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Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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This has to be one of the most original documentaries I’ve ever seen. The film is an exercise done in a very unusual and unique style about a most unusual and idiosycratic American writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Who was this guy? How to describe him? How to know him and thereby know his work? Lovecraft was a writer of pulp horror fiction in the 1920s and ’30s, unknown and unwelcome in the serious writing circles of his time. As is often the case, the French recognize our “common” arts and artists before we do. And it is the French appreciation of style for the sake of style that has led two Frenchmen to make this fascinating biographic documentary.

Lovecraft’s Brain

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft presumes familiarity with Lovecraft’s work. So this is no mere fan-boy retelling of his stories nor a standard biographic sketch. Instead it is a dissection of the man to get at his work. In a sense it is his dossier. The narrator speaks to Lovecraft as if explaining to him why he was the way he was and what he has done. The point is made that because of his abstract, perhaps psychotic nature, Lovecraft is the man who wasn’t there. To visually realize this notion, directors Patrick Mario Benard and Pierre Trividic invented a life-size cut-out of Lovecraft and painted it to be a flat black silhouette. This shadow of no man is drawn on a track through sets representing Lovecraft’s rooms and the effect is fascinating and disturbing... rather like Lovecraft’s work. It’s a cheap trick, but it works, also like Lovecraft’s own writing. Benard and Trividic really get rolling when they tape a picture of Lovecraft’s mother on the ‘face’ of the cutout so that when you see the photo, the Lovecraft figure turns to become simply a black line... very strange.

Some of the traditional points are made about Lovecraft. For instance that New York City is the inspiration for the “cyclopean” monstrosities that were Lovecraft’s stock and trade, and that The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is autobiographical... if only in Lovecraft’s own mind. To their credit, the directors keep the amount of time Lovecraft spent on his best known works proportional to his whole life. That is to say, briefly during his last ten years.

Real Life Horror

Lovecraft doesn’t get a free ride from Benard and Trividic. They are critical of Lovecraft as a person, calling him a ‘bastard’ frequently. This may have another meaning in the French context... somewhere between jerk and son of a bitch. But for now bastard will do, and he was surely a sorry bastard. He was an intolerant racist. Indeed it’s possible to trace much of his ‘creeping horror’ themes to notions of what he perceived as the degeneration of the United States by the influx of Eastern and Southern European immigrants in the first decades of the 20th century.

What I found most fascinating was the outrĂ© tone of this film. It is perfect for the oddly hyperbolic and horrific writing (and presumably thoughts) of Lovecraft. If the aim of a biographical sketch is to capture the essence of a person, then this film has done it perfectly. If you know Lovecraft’s work, and can appreciate its originality, you will also appreciate this original take on him. If on the other hand you know Lovecraft’s work as the product of a hack writer working for a low brow audience through a pulp press, the film may give you a new way to appreciate what he made. After all, it’s entirely possible for the artist to have created a greater thing that he/she had intended or could imagine. In The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Patrick Mario Benard and Pierre Trividic have imagined a wonderful film.

DVD Extras

The added feature is almost as good as the film and should be shown as a post script. This is a very sound creative work in and of itself.

Picture and Sound

Very good on both counts... particularly on the archival footage.

How to Use This DVD

Skeptics of H. P. Lovecraft should give this film a try. He may not have intended his writing to be great art (and maybe it isn’t), but this film is a serious study of the man and through it perhaps a serious understanding of his writing.