‘The Raven,’ the death impulse and harmony

Posted by · 12:22 pm · April 24th, 2012

This weekend “The Raven,” director James McTeigue”s imagined version of horror master Edgar Allan Poe”s final days, makes its way into theaters. A predictable thriller with uneven attempts to elevate itself beyond the confines of a formula while still satisfying the demands of the middle ground, I cannot say that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

However, I find the film’s subject matter and the ideas that inspire it to be somewhat intrinsically intriguing. I do not believe that “The Raven” captures Poe’s tone or essence; it is a bit too shallow for that, lacking the density of those who really wish to engage with his work. There are moments in the film that were awkward to the point of being nearly painful to behold and others that felt like they struck the balance between naturalism and suspense/fantasy. But it is what “The Raven” points to in the broader context of the genre that has been, and is, of interest to me.

In the world of the film – which, in a sense, acts as a metaphor for the creative process itself – the poet’s blood-drenched short stories are brought to violent life through a series of murders inspired by his words. A killer obsessed with Poe is imitating the grisly slayings he describes in his tales, all the while holding the author”s lover hostage.

Said lover stands in as an embodiment of figurative and literal beauty, the one thing that “keeps the darkness that has haunted Poe his entire life” at bay. In order to release her (the bearer of his salvation) from a malice that would suffocate her, Poe (literally) must write. The murderer tasks him with the creation of a series of new short stories, each word a lifeline to the woman who represents vitality and a release from the burden of darkness to the artist.

At the time of the Comic Con press panel for the film last year, John Cusack, who plays Poe in the film, quoted the poet as saying, “There is nothing more fascinating in the world than a beautiful woman dying.” I remember the idea inherent in the quote staying with me for days after I heard it and I thought of it again yesterday as I viewed the film. “There is nothing more fascinating than a beautiful woman dying.”

Why is that fascinating? Certainly Poe had a history of the women in his life dying, his mother, stepmother and wife all passed relatively early in life. But there is something in that idea that feels more relevant in the larger sense. Stunning women are routinely decimated in horror films. So, why? What do they represent?

A beautiful woman (in both cinema and literature) often stands in for a myriad of abstract ideas. She may be grace, salvation or a vision of the divine feminine. She may also represent pure, sexual, life-giving creative potential. She can give birth; she is a receptacle for what her male counterpart wants to leave of himself in the world. So when she is slaughtered, it is also the end of said “life potential.” In that moment she represents both creation and destruction. The combined forces of the human death drive (the compulsion to kill and be killed in order to once again become a part of organic material) and Eros (the desire for sex and life).

I remember when I was a nanny in my late teen years I would watch in fascination as the children in my care would, with painstaking effort, build elaborate Lego or building block homes and other rather abstract structures, only to with a burst of wildly felt glee smash and demolish them. The development was careful, focused and intense and the dissolution a purely felt and unrestrained release of energy.

Now if another child were to come along and do the destroying for them there would be the inevitable tears and laments, wails and cries of heartbreak at the loss of their creation. But some part of me must wonder if the boys and girls were really mourning the annihilation or the opportunity to be the annihilator.

The creation/destruction impulse seems so unapologetically linked in one”s youth when toys and objects are designed to be disposable with the understanding that the impulse to obliterate will be present and more than likely indulged. As adults we tend to revere the former and revile the latter but the truth is that we leave our mark on the world with what we create but what we ruin also follows in our wake. Though we imagine the urges to be discordant, in reality the impulse to create, to build, to design and to improve frequently leads to destructive consequences and burning the land will often renew fertility. It is the balance between the two that is essential to thriving.

Perhaps no genre explores the dance between creation and destruction as vividly as horror. It is obsessed with beauty and death in equal measure. I recently spoke with “The Cabin in the Woods” director Drew Goddard about horror”s tradition of creating archetypes only to lay waste to them. Said archetypes are often figures we admire, young, lovely and vibrant, but also dangerously unleashed. The teens in many a classic horror film are separated from the bonds of society, physically isolated, free from parental control and, as the young are, inherently lacking the inhibitions that would limit indulgence.

Certainly the slasher flicks that “Cabin” takes its cue from were originally cut from moralizing cloth. They punished excess and rewarded restraint. Though the characters and stories have shifted and evolved in recent years (mostly due to audience sophistication), said slasher films followed a pattern that was (consciously or not) designed to remind us that the creative force without the balancing influence of boundaries is ultimately destruction. As much as these films indulge our inner Kali (creator/destroyer), they also caution that overindulgence will lead to demise. That is why the virgin lived – she had self control.

In an interview following a recent screening of “The Raven,” Cusack said that “the horror genre is the language of the subconscious.” Indeed, “The Raven” explores the idea that Poe is living into the creative and destructive impulse simultaneously, as most artists are. But he has become imbalanced and unable to do his work and, in the world of horror, the Gods of harmony are relentless and unforgiving.

The pain of writers block and his inability to produce new work leaves him impotent and bloated with the avarice that would otherwise be released with his prose. The serial killer in the film becomes the corporeal representation of his psyche’s desire to express its hidden recesses at all costs.

Cusack”s Poe must ultimately die by his own sword (his vital imagination). He has indulged in the shadows to a degree that has made them manifest and so it’s both his struggle to give birth to his ideas and the creations themselves which ultimately destroys him. The film translates that into a more literal climax, but the allegory of the story is about the danger of being overcome by one’s creative drives as much as one’s destructive impulses.

If we look at the lives of the artists who seek to plumb the depths of human desires and impulses through the ages, Mozart, Cobain, van Gogh, Caravaggio, Modigliani, Michelangelo, we find that many suffered a similar fate. And so it is that “The Raven” via the horror genre delivers one simple message: from cradle to grave, that which nourishes us may also destroy us, or we it.

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