to Jules Verne who had stopped writing for a while, but started again later in life--Ivan suggesting he was going to do to Verne what he had done to Poe to get Verne writing again--and the same might have been true of Poe that he would have written more had he lived longer).
Once last little item about Ivan.
I have seen the film three times now, and each time, I have heard Ivan say the same thing when he hands the shot glass of poison to Poe: "I always had a fancy for poisons, that's how I did my dad."  Once we know what Ivan symbolizes, we can understand who is father is that he poisoned. The day Poe dies, the day Ivan gives him the poison to drink is also an election day, and the maid mentions this when she gives Poe the newspaper and the note Ivan left for Poe, the last clue. The election taking place is important amongst Poe scholars because it's often sited as one of the potential causes of Poe's death. The maid didn't have to mention this election at all, so since it is included in the story, it warrants our attention.
Ivan's room in the basement under the Baltimore Patriot is a stone cave filled with books and letters. Just as books and letters created the genius of Poe (the writing of others helping to inspire him in his own writings and understanding about the world) so it perverts and destroys someone like Ivan who can be easily dominated by the writings of others because he has no inner-sense of right and wrong to balance what he reads and that "blinds him" to what reality is (and one way of understanding why Emily can't blind him with her boning, because he is all ready blinded).
Ivan's father is Poe himself, because Ivan tells him, "I'm your crowning achievement," and yes, this makes a vicious, vicious circle, but the Ivans of the world always poison their fathers, the ones who create them, because Ivan has taken it upon himself to tell Poe how to write his stories, demand one more be done and takes it upon himself to make sure Poe is never forgotten, the way an all-powerful government intrudes and dictates into the life of its people (because we the people created the current government through our votes, we are being poisoned by our own child as well). When Poe tells the fireman, with the backdrop of his house burning down into ruin, that he recognizes the voice of Karl, we too must recognize the voice of Karl (Marx) as the poison is put before us and we have to save the country (Emily) from the madness confronting us.
Just as the drama Amadeus introduced Mozart to a new generation of people through the story, so The Raven introduces a new generation of potentially forgotten stories by Poe to a younger audience. Many will, without doubt, hearing lines and quotations from the film, be anxious to read the whole story, and delve ever deeper into the works of Poe.
It is, possibly, the undertones of anti-socialism which many reviewers frown upon, but it's important for all of us to see how Poe is being appropriated by capitalists in The Raven, because he's then appropriated by socialists in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: i.e., in these tense political days, both sides are claiming the same heroic images for their cause, the trick is to understand the language being employed. The appropriation of Poe as exemplary of art in America creates an argument regarding the entitlements programs in the country: throughout the film, as in real life, Poe searches for money and can't get it; The Raven doesn't advocate socialism despite the most worthy and honorary American needing assistance (a social net or state managed program for artists as we see in a film such as the 1994 Russian film Burnt By the Sun which I can highly recommend), and the film goes to great lengths to establish the crucial element of artistic creation: need.
One of my favorite moments of the film, Poe shooting at the killer and the killer's bullets disrupting a flock of ravens close to Poe, one of them actually taking a bullet. During this scene, Poe screams out at the killer, "Who are you? What's your name?" and they are the same questions Ichabod Crane asks of the Headless Horseman in The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. It might seem like a stretch, and perhaps it is, however, at the masquerade ball, Fields tells his policemen that the killer might be dressed as "the headless horseman," and Washington Irving, the author, was one of the few American writers that Poe admired and who liked Poe in return. The bullet in the raven symbolizes that Poe's own world is about to end.
The artists need (for material survival and validation of their art) drives them to create whereas they might not otherwise (wasting their self on alcohol or drugs or both) and the public's need for art drives the public to consume art which creates the demand for the work of various artists. Is this a simplification? Absolutely, and I know in advance my manifold critics will jump all over this, yet being an artist is not the same as other occupations, it's not based on skill, rather talent, and while some technical training can sometimes benefit artists, and it's usually only the hard lessons of life that can enrich their understanding and foster creation within them; sadly, taking away those hardships undermines why artists create. Importantly, it should be argued, that Poe's most economically prosperous time was also his most artistically creative, and this certainly (without doubt) contributes to the artist's life, yet there is a brink, a threshold between artists who are competent in their field and those who become immortal throughout the world (i.e., the difference today between Longfellow and Poe).
In conclusion, there are many levels and potential interpretations to The Raven, and not least among them is the relationship to the production of art and the political arena in which art is created and perhaps the greatest in importance is attempts at bringing the writings of Karl Marx into the reality of the American economy. As I said, it's important to keep The Raven agenda in mind because Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, an anti-capitalist work also uses Edgar Allan Poe but in the exact opposite way of The Raven.