“Being fascinated with the occult, Harrington would surely have recognized that by beginning and ending his life work with the same story he was drawing a mandala around that life, making it as self-contained a thing as one of his films, all of which belong to the “trance” tradition whose introspective mien establish the work as occurring within a given consciousness walled off in some way from the natural world.”
Followers of director Curtis Harrington, previously best known for genre exercises from the stylish mood piece Night Tide to often indescribable TV-movies the likes of Devil Dog: Hound of Hell, might notice, on finally being able to see the early experimental works that somewhat improbably got his foot in mainstream Hollywood’s door, the beautiful egg shape of his young head.
In 1946, the year he made his first mature work, Fragment of Seeking, at USC, Harrington was 20 and enchanted. By movies, Edgar Allan Poe, and, not insignificantly, himself. (He had said the 16-minute short starring himself concerned “adolescent narcissism,” so it’s no insult to say as much.) Six years earlier, when he shot his very first film, an adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, that head was already swelling, with visions, ambitions, possibility. But by the time his life and career came to a close roughly 40 years later, with another Usher meant to bring his body of work full circle, his features had become bloated, spotted, wisps of hair straggling from his expansive pate — the head not so much ready to hatch, perhaps, as to collapse like Poe’s literary house. So many years had passed between the last of his shorts and the last of his theatrical films — even longer till he had retired from directing series television for Aaron Spelling. So much frustration, so much disappointment, so many compromises.
Thanks to Flicker Alley and Drag City, those early visions are now available in commendably restored (by the Academy Film Archive) and curated form as The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection in a handsomely packaged Blu-Ray/DVD combo released in the wake of Drag City’s posthumous publication of Harrington’s memoir, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood. Together they offer a rehabilitative perspective on a career maudit noted for too many “T. J. Hookers” and lame Exorcist rip-offs and too few films the quality of his own Games and The Killing Kind.
Being fascinated with the occult, Harrington would surely have recognized that by beginning and ending his life work with the same story he was drawing a mandala around that life, making it as self-contained a thing as one of his films, all of which belong to the “trance” tradition whose introspective mien establish the work as occurring within a given consciousness walled off in some way from the natural world. All but one of the Harringtons concern a central figure drawn from that linear plane to another, interior frame, the encounter with which leads to some form of obliteration, after the Poe story itself. If we accept Richard Wilbur’s assertion that the House of Usher is analogous to the Head of Usher, then it’s a short stretch to relate the story and structure that so organized Harrington’s life to the man’s own peculiar noggin.
Fall shows remarkable visual sophistication for the work of a teenager, employing setups and imagery Harrington would return to throughout his career. Chief among these is his own performance as Roderick and Madeleine both, the latter a lovely enough one at that in makeup and wig from the Johnson Smith catalog. Her post-burial attraction to her brother parallels the drawing to their cardboard estate of family friend John, on Roderick’s invitation. By placing himself at the center of this homo-incestuous dynamic first and last in his filmmaking career, Harrington suggests how such a dynamic circumscribed his own personality, lending context for not only the intervening experimental work but his subsequent commercial body as well.
Early in Nice Guys, Harrington recalls hookups — “assignations” is his word — with his piano teacher’s son at a funeral parlor. “Love and death,” he explains. “There they were, already in close juxtaposition even before I knew of their frequent pairing in the work of the great poets.” And there they are again in Fragment, when the object of his pursuit turns out to be, first, a skeleton in a wig, then finally himself in same. When he intercuts between his own male character and that of his obsession, it replays the editing in the climax of Fall, reinforcing the sense of a volleying in his own personality between the masculine and the feminine, as cemented in the similar conclusion to Usher (2002). He twists the convention in the conspicuously titled The Assignation, shot in 1953 in Venice — the original one, as opposed to the Venice, California, setting of Night Tide — where it’s domino-faced Death itself who travels the city’s winding canals to meet with the young woman he enfolds in his cape in the vignette’s final shot.
Harrington disappeared from in front of the camera after Fragment, but that’s no admission he’d found what he was looking for. When he substitutes a young hunk for his traditional role among the real Harrington family featured in his next two shorts, Picnic (1948) and On the Edge (1949), it’s more as though his head had by now become the camera and everything taking place on the film inside only acted out in the world in order to internalize it, to study it more closely, the way the ego constructs alter egos in dreams to the same end. Maybe that objectivity is what contributes to the leap in professionalism in these subsequent efforts, culminating in the masterful tone-study on the artist and occultist (and costar, with Harrington, of Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) Marjorie Cameron in The Wormwood Star (1955).
Even as he was expanding his film grammar he was whittling away at his dramatis personae, from Picnic‘s six central characters to Edge and Assignation‘s two to Star‘s single inhabitant, as though paring down his various possible — sometimes conflicting — selves to the core personality within. Harrington’s assertion about Star that “the thrust of the film is to present the artist as an alchemist who through her creative work, becomes herself transmuted into gold” could as easily be a manifesto for the life he foresaw for himself, making his veer into the commercial realm — whose content lies so far outside the scope of this collection as to suggest its total containment within it — in some way the transformation he was looking for after all. (It also suggests the feminine itself as this very alchemical force.) Though he describes that life of frustration and disappointment as an aberration from his true path, how could anything else have emerged from such a perfectly contained and insular golden egg as he had formed for himself?
Usher follows his last feature film work by more than 15 years, his last television assignment by exactly that, and sad to say, it shows. At 38 minutes, it’s halfway between one of his TV episodes and one of his early shorts, and conceptually about the same, with performances that are wanting, dialog that would have been more convincing in the hands of a 14-year-old, and a bland, functional score not comparing favorably to Ernest Gold’s stark, pensive accompaniment to the early works. It’s more a testament than a film, so better to regard it as such.
Placing himself once more before the camera in the same dual roles as he essayed as a teenager, Harrington can no longer inhabit the esoteric world as convincingly as when he began the project of creating it around himself; the years in the Spelling trenches had made that impossible. Made up as Roderick to look like Poe and as Madeleine like Mother Gin Sling and attempting a performance in both roles different from the affectless trances elicited from the leads in his experimental phase, the sense is no longer of the eternal but of the deathless. (It’s not by accident yjsy Harrington omits the “Fall” from this film’s title, as from its conclusion.) If ever there were a romanticism in the director’s various Rodericks’ addiction to their Madeleines, it’s long since gone, however hard the artist may attempt to alchemize his experience here. When the revenant Madeleine accuses her brother of having buried her alive, it’s Harrington pointing a finger at himself for having sold himself out. His efforts to gussy the film up with continental repartee and aphoristic wit come off as kabuki as his Madeleine get-up, and though that couldn’t have been the intent, it’s the most real and poignant of its effects.Rather than the by-invitation calling to its innocent guest of the Poe and Harrington originals both, this version is structured as the spiritual sojourn of young poet Truman Jones to learn from and otherwise bask in the brilliance of a master (if Harrington does say so himself; senescent narcissism is decidedly less glamorous than adolescent). Delivering him to and from the estate is Usher’s chauffeur and majordomo not coincidentally named after the French poet Roderick claims as his idol, Pierre Reverdy, whose lifelong devotion to his muse Coco Chanel (despite her collusion with the occupying Nazis) certainly patterns Roderick’s commitment to his sister. After Jones has witnessed the siblings’ self-immolation, he finds Pierre waiting outside with his things in the car, deadpanning, “Did you enjoy your visit to the House of Usher?” as if it were some sort of theme park or funhouse. (Flash back to the carnival boardwalk of his signature film, Night Tide.) And maybe that’s what it was in the first place: one last spin through Chez Harrington, where the interiors were in fact filmed, one last testament from a chronically collapsing mind.